Tuesday, January 11, 2011

HOW JJ ABRAMS TAUGHT ME TO EMBRACE MY INNER TREKKIE



It seems very odd to be writing about how I hate the most recent Star Trek movie when it has been out for about two years now. However, I have been thinking about the original series (TOS) quite a bit lately, for various reasons (mostly game related), and that in turn made me wonder why I had such a negative reaction to Star trek 2009. I also wanted to see whether I didn’t like it for valid reasons, or whether I am just a cranky old Trekkie who doesn’t like to have his hobby messedwith by others.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan for about 35 years now, and my affections are definitely with the original series. Yes, I realize that many of the episodes are at best, mediocre, but I’m still fond of them for nostalgic reasons.  I still admire the best of them, and the worst of them are truly hilarious.  Star Trek got me through my awkward adolescent years, and I learned some life lessons while watching it. I also tried to figure out why the good episodes were good, and why the bad episodes were so very, very bad.  While I was a Star Trek fan, I thought that I was a REASONABLE Star Trek fan; I shunned the “Trekkie” label, though I would admit to being a “Trekker” (whatever the difference is). I would admit to loving Star Trek, but I downplayed its significance to me as a guilty pleasure.

After trying to analyze my attitude towards the 2009 Star Trek, though, I realized that a part of me is still that Trekkie, who feels as passionately about a 1960s TV show. Otherwise, why would I feel like I had to write a paper to justify why I feel this way about a two year old remake of that TV series?

CLARIFICATIONS
I use a few abbreviations here and there throughout this paper. Here’s what they mean:
·         TOS: The Original Series, the one with Shatner and Nimoy, that was broadcast in the 1960s.
·         TMP: The Motion Picture. The first one, where everybody wore pajamas.
·         TWOK: The second Star Trek movie, the one with Ricardo Montalban, That really was his actual chest, BTW, not a plastic one.
Incidentally, when I refer to "JJ Abrams", I am also referring to the writers, producers, the director, and anybody else that ever had any creative input at any stage of the production of the movie. Harsh, I know.

THINGS THAT DON’T BOTHER ME ABOUT THE MOVIE
Actually, these observations are not about the movie itself, but about the idea of remaking Star Trek in general.
·         I don’t mind the idea of recreating the original series with a new cast and new versions of the Enterprise.
·         I don’t mind reasonable changes and updates in starships due to advances in CGI and audience sophistication. I don’t expect the Enterprise and all the sets to look exactly the same; they were built under far greater restrictions than we have today.
·         I don’t mind if they “rewrite” Trek continuity (if such a thing even exists). If they’re going to remake Star Trek, there’s no point in restricting themselves only to what has happened before.
·         I love parodies that respect the object of their parody. I though Galaxy Quest was the best Trek movie in years. That’s a suggestion.

THINGS I LIKE ABOUT THE MOVIE
·           It brought positive attention to Star Trek for the first time in years.
·           Some of the casting: Zachary Quinto makes a pretty good Spock, and Karl Urban makes a pretty good McCoy
·           The costumes are quite nice. I even like the variations, such as the short-sleeved version. These are creative improvements over the original costumes.
·           I loved the design of the USS Kelvin at the beginning of the film, even though it wouldn’t have existed in the original timeline (see below).  The same is true, to a lesser degree, to the other ships in the movie. (I would rather have them look more similar to the original design, with more detail).
·           The first scene is absolutely, spot-on Star Trek. Love it.
·           Spock declines admission into the Vulcan Academy of Science.
·           Nice homage to the 20-minute long Enterprise tour in TMP when McCoy tells Kirk, “Jim, you gotta look at this!” when they’re in the shuttle on the way to the Enterprise.

