One of mankind’s principal preoccupations is predicting its own demise. The Mayans supposedly put together a calendar that dated the end of the world at some point in 2012. Nostradamus said that the planet would be consumed by nuclear war in 1999. People in London were extremely nervous in 1666, given the year’s numerical relationship with the supposed “Sign of the Beast”; the Plague and Great Fire of that year were seen as confirmation of its diabolical properties. Switch on the television and one is apt to see stories about disease, climate change, economic catastrophe and war. We’re all going to die, seems to be the message, film at 11.
But what if the human race isn’t doomed? What if we are meant to overcome the obstacles ahead of us and survive into the future? Science fiction most readily provides us with this vision; Doctor Who recently suggested that mankind would survive, relatively intact, until the end of the universe itself. Star Trek takes a more prosaic view, saying that we have a few centuries left in us at least. When things are troubled, painful, and dark, perhaps we need this sighting of what is ahead more than ever.
We have been deprived of Star Trek’s idealism for a time; the series can be said to have lost its way. Several lacklustre films, plus the rather tedious “Enterprise” programme (in which the highlight was a naked female Vulcan with emotional problems and constant references by sneering fans to Scott Bakula’s role on “Quantum Leap”), seemed to have doomed it. But fortunately, it’s back in a new film, and in the process, it has likely revived the vision as a whole.
The film is quite clever from the start. If the continuity with the previous series had been maintained, then it was likely that the film would be subject to endless discussions among men (and a few women) in anoraks about how its plot didn’t fit in with what had been produced before. To avoid this, we are first thrust into a break in the previous continuity, an alternate timeline, which instantly means “anything goes”.
The images and impressions of the film are riveting. Many films exploit the motif of “too much going on”, i.e., too many explosions, too many vehicles, in order for all the information to be absorbed, but Star Trek’s first mind-blowing scenes are perhaps the most successful example of this technique. We are witness to an alternative birth scenario of James Kirk in the process, in a future which is darker, bleaker, and more tumultuous than its predecessor. In this sense, I could not help but be reminded of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, which re-cast the high-spirited original in a more melancholy setting.
The new Kirk, played by Chris Pine, is something that the original William Shatner model was not: he has greater depth, more issues, and is more of a rebel. He only joins Starfleet because it fills an emotional void, rather than it being the product of some lifelong aspiration or fascination.
Other characters are similarly re-made. Dr. McCoy, who is stunningly portrayed by Karl Urban, solely enlisted because of a divorce that robbed him of everything. Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) is a brilliant misfit who is exiled to an outpost on a hostile, icy world. We are also witness to the decision making process that drove young Spock (Zachary Quinto) into Starfleet: it’s shown to be due to the overt anti-human bigotry of the Vulcan Academy of Sciences. It would seem that an alternate timeline has redrawn Starfleet into an alternate version of itself: no longer is it solely a centre of excellence to which the best and the brightest aspire (though this is true for many of its cadets), it is a refuge for outcasts and the emotionally crippled.
How and why was the timeline disturbed? The driver behind this shift is a Romulan madman who was accidentally sent back in time after the destruction of his home world. As a result, he has decided to take revenge on the Federation due to its failure to save his home and his family. While this is a standard issue rationale, the villain (named Nero) is played by Eric Bana with sufficient menace. In a sense, he is refreshing because he is more a thug than a super-genius, a bad man who is improvising his dastardly deeds as he goes along.
Perhaps the most spectacular scene is when Nero uses some purloined technology to destroy Spock’s home world of Vulcan. Blowing up a planet has been a science fiction preoccupation since Alderaan was wiped out in the original Star Wars; however Vulcan’s elimination is not merely a matter of a laser being fired and the planet exploding in a shower of sparks. It disappears like sands being sucked into the bottom of an hourglass, and is all the more devastating for being so understated.
The trauma of this event further redraws Spock. Shockingly, he is shown to have surface emotions; indeed, his lack of emotional control is key to Kirk obtaining command. He is, at first, less tolerant of Kirk than one might have expected: the two bicker violently. He even shows overt signs of affection for a crew mate. Spock, in short, has been reborn as a man of some feeling, albeit these are tentative in many respects; mentions of logic are reduced, this Spock both hesitates and takes risks.
If this all sounds very exciting, it should, because excitement does mark out the film, as does its unwillingness to take itself too seriously. Pavel Chekhov’s Russian accent provides some comic relief, as does an incident involving Scott and a large water pipe. Chris Pine does a slight turn as Shatner towards the end, which is subtle, but noticeable, and certifies him as the Canadian actor’s true heir.
The film does lack depth of characterisation, but this is not Star Trek’s purpose. It is there to entertain, and it is there to give us hope. We are living in an era of diminished expectations, in which case, it was probably right to change Star Trek to exist in a tougher, grittier universe. This enables the viewer to connect to the story much more successfully and believe that somehow we are going to come through this, and that a future does lie ahead. It may be more grim than the Sixties’ pastiche version we know and have previously loved, but it still features starships and transporters, phasers and photon torpedoes, communicators which look like our cellphones (or vice versa), and races that bleed green fluid or have over-large, boggling eyes. In short, thanks to this film, Star Trek is back…and hopefully it’s here to stay.