I can tell you I am emotionally compromised.
—Spock (Zachary Quinto)
“We gain nothing by diplomacy.” So says the rebooted Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) when faced with a crisis involving angry time-traveling Romulans. It’s a rousing sort of judgment, the sort you’d expect from the old Shatnernian Kirk, whose quick assessments and bold decision-making were hallmarks of his lengthy tenure at the helm of the USS Enterprise.
In this new imagining of the starship’s voyages, courtesy of the irrepressible J.J. Abrams, such assessment also helps to delineate the differences between Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto). And their initial confrontations and evolving friendship are the salient subject of the 2009 Star Trek. The much-anticipated movie reintroduces all the characters from the franchise’s first iteration, but its most intense and rewarding focus is this friendship. The fact that it is rather strikingly engineered via the time-traveling plot gives pause, especially given the identity of the engineer. But that pause is its own pleasure too, recalling the original TV series’ ethical and political dilemmas—worthy despite and because of their frequent clunkiness.
In this version of their history, Kirk and Spock meet at Starfleet Academy, where the traumatized angry son of a much-revered self-sacrificing captain (Chris Hemsworth) arrives with fresh cuts on his face—following a barroom showdown with a battery of Academy cadets. Within minutes of screen time, young Kirk has completed the four-year program in three years, flirted audaciously with Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and cheated on the daunting Kobayashi Maru simulation, a test designed, according to its designer Spock, to be unsolvable.
It’s a neat bit of plotting that has the two men (or more accurately, one all-human and one half-Vulcan) confronting one another according to their most thumbnailish character traits—the rebellious, motorcycle-riding, womanizing Kirk versus the coolly calculating outsider. That Spock contends daily with his raging in-betweenness, his rejection by both Vulcans and humans, makes his own essential rebellion flashily sympathetic. Literally beaten by nasty little Vulcan boys in a childhood-trauma scene, he develops a fierce loyalty to his mother (Winona Ryder), honoring her in his life-shaping decision to enter into Star Fleet rather than the Vulcan Academy. This doesn’t exactly surprise his father (Ben Cross)—who calls him a “child of two worlds”—but it does set him on a new course, less precisely “diplomatic” than subtly vengeful.
And so you see right off that Kirk and Spock are more alike than different, each determined to make his own way inside the Federation’s system of universe-governing that demands its officers hew closely to order and directives. Supported by his best friend, the recently divorced and ever voluble Bones (Karl Urban), Kirk outsmarts the system at the Academy, busting up the final exam and earning himself a trip before a judiciary board. Here he confronts Spock (as well as a self-congratulatory panel headed by Tyler Perry, of all people) over the Kobayashi Maru simulation. But their conflict, however cute, is really false, as they will inevitably be assigned to the Enterprise together, with a still-walking Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) in charge and Spock ranked over Kirk.
On this bridge, they boldly go directly into a big fat grudge fight with the Romulan Nero (Eric Bana), whose bald pate, slashy facial tattoos, and rugged-leather-sorta jacket mark him and his similarly adorned underlings as the villains. Nero especially likes to appear wide-screened and looming in the Enterprise viewscreen, issuing threats and decrees, inciting disdain and macho-posing from his Federation opponents. Pike’s crew includes some youngsters, like boy genius Chekov (Anton Yelchin) and hand-to-hand-combat-trained Sulu (John Cho) (who describes that training in a word inserted to delight Trek fans: “fencing”). But it’s clear that the captain knows his origin-story place, entrusting the ship in absence to a combination of first officer Spock and that loudest troublemaker Kirk (whom Pike has recruited personally) to ensure the survival of the ship, earth, and likely the universe.
The adventure this time includes plenty of action—martial-artsy fisticuffs, phaser shootouts, and planet-annihilating explosions—most all deployed to figure the Spock-Kirk bonding experience. This relationship, for all the beloved other stuff that goes on in Star Trek has always been its emotional and political center (not unlike the friendship-tension between Jack and Locke on Abrams’ Lost). Arguing over means to ends—diplomacy or showdowns—Kirk and Spock reinforce one another, a point made by Leonard Nimoy’s Spock here, his appearance awkwardly commenced but quite satisfying once he starts talking.
Indeed, the exchanges between young Kirk and old Spock provide this Trek outing with particular pleasures, as they rethink the vagaries of movie-style time travel (who can appear in the same space, how one person traveling affects the future that becomes a present eternally and repeatedly, how the loss of entire worlds changes or doesn’t change individual personalities). However the plot works out (as it is a pre-story, you can guess whether or not Kirk saves earth/America, though the fates of a couple of other planets are startlingly apocalyptic, and not unrelated to recent US military global bumbling), the point is that these boys find out how they will shape each other.
If the new film doesn’t exactly expand the parameters of their friendship, it does reinforce its reflective, allusive qualities. If Kirk’s predictable stubbornness or Spock’s odd moment of willful blindness or even Uhura’s romantic commitment doesn’t irrevocably alter the future that is also the franchise’s past, it does at least offer up a reasonably alternative and insistently upbeat set of possibilities. Most hopefully, perhaps, Star Trek repeatedly embodies its forward-looking harmonies and clashes in half-breedy figures, from Spock to Worf (Michael Dorn, in The Next Generation) to even the Borg, always-already children of “two worlds” (best and worst). Yes, humans prevail, and Kirk incarnates that prevalence. But Spock—now and then—remains something else.