Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: ‘Star Trek’ and the Franchise Relaunch

This week Culture Warrior asks, just how ‘new’ is the new Star Trek, anyway?
By  · Published on May 12th, 2009

Any recent fan of James Bond, Batman, or Star Trek venturing to the cinemas in the last few years has had to endure an extensive repolishing of their favorite pop culture icons’ origin stories. For one reason or another, studio execs have become obsessed with revisiting these stories not only to give them a fresh new approach, but this approach for one reason or another has been proposed to entail a “starting-over” of the franchise, a rehashing or (to borrow Tim Burton’s bullshit phrase) “reimagining” of the character origins in order to signal the full extent of the franchise’s new “vision”: discarding what was previously known, then rendering it irrelevant to make room for the (often) self-awarely more “serious” articulation of the old material.

It wasn’t enough, for instance, that gritty-blonde Daniel Craig would be next in line for the role of James Bond as simply the next in an exclusive line of actors to play the enduring character, but the gritty-blonde Bourne-modeled approach had to be further justified by a heretofore unexplored origin story that explained Bond’s tooth-and-nail rise in the agency and dated gender politics. Likewise, Joel Schumacher’s ultra-campy Batman & Robin enabled room for Christopher Nolan’s 180-degree “realist” approach with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, replacing Schumacher’s cartoonish excess with a supposedly believable world where a figure like Batman could theoretically exist, anchored by an origin story posited to be necessary to cut Nolan’s vision off from Burton, Schumacher & co’s. Even franchises that haven’t officially been made over have been more preoccupied with prequels and character origins rather than moving the series forward, from George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episodes IIII (for which the only joy in watching lied in seeing how events were grounded for the far superior original trilogy), X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and the prequel-adapted-as-sequel Angels & Demons. J.J. Abrams’s highly anticipated revisionist approach to Star Trek has followed in a similar fashion. But unlike these other franchises, Abrams’s vision doesn’t signal a change of pace solely through aesthetic approach or a return to character origins. The new Star Trek is aware of the series’ legacy and tradition even while usurping and reconfiguring much of its original universe for a proposed new trajectory.

Every moment of the new Star Trek attempts to delicately balance an appeal to mass audiences with the expectations and rules of the Trekkie universe as determined by the franchise’s intimidating fanbase and significant decades-long pop-cultural role. This balance often pays off well—pandering to the expectations of the devoted while including the previously uninitiated—but this balance is often determined by a constant tongue-in cheek awareness of this active schism between the old Star Trek universe and the new one.

With Batman Begins, for instance, Nolan gives us a sense that Bruce Wayne became Batman through a complex series of coincidence, serendipity and incident that did not make the man who he was necessarily destined to be, but made alternatives to who he became impossible. Casino Royale’s Bond became the man we all knew he would eventually be by a set of determinations he pretty much set out for himself: James Bond seems to have actively sought out the means toward which he would become Bond, James Bond. With Capt. James T. Kirk, however, Abrams’s Star Trek veils this character with such an overarching sense of destiny from the very moment we see him given birth to that there is no question in the mind of every audience member and every character interacting with him (besides, of course, the doubtful Spock) that he is destined for the greatness already established within the extent of the series. From Capt. Pike’s oh-so-ominous “you were destined for greatness like your father”-style recruit speech (Kirk himself seems to rarely fight such exclamations from others) to Kirk’s arguably only semi-conscious tendency to sit in the captain’s chair during Pike’s absence to Kirk’s rather arrogant way of ultimately taking over that chair for reals, there is never a gray area regarding the new, young Kirk relationship to the respected leader known and beloved through the character’s legacied portrayal by William Shatner. Kirk is barely out of Starfleet Academy before he is given a situation that forces him to become Captain, thus forgoing the patient growth of character shown in the relaunches of Batman and James Bond for a hurried, predestined, forced positioning of Kirk in the leader’s chair within a reasonable running time. We all know where Kirk is going to end up, and Abrams apparently desired to waste no time getting there. That the narrative of the new Star Trek integrates Kirk’s very birth to the plot of defeating Romulan war criminal Nero signifies the unidirectional connection the relaunched franchise attempts to make between the new Kirk’s origin story and his destined role akin to his legacy in the series so far.

