Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day Trekkin'

The Spawn were up early, despite dire parental threats. No breakfast in bed this year was the demand. To their credit, the boys understood. There was no Invasion of the Burnt Toast-Carrying Fiends From 0600 Hours. And I, for one, am extremely grateful.

Nevertheless, the Call of Mother's Day seems to loom large. I don't remember getting this excitable about Mother's Day as a kid, but I guess they're different. Fair enough, too. Anyway, they were up somewhere around first light, laying out a breakfast of buttered muffins, finding a cushion to go on one of the chairs, getting a nice blanket to go with it... I don't think they realised that by the time Natalie went down, a good forty minutes later, the muffins were stony cold. She ate 'em anyhow.

Then, for more Mother's Day yuks, we went through the great cycle of Louse Destruction once more. You can't just do the thing once, because any chemicals fierce enough to kill all the eggs as well as the lice would probably peel your scalp and bake your brain. So you go through a complicated routine of shampooing with evil chemistry, rinsing, repeating, and then a standard shampoo followed by conditioner, and a long, slow encounter with a fine-toothed comb. Yessir, just what a fine Mother's Day Sunday should have.

Still: I did have the foresight to check cinema times a few days back, and it turned out there was an early-afternoon session of Star Trek 90210, as I am dubbing this glossier-than-glossy reboot of the much-loved franchise. Natalie's a Trek fan from way, way back, so I figured a family visit to the new film would go over well.

It did.

I have to say that on one hand, I'm a touch disappointed. The last time I saw reviews this good for an sf/genre-type flick, it was the first of the Johnny Depp "Pirates" movies -- and that was a fucking boomer. I enjoyed the hell out of that film from one end to the other, and on that basis, I was rather hoping to be just as captivated by Star Trek 90210.

Sorry, Trek fans -- the Abrams-refuelled Enterprise isn't in the same class as that first Pirates of the Caribbean flick. It's a worthy effort. It kept my attention through almost all the film, and there were elements I greatly enjoyed, for certain. But underneath it... I think you need to be a Trek fan to really groove on the film, and to me, that's a little disappointing.

Why? Did I really have the right to expect something more? Weren't the words "Star Trek" enough of a warning?

Well -- yeah, I guess it's a bit rich for me to be expecting a film that steps up and out of the whole Star Trek thing. But, you know... I was hoping. I admit it.

To be fair, I think this is the best Star Trek film ever made. The pace is pretty good in general, though it falls off here and there. The cast inhabit the characters very well indeed. Karl Urban's take on DeForrest Kelley is so good it's unnerving, while the rest of the players step into oversized boots without missing a beat. John Cho's version of Hikaru Sulu is a delight. Simon Pegg creates a new, yet perfectly at home Scotty. Zachary Quinto's Spock is far more interesting and nuanced than the original. (Anybody else here remember Leonard Nimoy channeling a British Army Sergeant Major for his first efforts as the man in the pointy ears? Quinto is light-years better. Really.)

And of course, the new Kirk is pretty fucking good, as well he ought to be. Where his part doesn't fully come off, it's not his fault -- some damnfool slapstick stuff with swollen hands and numb tongue, a series of fight sequences in which he gets his arse routinely kicked by the same stupid roundhouse slugging punches and gormless Frankenstein's Monster strangles... Yeah, I know: original-series Kirk fought about as efficiently and convincingly as a dugong caught in a revolving door -- but that was the 'sixties, man! All the action heroes fought that way. This film -- well, shit. You should see what they let John Cho's stunt double do with a fold-out katana!

So - what's my problem?

It's really hard to convey. First, I think my problem is that even though this is the best Trek film by a long margin, it's still a Trek film. The difficulty with the whole series of films is that they've been as much about their own mythos as they ever have been about science fiction, and for many of the films, the Federation/Trek mythology has outweighed the story, the plot, the villains, and sometimes even the special effects.

The original Trek series -- yeah. Shitty SFX. Crappy sets. Hammy acting. Alla that shit. But... the Federation and the Prime Directive and the rest of it existed only as a backdrop for storytelling, and exploration. The reason that original series resonated was that they tried to do science fiction, and nobody else was doing that. They went for it: chased that sense of wonder, that gosh-wow-holy-shit! factor that has always been such a vital part of the SF literary genre. Not bigger, better, badder stunts and explosions, but ideas and themes and jeez, what if? What if?

Barnes emailed me a while back when it was announced they'd be re-releasing the original series, only with schmicked-up FX and sound and models and stuff. He asked a simple question: We hated it when George Lucas reworked Star Wars. Why aren't we pissed that this is being done to Trek?

