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?

Checking in

So yeah. It’s been a while.

I’ve been watching loads of things, but not much that’s inspired me to take the time to write a full entry. Here are a few I remember offhand.

Accatone: Eh. Even in Italian I can tell the acting can’t have been that great.

Chi-raq: Terrific. I wouldn’t have thought you could really pull off a modernized Lysistrata, much less transplant it to Chicago’s gang wars, but it works like crazy. Larger-than-life movie musical show-stoppers shift seamlessly to raw, emotional confrontations, really moving even when they’re rendered in rhyming verse. I’m coming late to Spike Lee but I’m glad I did.

Dollhouse: 3 or 4 episodes in. I’m enjoying it.

Downton Abbey: Not as pointless as I’d expected, though it still seems like a bit of a relic. I’m amazed a show like this can still get made.

Man of Steel: The first hour or so is really remarkable. After that it starts falling apart rapidly, with what seem like random cuts, fuzzy motivations, miscastings, and interminable, confusing fight sequences. Still not quite as bad as people said it was.

Oedipus Rex: The Pasolini version. Bizarre and remarkable, but desolate and almost pre-human.

Only Lovers Left Alive: I would have loved this small-scale vampire movie when I was in college, and I love it now for different reasons, but I’m not sure I would have been into it during the years intervening. I might have more to say about this later, but for now, two fangs up.

Pushing Daisies: So goofy, almost too cute, but really fun. Looking forward to watching the rest.

Star Trek: 4 episodes in, I think? The same themes recurring: perfect harmony disrupted by the wildness of our emotions and desires and failings. Humans elevated to near-omnipotence, needing to be brought down. It’s starting to get repetitive, but I’m sure it’ll branch out soon.

The Twilight Zone: Feels truly ancient now, more than half a century later. Still highly watchable.

I also wanted to comment that a while back I had occasion to throw on “The Doctor’s Wife” and was shocked at how unmoved I was. I still think it’s brilliant, but I just couldn’t get invested in anything that was happening or care about any of the characters. I don’t know if that’s Neil Gaiman’s fault so much as that I’m finding Moffat’s Who oddly difficult to rewatch right now, particularly the Matt Smith era. Maybe it’s just that, as with the Eccleston era, watching it feels a bit like watching a “lame duck” Doctor; knowing Eccleston was already gone prevented me from getting too invested in his Doctor, while knowing Capaldi’s the current guy makes the Smith era feel oddly sealed off. And yet I don’t have the same reaction to going back and watching Tennant. Very weird. Of course, the Doctor I feel most like watching right now is Pertwee, so go figure.

Star Trek: two episodes in

I’ve started watching the original Star Trek. You might be shocked that I’ve never really seen it before, but I’ve always been a dilettante when it comes to nerdy stuff. I probably spent almost as much time with horror and mystery when I was a kid as I did with fantasy and science fiction, and that hasn’t really changed. I’ve seen a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but largely because I watched it with my mom. I’ve sampled DS9 and Voyager, and seen all the movies, but I’ve never really been a Trek fan as such.

I don’t know if that’s likely to change, but I’ve REALLY been surprised by the two episodes I’ve watched so far, “The Man Trap” and “Charlie ‘X’.” Both are really atmospheric and strange, and in contrast to the almost unbearably well-adjusted TNG atmosphere, the original Enterprise crew seem a barely contained cauldron of id. I was surprised that the Spock/Uhura romance in the JJ Abrams films had a clear precedent here in these episodes; Uhura is super flirtatious with Spock (and though he’s relatively impassive, there’s a silent tension there, not at all a blank robotic incomprehension like you’d get from Data). Uhura has quite a bit more to do than I would have expected, and even Yeoman Rand, the supposed bombshell, is a reasonably substantial character at this stage and not just a bimbo.

But that sexual tension isn’t just between Spock and Uhura, it’s everywhere. Those miniskirts still look pretty scandalous, and there are several moments and lines (“man-to-man is one thing, but…”) that surely seemed as homo-suggestive back then as they do today. Plus you have one episode about an alien that can pluck from your head an image of the man or woman you most desire and show it to you in order to seduce you for the salt in your body, followed immediately by one about a teenager with hormones out of control, no sense of etiquette, and almost magical powers over life and matter. Unchecked hunger and desire, dangerous in part because the Enterprise crew is barely checked in those same departments.

It’s a fascinating show so far. I can see why it inspired such a legacy, even if most of what came after seems rather pale in imitation.

star trek

It’s really good. I enjoyed it a lot.

It’s not great. I don’t think any single movie (with the possible and obvious exception of The Wrath of Khan) or episode (with the possible and obvious exception of the Next Generation episode “The Inner Light”) has been great on its own. What makes Star Trek is the continuity — the emotional investment we make in the starship “family” and their approach to the universe. I say “we,” but while I’ve seen all the movies, most if not all of the Next Generation episodes (which were airing when I was growing up), and a smattering of DS9, Voyager, and the original series (and the pilot of Enterprise), I’ve never really been a Trekkie.

This movie won’t completely change that, though I’ll admit that for the first time since maybe Wrath of Khan I came out of a Star Trek movie eager for a sequel. It’s not because the plot was great; it was actually pretty awful, a wacky time-travel mess that didn’t even make sense while I was watching it, much less afterward. It was a clever way to deal with continuity, to give the reimagining a “science”-fiction justification rather than just running with it unexplained, but it didn’t really stand up to scrutiny. But then neither did most of the other things we saw, such as a bunch of cadets (or at least barely-graduated Starfleet students) being thrown onto bridge positions aboard actual starships, an experienced captain who wrote a thesis on a disaster whose twin he later fails to recognize (so that Kirk can figure it out and explain it to him), a mysterious substance that detonates to form a singularity but can be transported in glass tubes, random sentient aliens on the run from either George Lucas or Guillermo del Toro, and a big confrontation between Spock and Kirk that I won’t spoil but which isn’t at all…logical.

However, luckily, J.J. Abrams has built this thing around what really matters in Star Trek: affability and optimism. The crew are terrifically cast and all fun to watch — Uhura, Spock, Kirk, Chekov, Sulu, and Scotty — and several of them are actually pretty sexy, something I never thought I’d say about those particular characters (for the record: Uhura, Kirk, and Chekov). This is a Trek that gets downright slapstick a lot of the time, just silly and manic, and it actually works. This in itself is quite an accomplishment. But the crew are also all energetic, can-do youngsters — intellectual achievers, lateral thinkers, terrific athletes, and highly original geniuses.

It sounds nauseating, doesn’t it? But it’s not, and even if it’s utopian fantasy, it’s one I’d actually want to live in, or at least live up to. This, as I understand it, was what Gene Roddenberry was aiming for, and I’m gratified to finally have gotten a glimpse of what Trekkies everywhere love so much about their fictional home.