Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Star Trek and Destiny

I saw the new Star Trek film last night (a "reboot" of the franchise) and about halfway through the movie, when I finally had the chance to catch my breath, I realized just what I was afraid this movie might do: I was worried that I was watching Alien 3.

For those who have had the good fortune not to see it, Alien 3 had the bad luck to follow Aliens, one of the few sequels to be better than the original movie (granted, they're both good and totally different movies, but I gotta give Bill Paxton the edge in this one). The thing is, Aliens is all about saving this one little girl, Newt. The entire end of the movie is predicated on Ripley's determination to save her. Spoiler alert: She does, and they go into hibernation sleep for the long journey home, fade to black. When Alien 3 starts, Ripley wakes up ... but Newt's hibernation chamber has malfunctioned and she's dead. Which completely obliterates the entire reason for Aliens. Now, stuff like that happens in the world, but when you put it into a story, it ruins the story. Not to mention you know they did it just because they couldn't work the Newt character into the third story in the first place. It doesn't matter what else happens in Alien 3, by destroying the reason for the previous movie it destroys itself.

So I realized the danger with the new Star Trek movie is, by basically having characters go into the past and change it to allow for new stories with the original characters, they effectively erase all of Star Trek lore, from that point on, which is, well, pretty much everything. They "kill" all the future characters and erase the mythology which is detailed in tons of books and stories. And the question is, for what?

Well, by the end of the movie I bought it. I want to see more stories with the original crew, and I can handle two timelines so to speak. And the big reason is because this new version of Star Trek believes in destiny, a very unscientific concept that saves the whole thing.

The thing is, in this reboot, you have a character going back in time and destroying people ... LOTS of people ... before their time. You do have major changes to the Trek chronology. But the cool thing about the movie is with all this evil messing stuff up, the story works out so that most things end up like they were before. There's redemption despite the messing-up effects of evil, giving the sense that there's a storytelling purpose to it all. I don't think that's a major spoiler: you end up with Captain Kirk commanding the Enterprise, First Officer Spock, everyone else at their proper station. How they get there is different, but they are in the same seats, the places where they should be, by the end of the movie. They are where they belong, and that just plain feels right, unlike the Newt thing, which felt so very wrong. You even have the first Captain of the Enterprise being Christopher Pike. The basic structure of the Star Trek universe has been respected, and now the possibility for a new set of stories is opened up. Quite frankly, the Trek universe had been pretty much filled up and exhausted by the time we got to the end of Voyager. It ended up domesticated and settled down, like America after the disappearance of the frontier. Here we get the frontier back again, sort of a counterfactual history, and I'm interested to see what they do with it.

There's also lots of references to the previous Trek movies, even a point where a character knocks his head like Scotty in Star Trek V. (If they're respecting Star Trek V then they are better men than I.) You see the Kobayashi Maru from Star Trek II, there's a plot point that works exactly like a great scene from Star Trek IV, the Vulcan training is just like Star Trek IV, and I'm looking forward to all the references I missed. Seeing those made me accept this as an "alternate universe" Trek, where all the old stuff still had meaning but new stuff could happen.

The one thing that gives me pause is the fact that this is a movie franchise, while the "frontier" exploration bit works better for a TV show. This shows in the fact that it's hard to make all the characters on the bridge important to the plot for a two-hour movie. For one-hour TV episodes you can focus on a few and focus on the others next week. But in a movie it often seems strained to get "everyone in" the plot. The screenwriters for this new Trek actually do a good job of that in this one, much better than most of the other movies, but I wish this was TV instead of movies. But once that genie's out of the bottle I don't think there's any going back. I want to see what else they do with this: the bottom line is it works to have a good, fun story and if I have to have two Trek timelines in my head to enjoy these new stories, I can handle that. I don't sense any erasing -- I sense new possibilities and fresh air.

PS: Maybe this is partly because I love counterfactual history, the type in the What If? books. If you haven't read those ... man, you should!

PPS: I loved the very first scenes of the movie. Watch those and tell me if you think the Trek universe is messed up (even as an evil guy is messing it up). It actually brought a tear to my eye and helped me buy everything from that point on. Granted, there are some plot holes that even I caught on the way through, and some sloppy exposition, but what matters to me is the fundamental story, and you know, it's a good one.


Paul said...

Hey Ben, couldn't agree with you more. What an oppening to a movie - they had me right away. I didn't notice the incrongruity till Spock's Dad died and my Dad leaned over and said 'Wait a minute; she was alive in the series'. Then we started figuring it out. Great job by the writers - who supposedly are behind a lot of new SciFi including Transformers. As my Dad said, 'they got the comedy right' and that above all makes it a good Star Trek movie.

Deanna said...

Lalalalala... not listening...