Written by Vince Freeman
2016 was the 50th Anniversary of the original Star Trek series airing on television, introducing America and the world to Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the future. The release of STAR TREK BEYOND, third in the rebooted movie series, was set to coincide with this landmark event. Countless fans, as well as some of the cast and crew of the original series, were anticipating a celebration of the legacy and genius of Gene Roddenberry. What they got was a sophomoric tour de force of superficial characters and predictable storylines. It may have been naive to think the new version of Star Trek would have the soul that Gene Roddenberry intended. This, despite the fact that the writers and producers who took the reins after Gene’s death had no trouble continuing his legacy.
George Takei, the actor who originated the role of Sulu, told me in an interview that, “Star Trek Beyond and the other J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies are great action-science fiction but they are not Gene’s vision. Gene wanted social commentary and his vision is absent in the J.J. Abrams films.” It does not take a rabid fan to know that Star Trek is so much more than just great science fiction. It is about the struggles of humanity and how we can overcome our own failings. A fairly obvious fact but one completely ignored for the new movies. The new filmmakers have merely interlaced plot points and tidbits from the original series into the new adventures. The social conscience has been replaced with simplistic twists to the original stories. It is one thing for a filmmaker to put his mark on a franchise in order to make a distinction between current and previous work. It is another thing entirely to ignore logic and change essential characteristics for no good reason.
“Now Spock can fall in love.” George Takei brought up as an example of the many changes in the new Star Trek. This was a comment on the relationship between the new Spock and the new Uhura. The concept of a Vulcan having a modern, interspecies relationship with a coworker could be interesting, except that it utterly contradicts Vulcan mating rites which are ingrained in the Vulcan’s DNA. The new filmmakers decided to ignore Vulcan tradition and use Spock’s new romance to interject a little comic relief with generic lovers’ spats. The changes to Spock do not end with his newly discovered love life. Now, he can also cry and laugh all in the same scene. In the original series, Spock’s expressions of emotion were brought on by an exterior force and were always used for character development. Spock’s tears in STAR TREK BEYOND are brought on by the enormous burden he feels as an ad hoc progenitor for his race which, as he reveals to Dr. McCoy, would terminate his relationship with Lt. Uhura. Other than a couple lines of dialogue, this dilemma serves no purpose for Spock’s development.
The new movies center around James Kirk, a troubled twenty-five year old cadet who ascends directly to the captain’s chair of the Federation’s flagship after serving on just one mission. A seamless transition because now most of the main characters also ascend directly from the academy to the most vaunted positions aboard the Enterprise. This is just one of many convenient changes which cannot be logically supported.
According to Mr. Spock, however, all of the changes in this alternate timeline are the direct result of the destruction of the USS Kelvin by the Narada, a Romulan mining vessel that travels back in time 154 years. A mining vessel that is larger and more powerful than any other ship ever encountered in any part of the explored galaxy (including the Romulan Empire), in either the 23rd or 24th Centuries.
After appearing, the Romulan Miners, who look different than any Romulans and who act like pirates, wait twenty-five years for Ambassador Spock to also travel back in time. Apparently, the red matter black hole that Ambassador Spock creates has a wacky time displacement field which sends people who travel through it to different moments in history. Fortunately, the Romulan Miners know exactly when Ambassador Spock will arrive. The futuristic Miners do nothing during this twenty-five year period, including warn their home world of its inevitable destruction by a nearby star that will turn supernova in an unbelievably short amount of time. The explosion of which will retain all of its force and mass as it spreads out for light years and will also travel at warp speed (considering that Ambassador Spock established the supernova star is not the parent star of the planet Romulus).
Perhaps the biggest change in the new Star Trek universe is the destruction of the planet Vulcan. According to the previous Star Trek series, Vulcan had a huge and fundamental role in the United Federation of Planets but its destruction is barely mentioned. All that really came out of the destruction of the planet Vulcan was a quick make-out session between Spock and Uhura in the first movie and Spock’s heretofore uncharacteristic emotional breakdown in front of Dr. McCoy in the third movie. Since no one in recorded history (including Vulcans) has ever lost their home planet, the effect of that tragedy can only be speculated upon. It does seem likely, however, that such a massive and life-altering event might impact the storyline in some way.
