"Paul Levinson's It's Real Life is a page-turning exploration into that multiverse known as rock and roll. But it is much more than a marvelous adventure narrated by a master storyteller...it is also an exquisite meditation on the very nature of alternate history." -- Jack Dann, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Alternate History

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Star Trek: Reborn, Reset, Resplendent

Star Trek, since its birth in our popular culture in 1966 on NBC television, has led a remarkable life. Canceled after three seasons due to an insufficiently large audience - of which my wife (then my girlfriend) and I were devotedly among - Star Trek went on to break the hold of network television, with a series of series beginning with Star Trek: The Next Generation that went directly into successful syndication. As I pointed out in How Star Trek Liberated Television, this in retrospect was the beginning of television entertainment on cable and the Internet which is still burgeoning today. Along the way, Star Trek had some of best time travel stories (City on the Edge of Forever in the original series, Yesterday's Enterprise in The Next Generation) - keep that in mind - as well as some of the best humans meet alien stories ever told. I truly believe that when we eventually get beyond our solar system with faster-than-light travel in centuries to come - who knows, maybe decades - we will still be inspired by Star Trek as we navigate our way through the cosmos.

Star Trek also inspired other works in popular culture, including a whole bunch of movies, most of which were not as good, not even close, to best of Star Trek television. This is the challenge that J. J. Abrams and his colleagues took up when they set out to make a new Star Trek movie.

They decided to make a movie about the original crew and characters - Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov - before and during their first meeting up on the Enterprise. A movie about Star Trek Academy, detailing some of these budding relationships, had been talked about for decades. Abrams could have made such a movie, and it would no doubt have been excellent, a real delight for the fans, and everyone.

Instead, J. J. Abrams decided to something better. The reason, I'm sure, is that he didn't want to be locked into telling the same stories we already saw on television all those years ago, once again, now, on the big screen, if this movie succeeded. Nor did he want to be confined to filling in the gaps of what we already know about Kirk, Spock, et al....

So .... Abrams did something very different indeed. And here the story of the new Star Trek begins....


Kirk's father dies at the hands of Romulans, as Kirk's mother, pregnant with James T., escapes in a shuttle. The father has been Captain for all of 12 minutes. Some 25 years later, James Tiberius Kirk and Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy do meet up at Starfleet Academy. Uhura, whom Kirk has unsuccessfully flirted with, is there, too. And, of course, so is Spock, who is ahead of Kirk, and puts him to a famous test-

But the Romulans attack again - this time, Planet Vulcan. Star Fleet sends out a whole bunch of ships - including the Enterprise with Captain Pike in command, and Spock the science officer. By the time they get to Vulcan, Pike is in Romulan hands, and despite the best heroic efforts of Kirk and Sulu, and Spock, now in command, Planet Vulcan is destroyed, and along with it, Spock's mother-

Wait a minute! Vulcan destroyed? But didn't we see the planet, numerous times, in various episodes of various series of Star Trek? And Spock's mother, too?

Yes, of course we did! So, what's going on?

J. J. Abrams, in the sharp script written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (all three of current Fringe fame), are giving us a splendid time travel story (shades of Lost). We get this spelled out to us in detail when young Kirk meets old Spock - played by Leonard Nimoy - who explains that Romulans killed Kirk's father after being whipped back in time from a future in which old Spock failed to save the Romulan home world.... And old Spock has been pulled back through time, too.

Now, if I were a sufficiently versed fan, I would have noticed at the beginning that this was another Star Trek universe - not quite the one we have seen on television and in theaters all of these years. Because no one ever said in a word in those about Kirk's father dying a few seconds after he was born. But Vulcan destroyed was more than enough to wake even me up that we were seeing something very different and daring here in which ...

Everything is new, to some lesser or greater extent, except old Spock, who has seen everything that we have on the screens over the years. Young Spock, smartly played by Heroes' Zachary Quinto, is also a new Spock - who has lost his mother and his planet, just as the new Kirk, perfectly played by Chris Pine, has lost his father. And young Spock (call him Spock 2) now lives in the same version of reality (call it Universe 2) as does old Spock (call him Spock 1). Old Spock's story along side of young Spock's story makes this Star Trek a sequel as well as a prequel.