The answer was simple, for me. They promised to leave the performances, the lines, and the stories completely the fuck alone.

With that first series of Trek, it was all about the SF, the exploration of the possible, the bold, sometimes ludicrous, occasionally poignant effort to use an imaginary future as a vehicle to explore who we are now. And for those of us who saw it back then, as kids, with the love of stories and imagination hot upon us -- we didn't see shitty sets, crappy SFX, and badly lit models. The stuff on the screen was just a guide, like a minimalist Shakespearian stage-set. What was going on in our heads was huge, epic, larger-than-life stuff that truthfully, honestly, changed us a little bit and stayed with us for years, and even decades. Why else would such a shoddy little TV show wind up spawning an entire goddam culture?

So. For me, the problem of this film is not that it treads on "sacred territory". Frankly, I think it's been enormously respectful to the original, and as a reworking, it's very effective. Plus the cunning plot device embedded in the story is such that from here, they can go on with this cast and crew without ever 'damaging' the original, if such a thing is actually possible. Full marks to Abrams and everybody involved.

No - if anything, the problem is that it's too concerned with being Trek, and not concerned enough about being imaginative, and bold, and confronting. The way I see it, if you're going to recreate a goddam legend -- and there's no other way to describe the original Enterprise and all aboard -- then you've got to reach into the spirit of that legend for inspiration.

Pirates Of The Caribbean did that. It took off from all the marvellously silly sword-and-sail swashbucklers of the past, kept the best, and stepped up a notch in performance and storytelling and scope and effects without losing sight of the sheer joy of adventure that drove those old movies. This is where Star Trek 90210 falls down, I fear -- for in ensuring that it properly enshrines the canon and the heroes and the trappings of the Star Trek franchise, Abrams has slightly, but definitely, missed the point.

He's made a film that will please Trek fans all over the world, and since we are legion, I have no doubt the movie will succeed and spawn sequels of its own. But I don't believe he's made a film that can capture the attention of a whole new generation of viewers, and touch them with the kind of inspirational madness that the original generated. It's a great Trek film, but it's still a Trek film.

I'll say this, though: if they took that same cast and let them have a cheap TV series of their own, with some decent SF writers to offer up plots and ideas... I think they might just manage to boldly go even farther than the originals, and I'd be only too happy to go right along with them.


  1. Sorry, Trek fans -- the Abrams-refuelled Enterprise "isn't in the same class as that first Pirates of the Caribbean flick"

    Utter, Total bullshit!

    I saw the film today too and it fucking rocked. Rocked i tell you, and was by far and away the BEST of the star trek movies.

    People, I'm telling you it was fan-fucking-tastic. go see it.

    Sometimes flinty I don't think that anything can please you.

  2. Mick: we're not completely out of agreement. I already said it's the best Star Trek film ever made. But the problem is that it's first and foremost a Star Trek film. As an attempt to recreate and reboot the series -- it's an insta-fail because the original series wasn't about "being Star Trek". It was about science fiction, and about boldly going out there with imaginations.

    Tell me one new thing in this film. One genuinely new addition. Not just a new villain character. And not a minor piece of tech like "red matter". Give me one instant where they challenged your imagination and made you wonder "what if?"

    I can go back to the original series and point to thirty, forty, fifty times they did it. Famous instances: the first bi-racial kiss on screen. Ludicrous instances: the Greek Gods as aliens who 'adopted' our culture way-back-when, and still appear as fifty-foot tall blonde body-builders in togas. Thoughtful instances: Vulcans with sex-drives that overcome them and force them into 'heat' against their will.

    What did this film add?

    "Pirates" transcended it's origins by keeping to the spirit of those origins, but bringing modern vision to the story. All the fun and the swashbuckling and the oddball character actors are still there, but with the added benefit of modern FX and cinematic technique, plus storyline. "Star Trek 90210" is indeed the very best Star Trek movie yet made -- but it's a Star Trek film and it doesn't try for anything more... and since that lame, hammy, cheap-ass Original Series way back when was ALWAYS about trying for something more, I'm afraid ST90210 missed the point.

    It's a really good Star Trek film, but it's not fan-fucking-tastic in my book.

    I'm not beyond pleasing, though:

    Raiders 1
    Star Wars ep 4 and 5
    The Princess Bride
    Blade Runner (director's cut, not cinematic release)

    Hell. I even liked Ladyhawke.

  3. You know -- even the series of films and the at-times painfully PC "Next Gen" offered new things. The Klingons as diplomatic partners and potential good-guys... that was interesting. And the efforts to portray outright capitalism as a social evil via the (rather pathetic, admittedly) Ferengi was another interesting, genuinely science fictional concept.