THINGS THAT ANNOY ME ABOUT THE MOVIE
Some aspects of the movie are annoying to me as a Trekkie; if the movie wasn’t a Star Trek movie, they wouldn’t be an issue. They show sloppy research or blatant disregard for the people who have supported Star Trek over the years. If you are a casual Trek fan or don’t care about Trek much, they will seem petty and trivial to you. Feel free to tell me to “Get a life!” (I really should, I know).
  • ·         JJ Abrams states: “This isn’t a reboot, it’s an alternate timeline.”  I call shenanigans; it is a reboot. Reboot means that you’re hitting the reset button and starting over from scratch; an alternate reality means that things are the same up to a certain point in time, but diverge after that.  JJ’s implication is that the timeline is the same up until Nero came back through time, but that’s just not credible (explained below). I’d rather they just admit that it’s a reboot than pulling a bait-and-switch on Trek fans. I can live with a reboot far more easily than a half-assed attempt at placating angry Trekkies.
  •  They threw in a lot of references to the Original Star Trek, but they were out of context.
  • When Spock puts Kirk off the ship, he maroons him on a planet called Delta-Vega…. which is a reference to a planet in an episode of TOS, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.  It’s located near the extreme edge of the galaxy, so remote that ore ships call on it once a decade or so.  It’s nothing like the iceball  within visual distance of Vulcan in STXI. Why use an obvious (to a Trekkie) Star Trek reference if you’re not going to get it right? Why not just call it something else?
    • One of the writers has explained, “'We moved the planet to suit our purposes. The familiarity of the name seemed more important as an Easter egg than a new name [would have been].”
    • I thought that this change was pointless. It seemed like they were pandering insincerely to the Trekkies. It made me care less about the movie. I wondering if that was their purpose?
    • In TMP, it’s obvious that there’s already a  large planetary twin (or at least an enormous moon) in the same orbit as Vulcan; it’ a huge, planet-like object in the sky, though its name is never revealed. Would the Vulcans name that thing Delta-Vega? 
      • (Unofficially, it’s called T’Kuht; if you need a name, why not pick that one? Do you even need to give that planet a name?