There are other nice differences in this new reality. Spock 2 has a romantic relation with - Uhura, who's given a winning, sassy, refreshing performance by Zoe Saldana. But McCoy, wonderfully played by Karl Urban, is just and sarcastically funny as he should. And Simon Pegg's Scotty, John Cho's Sulu, and Anton Yelchin's Chekov are also fine and satisfyingly in character and ambiance - though poor Chekov, only 17 in the movie, and on the Enterprise earlier than he was in the original television series, is still stuck with that laughable Russian accent.

But Abrams has done the seemingly impossible, and done it with style and savvy - he has given us a genuinely new Star Trek, from the very beginning, with a genuinely new story - and even given us a witness to the original that we all grew up with, in the person of the original, older Spock. The story will live long and prosper indeed.

See also How Star Trek Liberated Television

Special Discount Coupons for Angie's List, Avis, Budget Rent-a-Car, eBags, eHarmony, eMusic, Nutrisystem

Photos: Front row at the Star Trek Premiere…see the photos on TV.com

15-min podcast review of the new Star Trek


Other Lisa said...

ACK! Spoiler alert, please!!!

Paul Levinson said...

Apologies, Lisa - my reviews of already released or broadcast movies and television shows always contain spoilers.

But I just put a spoiler in my post, before the part where I start commenting about the plot.

TheLooper said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this film, a marvelous break from the "business as usual" Star Trek: The Next Generation films that have been coming out since 1994. Let's face it, Rick Berman and company were running the franchise into the ground. Abrams was just what Star Trek needed to rekindle the spirit of adventure that this franchise once had to offer.

I too was curious to see how in the world Abrams was going to tell all these stories again. We've seen some really spectacular plots on the series and in the previous films, so I have found it very interesting to consider how a "new" story of the old crew could be told. They pulled it off with emaculate precision. Gene Roddenberry would be proud!

Star Trek had waned horribly by the time of "Nemesis" in 2002. TNG had stagnated and the sublte rip off version and remake of "Wrath of Kahn" just didn't win anyone over. Even bringing John Logan (Gladiator, The Time Machine [2002]) into the mold didn't help, Star Trek was doomed. Not long after that "Enterprise" or I guess "Star Trek: Enterprise" foundered.

I remember back in 1996, for the 30th anniversary of Star Trek, Dean Devlin was quoted as saying, in regards to the upcoming release of Independence Day, "Sci-Fi is dead, except for Star Trek." That was in relation to the fact that Independence Day was being labeled more as an epic/disaster flick rather than a Science Fiction film, which it truly was a disaster flick. But, Independence Day really began the downfall of Star Trek. It set a precedent of epic Science Fiction/Fantasy films. Not long after that we had Armageddon, The Matrix Trilogy, Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Episodes I-III of Star Wars, a remake of War of the Worlds, Transformers and many others. These films started raising the ante, a scenario no other Trek films had ever experienced in the 1980's. Even Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore (the primary Star Trek: TNG film screenwriters) went on to larger success taking on the Mission: Impossible 2 storyline than they ever had with the 3 previous TNG films. Even Star Trek: First Contact and its time travel story left something to be desired, in relation to one of Star Trek's very own time travel films, The Voyage Home.

I believe even Rick Berman knew Star Trek was at an end, as a whole, with Nemesis because of the tag line, "...final mission." It was sad to see it go, but fun to watch it come back last night!

Chris Pine (almost Chris Pike, ironic) was an awesome Kirk. A few times I even caught him trying to act like William Shatner would have, with facial expressions and right down to his reaction to an older Spock speaking to him, expletive deleted of course. Simon Pegg seemed a bit like a Scotty on speed, or even crack, but just as Leonard Nimoy pointed out on the Today Show Thursday morning, each actor gets to play these characters now the way they would, not the way the original cast would. These roles are now part of them. To quote Kirk at the end of The Undiscovered Country, "This ship, and her history will shortly become the care of another crew. To them and their posterity will we commit our futures." I did love the subtle twist of fate, that only Trekkies would have spotted right away, when Spock gave Scotty the equations for Transwarp Teleportation and Scotty's reaction to it (mirroring Scotty's on alteration of history when he handed over the formula for transparent aluminum to the guy in 1986 San Francisco in The Voyage Home). Bravo Abrams!