    It's not impossible to do these things. But ST 90210 didn't.

    With luck, maybe the sequel will give it a shot.

  4. This is far too nerdy even for me. I draw a hard line at Star Wars and Star Trek...I will not cross over to utter geekiness.

    Happy Mother's Day to your hot mama wife though! :D

  5. I'm going to see this later today and cannot wait ... really wanted to see it on IMAX but don't think I'll be able to get a ticket for the next week or so.

    Flinty ... your pirate bias is showing. ;-)

  6. "Tell me one new thing in this film"

    red matter

    No just kidding, I believe that is what is called in the biz a McGuffin.

    Hopefully this will provide enough interest to give them a chance to do more series. Not to forget there were some kick ass Science Ficiton (sorry Syfy) authors writing for the old TOS.

  7. I think you're expecting too much of a movie that is not just a genre piece, it is the new flagship of an old franchise, one of the longest running and most popular franchises in the history of mass culture.

    For all that ToS did break a lot of new ground, there was a lot of new ground to be broken then. With the atomisation of pop culture, and the thorough disintegration of the anglo-american monoculture which gave rise to it, what tropes are left to subvert without descent in mere intellectual gimmickry and posturing? A bit of slash/fic action between Kirk and Spock perhaps?

    No, I think this was a fine effort, and all the more admirable for the wretched failure and disappointment it could have been given the very patchy record of Hollywood at recycling its past.

    It's not simply enough to borrow the Starfleet uniform and go charging off into the wild black yonder seeking new narratives and new existential challenges, to boldly go where no Stra Trek script writer has gone before. This movie is both origin tale *and* homage and that demands a certain level of fidelity to the canon while still escaping the terrible gravity well (ie, massive suckage) which had formed around the franchise over the past ten years.

    The 'ideas' that so thrilled you in the series, and you have to remember that as a writer you are thrilled by things that don't necessarily mean shit to normal folks, those 'ideas' weren't the core of Star Trek. They were the window dressing.

    At the core was one idea, that humanity, in spite of its abject and manifest failings, is still capable of greatness, of beauty, grace, courage, kindness, love. That there is good within us and because of that and that alone we have a future worth looking forward to. I think this movie captures that spirit perfectly.

  8. For the definitive Star Trek vs Star Wars movie.. Go look up Fanboys... Lots of homage(s) to both genres.

    I sit in both camps.. and neither.
    I am there for the blow things up and kill things action. Dont really care about plotlines that involve me thinking too much...

  9. I'm looking forward to seeing it. Saying it's 'the Best Star Trek movie ever made' is faint praise-the last ST movie I watched was 'Insurrection'-and quite honestly that would've been a poor TV movie.

    I'd go for a new 'Star Trek' TV series based on this crew and ship-provided, and this is an absolute must-that there are good stories written for the series.

  10. I cannot believe I'm saying this, but I think Birmo may have just sold me on Star Trek. Never thought I would admit that.

  11. Whoa! one too many chardies last night Dirk! Sorry 'bout that :)

    I just did a Mt Edna over the comparison with "Pirates of the Camp-o-bean" that's all

    2 things you didn't mention. They didn't develop the bad guy enough, Eric Bana was just too likeable and you just don't make a 3rd yr cadet the captain of your flagship, no matter what he did.

  12. YOu're spot on about the original series. That's how I saw it and why I really haven't watched a series since.

    Don't think the people who pay the wages of the people who make these movies really want what we want revisited. You and me might watch it once, we may even buy a DVD of it, but that'll end our contribution. The people who REALLY fork out the money want 'bigger' and 'better'.

    YOu and me would make it to thinky and profound, me thinks.

  13. Moko this was probably the most thinkiest ST movie yet.

  14. don't really have a dog in this one yet, aint seen the bugger, but will. BUT.

    MICKH..WTF, Pirates O carrib, mate not only does it ROCK!, its laced with quips and one liners, like I have nor seen in a long time. its quite possibly my most watched film, right up their beside the Odd angry shot!..AND THATS FUCKING SAYING SOMFIN,. I need to get along and hooked up to the teeev ..give ya a good slap wif a wet fish or something. Bloody hell!.

  15. My experience with Star Trek before this film consisted of a few episodes of Voyager and that Nemesis film with Patrick Stewart.

    I know the original series mostly through cliche and pop culture homages such as Futurama (Zach Brannigan can conquer my home planet anytime. BAM.).

    But I really enjoyed this film - I could follow the tech-y aspect; I understood by the giggles around me when there were in-jokes I'd need to ask The Wah about later; the humour was well done and the action commendable. I thought Chris Pine as Kirk was downright charismatic. The Wah pointed out a few plot holes ("Why didn't anyone on Earth line up some massive cannons and blow the crap outta that drill?"), but overall, as a newbie, I thought it was a top effort.

