Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Some other Star Trek thoughts

Spoiler Warning for Star Trek Into Darkness.

Star Trek should not be a movie franchise.

Star Trek began as a lot of sci-fi does: a way of telling allegorical stories examining modern social issues divorced from the context that makes them controversial. It's a lot easier to tell stories about 1960s racism when it's about people who are literally half-black and half-white, or to explore humanist themes when the gods are giant computers and omnipotent children. On one hand, it's because those kinds of stories play better with the Nielsen families than an hour of the same regarding the real-world counterparts to those issues; on the other hand, it allows the writers to boil away the complexities of those issues--either to get to the heart of them or to stack the deck in favor of a particular position that might not hold up to scrutiny when held against reality.

Star Trek was also about exploring relationships between the ensemble cast, and showing a future where everyone could contribute equally regardless of race, gender, nationality, whatever. The future was bright and egalitarian, despite the miniskirts.

Star Trek was ostensibly a show about exploration, allowing the same core cast to visit a new locale every episode, and thus allowing for a different allegory and overarching message each episode. If the allegory was terrible or the message hamfisted or the excuse to use a preexisting Paramount backlot as a set were too obvious, then at least there was another chance the next week. As a result, Star Trek as a series was able to encompass many messages, many positions, and tell many fables in its time.

The Star Trek movies don't have much of this. Right from "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," they've mostly been exercises in spending bigger budgets. Make the ship bigger and brighter, buy snazzy new costumes, have more explosions and more expensive special effects. Raise the stakes: make things more dangerous, more exciting, more violent and over-the-top. There's never a need for a Star Trek movie to figure out how to make use of all these 1920s gangster costumes.

As a result, the Star Trek movies tend to be less about exploration, and less about exploring social issues through the allegorical lens of sci-fi. They've done both a few times--Star Trek IV has a pretty obvious message, I and V have Roddenberrian explorations of gods and religion, Insurrection has a new species and a new world and something to say about the Prime Directive and exploiting the resources of indigenous cultures.

But I don't know that any of those episodes works quite as well as the series did as exploring those themes. Maybe it's because a typical Star Trek morality play can't sustain a 2-hour movie; maybe it's because the focus is more on spectacle than allegory, using up those big Hollywood budgets. Maybe too much time is spent on making sure that every member of the ensemble has something to do. Again, a TV show has the advantage of giving different characters spotlights in different episodes. Maybe Sulu doesn't have more than one line this week, but next week he gets a subplot or something. The movies have to cram everyone in the ensemble into 2 hours or less, and that's difficult to juggle. As a result, the movies have a nasty tendency to be the Kirk/Spock/Bones show, and the only time that really hasn't been the case is in the Next Generation movies. Where they were the Picard/Data show.

Star Trek Into Darkness was what gelled all this in my mind, because it was a movie with no exploration, and only a fairly thin and muddy exploration of drone warfare and post-9/11 chickenhawkery, with no real clear message on at least one front. The movie might, like other Trek movies, have been saved by the strength of the cast and explorations of the relationships between them. Except that it became the Kirk/Spock/bones show. And worse, it relied on movies and TV from 30-plus years ago to give those relationships gravitas. By the time of the big climactic Kirk/Spock moment here, we'd seen them interact for a total of 4-ish hours. Contrast that with the original cast, who'd had eighty hours of stories under their belts by that point. There's no real emotional depth to that scene without the history between the characters, history that was wiped out by the last film.

The rest of the ensemble cast gets more sidelined than usual, and while Uhura and Scotty get some significant moments, Sulu's spotlight is basically a moment in the Captain's chair, and Chekov stumbles through being surrogate Scotty.

And then there's the lead villain, who has been stripped of all the tyrannical charm and larger-than-lifeness of his original incarnation to become a somewhat more ruthless and power-mad Neo-from-the-Matrix. Not to mention the gross whitewashing. I love Benedict Cumberbatch, but that was poor casting all around.

Star Trek Into Darkness was a big, flashy, fun action movie. It definitely felt like high stakes, even compared to the last movie's giant time-traveling battleship and imploded Vulcan. The battles, the set pieces, everything looked great. But there just wasn't enough else to it. Too much of the story was borrowed from earlier sources, too much of the characterization relied on our pre-existing familiarity with these characters, too much of the suspense and tension came from wondering whether or not things were going to play out again like they did in 1982. And while lip-service was paid to some TOS plots and the opening narration, there was no exploration and little of the cultural examination that made Star Trek a phenomenon.

There's a kernel of an interesting story in Into Darkness. This is a Starfleet and an Earth that, in a relatively short period of time, has dealt with time-traveling Borg invaders trying to alter the timeline, a temporal Cold War, and a time-traveling Borg-enhanced Romulan trying (successfully) to alter the timeline, destroying Vulcan in the process. It makes sense that this would lead to the ascendancy of Section 31 and an accelerated timeline for building warships (almost a century before Wolf 359 led to the Defiant) made not for exploration, but for defending the Federation and Earth from threats beyond current technology and current understanding.

Why those warships would be so much larger than exploration ships, despite requiring far fewer crewmen, is an open question.

But the movie wasn't interested in exploring those possibilities, and probably couldn't have done so even if it wanted to. There just isn't time.

Which is why Star Trek belongs on TV. They may not be able to afford such great special effects, but at least they can tell the stories that Star Trek should be telling. Any dumb Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle can do explosions and space battles. Star Trek should be more than that.

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