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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek

I don’t know how well I’ve prospered, but I’ve lived long ~ long enough to realize that every person on this planet 44 years old or younger has spent their entire lives with Star Trek a part of their consciousness. That’s longer than they’ve had cell phones or computers to rely on in their daily lives, both staples of the Star Trek universe long before they were commonplace in today’s culture. I’m obviously a geezer because I actually remember a time before Star Trek, although I won’t go so far as to admit I was any more than a barely sentient fertilized egg. Okay, a fertilized egg that picketed at NBC when the show was cancelled because I was crushed beyond despair, but nevertheless…

I did NOT consider myself a “Trekkie.” I may have been attracted to Leonard Nimoy’s portrayal of an emotionally distant alien who joined forces with the overly emoting human captain of a starship on its five year mission to “seek out new worlds and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before,” but I was definitely not an addict like a lot of the show’s viewers. I never tried to learn Klingon, the language of those people who look like their forefathers had sex with horseshoe crabs along the beaches of Long Island. I only went to one of the hundreds of annual conventions held all over the world each year celebrating the original series and its five spin-off series (I’m including the animated show as well) and ten feature films, and I only went as a favor to a friend who really, really wanted to go but was afraid to attend by herself (and don’t ask me to explain why because I don’t know but it involved being possibly fondled by a Ferrengi or at least a comic book store clerk in a Ferrengi headpiece and false teeth).

Still, even without pledging to make Star Trek my personal religion like some people I know who have devoted shelf space and big bucks to collections of dolls, er, I mean “action figures” and enough paraphernalia to fill a room at the Smithsonian (and yes, Mixon family, I am talking to you), I have managed to absorb a basic knowledge of Star Trek lore from one crew to the next, enough to keep up with the ongoing additions from series to series about the first, and most famous, crew of the Starship Enterprise. Perhaps that is why I, like millions of other people, but especially Americans, care as we do about this new incarnation of Star Trek.

Before even he shot a frame of footage of the movie director J.J. Abrams (tv’s “Lost”) said he was not a fan of the original show, so of course that got Trekkies’ Underoos® in a knot. While I pause here to erase the horrible image I have of
those Trekkies and the Klingons in those Underoos®, I’ll just shift gears a moment a say that perhaps the biggest problem why the Star Trek universe has been gradually eroding in the past several years is because it has become so damned inaccessible to the common people. The hardcore Trekkies have turned the movies, books, and television series into such a miasma of technobabble and demanded so much “accuracy” to the “historical” detail of a history that doesn’t actually exist that their arguments over things like uniform arm-banding or detailing of the ship’s hull design take away from the sheer enjoyment of the adventure story a writer and a group of actors are trying to present to a larger whole. I don’t want to fight with someone about whether the green girl belonged in Starfleet Academy. She was put there as a wink and a nod to the original show where Kirk allegedly shtupped a member of her same race on her home planet. Now he’s up to the same trick at school. Apparently he likes green eggs (though I can’t tell you a thing about the ham). Anyway, Abrams does a heck of a great job bringing Star Trek back to its roots and making it a rollicking maiden voyage that no one on board is going to soon forget, least of which are the principals, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine; Bottle Shock) and Spock (Zachary Quinto; tv’s “Heroes”).

Pine does a perfectly fine job taking the reins as the man who would be Shatner. He has the cocky,
smarmy attitude down perfectly, and he’s already proven he likes danger by allowing that walking STD Lindsay Lohan to stick her tongue down his throat in the movie Just My Luck. After that, facing a villain like the time traveling Romulan Nero (Eric Bana; The Other Boleyn Girl) ought to seem like a walk in the park. Pine is smart enough not to try to emulate William Shatner’s exaggerated acting style as the original James Kirk, which had its eye-rolling moments more than four decades ago and has been the source of parody for stardates in memoriam. He just let’s a smirk replace the gasping, pausing, hammy, eye-popping speeches that made Shatner famous.

