Saturday, May 16, 2009

Star Trek: The Next NEXT Generation

I've never been a Trekkie or a Trekker. In fact, my mom was a big fan of "Star Trek" and because I hated certain episodes ("Miri", "And The Children Shall Lead") but had to watch them anyway, it took me a couple of decades to where I could like the show.

I got into "The Next Generation" for a while but it got more and more ponderous as the series wore on. It seemed that every alien just needed a sympathetic ear and all technology was environmentally destructive. (I've heard that Roddenberry had to remind the writers that technophobia was not an appropriate attitude for the show.)

I loved "Deep Space Nine". Which, it must be confessed, is barely Star Trek at all. Dark, with religion and spirituality woven in, reveling in the dark parts of society that Roddenberry would have us believe didn't exist (yet which all turned up in the third season of the original series).

The less said about "Voyager" and "Enterprise" the better. (Well, okay, "Voyager" was "Star Trek meets The Lifetime Channel". "Enterprise" should have worked. And yet, didn't. Well, I heard it got better after I--and practically everyone else--stopped watching.)

So, was I excited about the new "reboot"? Nah, not really. "Curious" is a better word. The only JJ Abrams stuff I'm familiar with is Cloverfield, which is a good movie made of a pretty thin gruel. All good directors can do that. See The Birds or, hell, look at what Gore Verbinski did with the Pirates of the Caribbean or even Mouse Hunt.

This is kind of the reverse scenario. There's too much in the "Star Trek" universe--much of it contradictory--to capture in a movie. And if "Enterprise" proved anything, it was that retconning is incredibly dull, except perhaps to die-hard fans.

Now that I've seen it, my reaction is a kind of generally positive "Meh". Read on.

Dropping the canon was an excellent choice: They actually manage to do some pretty surprising things by untethering themselves from the bloated beast that is the Trek universe, while still making plenty of references. And you can savor the irony of fans being upset by this by noting that the device used to justify the changes is a Trek cliché that formed the basis for half the movies and TV series.

It was also smart of Chris Pine, who plays Kirk, not to study Shatner. While I've long maintained that Shatner's performance--his utter conviction in selling some truly awful storylines in front of papier mache backdrops--is a big part of the reason the original show is watchable at all, his performance style is too iconic to be imitated without creating an entirely surreal atmosphere. Pine--apparently drawing on Indiana Jones and Han Solo--still manages to evoke a famliar feeling Kirk.

Using relatively little known actors was also a good choice. The first person I recognized was Bruce Greenwood, playing Captain Christopher Pike, the captain that young Kirk is supposed to serve under. (OK, I "recognized" Eric Bana as the villain, but only because I knew it was him. Bana for some reason never makes enough of an impression on me where I could actually identify him.) I didn't really recognize Winona Ryder (in Jane Wyatt's old role as Spock's mother), though, so maybe I should just give up that battle right there.

The acting is, overall, very solid. Casa Maelstrom favorite Simon Pegg does a nice job as Scotty and Karl Urban steals the show as "Bones" McCoy, channeling the late DeForest Kelley without seeming like a parody. Zoe Saldana plays the Uhura role Nichelle Nichols wishes Uhura had been wrttten for her. John Cho (Harold, of "Harold and Kumar") plays a tough guy Sulu, while Anton Yelchin (Bird from "!huff") does a super-young Chekov (with heavier accent than Walter Koneig) to round out the core crew.

The action is pretty good. Kirk is drawn as a rash, arrogant, cocky SOB, and this often results in him getting the crap beaten out of him. (He gets beaten up by redshirts! Who are actually portrayed as pretty tough in this, in contrast to the original series.) They resist the urge to make him a superhero, good at everything, which gives the rest of the crew a chance to do their things.

So, if I consider it a decent homage to the past and a good, fresh summer action flick, why am I sort of "meh"? I think because it's not really great at either. One thing that Star Trek is known for is absurd plot resolutions, the sci-fi equivalent of deus ex machina. "The Next Generation" was so awful in this regard, that it probably put "reversing the polarity" into the cultural lexicon.

There are plenty of absurd situations which might be suspenseful if one didn't know how things sort of had to turn out. And even if you don't watch the show, there are certain things you know. So when Kirk is stranded on a remote planet with no way (in the story's own terms) to catch up to the plot, you know that some sort of technological magic is going to have to arise.

This ultimately diminishes the movie. I would've liked to see a reboot like the Bond reboot that eschewed the dumber aspects of the franchise.

The other thing that really diminishes it is Leonard Nimoy. Not that I don't love the guy, or that he does a bad job. It's nice to see him don the ears again after 15 years. But he's a crutch, the deus ex the machina. He acts as both fan service and plot device, and I thank God they didn't resurrect Shatner for Kirk, despite the pressure. (Kirk pretty definitively died in the first TNG movie.)

