With Star Trek J.J. Abrams has succeeded in making a movie which is both entertaining to both Star Trek fans and to those who have not seen Star Trek before. This eleventh Star Trek movie is certainly the best of the odd-numbered movies (which isn’t saying much) and in many ways is the best of all the movies. Star Trek was primarily a set of television series with the movies never really doing justice to the quality of the television series. While taking some liberties with continuity, to the frustration of some fans, Abrams has done an excellent job of capturing the actual feel of the shows while still making it a movie non-fans can enjoy.
When Gene Roddenberry first started Star Trek he wanted it to take place on a ship which already had a history. The original series began some time into a five year mission for the U.S.S. Enterprise. Instead Abrams started from the beginning, showing both Spock and Kirk grow up and eventually wind up on the Enterprise. This allowed long time fans to see a story which had not been done before while allowing new viewers to get into the story without any need to know the history.
In starting over with a new cast and a reboot of the series, some were concerned about whether this would really be Star Trek. If the movie was not to be true to Star Trek it would be better for Abrams to start with a new space opera of his own. There are many things which make Star Trek. This includes the feel of the cast, ship, and the universe the stories are set in, the philosophy of Star Trek, and the canon of the future history established. The movie succeeds well on the initial categories, with the most controversial area being over the changes in the time line. I will save discussion of this for last as it requires spoilers. I’ll provide another warning before getting into this final portion of the review where major spoilers are present.
The most memorable feature of the original show was the interaction between the major characters, especially Kirk and Spock. This was lost in future series but Star Trek lived with new characters. The movie was successful in reestablishing the classic relationships between the characters with a new set of actors. Chris Pine captured the essence of young Kirk, including his desire to bed every female who crossed his path. Karl Urban was terrific as Dr. Leonard McCoy. He was first seen in the film expressing his antipathy towards space flight. He later displayed comments about Spock which were true to the original when upset, and even got out a "I’m a doctor, not a X" line. Simon Pegg didn’t appear as Scotty until late in the movie, but it is easy to see his character developing into the Scotty of the television Enterprise. John Cho’s Sulu got an opportunity to do some fencing. Anton Yelchin played a very young and definitely Russian Chekov
There were minor deviations with Spock and Uhura, but they might have been for the better. In the original pilot for the original show, The Cage, Christopher Pike was Captain and Majel Barrett played the first officer. Spock was the only character to be kept on for the actual show but was shown as having emotions. Zachary Quinto’s Spock suppressed his emotions but did not seem as entirely emotion-free and logical as the Spock of the original show. This could be taken as a consequence of being younger and not yet being in control of his emotions to the degree seen on the television show. This Spock was also different when compared to the television Spock who lacked the emotions to respond to nurse Christine Chapel’s advances. While Uhura had a relatively minor role on the television show, Zoe Saldana presents a far more vibrant character, which is definitely for the better.
It was to be expected that the ship would be modernized with science fiction visuals coming a long way from the 1960’s. This still captured the feel of a Star Trek starship despite the changes. The bridge was still the center of the ship. While minor, the views when en route to the shuttle crafts had a feeling of authenticity, being more complex than the television visuals while having a utilitarian simplicity. The uniforms were similar to the old ones (including having a red shirt be a sign of impending death) but were modernized just enough to avoid appearing geeky. Of course women wore miniskirts to be true to the original. The views of the Star Fleet Academy were similar to the views of Star Fleet when shown in the later television shows. The galaxy was also the galaxy of Star Trek,complete with references to Klingons, Romulans, the neutral zone, and even Cardassians.
Far more than the specific characters and races, it was Roddenberry’s philosophy which defined Star Trek throughout its various incarnations. Roddenberry’s optimism, humanism, and support for liberal values makes the renewal of Star Trek particularly appropriate for the first year of the Obama administration. Star Trek fits the new feeling of hope and optimism and that we are now back on the right track. In contrast, the final Star Wars movie, Return of the Sith, while originally inspired more by the Nixon years, was more appropriate for the Bush years in its portrayal of tyranny and the destruction of democracy. This movie had little chance to deal with Roddenberry’s philosophy, but where it was done, such as in the mission of Star Fleet as a “peace keeping and humanitarian armada,” it was consistent with Star Trek.
