Classic “Trek” vs New “Trek”

Who to choose, who to choose...
Who to choose, who to choose…

Prior to watching Star Trek Into Darkness last week (and loving it…), I checked out a few reviews and noted a common theme:

I couldn’t help feeling let down. Not because J.J. Abrams and his writers have ignored what “Star Trek” fans want. It’s that they’ve pandered to it to such a degree that it feels less like fan appreciation and more like base-covering pragmatism.  — Rob Thomas, Capital Times

Jettisoning the franchise’s optimistic, socially aware sci-fi, not to mention character development or a logical plot, Darkness turns out to be any Vulcan’s worst nightmare: Team America: World Police with Tribbles. — Graham Killeen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Granted, these folks are in the minority, compared with what generally every other critic thinks is a wonderful movie (that, and many of those making this claim aren’t exactly “big name” national critics…).  But they get at a question that’s been asked of the recent movies since their inception:

“Is J.J. Abrams‘ ‘Star Trek’ still ‘Star Trek?'”

There are a lot of people complaining on the internet that these last two movies aren’t “Star Trek” enough and miss what made the franchise great: great story-telling, a sense of exploration and wonder, attention to morality and social justice, and a sense of hope for the future.  A “Wagon Train To The Stars,” if you will.  Their contention is that these last two movies have very little of that, instead focusing on huge action set-pieces, snappy dialog, and a willful ignorance of the things that made “Star Trek” popular in the first place.

To these people, I’d simply like to ask what Star Trek movies they’ve been watching?

By my count, only three of the movies (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek: Insurrection) actually dealt with anything akin to social justice or political upheaval.  The other seven movies had a clear villain (or “thing,” in the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture) that the crew of the Enterprise was fighting against.  And why is that?  Because in order to make a spectacular science fiction movie in the 21st Century that brings in plenty of movie-goers and actually turns a meaningful profit, you have to make it an action movie.  The actors they recruited for these last two movies are wonderful and play their parts well, but they aren’t cheap.  Paramount would never make their money back on the actors and relatively minor effects needed to make a modern science fiction film if they did a traditional, “classic,” movie where Kirk and Spock are transported back to the 1930s and have to let a woman die so that the United States enters WWII as history dictates.

What these reviewers, and others on the internet, are complaining about is movie “Star Trek” versus television “Star Trek,” and these are two separate things.  Even the movies that feature some kind of social commentary (Undiscovered Country and Insurrection) still have more action than they’ve got “classic ‘Trek'” elements.  Voyage Home is probably the only movie in the franchise that’s even close to aping the core of the television franchise: the combination of a new life form, environmental justice, and character drama, along with a few small action scenes.

These movies, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, should be viewed in comparison with the other movies in the franchise, not the television show(s) that spawned their existence.  In the appropriate context, these movies are utterly spectacular, and among the best of the 12 films.

When J. J. Abrams starts making a Star Trek television series, then reviewers and The Internet can complain about the lack of Roddenberry-esque social commentary.  Unfortunately, the big budget blockbuster requires more “whiz bang” than the traditional Star Trek fan prefers.  Thus, that fan must wait for the next series to start, or should go back and watch the 5 series of TV shows over again to get their fix.

One Reply to “Classic “Trek” vs New “Trek””

  1. Hard choice… ‘Kirk’ old ‘Kirk’…….. Both are/were so handsome!! But seeing those photos next to each other makes me wonder what Chris Pine will look like at age 80 something.

    I know……..nothing to do with your post 🙂 As we had this discussion last weekend, I think I probably agree with what you’ve said (having not seen Into Darkness yet) in this post. I can be a Trekkie and fan of all things Trek, but be practical enough to understand that making movies is big business. They have to make a sci-fi movie with big effects which costs big bucks. Gotta get people in the door. I think it qualifies as a good Trek if they do “their bit for king and country” and save the Earth yet again!! We gotta go see this……….. too busy too busy….

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