Last week, on an urge, I revisited all three of JJ Abrams Star Trek movies, and it got me thinking about the Trek Universe (again) and how I’d change it (again)
When we start watching and become fans of a TV series or a movie franchise we enter into a business arrangement that is implicit, that after they get our money, we get what we want out of the exchange. What is it we expect to get from our relationship with the Trek franchise? Excellently depicted, excellent and intelligent stories, told well about the human condition when faced with the unknown, and the infinite dark reaches of outer space, aliens and alien worlds, along with mysteries, action, and themes revolving around a more compassionate, and positive view of an evolved, better, humanity in a future of outer space exploration and advanced technology.
Does the JJ Trekverse keep up its end of the bargain? Only partly, and this article is an explanation about why I think that’s the correct answer. In a way, we asked for it, Genre fans like you and me clamoring for more, more, more. More good quality science fiction movies and TV to help us see some inspiring, captivating, stylish and enthralling visions of the future more captivating than our own. We asked for it, and in response, along with a couple of thoroughly good TV series, we got what I like to refer to as the JJ Trekverse. What’s wrong with the JJ Trekverse? Not much really, but there sure is lots of room for improvement, it just needs a few tweaks.
Star Trek has never gotten accused of issues regarding widespread lack of plausibility, top-notch production quality took care of that, but there are other things JJ does not get right. For one thing, the films so far have their focus too much on the wrong things; recreating moments from earlier Trek films and the crew of the Enterprise. I mean I revisited Star Trek: Into Darkness (2009) the other night, and the opening scene was a recreation of the scene from The Wrath Of Khan (1982) where Kirk is feeling ennui over his advancing age, and McCoy waxes philosophical with him while they drink. The only thing missing was the antique glasses. JJ was so far off course with that scene regarding the role these films should play in the Trek Universe it’s maddening.
Can it be that JJ doesn’t understand what we want from these films or the role they should play in going forward with the franchise? We want intelligent, engaging (and thought-provoking whenever possible) and memorable stories like the stories from the series. New stories, not remakes of the same stories; we would like to see a realistic portrayal of engaging characters dealing with new stuff the best they know how not just a collection of cutesy interactions like a Muppet Show sketch.
It seems that The Orville, although pretty much a clone of Star Trek TNG hit on something big and vital last year that the Trek Universe has been missing when the series tweaked their characters making them more human by merely having them do stuff like drink, do drugs, have to go to the bathroom and talk openly about sex. It’s time for a new age of Star Trek to begin, and thankfully, it looks like CBS is entirely on board with several series and maybe some more movies in the works. It sure would be nice to see some fresh hero’s (or antihero) journey kind of stuff, not a pale remake of earlier used material, please. The time for adult science fiction, “R” or even MA-17 science fiction films and TV shows are already here. With digital streaming pretty much assured as the future of entertainment, it’s likely to continue because competition will make it happen. Naturally, I am not referring to the Flesh Gordon school of adult sci-fi, but something a little more like HBO does already
Thinking back on the history of science fiction in film, it took an oddly back and forth direction in its evolution. Starting with the big-budget Metropolis (1927), a smart movie with a lot of engaging ideas, and then science fiction on film began a long tumble into disrepute as stuff only fit for children and half-wits. Starting with matinee serials and eventually, in the forties and fifties, the studios all began pumping out cheap “B” movies about giant monsters affected by radiation, etc.. to amuse the new customer on the block: teenagers. It’s only relatively recently that genre fans have been demanding more from the people that produce the things we watch as fans
As a dyed-in-the-wool science fiction fan myself, I am reasonably sure Trek fans are not interested in seeing scenes from previous films redone in nearly the same manner. We are not looking to see the same movies made over again in a similar way; we want to cover new ground. We love the idea of the ship full of humans exploring the unknown ad the mystery and action that goes along with it, but what we are not interested in is a parody of stuff we have already seen. Sure they go on adventures, solve mysteries and get into trouble, but at their core, the JJ Trekverse films are a sentimental journey for fans of the earlier movies and TV shows so they can relive the thrills and fun of being in the Trekverse again.
With the possible exception of the first film that introduces us to this new incarnation of the stalwart ship’s crew, there is so much cuteness going on; the screenplays become like a wink at the audience contest that seeks to exploit the audience’s familiarity with the characters and the ship. Do we need constant reminders of the earlier films and shows? I say no, we do not.
