I haven’t seen Star Trek Into Darkness yet, but I’d like to offer a few thoughts before I go where many have gone before.
The reaction of a few hardcore Trek fans, i.e., those who became Trekkers during the run of the original series, during it’s resurgence in reruns in the early 70s (that’s when I joined in), or during the run of Next Generation, are a little disappointed. They feel J.J. Abrams has destroyed what it was that made Trek Trek.
Here’s the hard truth, Trekkers: Star Trek is dead, but it wasn’t J.J. who killed it.
It’s in the movies themselves where Trek stopped being real Trek.
Star Trek is best on television, if by best you mean where the show focuses on the Enterprise family and how they respond to new worlds and new situations. That’s something that can only be accomplished week after week.
When you’re with a family week in and week out, that’s living with them. The bridge becomes home, and you see your family and friends in their natural element, they way they live every day. But when you only see them every two to three years (or longer), that’s like living in another city and coming for a visit. They have to pull out all the stops to show you a good time. You’re seeing them put on their best show. It’s not the same.
Star Trek on television was able to tell the smaller, more contained stories. You could get City On the Edge of Forever, Measure of a Man or The Inner Light on TV, but they would never do on a big screen where a movie studio puts up big money and needs many sweaty summer asses in the seats to recoup their investment. Up on the movie screen, the only stories that can be told are the big ones, the ones that guarantee action sequences and an excuse for big special effects. You have to have space battles and fight scenes.
And let’s face it, my Trekkie brethren and sistren: the movies weren’t as good as the TV shows when it comes to storytelling. Even the film Trekkies consider the best, Wrath of Khan, doesn’t come anywhere near in story quality to City on the Edge of Forever.
But are the movies better spectacle? Of course they are. Writ bigger on the big screen, they have to be.
The TOS movies were always about how our Enterprise family was aging and dealing with remaining relevant — already the familiarity with the characters was muted by age and time. The TNG movies featured stories that were pale imitations of much better episodes, but already even that cast was beginning to age.
And then we come to J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot, the most money Paramount had ever decided to spend on the franchise, and it paid off. It really was the first time a Trek movie had been done with the full financial backing of the studio (they were always looking at budgets cut to the bone on the films after The Motion Picture).
J.J.’s marching orders were to make the franchise appealing to a mass audience, to make it Star Wars size. And he succeeded. And to succeed, he had to do away with some of the elements that made Trek Trek… but we have to be honest, some of those elements were gone the moment Trek left the small screen in 1979. Tell me, which movie (short of TMP barely) was really about “seeking new life”?
J.J.’s Star Trek made more money, I’m told, on its opening day than the opening days of all the other Trek movies combined. Trek was suddenly mass appeal. Hardcore fans weren’t really happy about that, in the same way fans of indie bands aren’t happy when their favorite group suddenly comes up with a massive hit album. “They’re not as good now that they’ve sold out.”
Every big Trek film now follows a formula: Earth must be in direct jeopardy, there must be at least one huge space battle sequence, preferably several, and it must be filled with action and explosions. In other words, they have to all be summer blockbusters from now on.
All indications are that Star Trek Into Darkness more than fits the bill and is on its way to being a massive hit. And there’s nothing wrong with that. J.J. knows how to make a good summer action thriller, there’s no doubt about it. But is it really Star Trek? Probably not, but it doesn’t have to be. No matter who makes the movies, they won’t erase all the hours of great television that came before, hours that we can own or stream and re-watch to our hearts’ content.
Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of J.J. Abrams. I enjoy his version of Trek for what it is. They’re great action, have terrific special effects, and feature an extremely enjoyable cast – I especially like Chris Pine’s younger, brashier take on James T. Kirk. But I’m not suffering under any delusion that I’ll ever see “real” Star Trek up on the big screen.
It just wouldn’t fit.
Trek is dead. Long live Trek.