Some Thoughts About the Evolution of Star Trek

Over this current quarter break (which, sadly, ends today) I again watched the two recent Star Trek reboots by J.J. Abrams starring Christopher Pine, Zachary Quinto, Carl, Urban, and Zoë Saldana: Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013). I also watched Star Trek: First Contact (1996). And within the past year I finally got around to watching Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan (1982). It got me reflecting a bit about my own personal reaction to the development of the franchise.

I will add my usual disclaimer that I’m not even trying to talk “objectively” about the evolution of the franchise. Each person has their own unique tastes and reasons for liking or disliking any particular aspect of the Star Trek fictional universe. This is just my own subjective experience. (Note: I added bullet points for this tl;dr post at the bottom if one wants to look there first to decide if any of this will be of interest.)

I guess as such things are measured now in the cultural geek zeitgeist, I would not qualify as a die-hard Trekkie by any means. As a teenager I loved The Original Series (TOS) television show. The show was on too late in the evening for my parents to let me watch it during its first three years from 1966-1969. I began watching it in syndication around 1970 and soon thereafter became a long-haired youthful teenager of the early to mid 1970s. I became a devoted sci-fi and fantasy book fan/avid reader from about the age of 12. So of course Star Trek immediately became a favorite TV show of all time.

Star Trek: The Next Generation I also enjoyed quite a lot. By then I was a young adult, and I enjoyed sharing the experience of watching the revival and continuation of the Star Trek fictional universe mainly with other young adult friends at work. However, I certainly did not view every episode of the series, and I didn’t take in the entire series all the way to the end. I did watch enough to become well familiar with the series characters and its recurring plots and themes, though. Still, overall my interest began to wane, which I will elaborate on below.

I never watched the spin-offs such as Deep Space Nine, Voyager, or Enterprise. I’ve watched bits of an episode or two of the animated series out of curiosity, but its not my cup of tea. I’ve never read any Star Trek novels or film novelizations.

Here is what I’ve seen *, to the best of my recollection:

  • Star Trek, The Original Series (1966 – 1969) (I’d be shocked if I haven’t seen every episode)
  • Star Trek: Next Generation (1987-1994) (saw most of the episodes overall, but I missed the last couple of seasons)
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
  • Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
  • Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
  • Star Trek (2009)
  • Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Okay, so in assembling this list I realize that my interest actually first began to flag a bit during the mid 80s after The Search for Spock. I didn’t analyze it at the time, but in looking back on it now I think it was that I just didn’t really care as much for the aging cast of TOS. In particular, while I had tremendously enjoyed Shatner as the youthful, dashing swashbuckler of the TOS, he had by this point in his career become for me too “Denny Crane-like.” And in general I just couldn’t take the same enjoyment in watching the TOS characters during their late middle-age. I was also an undergraduate in college by then; and lacking a sense of strong motivation to begin with, I also had way too many distractions to take time to go to the theater to see the last three films featuring the TOS cast (all together).

The Next Generation (TNG) did for a time breathe new life into the fictional universe for me in its first four or five years. But by this time I was also beginning to feel that the lack of truly top-flight special effects (now CGI) was for me seriously puncturing and deflating the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ balloon that carries the entire viewing experience aloft. I did feel an affinity for the TNG’s characters (although not as greatly as TOS’s). But I became increasingly conscious of the sense that the show was filmed on a studio set despite the better quality set design in comparison with TOS. (Well, was there anywhere to go but up? ;-p) Also, some of the series’ conventions were for me becoming patently stale–particularly, the obligatory combat scenes. Increasingly, I could no longer effortlessly escape into/buy-into on those conventions on own terms any longer. Unfortunately, I found myself not caring much anymore about whatever was happening in that fictional world, i.e., the exploits of the characters and the stories about them.

It has I’m sure been argued by many fans that Star Trek has historically worked better as a TV series than in the feature film format. After The Search for Spock I began to experience something along these lines (although as mentioned it was more consciously that the aging cast had started to spoil my memory of them as I most fondly remembered them from the TOS TV series). The special effects of Star Trek’s TOS cast feature length films hadn’t really “arrived” yet (i.e., were still too primitive) for my taste. And TNG’s feature films were essentially just extended episodes of the TV series.

I feel no interest or inclination to watch TOS TV series episodes at this point because for me now they simply constitute fond memories of adolescence. I “can’t go home again” with respect to what made the series originally enjoyable. The tone of the entire series is now way too camp for me. And the production value is so poor that I’m constantly reminded of it in a way that breaks immersion.

So, basically for the last two decades I’ve had little interest in the Star Trek fictional universe…

That is until the recent Abrams’ reboots. Which I absolutely love. And which have totally rekindled my enthusiasm for the fictional universe.

How so? Well, first of all I can now finally relax and completely ‘willingly suspend disbelief’ for this fictional world due to the extraordinary CGI development over the last couple of decades. The fictional world can now feel to me both normalized as something that could very much exist as an everyday reality at some point in humanity’s evolution, and astonishing in depicting a world that we can as yet only dream of in our imaginations. (Whereas for me earlier forms could not, although I didn’t mind that as a teenager watching TOS.)

And secondly, I’m extremely flexible in my willingness to see the TOS characters somewhat reinterpreted and to have their shoes filled with new actors. I actually really like seeing the characters refreshed as such. I know this is heresy to many Trekkies, but I actually prefer the Christopher Pine version of Kirk to Shatner’s. Or at least I prefer Pine’s to Shatner’s feature film portrayals of the character. For me it’s basically a draw between reboot Pine-Kirk and TOS TV series Shatner-Kirk. But even there, for reasons to be explained below I now give the nod to reboot-Kirk.