Ambassador Spock is forced to witness the destruction of his home world on the neighboring planet Delta Vega. (A very misleading name for a planet considering the Greek alphabet is primarily used for designating the magnitude for stars found within constellations. Therefore, the name “Delta Vega” should refer to the fourth brightest star in the constellation Vega but, of course, Vega is a star not a constellation). Fortunately, for the Romulans at least, the planet Delta Vega and Vulcan are so close together that the planet Vulcan appears closer to Delta Vega than the planet Earth appears to its moon.
The location of Delta Vega is not just convenient for the Romulans but also James Kirk, who instead of being thrown in the brig for fighting with Security Officers on the Enterprise, is ejected into space and lands on the frozen planet. Kirk escapes his detention pod and is discovered by an enormous creature with claws and no fur. The creature summarily chases Kirk despite its difficulties navigating the icy terrain. Kirk runs into a cave where Ambassador Spock sits by a fire, despite his knowledge of a Starfleet outpost not far from the cave’s location. Scotty, another main character, just happens to be stationed at the outpost on Delta Vega with nothing to do but wallow in self-pity. Ambassador Spock shows Scotty his own theory from the future which allows anyone to travel anywhere necessary via trans-warp transportation. Fortunately, Scotty’s new trans-warp transportation equation can be set-up immediately and requires no new equipment. These fortuitous circumstances, as well as countless others, push the boundaries of an audience’s willingness to suspend its disbelief.
According to George Takei, “Gene’s vision and social commentary are absent in J.J. Abrams version.” Unlike Harve Bennett (producer of most of the original Star Trek movies and Star Trek The Next Generation) who, Takei said, “spent a week watching all of the original series, some episodes multiple times.” This was to help continue and emulate Gene Roddenberry’s vision, which is ultimately the reason for Star Trek’s continued success. Instead of confronting moral issues, which is what made the original characters so compelling to audiences, the new crew deals with petty obstacles with fairly basic resolutions. The lack of a social conscience is in stark contrast from every other form of Star Trek until this point. The series has been stripped of its soul which is what enabled it to endure through so many incarnations.
“Gene wanted to use science fiction to tell metaphors,” Takei remembers, “which was exciting for me because no television shows were socially relevant when Star Trek first aired.” This made Gene’s vision controversial for the times but also made it much more impactful. “On the first day table read with the whole cast,” George recalled, “Gene said his mission in the 23rd Century was that the Starship Enterprise is a metaphor for the planet Earth. It was also Gene’s intention that the different characters represented different areas of the world; Captain Kirk represented America, Lieutenant Uhura represented Africa, Scotty represented Europe and Sulu represented all of Asia. This is the care with which Gene created Star Trek. Gene even named the character Sulu after the Sulu Sea because it touches the shores of multiple Asian countries, which was intended to make Sulu representative of all of Asia.” Completely unlike the current characters, all of which are run- of-the-mill twenty-somethings who do not stand out at all.
“The original fans miss the original themes,” George stated. This is why he was excited when he was first told that the writers of STAR TREK BEYOND wanted to honor Takei, who came out in 2005, by making the Sulu character gay. “At first, I was excited but as I thought more about it, STAR TREK BEYOND should be about Gene. Sulu was created as a straight character, it does not honor Gene to make him gay.” Takei felt that creating a new gay character would be a better way to show the audience what a gay person’s life might be like in the future.