  • The Kelvin is supposed to be from the original Trek timeline, a few decades before TOS , but it is obviously far advanced over the ships of Kirk’s time (just one example, it had a crew of 800, rather than the Enterprise’s 203 crew members (in Kirk’s time) or 430 (in Kirk’s time). Original Kirk’s Enterprise was supposed to be on the cutting edge of Starfleet technology.
o    I don’t think you can fit 800 people into the shuttlecraft flotilla shown onscreen. They don’t seem to hold very many people, and there don’t seem to be enough of them. (If you could fit 20 people in each one, you’d need 40 shuttles to carry that many. Someone online counted 19 shuttles, and it looked like there were about that many to me.)
o    Anyway, the TOS Enterprise only had 4 shuttlecraft (7, according to some opinions); the Kelvin’s far larger complement of shuttles makes no sense if it’s from an earlier point in the TOS timeline.
  • Building the Enterprise on Earth. In Iowa. The writers throw in some technobabble (which doesn’t appear in the movie) about having to calibrate the ship’s artificial gravity systems in an appropriate gravity well, but that’s inconsistent with the original versions of Trek, where ships are built in orbit. The technology is different. This is a reboot, not an alternate timeline! Be honest about it.
  • I really don’t like the design of the new Enterprise.  I think it looks like a big weird sculpture, not a credible ship; it doesn’t evoke the feel of Star Trek at all to me. I would much rather have seen an update along these lines: http://deg3d.biz/splash_TOS.5_E/TOS.5_E.html . It’s like the original ship would have looked if the original show had high-definition CGI technology available; it’s the same ship, but far more detailed.
    •  To be fair, I’m not all that fond of the Enterprise from the Star Trek movies, either. I don’t hate it, though; I just don’t buy that it could possibly be the same ship as the original one.
  •  Most of the main characters are newly graduated cadets, which means they don’t have much “history” with Starfleet to draw upon, much less the experience necessary to run a starship; also, they are pretty much the same age.  In the original series, several episodes revolved around or mentioned many characters’ past history.  This would not be credible in future installments of the new Star Trek movie series.
o    Kirk served aboard the Farragut when a cloud creature killed most of the crew, including the Captain, in the episode “Obsession”. He carried the guilt with him for years.
o    Kirk’s best friend, Ben Finney, made a mistake that endangered the Republic; Kirk reported it and Finney held a grudge for years. (“Court Martial”)
o    “A Private Little War” and “Friday’s Child”: earlier missions for Kirk and McCoy gave them some personal stake in these episodes.
o    Likewise, in “The Menagerie”, Spock is said to have served on the Enterprise with Christopher Pike for over eleven years. Since the Enterprise is a new ship, this never happened. Which is fine, except that it doesn’t leave room for stories about Spock’s past Starfleet history. It also begs the question, did anything from “The Menagerie” happen? Did the Talosians ever kidnap Christopher Pike? Is there a “Number One” (Pike’s second in command) in the new continuity? Again, it seems like Abrams has discarded a great deal of potential when he simply could have left the question for a later movie.
o    I am not saying that these exact events or episodes should be reused, by any means; I am just saying that a potential source of plot points and characterization that existed in the original series has been invalidated in the newly-resurrected franchise.
  • You can see the cement floor and cinderblock walls of the brewery they filmed the Engineering scenes in. You’d expect this in a 1960s science fiction TV show that was filming on a shoestring budget. I’m just sayin’. 
  • Using “Centaurian slugs” to torture Pike instead of “Ceti eels” (from “TWOK”). This would have been an appropriate opportunity to make a reference to the old Trek continuity, thus demonstrating to Trekkies that they knew what they were doing.  They look like Ceti eels; they act like Ceti eels; they’re used the same way Ceti Eels were used.  Why did they change the name?
  • Excessive use of comic relief. I like a chuckle or two, but all the humor in this movie can be charitably described as "bufoonery", which the original series didn't have a lot of.
    • The weird reaction Kirk had to McCoy’s “vaccination”. Comically swollen hands!
    • Scotty nearly drowning because he beamed into a water pipe. Hilarious… not. You can remove this scene without damaging the rest of the movie. Minor dialog rewrites would have fixed any problems, and it would have removed an unnecessary scene.
    • Scotty’s little alien buddy Keenser gave me Bubo flashbacks. (Bubo is, of course, the annoying mechanical owl from the original “Clash of the Titans”.) Why was he there? What function does he serve? If he’s comic relief, he’s less comical than Scotty.
    • When Kirk asks what martial arts Sulu knows, Sulu replies, “Fencing”. Chuckle. Then it turns out Sulu has a collapsible samurai sword. Chuckle again
  •  Spock knew that the Romulans and Vulcans were related, a detail which wasn't common knowledge in the original series at the time of "Balance of Terror" (the first contact between the Federatin and Rmulans in about a hundred years.
  • In the movie, Spock designed the "Kobayashi Maru" simulation. In TWOK, when Spock is dying, he tells Kirk that he never took the "Kobayashi Maru". Technically, I guess, he could have designed it without taking it, but how many computer game designers would do that? More poor attention to detail.
Again, most of these are just my reaction as a fan of TOS. Superficially, it resembles the original show, but it just doesn't have many of the elements that I enjoyed before. Perhaps I'm just not objective. I would like to think, however, that I could enjoy the movie on its own merits.

That, however, turns out not to be the case.

A BRIEF DIGRESSION
Here is an excerpt from the original series’ writer’s guide (second season):

CAN  YOU  FIND  THE  MAJOR  STAR  TREK  ERROR  IN  THE  FOLLOWING
"TEASER"  FROM  A  STORY  OUTLINE?
The scene is the Bridge of the U.S.S. (United States Spaceship) Enterprise. Captain Kirk is at his command position, his lovely but highly efficient female Yeoman at his side. Suddenly and without provocation, our Starship is attacked by an alien space vessel. We try to warn the alien vessel off, but it ignores us  and begins loosening bolts of photon energy-plasma at us.

