Return to Star Trek (review)

STAR
TREK

A writeup without spoilers

Posit!

The year is 2009 and the Star Trek franchise has been kicking at its heels for the best part of a decade. Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise, Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek Nemesis were all let-downs to a greater or lesser extent. Nobody seems to want to know. How do you make Star Trek profitable and popular again? What is the shot in the arm that the franchise needs? Put yourself in the position of a hypothetical man in the street - a man who knows nothing about Star Trek except for the one with the whales and The Trouble With Tribbles - and ask yourself what would make you want to see a Star Trek movie this summer.

Obviously, you want to see what warp drive, phaser battles and transporter beams look like through the lens of twenty-first century special effects technology. You want to see what the USS Enterprise, NCC-1701, the biggest, slickest, most shiny and powerful ship in the United Federation of Planets, looks like, inside and out, in the imagined future of 2009 as opposed to the imagined future of 1969. You want to see new uniforms that aren't just long-sleeved T-shirts, a bridge that's not made of cardboard, an engineering deck and warp core that weren't built on a shoestring budget. You want to see the gorgeous and genuinely hopeful science fiction future that The Original Series was always promising, and you want it in high definition IMAX.

But all of that is a given. That's the most basic expectation of any science fiction flick this year. What do you really want?

Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Chekov, Sulu and Scotty.

And, unfortunately for you, this is the Next Generation. Nemesis, the chronologically latest Star Trek to date (barring time travel), took place about 85 years after the events of The Original Series. Kirk himself has been dead since 1994, and the remaining original cast are very old indeed or dead, both in canon and reality. This is the era of Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Sisko and other heroic figures of whom the average man in the street has never heard. Which means that this has to be a prequel. It has to be set somewhere in established Star Trek history where we haven't looked before. Which raises another problem: continuity.

Star Trek: Enterprise, set roughly 150 years prior to The Original Series, was a noble effort at a prequel. It was even genuinely decent television for its third and fourth seasons. But the simple retcon that the NX-01 had ever existed, that there had been a starship Enterprise before the starship Enterprise, was difficult enough to swallow, and there were many more contradictions besides. The fans hated that! To create new classic Star Trek, you must also achieve the impossible: you must feature fictional characters from a fictional universe which has been subjected to possibly the most intense scrutiny of any fiction ever, and you must not contradict anything has gone before, lest you disrespect established canon, and thereby alienate the devotees of that canon.

How can you have tension when the viewer knows that every character will make it, because they appeared in TOS? How can you be creative in telling a story, when the rules about what is or is not possible and what can or cannot happen are so punishingly restrictive? Certainly, it would be possible to make that movie, but to make it a good movie? Well...

...that's the great thing about science fiction.

Especially the Star Trek movie franchise.

It has certain... shall we say... loopholes.

Star Trek achieves the incredible achievement of rejuvenating the Star Trek franchise, re-establishing all its greatest characters, and opening up limitless possibilities for the future, all while containing all the fun (if frankly uncomplicated) action, drama and character development that a modern movie-goer could expect from a shiny explosive summer blockbuster, and being absolutely faithful to and respectful of past history and still being a really good movie.

The music isn't great. There's no hard story: this is not "Duet", "The Measure Of A Man" or "The City On The Edge Of Forever". There is a lot of lens flare; the future is dazzlingly widescreen. Questionable-science-papered-over-with-questionable-technobabble has been replaced with mere unexplained questionable science, which is arguably a step backwards. And no, black holes do not work that way.

Who cares? This is the best thing-labelled-"Star Trek" that there has been for ten years. It is, by a street, the best that Star Trek has ever looked. Star Trek is back, and the gauntlet is laid down, both for the new fictional James Kirk and director JJ Abrams: match or exceed the legend that preceded you. And there's never been a less foolish time to be optimistic.

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