Star Trek and Me
My personal experience with the rebooted Star Trek universe, what it means to me, and why I'm particularly excited for the newest film.
2009's Star Trek remains the single most memorable theatrical experience of my life. In addition to that, it also holds a special place in my personal life as well. So, for multiple reasons, I find myself very excited to get out to see "Star Trek into Darkness" this Friday. Here's why:
Part 1 - The Build Up
I’ll never forget it. It was May of 2009, the end of junior year at the University of Iowa, and my best friend John and I were in the middle of getting ready for finals. One night, after all studying had been completed, we were passing the time sitting on a couple of parking curbs outside his dorm, when we saw a couple of cute girls walking by whom John happened to know. He said hello and introduced me to Alissa and Sara, and we got to talking to them. We all ended up hanging out inside John’s dorm room that night playing board games, while Alissa and I discovered a mutual love for singing Disney songs. At the end of the night, the four of us were making plans to celebrate the end of finals together by all going out to a movie. The movie in question: Star Trek.
Ugh. Did I ever have anything to say about that. The film had already been out for a couple of weeks, and I had yet to see it. The fact that I had not yet been to the latest film bearing the title “Star Trek” was downright unthinkable. After all, I was currently a good ways into a mission to watch every single episode of every single Star Trek series ever. I was already long done with the original series and into The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. I was a bona fide, legitimate Trekkie. But when it came to this film, I was, simply put, not very interested in rushing out to see it. And believe me, my roommate had gotten the full earful of why.
I remember when it was announced that J.J. Abrams, creator of the hit series “Alias” and “Lost” would be directing the next Star Trek film, set to be a prequel. Just from that news alone, I could have lost all my fanboy wits. At the time, Abrams was not yet considered the god of all sci-fi that he is today, and in fact, there were plenty of geeks like myself who had plenty of reason to despise him. After all, he had almost destroyed Superman.
Any Superman fan who was around from 2002 to 2004 knows the horror that was J.J. Abram’s never-produced screenplay. At the time, Hollywood had been trying to get a fifth Superman film made for the better part of ten years and, after a half a dozen different scripts having been thrown out, were now using one by a pre-Lost Abrams, then known mostly for creating Alias. A short time into pre-production, the script leaked into the hands of the folks at Aint it Cool News and its chief editor Drew McWeeny, AKA Moriarty. McWeeny then posted a thorough and particularly scathing review of the script, which neither he, nor seemingly anyone else on the internet, was very happy about.
Abrams had sought to do his own “retelling” of the classic Superman story. In his vision, the planet Krypton was not destroyed, but rather, had been the victim of a civil war, and was now in the hands of an evil warlord. Little baby Kal-El was said-warlord’s nephew and a prophesied savior who was rocketed to Earth for protection, so that he may one day return to deliver his people from his evil uncle.
After being raised on Earth and becoming some version of the hero we know, Clark Kent is beset by enemies from his own world, including mid-air martial arts battles with his cousin, as well as a corrupt CIA agent named Lex Luthor. In the end, Luthor himsel is revealed to be an evil Kryptonian, and has his-own mid-air battle with the Man of Steel, before Supes wins the day and departs Earth to fight in the revolution to free Krypton, setting the scene for a potential trilogy.
News of the script’s contents spread fast and there soon ended up being an online petition, which received over a million signatures, to halt any and all progress on the film before production could even start.
Albeit for separate reasons than an online petition signed by an army of nerds, production was eventually halted on said film and that script was thrown out in favor of director Bryan Singer’s vision, which became Superman Returns in 2006.
Nevertheless, what could have been had left a bitter taste in many mouths. It was clear to me that this man had no respect for source material, and the thought of what he had in store for my beloved Star Trek was downright terrifying. But he would only be directing it, not writing it.
Enter Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. This pair of writers had penned episodes of “Alias” for Abrams, and were now assigned the task of writing his Star Trek film. I was not hopeful. I had seen the films that they had written before. One was The Legend of Zorro, the sequel to The Mask of Zorro. Whereas the original remains, in my book, one of the most charming and wonderful adventure films of all time, and one of my personal favorite movies, the sequel had degenerated into a bad combination of a sub-par plot and idiotic humor. Their latest effort had been 2007’s Transformers, the film I had been most excited to see in 2007. In an abysmally depressing year full of things like Spider-Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Transformers was the film that I knew wouldn’t let me down. That is, until I found out it was a convoluted mess of useless characters, shameless military propaganda, and, once again, seemingly endless idiotic humor. As a comic book and sci-fi fan, I know that, with the wrong writers or director, the adaptations of our favorite worlds and characters far too often completely miss the mark. And things were not looking up for the newest Star Trek film.