In rebooting the series, J. J. Abrams wanted to avoid the problem of having to adhere to every item of Star Trek canon which has been established. While this was understandable, it should have also been predictable that Abrams would want the freedom to shake things up even more. On Alias the original format with SD-6 was unexpectedly changed in the second season, and the show continued with major changes over the years. Lost has also undergone major changes from year to year. This would be more difficult with Star Trek as we have seen the fates of major characters through the final mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise and the death of James Kirk. Further discussion of this involves major spoilers which those still planning to see the movie might wish to avoid.
Abrams wanted to leave himself free to totally change what might happen to any of the characters, along with freeing himself to have events in the movie differ canon. Rather than starting from scratch and totally ignoring past shows and movies, the solution allowed them to both stay within Star Trek’shistory and leave them free to move in different directions. Nero, the Romulan villain played by Eric Bana, traveled back in time to prevent the destruction of Romulus by destroying the Federation which he wrongly blamed for what happened to Romulus. By coming back in time and changing events, Nero changed the time line.
Abrams, speaking through Spock, made quite a point of this in outright telling everyone on the bridge that the paths they were to have been on have now been changed. This made little sense as told to the crew as they know of no other time line and would not know that anything different is happening as they lived their lives in this time line. This is really a message for the viewers as we are being told that Abrams is free to change everything we know about the future history as established in Star Trek. Any character can now die, and any part of history can be changed.
While I knew that Abrams had planned to have his stories take place in a different time line, I had hoped that Abrams would be more subtle about this, using it primarily to avoid criticism over violating canon over minor issues. Instead Abrams used this to bring about major changes both in how the Enterprise crew was brought together and in (final warning re huge spoilers) the destruction of Vulcan.
Abrams has essentially done what the Borg and many others have failed to do–totally wipe out everything we have seen in the Star Trek universe. It is possible that over time the universe will partially correct itself, but without Vulcan it is not possible for everything to return to the way it was meant ot be. (On the bright side, this might mean we will be spared the stories of Voyager).
At least the future history we have seen continues in the memories of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock who also came back in time. Abrams has described the new time line as existing in parallel to the time line we have seen, but real Star Trek geeks have found problems in this interpretation. Fortunately Star Trek has dealt with alternative time lines and alternate universes in different ways, leaving us free to interpret this as we choose, considering that in the end this is all fiction, regardless of how real the Star Trek universe is seen as being to many fans. I’ll return to consideration of alternative time lines as portrayed on Star Trek at the end as I figure only hard core Star Trek fans will have any interest in this.
Starting a new time line will explain most of the differences between the movie and Star Trek canon. The differences which cannot be explained are trivial and can easily be overlooked. For example, it was previously established that James T. Kirk was born in Iowa on March 22, 2233, not in space as shown at the start of the movie. Kirk’s parents were not in space due to Nero coming back in time, even if this did certainly affect the details of his birth.
Other changes from canon in the life of Kirk and the rest of the Enterprise crew could be accounted for by the change in time line but this was not necessarily for the better. From information given in previous episodes, we know that Kirk moved up thorough the ranks and served on other starships before taking command of the Enterprise. This is far more realistic than to have Kirk be made First Officer, and soon after becoming Captain, on the initial flight, bypassing any other junior officers on board. As the movie skipped over large portions of Kirk’s life they could have briefly shown his advancement and then transfer him to the Enterprise as opposed to showing the implausible sequence of events of this movie.
Actually many aspects of the movie were implausible but they can be overlooked without preventing enjoyment of the movie. It is not clear how Nero knew, upon hearing the year, that he arrived twenty-five years before Spock. While the ship came from the future it is still not very plausible that a mining ship would be this much more powerful than a starship. There were multiple scientific errors, such as going through a black hole to go back in time. Drilling to the planet’s core seems implausible. Unless Delta Vega was a moon of Vulcan it is hard to imagine how old Spock could have had such a close up view of the destruction of Vulcan.
