austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Wait terrified and overwrought to find what he will do

So I went to the new Star Trek last night, and I do like it, but with reservations. The big reservation: this is a space opera, and not a western-set-in-space. This may seem a trivial difference, but consider that the Original Series was a western-in-space and the Rick Berman Era Trek was a workplace drama. The feel of these things are different. Also important, it uses the famous narration.

There's a lot that I liked. For one big thing, the people making this movie seemed to care whether anything was happening. This sounds like a simple thing to get right, but consider how the casts sleepwalked through Nemesis and Insurrection and Enterprise and ... oh, heck, was there anytime after maybe the fourth season of Next Generation that it really felt like they were trying? Just having the acting, directing, the effects, the cramming the plot full of things happening made the result feel a lot more alive than it has in ages.

And I also liked the casting, which managed to hit that comfortable zone between accepting that it's not 1967 anymore and James Doohan is not available for camera work, and still getting people who have the feel of the original actors. Most important I think they got the body language of the original characters down right, so that it was easy to accept them as new performers for the same cast. Add in a wealth of little touches meant to quietly plead for love from the fans, such as having a short appearance from Admiral Komack of all people, and there's a lot of hand-holding to reassure people who are increasingly intolerant of Trek made after 1979 that this is worth their attention.

Also I liked the new treatment of Pavel Chekov, who gets a little boost upwards from the reasonably bright bridge utility man into ... ah ... Wesley Crusher-type territory where he keeps noticing he can do this stuff other people don't see. If this were played or written worse it could be very aggravating, but he's portrayed with a sort of wonder at being able to do this stuff which makes it feel more endearing and likable.

But I'm not unreservedly happy with it. For one, it's Yet Another Blasted Time Travel Plot, making this the fifth of eleven movies with some time games in it. That's even more time travel than Voyager did, if you can imagine. For a wonder, it's an accidental sort of thing rather than a grand plan, and a single incident with consequences, but still, do we need so very much of it? It also left the lingering feeling that while yes, some shocking events happen along the way, it's all going to be reset at the end anyway, in either this or the sequel or when someone remembers the Federation's Timecops who show up with psychotic hatreds of Captain Janeway every couple months. So it drained some tension of a really, really big event in much the same way the crashing of the Enterprise in Generations didn't feel like any big loss until the end of the film where it turned out hey, Picard didn't go back in time another twenty minutes and avoid the whole disaster after all.

Another and rather more important revision in things here is how Youthful Genius is held up as superior to Experience and Training. I know that off-camera, between scenes, Kirk and other characters get a whole Star Fleet Academy routine of training and drilling and practice, and such, but in the stuff we actually see, it turns out Kirk is a virtuoso who can do what's brilliantly right almost by instinct. That's a popular superhero-type fantasy, but it's not one I've ever been really comfortable buying. Talent, even genius, is wonderful, but it doesn't make up for practice.

It also along the way establishes Kirk as a young Cocky Bastard character type --- Roger Ebert put it, as the Han Solo we had before Han Solo. There were always elements of Kirk which were like this, admittedly. But I think more important to his character as it was set up is that he was a thoughtful, nearly morose character much of the time, particularly the first season which was so impressive. He was thoughtful, empathetic, and often shockingly near being clinically depressed. (He was a very high-functioning depressive, mind you, but still.) I think that's an important part of what made Kirk a character who resonated, at least among adults who notice the show is a lot more addictive than they would have thought.

I'm not positive what I feel about the interactions between Uhura and Spock in the movie: it's something that I find oddly credible, or at least compatible with the way they interacted in the Original Series, particularly the first season when they had enough of a budget for the minor characters to have personality-flavored overlays on their dialogue. So it feels like it could happen. Yet it also feels like, you know, it's a new movie, a new timeline, would it be possible to bring in some new people? Maybe not without a hardcore fan riot (say, with a point-of-divergence at least 25 years ago, is it credible that a 17-year-old Chekov still exists? Really?), but it does feel like one of the recurring failures of the movies, to reshuffle old Trek elements rather than expanding into new ones. The new Spacedock and ships are neat to see, but we don't even get an establishing shot of them before we're off to more adventures so ... what's there?