The alien vessel's attack begins to weaken our deflectors. Mister Spock reports to Captain Kirk that the next enemy bolt will probably break through and destroy the Enterprise. At this moment we look up to see that final energy-plasma bolt heading for us. There may be only four or five seconds of life left. Kirk puts his arm about his lovely Yeoman, comforting and embracing her as they wait for what seems certain death. FADE OUT.

(END TEASER)
UNDERSTANDING THE RIGHT ANSWER TO THIS IS BASIC TO UNDERSTANDING THE STAR TREK FORMAT. THIS WAS THE CORRECT 
ANSWER:
 ( x )  Unbelievable. Why the correct answer? Simplybecause we've learned during a full season of making visual science fiction that believability of characters, their actions and reactions, is our greatest need and is the most important angle factor. Let's explore that briefly on the next page.

NOW, TRY AGAIN. SAME BASIC STORY SITUATION, BUT AGAINST
ANOTHER BACKGROUND
The time is today. We're in Viet Nam waters  aboard the navy cruiser U.S.S. Detroit. Suddenly an enemy gunboat heads for us, our guns are unable to stop it, and we realize it's a suicide attack with an atomic warhead. Total destruction of our vessel and of all aboard appears probable. Would Captain E.L. Henderson, presently commanding the U.S.S. Detroit, turn and hug a comely female WAVE who happened to be on the ship's bridge.

As simple as that. This is our standard test that has led to STAR TREK believability. (It also suggests much of what has been wrong in filmed sf of the past.) No, Captain Henderson wouldn't! Not if he's the kind of Captain we hope is commanding any naval vessel of ours. Nor would our Captain Kirk hug a female crewman in a moment of danger, not if he's to remain believable. (Some might prefer Henderson were somewhere making love rather than shelling Asiatic ports, but that's a whole different story for a whole different network. Probably BBC.)

AND SO,  IN EVERY SCENE OF OUR STAR TREK STORY...
... translate it into a real life situation. Or, sometimes as useful, try it in your mind as a scene in GUNSMOKE, NAKED CITY, or some similar show. Would you believe the people and the scene if it happened there?

Quite ironic in retrospect, isn’t it? Many episodes of the original series would obviously fail this test. However, many of the good ones do adhere to this premise; look at “Balance of Terror” and “The Doomsday Machine” especially for good examples of this.  When I first read this in the mid-1970s, it made a lot of sense to me, and it still does today. This is one thing that irks me so much about the 2009 movie: for the most part, it fails the credibility test so many, many times. Admittedly, some of my favorite episodes also fail it, so some would say that I have no right to criticize the movie for this. I understand that many other successful movies also sacrifice credibility for theatrics. I understand that JJ Abrams is hoping to reach the general public instead of the much smaller Star Trek fanbase. However, I think that, with a little more attention to detail, he could have satisfied more Trekkies without sacrificing box office appeal. At the same time, he could have added some details that would have enhanced the audiences’ ability to suspend their disbelief.