But it is the presence of Spock—both Spocks, to be exact—that I think best illuminates the new Star Trek’s particular approach to the franchise relaunch. With the introduction of the older Spock as part of the new Star Trek’s landscape, Abrams seems to be creating some sort of negotiation between the established version of the franchise and the fresh makeover, refusing to toss out the old completely and act as if it never happened (like Nolan did to Schumacher) in favor of a narrative that instead carefully compromises the old with the new. Star Trek attempts a delicate balance between satisfying the franchise’s devoted followers (and there are hardly any followers more devoted than Trekkies) with potential new inductees into the Trek universe (and, as its weekend box office intake shows, such a negotiation can certainly reach the desired financial reward of a broader audience). Abrams suggested that Trek devotees who get hung up on the details of the franchise’s intricately constructed universe stay home, but the content of his film suggests not a shunning of the old audience in favor of a broader new one, but a truce that attempts to satisfy both audiences, emblematized by the brief meeting and acknowledgment between Nimoy’s Spock and Quinto‘s Spock that culminates in a shared “live long and prosper,” a wish not only bestowed between the characters but also the particular inceptions of the series that their respective presences represent.

Like the destruction of planet Vulcan enabled by the old Spock and suffered by the new Spock, the new Star Trek takes away the old but doesn’t move on from its remnants or legacy, creating a time travel plotline that allows for two interpretations of characters and events to exist in the same fictional universe. (By the way, can somebody explain to me the logic of this use of time travel? It’s quite different than the rules of time travel established in other film franchises, like Back to the Future—a series which posits that changing the past brings chaos and destruction rather than new opportunities, and meeting one’s past or future self can be catastrophic. Time travel as utilized in Star Trek, however, contains a logic where future selves can effect past selves. But then couldn’t the decisions of an infinite number of future Spocks potentially influence an equally infinite number of past Spocks? I find that asking these questions makes the movie not as fun…)

Abrams’ Star Trek argues that there is no definitive text for this or any franchise—no impenetrably constructed authoritative version of its universe, but rather, as any object of creative fiction, a multitude of possible approaches to and interpretations of the same material. Batman Begins sought to discard past interpretations and present itself as the authoritative one. Casino Royale asked the audience to forget much of what they know about Bond so far and “start over.” The new Star Trek, however, presents no definitive version of the story (just as it presents no definitive Spock), and instead simply asks the audience to go along with what is simply a new vision for a series that could potentially foresee many more interpretations.

This is not entirely new for the series. Star Trek: Generations featured a clever plot that allowed a time-bending tossing-of-the-baton from Shatner-era Star Trek to the Next Generation films that would follow, allowing Captains Kirk and Picard to work together for a common purpose. But the new Star Trek, as Cole’s review points out, seems more preoccupied with establishing its new universe rather than presenting a self-sustaining narrative on its own. Despite the fact that the film is hugely entertaining, it feels too determined by the past and, at the same time, too forward-looking to work as an autonomous filmic experience. Yet the film successfully bridges the desires of the devoted with an appeal to those, like myself, far less familiar with the series. But we won’t know until the release of its anticipated sequels whether or not this new approach will pay off by delving into more fresh and unexplored territory (like The Dark Knight did) or peter out into something less inspired and new than what it originally set itself out to be (like Quantum of Solace). I personally hope, now that they’ve negotiated the old and the new, that Abrams and co. can gratefully say goodbye to the old Spock and take their newly reestablished characters more thoroughly into previously uncharted territory, to explore the many possible frontiers within the final frontier, boldly going where no Star Trek film has gone before.

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