...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, May 15, 2009

Day 3050: Start Wreck


ooo EEEE ooo!

Open hailing frequencies and set phasers to POPCORN! We've been to see Star Trek, the latest big screen adaptation of the adventures of Captain Quirk and his crew. This movie is EASY to sneak into, so long as you have TRANSPORTER TECHNOLOGY to BEAM you into the FRONT ROW!

We even got me a STAR FLEET UNIFORM for the occasion!

Red Shirt! That's GOOD isn't it?
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Anyway, this film had produced universal happiness and positive responses everywhere, so I shall let Daddy Richard write a review.

What could POSSIBLY go wrong…?

(spoilers follow)

Why did I come out of JJ Abrams' cartoon space romp with a sense of dissatisfaction? I tried talking it over with Alex.

Was it the direction? No.

Reviewers of Star Trek seem to have a penchant for referencing Abrams' previous big-screen adaptation of a cult Sixties series, namely Mission Impossible III. There's a tendency to describe MI-III as "underrated". It isn't underrated; it's just bad. It starts off like a rocket (and the opening gags, both in the German wind-farm and the Vatican, are good and original) but it rapidly runs out of fizz, as Tom Cruise jumps off yet another tall building and the ending trails away like an afterthought, or a task on The Apprentice where they've left no time to complete the final reel.

Thankfully, Star Trek is nothing like that. It was pacey, interesting if occasionally a touch ADD frenetic, but more importantly it started with a bang, before grounding us in the relationships of these people and building to a satisfying conclusion.

Was it the acting? Certainly not.

Karl Urban is uncanny in the role of DeForest Kelly, capturing his spirit perfectly: brilliant, irascible, capable of great acts of friendship and human enough to make mistakes. Zachary Quinto is always a delight to watch, even if his Spock couldn't quite escape the shadow of his Sylar (the Vulcan should never, ever have a "hint of a smile" expression, particularly not when it's a superhuman serial killer's trademark). Leonard Nimoy, however, is perfect, almost Zen-like in his portrayal of the old Spock, who has been though it all and achieved a balance and inner peace between his human and Vulcan heritages. Zoe Saldana, while completely different to the incomparable Nichelle Nichols (Alex says he saw something of a similarity in the eyes, occasionally), brought a beautiful fresh strength to the character, and was granted substantial sub-plots around her relationships with both Kirk and Spock. Like Mat, I was pleasantly surprised to come out without wanting to kill Simon Pegg, although it's irresistible to imagine David Tennant's Doctor saying to him: "No, no, don't do that!" (And just when did Scotty become the comic relief, anyway?) Anton Yelchin does not have the charm of Walter Koenig. He has his own charm, and should be allowed to play more of that, and not get lumbered with the "Wictor Wictor" jokes. Likewise, John Cho does not have the charm of George Takai. In the absence of character, they gave him a sword fight. (A clue: that is not fencing.) And Chris Pine did perfectly well in the role of Ethan Hunt.

Did the recasting itself matter? Alex said that he had long since come to terms with the idea that this was Star Fleet Muppet Babies. I can understand that people might find this tricky. For years Star Trek has prospered by finding new crews to fill its starships, finding new combinations to explore. But that in itself becomes formulaic: the emotional one, the logical one, the captain in the middle – they've rung different changes on these through The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and the rest. Another crew would just be Kirk, Spock and all in drag again.

And of course the idea of going back to the beginning is to reach out beyond the core audience. It's to tell a story for those with a vague memory that goes Star Trek/Kirk/Spock space stuff. That's what means that doing a Star Trek movie with another new crew, even one that had – say – George Takei as Captain of the Excelsior or Jonathan Franks commanding the Titan, wouldn't work. It wouldn't be in the sense of folk memory Star Trek.

Was it the visual effects, then? No, on the whole they were spiffy.

The shape of the Enterprise, allegedly more curvaceous than is seemly, didn't bother me in the slightest.

Having said that, all those different shaped starships, with wings and multiple nacelles and the rest, bugged me out enormously. There's no sense that this Star Fleet of ships have evolved with a history. The USS Kelvin, from 25 years earlier, looks right it looks like a less advanced design from which the Enterprise will later emerge. But the fleet that leaves for Vulcan with the Enterprise, they're just a mish-mash of designs as though someone took a look at the design board and said, "Let's do EVERYTHING!"

And it wasn't exactly a problem, but boy did the fleet going to warp look just like something out of Star Wars. With Ambassador Spock's flyer looking suspiciously like the Gungan Bongo Submarine from the Phantom Menace, of course.

The big spiky Romulan ship is a very nice big spiky Romulan ship, much nicer than the one in Nemesis and one that might vaguely have come from the same culture as the Romulan Warbirds of the Next Generation era. Vaguely. Its interior was rather "mysterious vast alien space", somewhat after V'ger, but it worked well enough for running and jumping around.

