STAR TREK (2009)
- The Spoiler Free Frontier

Star Trek (2009)

Television and movies have long had a mutually parasitic relationship with properties being batted from one medium to another on a regular basis. And largely the results are never pretty. In his classic tale Dreams in the Witch-House, which effectively mashes up hyper dimensional physics and 17th century witchcraft, HP Lovecraft has his doomed protagonist theorise that a truly successful mode of travel between dimensions where different laws of time and space apply, the method of transport would have to alter the traveller’s biology to be able to survive outside his native dimension. And all too often when a property moves from television to film or vica versa, the adjustments to the new medium all too often ends up leaving it looking like the transporter accident in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The problem is that that cinema and television have very different dynamics of story telling. If you are moving from film to TV, apart from the constraints of a much smaller budget, the trouble tends to be what works once on the big screen quickly becomes boring week in and week out. Of course there are exceptions, most notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer transformed itself from a rather mediocre movie into a truly fabulous television series. And more recently Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles has been doing sterling work.

Conversely moving a show into the cinema has its own unique trials – make it very like the TV series and you risk the infamous ‘long episode’ syndrome. However if you embrace the medium and craft a plot of cinematic dimensions, then the change in the type of story you are telling often results with the movie feeling like a different genre to the original. So bearing this in mind, you can see why so often these days, movies derived from TV series are either ‘ironic’ send ups (Charlies Angels, Starsky & Hutch) or complete reboots/reimaginings (Miami Vice, Lost In Space).

Of course of all the series subjected to the dimension shift from cathode tube to silver screen, the big success story is Star Trek – now with 11 cinema outings to its name. However looking at the development of the movies we can clearly see the difficulties. The first outing, often dubbed ‘The Slow Motion Picture’, tips too far over the line into extraneous cinematics with a ponderous plot and some awful costume redesigns. Whereas the final picture, Star Trek Nemesis, feels too much like a Next Gen two-parter cobbled into a movie.

So when the new Star Trek was announced, aside for JJ Abrams being attached, the key detail that caught my eye was that the plot would deal with the early years of the characters’ history. So were we going to be cruising at warp speed into the Prequel Galaxy and praying that Mr Scott could supercharge the dilithium crystals enough to get us safely beyond the Lucas Black Hole? Or would this be more an untold tales deal, with Trek going all Smallville on us?

Both were worrying concepts, fraught with ample scope for an epic misfire. However equally troubling was the prospect of a complete clean slate reboot. Could we ever accept new actors taking on roles so closely associated with Shatner, Nimoy, Kelly et al? And would jettisoning 40-odd years of continuity mean we would be getting an origins movie in which much screen time is wasted explaining things to us that we already know?

Now while the first issue is a matter of getting together a good enough cast together and hoping the fans will embrace them, the continuity aspect is a trickier matter. On one hand, you have the problem of reintroducing characters and concepts – if you present exactly how they were in the original, you’re wasting our time and if you change them people are doing to say ‘This isn’t Trek!”. However the thornier issue is how much continuity is just pandering to obsessive fans?

Now the Star Trek franchise had fallen into something of decline. Personally Voyager never really won my affections – it felt too much like they were just randomly swapping different tropes from earlier series. And while there was the wonderful holographic Doctor (surely modelled on one of the Crane brothers’ descendents), there was bloody Neelix who made you realise that Wesley Crusher perhaps wasn’t that annoying after all. (Indeed Neelix vs. Alien, Predator, Jason & Godzilla is still the spin-off I’d most like to see. Yes, even more than Strap Trek - 7 of 9 vs. Jenna Jameson. But moving swiftly on…)

However it’s Enterprise that really underlines the continuity problem. Now obvious the show was crippled from the get go with that awful MOR ballad of a theme but the real problem with the show was that it was being made purely for Star Trek fans by this stage. But heavy continuity based content doesn’t necessary always play well to the fans – often it can appear that the show is turning into fan fiction of the worst kind - “fanwank”. But worse the weight of continuity was driving away the ordinary TV viewers who can scent an anorak at 50 paces. Basically Trek found itself in a similar position to the later seasons of the original series of Doctor Who – what had once been a popular show with a general audience was squeezing into a much smaller niche as a cult show. And not at the cool end of cult either – the public perception was that these were shows for the obsessive weirdos – D&D players, undercover Morris dancers and the bulk buyers of Clearasil.

Therefore the challenge for Abrams and co was not just to make a film that would be accepted as ‘real’ Trek by fans – a daunting task in itself – but to make something the general public could relate to. And in this context, a clearing out of the continuity cupboard with a fresh reboot makes perfect sense.