THINGS THAT RUIN MY SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF
These are issues that would bother me even if the movie wasn’t a Star Trek movie. They would be totally unacceptable in a non-science fiction movie.
·      
·         Captain Robau makes George Kirk Captain of the Kelvin when he goes to meet Nero, Pike confirms this later when he says, “Your father was captain of a starship for twelve minutes and he saved 800 lives.” Pike  later makes Spock Captain of the Enterprise when he does the same; he even makes Kirk the first officer, and he’s not even assigned to Pike’s ship in the first place. Is this some kind of standard military procedure? In previous incarnations, they just say “You’re in command.”
·         Kirk goes from a cadet in disgrace (after the Kobayashi Maru incident), to being appointed first officer while still a cadet, to captain of Starfleet’s newest, finest ship by the end of the movie. This strains my suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point.
o   This is underscored by Pike’s comment to Kirk in the bar: “You can be an officer in four years, captain of your own ship in eight.”
·         In TWOK, Shatner-Kirk admits to reprogramming the Kobayashi Maru simulation, but he got a commendation for original thinking. I’m betting that he didn’t act so much like an insubordinate jerk when he did it, unlike the Pines-Kirk. That scene, more than any other up to that point, turned me against the movie.
·         Why didn’t Uhura report her intercepted transmission about the 47 Klingons ships being destroyed by a single huge Romulan ship to anybody? She reported it to her roommate, for crying out loud.
·         Starfleet sends an entire FLEET of ships crewed only by CADETS to respond to a distress call from an important Federation planet’s government. Why did nobody foresee disaster? Would the US Navy have done something comparable? Fails the credibility test.
·         If Kirk recognized the “Lightning Storm in Space” reference, why didn’t Pike recognize it as well? Pike did his dissertation on the way George Kirk handled the Kelvin incident, after all.
·         Why do the Romulans need to spend half an hour drilling a big hole into the core of Vulcan to destroy it with a black hole? Just drop the black hole anywhere near it, and the planet will be gone in a matter of moments.
o    Spock Prime (gag!) had a little ship without a planetary drill when he created a black hole to destroy the supernova that was “threatening the galaxy”.
·         Why does Spock Prime warn against letting young Spock know about his existence? To avoid endangering the future? Uh, wait… Kirk’s father killed, Vulcan destroyed… that doesn’t count as changing history? Illogical.
o    When the past is changed in "City on the Edge of Forever", Kirk and Spock make huge sacrifices to restore the timeline; in the movie, Spock Prime doesn't really even lift a finger to restore it, not even to save Vulcan. Not even to save his mother!
·         Kirk and Spock brawling on the Bridge! Don’t they have rules against doing that in Starfleet? Shouldn’t somebody be court-martialed??
·       When Spock gives up command of the Enterprise due to emotional conflicts and Kirk takes over, why does he announce that “Spock has resigned his commission”? He didn’t resign from Starfleet. That’s just a jarring detail that makes me think the writers learned everything they know about military procedure by watching bat TV shows.
·         Olsen, the idiot who got himself killed while skydiving, was the only one who had explosive charges to disable the drilling platform.  Why didn’t Kirk and Sulu have charges of their own?
·         Fencing and Kenjutsu (the Japanese “way of the sword” have nothing in common. Sulu’s reference to “fencing” is just factually wrong, all for the sake of a lame joke.
·         Spock leaves the Enterprise in the hands of Ensign Chekov (surely the least senior officer on the entire ship)  to beam down to beam down to Vulcan and save his family.
·         A pissed-off Spock loads the annoying Kirk into an escape pod and drops him onto an ice planet. Really? There’s no brig on the shiny new Enterprise? I would expect Spock to be court-martialled, at the very least. After Kirk’s court-martial, of course.
·         A supernova that threatens to destroy the galaxy? Don’t the se guys do any research? Supernovas are just not that powerful.  That’s like saying that a stack of dynamite can threaten to destroy an entire city.
·         Even though New Kirk defeated Nero and saved the universe, I still have a hard time buying that they would turn command over the Enterprise, their newest, best ship to a disgraced cadet with a history of disrespecting Starfleet regulations.  
  • Lest someone argue that Original Kirk was the same way, let me play Trekkie and point out that Kirk had a more serious side to his personality in his younger days:
  •  In “Where No Man Has Gone Before”Gary (Ol’ Silver Eyes) Mitchell,  Kirk’s best friend, described the young Lieutenant Kirk as “a stack of books with legs".
  • In “Shore Leave”, Kirk describes himself in his Academy days as “positively grim”). I’m sure that that made him no friends amongst the many other worthy officers in Starfleet who had more seniority.
  • Admittedly, in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, Kirk confesses that he re-programmed the Kobayashi Maru simulator and received a commendation for original thinking. My guess is that he didn’t flaunt his blatant violation of the Academy ethical code the way New Kirk did..


