Here's what I said, including spoilers and the surprising comparison I make about the villain Nero.
Star Trek thoughts (SPOILERS AND EXPLOSIONS)
I had a blast at Star Trek. I’m so glad I did. I wanted to have a blast again with Trek.
I discovered Star Trek in 1983 when I was 9, about two years after I’d discovered girls are purty and about a year after I’d discovered girls are purty with their clothes off. Yeah, Star Trek is a huge part of my growing up. (Before that, I saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture in first run. I fell asleep twenty minutes in. Hey, it took me three tries to get into The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and in both cases, I’m glad I tried again!) First I saw the original series on local Virginia Beach television and The Wrath of Khan on cable. Later I was reading companion books and novels (I especially liked A.C. Crispin’s Yesterday’s Son, and no lie, David Gerrold’s 1984 edition of The World of Star Trek hugely influenced how I thought and wrote), and wondering how the heck the mess at the end of The Search For Spock could get cleaned up. And then The Voyage Home answered that in a satisfying way, one I’d not expected at all. By the time The Next Generation started in 1987, Star Trek had grown into me like one of those killer flying omelets from “Operation: Annihilate!” Only without the killing-me part. Maybe it was more like a Trill symbiote, come to think of it.
Plenty of fans and critics would now say “then things went downhill.” I continued to watch and appreciate Trek in the past 15 years – not enough Deep Space Nine, I’ll admit (bad fan), but liking Star Trek: First Contact, liking some of Voyager, and liking the prequel series Enterprise in concept because I did want to see where the universe came from – but ultimately the drag on Trek was that while its universe was huge, the ideas in the shows and movies weren’t big anymore. (The novels and comics could still be big on ideas, though, thank goodness, and writers ran with that chance.)
After this film, Star Trek has the chance to be big again. And I hope that’s what happens.
Okay, writer-guys, I forgive you for Transformers. I’d hoped that you were writing down to Michael Bay for that film and writing “up” to J.J. Abrams for this film. And at least one huge (but, based on audience cheers, forgivable) plot convenience aside, a special thing happened: Star Trek – as asplodey as anything in that other franchise – has ACTUAL EMOTIONAL IMPACT. As in “me about to cry during the opening” impact. This film played with me, and I told it “Go for it. This is fun.” Abrams is a big-emotion, big-idea guy, and the last “big idea” people behind filmed Star Trek were the writers and producers of the original show.
Now I wonder if J. Michael Straczynski, the Big Idea Guy of Babylon 5, feels a little vindicated. He pushed the idea “Star Trek: Reboot the Universe,” stripping Trek back to the three-personality dynamic of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and rebuilding from there. That would’ve been radical; this film is radical in its own way, with a similar spirit of “let’s take Trek back to when it was its most fun.”
To be philosophical, Star Trek has always been about logic and emotions either working together or working against each other. At its best it’s always had thoughtful emotional impact. That’s the brilliance of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy dynamic: Spock and McCoy really represent two different halves of Kirk’s mind, and their arguments show Kirk’s thought process. This film takes the time to show the push-pull-crash of their personalities interacting, their in-jokes and nicknames starting to evolve the way these do when relationships begin. And they save the world, for the first of many times.
It’s a loud, explosion-y flick, with the action thrown at us via Firefly/Battlestar-style shaky cam. Starfleet’s crews are out in space, which somehow looks and feels bigger than ever in a Star Trek film (see how often the Federation vessels look tiny and overwhelmed by objects or explosions), flying in ships vulnerable to the nasty things that can happen in that enormous void. They’re vulnerable in a way the indeed badass Enterprise-E of Star Trek: First Contact wasn’t.
You know what this is? This is The Wrath of Khan, remade. Bad guy driven badder by the loss of his wife makes it his decades-long mission to get back at Our Heroes, and seriously bitchslaps Our Heroes during a mission with trainees onboard the Enterprise. The differences are that the bad guy uses surprise time travel instead of a stolen vessel, the trainees are Kirk, Spock, and the rest of that crew, and there’s no Project Genesis but instead just the desire to seriously wreck entire planets. Nero is no Khan, but Khan wasn’t armed with black holes.
But guess what? IT WORKS. And it makes a starker contrast with Star Trek: Nemesis, which writer John Logan consciously modeled after Wrath of Khan but in a way overthought way, which in my experience usually means “Overthinking certain parts of the story while also under-thinking others.” (I’ll admit that the only Logan-scripted film I’ve ever really liked is The Aviator. I didn’t even like Gladiator all that much.) A story like Khan’s, sadly, doesn’t work in the Next Generation universe. And I say that as a Next Gen fan.
Even some of the new film’s moments that could’ve been unintentionally silly manage to blow past the silly and become dramatic and/or badass. Nero, when he’s introduced, has kind of an Agrajag moment, as Douglas Adams fans may have noticed – time travel didn’t cooperate with him! He’s pissed! – but Nero presents such a threat, literally history-changing, that this still works as a dramatic moment. There’s a great sense of the universe shifting, which is what happens when Nero attacks the U.S.S. Kelvin and creates the alternate timeline in which this film takes place. (Aaron Duran has pointed out just how much the Star Trek universe gets knocked into a cocked hat here – the Federation meets the Romulans much earlier than in the original timeline, the scarily badass Cardassians enter the picture much sooner than originally, too, and basically everything’s screwed up. But screwed up in a way that makes sense when you think about it. And I relish this mess, as much as I relish voluptuous green-skinned Orions.)
The actors have room to breathe, and to be eccentric like the original crew. This is the funniest Spock’s been in maybe decades (yes, Spock has a sense of humor). At times, the performances by the younger actors fall over the line of becoming a little too much like parodies of the original series’s actors, but those moments don’t ruin things. This film gets many, many things right, and makes much of that fun. Star Trek can be that.
May you have a similar blast.