The transporter effect has a very nice feel to it, like little particles flying into place as they build you up from a giant jigsaw. Sulu's retractable sword was rather silly but the effect worked, in fact the whole diving onto the mining platform sequence was brilliantly done.

And Saturn was lovely. Even if ploughing into it (or possibly Titan) at warp speed ought to have made more of a "bang!"

Perhaps it was the plot? Hmmmm, that depends…

Back in the Twentieth Century, as radiation-powered super-turkey "Godzilla" (US abomination version) was hitting cinemas under the slogan "Size Matters", Lucasfilm, then putting the finishing touches to "Star Wars, Episode I, will this title never end, the Phantom Menace", briefly put up on their website the vainglorious response: "Plot Matters".

But look how well that turned out!

The Phantom Menace is, as any fule nose, the third movie from the Lucas' stable with the same plot as Return of the Jedi and Star Wars, just with first muppets and then CGI frogs standing in for the Rebel Alliance for the "blow up the spherical-spacecraft-in-orbit at the end" bit.

But to my mind "plot" just means the sequence of events that the characters have to pass through; story is the thing that you care about, it is, if you'll forgive the cliché, the journey that the characters go on, not just the places they visit (and, yes, I'm aware that E M Forster may have had it the other way around).

JJ Abrams has apparently never seen the immediately-preceding movie in the franchise, Star Trek: Nemesis. Which is a shame, or he'd have known that his plot – Romulan with big spiky ship plans to go Death Star on the Earth while riffing on The Wrath of Khan – was oddly familiar.

(It is, as I said, a very nice big spiky ship. But even so…)

But is that what is important? When, because they are telling different stories, the whole character of the two movies couldn't be more different.

Star Trek: Nemesis is all shades of grey – not the moral dilemmas, the colour palette. Grey uniforms and gloomy shadows are the order of the day. It's as if it's self-consciously trying to feel end-of-an-era; far from being a meditation on aging (as the similarly plotted Wrath of Khan) it sometimes seems like an attempt to just wrap everything up. With the cast all starting to get a little bit too old for this sort of thing and on television Enterprise bolding journeying to the bottom of the ratings, there was much talk of "too much Star Trek".

In contrast, Star Trek (2009) is full of primary colours and brightly lit, whether it's the stark whites of the bridge or sunlit Vulcan or also-sunlit San Francisco. Even the ice-planet Delta Vega is brilliant white with a dash of scarlet space-monster.

And it's all about beginnings, opening with Kirk's birth (in battle, no less) and his joining the Star Fleet Academy and Spock's decision to join Star Fleet, and then on to the "first mission". Everything is about the future opening up to these people, whether it's Spock's cautious, logical planning or Kirk's gung-ho barrelling into it.

Positivity suffuses this movie, and that's a good thing.

In fact, it's a bit of a laugh, even though the whole of the backstory is palpably dreadful: the galaxy being threatened by a supernova is pulp SF of the worst kind, shockingly misunderstanding the differences in scale between these two phenomena. If you are going to use real science terms, it is too much to ask the writer for a ten-second search on the Wikipedia?

And even Nimoy can't save exposition as dreadful as "suddenly, the worst happened… Romulus was destroyed!"

What? How? What? Was it Romulus' own star that was going supernova? You do know that a supernova is an exploding star, don't you, JJ? So this solution to save the galaxy by turning it into a black hole… not looking much good for Romulus anyway, was it? Also, you've forgotten Remus altogether, haven't you. (Which is ironic given that in part, Star Trek: Nemesis was about how pissed the Remans were that everyone kept forgetting about them.)

None of that really seems to matter, though, when were racing along with such glee.

Meanwhile, "Red Matter" scores huge marks on the "drive Lawrence Miles nuts" scale, being clearly drawn from the same well as the mysterious, all-powerful and probably imaginary "Red Uranium" macguffin from "This Town Will Never Let Us Go". "Nahhh," says Alex, "surely it's from Bugs' Red Mercury!"

And clearly someone has been using the Infinite Improbability Drive in this universe, because the chances of Spock marooning Kirk not merely on the same planet as but within walking distance of where Nero has marooned the time/dimension-warped Ambassador Spock has to measure in the "ooh, that's a bit unlikely" range.

(Also, we get a flashback of Spock looking up and seeing Vulcan implode in the sky above him which is clearly ripped off from staring up at the Death Star explosion at the end of Return of the Jedi. Now, I'm not much of an astronomer, but neither Mars nor Venus are that large in the Earth's sky… so we're basically saying that Delta Vega is Vulcan's moon. And therefore, very much likely to be heading into that same black hole any time now.)

