Leonard Nimoy as Future!Spock in Star Trek (2009)

Leonard Nimoy as Future!Spock in Star Trek (2009)

There has been ongoing concern in fan circles over whether J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Star Trek film will be in keeping with the spirit of Trek as we’ve come to know it over 40+ years. I’ve written about it myself, but I’m far from the only one… and Abrams himself hasn’t exactly quelled such concerns with remarks like his recent statement to TV Guide that “it’s really made for future fans of ‘Star Trek,’ not existing ones.” Such statements may warm the hearts of executives at Paramount, but we existing fans want to like this movie too.

In an interview last week, screenwriter Bob Orci attempted to ease these concerns, emphasizing that he and co-writer Alex Kurtzman are dedicated Trek fans (unlike Abrams) and that they’ve made sure to tie this film into existing Trek continuity in a way that fans will appreciate. The way he describes this, however, has caused more consternation than it’s resolved.

Many of the concerns so far have been about the differences seen in the trailer—in the Enterprise, the bridge, and perhaps most significantly the backstory of Jim Kirk. The movie has looked suspiciously like a reboot, rather than a story within Trek’s familiar fictional reality.

Long story short? What’s the inside scoop? It’s like this:

Q: Why do some things appear different in the new Star Trek movie?
A: There is an alternative timeline created by Nero [the Romulan villain] traveling back in time.

Q: Is everything different in the alternative timeline?
A: No, some things remain the same.

Q: Does this alternative timeline wipe out the original timeline (from TOS [through] Nemesis)?
A: No, quantum theory says they both co-exist.

IOW, it is a reboot, albeit one with an in-story explanation. It doesn’t so much fit within Trek canon as it creates an alternative to it, although one tenuously linked to the familiar timeline via the plot device of Nero’s (and old Spock’s) journey back in time. It branches off before Jim Kirk’s birth, more than 20 years before the main story of the film and more than 30 years before the events we know from the original series.

Orci makes a stalwart effort to justify this, arguing:

Bob: [Time travel] is the reason why some things are different, but not everything is different. Not everything is inconsistent with what might have actually happened, in canon. Some of the things that seem that they are totally different, I will argue, once the film comes out, fall well within what could have been the non-time travel version of this move.

[Interviewer]: So, for example, Kirk is different, because his back story has totally changed, in that his parents…and all that. But you are saying that maybe Scotty or Spock’s back story would not be affected by that change?

Bob: Right.

[Interviewer]: OK, well then some fans will say ‘fair enough, alternate timeline, we are used to that, but that is not my Kirk, that is some other Kirk.’ So is this still our movie, or are we seeing some other version of Star Trek?

Bob: In some one else’s hands, maybe, but, again, much of what you will see could conform to classic canon, and thus we were not relying it as an excuse to change everything.

He repeatedly attempts to justify this with with reference to the “many worlds interpretation” of quantum theory, which he calls “our most successful theory of science,” the “most tested scientific theory ever,” and various other superlatives concluding with “the most current and awesome scientific theory.” Unfortunately, there are problems here on several levels. Scientifically, while quantum theory is indeed very well grounded, the many worlds interpretation is (A) completely hypothetical, and (B) completely unrelated to time travel. (In fact, there’s actually current scientific theory—the Novikov self-consistency principle—that time travel cannot create paradoxes or new timelines. It’s also completely hypothetically, of course, but Kip Thorne and others at CalTech have tested the mathematical models behind it.)

More importantly, in narrative terms, while the Trek universe does indeed include parallel universes (referred to by Data as “quantum realities” in the TNG episode “Parallels”, repeatedly cited by Orci), even in-story they aren’t linked to time travel:  pretty much every Trek time- travel story ever, from 1966’s classic “City on the Edge of Forever” on through literally dozens of others, has presented the timeline as a single (relatively) consistent history which can be altered and repaired, not as something which branches off into a new parallel reality with each trip into the past.

Thus, from the audience’s point of view, we’ve been following a single unbroken history from the start, albeit one which occasionally zigs and zags a bit due to causal loops and other chronal incursions. Orci is forced to dismiss all of this, insisting that “yes, any time there is time travel that they created a parallel universe,” in order to lay the foundation for the story in this film.

So:  as a scientific justification for the movie’s story, his logic is weak. As a justification within Star Trek’s reality, it’s even weaker. In terms of appeasing long-term fans, Orci does at least make a case that the original Trek timeline “lives on” despite the events of this film… but it does so only in the background, because that’s not the timeline in which the movie happens. (Indeed, his explanation undercuts the very plot, since if the villain’s scheme can only affect an alternate past, Spock’s motive for following him back in time is murky at best.)