The whole thing feels a little stale to me, even with the new angle and approach. Now I'm not sure a (much) better outcome was actually possible here--certainly much worse outcomes were--so I'm disinclined to cast any stones. The kids should like it, the fans (who are a shrinking base, I think) maybe less so, depending on how invested they are in the original history.

The Boy liked it quite a bit, saying it was a lot more than he expected. The two Trek fans I know (including the one I saw it with) also liked it. My mom's convinced, well-trained as she is, that they'll move the new franchise in to merge with the old history. I'm trying to explain that the whole point of the movie was to reimagine a lot of this stuff. We have a bet that a certain minor character that died is (or isn't, I say) going to come back in a later movie as a result.

There's a lot about this movie that is really well done, too. The production values are quite good. They eschewed the trend of making things darker, both with the physical setting and attitude, and kept it light, even when things were, plot-wise, dire.

Strangely, the music is sort of disappointing. Michael Giacchino, who did the marvelous scores for The Incredibles and Ratatouille, never really delivers the goods with a iconic, hummable tune a la Alexander Courage (who wrote the theme to the original) or Jerry Goldsmith (who wrote the movie theme which became the theme for "The Next Generation").

Maybe I'm just a grouch, here, or still burnt out from past disappointments, not feeling energized (no pun intended) by the new stuff, and not excited enough by the old stuff to really have that carry me through.

It's not that I thought it was bad, it's just that it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be.


  1. I really love the earlier STTNG. There was one season with a Dr. Pulaski, who added a lot to the show. Picard needs somebody to clash with. Anyway, she went away (to LA Law I think) and Dr. Crusher came back. bo-ring in comparison.

    OK, I'm done being a geek. Please don't let trooper see this... amen.

  2. Aw, if you can't geek-out on the Internet, where can you?

    Interesting about Pulaski: I hated her. I love Diana Muldaur--she was in some pretty good original series episodes--but I thought Pulaski was a McCoy clone, and that they re-wrote Data's character to be more like Spock. (They invalidated his first season aspirations to love, e.g., with Yar.)

    I also liked Gates McFadden's gentler, nurturing doctor as a contrast to McCoy--or maybe I just thought she was hot. Heh.

  3. I myself enjoyed Enterprise. It did take a darker, retrebution angle in the season after 9/11 (2001-2002) that I thought actually cheapened the concept of Star Trek as the 'Enlightened Human', but it did add some intersting storylines.

  4. I thought Pulaski was a McCoy cloneYes, they were definitely borrowing from the Kirk/McCoy dynamic. But so many of the other crew on STTNG are pretty bland with everyone in perfect harmony all the time... I think the show benefitted from her prickliness.

  5. I never liked STTNG as I thought it to just be French bureaucrats in space with a shrink and a flying day care center to boot!

    Plus, some of the "councilor" episodes revealed some ugliness about ST that I never lost my taste for...

  6. Ron, Some episodes definitely make me go, Ugh, this is what the UN would do. And Troi is the worst character ever.

  7. Ron--

    Kind of curious what you're referring to.

    Sirtis could've been the Shatner of the new series, you know. They were all so cool and happy, but in the first season, Troi was always experiencing whatever emotion she was detecting.

    It was usually pretty dumb, granted, but at least someone was showing emotion. Heh.

  8. Well...part of my objection to Troi was the way the whole character was handled. For example, the "nude Betazoid" schtick was awful; smirky, unfunny...just...ick!

    Unlike McCoy, Troi seemed to have some authority on board or not? I was never sure. Plus, what they called "therapy" just struck me as bland indoctrination of What Starfleet Wants People To Be rather than something where people could be genuinely different. Look how they treated that one ensign (forgetting the name off hand) who made fantasy versions of the crew to fight with in the holodeck! Wouldn't that be one of the most obvious things that people would do with a holodeck? (not THE most obvious thing...ahem)

    The original series people seemed more human because...well, they were all kind of jerks, as well as being cool! They weren't the pretty automatons that the STTNG people seem to me...and the Voyager people even worse so! (I exempt the cool Deep Space Nine characters, generally)

  9. Re "ick": I recommend, for your viewing pleasure (and Troop's, if he's reading this), the Gene Roddenberry movie, "Pretty Maids All In A Row" starring Rock Hudson as a serial killer, and Angie Dickinson as a barely-and-not-for-long sexually repressed school teacher. Hudson's plot involves getting Dickinson involved with the awkward virginal John David Carson, to keep her from talking to cop Telly Savalas.

    I don't quite understand the logic, but it boils down to a lot of sleazy sex, in one of the sleaziest movies ever made.

    Roddenberry was a perv.

    I agree with you re Barclay. First, Dwight Schultz is one of the best actors to grace the series. I watched "Voyager" while he was on. I thought they killed him because he made everyone else look bad. Or maybe it was because he was one of the few characters with character.


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