Wednesday, 13 May 2009

STAR TREK Part 2 - The Search For Spoilers

In the first half, we had a quick weigh up of the problems of continuity and how clearing the slate could actually work in favour of a reboot. Terrace Dicks, long time Doctor Who script writer and editor, once defined continuity as “what the average viewer can reasonably expected to remember”, and this incarnation of Star Trek largely adheres to this rubric. The new film establishes it’s Trek credentials effectively by staying close to the iconic designs of the original series and more importantly staying true to the characters – maintaining tonal continuity if you will.

Plus choosing to follow this tonal continuity means that the script doesn’t have to waste time with explaining things everybody remembers like the transporter or the fact that phasers have stun settings. However what of the script itself?

When Abrams admitted that he’d been more of Star Wars kid there was a worry that we’d get a movie that was in the wrong sub-genre of sci-fi. Star Wars hails from the school of space opera, whereas Star Trek… well Trek has evolved into a subgenre itself. And the early trailers revealed explosions and starships, fans were beginning to have nightmares about the Enterprise spewing out shuttle craft like TIE fighters into interstellar dog fights.

However once again, Abram and co did their homework. The new film has Eric Banana (yes I know how to spell it, just not how to stop) as Nero, a rogue Romulan out to destroy the Federation in a very Trek storyline. Just compare the following key elements to the plots of the previous movies –

1) a renegade manic on the loose
2) out for revenge
3) with a planet destroying device
4) who travels back in time
5) to threaten Earth
6) AND the future of the Federation
7) and the Enterprise is the only ship in the vicinity to avert the catastrophe

Clearly the plot has Star Trek written through it like a stick of Blackpool rock. And that’s just comparing it to the film franchise! To be honest, the plot could only be more Trekkie if Nero turned out to be a three-way combination of child/machine/God.

Naturally there has been some carping from fanboys that this is a terrible state of affairs and that the new film is just a shallow, low-fat cannibal feast of the show’s illustrious past. Now admittedly there’s a fine line between homage and outright rip-off, but really the elements listed above are part of Star Trek’s DNA. The alien megalomaniac threat has always been in the Boy’s Book Of Star Trek Plots; it’s one of the top three plot frameworks along with beaming down onto a little visited world and encounter a mysterious force in the depths of space. Hence if you moan that this new version is just going all Hannibal Lecter on us, then logically the franchise has been Ed Gein all along.

Essentially it’s the “Watchmen was too faithful” argument again. Honestly, what do these people want? (Apart from Strap Trek obviously). Unlimited rice pudding perhaps? Would they really prefer a plot where doesn’t feel like Trek at all, where Vulcans can do wirework martial arts and the crew must blow away hordes of CGI alien monsters with big guns and macho wisecracks?

But before you start sharpening up the old Bat’leth, I will admit that the plot is perhaps lacking the classic ‘moral dilemma’ aspect and can be accused of both failing to do anything significantly new. But to do justice to a full blooded ethical minefield properly, you really need the characters to be already well defined. And as we noted in the first part, it is re-establishing the character interaction that is the main drive of the plot. This is not just another Star Trek adventure, it’s an attempt to bring the franchise back to life for a general audience. And thankfully, Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci have wisely chose to re-introduce the crew rather than redefine them and have laid the foundations for future instalments that can effectively tackle a story with a broader philosophical theme.

As for the charges of not doing anything new, again I’d point out that the script’s focus isn’t on the action. Bearing in mind Terrance Dicks’ remarks above, to re-establish the franchise it was a shrewd move to construct a story that fits into one of the more popular tropes and deliver the kind of plot most people associate with Star Trek. However looking beyond the narrative mechanics, the script actually does do something new and rather intelligent.

One of the big questions about this film was whether if it was a prequel or reboot. Now the problem of prequels, is that we already know the characters futures which severely limits the scope for dramatic tension as we already know that the characters can’t die yet or sustain any serious injury, like losing a limb. And for Star Trek, there’s the weight of 40 plus years of expanded continuity condensing the possible plot options. On the other hand, starting from scratch is going to potentially alienate fans who are invested in the Star Trek expanded universe.

