Star Trek: to boldly go and revive a franchise

JJ Abrams’ film looks fantastic thanks to modern special effects, while retaining the moral core of Gene Roddenberry’s original.

Saga Lofgren

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JJ Abrams’ Star Trek is made with an eye for detail, stuffed with high-definition images and sound. Don’t wait for the DVD: head down to the multiplex to see Star Trek as it should be appreciated – on a panoramic screen with a heavy-duty sound system. The film doesn’t merely revive a cult franchise that was running out of gas – it has fired a photon torpedo through the whole sci-fi genre.

The film goes back to where Star Trek began. As in the TV series, the ship at the centre of the story, the Enterprise, is sent out into space from Earth by the United Federation of Planets (UFP) to investigate and explore mysterious worlds and potential enemies and friends. The film is faithful to the original series and keeps the original crew of characters: Captain James T Kirk, science officer Spock, ship’s doctor Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy, communications officer Uhura and helmsman Hikaru Sulu. Yet thanks to scriptwriters Roberto Orcis and Alex Kurtzman, the film has found its own voice and there is biting satirical humour throughout. The filmmakers’ skillful use of special effects, which have developed significantly since the TV series first started, means Star Trek both sounds and looks sensational.

The film opens with two parallel stories. We meet the young rebel James T Kirk – who is persuaded to join the UFP by Captain Pike – and Spock, a Vulcan who later becomes Captain Kirk’s right-hand man, but who struggles to balance his human and Vulcan heritage while trying to build a career with the UFP as a member of one of the most intelligent and logical peoples in space. The twist to the story is that, at first, it’s Spock who’s the boss.

At a hearing at the UFP Academy, the board accuses Kirk of cheating on a test created by Spock to assess fear when there is no possibility of winning. As Kirk is expelled until further notice, a threat to Earth emerges; all the ships in the fleet, including the Enterprise, get prepared for battle. Kirk succeeds in boarding the ship, to the annoyance of his superiors. Just as Kirk’s presence is revealed, Captain Pike is forced to leave to face the enemy alone to negotiate with them. Pike leaves all responsibility to Spock, but to Spock’s dismay, Pike hands the second-in-command job to the maverick Kirk.

The film unfolds on territory more familiar to Trekkies. Spock creates a red matter to fix a hole in the planet of Romulus. Unfortunately, he makes a catastrophic miscalculation and ends up destroying the planet itself. Only a few of the Romulans survive, including a group of soldiers who are on board a spaceship under the command of Captain Nero. As they get soaked in the red matter, Nero and his men land in a different time zone, where their only aim is to seek revenge for Spock’s destruction of Romulus by destroying Spock’s home planet, Vulcan. Together with captain James T Kirk, the Enterprise crew decides to fight against Nero for the sake of peace in space.

JJ Abrams is a fine choice to move the Star Trek franchise forward (the next film is due in 2011). Abrams was the creative force behind the hit TV series Lost and Alias, co-wrote the film Armageddon and directed Mission Impossible III – so he has the weight of past success and the creative flair to take on confidently one of the great sci-fi franchises. Making Star Trek must have been a tricky business. Abrams had to appease the fans who have followed the series since 1966 while at the same time creating something novel.

Trekkies will be pleased that the 80-year-old Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in the original TV series and films, appears here as the aged Spock. His presence gives the film a sense of familiarity and purpose. Devoted fans will also be reassured to see such favourites as Vulcan grips and the captain’s log and to hear catchphrases like ‘beam me up’.

On the other hand, the old portrayal of the Enterprise crew was certainly in need of a dust-down. William Shatner’s charming Kirk had become a self-parody. In the film, Chris Pine’s portrayal of James T Kirk is not an impersonation, but a challenge. Star Trek gives us a whole new take on the central relationship between Spock and Kirk, and how this is transformed over time.

There are plenty of philosophically and politically interesting issues to get to grips with, too. There’s Spock’s anxiety over his mixed Vulcan and human heritage. Can logic win over his feelings as his planet is threatened? There’s also a romantic interest between Spock and Uhura, even if mixed-race love is not the shocker it was when Uhura and Kirk shared the first interracial television kiss in 1968. When the series started in 1966, Star Trek became one of the first television programmes to have a racially diverse cast and to give women a prominent place in the action. Along with such on-going quandries as the question of which is superior – cold, hard logic or human instinct – Star Trek provided a positive vision of humanity’s future while being more thoughtful than your average adventure tale.

Star Trek is a blessing after a period of unsatisfying science fiction remakes and adaptations, like Predator vs. Alien, Lara Croft, Men in Black and Resident Evil. Sure, these films had their good moments, but Star Trek is a far superior offering.

Star Trek has come a long way since Gene Roddenberry’s original creation. But with films as good as this, the franchise will live long and prosper.

Saga Lofgren is an intern at spiked.

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Watch the trailer for Star Trek here.

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