Sunday, May 10, 2009

Thoughts about the 2009 film "Star Trek", Part I

The newly released film "Star Trek" appears to be a big hit in its opening weekend in theaters. Having seen it, it looks like the first serious rival of "The Wrath of Khan" for the title of Best Star Trek film. Here are some accumulated thoughts about what this new film does right and where it could have done better.
  • The chief problem with much of Star Trek is that the Federation is really boring. The Federation is stupendously boring. "Star Trek" the film makes a serious point of stressing that James T. Kirk grew up in Iowa; think of the Federation as one big intragalactic Iowa.

    Thus, Star Trek writers were constantly and desperately looking for excuses to get the action away from the Federation as much as possible. In "The Original Series", this meant gimmick episodes like a "planet of the Nazis". In "The Next Generation", it was half the crew getting trapped in the virtual reality of the holodeck for an episode. "Deep Space Nine" was based on the premise that the main characters would be permanently stationed next to a stable wormhole that could teleport them a billion light-years away from the Federation. "Voyager" finally trumped them all by promising that the main characters would be so far away from the Federation that they couldn't physically ever have any conceivable contact with the Federation within their lifetimes. That is how boring the Federation is.

    So the most important thing that "Star Trek" the film does right is giving the audience the absolute minimum amount of Federation required to make the story work. Thus, the first twenty-odd years of James T. Kirk's life -- his years as Federation citizen stuck on Earth -- go by in about as many minutes.

  • A second major problem with the Star Trek franchise is that the writers came to hate Captain Kirk. This wasn't a problem in the early days. Kirk's original career arc was that he was the Wunderkind of Starfleet Academy, became a fast-tracked ship captain upon graduation, and became the youngest captain of Star Fleet's flagship Enterprise. Kirk made Admiral by the time of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and presumably would have ended up as the top man in Star Fleet.

    Kirk was also too jingoistic and politically incorrect for the modern era, and therefore had to be taken down a peg. The vehicle for slowly sinking Kirk was the Klingon peace treaty. In "The Search for Spock", pissed-off, hard-liner Klingons try to sink the treaty negotiations by successfully destroying the Enterprise and murdering Kirk's only son in the process. In "The Voyage Home", the Klingon ambassador to the Federation reveals that "there will be no peace while Kirk lives". "The Undiscovered Country" stars Kirk going on trial for disrupting the peace accords by attacking a Klingon ship and then being exiled to a prison planet as a consequence. And, of course, everyone knew that Kirk was going to die in "Generations" (originally, by being shot in the back).

    In "Star Trek" the film, Kirk is back. Kirk saves the Enterprise and Earth with decisive action, a lot of lucky breaks, and a talent for winning the loyalty of others. At the end of the film, Kirk ends up as captain of the Enterprise, and it's hard to argue that he didn't earn it.


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