While these and many other aspects of the movie are scientifically impossible, ideas on alternative universes are purely theoretical, making it difficult to evaluate the legitimacy of how this is portrayed in Star Trek. The concept has actually been portrayed in different ways on past Star Trek series.
The most common portrayal of alternate time lines was seen in episodes such as City on the Edge of Forever, (Star Trek: The Original Series) and Yesterday’s Enterprise (Star Trek: The Next Generation). In these episodes the time line is changed and subsequently corrected so that things returned to how they should be. This does make changing the past fit firmly within Star Trek canon, except this time there was no cosmic reset switch as in Year of Hell (Star Trek: Voyager). The new movie series will continue entirely in this alternative time line and when seen like episodes such as City on the Edge of Forever this would mean that everything we have known in the old time line is gone.
While alternative time lines were generally portrayed as something which required repair to return the one reality which existed before the time line was altered, there have also been examples of parallel universes. The most extreme case was seen in Parallels (Star Trek: The Next Generation) in which there were multiple parallel universe. Some differed in only trivial manners while in others major events were different. While this could account for both versions of Star Trek, the parallel universes seen in this episode were each separate universes and a change in the time line in one appears to mean that that particular universe would be changed. This would suggest that The Star Trek universe which we knew was still changed, even if similar ones might remain unchanged in parallel universe.
A third form of alternative universes was first seen in Mirror, Mirror (Star Trek: The Original Series). In this episode a transporter problem exchanged crew members with crew from the mirror universe where a tyrannical empire is present instead of Star Fleet. Chronologically earlier scenes of the mirror universe were seen in In a Mirror, Darkly (Star Trek: Enterprise). This episode of Enterprise featured one of the few great moments in this series. The scene from First Contactin which Zephram Cochran first met he Vulcans was shown in the mirror universe with Cochran killing the Vulcans and taking control of the Vulcan ship.
How the mirror universe exists was never made clear. Some interpret it as one of many parallel universes as in Parallels. It has also been interpreted by fans as being the consequence of a change in Earth’s history creating an alternative time line. Some have speculated that this is even the result of the alternative time line created in City On The Edge Of the Forever in which the Nazis won World War II. This theory would allow for the existence of both the original Star Trek universe and a new parallel one created by Nero’s alteration of the time line.
I have also seen some Star Trek fans object to changing the time line as they enjoy envisioning the Star Trek time line as if it is our real future. If one wants to give this degree of reality to Star Trek, acting as if it really is a true future, then we must see it as being on a different time line from our own. The Star Trek Chronologyby Michael and Denise Okuda reveals that in 2009 (based upon information from Tomorrow is Yesterday) “Captain Shaun Geoffrey Christopher commands the first successful Earth-Saturn space-probe mission.” Nomad (The Changeling) was launched back in 2002. If we are living in the Star Trek time line we also managed to forget the Eugenics Wars which took place between 1993 and 1996 in which Kahn Noonien Singh (Space Seed) took control of Earth and much of the population was wiped out. (I imagine that most people were unaware of the Eugenics Wars because of the media being preoccupied with Clinton’s scandals).
I wish that Abrams had preserved the overall Star Trek history and had only used the idea of an alternative time line to get away with minor changes from canon. in the future talk of the Star Trek universe may need to clarify which time line is being considered. Despite this, the movie is still Star Trek. The ideas and personalities of Star Trek are far more important than a set of events in a fictional future history. While I would have preferred that Abrams not obliterate this from his work, the movie does provide us with our best hope of keeping Star Trek alive. I can accept the loss of the Star Trek future history if it means having a new opportunity to see the adventures of the Enterprise when commanded by James T. Kirk. I do hope that Abrams continues to make many sequels to this. After all, it would be a waste to destroy the old Star Trek time line unless Abrams now takes advantage of this with future movies.