My reaction to the new Star Trek movie led me to ask myself this unavoidable question. Yes, it’s certainly received a warm response—96% on the Tomatometer (which is phenomenal, even allowing that they inevitably mis-count some reviews like, e.g., the negative J.R. Jones piece I linked the other day) and a $76 million weekend box office—but I trust my critical sensibilities regardless of what the bandwagon says. My reasons for liking and valuing Star Trek have always been its intelligent storytelling and its social conscience—and this movie has neither. As Roger Ebert wrote,
The Gene Roddenberry years, when stories might play with questions of science, ideals or philosophy, have been replaced by stories reduced to loud and colorful action. Like so many franchises, it’s more concerned with repeating a successful formula than going boldly where no “Star Trek” has gone before.
The online discussion thus far among fans seems to have found an emerging consensus that the cast all did at least good and sometimes great jobs living up to their familiar characters, and that the production values admirably reflect the film’s $150 million budget… but also that the story is, to put it charitably, more than little flimsy. The real dividing line is between the majority who say that story problems don’t matter so long as it looks impressive and feels exciting… and the minority who say it doesn’t matter how much of an adrenaline rush it gives if the story insults the audience’s intelligence. I’m definitely in the latter camp.
When everything is weighed in the balance, and all excuses and apologies set aside, this movie is crap.
What’s more, though—and this is what sparked the self-examination—the last Trek movie (Nemesis) was also crap. And the movie before that (Insurrection) was crap. And the last TV series (Enterprise), and the series before that (Voyager)—all crap. Really, there hasn’t been any reliably decent Trek on screen in at least a dozen years.
So why do I still call myself a fan? How can I still harbor any affection or loyalty for this franchise?
It’s certainly possible to make action films that have brains and social commentary (The Matrix; X-Men; The Bourne Identity), that live up to the pop-fiction criteria I wrote about a little while back… but Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman’s Star Trek isn’t one of them. Nor was Berman and Braga’s Trek in the preceding years. Clearly Paramount, even putting the property in entirely new creative hands, just isn’t inclined to let Trek follow the path that originally made it a success… the path of smart, challenging SF that has since been pursued (and improved upon) by shows like Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica and Lost. The company wants a mass-market product. When you pitch something to the lowest common denominator, you can usually count on a lot of people liking it… but that doesn’t mean it’s any good. (Transformers made a mountain of money, but so what?)
So, yes, it’s possible for Hollywood’s constant tug-of-war between art and commerce to produce some smart SF. But it isn’t terribly likely, and it certainly hasn’t been done with Star Trek in a dog’s age. At this point, I’m not holding my breath.
But here’s the thing: Star Trek isn’t just whatever the studio chooses to put out under that trademark. There’s more to it. And not just the DVDs of the original series and movies (which are still enjoyable), but also fan-made online films like Star Trek: Phase II and Of Gods And Men (projects which may lack the production values of big-screen Trek but do a far better job of capturing the spirit of the original, and have even involved talent like original Trek story editor D.C. Fontana and several actors from past Trek series). And, even more significantly to me, Trek-related prose fiction.
Yes, I’m aware of the argument that licensed spin-off fiction from various SF/Fantasy shows, movies, and games is driving more serious SF off of publishers’ lists and bookstore shelves (an argument perhaps best championed by veteran author Norman Spinrad in his review columns in Asimov’s—yes, the same Spinrad who wrote the classic Trek episode “The Doomsday Machine”)… and in fact I find that argument quite persuasive, more often than not. If as Ted Sturgeon said about fiction in general “ninety percent of everything is crap,” then among licensed fiction the overall percentage is likely closer to 95%, if not worse.
But for whatever reason, the characters and concepts of Star Trek seem to bring out the best in a lot of writers. Over the years people like Diane Duane, John M. Ford, Peter David, Diane Carey, Gar & Judith Reeves-Stevens—and in more recent years Christopher Bennett, Andy Mangels & Michael Martin, and many others—have crafted some wonderfully challenging, intelligent, entertaining stories that flesh out those characters and concepts in fascinating ways. If they’re not at the level of the best work of Asimov or Clarke, Haldeman or Vinge, still many of these books are better than the fair share of other SF on the market, in print and especially on screen. And although these licensed books, just like the unlicensed fan films, are officially excluded from the Trek “canon,” in terms of intellectual and psychological depth they outshine anything that’s been attempted with filmed Trek in years. And at this point, an added advantage is that these books will continue to be set in the original Trek universe, not the juvenilized “alternate” one Abrams and company have inaugurated.
So that’s what has retained my interest, my enthusiasm, and ultimately my loyalty as a Trek fan… its existence not as a “franchise” but as a concept, a fictional universe, which for all its imperfections still has potential that can be, and is being, used to tell challenging, mind-expanding stories. I may not have any enthusiasm to muster for the next Trek movie from the crew that produced this one… but I do have some books I want to read.Tags: Alex Kurtzman, Bob Orci, books, J.J. Abrams, movies, Star Trek, writers