Sunday, July 05, 2009

Where Lots and Lots of People Have Gone Before

I'm going to begin with a disclaimer: I've been writing this review for weeks. It rambles and meanders, probably even more than most of my posts. It's also a large part of the reason for the low content mode of the last several weeks. I'll be glad to finally have it posted.

It's been a very long time since I've considered myself a Trekkie or Trekker of any sort. I liked TNG and DS9, though the former had its share of terrible episodes seasons and I never saw the first few seasons of the latter because there was no UPN in my area. I remember being underwhelmed by "First Contact," though thinking back it seems the majority of my complaints were driven by nitpicky continuity geek stuff, so I should probably give it another shot. "Insurrection" was the last Trek movie I saw in theaters, and it was nothing more than a particularly pedestrian episode of Voyager stretched out over two boring hours. "Nemesis" was targ-dung, and I'm glad I didn't pay to see it on the big screen. I never really cared for Voyager, especially after it became "The Seven of Nine Show starring Reset Button;" I gave up on "Enterprise" after the first episode with its ridged Klingon forehead and its awful, awful theme song. Eventually, I started watching the series again (because my roommate talked me into it) and laughed and cried through the vast majority of season 3. The show whittled away at any remaining passion I had for Trek, until blue alien Nazis made me give up on the show, and Star Trek, for good.

And that included the most recent film. When I heard that Star Trek was going back to the prequel well again, even after the dismal failure of Enterprise*, I scoffed and cursed Berman and Braga, who had seemed to be doing their level best to run the series into and beneath the ground since the start of Voyager. I remember hearing vague rumors over the last couple of years about them doing Kirk and Spock at the Academy, which sounded pretty silly--but throw in Uhura and a talking Sehlat and have them form a band and travel around in their shuttlecraft solving space-mysteries, and I'm in for it.

Anyway, nothing made me even remotely interested in the new film until the trailers started coming out. I've generally liked J.J. Abrams, and while the trailers were cool, I was comfortable waiting for the DVD. Until the reviews started trickling in, and started suggesting that this would actually be a good Trek movie, which this universe has not seen in quite some time. I went to see it about as quickly as I could (a week or two after its opening), and again a week or so later. Needless to say, I liked it. I liked it quite a lot.

I think the thing I most liked about it was the way it focused around the characters, around building characterization for the main cast. The plot was peripheral, and I can see that as a complaint, but really, it's the same kind of space opera story that we've seen a thousand times: Big Bad with planet destroyer MacGuffin out for revenge against the protagonists. There are some wrinkles here and there, but the story was really just a vehicle for Kirk and Spock to become friends, given their similar-but-different pasts. It was a little too convenient that the characters would all end up together--and in command!--on their first mission aboard the Enterprise, and the Spock ex Machina planet was a little more convenient yet, and those are legitimate complaints--places where the plot actually felt like it was merely a vehicle to get the main characters where they needed to be. Even if it is (and most plots are, aren't they?) one goal of good writing should be to make the progression feel natural, and not like the audience is being led around by a ring through its collective nose.

I'm going to digress for a moment or two more on those complaints about the somewhat supplementary nature of the plot. They remind me of a tone-deaf review I read a few years back about the Justice League Unlimited episode "The Greatest Story Never Told." The conceit of the episode was that the big guns of the League were dealing with an attack by Mordru, leaving the less prominent members to deal with cleanup and crowd control. Booster Gold, our focal character, chafed under the apparent insignificance of the assignment. Ultimately, Booster gets the chance to be a real hero, even though his adventure goes unnoticed and unappreciated due to the larger battle going on around them. We only see and hear little bits of the fight with Mordru--Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman merged into a single entity, Elongated Man saving the day, and so forth. It's one of my favorite episodes, largely because it showcases the character work (and incredible writing, with some particularly good humor) that made the DCAU so wonderful, so beloved, and so enduring.