However the script cleverly manages to have its cake and eat by creating an alternative timeline. Nero has travelled from the existing Star Trek universe, along with Nimoy’s Spock whose appearance here neatly dovetails with the end of his last adventure on screen (the Next Generation episode “Unification”). But more importantly in changing the past, Nero changes the future, clearing the way for adventures not bound the original continuity. It’s a great device that is not only well-thought out in terms of time travel but also elegantly woven in to the plot’s fabric. Like the introduction of the Time War in the resurrected Doctor Who, it preserves the old content while providing a Get-Out-Of-Continuity-Jail free card. Even changes in the aesthetic details, which continuity cops should really be ignoring anyway, such as the upgrades in the costume and set design can be happily explained away as a result of Nero’s incursion into the past.

(Blimey Doctor Who and Star Trek in the same review, and there’s worse to come! One moment please…
SCENE: Stereotypical 1950’s train platform. The 5.23 to Port Merrion is just pulling out of the station. Through the swirling clouds of high contrast smoke and steam, we can just make out our hero, JIM, running down the platform and waving goodbye to EVER ENJOYING FEMALE COMPANIONSHIP AGAIN… )

Now I do have a niggle with the plot. It’s a minor detail really … THEY FUCKING DESTROYED VULCAN! Now when this occurred on screen, it took a few moments for the implications to sink in. The immortal Arthur Dent’s words flashed through my mind – “look Ford, I’m a bit upset about that”. And then I thought “hang on, this is a time travel story, perhaps they’ll put it back”. But by the end of the movie, it hadn’t.

Now destroying a major planet (two actually as they’ve atomised Romulus too in the original Trek universe into the bargain) did initially strike me as short-sighted at best, and an act of cosmic vandalism at worst. Original series Doctor Who did the same in “Remembrance of the Daleks”, wiping out Skaro – which generally has been seen as a Bad Move, altering the show’s core universe to provide a story with a big bang.

However thankfully the script does follow up on the consequences of changing the Star Trek universe so drastically. On a base fanboy level, destroying Vulcan in the Neroian Timeline doesn’t pose the same continuity head aches as vaporising Skaro does for Dalek history, plus enough Vulcans have survived to effectively retcon the damage by establishing Vulcan 2. But more importantly, you change the continuity provided you have solid reasons for doing so - it’s the effect of seeing his home world destroyed has on Spock that matters.

To dip again into the Tardis databanks, a more apposite parallel is the destruction of Gallifrey and the Time Lords in the Time War. After the destruction of his planet and people, the Ninth Doctor is initially somewhat distant but does form a very emotionally charged relationship with Rose. And in this film, we have similar situation with Spock, a traditionally unromantic character finding emotional intimacy. Now I understand that quite a few Trekkers will consider the Spock/Uhura romance somewhat heretical, but it is justified in the script. And on the tightness of the script and it’s grasp of all things Trek, I think we can rule out the sequel seeing the Enterprise turning into USS Loveboat. Like Who fans before them, will either have to just let it go or appreciate the wider emotional depth it can to the character dynamics.

Handled correctly, the impact of the destruction of Vulcan could yield a great deal of material for exploring the essential dynamics of Spock, the conflict between emotion and logic. And at this point I’m willing to trust Abrams and co to do so in sequels. I think it’s quite likely that the sequel will see Spock returning to his logical side and cold shouldering Uhura; gaining emotional depth through tension rather than romance.

More generally though, the Neroian Timeline as also changes Kirk’s character – he now has grown up without a father – which gives the main characters license to not to be bound to act exactly as Shatner and Nimoy versions would. They have room to grow in new directions yet still be Kirk and Spock.

The fact that this film can include a major continuity change which registers as no more than a niggle is testament to its strengths. If Paramount can keep Abrams on board and keep producing scripts of this quality, then Star Trek is in safe hands and I look forward to once more exploring the final frontier…

PS Check out this week's Cinerama which is a Chinerama Star Trek special! Grab it here

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