(Of course, back in the "real" universe of classic Star Trek, in "The Man Trap", there's a lovely flirtatious scene between Spock and Uhura where she asks him if he's never gazed up at the moon. "Vulcan has no moon," states Spock unemotionally. I suppose now, instead of the classy "I'm not surprised, Mr Spock," Uhura will have to answer "No, you berk, because it got foomed with the rest of your stupid homeworld". Sigh.)

And there are some good sci-fi ideas, even "Star Trek" ideas, in the mix too. That the Romulan invader isn't an almighty warship from the future, merely a mining ship that came back in time by accident is really quite smart. Imagine a super-tanker from today finding itself confronting the Pirates of the Caribbean… yes, you're quite right, the pirates would have cannons and the super-tanker wouldn't. But the Romulans are a pretty piratical bunch themselves, maybe they're happy for their merchant fleet to carry torpedoes.

Similarly, when Spock starts behaving in a fashion that has Alex going, "er, er, I'm sure even Star Fleet wouldn't let him do that" (though remember, we've seen Star Fleet's "correctional planets") the film has an answer for him: he's quite right, and Kirk proving to Spock that the Vulcan is emotionally compromised is a key turning point.

Mind you, you would have thought that somebody could have mentioned to the director that time/space anomalies are not exactly the cutting-edge of "new" among the Star Trek stories of this world.

Add to that, they even "hang a lantern" on the whole cliché when young Kirk says to old Spock: "isn't going back in time to give yourself the answer cheating?"

Was it that it wasn't "Star Trek" enough?

Well, in the sense that Star Trek ought to be about exploration, new worlds, new civilisations rather than big space battles then that is true.

But it's also true of Star Trek's II and VI which are arguably the best of the breed.

Ironically, Star Trek, The Motionless Picture (new life form), Star Trek III, the Search for Plot (strange new world) and Star Trek V (where no one has gone before) are closer to what Star Trek ought to be about than the, er, good ones. I'll kind of let Star Trek IV get away with it because treating 1980s California as a "strange new world" is part of the joke.

What many people would say, though, is that Star Trek is about the human relationships of the crew. In that sense, The Wrath of Khan (Kirk deals with growing old, his own metaphorical Kobyashi Maru) and The Undiscovered County (Kirk faces his own prejudices) are very Star Trek.

Judged by that standard, this movie was a little hit-and-miss. The drawing together of the crew, Kirk's instant friendship with McCoy contrasted with Uhura's coolness and Spock's outright animosity, form a solid backbone, but it equally lacks a true emotional through-line. Kirk is a cocky bastard right from the start (especially in the Anakin Skywalker sulky-teenager scene – what exactly was that supposed to add?) and is still a cocky bastard at the end. He doesn't appear to learn anything, and the other crew members don't so much come to admire him as acquiesce to his Captaincy. No, that's unfair: the do come to admire him, just for no particularly obvious reason. Maybe they all have Stockholm Syndrome by the end.

Was it the pick'n'mix approach to continuity, then?

I have to admit that this may have left me irked. It's funny little things, things that are out of place, or rather in place for no reason other than to say "hey, I watched the DVD of The Wrath of Khan".

Young Spock gets to play Saavik to his (sort-of) older self when he complains "you lied" and Nimoy gets to find new ways of saying "moi?". Similarly, Spock gives the young Scotty the secret of his big discovery, just as Scotty gave the inventor of transparent aluminium the secret of his big discovery back in The Voyage Home. And when Sulu tries to put the Enterprise in gear for the first time he stalls her, just like the Excelsior did in The Search for Spock. And Romulan commander Nero (you're kidding, right? No, that is his name) tortures Captain Pike with those beetle/scorpion/bug things from Ceti Alpha Five that kept Khan amused.

Is this homage or just grinding lack of originality? Am I supposed to be impressed by these "kisses to the past" or just think that you're rummaging through the series' locker for the good bits to pilfer?

Returning to The Wrath of Khan, though, the recurring motif in the film is the Kobayashi Maru test, which Saavik takes at the start and Spock passes at the end. During the film it is revealed that Kirk took the test three times and on the third go, he beat it. He beat it by reprogramming the computer, by cheating, but nevertheless he beat the unbeatable test because – and this is the message of his life, but more importantly almost the whole point of Star Trek – he doesn't believe in the no-win scenario. Optimism wins.

As a key plot point in a movie about facing the inevitable and not giving up your optimism, about going through hell and feeling young at the end, that is a thing of legend.

It is crushingly banal to actually show us the test.

Worse than that, to show us a test where "cocky bastard" Kirk is completely cock-sure that he is going to win and doesn't bother to hide it and, worse, where his win is so blatantly a cheat. The simulator hiccoughs and the Klingon warbirds' shields are down. Excuse me? He might as well have just stood up and announced "Computer, execute Kirk Hack Code One!"