This reviewer disagreed, disliking Booster Gold for largely unstated reasons. He would much rather have seen the League's epic battle with Mordru, and seemed to think that the episode's title referred to that story. I have to wonder how anyone could miss the point so blatantly; we've seen the big guns of the League team up to battle apparently insurmountable odds and come out on top before. The first two seasons of Justice League are largely made up of episodes just like that, as are each of the season finales. Epic battles are a dime a dozen in superhero media; quirky stories that have a tight focus on character building for supporting cast members, not so much. Getting the battle in snippets and secondhand storytelling ultimately has the same effect as the old horror standby of never clearly showing the villain or monster. Just as the murder scene you fill in yourself is always more frightening than the one that's meticulously laid out on-screen, the battle you imagine that somehow leads to buildings coming to life and Elongated Man's stretchiness defeating Mordru is going to be far cooler than anything they could have reasonably depicted in 22 minutes. Such a battle, if it were the A-plot of the story, would have been a clich├ęd mishmash, pure eye candy, with no real room for characterization. It would have been the animated equivalent of a big crossover event, with all the depth and quality we usually associate with such stories.

Bringing that back to the point: we've seen plenty of flashy explosion-ridden epic battle space operas, even in the fairly recent past. In fact, I don't think it would be unfair to describe the last two or three Star Wars films as precisely that. Star Trek is clearly trying to set itself apart from that crowd by giving far more attention to the characters and their relationships than to the standard situations and technobabble that could be coming from any interchangeable cast of characters. I really liked that every main character got some time in the spotlight, and in particular got some character development. That's important, but often glossed over, with an ensemble cast, particularly one this large. As far as I'm concerned, Star Trek is at its best--in fact, it may be that it's only good--when it focuses on characters and relationships rather than technobabble and sci-fi space opera. That's one way in which it's also distancing itself from the last couple of Star Trek series and films, and even from the introductory installments of just about every Star Trek iteration. "Encounter at Farpoint" notwithstanding, it's worth mentioning that both Next Generation and the Star Trek film series began with stories written for previous series that just had the names changed. Abrams and Co. seem to be trying to get away from the sci-fi properties that are populated exclusively with two-dimensional archetypes.

Which isn't to say that it's completely unlike either the older series--or Star Wars for that matter. One of the major themes of the film is how tragedies change and affect people. The destruction of Romulus turns Nero from a common miner into a single-minded vengeance-driven terrorist**. Losing his father turns Kirk into a brash and rebellious hothead who has serious authority issues. Spock's loss of his mother and homeworld make him tense and desperate. Spock Prime's triple loss--his timeline, his homeworld, and his failure to save Romulus--inspires him to work toward rebuilding Vulcan and continuing his work as a peacemaker. This isn't quite as topical or as obvious as the themes the original series used to explore, but I think it's in the same vein, and I hope it continues.

I think the film also did a good job of conveying Roddenberry's optimistic, moderately utopian view of the future--particularly surprising, given the destruction of two worlds. I think that figured heavily into the film's visuals; the bright, pure whiteness of the Enterprise interior wasn't just a contrast with the dank, dark interior of the Romulan ship, but it also served as a kind of visual shorthand for a bright and positive future. I'll be honest, I didn't really notice the overuse of lens flares until the second time I saw the movie, but even then it reminded me of the same effect used in DC One Million for the future heroes' costumes--visual shorthand for futuristic and impressive. It's a nice way of demonstrating that, unlike so much modern sci-fi, this isn't going to be a crapsack world full of dilapidated technology. Quite literally, it's a future so bright, you'd have to wear shades.

Which I think, again, feeds into the contrast between the Enterprise and the Romulan ship. The dark, jagged, smoky green-lit interior of the Romulan craft reminded me of nothing so much as the enemy ships in Star Trek: Nemesis***. One of the more apparent meta-themes of the movie seems to be getting away from the dark and cynical future that has become increasingly apparent through the last several Star Trek films and shows (as represented by a visitor from that future). Even the decks of the Enterprise-E, Voyager, and the Defiant had a tendency to get excessively dark during red alert and battle situations, and the Enterprise never really felt like that in this film.

The filmmakers made some allusions and choices, though, that I think demonstrate what parts of Star Trek and sci-fi in general they'd like to emulate--referencing the "good parts," I suppose. I've mentioned Star Wars a couple of times now, and one of the things I think this Trek did very well was something that was omnipresent in the holy trilogy: background aliens. One of the reasons those shots in Mos Eisley and Jabba's palace were so damn cool was because they were full of weird-looking alien people who weren't given any significant parts or backstories or explanations, just hanging around doing normal things like normal extras. That attention to detail is part of what made the Star Wars universe feel so big and so diverse and so rich; it's something that the endless Expanded Universe texts, elaborating on every character who ever appeared for more than two frames in exquisite detail, have diluted quite a bit. Star Trek did much the same thing, with the big-eyed doctor who delivered Kirk Cameron's baby Kirk and the alien helmsman who appared briefly****. Those elements serve to flesh out the universe, enhancing that feeling of immersion and depth.

