How Star Trek Stopped Being the Alternate

There’s a moment in one of my favorite movies, High Fidelity, that seems pretty apropos to my reaction watching JJ Abrams’s Star Trek

John Cusack’s character is the put-upon owner of a record store. Every day these skateboard punks take over the street and basically loiter around his store. Late in the movie, his coworkers listen to a mix tape with stunned disbelief. Cusack takes a listen and, also impressed, asks who it is. Jack Black, in one of those perfect reaction shots, puts his hand up to his face covering his eyes. “Those skateboard bastards out there. It’s…good. It’s really fucking good.”

It’s perfect because it expresses humility, surprise, and a bittersweet knowledge that all I had thought or knew was obliterated as mercilessly as Vulcan is in the new movie. What’s old is new again. Either go with it or gurgle against the current. Usually I take the road less traveled, but why bother when the current is just so much better? Plus it just makes more sense.

In my generation there were three constants:

  • Star Trek movies and The Next Generation and post-TNG was appetizer between Star Wars movies.
  • Battlestar Galactica was nostalgic and fondly remembered camp. Cool, but you didn’t get carried away.
  • Star Wars will always outdo the other two.

I say with great reluctance and resignation that this is no longer the case.

My thoughts invariably wander to another hugely successful sci-fi reboot: Battlestar Galactica.  It’s doubtful that Glen Larson, Galactica’s original creator, could have updated the premise with such care and realism or achieved such depth and complexity within that simple premise. Aliens trying to wipe out the last remnants of humanity as they try to find a legendary planet known as Earth.

The aliens in the updated version weren’t aliens, actually. They were machines. Created by humans. Whole new ball of philosophical wax.

Yet producers Ron Moore and David Eick trusted that audiences had grown up enough to explore the concept taken seriously with issues that were relevant to not just this fantasy in space but to their world. Terrorism. Religion. Tolerance. And always hard, moral choices. The kind that don’t end with Starbuck and Apollo laughing over Boxey’s antics with that wind-up, mechanical fur ball as Lorne Greene intones the mission statement of the Battlestar Galactica over Stu Phillip’s triumphant theme. But the kind that linger long after the credits flash in simple white-on-black as Bear McCreary’s insistent percussion pounds out its tribal rhythms. Survival. Anyway. Anyhow. Triumph isn’t a given, it’s an exception. And always painfully brief, this was a show made for an unromantic age.

But I digress. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a review of Star Trek.

Star Trek wasn’t quite that bleak. It’s always been about exploring and going beyond what Man deemed possible. The future is an optimistic one. It’s not about survival but adventure. But it’s also been kind of stodgy. Gene Roddenberry had the right idea with updating the crew and time period. But by and large it was the same show with a different, more expansive cast, and, arguably, the same stodginess.

It needed a fresh voice. It needed JJ Abrams.

Abrams brings to Star Trek a bit of a more modernized sensibility and attitude, and, honestly, I had my reservations about that because you always run the risk of a film or story losing the heart of what made Trek so special for a lot of fans in the first place. And, to be fair, Abrams really flirts with that line. But what pulls him back and makes Trek the deserved success it is happens to be the same thing that created Trekker devotion in the first place: the characters.

It has to start at the top with Chris Pine who brings out a bit more rebel bad boy than William Shatner’s seasoned adventuring captain. Yet once he gets the mentorly push by Captain Pike, the audience begins to see the James T. Kirk everyone knows. More importantly, we see the relationships Kirk makes build the foundation for the man he will become. It’s the crew of the Enterprise that brings the best out of Kirk.

Especially Spock. Abrams really nails Spock, wonderfully realized by Zach Quinto.  It was an absolute masterstroke for both Kirk and Spock to be paralleled and for Abrams’s Spock to be as proud of his human heritage as Roddenberry’s was trying to deny his. Punkass Vulcan be dissing his mother, dude’s in for a world of Vulcan neck pinches.

Kirk gets Spock to embrace his emotionality and to trust in gut intuition. Spock teaches Kirk the benefit of reason and logic. Much of what I liked about the final confrontation with Nero was Kirk seeming to grant mercy because it would make Spock happy, yet time after time Kirk will continue to take this tack because it is the best course of action. James T. Kirk will embody what the Federation of Planets and Starfleet strive for. It’s human and it’s logical.

These are all things that audiences respond to. They get these concepts when it’s given an emotional basis. Touch them in the heart and the head will follow.

Both Galactica and Trek exemplified this to perfection. George Lucas, on the other hand, has long been accused of distancing audiences rather than drawing them in. The prequels certainly attest to that.

All that said, I will defend the prequels to the last of my dying breath or at least before apathy encroaches because of the advancing years or the onset of senility and dementia. The overall storyline of the trilogy did a masterful of setting events in motion as to how Palpatine manipulates the Clone War into forming the Empire and Anakin Skywalker’s tragic Faustian fall into Darth Vader. And as the trilogy went along it got better and better.

Having said that, I think the saddest thing about the prequels is how much better they could have been with script polishing and a frickin’ director who kind of gets it that 1930s-style acting craft has been completely obliterated thanks to Brando. Yes, it got better. Yes, it ended up making lotsa dough, and when all else is argued you can’t argue with the dough. But if Peter Jackson or Joss Whedon or, hell, even one of Lucas’s choices Ron Howard, would have directed them that human, relatable element wouldn’t have been lost. And Jackson knows as well as anyone, you lose them the first time they ain’t coming back.

And as much as I hate to admit this let alone think it, I wonder if the Clone Wars animated series is Lucas’s way of bringing back the fans and children he may have alienated with the prequels. But then if that were the case, then why is Clone Wars one of the top rated cartoon series on Cartoon Network? Surely these kids remember the troops landing on Geonosis in Attack of the Clones? The same movie with that mushy nonsense about sand infecting your skin pores or something. Because just as I got inundated with the adventures of Han, Luke and Leia so do I see kids who love Anakin and Obi-Wan in the same breath as they revere new characters like clone trooper Captain Rex all the while loyally carrying around their newest Clone Wars paperback. One time while watching a bit of Empire Strikes Back with my cousin, he was confused because he thought the Stormtroopers were good. At least that’s how it was in the Clone Wars. You couldn’t sandblast the smile off my face if you tried.

But I digress. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a review of Star Trek.

And that’s why in a way I feel kind of bittersweet about the success of Trek. Because really it’s taken something that was done before and dressed it up in different clothes. But the result is pretty much the same. There are some diehard Star Wars devotees who say that Abrams basically took the Star Wars formula and applied it to Star Trek. About a dozen or so Youtube clips attest to this. But you know what? Who gives a frak? Lucas lost his exclusivity to that little template when he made the prequels. And, honestly, it wasn’t his template anyway he just utilized it in the most imaginative way. Galactica brought human storytelling back to the sci-fi consciousness. Star Trek brought that consciousness to the mainstream. It just goes to show that looking to the past is still the best place to learn new lessons.


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