Friday, May 8, 2009

Chauncey DeVega's World of Ghetto Nerds: J.J. Abrams' New Star Trek Ain't Your Daddy's Star Trek...And That Just May Be Okay

The verdict: J.J. Abrams' Star Trek is Star Trek while simultaneously not being Star Trek.

Yes, this is an intentionally obtuse statement--one that captures my very confused and almost schizophrenic feelings about this film.

Yes, it has our favorite heroes in Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Yes, our good old USS Enterprise is in the new Trek and she has never looked better. Yes, all the right "notes" are hit, but oddly the sum total of the song they are playing sounds like Roddenberry's classic, without ever having its gravitas.

Perhaps, this is the key dilemma, one upon which a generational divide surrounding Abrams' Trek will revolve: Roddenberry's Star Trek was about something. It had moral vision, complexity and weight. Born of the Cold War and Roddenberry's belief that a science fiction television series could both entertain while also grappling with compelling and challenging social issues. In short, Roddenberry's Star Trek in keeping with what the best of speculative fiction has to offer, provided a stage upon which to act out the core dilemmas of our shared human condition.

J.J. Abrams reboot of the Star Trek universe has no such lofty ideals. It is unapologetic in this regard. Abrams' Trek is Dawson Creek in space, made for an Ipod generation that no longer has a sense of wonder or an attention span longer than 3 minutes. For those children of the original Trek, here I mean those who came of age during the 1960s, Star Trek was the future: a multicultural, peaceful, space faring Federation, led by an American golden boy who practiced soft-diplomacy while always getting the girl--human and alien alike.

The technology and hopeful future of Star Trek was part of its appeal, and quite understandably for a generation that has come to take the fantastic as commonplace, the future is the now. For those children of the 1980s and 1990s--a generation that grew up with the Internet--all wonder about technology seems to have been replaced by basic, uninspired familiarity.

And you know what? Maybe this is okay. Why? Because the movie is still fun and exciting when taken on its own terms. Despite the unmitigated disaster that was Cloverfield (a movie that I eviscerated here) Abrams has crafted a beautiful homage to Roddenberry's Star Trek. As we in fandom are fond of saying, Abrams "didn't rape our childhood." In keeping with theme of Star Trek as an homage to its storied roots, Abrams' vision is not, "a wax museum come to life." Oh no, this film has a heart, a big beating one, and there is lots to enjoy in the interplay of its protagonists.

Christopher Pine is Kirk. I know that many fans will nitpick certain aspects of the character, but to my eyes, Pine has that Kirk intangible free-spiritedness and confidence that makes him a living legend. While I found the Kobayashi Maru scenario a bit trite (this is a much storied event in the mythos surrounding Kirk), the other moments, especially Kirk's time in Iowa as a child and his casually throwing the keys to his prized motorcycle to its new owner, are quintessential James Tiberius Kirk. This Kirk is centered differently than the Kirk of Roddenberry's Trek, but again, somehow it fits the world that Abrams' James T. Kirk has been inserted into:

The other foundations of the triad are similarly well-suited to their roles. Zack Quinto's Spock is Spock: in this iteration emphasizing the human over the alien--

Again, this isn't necessarily bad, it is just different. Karl Urban is McCoy. Be forewarned, at first Urban appears to be giving an over the top performance, but it quickly grows on you as pitch perfect.

Our stalwart auxiliaries are all serviceable. Zoe Saldana as Uhura is beautiful, yet she doesn't have the smoldering sensuality of Nichelle Nichols (but then again, who could?). Scotty played by Simon Pegg is passable: he isn't given much to do, but will certainly grow in the role. By contrast, Chekov (played by Anton Yelchin) and Sulu (portrayed by Harold and Kumar's John Cho) are in some ways more substantial than their originals. Of course, Walter Koenig and George Takei will always be those characters and are a given as the yardsticks and standard for the roles. But perhaps in Abrams' Trek, they will be more central to the adventures of the new USS Enterprise.

As Nero, Eric Bana is more than an adequate villain (and at this point Bana seems destined to be a character actor who appears in many films, but never receives much acclaim).