And that comes to another little point. A lot of this felt somewhat fanfiction-y, which can be a good thing (such as the recent Doctor Who series finale, which threw in so much stuff that it turned out transcendentally loopy and enjoyable), but can also start nagging ... like, how, hey, isn't this story basically the Next Generation movies chopped up and reshuffled? The crazed Romulan with a grudge about his family being killed (Generations) who's got a superstarship (Nemesis) goes back in time via starship-destroying anomalies (Generations) to mess up the timeline (First Contact) with a ``Phallic? Of course it's phallic'' Death Ray Of Death (Insurrection, Nemesis) and capturing the captain of the Enterprise (All Of The Above) for torture in a poorly lit space without necessary railings (Insurrection, Nemesis) with a planet blown up as sacrificial lamb (Generations) on the way to blowing up the Earth (First Contact, Nemesis) but is foiled when the Captain and his Pal zip over to shoot their way up to the level boss (Nemesis) which incidentally they also escape by flying a smaller more destructive ship inside the big destructive ship (Nemesis). It's all served up efficiently, and presented well and fresh and exciting, but ... you know, add in the sprinklings of stuff left over from The Wrath Of Khan and The Final Frontier and it does feel like a lot of this has come before.

For that matter the movie starts right out with a battle scene that differs from every other battle scene in the last twenty years of Star Trek in that it happens slightly later on. ``Evasive pattern beta six alpha!'' ``Deflector shields are holding!'' is not dialogue, guys. Stop trying to pretend it is.

There are some attempted stabs at science this time around. They are extremely funny, although not in any way I think intended. It does play to something else I felt, though: there's not really a sense of the frontier, of the vastness of space and the potential loneliness of being out in it. Instead the galaxy is maybe about a half-hour's journey from end to end. This does give it a rollicking you-read-this-in-Astounding air, but it's also sacrificing a big and I think important element.

There's a lot of stuff that I do like, though, such as Captain Pike who appears as, you know, a professional and mature and dynamic starship captain. I also liked Scott, who comes in surprisingly late in what appears to be a BBC series trying to replicate the Red Dwarf formula without having to pay royalties to Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. And I liked that the bridge and corridors and sickbays were, you know, white and brightly lit and visible the way so many science fiction productions aren't, out of some mistaken belief that if we can't see anything we'll be fooled into thinking they're mature.

The sets that I do like make me want to get more of these fancy ``establishing shots'' that are all the rage, where you get clear ideas of the relative locations of important items and people before the action commences. People may mock The Motion Picture for its unhurried pace, but at least you're left confident in the positions and arrangements of the important stuff. It also makes more baffling the sets that are just weird, such as the way Engineering is apparently a highly successful brewery just waiting for Biff McHugeSlab to floor-wax and scream hysterically at.

Overall: as I say and as may be odd to make out after a long list of grumbles, I liked the movie overall, and I'm fairly confident in their ability to make a new movie following the parallel timeline and this bunch. But I don't feel the fannish stirrings that still get me excited when I watch the episodes that feel like they're set on the frontier.

A special closing credits advisory: the Alexander Courage theme is used, over and over, for the closing credits theme. This is quite good. Also, the typeface used for the closing credits is very Eurostile-ish, which is generally good, but it does cause the 'O' in one character's name to appear to be 'D' instead, making several characters' credits more amusing than they likely intended.

Trivia: Gene Roddenberry's first draft for the opening narration ran, ``This is the story of the United Space Ship Enterprise. Assigned a five year patrol of our galaxy, the giant starship visits Earth colonies, regulates commerce, and explores strange new worlds and civilizations. These are its voyages ... and its adventures.'' Source: Inside Star Trek, Herbert F Solow, Robert H Justman. It really makes you appreciate the virtues of multiple drafts, or the ability of Jack Webb to deliver a line.

Currently Reading: Diaspora, Greg Egan. You know, I love this sort of endless logic-chain hard-science-fiction adventure even if it is almost all a virtual reality mind game and along the way there's a really horrible event happens to Earth. Yet I somehow can't escape the nagging feeling that Egan only has protagonists because he hasn't actually figured out how to sell a story written from the viewpoint of a p-Sylow subgroup. I still love this sort of stuff.


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