J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek is easily the most polished Star Trek movie ever made. It looks great. Abrams moves the story along at such a brisk pace that it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement. The new actors step into the iconic roles of Kirk, Spock, and Uhura with grace and ease. It’s a well produced summer action film.
Yet, that’s part of the problem. The 2009 film was the beginning of a reboot intended to introduce Star Trek to younger audiences. Unfortunately, that meant stripping the franchise of much of what made it “Star Trek.” This was quite deliberate on Paramount’s part. It even ran a marketing campaign boasting that this wasn’t “your father’s Star Trek.” The end result is a somewhat generic film.
Before proceeding, I should give some context on my relationship with Star Trek. Star Trek is near and dear to my heart. It was my first big “fandom.” Back in 1994, my dad wanted to watch the series finale of The Next Generation with me, even though I’d never seen an episode. Needless to say, I was lost, but I was also captivated. A few weeks later, I caught a rerun of “The Pegasus” and was hooked. I fell in love with the show’s depiction of the future, as well as its engagement with big ideas.
By 2009, the Star Trek franchise had spawned 6 television shows with over 700 hours of TV episodes and 10 movies. It’s tough to pin down what “Star Trek” means for such an expansive franchise. It has meant different things to different people at different times. It wasn’t always of high quality, and some of it was downright terrible (especially Voyager). But for me there are a few features that distinguish Star Trek from other major franchises.
The key to Star Trek is that it’s science fiction, not space opera or space fantasy. The franchise has always had a healthy relationship with hard sci-fi. The Original Series recruited top science fiction writers like Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon to write for the show. Of course, Star Trek has occasionally taken liberties with the science (as documented in The Physics of Star Trek), but, as noted sci-fi author Isaac Asimov explains, Trek has always respected science. It might violate the laws of physics to tell a story, but even then will try to find some pseudo-scientific explanation. The transporter is perhaps the most famous example. The transporter defied our understanding of physics during the 1960s, but was a necessary storytelling device because the show did not have the budget to depict a shuttle carrying crew members to various planets every week. It’s no coincidence that so many astronomers, astronauts, and engineers cite Star Trek as their inspiration.
By contrast, the 2009 Star Trek has a strained relationship with science. It too often relies on nonsensical “technobabble” to advance the plot. For example, there’s no attempt to ground Spock’s red matter in science. It’s basically a magical substance that transports Spock back in time. As for Spock, in The Original Series he was THE science officer and provided scientific explanations for what was happening on the show. In the reboot, Spock’s being a science officer is incidental to his character. We don’t see him act as a science officer (in fact, Kirk provides more scientific exposition than Spock does). Unlike its predecessors, Abrams’ Trek is “safe from science.”
Star Trek also mimicked the best of science fiction in exploring social and philosophical questions. The franchise was always about more than space battles and futuristic technology. The best Star Trek stories use science fiction analogies in order ask big questions. Episodes have addressed discrimination, war, abortion, and other weighty issues. When I was younger, I remember watching the episodes, reading about them in the Companion guidebook, and discussing the philosophical or moral commentary with friends and family. Many of my political views were shaped by – or at least in dialogue with – the show. I even wrote an English paper for high school about an episode of Deep Space Nine.
The 2009 movie doesn’t engage in any social or philosophical commentary. Behind all the (admittedly entertaining) sound and fury, there’s nothing. Star Trek is simply an origin story for Kirk and Spock in which they team up to save Earth. Abrams puts the focus on the characters, especially the relationship between Kirk and Spock. There’s some engaging character drama, but the story is never becomes anything more than that. Moreover, given how many sci-fi stories have featured a group of heroes saving Earth, I had trouble caring about their mission. Of course, some of the best Star Trek stories have centered a threat to Earth, but they were about more than just a threat to Earth. For example, in Star Trek: The Voyage Home, the alien probe that nearly destroys Earth is simply a plot device that forces Kirk and crew to travel back in time to find whales. The real threats are environmental destruction and the short-sightedness of mankind.
Overall, Abrams’ Star Trek is a fun action movie and certainly worth watching. But it doesn’t capture the essence of Star Trek, at least as I understand it. I’m much more hopeful for CBS’ upcoming Star Trek TV show, which has several Star Trek alumni on the writing staff. Hopefully, it manages to recapture the spirit of Trek.