Quinto, on the other hand, has a much harder job as the quintessential Spock since the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, is also in the film, so his memory is hardly diminished in viewers’ eyes. If anything, Quinto has to balance the tasks of becoming the audience’s expected vision of their favorite Vulcan/Human hybrid while making the role more than just an impersonation of Nimoy while still bringing something new and noteworthy to the role to make it his own, basically stealing it out from under Nimoy’s pointy ears for a new generation. Granted, 78-year-old Nimoy seems more than willing to abdicate the part and has said in several interviews how enormously happy he is with Quinto and the new film overall, but I’m sure Quinto didn’t want to appear too ungracious in ripping the role out from under the master himself while he was still on-set.

Quinto is obviously the breakout star here and Abrams’ golden boy in this movie. Clearly he found Spock the most interesting character and he and scriptwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) have fleshed out Spock’s back-story as a child on Vulcan and given young Spock a greater tension as he makes daily decisions in choosing between his human and Vulcan heritage. In the previous series and movies it always appeared as if Spock’s Vulcan nature came naturally and his human half was more or less genetically recessive. In this
Star Trek, Spock is very much both human and Vulcan, making him an entirely more interesting character because his responses to situations and people are not as predictable as one might expect.

Also unpredictable are the performances of the supporting cast, who give new life and new energy to roles that traditionally have been relegated to background “window dressing.” Zoe Saldana (Vantage Point) brings a new sensuality to the role of communications officer Nyota Uhura, certainly hinted at in the 1960s but never allowed beyond a chaste kiss between her and Captain Kirk, but only when both were under strict mind control by some hostile aliens and couldn’t otherwise help themselves (thus hopefully defusing hate mail from segregationists of the period). Now, however, Uhura reveals a whole other side of herself, as feisty as Kirk is flirty, but with someone else in mind when it comes to her personal attentions. Dr. Leonard 'Bones' McCoy is played by Kiwi actor Karl Urban (The Pathfinder), who has an ear for the late DeForrest Kelley’s voice, but he makes the role his own by adding just a tad of undercarriage to the story of McCoy. His nickname ‘Bones’? One would naturally imagine this is related to his occupation, but he explains a completely different story upon his first meeting with Kirk, establishing a quirky friendship between the two with McCoy as the slightly older, but far more worldly (or off-worldly) advisor to the newly-minted recruit.

Hikaru Sulu (John Cho; Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) gets his moment to show off more than his navigational skills as he is allowed a rare opportunity to venture off the Enterprise and prove to be a hero in his own right, and while the seventeen-year-old Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin; Terminator Salvation) doesn’t get the chance to demonstrate his fighting skills as some of the others, he does dazzle as a prodigy with computer technology, though his attempts to place voice recognition commands with his thick Russian accent provides a bit of comic relief during some otherwise tense sequences.

Best of all the supporting characters though has to be in the casting of Simon Pegg of Shaun of the Dead fame as Montgomery Scott, “Scotty”, the ship’s Scottish engineer. Pegg is delicious as the Starfleet officer posted on a far off outpost near Vulcan until he is “drafted” aboard the Enterprise by a stranded Kirk mid-movie. Scotty’s exuberance over seeing the Enterprise and experiencing the crew (at its best and worst) reflects the audience’s own enthusiasm and ~ well ~ fun with this
Star Trek, something that’s been lacking for several years now. “I like this ship!” grins Scotty as he walks in on a fist-fight aboard the bridge.

This is the best gift J.J. Abrams could bring to a franchise that was seriously on life-support if not
already dead. He’s turned the heavily burdened with too much history saga into a light and spirited romp about people actually discovering those strange new worlds for a change instead of being bogged down in the political alliances and treaties that turned “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Voyager” into parts of a grand chess game.

The trek itself this time out is of little consequence and Nero is definitely not a villain to be reckoned with such as
Star Trek II’s Khan or First Contact’s Borg, but that’s not what this movie is all about. This is a trek meant to introduce an entire new generation of young people to the crew of the USS Enterprise, and J.J. Abrams has done just that. Hopefully this will be the first of many new voyages we’ll have to look forward to under his helm. May they live long and prosper.

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