(And while we're on the subject, Klingon warships are called "battlecruisers"; it's Romulan warships that are called "Warbirds". Why does this bug me more than the similar error of calling the Klingon scout a "Bird of Prey" from Star Trek III onwards?)

Alex puts forward the idea that in the "real" Star Trek universe the "real" Kirk did beat the test with a solution that was worthy of a "commendation for original thinking". But this Kirk is different: he's had a different upbringing without the influence of his father. The George Kirk of this universe died on the USS Kelvin. So this Kirk is arrogant and cocky and responds aggressively and not necessarily wisely. And so, rather than beating the test, he's actually doing this so blatantly as a deliberate act of defiance, a massive "giving the finger" to the test he doesn’t believe in.

And this, I think, brings us to the answer we arrived at as to why this Star Trek, which I enjoyed, which amused me, entertained me, even moved me occasionally, left me with the feeling that it was hollow.

The problem for me is not the convoluted time travel / dimension jump to a parallel universe plotline. It's not that the approach to continuity is either slipshod or worse deliberately slipshod.

The answer that we settled on is slightly more subtle than that.

It's that the film makes a point of using its plot, in fact the entire point of its plot is to say: "hey folks, we're in a different Universe so the continuity doesn't apply to us!"

There is a point to watching The Wrath of Khan beyond seeing Enterprise and Reliant duke it out – brilliantly choreographed, and far better than anything here, though that space battle is.

There is no similar point to watching JJ Abrams' Star Trek.

Allow me to digress…

In the long twilight of Doctor Who, between the Paul McGann movie and the Russell Davies renaissance, there came a massive two-book story by Lawrence Miles called "Interference".

In the midst of an adventure where the eighth Doctor gets locked up interminably (again) and Faction Paradox kidnap his companions, where the better bits are in fact an extended adventure for K-9 and Company, seemingly incidentally the Doctor crosses his timeline with that of his third incarnation. And then at the end of the story, the third Doctor gets shot dead and regenerates. Without ever going near Metebelis III. With nary a whiff of a Giant Spider.

"Interference" is a story with… issues. Should it be mentioned in our flat, we will often immediately quote either Sutekh from "Pyramids of Mars" – "There is…[voice trembles with rage] …Interference!" – or Professor Bernice Summerfield from "The Shadow of the Scourge" – "Damn! Interference!"

Funny story: "Goddess, that Interference is awful" says I, loudly, at the Fitzroy Tavern surrounded by Who fans. "Oh yes, why?" says the terribly nice author standing immediately behind me who was, frankly, ever so good enough not to hit me for bad-mouthing his book…

My problem at the time with "Interference" centred on the fact that I was assuming that there was supposed to be a causal connection between the actions of the Doctor in his eighth self and the change to the fate of his third self. And there wasn't.

(Actually, apart from the Doctor appearing as a ghost to his earlier self, there is another connection, namely the eighth Doctor's companion Fitz who, by a route too ludicrously circuitous to describe, arrives a thousand years later in the third Doctor's adventure as the villain. But he doesn't cause the third Doctor to be there, nor does he materially affect the course of events nor make any use of foreknowledge to change things. So, as I say, the eighth Doctor's adventure doesn't cause the change in the third Doctor's story.)

But what Lawrence was trying to do, and what he patiently explained to me, was that he wanted to be able to write past Doctor stories where anything could happen because we were not constrained by "knowing how everyone died".

Well now, in part I would fault that because it slightly presupposes that the only merit in a book is in not knowing how it will end, which kind of negates the pleasure of re-reading something. And there's a great many tragedies written where you know what the ending is going to be. But really, I would say, if that's what you want to do, then just call it "Doctor Who Unbound" and do it! Don't lumber yourself, and all the rest of us, with a hundred and sixty thousand words of justification for why you are allowed to do it.

Furthermore, since nobody else was onboard with Larry's ideas, we were left with a great big lurching paradox (that wasn't an actual paradox, says Alex, because that nothing from the future caused it; it was merely a contradiction) that no one knew how to handle, eventually leading a year later to the range editor wiping all continuity and blowing up Gallifrey – a process known colloquially as "foom".

And that's pretty much what JJ Abrams has done in this movie. He has made it quite explicit that Ambassador Spock does not travel back in time; he travels to an alternative reality, one that is very similar to the Star Trek universe, but where everything is slightly different.

And, of course, he underlines his point by giving Vulcan the "foom" treatment. It is impossible for Ambassador Spock to come from the future of this universe because the black hole that brought him here was formed by Red Matter made at the Vulcan Science Academy. On Vulcan. Which no longer exists.

So basically, this isn't Star Trek… this is Star Trek: Interference.

To which again I say: that's nice, but did you really need a hundred and fifty million dollars to tell me that?

1 comment:

Unwired said...

This film is a travesty. :-)