So what did he actually deliver? Prepare to beam down onto the first part of review. A second away team will be assembled later to venture into spoiler sectors…

A quick tricorder reading to kick off: cinematics – good, pace – excellent and the atmosphere is breathable. As a film in itself, this is an above average blockbuster – it’s got a solid story, plenty of breath-taking action, and deft characterisation. But also, like last summer’s Iron Man, there’s a good deal of well-used humour and the film’s phasers are set firmly on ‘Fun’. It’s a superior slice of sci-fi action adventure…but is it Trek?

Well I’d say it is Star Trek … but not as we know it. And what I mean by that is that JJ Abrams has produced a version of the franchise that truly feels home on the big screen and yet still feels like Star Trek of old. It admittedly draws on the “boldly going” spirit of the original series rather the Next Generation philosophical splitting of infinitives, but as the movie is bring back the beloved original crew back it’s only appropriate that it should continue with the same ratio of fun and adventure in its DNA.

Although Abrams has admitted to not previously being a Star Trek fan, he’s clearly been doing his homework. Firstly he’s identified that what made original Trek more beloved than a host of other sci-fi series was the well defined characters of the crew and how they interact. And he has placed this at the heart of the film. Now there is a ton of great action sequences but the plot’s real drive comes from the characters’ emotional journeys rather than the FX’s storyboards. An overblown firework of a toy ad this is not!

I have heard some criticisms that the plot is a little simple and, often for die hard Trekkers, far too light on ponderousness. Certainly the actual main mechanics of the story are basic – Romulan captain wreaks havoc. And it is a suitably Star Trek type of tale, but more importantly it’s only really the framework device for telling the real story which is how the Enterprise got together. And their stories do have a typically Trek philosophical bent – it’s a good deal more subtle than the long profound speeches that pepper TV Trek from the Next Gen onward, but it’s still there. Yes, there is humour and spectacle, but the emotional weight of the plotting means that the film never descends to the level of a campy romp.

This movie is that it is actually an origin story. But it’s not told in the usual fashion – you know, with all that tedious building up to the characters becoming who we know they are in the last third of the film. It opens with a stunning opening sequence that hurls you squarely into the Star Trek universe and then barrels along, deftly balancing character development with more action.

And the new cast are more than up to the job. I was very surprised how quickly the initial strangeness of seeing new actors in these very familiar roles wore off. One thing that was oft discussed in the run up to this film, was the question of how the actors would play the parts – would they be parroting the verbal tics of their predecessors? Thankfully they don’t and thus avoid appearing as a parody sketch. Instead we get a solid script that stays faithful to the speech mannerisms and crucially the concept of the original crew. And very intelligently the script set ups situation for the characters to show us who they are the same as they always were. You recognise Kirk’s cockiness in Chris Pine’s dialogue, and Karl Urban is Bones from the instant he starts grousing about space. But most uncanny of all is Zachary Quinto – he is Spock! Minor spoiler – but in the scene towards the film’s close where the Quinto Spock meets Leonard Nimoy’s, you’ll have to remind yourself there’s no CGI double at work.

Abrams, along with screen writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, have took the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” approach with characters and story stylings and given us the Enterprise crew in a new adventure. Wisely the new additions to the Star Trek universe are mainly cosmetic. Although the look of the sets, ships and costumes are pleasingly faithful to the originals, Abrams has given the movie a distinct visual style. Now it has to be said, that he does like a lens flare a little too much (and has recently admitted that they went a bit too far with them) but overall his understanding that the Star Trek universe is a bright colourful and shiny place is spot on. His choice of lighting, tonal palette and colour schemes featuring a lot of coloured metallics reminded me of countless airbrushed illustrations from old Star Trek annuals and tie-novels. This vision of Star Trek evokes both the cover paintings of the Golden age pulps and the pop art sensibilities of the original series and manages to look both realistically modern and fresh.

So conclude this spoiler-free section – what we have here is an excellent Star Trek film. I do have a couple of minor niggles to air in the next bit but they are more than balanced by the rest of the praise. And I would tentatively suggest that this may be the best cinema version of Trek so far. Certainly it has reinvigorated the franchise and opens the door at last to a new era of Star Trek.

Any red shirts wishing to join the away team to Planet Spoiler, kindly step through the Jefferies tube to the right

While the rest of you who haven’t seen it yet, just print out the image below and get yourself to the local multiplex for a round of Trek Bingo. When you’ve crossed off all the boxes, feel free to jump up and shout “TUQ!”

Star Trek Bingo

JIM MOON, 11th May 2009