Warning: the following containes spoilers for the 2009 Star Trek movie.
A brief sketch of my Star Trek history to start with: somewhere amongst the posessions of mine that still live at my parents’ house is my copy of the Klingon dictionary. I never did become a speaker, but I did spend a fair bit of time reading it and thinking about it. Also there are my copies of the encyclopedias, and the tie-in novels, and the action figures and toys. At the opening for Star Trek: Insurrection I won two movie posters and a model of a runabout by being able to recite that Lwaxana Troi’s (Deanna Troi’s mother from Star Trek: The Next Generation) full title is “Daughter of the fifth house, holder of the sacred chalice of Riix, heir to the holy rings of Betazed.” More than that, somewhere I have a childhood journal in which I wrote at length about the experience of being applauded by a movie theater full of people for being so well educated at such a young age, and proclaimed it one of the greatest nights of my life.
Since then my Trek fanaticism has waned considerably, as my critical sensibilities for media in general developed. Something about starting to think carefully about what made stories work or fail to work was incompatible with fanboy obsession. By my late teens I looked back on the days when I would proudly identify myself as a Trekker with embarassment. Today I remember them with (perhaps slightly embarassment-tinged) amusement. But I still retain a great deal of affection for the franchise that gave me so much entertainment as a child. I remember the rush I would feel at each new movie when the music swelled for the obligatory camera-flyby spaceship fetishism scene when the filmmakers pulled back the curtain on the newly visualized Enterprise. The scale and grandure of the movies hit me in a way that the television series did not. I gave up on Voyager early, and Enterprise after a single episode. But even if, as was the case with Star Trek: Insurrection, I came away from a movie with more complaints than praise, it was always a thrill to see the characters, the iconography, to get to take a two hour dive into the universe I revisited so often. I had very high hopes for this reboot, with its new actors and new creative team. I hoped that it would be a good movie in its own right, not just good Trek. I hoped that going to see it would make me feel like a kid again.
It was everything I hoped it would be. This is the Star Trek movie I’ve been waiting my whole life to see.
The casting was inspired; there isn’t a bad performance in the film. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban bring us a Kirk, Spock, and McCoy that are immediately recognizable even as the actors bring their own interpretations to the roles. Those roles that are significant departures from their previous incarnations are almost all improvements. There was only one characterization that I found somewhat problematic, and it wasn’t the one that I suspect will be the most generally controversial, Uhura.
My friend Ferrett disliked the portrayal of Uhura in the movie, saying she has a “brief flare of competence” before degrading into a character who spends her time “looking cow-eyed at people and supporting them.” I must respectfully disagree with him. While the heart of the story is Kirk and Spock, all of the characters get their own flares of competence, moments when the story turns on what they are able to contribute. Because of when the various characters are introduced, Uhura’s might seem lessened because hers occurs earlier in the movie, so there is much more screen time post competence flare when she is in the background. Also, because we are closer to the climax, the narrative tension is much higher when Sulu, Chekov, and Scotty get their moments in the sun, and thus their actions seem more significant. So I think part of what potentially makes Uhura’s competence seem undermined is structural. But, base competence aside, I also think there is an important and laudable character change that stems from her romantic relationship with Spock–namely that she is not a passive love interest, as essentially all the female romantic roles in the original series were. Uhura in the movie is the sexual aggressor. The moment when she asks Spock why she wasn’t assigned to the Enterprise and Spock replies that it was to avoid any appearance of favoritism doesn’t really make sense when we first see it, because we don’t know yet that they are lovers. If theirs is merely a teacher/student relationship, then Spock would be expressing concern about showing favoritism based on academic ability, which would be, well, illogical. But once we learn that they are lovers, that scene is suddenly revealed to have been an uncomfortable Spock struggling with the propriety of his romantic entanglement, and a much more dominant Uhura insisting that their relationship be valued above appearances. Uhura’s forcefulness and Spock’s easy capitulation clearly demonstrate the power roles within their relationship. And I would argue that this is reinforced by the “what do you need?” scene between the two of them in the turbolift. I believe that insisting on being allowed the role of an active caretaker with a partner as emotionally repressed and unable to ask for or accept help as Spock is, in fact, a dominant act. I found Uhura’s characterization consistent, and consistently positive, throughout the movie. It is to be hoped that there will be more of a role for her skills during the exciting parts of future installments.
