The Next Generation have become the former generation as Nemesis signalled the end of the line for that iteration of the show. But what’s this? We’re going back to TOS with a new cast for the old crew? Well, Ok then…
Pre-Existing Prejudices: It’s the first of three (so far) Abrmbsverse Star Trek movies where we return to the era of TOS with a new cast and a new timeline. I remember vividly seeing this in 2009 and having largely positive reactions to it, with some moments working very well (the TOS theme on a massive cinema sound system!) and some not so much. I’ve seen it a couple of times since but this will be the first time I’ve sat down to actually analyse it rather than simply sticking it on. For what it’s worth, when I first saw this in the cinema with my other half, his reaction was, “that’s the best Star Trek movie I’ve ever seen in the cinema”. The one he saw previous to that was Insurrection…
What’s It All About, JG?
The USS Kelvin is destroyed by a mysterious pointy ship captained by a mysterious pointy-eared captain, but as it does so a shuttle escapes with a baby on board. That baby turns out to be one James T Kirk, who’s emotionally blackmailed into joining Starfleet by Captain Pike. Just in time too, as Vulcan is attacked and destroyed (!) by that big pointy ship. Turns out it’s captained by a Romulan named Nero who blames Spock for the destruction of Romulus by some even-less-credible-than-usual physics. Spock and Nero have been thrown back in time and Nero has changed the timeline so now we don’t have to worry about any pesky continuity. Kirk saves the day by destroying Nero’s ship, Spock meets Spock, and it all wraps up with that big wailing theme. Ahh.
Any Other Business:
- Let’s deal with the whole changed-timeline thing first. Nero destroys the Kelvin where George Kirk was serving. George is killed, his wife and baby escape, and thus things are different. While it’s a well-directed opening sequence and while the emotional aspects of it ring true, I don’t know if we quite get enough detail here to explain why the timelines are quite so changed.
- As well as Ickle Kirk (tastes include classic cars and, somewhat unexpectedly, the Beastie Boys) we also get Ickle Spock, who loses his temper and is generally treated to a torrent of racist shit from the apparently-enlightened Vulcans. Fuck ‘em.
- The Nokia product placement is really awful. It’s also very funny that the first piss-poor attempt to do product placement resulted in a product that’s Not Really A Thing any more.
- Sarek here is played by Ben Cross, who’s OK though no Mark Leonard, but Amanda is played by Winona Ryder, and she’s terrific! She really gives some life to a character who’s only in a few scenes, but they’re really crucial ones. It’s a great shame she’s killed off – Spock didn’t need the extra motivation of familial death to motivate him after the genocide of Vulcan, and the film doesn’t work hard enough to make his mother’s death resonate with Kirk’s father’s death at the hands of the same person.
- The new Enterprise design is… Ok. The bridge looks pretty great, and actually cinematic in a way that’s very uncommon in Star Trek films (in that it looks like it’s been built to be seen in widescreen and feels of the original bridge but not simply a recreation of it). The curvy warp nacelles I’m not a terrific fan of though, and the lets-go-to-a-power-plant for the Engineering section is the sort of thing that went out in the 1970’s.
- The 2009 film continues the grand Star Trek movie tradition of having a bad guy it’s terribly difficult to care about.
- Fucking lens flares! (that’s all I’m going to say about lens flares)
- Nero’s ship is pleasingly unusual, though I’m not sure about that mining disc drills down to the planet thing in terms of its practicality. It’s a neat piece of design work though, unlike Ambassador Spock’s future-ship, which I want to hit with a flyswatter every time it’s on screen because it makes a noise like Doctor Zoidberg making a run for it.
- The fight on top of the disc is surprisingly suspenseful. Nice to see Sulu given something to do, it’s funny without undermining the tension and it gives us a bit of action that’s more personal than spaceships blowing up.
- Vulcan has shots of Vasquez Rock! Ha! That’s genuinely very sweet, though this Vulcan’s sky seems to be a lot bluer than I remember.
- Vulcan’s destruction is genuinely shocking and does at least demonstrate one advantage of having an alternative timeline – nothing is set in stone and anything can happen. This give the Abramsverse movie a significant advantage over prequel show Enterprise, where everything had to more or less end up where you expect it to be (though see also Star Trek: Discovery for why this isn’t necessarily the case, and also how to really screw up your own internal continuity when you just go “ah, fuck it”).
- As his last significant performance of Spock (we’ll get a couple of minutes next time out but he’s not really in Into Darkness as such), Leonard Nimoy does about as well as can be expected here. This Spock has a warmth and dignity that contrasts nicely with Zachary Quinto’s colder, younger interpretation without overselling it.
