Further Trek Talk

You know those times when you come out of a film having really enjoyed it, and end up giving a fairly detailed but largely positive run-down of the film to your friends – but when you hear someone else actually talking about what didn’t work and why, you find yourself thinking “You know, I don’t actually disagree with them…” Well, people like Abigail Nussbaum and Adam Roberts have been going into major detail on the new Star Trek film in a way that’s far more intelligent (and entertaining) than my general burblings, and they’ve also put into words some of the things that have been bothering me about the film. Because once I’d calmed down from the nostalgia sugar rush and let the good aspects of the film settle in my head, the more idiotic aspects have been a lot harder to ignore. There’s a monologue about 2/3rds of the way through that’s there to bolt together various disparate levels of plot, and it does it in a way which even with my “I am enjoying this film” hat on I found somewhat troubling and messy. It is the kind of film that basically moves so quickly that it hopes you don’t notice the problems until they’re long gone – and I have the worrying feeling that in trying to broaden Trek out, they’ve ended up shaving off just a bit too much of the original ethos. (And yes, after my mostly gushing previous post, this probably sounds like desperate backtracking. So sue me…). The one thing that all this reassessment does bring into focus (other than the fact that the genius of Spock was that he was a balance between humanity and logic, where the film marginalises the logical nature of the Vulcans in favour of can-do, all-American heroism) is the one aspect that really sat badly with me while I was watching the film – Chekov – and why it bothered me. The new version of Chekov is, to be honest, all about the funny accent – alright, Chekov was hardly blessed with the most rounded character, but it’s as if they looked at the “Nuclear Wessels” scene from Star Trek IV and said “That’s all we need!” He’s a comic character and nothing more – when, as Adam Roberts points out in his review, it was actually kind of a daring thing to have a Russian character in the original series, back in the Sixties when Russia was the enemy (and that the modern-day equivalent would be having someone on the Bridge from Afghanistan or Iraq). It’s the trouble with a nostalgia trip like this – the Trek movie is driven by tapping into the precise formula of what Trek was, but by sticking so closely to that formula they end up missing the point. It’s still an entertaining film – but it’s a very 2009 blockbuster, and anyone who actually says this is ‘top quality science fiction’ (a phrase I’ve seen thrown around a few times) really doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

7 thoughts on “Further Trek Talk

  1. (It was Rachel M. Brown, actually, who made the comment about Chekov.)
    Though I’m no less convinced of the film’s problems, I have been thinking some more about that reaction of being carried away by a story and not noticing its flaws until later. In her response to my post, notes that she had pretty much the same reaction I had to Star Trek when she watched Iron Man, which I found enjoyable but retroactively dumb. So it really is interesting to think about what it is that knocks us out our mindless enjoyment – in my case, with Star Trek, it was the dumbness of the plot and Kirk’s unlikability, but I suspect that my lesser attachment to the original series also has something to do with it.

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    • I think Kirk’s unlikeability is intentional right up to the point where he joins Starfleet. So unlike you I didn’t mind the sleazy pick-up scene in the bar because I assumed that he’s supposed to be an unlikeable jerk at that point. (I hope. Only the fact that Transformers, from the same writers, seems to paint its unlikeable jerk as a likeable hero leaves me in some doubt).
      This hypothesis is slightly thrown by the smugness of the Kobayashi Maru scene, which seems to have us rooting for him even those he’s acting like an idiot. (Although I did love the parallel of having him chomp on an apple during the test, just as he does when recounting it in Wrath of Khan).
      It’s definitely true that Kirk doesn’t really grow during the film except in notional terms – joining Starfleet is implicit growth, but we don’t see much more than that.

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    • It wouldn’t surprise me – having an attachment to classic Trek does make a big difference (Not so much the original series for me, but I do have a major soft spot for the classic crew movies). Also, it’s an interesting comparison with Iron Man – that, for me, was a fun blockbuster but one which didn’t sweep me off my feet in the way that it did for so many (and which would have been a much, much lesser film without Downey Jr.). I came out of the cinema after Star Trek definitely feeling like I enjoyed myself, but with the slight suspicion that I should have enjoyed myself more. I mean, it’d be great if now that the reboot factor is out of the way they could do something a bit more challenging in the next one… but I have the sneaky suspicion it’s going to more full-tilt space shenanigans and storytelling that leaves me going “Er…. what?!?” I could probably have coped with it if it had been dumb all the way – but it was the cool moments side-by-side with dumb that has led to my brain turning somersaults trying to work out whether I did actually like it or not…

