Friday, 8 May 2009

Star Trek: the reboot

(This still needs some work but if I don't put this up now, I don't think I ever will...)

I saw Star Trek yesterday at a preview yesterday. Twice.

Let's get my credentials out of the way. I'm not really a hard-core Trekkie, and although I don't know episode titles of stardates, I used to be prominent in the online fandom and ran a couple of websites. I'm not really all that enamoured of the original crew, although they were a presence in the background as I was growing up.

I've had a problem with the spinoff series and some of the movies, especially those presided over by Rick Berman - like a lot of modern science fiction, they got bogged down in the mechanics of the imagined universe with the actors having ever-increasing volumes of techno-babble to spout, and the stories were often about the technology rather than the people. If nothing else, I expected JJ Abrams' involvment to eschew that aspect, and he didn't disappoint.

When I first heard that a Trek "origins" movie was planned for this franchise reboot, I feared Star Fleet Academy hormonal teenagers invading the screen. I was ultimately delighted when the story skipped from Kirk enrolling in the Academy to to his (re)taking the Kobayashi Maru scenario we know from The Wrath of Khan, "Three Years Later".

The pre-publicity for this movie has stressed more than most that it isn't just for Trekkies but for a mass audience. In that, the makers have succeeded. The plot is really fairly banal and unoriginal - we follow Kirk and Spock growing up with Oedipal issues and like any buddy movie, they dislike each other on first meeting. What a lot of people seem to forget is that the original TV series wasn't just built around them, but included Bones too, as the slightly more world-weary figure who could knock theiur heads together when needed. And so Dr McCoy gets a fair amount of screentime too. Although only a bit-part in the series, Uhura's role gets expanded as it's always been painfully obvious that she's the only female member of the crew and in this day and age, that just won't do.

The need for a wider appeal is the backbone for the dialogue, offering a structure to hang those character-defining bits you don't need to be a hardcore fan to know about: Spock saying "Fascinating", Scotty saying "I'm giving it all she's got" (although "I cannae change the laws of physics" is only implied); McCoy gets gets an "I'm a doctor not a ... " joke, Chekov gets to mispronounce his Vs, Uhura shows her legs, and so on. We even get to have a red-shirt, a character with literally two lines of dialogue who has to get himself killed just to underline that space is a Dangerous Place where Bad Things Happen. And of course there's "Live Long and Prosper".

All the actors have the chance to offer their own take on the characters they play rather than being obliged to impersonate their predecessors - this is particularly tricky in Zachary Quinto's case as unlike the others, he has to share the stage with Leonard Nimoy for one scene and their slightly divergent aptitudes are revealed (as well as the fact that, frankly, Quinto is the better actor). Thankfully, Chris Pine doesn't make the slightest move towards Shatner's trademark faltering dialogue delivery but nails the swagger and bravado (and self-congratulatory smirk) every time. Sign of the times, though, Pine gets to do something Shatner never did, and that's to appear in nothing but a pair of baggy y-fronts at one point...

I must mention Karl Urban's Dr McCoy which stops just the right side short of an impersonation (physically, he and DeForrest Kelley have little in common) but keeps all the energy and permanenent indignation of possibly my favourite character from the series.

My enthusiasm shouldn't hide a few reservations I have. This new Star Trek has more in keeping with the current spate of superhero movies rather than space opera (a genre the original TV series created) in the way it's scripted, shot and also scored. But if James Bond can do it, why can't Trek? And that grated on me just a bit.

On to my main reservation, though. Like most buddy/superhero movies, the main characters start by hating each other and then grow to respect and perhaps even care for each other. But the final act is just a little too rushed for my liking and the Kirk-Spock relationship we know ultimately comes from nowhere, largely by order of future-Spock rather than any real natural character development. And that's a huge pity because it's the core of what the film thinks it's about.

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