Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Review - Star Trek ***

It was a low-budget space adventure series from the sixties that was cancelled after only three seasons. It was camp, the acting was rigid and the actors themselves insufferable, the costumes deliberately provocatively revealing and impractical, and the planets that the intrepid crew visited were about six feet square and made of polystyrene. Sometimes, alien creatures were actors wearing blankets. Oh, and the fans turned out to have a strong tendency to dress up in costume and write their own fiction, some of it very unsavoury.

Yet it is arguably one of the biggest cultural influences of our times, thanks in large part to the cultish band of fans who went on to become film and television show producers themselves - including Matt Groening, creator of that other primary-coloured tele-cultural phenomenon. It was an optimistic and inspiring vision of a future in which the good guys all got along with each other, lending a firm but gentle hand to developing civilisations, and successfully repelling the advances of the warrior enemies. It inspired NASA to name its prototype Space Shuttle "Enterprise", and Richard Branson did the same with his Virgin Galactic spacecraft. It was done in good humour and often tried to push boundaries. And it has given us instantly recognisable cultural references and aphorisms, from Klingons to "Beam me up Scotty" and that famous split infinitive.

I believe I grew up at the right time to be a fan of Star Trek. The original 1960s series played throughout my childhood and while I always found the jelly-bats and shape-shifting salt-monsters very disturbing, it was entertaining teatime fare. Most of the political subtext of the series went well over my young head - even when the politics become ridiculously overt. There was often a strong tendency for Spock to say something like:

"Fascinating, Captain. This planet appears to be an exact duplicate of Earth of the 1960s."

During my teenage years, through The Next Generation and Voyager, much of the original series' optimism and hope for the future was evident. For a geeky awkward teenager, these were great escapist fantasies. I never liked Deep Space 9 much, simply because its vision was that much darker. It was the spirit of adventure that I enjoyed, the exploration, the discovery and the diplomacy - not the endless space battles, however spectacular the new era of special effects made them.

At the time, there didn't seem much to be learned from Star Trek, beyond the fact that one should not wear a red shirt on an away mission to a strange planet. Did it shape my personal politics? My choice of career? Quite possibly, if only because of the other people I was hanging around with. At the time, I probably didn't often share this information outside of a small group that I identified as being at least as keen on Trek as me, but the fact is, I was quite a long way down the road that led to genuine Trek obsession. I owned the original James Blish short-story anthologies of the original series; the official encyclopaedia; a communicator badge; a board game and a Trek edition of Trivial Pursuit; a starship on a keychain; and an alarm clock which awoke me with a violent start every morning, a loud voice booming:

"Landing party to Enterprise. Beam us up, Scotty!"

followed swiftly by a bright light shining down from the model "Enterprise" onto the "planet" below and into my sleepy eyes.

I went to watch First Contact in Leicester Square on its opening day and sat behind a man dressed in an astonishing recreation of a Borg costume. I even once went to see Star Trek: the Stage Play, which was surprisingly good fun, if only because it too had planets that were about six feet square and clunky special effects.

To me, the decline of Star Trek as a franchise exactly mirrored the end of that particular stage in my personal life. There was no sudden transition; simply that the film Nemesis wasn't very good; Voyager came to an end; and the new series, Enterprise, wasn't very accessible. My interest in Star Trek waned exactly as I was discovering interesting new things: (proper) films, art, alcohol, music and, to a very limited extent, girls.

By then, it was readily apparent that Star Trek was a joke to many people. "Trekkie" was and is a pejorative term, referring to obsessive, pasty, overweight teens who spent their waking hours discussing the minutiae of warp drive theory and unhealthily fantasising about female cast members, even those who, objectively and with hindsight, weren't really all that attractive. Really.

Consequently, the increasing self-awareness that comes with age and life-experience should enable the reformed Trek-fan to regard his own wasted teenage years with a mixture of bemused horror; memories that are embarrassing rather than fond. We fans have latterly been encouraged to laugh at ourselves and at the seriousness with which we regarded a simple piece of entertainment.

In the film Galaxy Quest, a bunch of washed-up television actors from a cancelled, campy sci-fi series are identified by real passing aliens as space adventurers and are "beamed up" in an attempt to avert an inter-planetary war. The fictional television series in the film has many unsubtle parallels to the Star Trek phenomenon, from the fractious interplay between its leading actors to knowing references to the disposability of the lesser-known cast members. As viewers, it helped to skewer our own pomposity, as well as that of the actors; the film relies upon at least some familiarity with the Trek canon in general and fandom in particular. Yet it is gentle satire rather than cruel parody, treating the fans with some respect: it is still a good sci-fi romp in its own right and the geeky teenagers get to help save the day at the end.