- I do not like the Scotty-on-a-remote-base part of this film. As a way of shoehorning in Old Spock it’s functional but clumsy, as a way of bringing Scotty into the fold it’s crap. And the less said about transwarp beaming and the stupid monster chase the better.
- Kirk’s plan to save Pike and defeat Nero is a fairly typical piece of Kirk-braves-the-enemy planning, not really remarkable in and of itself but I quite like that it gives Pine the chance to bring this part of Kirk to life – have some proper fisticuffs. No double punches or kick-to-the-chest-fall-to-the-floor moves here though – the fight on the Romulan vessel looks a lot more painful than anything William Shatner had to go through.
- Nero’s defeat – his ship destroyed by the red matter in Old Spock’s ship – feels logical and the special effects of the ship being crushed are pretty solid, but because (as with most movie bad guys) he’s not much of a presence it’s also hard to get that worked up about. But it functions fine.
- And we get to end with Captain Kirk, Spock becoming a science officer, and the whole crew in place. Bless.
Rebooting a series is one thing. It can be done well. However much it’s gone on to pay fealty to the past, Doctor Who’s first 2005 season functioned as a clean reboot, stripping out continuity and fan-baiting to replace them with a straightforward sci-fi series that allows itself to build its own mythos before leaning on what came before. Battlestar Galactica used iconography and a lingering sense of nostalgia from the 70’s show to tell a wholly different story, steeped in the post-9/11 paranoia of the early 21st Century. Both were enormous successes. Star Trek, though, has never had a reboot. The Next Generation was explicitly, well, the next generation – the same show just 100 years or so later. Deep Space Nine and Voyager have their own tales to tell in the same time-frame and Enterprise is a prequel. Nothing that comes close to brushing up against a reboot. But there are other approaches. What, posits the Abramsverse movies, if we go back to the era of Kirk and co, but just do it differently because we’re in a different timeline that extends from the original continuity?
That’s not quite a reboot, and neither (for the most part) is the series of films set in the horribly-named, corporate-mandated Kelvin Timeline. What it is, though, is a re-interpretation. This is an important difference. All the familiar beats of TOS are here. Kirk’s a ladies-man, Spock is stoic, McCoy is crotchety and so on. The Enterprise is a Big Shiny Thing that’s big and shiny. Everything is bright and primary coloured (really. Compare this to the colour tones of Nemesis and bask in the idea that it’s OK to see the sets again). The actual story is a fairly standard bit of revenge-for-I-have-been-wronged plotting but this film really isn’t about the plot at all, it’s about having fun playing around in the toy-box of TOS but in a way that’s previously only been available to fan fiction or, occasionally, the spin-off novels.
In a sense it’s also an origin story as well, though this is mercifully handled fairly lightly. True, it takes the whole film to get to the point that the original show basically began with, but because the characters all slot in to their roles fairly straightforwardly the film gets away with building up our cast with familiar traits but without the sometimes-ponderous here-comes-the-backstory that, for example, Marvel films can upon occasion be bogged down with. It never feels like an origin story, even though it basically is.
But still – it’s a big ask. Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley and the rest are genuine icons of science fiction. It’s one thing to ask an audience to replace them with a baldy
English French captain, a randy bearded first officer and an android, it’s quite another to ask them to accept other actors playing the roles that are already so utterly and irreplaceably entrenched in popular culture. So before we do anything we have to address the characters, some of the most well known in all of fiction. Because if they don’t work, then nothing here will. Throw all the time travel shenanigans, special effects and plot twists you like at the wall – if we don’t buy the lead cast this isn’t going to work. So… how are they?