The characterization that didn’t entirely work for me was not Uhura, but Sulu. The first step towards Sulu’s flare of competence is when he says that he has had training in “advanced hand-to-hand combat.” When he said that, I thought, “Oh, is he talking about fencing? That would be hysterical!” I expected the fencing line, because Sulu in the original series was a fencer. This was memorable bit of characterization. While the original Star Trek was in many ways a groundbreaking show in terms of its handling of race and ethnicity, its portrayals are what we would today identify as tokenism. Nonwhite, nonwesterners exist as stereotypes of the cultures they represent. As a reaction against a television landscape dominated by white males, tokenism was a step forward; these days the bar is, hopefully, set a little higher. But one instance of the original series transcending tokenism was when Sulu, the token Asian character, turns out to be a student of a martial art that is not ninjitsu, or kendo, or something inscrutable and eastern. He’s a fencer! It was a fabulous moment, and it looked for a time like it was going to be preserved in the new movie. But, in the end, new Sulu’s “fencing” is proficiency with a katana and a fair bit of kung fu. I understand the choice, and it made for an awfully exciting scene, but I couldn’t get away from the fact that now the movie’s only Japanese character just happens to be a master of hand-to-hand combat and wield a samurai sword. It was an embrace of tokenism for the sake of excitement, and while it wasn’t fatally subversive of my enjoyment, it was a little disappointing.
Another thing that bothered me was Scotty’s green, crumple-headed comrade. This character is ostensibly a Starfleet officer, and yet in both his (her? its?) actions and Scotty’s actions towards him, he is cast as mentally/socially inferior. Star Trek didn’t need a wookie/ewok/droid wearing a Starfleet uniform. His screen time was, fortunately, brief. Somewhat surprisingly, other than when he was sniping at the unnamed “kids will get a laugh out of this!” character, I enjoyed Scotty, despite him being played almost entirely as comic relief. The thing is, he is smart comic relief rather than dumb comic relief, and it turns out I’m okay with that. (And honestly, if you get Simon Pegg to be part of your ensemble cast, you had damn well better let him be funny.) I was slightly disappointed with what should have been his finest moment in the movie, the “Scotty saves the ship” moment when he jettisons and detonates the warp drive so that the explosion will push the ship away from the black hole. This was problematic (especially in a movie that gets the “no sound in space” thing right!) because, for lack of a medium to propagate through, explosions in space do not create shockwaves. There would be no push, just a vast influx of photons that would fry the ship.
But really, who cares? It was easy for me to take off my physicist hat and not complain about things like that, because the movie does so much right. “Red matter,” can apparently make black holes, and so long as you don’t try to convince me that I should believe it makes sense, I am fine accepting that. The crucial thing which the movie did right on that count was to cut out all of the technobabble. Star Trek has never been hard science fiction, and so long as we understand what function the dumb, quasi-magical whatsits serve in the story, we don’t need to know any more than that. I’ve read Lawrence Krauss’s The Physics of Star Trek; it didn’t increase my enjoyment of the shows. Setting aside the need to every once in a while gesture toward Star Trek being a believable future was one excellent move the filmmakers made. Having the story take place in a time travel mediated alternate universe is another. The obvious benefit is that it is a (fan-respectful) way to claim the freedom to retcon elements of the story that seemed dated, or are for some other reason better excluded from this reboot. But it is also enables the creative team to change the type of storytelling that is going to characterize this new Trek. Because of the needs of short-form episodic storytelling, Star Trek has always existed in the Status Quo-iverse: whatever the state of things was at the start of the episode, that is how it will be when the episode ends, regardless of what may happen in between. This allows the series, if the initial conditions are successful, to continue for an arbitrarily long time, but does so at the expense stories of consequence. This type of storytelling even extended to the movies: Spock can die, but only if he comes back; Data can die, but only if there is a replacement for him that shows up first. But in this movie, an entire planet–a founding planet of the Federation–is destroyed halfway through, and never restored. All signs point to Vulcan being gone for good, which has me hopeful that the alternate universe that the time travel created is the Change-iverse, where instead of the cosmic reset button getting punched at the end of every story, events will have consequences. The Change-iverse is someplace the Star Trek franchise hasn’t gone before. I welcome the change.