    I think that as a "re-boot", they probably couldn't go too far out in terms of "bold new adventures". People like me may have been confused by that. Hopefully they may be able to get to that in future films.

  16. MickH
    "They didn't develop the bad guy enough" this is becasue the back story to Eric Bana's bad guy was developed in a 4 issue comix book, just collected in to a trade paperback graphich novel and release in time for the movie. Its called

    'Star trek:Countdown'

    it recounts the story of what made him do what he did and how the central plot of the story worked.

    I really liked Bana's bad guy a whole lot more once I read the backstory.

  17. Ha! I love a good nerd-gument. Mickh: no offense at all was taken. I spent a lot of time once on Howard Rheingold's "Brainstorms" forum, and Rule One through Ten of that place was "assume goodwill". It's a remarkably effective rule because most of the time what looks like temper or otherwise is nothing more than a bit of less-than-well-chosen verbiage.

    Birmo... nope. I'm going to disagree with you about the 'ideas' side of the thing, and I think you're missing a point so glaringly obvious it practically hides itself by being so fucking huge.

    The original Trek was only a minor TV success, with ratings that never really kept it out of danger. Yet somehow, it has spawned (to date) at least a dozen feature films, four separate TV series sequelae/spin-offs, a comic book series, a cartoon series, a stinking great arseload of books (including some by the top writers of their time in SF), at least one parody TV series, a parody feature film, an unknown number of fan-made films, a feature film about the fan culture itself, several board games, umpteen computer games, at least one Role-Playing Game, an entire artificial language complete with vocabulary, syntax, grammar and script -- and fuck alone knows what else.

    Now, in the face of that tidal wave of response, you have to ask just what the hell that first series had which grabbed people. We can rule out acting, sets, FX, dialogue, and costums, I'm sure you'll agree. And given that it was less action-driven than many contemporary series, I'd say the "gee, the action is great!" factor doesn't count either.

    In fact, the only two contenders put forward would be your suggestion that it was the illustration of the greatness of human spirit, and mine that it was the ideas.

    Now, just for starters I'm going to shift my premises slightly -- it's actually a clarification, not a shift. First, as far as I'm concerned the 'greatness of human spirit' theme was one of those ideas I was talking about. And if I didn't make that clear, I apologise. I'm sure I used the word 'themes' somewhere, but I could have elaborated. Except it was already a long post.

    But secondly: you know, there have been a lot of programmes idealizing the human spirit. Perhaps not as overtly, but in truth, just about any TV series with an ensemble of hero-types aims to do that. And there have been plenty, but never another Trek.

    So my question is: exactly what are we meant to measure that greatness of human spirit against, in the original series, if not the ideas they threw at us?

    They could have given us an early version of "Space: Above And Beyond" if they'd wanted. Interstellar war is a great way to let that glorious human spirit show its colours. I do believe the original BSG had a shot at that kind of thing... without nearly the success.

    No - they gave us a series full of ideas. New obstacles, new problems every week. Not just the Klingons over and over again.

    Not just subversion of existing tropes, either. Ellison's 'City On The Edge Of Forever' does an incredibly simple thing: it forces Kirk to choose between love and his own future, by wrapping the basic thing in a time travel problem.

    Another episode -- cheesy as hell! -- was that one about encountering the last of the Greek Gods in space. They made the mighty Apollo into a powerful but pathetic figure, a needy parent trying to hang onto children who had outgrown the home. (Yeah, okay. He was a twenty foot blond guy in a toga. It was... not good.) The episode is full of ideas about compassion, and independence, and perhaps manifest destiny, sure - but once more, the ideas themselves permit the writers to investigate tough moral choices, and consider what it takes to be a human being.

    So: human spirit, sure. But you've got to confront that human spirit with something, and the heart of Trek was about humanity moving into the unknown, trying to carry the best of itself along -- and I didn't see that in ST 90210.

    You're right: it was an awful lot to expect. I admitted that already, and freely. But I don't think I was wrong to hope for it, and I don't think it's wrong to be disappointed that it wasn't there. They had a lot of work to do in reconstructing the shape and the concepts of the original for a new audience without disappointing the existing fan-base.

    I'm sure they've pleased the existing fans. But I'm not sure this film has done enough to bring a new generation into the fold.

    Bring on the new TV series, I say.

  18. Heh: you know what I would have liked? Old Spock getting ready to "correct" the timeline by resetting his zany ship, and going forward just far enough to black-hole the Romulan-killing star before it did its thing.