Magnificent, to be honest. There are lots of criticisms that one can accurately levy at the Abramsverse movies, but almost none of them are the central cast. With one significant exception, the cast here an absolute triumph. A lot of the focus around the time went to Zachary Quinto’s Spock, and understandably so. He’s great as Spock. As with all the best actors here, he’s doing an interpretation of Spock but doing it without simply doing an impression of the original. He’s terrific – this is clearly a younger Spock, one who’s still learning but absolutely one that feels in like with the character as he exists in the original show. Yet – and I really don’t mean this as a criticism, because he really is great – in a way he has it a little easy. The wig and eyebrows cover a lot of ground, and because Spock is a stoic, largely reserved character its slightly easier to key into. Chris Pine has a much tougher task – to inhabit James T Kirk, to make him seem like a credible character, to do it while retaining enough of the original performance to make it seem like the Kirk we all know, yet not lapse into a corny William Shatner impression. And, honestly, Pine earns more respect this time out than Quinto does. He’s simply fantastic at playing Kirk. This version of the character is still an arrogant jerk, but he’s smart, he knows when to back down and when to stand up for himself, and Pine does an amazing job of getting into the strange complexity that is Kirk. It’s only at the end of the film we start to get a bit more of the Shatner version of the character (see below for a discussion on that) but throughout the film he embodies Kirk with a warmth that makes him easy to like, but which never simply reduces the character to a series of tics or pre-determined character traits. I love his version of the character. McCoy, the third pillar of the central triumvirate, is a contrast to this – Karl Urban is great at McCoy but he really is doing an impression. It’s a good one – a great one – but he’s doing DeForest Kelley in a way that neither Quinto nor Pine are doing Nimoy or Shatner.
The rest of the cast round out well for the most part – Sulu and Chekov don’t get a vast amount to do here but they’re perfectly serviceable, and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, while not owing a huge amount to Nichelle Nichols, is great in the role, and the expanded screen-time for the character is very welcome. The only exception to great casting is Simon Pegg as Scotty. He’s not bad really (well, his allegedly-Scottish accent is, but let’s put that to one side since it’s not like the original was a ringing Caledonian accent of accuracy either) but there’s zero sense this is the same character as played by James Doohan. And he’s so clearly delighted to be in a Star Trek film (which, fair enough really) he simply doesn’t seem to act but rather turns up to recite the lines while beaming hey-look-I’m-in-Star-Trek! with enough power to eclipse a supernova. It’s not a terminal failing – Scotty doesn’t really get enough screen-time for that – but it’s the one time the casting doesn’t quite nail it. Putting a self-confessed geek like Pegg is that role seems logical but (rather like unsuccessfully casting John Cleese as Q in a couple of Bond movies) what seems logical isn’t right. Still, even with that, this is a great cast who are able to genuinely recapture the energy and dynamics of the original cast – and that counts for a huge amount.
In a way that’s just as well. The rest of the film is a straightforward action-adventure piece, which is certainly in line with the original series, but the script never quite manages to lift itself to the next level. Nero’s a poor bad guy – not exactly unique in the annals of Star Trek cinema – who just doesn’t come across as memorable in any way. Eric Bana (remember Eric Bana? I’m sure he was the Next Big Thing at one point) has decent screen presence but the movie works to undermine this at almost every turn. He gets a few moments of power – his first on-screen scenes – but for the most part he’s just Some Bad Guy. He could by Sybok. Or Ru’afo. Or whoever. It doesn’t really matter, and he doesn’t really matter. He’s got a grudge against Spock! And, uh, a mining ship! Because, um, Romulus was destroyed by a stellar phenomenon and some tedious dead-family motivation? It’s all pretty unspectacular. The film isn’t, in any real sense, about Nero or his revenge plot and ultimately the script doesn’t pull any punches in making his irrelevance abundantly clear. Tellingly, his defeat isn’t even enough of a climax for the film and instead we get an extra ending where the Enterprise has to escape from a collapsing singularity instead of the movie’s nominal bad guy. I mean sure it gives Scotty the chance to run through his usual the-engines-cannae-take-it routine, but it’s a bit damning of Nero that his defeat can’t even act as the film’s denouement. Even Shinzon got that.
Whatever deficiencies Nero has as a motivator for any of this though, is largely made up by just how pacey this film is. Nemesis is at least partly defensible, but what Star Trek 2009 makes clear is just how plodding Star Trek films had become. You’d need to go back to First Contact to find one that really moved, and possibly even The Wrath Of Khan before that. Star Trek 2009 throatily embraces the action-adventure side of Trek’s history as a way of bringing the original show back to life, and in this it’s largely successful. A lot of the action scenes are set-pieces – a big spaceship battle here, some fisticuffs there – but they key into an element of TOS that’s not so much exactly what the original show did but instead invokes a folk memory of what the show did. This isn’t a deep film – not in a million years is it a deep film – but by keeping things moving it is fleet of foot and the invocation of TOS, coupled with the pace of the script, helps gloss over quite a number of issues. It’s not a trick that can really be repeated, and both Into Darkness and Beyond will attempt something similar to diminishing returns, but it’s not the 2009 film’s fault that the movies which follow simply replicate many of its cues.
