I took the San Diego trolley away from Comic-Con toward the Fashion Valley Shopping Center. I bought my ticket to Star Trek. I put on my 3D glasses. It was July and I was entertained. I didn’t yawn. I finished my popcorn. I reacted to the tender moments of friendship and empathy. I cheered as heroes triumphed over bad guys.
Unfortunately, I also took a lot of mental notes that made the film less enjoyable for me. I’m a hard core Trekkie (one not afraid of the “ie” fandom designation). While Star Trek Beyond was entertaining enough, it wasn’t the return to the real Star Trek universe I had hoped for.
Star Trek is more than a ship named Enterprise. It’s more than characters named Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura and Scotty. Star Trek is more than insider winks and nods, more than cryptic allusions to previous stories. Although the Star Trek Beyond team understood this better than previous Abrams outings, the heart of Star Trek, the driven human quest to explore, to accept diversity and embrace wonder, still remains challenged in this latest venture.
Star Trek Beyond does get the relationships between the crew. The ribbing and camaraderie between Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty is spot on (but Uhura is underused). Perhaps the constraints of a two-hour movie every few years means making choices. The writers choose character over message. Years of Star Trek, however, prove time and again that character and heart not only can co-exist, in the Star Trek universe they must.
But it isn’t just that Lin and team miss the heart of Star Trek, it’s that they get it wrong. Even in the worst episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series and The Next Generation, a sense of intergalactic inclusiveness pervades. Sure, there are plenty of leaders capable of slipping through the reigns of psychological testing, but the unhinged xenophobe Captain Edison of Star Trek Beyond would have had a first officer and crew to contend with before he transformed into an intergalactic pirate by sucking life and DNA from every species he encountered and conquered.
That he manages to either absorb his crew’s life, or likewise integrate them via the transformation device he uses, strains credibility in the Star Trek universe, even if places such as Waco and Jonestown exist in real history.
No Star Trek canon ever suggests a devotion like that of the Branch Davidians or the Peoples Temple Agricultural Projects. Throughout the history of Star Trek, the leadership characters, which viewers know and love, find themselves challenged by their crew when they no longer represent the oaths and duties they have sworn to uphold (and equally supportive of their leader’s insubordination when the rules constrain doing what is right).
Perhaps our world has become a dark place and there is no space for Roddenberry’s naive vision of human cooperation and globalization. No room for a vision of central government and efficiently distributed wealth. If we think about it, Roddenberry’s time was even darker than ours. World War II, The Holocaust, and the Korean conflict were recent memories still full of sting. Vietnam was building up and the Cold War drove the fragmentation of Europe and nuclear weapon build-ups. Star Trek was created in a time of great social upheaval and experimentation. The domestic issues around sex and race and equality we face today were first publicly confronted while Star Trek was on the air.
If you look at the last two films, they leverage a pessimistic threat that isn’t from outside the United Federation of Planets, but from within it. The naiveté of not paying attention to threats from within undermines the Federation as an institution. The original Star Trek rarely hinted at internal conflict, save for technological issues facilitated by madness. Internal threats were typically individual, not systemic.
Star Trek (2009) offered an external threat in the form of Nero, a Borg-supplied Romulan singing “vengeance is mine”. The failures of logic in that movie — as good as it was to see the gold, blue and red shirts flying again on the USS Enterprise — transported it into the nearly inconsequential, save for the resetting of the Universe as a platform for the new franchise.
In Star Trek Into Darkness Admiral Marcus was a xenophobe who commandeers vestiges of history, and seemingly a crap load of Federation credits, to fund a secret fleet and army. He also plans to unleash members of Kahn Noonien Singh’s eugenically engineered crew from the 1990s to bring back the fighting spirit to an institution that has become complacent.
In later years, Star Trek movies did deal with internal Federation issues. Most notably, Star Trek VI, which circles around a plot to assassinate Klingon and Federation leaders in order to avoid ushering in an era of peace between the two species. As good as that movie was for its Shakespearian quotes and well-acted bravado, it too edged away from Roddenberry’s vision, perhaps acting as an inspiration for the current film.Spoilers ahead.
In Star Trek Beyond the threat comes again from within, this time from a Starfleet captain who is pissed off because he was given a nice cushy exploration job when what he really wanted to do was keep killing the bad guys — and so he transferred his hate to his former employer and made them, The Federation and Starfleet, the bad guys. Krall is Captain Edison, and Captain Edison goes Postal. Edison is Star Trek VI’s Captain Kirk unable to control himself after the defeat of Chang at Khitomer. Yet, even as Kirk cringes at the idea of Klingons becoming allies, he never allows his dislike to descend into sociopathy.
Beyond its heart, Star Trek Beyond also contains some gapping plot conveniences that you can drive a starship through. The biggest being Edison’s failure to remember where his own ship crashed (Kirk found his in a matter of minutes, but then he did always admonish his crew to remember where they parked). The whole transformation into a long-lived alien isn’t really explained, nor are his abilities to command the technology he discovered upon crashing. It’s kind of like we are watching a movie that was penned in part by Captain Edison through the fog of his forgetfulness.
If hardcore Trekkies let go of the Gene Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon Star Trek, Star Trek Beyond becomes an adventure movie shot against the backdrop of the Star Trek universe. The rules have changed, not just because of a temporal reboot that took place in 2009, but because the audience’s ability to meander through philosophical exploration, and engaging with individual growth spurred through challenge, no longer seems to be what the studio believes puts butts in cinema seats. Justin Lin delivers the kind of visual thrills and harrowing stunts his fans expect. Yes, in some places, this film very much feels like Fast and Furious Star Trek, and for a mid-summer movie, that’s probably just fine for most people.
I won’t suggest how Lin and team could have made Star Trek Beyond better beside saying that even if they tend toward disregarding some tenets of the Star Trek universe, they should better adhere to the principals of physics and very knowingly violate them rather than lean toward a fantasy inspired disregard for physics altogether.
At the end of the film, I dutifully recycled my 3D glasses (which didn’t add much, nor did they detract) and tossed my popcorn and soda containers into the trash bins, and hit the trolley back for the event horizon of Comic-Con.
For Star Trek devotees, perhaps Star Trek: Discovery will return the entirety of the Star Trek vision when it premieres on CBS All Access in January. Since (spoiler) time travel doesn’t actually exist, we’ll just have to wait and see. Live long and prosper.