In addition to all of that, I had to wonder: How on Earth does one make a prequel to Star Trek? Are you telling me this guy is going to be the one to recast and redo such beloved roles as these? He wants to take someone who is not William Shatner and try to pass him off as Jim Kirk in his own little vision for Star Trek? To me, this was tantamount to blasphemy.
By May of 2009, we had seen the cast come together, filming wrap up, and the commercials hit. It claimed to be a prequel, featuring villains coming back through time from the “Next Generation” era. But due to the obvious change in production design, it was clear, despite all claims otherwise, that it could not be an in-continuity prequel. No, this was a Hollywood remake. After forty years, five television series, and ten movies, these people, Abrams and company, were rebooting Star Trek! How dare they? My only question was, how could Leonard Nimoy involve himself with something this offensive? It was he who I was, quite possibly, most angry with.
But, with all that said, I was not planning on never watching the movie. Eventually, I would have to see it, just to see how bad it was. And this, I suppose was the perfect opportunity.
Now, in the midst of all that negativity, I was actually having a good night. John and I studied well for our Spanish final together. He finished first, and went to wait outside. I remember handing in my own test, and walking outside to see John jumping up and down yelling “We’re seniors!” Of course, I joined in the jumping, and we prepared for a night out with a couple of cute girls. Who knew, maybe the film itself would be all right. I myself rode there with Alissa and continued to get to know this interesting new woman. She was a fellow lover of sci-fi, and had a relative working knowledge of Star Trek. I’m sure I probably told her all about my thoughts on the movie we were going to, and we probably discussed some of the finer points of the franchise. We were already having fun by the time all four of us mozied on into the theater and took our seats. I was resigned to experience yet another two hours of filmmakers screwing up the characters and the world to which they were entrusted. I’d seen it happen a million times. This was just the next one.
Never, before or since that night have I given a film a standing ovation. But two hours later, I was on my feet clapping.
Part 2 - The Film
Of course, one of the first things I noticed was that the time travel plot involved here did, in fact, work in this context, the bad guys changing the timeline from the time Kirk is a child. Okay, so this really was more of a sequel than anything else, an in-continuity reboot. It still seemed strange, I’m sure, but I guessed I could work with that for now. I watched, and I was entertained. And at some point, I cannot pinpoint exactly where during the course of those two hours, something hit me: This was a fantastic movie!
I commented that I’ve seen, a million times, writers and directors screw up certain characterizations, getting everything wrong. But I don’t think I’d ever before seen them get everything so right! Not only did this film adapt each and every character, and every character relationship, well, but it did so in a way that reminded me what was great about it all in the first place. It actually made me appreciate everything about the original series more!
One of the things that impressed me most perhaps, was the great way and order in which each classic character was introduced and adapted with such care in what turned out to be a terrific, elemental, classical story. Of course this is how it would happen! Of course Kirk would first meet Uhura while drunkenly hitting on her! Of course he would clash with Spock in their first meeting, and they’d start out hating each other! Of course there’s some singular major disaster that brings all of them together for the first time, and of course Kirk would start out his career by sneaking on board with McCoy begrudgingly helping him along! All of this was, surprisingly enough, told very well, with good pacing, impressive performances, and funny, but controlled, humor.
Then we hit overdrive. Once we’re into this first massive action piece, Kirk, of course, goes into battle for the first time alongside an ill-fated officer in a red shirt and a young Asian man named Hikaru Sulu, who happens to fight with a sword (an insufferably nerdy reference to a single first season episode) . And, after what turns out to be an incredibly fun, thrilling sequence that sets the tone perfectly, our two new friends are saved in the nick of time by whiz kid Pavel Chekov. Then, an hour and a half into the film, just when you’re really starting to wonder “Where the heck is…”
Scotty. Of course they’d save good ol’ loveable Scotty for this late in the film, for some sort of grand, important, and comedic entrance into the narrative. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit.
You’ll notice that most of the characters end up in their positions by accident. Kirk sneaks aboard. The Chief Medical Officer and engineer are killed. Sulu is filling in for a sick helmsman. Uhura, through being in the right place at the right time (running after Kirk), fills her position because she ends up being better at it than the person there. And lastly, Scotty gets taken along for the ride. And so all the pieces fall into place.
Now, up to a certain point, the film has been largely about Kirk and Spock hating each other, a rather large drop of dramatic irony. And soon after the destruction of Vulcan, an unexpectedly heavy move that truly showed that these writers meant business, just after Kirk has been banished to an icy prison planet, the writers knew there was one thing that, at all costs, they had to fit into the film. In a quick, throwaway scene that very well could have been left on the editing room floor, McCoy, who up until now has defended Spock to Jim (again, dramatic irony), finally finds himself at odds with him, and as they part, finds time to mutter under his breath “green-blooded hobgoblin.” It’s such a small scene, and many people probably never thought anything of it. But the writers just knew they had to throw that in somewhere. Thank you.