I love the way Abrams has "retooled" the franchise, a complete rewrite and start over. A beautiful new ship, the way it was always meant to be, an intriguing, almost Kahn-like, villian whose thirst for blood was unparalleled. The only down side I saw to the film was that Abrams beat me to the punch on a blackhole forming device that eats a planet away from the inside. I actually wrote that as part of my plot to The Eternal Loop, which has not been published yet, D'OH! Hopefully no one will think I ripped it off from Star Trek (finished the first draft of the manuscript in May 2008, long before Trek came out).

But as Paul said, Star Trek has helped to spawn a multitude of Science Fiction, action adventure series and films and broke through boundaries that have allowed the television shows of today much more freedom. The series has always inspired me and is one of the main reasons I love writing stories today. So here's to you Star Trek, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and all the rest. We're glad to see you all back and we've missed you terribly over the years! Live long and prosper!

kingrich said...

I'm still in complete shock at the destruction of Vulcan!!

After the destruction of Vulcan I kept expecting them to use the red matter to somehow go to the future, save romulas and get back in time for afternoon tea, but once the red matter was ignited I was watching in disbelief.

Star Trek's never done anything so far reaching before. Maybe a sequel's lined up to repair the damage caused to the timeline. It was a big risk to take (in kirk tradition) but I totally loved this film.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with the above two reviews! GREAT MOVIE! SUPERBLY ACTED. I laughed - had tears at the loss scenes - great movie. But like kingrich said - Destruciton of Vulcan...SHOCK was an understatment. I actually find my self not liking the film at times because of it if you can believe that. I am hoping as dynamic and awesome as this cast and story was - maybe Abrams will back down a little on the boldness (not to mirror the TNG movies - EEK!) and maybe do a movie story line arc where they are able to save it somehow. At this point and after this thrill ride - i would buy anything! with Old spock in the "past" and meeting his past young self- who knows! If you can tackle that - anything is possible. Warning the feds, etc about the borg, you name it. Why not play dirty and work to help the feds cause as much as possible. Anywho - enough babble. Two last thoughts - 1) the movie was a little techno babble in my humble opinion especially for non trek people/science nerds. 2) what happened to the whole Gaurdian of Forever plot idea i heard so much about circulating on the web for months prior to release? Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Nimoy plays Spock Prime. Quinto plays Spock.

Paul Levinson said...

Anon, thanks - and, you're telling us this, why? Because you thought someone who read the review might not know this? :)

The Legend of Chris said...

I don't know is it really such a big change? Much of the original series is ignored in later Star Trek lore. I think the destruction of Vulcan goes much futher into explaining the future than altering it.

Why in the time of TNG are the vulcans not a termendous power being so close to Earth, as is suggested by the Enterprise series. Spock himself says in the film a new colony is established. Also the future from which spock comes would suggest that the Romulan homeworld was destroyed, and although I'm no expert in Star Trek lore I'm not aware of any suggestion that Romulus is gone in the future.

I certainly agree this movie reinvents much of what we know or believe about the characters we love, but that's something that was needed, and I for one look forward to a great future for the franchise. I couldn't have asked for more from this movie!

Nomad said...

The new Star Trek keeps the audience's attention so much better than the other Star Treks... there is something fundamentally wrong with a movie that feels like a chore to watch (as are so many of the original Star Treks)

tvindy said...

I sincerely hope that in this new Star Trek universe Kirk does not meet his death by falling off a bridge.

TheLooper, the idea of a mini black hole being used to destroy a planet goes back (at least) to David Brin's Earth, which was published in the late 80s. In that novel, the process took months rather than seconds, though.

Legend, the weird thing about the Vulcans is that even though they did a good bit of exploring, they never seemed big on colonizing. The Federation dumped billions of humans on hundreds of planets and left the Vulcans in the dust. I don't really see the point of the the movie destroying Vulcan, if enough Vulcans survived to colonize a new planet. What would have been interesting is if Spock had ended up being the last of his kind.

TheLooper said...

tvindy, thank you for that statement! At least now I know this wasn't the first time it as ever been mentioned, but maybe one of the first times ever visualized on film, which was very cool.

When I said rewrite that was the wrong word to use though. It's just simply a rebirth, great storyline and hopefully will be appealing to Star Trek fans and the general public alike. We'll just have to wait and see there!

But absolutely great!

Tinder said...

I just got home from seeing Star Trek, and I think I'm more disappointed than impressed with the film.

I've never been a fan of the time-travel plot device; it is cheap. In this case it unravels existing Trek lore, and I just don't buy it.