Here, seen as a sequence of film and the movie that directly follows on from Nemesis’s grimdark, the 2009 film feels like an absolute breath of fresh air. Even the special effects feel like they’ve recaptured the feel of the original show without being a straightforward carbon-copy. I may not be a massive fan of the curved warp nacelles (nor the fact they lean slightly before warp) but it’s much more preferable for them to take the chance to do something different rather than a straightforward slavish recreation. It’s the same with the bridge set – recreating it exactly might work for something like the TNG episode “Relics” but it would look preposterous on the big screen. Instead what we have is a set that captures the essence of the original without it just being a copy. Sulu and Chekov still sit in front of the captain’s chair. The big view-screen still dominates. They even make a joke about Kirk sitting in the captain’s chair. There’s enough attention to detail to buy this as the same ship, but enough embracing of the fact that fifty years have passed so you can’t get away with a hooded viewer with a blue light and some pulsing black-and-white circles around the edges so you need something that looks just a little more up-to-date. It’s a fine balance, but one the film almost always gets right. “Almost” always because, again in line with every other Star Trek film, the transporters look rubbish. Well, you can’t have everything.
Of course, some elements have dated, even just a decade later. I’m really not going to go on about lens flares, but really, it’s kind of impossible not to point out how over-used they are, or how utterly of the moment they were. They lock the film as firmly in time as the things-on-strings special effects of the 60’s or the early CGI of The Undiscovered Country. That’s very unfortunate. Then there’s the Engineering section, recreated by the trick of going to an industrial plant and just shooting there – something Blakes 7 were doing in the 1970’s, and regretting having to – which looks rubbish and never remotely convinces as a location which belongs on the same ship as that gleaming white bridge (and let’s just quietly draw a veil over the hi-larious comedy of the near-drowning of Scotty in the selfsame location, shall we?). Even the Enterprise-D’s collection of cheap-ass neon tubes looked better than this – at least that Engineer section had the same aesthetic as the ship it was actually on. During one action scene we get people rappelling down ropes in Engineering as they rush to evacuate. Fuck. Off. You can take preposterous too far, you know, even in the TOS era.
A bit more? Well, we get some ladies in skimpy underwear for no reason other than to show off some ladies in skimpy underwear (sadly this will not prove to be the worst example of ladies and skimpy underwear in the Abramsverse). Yeah yeah, it’s meant to show off what an absolute dog Kirk is, but it’s pretty tacky all the same. Oh and Vulcan does not have a blue sky. It’s funny – for all the big points of continuity that gets played around with it’s tiny details like that which stand out. At one point the three officers (Kirk, Sulu and Redshirt, keeping another TOS tradition alive in the 21st Century) sky-dive to the mining rig and are referred to as “an away team”. No! They’re a landing party! “Away team” is TNG terminology, “landing party” is what TOS has! This might seem like an unbelievably petty point, but still – if you’re going to go the effort to get the big-ticket items right you might as well get the small details nailed down as well. I won’t comment too much on Spock’s final voice-over being “where no-one” has gone before, since that’s what The Undiscovered Country chose to roll with, and the Spock that gives this voice-over comes from that continuity. Twisting in knots over this? Why yes, I rather think I am.
There are lots of Star Trek fans who simply do not like the 2009 movie. I do not count myself among their number. I just can’t. The simple fact is I enjoy this movie, and I enjoy it in a way that the TNG movies almost never managed to capture. This feels like Star Trek, for all the good and bad things that implies. It’s stupid and daft and fun and exciting and funny. I’d like it to be deeper, but in the absence of that at least it delivers well on what it goes for. The characters get caught up in ludicrous situations and bluster their way through it with bucketloads of charm, a bit of conflict and taking chances that work out. Despite a slightly slow start it’s mostly a very well-paced film. It doesn’t even come close to reaching the orbit of originality, but then again that’s absolutely not the point of the exercise. It’s about re-establishing Star Trek with a degree of panache, some swagger and simply getting on with the business of being Star Trek, without having to apologise for it, or pretend that it has any grand purpose other than to be solid entertaining for two hours. Which is absolutely is.
The problem the Abramsverse films have is they never get out of this mode. The next two are structured and plotted in exactly the same way. The 2009 movie keys into certain aspects of TOS that resonate with the general public more than dedicated Star Trek fans, and that’s fine, because that’s who this was made for. Cutting out the disastrous Gordian knot of give-fans-what-they-apparently-want that sank Enterprise – which went off the air between the release of Nemesis and this – it’s entirely understandable that they went for a broader approach, and it basically worked.The problem the future films will face is that all-action-all-the-time was not all TOS consisted of, but again I’m loathe to hold that as a strike against this film. This is an enjoyable action-adventure movie which reinvents the core elements of TOS with style and confidence. It embraces its exuberance, lands a few key moments of emotion and pushes things just far enough. And as such it’s just very difficult not to warm to.