In short, The Trek Universe is continually at risk of becoming a sappy, sentimental, unintentional parody of what it’s trying to recreate. The franchise is at risk of becoming this overly nostalgic journey for fans of the television series and more recent arrivals who are satisfied with the notion of seeing these stereotype characters play out their cute and cuddly routines designed to make us smile. It may as well be a video on a loop we can repeatedly see without end, why even bother writing a story?
Under the circumstances, for the most part, the cast does an excellent job as stand-ins for the original actors. Pine is pretty enjoyable as the JJ Trekverse version of a noticeably more borderline psychotically disturbed James T. Kirk, and the rest of the cast is enjoyably capable too considering that depending on the role, it becomes an effort to mimic the work of another actor. Both Simon Pegg and Karl Urban do that well; Urban’s performance is very reminiscent of DeForest Kelley in his portrayal of McCoy and JJ knows it so Urban gets used lots to sprinkle the films with lots of scenes involving the cuteness spoken about earlier in this article. While we’re on the topic, it wouldn’t hurt to get those fight scenes up to the new bar established by Daredevil, because it’s a little embarrassing to have your fight scenes upstaged by something on TV.
One of the major problems I have with JJ Trekverse films are the villains; they are not genuinely memorable or, memorably evil. In Star Trek the stories are all about the villains, it’s the villains that create the situations that help define the Trek characters we love, so its required the villains are exceptional with exceptionally evil ideas (Thanos anyone?), and that’s one way the JJ Trekverse has dropped the ball.
Another thing about the Trek Universe that I feel is lacking is a depiction of life in the future. Outside of shots of Starfleet Academy, I, and I think lots of fans would enjoy getting more looks at life in the future in general on our planet, in a future where aliens are an everyday part of life, or living on some other alien world in the fashion of (gasp; dare I say it?) Star Wars.
While I am at it, I may as well take this opportunity to say something too about the Enterprise and the way it looks in the JJ Trekverse; it’s not a good thing. Where’s the funk? Everyone knows the ship has to be a little less shiny, perfect, and bright. Heck, the original Enterprise had mechanical problems all the time, and the bridge didn’t look like the lovechild of an Apple store, and a Rodeo Avenue makeup spa with all that overly-bright LED lighting, plexiglass, and chrome. I repeat, not good. The Enterprise is a stalwart ship, with lots of heart but I do think having it be so perfect is a little boring and less interesting than say a ship like the Serenity from the film of the same name. Enterprise is a lady, but she’s no delicate flower, and she is not an over-the-top-vision of a modern disco boutique, and making her one is a mistake. She’s an exploration vessel, but she’s also a tried and true battleship, a little dirty and maybe dinged up a little from experience.
Now here is the bridge from Star Trek Discovery, they got it right, or at least mo’ better.
Overall the all-important art direction is for the most part pretty good, that is nothing stands out that comes to mind about the look of these films that’s too annoying. Fans made sure that lens -flare issue was taken care of and dumped.
Without going into the discussion about reboots vs. doing something new and original, The JJ Trekverse is okay, and I suppose it is a good thing in a way. It found a niche and filled it in a world that needed some Trek on its screens again. There sure is plenty of room for improvement though. I think it’s important to remember the Trek Universe cannot, and should not be static; it needs to evolve and change, hopefully for the better. They did that more than once successfully with Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) (1987-1994), Voyager (1995-2001), my personal favorite (mostly) Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), and the also very enjoyable prequel Enterprise (2001-2005). In truth, my greatest hope for the future of the Trek Universe lies in the television series Star Trek Discovery (2017-?), not the movies (barring some radical new direction). Discovery has, IMHO has already proven it is the greatest thing to come along in the Trek Universe in a long time. Discovery has already out-powered all of the JJ Trekverse movies combined on science fiction premises introduced in the first season alone. And unlike the recent forgettable films, The science fiction ideas presented in the first season have me eagerly awaiting season two, which is not that surprising considering the writer’s stable they have on that show.
Of course, the fans need to get a grip on reality to so to speak. As much as we wish for the perfect science fiction movie, television, series, comic or just an excellent, perfect story, perfection doesn’t exist; not in writing anyway. In a way, Ultimately forgettable, I suppose the films of the JJ Trekverse, and every other movie for that matter, are like people; flawed, but sometimes that’s okay, its what makes them unique. What would you change about the Star Trek franchise going forward?