In 2009, J. J. Abrams spearheaded the relaunch of the Star Trek franchise. With Chris Pine taking center-stage as a new version of Captain James T. Kirk, Abrams rebooted the timeline, and launched the U.S.S. Enterprise on a whole new voyage. But as popular and successful as the relaunch may be, it’s come in for some pretty heavy criticism. Abrams has moved Star Trek away from its cerebral roots, away from its overt social commentary, and into the realm of ‘action flick’. Many Trekkies have been dismayed by this.
Over the weekend, Chris Pine and defended the new franchise:
“You can’t make a cerebral Star Trek in 2016. It just wouldn’t work in today’s marketplace. You can hide things in there – Star Trek Into Darkness has crazy, really demanding questions and themes, but you have to hide it under the guise of wham-bam explosions and planets blowing up. It’s very, very tricky. The question that our movie poses is “Does the Federation mean anything?” And in a world where everybody’s trying to kill one another all of the time, that’s an important thing. Is working together important? Should we all go our separate ways? Does being united against something mean anything?”
Is he right?
WHY CHRIS PINE FAILS TO UNDERSTAND SCIENCE-FICTION
At the heart of Chris Pine’s argument is that a cerebral Star Trek wouldn’t succeed in today’s marketplace. But I’m afraid he’s forgotten what genre Star Trek is part of. Yes, Star Trek has always featured action and adventure; but it’s also always been clearly situated within the genre of science-fiction.
The best science-fiction always has a cerebral aspect to it. Take Christopher Nolan’s Inception, for example; a remarkably intelligent film, it’s the second most lucrative movie of Nolan’s career (behind two of his Batman films). It didn’t fail because it was smart; it succeeded because of it.
Or take James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s pretty hard to get a movie with stronger environmental themes than Avatar, and the care with which Cameron integrated 3D technology with the world-building of Pandora generated an incredible amount of hype. All that led to a tremendous financial success, although advances in 3D technology since do mean that it’s not dated terribly well.
My point is this: within the science-fiction genre, you don’t need to place ‘intelligent’ in opposition to ‘successful’. In the hands of a skillful team, the two can go hand in hand.
WHY CHRIS PINE FAILS TO UNDERSTAND STAR TREK
With so many episodes released, the Internet is filled with lists of the ‘best episodes’. On , the top five entries are:
Balance of Terror – an episode in the original series where William Shatner’s Kirk goes up against a Romulan commander. The episode subtly explores themes of prejudice and intolerance.
The Best of Both Worlds – in which the Borg turn Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard into their mouthpiece in a terrifying exploration of identity.
City on the Edge of Forever – an episode that faces Kirk and his allies with a heart-breaking choice as a result of time travel.
The Visitor – a beautiful, poignant episode in which the past must be rewritten.
Darmok – a fascinating parable about communication.
Personally, I freely confess that my favorite episode is The Measure of a Man. In this Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Data is put on trial and Commander Riker is forced to act as prosecutor, arguing against his having any rights. It’s a beautiful examination of what it means to be human, made all the more griping by Riker’s ruthlessness.
Notice a trend? All of these episodes are pretty sophisticated. The action is often little more than a vehicle to explore social issues.
This is exactly how Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry intended it. Roddenberry was a visionary, and he intended Star Trek to offer us a glimpse of a future in which equality and prosperity went hand-in-hand. He wanted Star Trek to give us hope for the future, to make us strive for equality, and to encourage the human race to “boldly go” where it has never been before. To abandon the cerebral part of Star Trek is to abandon the franchise’s soul.
BUT THE PROBLEM ISN’T NEW
When the pilot of the original series was produced, Roddenberry envisioned a second-in-command who he referred to as Number One. Although never named, Number One was a radical concept for the time; Roddenberry intended the second-in-command to be female. Unfortunately, the network wasn’t convinced; they didn’t believe a TV audience would never be able to relate to a woman in such a powerful position of authority.
The truth is that Star Trek has always stood in an awkward and uncomfortable position. On the one hand, at its best, Star Trek is a science-fiction franchise that challenges social norms. On the other hand, the franchise is expected to make money, and is run by studios and networks who will always fail to grasp Star Trek’s progressive vision.
Let me be blunt: J. J. Abrams is no fan of Star Trek. As he told :
Sure, Abrams did his research – Star Trek featured the famous Kobayashi Maru test, for example – but incredibly, he took charge of the franchise without even watching the films.
Chris Pine’s defense of the rebooted franchise shows exactly the same problem. Here we have the main actor in a franchise, and as far as I’m concerned he’s showing that he doesn’t understand the franchise’s soul. Star Trek isn’t just an action-adventure series with a lot of explosions, an excuse to send characters into action and adventure. It’s an opportunity to explore the reality of human nature, to examine the future that humanity could well build, and to challenge our preconceptions about society.
The tragedy is, this is a time when the inclusivist message of Star Trek would have real power. Over in the United States, a divisive presidential election is casting races against one another. In the United Kingdom, the EU referendum is largely fought on the ground of immigration and national identity. Star Trek, with its trans-national vision and multicultural future, is refreshingly counter-cultural. If you agree with that vision, you’ll find real joy in it; if you disagree with it, then a careful (and, yes, cerebral) handling would challenge you and help you explore the nature of your own views.
For all that I’ve been fairly critical in this article, I do enjoy the new Star Trek films. I felt that rebooting the franchise was a bold move, one that I truly appreciated. What’s more, I’m excited about some of the teasers for Star Trek Beyond – looks excitingly character-centric. But for all the financial success, I do feel that the Star Trek franchise is missing something. In his defense, Chris Pine unwittingly puts his finger on it. At its best, Star Trek has always had an active, enquiring mind and a passionate heart, with action and adventure going hand-in-hand. That’s missing.
If Chris Pine’s attitude is any indication, neither the studio nor the cast have confidence in the message of Star Trek. If we’re going to see the franchise recover its soul any time soon, it’s going to be on the small screen. Personally, I admit to being disappointed.
Do you agree with Chris Pine? Let me know in the comments!
I’m a British guy who has a particular love of superhero movies – and I’m having a great time writing for Movie Pilot! Feel free to follow me on Twitter @TomABacon!