For years, the original Trek actors have been living with the millstones of their early roles around their necks. What should have been three years of work at the beginning of long careers has turned into an endless cycle of guest appearances at fan conventions, where they are asked fatuous questions about fictional scenarios. Leonard Nimoy attempted to set the record straight with an autobiography entitled "I Am Not Spock". He followed this, several years later, with another volume called "I Am Spock" when he realised that that is what everybody wanted to read about.

Famously, William Shatner told fans to "get a life" (an incident mirrored in Galaxy Quest). Whether he said this because Shatner takes himself far too seriously or whether he in fact is "in on the joke" is a matter for debate. This is, after all, a man whose personal website is called The Shatner Project. The Guardian's TV Blog posits the theory that:

"William Shatner may be a living joke, but his dignity, not to say his genius, is that he's the one telling it."

The burden of Star Trek to its performers is eternal. For its fans, however, its legacy is like that of a long-running comic book series. They feel it very personally if any detail is wrong - as another scene in Galaxy Quest depicts, as one group of fans asks the erstwhile "captain", whose patience is running short:

"In The Quasar Dilemma, you used the auxiliary of deck B for Gamma override. The thing is that online blueprints indicate deck B is independent of the guidance matrix, so we were wondering where the error lies? ‘Cause we were wondering if the quantum flux, now just listen on this..."

We've heard the shrieking of fans when "their" show, "their" comic or computer game, "their" characters are altered outside of very narrow parameters. For every Batman Begins there's a Hulk; for every Spider-Man there's a Tomb Raider. The dilemma for filmmakers is obvious: the new film must feel fresh and must be a break from the previous unsuccessful, unsatisfying installment - yet it must be true to the mythology that has grown up around the franchise. What would fans make of a revitalised Star Trek movie? What would reformed ex-fans make of it?

The burden of expectation is naturally great. Reviews so far have been overwhelmingly positive; but who is writing the reviews? And who is actually going to see the film? Fans of the original series? When did it suddenly become OK to be, and to admit to being, that fat, obsessive, teenage archetype? Or is this simply a good action film that happens to have some familiar elements? In which case, why are the fans not up in arms?

From what I heard prior to seeing the film, the plot builds-in an explanation for any discrepancies that arise between this "rebooted" episode and "classic Trek", in the form of an alternative reality. This, I feared, was a massive cop-out and possibly unnecessary. It is akin to finishing a work of surrealist literature with the words "... and then he woke up."

In my view, belief can be adequately suspended without having to jump through plot hoops. In fact, in recent times, these so-called "reboots" have been a useful device for covering up the inadequacies of earlier parts of the franchise. How we all wish that Batman Begins were the sequel to Batman Returns and not Batman And Robin. And wouldn't the Superman series be significantly improved if we could skip straight from Superman 2 to Superman Returns? Fans don't complain about the fact that there have been a dozen different James Bonds, including Bob "Blockbusters" Holness on the radio. Enjoying Casino Royale doesn't mean that there is no longer any pleasure to be had in watching Dr. No, even if the later film has key inconsistencies with its predecessors.

In fact, as a plot device, the "alternate reality" thing works quite plausibly within the context of the established Star Trek rules of physics. It is more of a leap to retrofit this new knowledge into what we already know. For example, this alternate timeline explains why Kirk is so impetuous and also how the classic crew first come together aboard the Enterprise. This therefore raises the questions: Why in the original timeline was Kirk so impetuous? And how could the crew possibly have come together without the sequence of events precipitated by this change of history?

Of course, this film doesn't seek to answer such questions, and nor should it. By my own reasoning, the plot merely has to be self-consistent. Unfortunately, it isn't. Even by the standards of most action adventure movies, there are some intensely awkward coincidences and contrivances. It would spoil the film to enumerate them all here, but among the most jarring is the fact that the Enterprise, the brand new fleet flagship, ends up being crewed entirely by cadets. Even acknowledging the real world's history of sending woefully underprepared young people into battle in deperate circumstances, it is preposterous in the extreme to suggest that the most senior person aboard capable of command would be Jim Kirk, a hot-tempered, pugilistic cadet, who has just been suspended from the Academy. Besides which, the argument used for displacing the previous incumbent in the captain's chair - that he was emotionally compromised - would surely have applied just as equally to Kirk himself as he prepared to battle the man that killed his father. This Cadet Kirk is effectively a pirate, lying, deposing, fighting and swaggering his way to the top of the hierarchy.

This is only one example of the non sequiturs encountered. One should not have to spend time watching a film - a fantasy film, of all things - wondering how or why something has occurred. Why are starships being assembled on Earth when canon and common sense both indicate that they are constructed in space? Why were the Vulcans - a highly technologically advanced species - sitting around doing nothing while their planet was attacked? How is it that Spock, a man never known to have made the slightest flaw in logic or calculation, manages to be the catalyst to such a tragic train of events?

The film darts from being faithful to its source to being borderline disrespectful. This is true in broad plot points, in overall tone and in fine detail. From the perspective of a fan, the worst crime this film can commit is to change established conventions or characterisations for the worse, particularly as it has ample opportunity to improve upon the original.