What really happened here seems fairly clear:  Abrams came in from outside Trek fandom with a story in mind that he wanted to tell about Kirk’s “coming of age”… with no regard for whether it dovetailed with what we already know about Kirk’s younger years from any number of original episodes, or for whether the way he wanted to present it could lead plausibly and consistently into the mythos chronicled in those episodes. Orci and Kurtzman presumably recognized the divergences, and wrote a pseudo-scientific fig leaf into the story to justify them, but they’re divergences just the same… and quite a few fans are disappointed at the implications. (Meanwhile, ironically, Orci’s explanation has also disappointed that subset of fans who did want a complete, no-apologies reboot, without fig leaf, since done this way it’s still tied at least tangentially to some known Trek history.)

Reboots are, of course, hardly a novel concept in popular fiction. Hollywood has used them recently with James Bond and Batman; indeed arguably every remake ever made qualifies as one. They’re a familiar thing in comics, too, most notably in DC’s classic Crisis on Infinite Earths from the ’80s, which (as here) offered an in-story explanation but which (also as here) was extremely controversial at the time. However, in most of those cases (the DCU excepted), the audience understands that what they’re seeing is merely an adaptation of a work, not the decisive statement on it. A single creative interpretation among many. No screen adaptation is ever identical to its source material, after all.

This is different. With Star Trek, not only is the source material itself on screen, but it’s well-regarded and has decades of cumulative history to which viewers have grown attached. (It’s different even from Battlestar Galactica, also a TV reboot, but one where the new version has overshadowed its precursor in every sense, including quality, longevity, and fan reception.) I think I can safely anticipate that to general audiences (who don’t care anyway), this movie won’t be presented as a new interpretation, but as “the history” of Kirk and his original crew… even while longtime fans (who do care) are forced to accept it as a reboot. The filmmakers are trying to eat their cake and have it too.

Personally, since this film was first announced, I’d been hoping to see a fleshing-out of the backstory of the characters and concepts I’m familiar with, the ones who have earned my affection over the years. Even with the recasting and visual redesign, that was a possibility, and indeed it’s what Abrams seemed to promise. Now I know I won’t get that; instead I’ll get the backstory of alternate versions of those characters and concepts.

In Trek terms, this might as well be a story about the Mirror Universe:  it could be diverting for a couple of hours, but it’s not the same as the real thing, and certainly not a fair trade-off going forward for ever seeing any more stories that are about the real thing.

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4 Responses to “When is Star Trek not Star Trek?”
  1. Andrew says:

    Sure thing much has changed since the original series, but I don’t belive this should affect the quality of the upcoming movie nor it’s grip to the average sci fi fans.

  2. Thanks—and likewise for the link back to my piece on the New Deal! (Anything that drives traffic is a win-win!) You’ve got a pretty cool blog yourself… I’ve just been reading through some of the pieces linked in your item on Boehner’s boners about small business taxation…

  3. Alex says:

    Chris-
    Fun Blog…I share your ‘Star Trek’ jitters…when Kirk was killed off in “Generations”, I was pretty ticked (unlike everyone else in the world, I’d buried my head in the sand, and had no idea until I saw the movie.) I’d invested a lot of time, and derived a lot of pleasure from TOS over the course of my life, and was incensed that a bunch of strangers could go and muck so definitively with “MY” story…and, in so doing, state definitively that I could never hope to look forward to seeing the characters I liked again….

    (It’s not that I didn’t enjoy subsequent Star Trek series…but they were no more MY Star Trek than Sanford and Son was…)

    That was a long time ago, and I’ve pretty much long since got over it…so much so that I’m fairly indifferent to this movie.

    I’d just as soon they didn’t screw with the over arching story, however. Maybe I should just give this one a miss and stay home and watch Wrath of Khan again.

    Thanks for stopping by rip and read the other day and leaving a comment…this looks like a fun blog…Star Trek AND politics…nice mix.

  4. Or it could be about a “fraternal twin brother” of the real thing. A real thing in and of itself, equally deserving of our attention, but only made known to us now via Nero’s meddling with high science that he didn’t fully understand.

    Which could be fun for more than a couple of hours.

    If we hit the reset button, though, with the only changes being the actors and maybe the visible addition of maneuvering thrusters to Jeffries’ original design for ol’ 1701, I can live with that too.

    I have to admit to my own ongoing case of nerves, though…

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