Let’s not be too harsh on recent generations of Star Trek. Sure, after Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica it’s difficult to sit through an entire episode. The pacing is glacial, the humour damn gentle and sex is concealed behind head-to-toe grey jumpsuits. There are way too many scenes of people chatting at desks, and the productions are as set-bound as Tim Burton. But let’s not forget that The Next Generation was brilliant for its time. Its competition wasn’t BSG or new Who, or even Farscape or B5 – in 1987 it was up against crud like ALF and Airwolf, and in comparison it shone.
Later series like Voyager and Enterprise failed to move with the times, and stuck to the same old formula – dreary office chats, a small primary crew whose safety was assured, and story arcs that were half-hearted at best and hopelessly disorganised at worst. Season three of Enterprise upped the ante with a 24-style terrorist hunt, but it was too late, and with death on the horizon a bargain-basement season four devoted itself to out-and-out fan service, leading to some of the most entertaining, Trekky Trek in years – the place to look if you’ve ever wondered why Klingons once had smooth foreheads.
Enterprise’s biggest flaw, though, was its safety. It was about the first Enterprise sent out into a hostile universe – and even though Kirk and Spock, years later, would find themselves encountering the unknown on a weekly basis, Archer’s crew did nothing but visit planets already discovered by the Vulcans. And hardly anyone ever died.
On the big screen, the last two films were crippled (just like The X-Files: I Want to Believe) by the palpable need to give its stars “scenes” at the expense of story. The last Star Trek film, Nemesis, was diabolically dull, essentially two hours of two spaceships floating in space and pointing at each other.
This movie puts right everything that had gone wrong with Star Trek. It’s beautiful, sexy, cool and dangerous. Sex, spaceships, fist-fights and death are restored to their proper places at the heart of the franchise: the girls are wearing mini-skirts, the men have permanently bruised knuckles, the spaceships smash each other to pieces, and redshirts regularly bite the dust.
For the first forty minutes or so I was convinced it was the best movie I’d ever seen, that I’d be sending my wife and child home on their own so that I could watch it again. It didn’t quite live up to that early promise, dropping off slightly somewhere around the point that Kirk runs around with big rubber hands, but was nevertheless extremely entertaining, and easily my favourite film of the year so far.
There are flaws. Nero’s big scary spaceship looks pretty much the same as the big scary spaceship in Nemesis, and while its industrial interior makes sense for a mining ship, it’s nothing we haven’t seen dozens of times before during Voyager’s journey across the Delta Quadrant. It would have benefited from the same level of invention and TLC evidently lavished on the Enterprise. Also, time-travelling Nero’s attempt to destroy the nascent Federation is an unwelcome reminder of Enterprise’s abysmal Temporal Cold War storyline. But those are minor issues, and after all there have been hundreds of episodes of the various programmes – the film couldn’t have been entirely original without jettisoning everything that makes it Star Trek.
The cast is excellent: Chris Pine as Kirk gets everything right. At 29 I think he’s the first Star Trek captain (except maybe Kate Mulgrew) under 40 since Shatner himself (both character and actor are about six years younger than the originals). Zachary Quinto as Spock was note-perfect, though it was hard to forget how sick I am of seeing his face in Heroes. Zoe Saldana as Uhura (now the most important character after Kirk and Spock) is convincingly smart and capable. Karl Urban is fantastic as Bones. Bruce Greenwood is a brilliant, brave Captain Pike. Simon Pegg makes a great engineer, while John Cho makes me wish they’d found room on the bridge for Kal Penn too. The only actor to come out of the film less than well is Eric Bana – he struggles to make any kind of impact, with little screen time and little to do.
This is the Star Trek film for anyone who saw Galaxy Quest and wondered why they couldn’t do it for real.
Now, what happens next? In the original continuity, this film would take place between Captain Pike’s two five year missions. This time around, Kirk’s got his hands on the ship a good six years early, but he’s got six years’ less experience. He hasn’t served on the Farragut, he hasn’t had time to make mistakes, and by the end of the film, the galaxy is a much less hospitable place. The measure of this film’s success isn’t just its box office receipts (gratifyingly huge though they are), but also how much everyone will be looking forward to the next one.
Star Trek, JJ Abrams (dir.), Paramount