 Even though I felt that JJ Abrams had not captured the feel of the original series for me, I was hoping it might be an enjoyable movie in its own right.  However, the many issues I detailed above would have spoiled my enjoyment even if the movie had not been called "Star Trek".

IN CONCLUSION
My biggest gripes about JJ Abrams’ Star Trek are the following:
·         Clumsy writing and unbelievable behavior that broke my suspension of disbelief. Too much of the movie failed the “Star Trek Believability Test”.
·         Calling this new Trek an alternate reality instead of a reboot, trying to attract Trekkies who wouldn’t come to see a reboot, is a blatant use of  bait-and-switch tactics; he promised Trek fans one thing and delivered another.
·         Inappropriate use of references to the original version of Trek fans (e.g. Delta-Vega is in the wrong place and the wrong climate). This could be attributed to sloppy research at best, or perceived as apathy towards/contempt of  Star Trek fans at worst
·         Similarly, he failed to use a painfully obvious reference to original Trek which would have given the movie more credibility to picky  Trekkies such as me (Centauri Slugs vs. Ceti Eels).

My true colors stand revealed. My heart is worn proudly on my sleeve. I am a Trekkie, and I’m proud of it.

Live Long and Prosper. And by the way, Get a Life!

10 comments:

Guy Hoyle said...

I know, I need to fix the formatting in the blue part.

Will Douglas said...

I agree with this post 100%.

Guy Hoyle said...

I forgot to mention that when the past is changed in "City on the Edge of Forever", Kirk and Spock make huge sacrifices to restore the timeline; in the movie, Spock Prime doesn't really even lift a finger to restore it, not even to save Vulcan. Not even to save his mother!

Guy Hoyle said...

Did some format surgery, so it should be a little easier to read now.

Anonymous said...

I will disagree with you on two points: Spock Prime himself said in the movie that the reason he gave that warning to not let the other Spock know about him was so that the younger Spock could experience what would be possible if he worked together with Kirk. He could have told him, of course, but that is rarely as effective as actual experience, especially when he was already disinclined to believe any such thing.

And the second point is the 'fencing' remark. Sulu (TOS) did NOT study kenjutsu, or at least not solely. The sword he used on screen was in fact a rapier (The Naked Time), not a katana. And if he had studied both, he would most likely describe his martial art to a Westerner as fencing, if only to avoid the 'kenwhatsu?' response, followed by an explanation, and then 'oh, fencing'.

Those two points aside, I agree that the movie is a masterpiece of poor writing, poor understanding of military/paramilitary culture, poor understanding of science, and poor understanding of Trek. The events on screen should have ended the careers of four line officers (and probably more than one flag officer) in disgrace: Kirk, Spock, Pike and Uhura.

Guy Hoyle said...

Thanks for the response!
The sword he used in the movie was the Katana I referred to, not the fencing foil from "The Naked Time". Using a katana is quite different from using a foil; they never used the term "kenjutsu" in the movie, but that's the name of the technique.

As for the reason Spock Prime not interfering with the relationship between Kirk and Spock, you may be right. However, the TOS Spock would have done a lot more to fix the change in the timeline, if "City on the Edge of Forever" is any indication.

Anonymous said...

My point was that George Takei's Sulu did, in fact study fencing, which is not a single skill, but a set of moderately similar styles, at least 25 years ago. Fencing (foil) is a different thing than fencing (saber). The new Sulu may well have studied both fencing and kenjutsu (and the same might well be true of the original), and regardless, would use the term 'fencing' for either art when talking to an Iowa farmboy, simply to use a term more likely to be comprehensible to him.

Guy Hoyle said...

When I revise the post next, I'll take your advice into account. That was kind of reaching for something negative to say, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Tired old fanboy complaints. Meh.

Guy Hoyle said...

Yes, I'm a tired old fanboy.