Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What's Really Wrong with Abrams' Star Trek

So Mockingbird and I went to see Star Trek: Into Darkness this weekend, and unlike the majority of film goers, we weren't that impressed with the movie. So being who we are we spent the rest of the weekend debating the film with friends on Facebook, and trying to nail down exactly what we didn't like about it in a series of rambling conversations. Turns out, there is quite a lot we didn't like, and she goes into some of it in a post on Unfettered Brilliance which you should go read. Personally, I have been ambivalent about J.J. Abrams' reboot of the franchise since his first film, and after Into Darkness, I think I have finally figured out why. FAIR WARNING: this post may get spoilery, so if you haven't seen the movie, and don't want to be spoiled, don't continue after the jump.

William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The problem is that Abrams has gotten away from the heart of Star Trek, and a big chunk of that missing heart lies in the fact that Abrams and Chris Pine's Kirk doesn't read. Instead he moodily rides motorcycles in picturesque settings, stares into glasses of whiskey in dive bars while wearing cool leather jackets, sleeps with tailed twins, and other manly-type things. Gene Roddenberry and William Shatner's Kirk, on the other hand did all of that, could quote from the classics, and school Spock on American history. Star Trek has traditionally been a very literate and literary franchise. In "Where no Man Has Gone Before" (1.03) Gary Mitchell describes Kirk in his Starfleet Academy days as "a stack of books with legs," and the value and importance of books and reading was emphasized both overtly as in the hardcopy-loving lawyer Samuel T. Cogley who defends Kirk in "Court Martial" (1.20) and Spock's gift of A Tale of Two Cities to Kirk in The Wrath of Khan, and more subtly in the stack of books that was always seen on a shelf in Kirk's quarters aboard the Enterprise. Kirk was as much a man of letters and science, of wonder and poetry, as he was the dropkicking, quick-drawing space western action hero.

This literacy and humanism was one of the key factors in the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation's success and popularity. Remember Picard's own vast knowledge of literature and general intellectualism as displayed perhaps most wonderfully in "Darmok" (STTNG 5.02) where Picard is able to recount the story of Gilgamesh from memory, and finishes the episode reading Homer, which, of course, he has in hardback form in his ready room? Not to mention Data's search for humanity through the plays of Shakespeare  the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, classical music, and painting. Star Trek is one of the great works and proponents of humanism in American popular culture, and Abrams abandons that in favor of more and more action, with less and less thought.

Finally, let's not forget that Star Trek's literacy has historically informed its villains as well. Remember Kodos the Executioner, the mass murder who went underground as the leader of a Shakespearean travelling troupe in "The Conscience of the King" (ST 1.13)? Or Garth of Izar and his Shakespeare reciting Orion lover Marta in "Whom Gods Destroy" (ST 3.14)? Or the brilliant "Mr. Flint" of "Requiem for Methuselah" (ST 3.19) who quite literally was  DaVinci, Bhrams, and Alexander the Great? Christopher Plummer's Shakespeare quoting General Chang stole every scene he was in for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and finally, as much as I truly loved Benedict Cumberbatch's viciously intense Khan, he comes nowhere close to the power of the original, who goes down quoting from what is arguably the greatest novel ever written by an American:

That's Herman Melville right there, straight out of Moby Dick. That's the literate Star Trek, and the heart and soul of the franchise that Abrams and Co. have, sadly, forgotten.

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