But in fairness, one must acknowledge that Bana's Nero is truly hamstrung in his role as a place holder until Abrams' Star Trek finds its Khan:

Abrams has a clear reverence for Star Trek. There are a few necessary shortcuts, yet nevertheless, the film manages to reconcile canon. To that point, Abrams' embrace of Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime is a master stroke that succeeds in earning the trust of fans. Abrams clearly understands that fandom is critical to the success of this newest Trek. He should succeed with the core audience, because instead of insulting them, Abrams gives the true believers a wealth of Easter eggs. For example (and if you want to stay "spoiler free" skip this section):

1. Kirk as a hell raising kid in Iowa--priceless!
2. The mentions of such locales as Delta Vega; the Klingon Prison Planet, Rura Penthe; the moon of Titan famous for "Titan's Turn"; and a nice reference to William Riker's tactic of holding a ship steady over a magnetic field in order to create a natural cloak.
3. Admiral Archer and his beagle; an Orion "slave girl" at the academy; and Sulu's skill at fencing.
4. The relationship between Spock and Uhura is a nice acknowledgment of the slash fiction that has been written about the series...and what do we now do with the "relationship" between Spock and Kirk?
5. Kirk grabbing a bottle of Saurian brandy in his bar fight with the Starfleet cadets.
6. Red shirts must die. Repeat after me, red shirts must die.
7. Pike in a wheelchair is not as tragic as Pike in a rolling box equipped with a blinking light. Pike receiving a Wrath of Khan like interrogation. Pike as captain of the Enterprise.
8. Scotty has a tribble on his desk. Scotty also has a Jem'hadar/Ugnaught assistant.
9. The USS Hood (a storied ship in all of Star Trek) gets a mention, as does the USS Farragut (which was Kirk's first posting).
10. Why must Tyler Perry appear in this movie? Why lord why?
11. This is indeed the Abramsverse. Yes my people, Star Trek 2009 does indeed feature both a Slusho reference and the monster from Cloverfield.

Roddenberry's Star Trek is about friendship and chemistry. It is not necessarily the well-acted scripts, amazing special effects, or potent and pathos filled episodes that keep fans returning to Roddenberry's Star Trek or its many spin offs. In this regard, Star Trek is wildly uneven where for every City on the Edge of Forever we have many more episodes like Spock's Brain. Even given how indescribably horrible the latter is, we still watch Star Trek because of the chemistry of Spock, McCoy, and Kirk.

As one of my dear mentors put it, he only needs to watch Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan until the point when Spock tells Kirk that he has been and always will be his friend. This is one of the primary reasons that Star Trek endures: the friendships of the characters, and the many ways that audiences see Star Trek as a familiar and rich accompaniment to their lives.

Ultimately, J.J. Abrams Star Trek is great fun. But, it is escapist entertainment that carries neither moral weight nor vision. For me, this is one of those generation defining moments where one realizes they are truly an adult because the world seems to have come full circle. Ironically, born of the tumultuous 1960s the original Star Trek "mattered" because "it was about something." Its contemporary, Battlestar Galactica, was in contrast, about nothing. It was a wagon train in space, a thrill ride for the masses:

In the Obama era, we are witness to a moment when Star Trek is about nothing, a summer popcorn movie at its finest, while the reimagined Battlestar Galactica is/was about the heavy weight of a world at war, in crisis, and an American empire in decline.

Who knows? Maybe in the world in which we live, a little escapism is a good thing, an antidote to our anxieties and fears. And in that context, I may just be able to accept this newest Star Trek after all.

Some Questions:

1. Where are the auxiliaries and reserves in the Federation starfleet? Are things so bad that they have to put 20 year olds in charge of their vessels?

2. Spock and Uhura: aliens have long been a proxy for the racial Other in science fiction. Now we have a mulatto (in Spock) getting it on with a black woman. Predictable choice? Or unexpected?

3. Will this cast mesh and create the type of chemistry which the original cast enjoyed? Or, will it be impossible given that the new crew doesn't have a television series as a platform from which to launch?

4. Who is next? Can this franchise find its Khan? Should Abrams even dare to revisit the Wrath of Khan storyline in the sequel?

5. Where is McCoy's mint julep?

6. Abrams clearly has an eye for swashbuckling adventure. What would he do in a Knights of the Old Republic centered Star Wars universe? Would Abrams be a perfect fit for it, or would he be a perfect disaster?

7. What do you ghetto nerds give Abrams' Trek? Good or bad? A thumbs up or a thumbs down?

8. Lest I forget, where was our classic Star Trek theme?


cheap jordan shoes said...
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Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Good catch on the role reversal with Battlestar. I'm going to see it this weekend, although I am a litle wary of Trek losing its intellectual edge. Isn't good science fiction always a reflection/critique of contemporary society?

Anonymous said...


2. Unexpected, but somebody called this long ago: