Star Trek Beyond

I’ve just finished “Dagger of the Mind” in my trek through the original series, which I’ve never really watched before. The premise concerns a penal colony run by a supposed expert in the field of rehabilitation and the humane treatment of criminals. It turns out (and I’m sorry to spoil this 50-year-old television show for you) that his latest rehab treatment involves locking people’s memories away so that they experience pain when they try to recall them, and replacing those memories with a bland subservient new personality. Like many of the original series episodes I’ve watched so far, it has intriguing ideas, though the follow-through is lacking. It seems to pit the Starfleet idea of ideal society against an experiment in social improvement that turns out to be cruel and unusual. This also describes a lot of the Next Generation episodes I remember watching as a kid: one vision of society against another. How do you find common ground? How do you work out the conflicts? I was never the biggest Star Trek fan, but I see the appeal of an SF series grounded in this kind of exploration.

I’d hoped Beyond would see this sort of storytelling return to the Star Trek universe, but of course it didn’t. None of the movies really have spent any time doing that — it’s what a TV series is for. This wasn’t a big deal when they were reuniting the original series cast and the Next Gen cast for their movies; they’d had lengthy runs on TV doing reasonably intelligent stuff, so the movies were more a series of victory laps than anything else. But this new cast haven’t had a TV series to back them up, so they’re stuck doing big-screen blockbusters.

Buried down in the mix of this one is an idea of sorts. We’re told the Federation believes in cooperation, while Krall, this year’s antagonist (not a jazz pianist, surprisingly), believes that it’s competition and constant struggle that keeps a species strong. His goal, therefore, is to kill everyone aboard a large artificial planet with a biological weapon. I was hazy on how this would advance his cause; it seemed as much about revenge for his own perceived obsolescence as anything philosophical. But it’s possible I just missed the explanation, since Krall at times approaches Bane-esque levels of incomprehensibility. It seemed strange to me that Krall, a military man, would exhibit such disdain for the idea of order and cooperation, since these are generally important characteristics of a functioning army, and that all of his flunkies seemed in perfect sync at all times, rather than competing among themselves to illustrate his principles. Perhaps even more disturbing is the “old saying” Scotty uses to convince his new friend Jaylah that they’re better off working together, about how a stick in a bundle won’t break. The word “fascism” literally derives from the word for a bundle of sticks, and it’s for this exact reason. You get the feeling that Krall and the Federation really could find a lot in common if they’d only sit down and chat over a glass of Romulan ale.

Watching the original series has also made it more difficult for me to continue to appreciate the new cast. I’m sorry to say Quinto’s Spock is the biggest bummer here. Nimoy is truly a force to be reckoned with in the original series, a genuine badass, hard as steel and no bullshit allowed, one hundred percent committed to the role, and still coming off as compassionate and humane whenever it’s called for. It’s not Quinto’s fault that he hasn’t got Nimoy’s facial structure and that he looks like a pale puffy little kid in that unfortunate haircut, but it’s true. Nevertheless, he could be a lot better if the writers stopped confusing him with Data; you’d think a gag where he pretends not to understand the idiom “horseshit” (and then understands it perfectly a few lines later) wouldn’t get past a guy like Simon Pegg, but you’d be wrong. So that’s sad. Chris Pine fares a little better, but the truth is that, at least early on in the original show, Shatner was every bit the leading man he thought he was. From what I’ve heard about how much he bugged the rest of the cast, I’m even more impressed with his acting, because the charisma and affection just pour off him on camera. We may think of him as a caricature now, but he’s just hypnotic in that first season. Chris Pine never really gets a chance to be hypnotic because the stunts never let up. Poor Yelchin, Cho, and Saldana are perfectly appealing, but there just isn’t much room in the script for them to do much. Apart from Pegg, perhaps only Karl Urban shines at all, whose Bones is entertainingly cranky and pessimistic in a sea of earnest faces.

That woman on the poster with the chalk-white skin and the black facial stripes is Jaylah, an alien survivalist who leads the crew to the resources they need to save the day. She’s my favorite character in the film, mainly because I like that archetype — the ninjalike commando with scant respect for protocol or authority — and because it’s fun that she likes “classical music” with “the beats and shouting,” meaning Public Enemy. Even so, she feels a bit grafted on to a thin plot that didn’t really need her; the crew could have found those resources on their own, and though her tech helps them win one of the pivotal fights, it wasn’t much more than a tactical advantage. I’m glad she was there, but I wish she’d had more of a reason to be.

This is the third Star Trek movie in a row to be about a terrorist seeking misguided revenge, and I really hope they find a new story next time around, one that makes better use of their characters and actually bothers to explore an idea among all the motorcycle stunts and explosions. If they don’t, they’ll probably still have an entertaining movie — which this generally was — but then why call it Star Trek?

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