Where will this lead us? Well now, that’s a question for next time…
What Percentage Of This Film Could Be Cut?
Let’s lose all of the Scotty-on-the-planet material. None of it works. The film would work perfectly fine if he was simply the Chief Engineer on the Enterprise. Or if he was one of the cadets like Kirk. Or a mid-ranking engineer who has to take command in a crisis and earns a promotion to Chief Engineer. Anything other than some bullshit stuck-on-a-planet routine that adds nothing to the script. I like the design of Keesner, his little friend played by cult TV survivor Deep Roy (who’s been in everything from Doctor Who to The Empire Strikes Back and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory (crap Tim Burton version) to Blakes 7), but again he could be inserted into the script anywhere. And Old Spock could be introduced into the script easily enough without the massive contrivance of Kirk happening to be marooned on the planet Old Spock is unaccountably on. Elsewhere you could argue that film takes a bit too long to get things actually moving and you would be correct. The car theft with Ickle Kirk (establishing his rebellious streak as a kid before meeting the selfsame rebellious streak in the bar scene) works fairly well because it’s brief and (ahem) punchy, but the scenes of Ickle Spock on Vulcan go on too long and the “accepted to the Vulcan science academy/disadvantage” scene does the work that the bullies do but with less faffing about. So let’s drop about 7.5%or thereabouts – this isn’t an overly long film and it’s fairly well paced so that should tidy things up nicely.
(Movies XI-XIII) How Shatner-y Is Pine?
Not that Shatner-y this time out, though he certainly picks his moments. The very final scene on the bridge Pine is suddenly in full Shatner, slightly camp, jokey and playing Kirk in all the ways we’re familiar with but haven’t especially seen up to this point. That works well, because the whole film is about the becoming of these characters and by holding back on the Shaterisms it means that when they do emerge, we see the development of the character. That’s in marked contrast to, say, Karl Urban’s McCoy. I mean, he’s great as McCoy, but the character arrives fully formed from the first time we encounter him on the shuttle so the performance is more about establishing McCoy as exactly the same irascible old sawbones that DeForrest Kelley played rather than someone who develops over the course of the film. Since McCoy is an older character than Kirk that makes sense, but Pine is given the chance to do something a bit different, and by holding back on the Shatnerisms until the key moment at the end of the film we really get to see how good he is at interpreting Kirk. Earlier in the film, during the Kobayashi Maru test when Kirk has cheated, we get to see a little of Shatner’s brashness in the performance, but it’s restrained enough to simply provide some character continuity.
Fanwankometer Reading, Captain
For the very first time in all of Star Trek we get confirmation that that Uhura has a first name! That’s pretty exciting, right? Erm… Anyway, turns out it’s Nyota, which is what the barely-more-than-fan-fiction series of original novels had been positing as her first name for simply ages. But here, it’s made canonical (Sulu’s first name is given as Hikaru, and Chekov’s as Pavel, so all the junior crew get their names fully ticked off). Beyond that… well, we get (until the Picard series arrives) the only scenes set post-Nemesis. It’s just a ship in space, but it’s there. Ultimately the whole point of these films is that all the fanwank is both in and out – there’s plenty of boxes ticked but since we’re in an alternative timeline they also don’t actually matter in any way. They don’t impact anything, so a stray reference to Admiral Archer’s beagle confirms that Enterprise is still a thing (however much its last episode suggests maybe it shouldn’t be) but ultimately if we want to put fanwank to one side we can. And we shall – this will be the only Abramsverse Fanwankometer reading, and since next time we have the whole Khan situation to address I’m getting out while the going is good.
I’ll give it to Pine this time out. Quinto and Urban are fine – much better than fine, really – but without reiterating the reasons I think Pine has a harder task than either of those two and manages to bring Kirk to life with aplomb. And just in case anyone was thinking it might be Abrams – no, and it’s not going to be either (um, review spoilers I guess?). This is a solidly directed movie – obvious lens flares aside – but solid is the only mode than any of the three Abramsverse movies will be directed in, and while it’s always competent it is very rarely spectacular. So let’s give it to Pine for bringing back a hokey old sci-fi character from the past and actually making it work.
- The Undiscovered Country
- First Contact
- The Voyage Home
- The Search For Spock
- Star Trek
- The Final Frontier
- The Wrath Of Khan
- The Motion Picture