Sometimes it takes an outsider to fix what’s wrong, or perhaps to remember what was so right.
In 1966, “Star Trek,” the television series, made its premier, featuring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as Captain James Tiberius Kirk and half-Vulcan, half-human Commander Spock. The series immediately garnered a small but devoted community of fans. It was the fascinating dynamic between the emotionally-driven, spontaneous, human Captain Kirk and the emotionally devoid, logical, alien Spack that created the real essence of “science fiction” in the series.
All great science fiction applies science, whether real or invented, to put humans in situations that reveal truths about human nature; and that’s what “Star Trek,” for the most part, did. It wasn’t about the spaceships or the planets or the alien creatures; it was about what is revealed about human nature as a result of flying in those spaceships or visiting those planets or interacting with “new life and new civilizations” (even if it was those silly Tribbles).
Over 40 years, “Star Trek” – with its ten previous movies, seven TV series, books, comics, and conventions, not to mention its merchandising and branding – has turned into a vastly successful industry. But it has almost become a parody of itself. Many of the current iterations of “Star Trek,” led by the same band of producers and writers, seemed to rely more and more on varied makeup jobs to create more and more alien races, instead of relying on a real dedication to the exploration of human nature through alternative science. The essence of true science fiction, and more importantly the development and dynamics of its characters, has been largely lost.
Enter J.J. Abrams, hugely successful TV producer and creator of such shows as “Lost” and “Alias.” Not a fan of the traditional “Star Trek” series, he applied his creativity and insight as an outsider to return to what “Star Trek” really was – an exposition of human nature.
In a word, the new “Star Trek” movie is terrific. It is an imaginative account of how the crew of the original USS Enterprise came together and how their bonds were formed. In the movie, talented and well-cast actors make excellent choices in how they portray characters that have become beloved icons.
Their choices are not always the same.
Chris Pine, the actor who plays James T. Kirk and follows in the footsteps of the inimitable William Shatner, chose to embody Kirk’s original characteristics: his bravado, his humor, his physicality, his eye for women. He sits in the captain’s chair on the bridge of the “Enterprise” in just the way Shatner did – legs wide, leaning on one elbow with the other hand on the armrest, elbow up. But Pine wisely chose. not to imitate Shatner’s famously halting and dramatic way of speaking. To have done so would have been parody, not embodiment.
A different approach is taken by Karl Urban, the actor who plays Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy as originally portrayed by DeForest Kelly. Urban chose a restrained yet spot-on imitation of Kelly’s portrayal of McCoy. His delivery, expressions, and gestures all hark back to the endearingly pessimistic McCoy that Trekkers love.
When characters’ roles have been changed, as in the case of Communications Officer Nyota Uhura (the African-American female character from the original series), now played by Zoe Saldana, it is done in such a way as to maintain the essence of the character and to enhance a part that was sadly one-dimensional in the original series. The current movie does an admirable job of giving Uhura a meaningful voice and role that is still appropriate to her dynamic within the entire crew.
Admittedly, the new “Star Trek” is rather weak on storyline and rationale, as are almost all other “Star Trek” movies. The villain, a time-traveling, revenge-seeking Romulan played by Eric Bana, is creepy and brooding, but his backstory is not terribly compelling, considering the great lengths to which he goes in seeking revenge for a wrong once done to him.
Star Trek fans, passionate about details, prepared to pounce on any deviations from previous storylines. Hut Abrams brilliantly employs the script’s time-traveling element to create the possibility of an alternate reality in the “Star Trek” universe, thereby allowing him (and future “Star Trek” screenplay writers) to create whatever story developments they wish, without having to harmonize them with the multitude of backstories from existing “Star Trek” TV shows, movies, books, comics, and lore in general.
“Star Trek” features plenty of heart-pumping action, toe-curling monsters, and mouth-watering spaceships. And it boasts its fair share of humor, accessible to Trekkers and non-Trekkers alike. But it’s the rediscovery of the relationships among the Enterprise crew members, and the further development of those characters, that makes this “Star Trek” installment a rousing success.