The actors' portrayals of their parts felt to me more like characatures than reinterpretations, and there were too many self-conscious self-references: Kirk and the green alien, "dammit, I'm a doctor", "I'm giving it all she's got", "fascinating", Spock giving the transwarp equation to Scotty. It seemed the movie was trying to prove its legitimacy by using these quotes, but they were clumsily done.

Nimoy's performance was spot on, and Quinto did an excellent job portraying the earlier, less controlled Spock, but I'm sad to say that the best part of the movie for me was the brief scene where Kirk had his clothes off. Chris Pine makes great eye candy.

Paul Levinson said...

Tinder - I can understand (though disagree with) why someone might dislike the movie - but not that time-travel is a "cheap device".

You think "City on the Edge of Forever" and "Yesterday's Enterprise" were cheap?

But as for liking what Chris Pine looked like - hey, no need to be sad about it!


Forgot to say to Looper - great comment!

Anonymous said...

Well they promised something different. Just got home from watching this and though countless questions ran through my mind, I thoroughly enjoyed it. A whole film based on an alternate Universe which begins at Kirks birth. You have to hand it to them. I've pretty much self answered most of my questions in facing the fact that this is not the Star Trek we know, but one of countless possible Star Treks...pretty ingenious really. My only question now is...who will the Intendant be sleeping with in this Universe?

Unknown said...

Hi, When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I wasn't expecting to like the new Star Trek or even see it! Even after hearing quite favorable things about it from good friends of mine, I was completely blown away by this film!

I'm actually a little bit shocked that many people can't get past the time-line alteration. I've been a huge fan of Star Trek since age five, and I can't imagine a more effective way to reboot and re-energize the series! Think of it, now the future is unknown. Whole new world...worlds out there! Anything could happen! Come on people, Take an honest look at the old show! Yeah, I loved it growing up but come on....Would you like it to remain exactly how it was then?

Why not be grateful that there's a whole new Star Trek world. (One that is really quite respectful of the original characters that we all came to know and love) A world where we don't know everything that is about to happen? How boring is that? Does that really mean that the whole other time line didn't happen? Why would it mean that? They both happen. That's the beauty of it! I hear people hoping and wishing that they find a way to revert back to the old time line. To me that would be a total disaster! ....and destroy this marvelous new canvas for stories as of yet unfortold?

Another thing to consider: Star Trek was originally canceled! Why, because it didn't fit inside the familiar box of conventional expectation. I for one am blown away with the new movie and thrilled that the future fuzzy. How else can our beloved Enterprise "go where no one has gone before."

-Jude Spencer

Aristotle Dreher said...

Excellent Review! I enjoyed this movie thoroughly. It had everything that A summer blockbuster should have and it left me quite sated.

However, I must admit that I left the theater with very mixed feelings about Abrams' decision to wipe the slate clean and start this new/alternate Trek universe. The joy of being a full fledged Trekker is being able to cross-reference the cumulative minutia from the TV and Film Series!

This film wonderfully displayed the beloved character traits of each crew member, (even fleshed them out even more!) but I am forced to wonder, will the Enterprise again come in contact with Tribbles, or Kahn and the members of Botany Bay... and the Space Hippies... (on second thought, perhaps it's best that they never encounter the Space Hippies...)

In a way I am grieving the loss of the events of the old Star Trek canon, but I do look forward to seeing where this new incarnation will take us.



Anonymous said...

There's already one permanent alternative universe that's persistant through the whole star trek timeline and first appeared in The Original Series episode Mirror Mirror.
If you can accept that timeline, you should be able to accept the new movies timeline.

Hollywood Dick said...

It's not a question of accepting the altered timeline -- certainly we have had many Star Trek plots involving altered timelines. It's the destruction of an entire planet that I have a problem with. With a few mere keystrokes, the filmmakers blithely brush away an entire civilization, just so they can what? Not have to deal with a pre-existing canon of amazing stories, characters and ideas? I guess they got what they wanted, but I ask you -- at what cost?

At... what... cost?

Paul Levinson said...

Hollywood - here's something to consider -

In a universe in which time travel is practiced, and in which therefore timelines can be altered and whole planets destroyed, those same planets can be saved or retrieved from destruction, via another act of time travel.

I'm not saying that will or even should happen in Star Trek - only that death and eradication are not what they are in our universe, if we admit into that universe the possibilities of time travel...

(I'm working with a similar issue in the sequel to my novel, The Plot to Save Socrates)