The Enterprise itself is gorgeously rendered. In the original series, budget concerns meant that there were a few stock shots of a lumbering, awkward craft; here, it moves gracefully and powerfully through three-dimensional space. It is, literally, the Enterprise as it has never been seen before. It is, at long last, a wholly plausible design for a spacecraft. Where before there was an unreliable video screen on the bridge, now there is a window with a head-up display. The doors leading onto the bridge incorporate an airlock. Computer control panels are as complex as you would imagine, but the helm has ergonomic flight controls. In the engineering section, there seem to be actual engines. There is plumbing and ducting, not just blinking lights.

Another delight was to see a shipboard romance blossom. It had been alluded to a couple of times in the classic series but never followed up, presumably because only Kirk was ever allowed to have a love interest. Here, it added an extra dimension to otherwise well-known characters.

Overall, the characterisations are a mixed bag. Spock is indeed the Spock we have come to know through the original series and numerous guest appearances in the spin-off series. Kirk is a plausible extension of the known character, based on his changed personal circumstances under the new timeline. Uhura and Chekov have slightly more back-story, all fitting within the canon. Sulu is perhaps a little under-developed, but does nothing out of character.

Scotty and Bones fare less well. Bones persistently sounds like he is doing a poor impression of Richard Nixon a la Futurama, but worse, it is not really clear why he is always present. In the original series, he was persistently on the bridge because of his close friendship with Kirk; here, he seems always to be in the right place, but never for adequately explained reasons. Scotty, meanwhile, is lacking his jovial swagger.

Star Trek often, although not always, had some comic relief. In the movie, this is decidedly hit-and-miss. Scotty's jubilation at successfully operating the transporter, while clearly intended to raise a laugh, didn't; and his sidekick strayed into dangerous Jar Jar Binks territory. Overall, however, the film does not take itself too seriously and there are a handful of genuine laughs to be had.

But always, we return to these inexplicable gaps in logic where the fan is left wondering why. Here's an example:

It's an established "fact" - legend, even - of the Star Trek universe that Kirk is the only Academy cadet ever to beat the simulation of the "Kobayashi Maru" no-win scenario, in which a mission to rescue the titular stricken vessel becomes an unescapable Klingon ambush. Kirk beat the system by covertly reprogramming the computer so that it was possible to beat the enemy ships and rescue the hostages. However, the exact nature of his hack wasn't known. For his efforts and lateral thinking, he was awarded a commendation.

There are many possible, subtle ways he could have gone about bending the rules of the simulation, and for examples I defer to the Star Trek wiki, Memory Alpha:

He makes the Klingons believe he was a famous starship captain and surrendered. [Or] He introduced slight weaknesses in the Klingon ships' shields that he could later exploit. [Or] He makes it possible to establish that the rescue mission is a trap and thus justifies blowing up the stricken ship.

So in our reboot, how is the simulation corrupted? He switches off the enemy vessels' shields and blows them up. This doesn't show that Kirk is a brilliant strategist or that he "doesn't believe in a no-win scenario", as he explains in The Wrath Of Khan. Instead, it proves beyond doubt that he is an arrogant, opportunist jackass who richly deserves the suspension that he receives.

And this, ultimately, is the most significant failing of the film: Far from being a charismatic hero, Kirk is unbearable; unlikeable, even. We are supposed to presume that this film is an immediate prequel to his famous "five-year mission", yet it is completely apparent that he is too rough-hewn, too impulsive and too prone to violence and lawlessness to be allowed to lead what is, after all, a diplomatic and scientific mission

...to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations...

Worse still, the bad guy - we know he's bad not only because he's attacking Federation starships, but also because he has a tattoo, which is a clear indicator - actually has an understandable reason for his hatred. A film is in a dire state indeed when it is possible for the audience to muster more empathy for the villain than the hero.

Under the circumstances, when old Spock begins to intone the famous introductory words, at the end of the film:

Space: The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise...

it actually stops sounding meaningful and starts to sound twee instead. The filmmakers didn't use the opportunity for the new boy Kirk to step into his predecessor's shoes, which would have been quite suitable; imagine a space cadet venturing out into the galaxy for the first time and saying those words with true wonderment and with hope for the future. Instead, Spock gets to recite them, more-or-less exactly as he did at the end of The Wrath Of Khan; the difference being, on that occasion, he was actually dead.

Does Star Trek work as a simple adventure? Divorced from the baggage of forty years and the weight of the expectations of millions of fans, is it a better film than I have intimated? It's pretty clear that I am not in a position to judge that. The otherwise positive reviews it is getting, including those from my fellow cinemagoers, would indicate that it is. And in truth, I did not dislike it too awfully, despite its plot contortions; it is actually only a handful of geeky details to which I most object. At the very least, it gives me hope that a renewed series of films can be as complex and as spectacular as they always aspired to be.