The new Star Trek movie seems to have polarised people. It has been described as more of an action movie with a Star Trek theme than “true Star Trek”. I think this is a fair comment, but some people are horrified. Despite mediocre acting, predictable plots and lame dialogue, Star Trek had a Shakespearean quality in that it rarely fails to examine the human condition. This is what Trekkies mean when they say it isn’t “true Star Trek” and complain that JJ Abrams has reduced it to yet another action flick.
Others denounce this view as pretentious twaddle and applaud the movie precisely because it is a glossy action flick.
It has been observed that Into Darkness fails the Bechdel Test, which is to say that it fails to contain two women talking about anything unrelated to relationships, breeding or housekeeping for at least a minute. The original Trek series also generally fails this test, but it does have Lt Uhuru, who within the narrow scope of her duties and allowing for the hierarchy of command, is so consistently treated as an equal that Martin Luther King asked her to continue in the role when at the end of the first season she wanted to do something else (although he was more concerned with issues of race than of gender).
Trek is painted with bold strokes in primary colours. It makes deliberate use of stereotypes all the time, because they are iconic. Cheap special effects and a cast unchanging bar the red-shirts treating a handful of repeating themes (we’re the only ship in the sector – again) mean that like Kabuki, necessary but unimportant operational details are predictable and therefore do not occlude the issues actually under examination.
We’re the only ship in the sector – again!
The multi-nationality of the command deck was entirely intentional, and not at all subtle, especially in the sixties. On the other hand, all that equality notwithstanding, ultimate authority was given to someone who was white, male and conspicuously American. I don’t think Roddenberry intended to push this particular wagon, it merely reflects his prejudices. If he did, it was most likely a sop to the prejudices of his primary audience, who were and continue to be mostly American. It’s important to remember that the series was a commercial enterprise, if you’ll forgive a pun.
And so it is with the latest movie. This one is an undisguised remake of Wrath of Khan. In some ways this is an unsurprising choice: Wrath of Khan is widely regarded as the best of the Trek movies. Yet this guarantees comparison, which is unlikely to elicit favourable results.
The fans love Trek for its Shakespearean quality, even if they wouldn’t articulate it that way. If Paramount wants to turn Star Trek into a generic blockbuster, that is Paramount’s prerogative. The fan base won’t disappear, but it might go its own way. There’s already one Trek movie made without Paramount. They must have had permission from Paramount, because otherwise the copyright violations were legion, and there were actors from TOS, TNG, VOY and DS9 participating, including Chekov and Uhuru! For whatever reasons, Kirk and Spock chose not to be in it, but that just meant that finally there was a Trek movie that was about someone else.
It was called Of Gods and Men and it was the polar opposite of JJ Abrams’ treatment. The production values and acting were on par with TOS. The script was as absurd as any TOS episode, and in fact the villain was Gary Mitchell from Where No Man Has Gone Before, Kirk’s debut, as well as a villain from another episode who causes alternate history before redeeming himself in a giant deus ex machina of the type so common in vintage Trek.
Of Gods and Men is classic Trek
It sounds dreadful, but quite a bit of TOS is dreadful, and no less loved for it. But OGAM is rescued by two things: a stellar performance from Nichelle Nichols, and that Shakespearean consideration of the human condition that I keep mentioning. It was camp, it was predictable, yet through the banality shone the flame of the Trekkies’ certainty that the world can be a better place, and that they want to live in that better place.
Trekkies are fascinating people full of contradiction. They know that technology for its own sake can be a bad thing, and they desperately want to crew a starship (but not in a red shirt). They all think structure and rules are necessary, yet they all cheer every time Kirk chooses personal integrity over orders. They love Spock for knowing that the good of the many outweighs the good of the one, and they love Kirk for adding except when it doesn’t. Trek is irrepressible optimism: let’s see what’s out there!
For those who don’t know the lingo:
TOS – The Original Series
TNG – The Next Generation
VOY – Voyager
DS9 – Deep Space 9
OGAM – Of Gods and Men