    Now THAT would have been a hell of a moral question for the ST 90210 mob. "Uhhh... according to this guy, our whole lives are based on a timeline fuck-up, and he can fix it. Whereupon we will be flung back into some version of ourselves that he tells us is normal... only in HIS version of things, there's an awful lot more velour, and the Klingons have greasy faces but no forehead lumps."

    Sorry - I couldn't resist the joke there. But really, to me that's a massive unresolved question there. Old Spock has been involved in timeline corrections on how many occasions? I have no idea. So... why ISN'T he trying to correct the timeline and save the Old Future Romulans and their haircuts? And how WOULD the ST 90210 people deal with that?

    Fuck. Now that I've thought that one up, I'm pissed off. I'd REALLY like to have seen that in the movie -- recasting Old Spock as a compassionate character who is nevertheless a nemesis to the 90210 universe. Damn! That would have been fucking brilliant!

  19. Nichols thought about leaving her role in the original Trek. She claimed bias and sexism made the job difficult. That's what she told a minister, and he advised her to keep the job. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King jr. knew the power of dreams and the need for faith in a better future. It was one of those simple, sublime and beautiful moments in history - seemed like nothing but meant so much to other dreamers.


  20. Seeing the movie this weekend so will hold comment, but perhaps this should be a tv vs movie argument? Having just rewatched serenity, i thought it lacked some of the slower exploration of ideas that firefly had, mainly due to having to keep the pace going over one movie. Maybe such exploration of ideas is best left to tv series?

  21. I actually agree that Flintharts vision of a bolder new ST has its appeal ; but I doubt it would have been as sucessful.
    Like it ir not, the phenomenen that is Trek has a certain following and to ignore what legions of "trekkies" really wanted could have been detrimental to success.
    And you'd have to say, they seem to have read it fairly well.
    Sold on the TV series idea - new stories weekly from the best in current SF writers. Nice dream.

  22. Regarding Besso's TV vs movie argument.

    Some one much clever than me once said

    "TV series are about questions, movies are about answers" which I think the Firefly TV series & Serenity movie illustrates well.

    I recognise the arguments you are putting FH but I do wonder if the Star Trek movies could display the same breath of ideas as the series? That may be due to the constraints of a movie against the greater 'freedoms' available in an ongoing series.

    A versiion of the quandry you suggest that TOS Spock could face of wiping out our current selves in stopping an alternative timeline was explored in Deep Space Nines Season 5 episode ‘Children of Time’ where the Defiant crew discovers their own descendants, and learns that in two days they will crash two hundred years in the planets past while atempting to leave.

    Needless to say the crew make the noble decision to sacrifice their return to their own lives to save their descendents time line, but of course that was never going to be allowed to happen.

  23. I want to see this simply for the promo radio interview Leonard Nimoy did here in Atlanta today. He laid claim that the Star Trek movie he directed was better than the one Shatner did, and even Shatner would admit it. He then said this new movie was better than his.

    Also, Uhura looks smoooooooking hot.

  24. Yeah, I guess it's an open question as to whether any movie can take that extra step. I mean, we're getting close to the heart of the reason why the X-Files movies were tremendously forgettable: extended episodes of the TV series, anyone?

    It's true there are things TV does better than movies, and vice versa. Also definitely true that one of the things cinema does better than the little box is Big Splashy Shiny Stuff, which ST 90210 has in spades.

    Still. Presenting the Bana-fest as a relatively minor timeline glitch and having Old Spock all set to 'fix' everybody's lives back to his future would have made a really, really interesting plot dilemma, especially if they hadn't let Bana kill Vulcan.

    In fact - suppose Bana had come back, gone to Romulus, and urged an early peace with the Federation so they can concentrate on the Doom Star? Maybe Old Spock "knows" that Bana's building up the Romulans to wipe out the Feds later in 'his' future, so that's why he wants to fix Bana's fix -- but the ST 90210 Federation sees peace with the Romulans as a good thing...

    Too much fun thinking about this stuff. Gotta go.

  25. King said [to Nichols], "Your character is the first non-stereotypical role on television ... people see for the first time as we should be seen, as equals ... Star Trek has changed the face of television."


  26. Yep. And in a nutshell -- against all hope, that's the kind of thing I was hoping for from the movie.

    Birmo's right: it's harder to find social issues to subvert. But it could still be done. The fight ain't over by a long shot. Poor old George Takei spent too long in the closet. Would it hurt to have had Sulu 90210 reflect that?

  27. Funny, I always thought Chekhov would've been the gay one.

    (and there would've been absolutely nothing wrong with that)