Of course, around this point is where Kirk meets old Spock. Not some arbitrary cameo to make fanboys squeal, his presence here is vitally important to one of the film’s main themes: Kirk and Spock’s friendship. He, like us, knows that Kirk and Spock are destined to be friends. So he arranges it, through good ol’ Scotty, that he gets back on board that ship just in time to save the day in the climax. Now, was all of that necessary? We could have just had Kirk and Spock have a disagreement, but settle it out themselves, be best friends, and then rocket off to fight Nero, and shave a half hour out of the movie. But that alone is not the idea the writers are trying to tell. More on that later.
Of course, Kirk and Spock learn to work together, but they do not work alone. Utilizing the talents of everyone, go off into battle, and Nero is defeated. Once again, the film could end right there. There was no need to continue it. But once again, the screenwriters knew there was one thing that had to be done.
One of my friends is a big Simon Pegg fan, but had never watched Star Trek. When he heard that Pegg had been cast as Scotty, we started talking about who that character was. I explained that the ship “always gets in some sort of trouble, and Scotty tells Kirk there’s no way any engineer could ever get them out, but Kirk tells Scotty that he has to, so somehow he concocts some brilliant, outside the box maneuver and the ship escapes danger by the skin of their teeth.”
Well, Nero may be defeated, but the ship just has to start getting sucked into that wormhole. And Kirk has to yell at Scotty that he can get them out. When Scotty actually yells “I’ve giving her all she’s got Captain!” I actually shouted in the middle of the theater.
There are plenty of those moments in films, where an old, classic phrase is uttered as some kind of a “wink-wink” to the audience. But plenty of the time, they just do not do that much for me. For instance, when, in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, that same year, when Marlon Wayans comments on Snake Eyes’s “Kung Fu Grip,” it just made me angry. You cannot make a film that ignores the entire source material and essentially just make your own original movie, and then throw a famous catch phrase and expect people to like it. But when Scotty yelled that line, it made me squeal. Why? Because the film had earned it.
So , of course Kirk is made Captain, Spock becomes his first officer, and they go off on their first of many adventures. I expected Leonard Nimoy to then narrate the classic Star Trek opening, followed by the ship jumping into warp. I was prepared for that. But when the classic Star Trek theme, not some techno punk remix or some new composition, but the original, cheesy-as-heck, 1960s television theme started playing over the credits, I couldn’t help myself. I launched myself out of my chair, applauded, and cheered. I’m fairly sure the other people there, including my best friend and this new cute girl, were a little surprised. So were the people in the theater. Like I said, it wasn’t exactly a midnight showing. And as I said, I’ve never done it since.
Not only does this film understand everything that makes Star Trek great, it’s actually a film about what makes Star Trek great. It works off of the fact that there is such a legacy and a history. That’s what makes the time travel aspect of the film so important, and why old Spock was necessary.
As old Spock explains to young Spock, he and Kirk needed each other. He had to act with faith, because that is what his friend taught him, over a long and adventure filled, legendary friendship. It is not merely that Kirk and Spock are friends, but what he, and we, already know that friendship is destined to accomplish: They will literally save worlds, and change the galaxy.
That may be at the center of this story, but we cannot forget the other five characters. To me, the film is really about destiny, or rather, inevitability. You can change the timeline, you can kill Kirk’s dad, you can even destroy Vulcan. But the one thing that will seemingly always fall into place, no matter what you do, is that those seven people will be on board that ship, exploring the galaxy and having adventures together. And thus the adventure begins again.
I love good stories. I love great characters. And I love Star Trek. This film reminded me of why all those things are true.
Part 3 - The Aftermath
And, as it turns out, this was also the beginning of one of the most important, blessed, destined friendships in my own life. Over the next four years, Alissa and I had a roller coaster of a relationship. We dated for a time, then broke up, then repeated that cycle again.. We did finally realize that we want to be a part of each other’s lives no matter what, and today she is still one of my closest friend. We have issues sometimes, but I truly thank God for bringing her into my life.
Four years later, I made sure I reminded my friend that the sequel to Star Trek was coming out, and that we should go see the midnight showing. She immediately responded with an enthusiastic yes, followed by an amazement at how long it had been since that night. It’s incredible for both of us to think of how much time has really passed in our own lives since those two strangers went out to celebrate the end of finals together. That film, that experience, is kind of like an anchor of all our memories together. And now we have a chance to go revisit Kirk and crew again.
Only this time, we’ll be going at midnight.
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