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  2. I know exactly what you mean since, having contributed a largely positive review to Strange Horizons (due to appear this week) I’ve been through the same mental process of agreeing with all the negative reviews and second-guessing my own opinions!
    I understand the film’s flaws, and in fact they really hack me off in some cases, but I did like it. Not love it, but like it. I’ve been trying to decide if I’m being too easy on it — and there’s some truth to that — but I do on reflection think it’s successfully tapped into the underlying appeal and energy of the original Trek characters. Trek has been desperate for something — anything! — to break it out of its Berman/Braga doldrums. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but equally the bathwater was seriously in need of changing and no-one else seemed interested in the job.
    The Chekov example is something I theoretically agree with, but also feel is retrospective nitpicking. I think it’s all well and good to point to Chekov and say how daring the concept was in the 1960s, since in one way it definitely was, but there’s a voice at the back of my head saying “but the creators admitted to wanting a Davy Jones-type boy who’d appeal to teenage girls” so things weren’t quite so clear cut as all that. For the new movie the film-makers are in a slightly damned-if-they-do situation here, since they’ve steered clear of the kind of reboot that re-imagines the characters – their time travel pretext doesn’t allow it, nor does their ‘nostalgic tribute’ angle. Having opted to go that route they’re sort of boxed in by the fact that Chekov is, unfortunately, nothing more than an overly-patriotic Russian with a silly accent. It seems to me that to make Chekov an icon for the things that the film doesn’t do is a little unfair to the film. Chekov long ago stopped being anything but a silly accent, and nothing but a complete re-imagining is going to make him daring in the way that a Russian in the ‘sixties was daring, so what exactly were they supposed to do?
    (Having said that, in the film they’ve given him some enthusiasm and technical skill, but they haven’t exactly rounded him out as a character!)

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    • I do on reflection think it’s successfully tapped into the underlying appeal and energy of the original Trek characters.
      I agree. I think it’s the one thing about the film that keeps it afloat even when the idiocy starts getting into overload levels towards the climax. And I guess that’s part of the frustration – that there are elements that they capture really well (and sometimes fairly intelligently) – and then they bolt them onto storytelling that is just breathtakingly bad.
      And yes, there’s a certain degree of nitpicking in my comments about Chekov – but I wasn’t meaning it so much in “they should have done this”, but it did seem to illustrate the gap between impersonation of the original show and genuinely trying to upgrade the show’s ethos for the modern day. And yes, thanks to the nature of the prequel, they’re damned if they do something risky and they’re damned if they don’t, but I find it weird that while they were able to make Uhura seem like a genuine person, Chekov actually feels like even less of a believable character than in the original series and the movies (which is, as you say, kind of hard to believe). And I probably could have coped with it better if it hadn’t been quite such a case of “Hello! Look at me! I have an amusing accent!”

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  3. The plot is a train-wreck, of course, but that doesn’t really bother me because the same can be said of nearly all the Trek movies and quite a lot of TV plots, but you cannot have the TOS crew and a modern liberal gender and racial mix. They have two hours to establish the crew and tell a story, and there is just isn’t time to do more than introduce the bridge crew while concentrating on Kirk and Spock.
    I also don’t really understand what many critics (and, incidentally, very few of the professional film critics disliked the movie – all the criticism seems to be coming from the SF and committed Trek communities) wanted in respect of the “Roddenbery vision”. I always thought that that, from a dramatic point of view, was plain silly. You need character conflict. This was why TOS worked but, for me, TNG didn’t (the famous quote about the only interesting character being the robot was spot on.)
    Being so carried away by the pace and not noticing the flaws is a plus for drama (it’s when you notice the flaws during the drama that it presents a problem), and has been used as such at least since Shakespeare. (John Dover Wilson put his finger on that when he points out that, on the stage, you don’t notice that time and distances are completely skewed in Hamlet and Othello etc etc.

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    • Just wrote a lengthy reply to this that got eaten by the internet. Will try and do the edited highlights.
      I wasn’t meaning by what I said “They should have turned Chekov into a Muslim!” or something equally ridiculous – just that the difference between the two versions highlights an occasional habit towards broad dumbness that was one of the film’s biggest flaws for me. The take on Chekov annoyed me while I was watching – the film really seemed determined for everybody to find his accent hilarious, something I could have done without.
      Being so carried away by the pace and not noticing the flaws is a plus for a drama – but having a story that essentially has to be told at an absurd speed otherwise the flaws in the premise will be absurdly noticable isn’t. It’s all personal taste – but the story in the second half was just too shambolic to completely pull me in.
      And again, all personal taste on previous Trek films – and I’d agree with you if we were talking Generations or Nemesis (or even Insurrection, which is more howlingly bland than actually dreadful), but I disagree when it comes to the others (excusing the duff Star Trek V). Not holding them up as paragons of plotting, but they’re good functional B-movie plotting that gets the film from A to B to C, and while there are contrivances, there’s nothing in them that approaches the glaring idiocy of the “Where does Nero go for 25 years?” question, and the “I shall have my revenge by dumping you on an ice planet and hoping you’re looking in the right direction…” plan.
      Plus, I think mainstream critics often have a general view of ‘pop’ sci-fi that it’s all nonsense anyway, and will thus excuse bad plotting that they would eviscerate if the equivalent happenned in a non-SF movie. (Not a rule, but something I’ve spotted it happening more than once).

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