One allusion I particularly liked, besides the obligatory references to classic lines ("Are you out of your Vulcan mind?" and such), was the way Nero was essentially Spock's Khan. Both Khan and Nero have royal names, both vowed revenge on their respective targets for the deaths of their wives, both went after their targets' family members, both used mind-worms to wrest information from Starfleet officers, and so forth. It really underscores the point that this is Spock's movie*****.

Back to the details, I didn't (unlike some) mind "red matter." It was phlebotinum in pure, spherical form, clearly named after "dark matter," and implying some kind of strange, exotic, probably quite dense or unstable form of matter. I did have an issue with the idea that a supernova could destroy a galaxy; that was just sloppy (for more on the real astronomy, see what Phil Plait had to say). Overall, I think a lot of the film got a pass based on rule of cool--particularly Sulu's pocket katana. Silly? Sure. Awesome? Damn straight.

One final****** detail I'd like to mention is the way that the writers have apparently anticipated all the fan outrage and time travel fix fics that will be spawned by the reboot. This point sparked a lengthy and geeky conversation with my mother, who generally hates change. On the other hand, it gave me the second opportunity******* in recent memory to say "you're not thinking fourth-dimensionally" and to draw this diagram:


So I guess it was a wash. Point being, this reboot is doubly great, because it not only preserves the original Star Trek universe, but also makes it clear that they can't just go back and set right what once went wrong. The first point is potentially debatable--it could be argued that the new Trek reality supplants the old one--but Word of God and one of Trek's many established sets of time travel/alternate universe rules suggest that the new universe is an offshoot of the original, a divergent quantum reality, so that the original universe also continues to exist unabated.

The latter point, I suppose, requires some explanation (though I'm sure quite a lot of folks have reasoned it out the same way). We have the original Trek timeline, which proceeds as we know it up to the point where Spock Prime******** and Nero get pulled into the singularity. This spits Nero out in the past (or more likely, in the 2233 of a parallel-but-identical timeline), where he immediately destroys the U.s.S. Kelvin, killing George Kirk and causing this timeline to diverge from the original one*********. When Spock emerges twenty years later, it's into this already-altered timeline. This means that Spock Prime emerged into an already-altered timeline, changed by the events of twenty years prior. Spock Prime could go to the future and stop the supernova from obliterating Romulus, but it wouldn't change anything. The Nero who destroyed Vulcan wasn't the Nero of this timeline; like Spock Prime, he came from the original universe. The only way********** for Spock Prime to get back to the original universe would be for him to go back to the point of divergence and stop the event that spawned the alternate timeline. In other words, he has to arrive at the precise moment that the Narada exits the singularity and stop Nero from destroying the Kelvin.

Which shouldn't be a problem, right? I mean, how many ways are there to time travel in the Star Trek universe? The slingshot around the sun bit seems to be the most popular, but I'm sure Spock Prime also remembers where the Guardian of Forever is, and there's the Bajoran Orb of Time and several other options as well.

But once he's back in the past, waiting to meet and beat Nero, what then? The Narada is a hundred years more advanced than anything Starfleet has right now. We've already seen it effortlessly destroy six Federation starships in the span of a minute or two. What could Spock Prime possibly do to stop it? He'd have to go back with an entire fleet, and even then there's no guarantee he could win. First, he'd probably have to share some of his knowledge of advanced technology, and just because he knows about things like quantum torpedoes doesn't mean he knows how to construct one. And even if he does know how to construct one doesn't mean that Starfleet has the ability to build one yet. Frankly, I wouldn't feel comfortable trying to ambush the Narada (remember, they have to destroy--or at least disable--it before it can destroy the Kelvin, and probably before he can bring Capt. Robau onboard) with anything less than a Defiant or an Enterprise-E (even then, I'd want some serious backup), and those ships are pretty close to cutting edge in a hundred years' time.