Leonard Nimoy as TOS TV series Spock is essentially impossible to surpass. But for my taste Quinto has done him justice and matched him (well enough). And again, for reasons about to be elaborated, in some aspects I actually like Quinto’s version better now. (To add more fuel to the heresy.) The reboot depiction of Spock as truly half Vulcan and half human, in closer to equal measures, is just more compelling to me than one we’re accustomed to in which his Vulcan identity supremely dominates by successfully repressing his emotions and emotional connections. We’re used to seeing Spock as about 95% Vulcan and 5% human. Youthful reboot Spock is more like about 75% Vulcan to 25% human. And it’s just more interesting (to me). He’ll probably evolve to bury his human side almost completely. But until he does I like this guy better.

Karl Urban as Bones is such a pure pleasure to watch in channeling Deforest Kelly, that I actually think I enjoy him more as well (if just for the sheer uncanniness of it). Reboot Bones is a bit darker and edgier in certain ways (more obviously bitter and twisted up, it seems), and for me that works well to pique my interest about what makes Leonard McCoy tick.

Uhura has been hugely reinvented, with the character’s importance elevated above that of Bones’. At first I wasn’t sure if I cared for that. But in the second viewings of both reboot films I found myself going with that flow; and I very much enjoyed the acting performance of Zoë Saldana and the re-imagined character identity and backstory for her. She is badass.

Similarly, while I was at first dubious about Simon Peg’s reboot version of Scotty I have come to accept it as good fun. (I’ve never been particularly invested in that character to begin with.) John Cho is fine as Sulu, although the actor is of Korean descent whereas the character is supposed to be Japanese. Chechov is another character that doesn’t matter to me either way; but reinventing him as a curly-headed blond 17 year-old seemed a little strange, actually. (Why make him 17? According to Wikipedia in the reboot he’s a science prodigy, but still.)

Beyond each character’s re-imagining, casting, and the acting performances, what I really love about the reboots is the emotional character interaction and the various personality chemistries–both of which work so wonderfully in these two films. The bond between young Jim Kirk and Spock… the surprising “shipping” of Uhura and Spock… the growing friendship trio of Kirk, Spock, and Bones… these are all immensely satisfying to me. I love learning the backstories for these characters, and how their relationships were established. It doesn’t bother me that the reboot doesn’t deal with any complex social or moral issues. I’m simply enjoying learning who the characters are all over again–but with surprises along the way! I have discovered that want to be surprised, that is. So anyway, all of this is more than enough for me in terms of content; at least for now, at this particular stage of the overall evolution of the Star Trek fictional universe via this reboot.

The humor in these films (particularly Into Darkness) is also subtlety interwoven into the fabric of the film a very satisfying way. I found myself smiling and chuckling a lot in the second viewings, and appreciating how well the films’ jokes flavored the meal.

Some have criticized Star Trek (2009) for, at the film’s end, having Star Fleet promote cadet Kirk to captain of the Enterprise before he even officially completes his academy training, regarding this as implausible. This did not bother me. James Kirk has just literally saved planet Earth! His promotion had Captain Pike’s endorsement (and indeed is likely happening mainly because of it). Pike is evidently held in the highest esteem by Star Fleet (note that he had been given command of the flagship vessel of the fleet). But above all, Kirk is truly an epic character. In his own fictional universe Kirk is on par with any of the Greek heroes in theirs. He is destined to go on to become one of the most important men in the history of human civilization. He is special.

Christopher Pine is obviously not James Shatner. And whereas Quinto and Urban happily were able to do extraordinarily good jobs at channeling their inspirations from TOS, I think Abrams was wise to simply “let Pine be Pine” as a thoroughly engaging version of young James T. Kirk. As fun and endearing as Shatner’s youthful Kirk is from the TOS TV show, I actually find there is more “heart” to Pine’s reboot Kirk. He’s a bit more three-dimensional as a person, and has more vulnerabilities. I like actually him better as a person than TOS Kirk.

I’ll add a final thought here about the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in Into Darkness : he is miscast, pure and simple. Cumberbatch is always entertaining, and he does his usual impeccable acting job despite the miscasting. But the Khan character that we have come to know via Ricardo Montalban is regal. He is a sauntering proud lion who would convey enormous gravitas in his physical presence and charisma. Cumberbatch’s Khan is more reptilian by comparison, like a sneaky snake. This is one case where I do feel that the reinvention of the character did not work so well. But in any event, this casting choice fail wasn’t enough to ruin the experience of the film for me.

Okay, well as usual I’ve gone on way too long. I’m well into tl;dr territory by now. Here are the bullet points:

  • I lost interest in Star Trek for the last 20 years mainly because the lack of convincing special effects did not allow me to willingly suspend disbelief.
  • At this point I don’t care for TNG (either the series of feature films) or the TOS feature films. I now only like the TOS TV series (as a memory) and two recent reboot films. Sadly, I don’t actively enjoy the TOS TV series anymore.
  • I actually like the reboot characterizations a lot better than the TOS ones! And I like the character interaction and chemistries for the reboots tremendously. Total win for me.
  • The reboots’ visual graphics (CGI) refreshes this entire fictional universe again for me in such a way that I am excited to “boldly go” again.

* Addendum: I watched Star Trek: Nemesis (a TNG film, and the final one, I believe) since writing this and all I could think of was Dr. Evil whenever I saw Shinzon:

Poor Thomas Hardy. He’s a really good actor, and I can’t really fault him for unintentionally reminding us of Dr. E. I’m in the minority of people that loves his voicing of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. But anyway, the association with Dr. Evil made this film a pleasure for probably all the wrong reasons!

Some Thoughts About the Evolution of Star Trek

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