John Cho, the actor who plays Sulu in the new films, called George Takei to talk about the decision to make Sulu a gay character. Takei took this opportunity to tell Cho that the filmmakers should, “imagine the conditions for a gay character in the 23rd Century, considering how far we have come with women’s rights and how it is still an issue despite all the progress.” John listened and said that he would pass George’s suggestion along. After that, Simon Pegg, the new Scotty as well as co-writer of STAR TREK BEYOND, and Justin Lin, director of the latest film, both called Takei and listened to his plea. “I thought I got through to them,” George said, but quickly realized he had not when he saw the movie. “All that sound and fury of turning Sulu gay for nothing,” Takei lamented on what he considers a wasted opportunity. Unfortunately, this is just one more example of an opportunity to do something meaningful that was missed by the current filmmakers.
“J.J. Abrams does not understand Gene’s philosophy,” according to George Takei. Unlike Harve Bennett, who, Takei said, “tried to incorporate themes into the movies.” Star Trek’s moral conscience, and that of its characters, drove the series for over forty years. It is the main reason that the franchise, as well as the people involved, is so beloved and memorable. The characters from the original series were established extremely well and very quickly. They had depth and faced very real internal struggles that coincided with the external struggle. The characters from Star Trek The Next Generation also dealt with personal and moral issues along with their external conflicts. In both shows, the characters grow personally because of the internal conflicts that put their own beliefs to the test.
In the new movies, the only personal problem that the Kirk character faces is that of contemplating his motivations for joining Starfleet in the first place. He deals with the conflict of whether or not to remain in the peaceful armada by applying for the rear admiral position at the Yorktown Space Station. Considering that Captain Kirk has been in Starfleet for five long years, one might wonder why he waited so long to submit an application to become a rear admiral. The first three years of the Enterprise’s five year mission must have been so uneventful that its adrenaline junkie captain had plenty of time to consider his career choice. As if James Kirk applying for a rear admiralship at a specific location was not bad enough, he comes to the realization that the promotion he half-heartedly sought would not be as much fun as his current assignment. This is just another shining example of how the current filmmakers use aspects from the original movies (which started with Admiral Kirk being miserable in his position) and force them into the current storyline for very simplistic character arcs.
It would be foolish to hope that for future movies the filmmakers will return to Star Trek’s intent of using science fiction to tell socially relevant stories. Foolish, considering that the current filmmakers only use the original storylines and concepts to devise radically inconsistent plot points. The lone moral controversy in the current series is that of allowing photon torpedoes, a “new” weapon designed by Kahn, onto the Enterprise. This, despite the fact that photon torpedoes have been a staple of Star Trek since its beginning and were even used in the first film of the new series. Now, all of a sudden, photon torpedoes are so dangerous that Scotty resigns his position on the Enterprise rather than allow them aboard. Concern over a new weapon is by no means an original concept but they should have created an actual new weapon and not pretend that an established weapon is new. Scotty’s objection should have been over the size of the new photon torpedo casings (twice the size they were before and after STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS) which just happens to be the perfect size for transporting the frozen members of Khan’s crew. Go figure.
Moviegoers who are satisfied with big explosions and fast-paced action sequences may not be disappointed with the new Star Trek movies. Anyone who expects depth of any kind in plot or character development, on the other hand, may be somewhat less than enthusiastic about the films. The new version does not have to be as good as every other Star Trek series that came before it, but the new filmmakers should have at least tried to live up to the standard set by Gene Roddenberry. The new movies do not even put any effort into the character relationships (including that of Spock and Uhura), they just expect the audience to transpose the characterization built by the original cast onto this new crew. The lack of care to the tradition Star Trek cultivated is an insult to anyone who loves what it was before the 2009 release.
George Takei recalled that “Gene was an imagineer, he imagined the unimaginable.” This speaks to the point of how baffling it is that Gene Roddenberry’s vision and imagination was left by the wayside for these current films. Instead, we are bombarded with convenient yet poorly explained plot holes, “clever” twists to the original storylines and cherry picked tidbits altered for convenience. Hopefully, these latest movies are not the Final Frontier for Star Trek and another batch of filmmakers who understand the heart and soul of the series will truly take it where no one has gone before.