Regardless, Spock Prime would need years to prepare an assault force with any hope of defeating Nero before the timeline could be altered. Doing so would require him to gain significant support from the Federation (even though he's a quantum anomaly, whose plan may, for all they know, result in the destruction of their universe), develop a ridiculously complicated plan (at least, as far as the time travel aspect goes; the "blow him up" portion of the plan is pretty straightforward) with a huge amount of advanced experimental Starfleet ships and resources, and all to an unclear end, because even if they succeed, it's not certain what will happen. Will they just spawn a third quantum reality? Will traveling back to the future bring Spock Prime back to where he needs to be (and if so, will he be able to stop the supernova in time to keep this from becoming a repeating cycle? Or would doing so just create new problems? What will happen to the fleet he takes? Will they be able to get back to their quantum reality, or will they become like Spock Prime is now, adrift in a universe not their own? I don't know about you, but if I were the President of the Federation, I wouldn't be wasting time and manpower on a plan with so many unknown risks.

And if I were Spock Prime, I'd be setting course for Farpoint Station at the earliest convenience.

So, to conclude, I really enjoyed the new Trek movie, and I hope it's the start of a long and excellent film series. The movie captured a lot of the traits and tropes that make for good Star Trek and good sci-fi in general. The new universe even offers some interesting new opportunities to revisit old stories and enemies, if it comes to that. While I'd like to continue seeing new stories with the familiar settings and mostly familiar characters, I'd be lying through my teeth if I said that there wasn't a part of me who would like to see Kirk and crew face the Borg ninety years ahead of schedule. But that's a plot for another film, hopefully at least five or six films hence. All I know is that I'm looking forward to the sequel, and that for the first time in a very long time, I'm excited about Star Trek.

One last thing: you may have noticed that my little fan background schpiel at the beginning really didn't touch on the original series much. That's because, well, I haven't ever watched much of it. Most of my knowledge of TOS has come from cultural osmosis and reading the Star Trek Encyclopedia. But the new movie has piqued my interest, and I've started watching more Trek--especially original Trek--than I have in years. What this all means is that I'm thinking about a new weekly event, Trek Tuesdays, where I'll be blogging about some Star Trek episode or idea on a weekly basis. If you've been reading this blog for any time at all, you know what problems I have with punctuality and commitment, and you know that this would be the first time I've ever had two regular features going at the same time. I can't guarantee when it'll start, but at the very least it'll give me an excuse to post more frequently, and on more than just SilverHawks. I've got something special planned for this week (astute Trekkies might be able to predict what), and then we'll see what happens.

End log.

*Yes, I know, four seasons is hardly a dismal failure from a ratings and marketing standpoint. I suppose I'm talking in terms of fan reception and overall quality.

**Incidentally, this was (in my opinion) the main theme of "V for Vendetta"--desperate situations can drive people to do and become things they never would have imagined or condoned. Evey is driven by circumstances to prostitution, then eventually to terrorism; V is driven to terrorism through torture and experimentation; even Susan describes how the government was driven to fascism by nuclear war.

***The green lighting and steam and jagged features also evoked the "real world" of the Matrix films and the settings of the Alien movies. Star Trek seems to be trying for high contrast with the major themes of modern sci-fi.

****Based on the back of the Animated Series box, I assume he's based on a character from the cartoon.

*****There's also the fact that there's two of him.


*******The first was when I was teaching "A Sound of Thunder" and trying to explain why they couldn't just go back and stop themselves from going back in time in the first place.

********I know it's standard practice in sci-fi and comics, but naming the original entity/timeline/whatever "Prime" grates against that scientist/mathematician part of me. See, in science and math, the "prime" designation is attached to the copy. If I draw some figure A, then draw a copy of that figure reflected over some line, I label the second figure A', pronounced "a-prime." On the other hand, "prime" comes from the Latin primus for "first," which I guess means that it's the science/math usage which is erroneous. This concludes my most recent war of inner geeks.

*********By the way, if you're a time traveler looking to alter the future, "destroy the first thing you see when you get to the past" seems like a pretty good strategy.

**********Okay, not the only way. Presumably, he could be transported during an ion storm (a la "Mirror, Mirror") or he could pass through a quantum fissure (a la "Parallels"), or something, but there's no guarantee he'd end up in the right universe. I suppose they could analyze his quantum signature and somehow try to get him back, but again, that seems like a bit of a crap shoot.***********

***********You know, this asterisk stuff is for the birds. From now on, I'm using superscript numbers.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Trying to go back to the Nerada's entry point to Universe B and restore the original timeline is probably a lost cause for the reasons you outline, but I'd think any Vulcan who knew about the Guardian of Forever, solar loop-de-loops, and other such means of time travel would at least be making plans to go back just before Vulcan's destruction and bring some more firepower to bear on either the Nerada itself or at least the mining probe.