Saturday, June 13, 2009

Future reloaded: the new Star Trek

If you were growing up in the monopolistic shadow of Doordarshan in the early and mid-1980s, Sunday mornings were dull things – or at least it seems in hindsight that they should have been. Actually, there was an hour or so of post-breakfast anticipation until the TV screen resolved itself into a black background representing the vastness of outer space, with tiny white dots speckled across it. The theme music we had been waiting for filled the room and our eyes strained to identify which of those little dots would turn into the comforting shape of the Starship Enterprise as it hurtled towards us from the depths of the blackness. “Space: the final frontier...” began the sonorous voiceover.

Those of us who watched Star Trek on black-and-white TV sets didn’t know that Captain Kirk’s shirt was yellow and Mr Spock’s was blue; these were things we found out later. (I had to wait until I saw a videocassette of “The City on the Edge of Forever”, one of the show’s very best episodes, at a US-returned aunt's house.) Nor did we know about the series' history: that it hadn’t been particularly successful in its initial, three-year run on American television in the 1960s but had developed a staggering fan-base in subsequent years – a following that led to Trekkie conferences, a number of feature films (which we had mixed feelings about because the characters looked older and wore more sophisticated uniforms) and later, more intelligently scripted TV shows featuring new characters, e.g., Star Trek: The Next Generation, which substituted the iconic line “...where no man has gone before” with the more politically correct “...where no one has gone before”. (Didn't work.) When popular demand or sentiment necessitated a reappearance of one of the older characters, the results could be sad – William Shatner, the original show’s lithe Kirk, was embarrassingly corpulent in his much-hyped guest role in Star Trek: Generations, made nearly 30 years after he first played the Enterprise’s captain.

Given the tortuous and expectation-laden history of the Star Trek franchise, it’s a minor miracle that a new movie has done a more than respectable job of returning us to Kirk and crew as we remember them from the original show, and to have them played by youngsters who closely resemble the prototypes. It doesn’t seem like a very good idea in theory, but J J Abrams' film (titled, simply, Star Trek, though the tagline “The future begins” has become something of an unofficial sub-title) pulls it off. Riding on a complicated plot involving the opening up of a time continuum by the embittered Romulan leader Nero, it begins with the birth of James T Kirk (on a day when many other tumultuous events – not always easy to decipher – take place) and follows him through the years, to his decision to join the space academy and his acquaintance with his future First Officer, the half-Vulcan Spock. (There's something very amusing about the solemnity of the place-titles that alternately read "Iowa" and "Vulcan" as the film tracks their parallel stories.)

For boys of a certain age and temperament watching the original TV series, the cucumber-cool Spock – briskly efficient in a crisis, invulnerable to cheap human emotion – was always more fascinating than the relentless skirt-chaser and macho-man Kirk, the same way Jughead was always cooler than Archie. At any rate, it was the contrast between their personalities – the friendship, the friction, the banter – that drove the show. And one of the areas where the new film scores is in its depiction of the grudging, even resentful (and competitive) dawn of the Kirk-Spock relationship.

This is where prequels play a special role in epic sagas. Done well, they can provide a tantalisingly off-kilter view of character development and personal destiny; of how a character got from Point A to Point B, and what was gained (or lost) along the way. Watching the trajectory of Jedi hero Anakin Skywalker’s slide into darkness in Star Wars Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith is doubly poignant because the viewer already knows – from having seen the original trilogy – that Anakin will become the evil lord Darth Vader, and that he will find redemption in the end. (The Anakin-Vader story wouldn’t have been so compelling if it had been told in chronological order.) Similarly, the new Star Trek adds depth and dimension to both its protagonists. Chris Pine’s outstanding performance as Kirk gives us a barroom brawler from the American Midwest whose cockiness conceals an intelligent young man born to be a leader (but who has to be given a nudge in the ribs every now and again), while Zachary Quinto’s Spock is a vulnerable misfit on his home planet who must learn to balance his human and Vulcan sides. These are two young men with chips on their shoulders, and the different ways in which they learn to shoulder their responsibilities, adjust to their circumstances – and, eventually, slip into the roles that we already know they are destined for – adds up to a very satisfying climax.

Notably, the script and the performances achieve this without seriously compromising on the pulp tone of the original show. Of course, there’s no denying that this film looks very different from the original series (which was, let’s face it, a sometimes-campy 1960s show that didn’t have sophisticated special effects; as a viewer, you knew the characters were in trouble of some sort if the sets began shaking and people started falling all over each other). But it captures something of the old spirit, which is no mean task in this day and age. There are nifty in-jokes, such as the one involving Dr McKoy’s “bones”. And you don’t need to be a hard-core Trekkie to feel a frisson of excitement when Kirk and McCoy catch their first ever glimpse of the Enterprise as the shuttle they are traveling on prepares to dock on the giant starship. Or when the “older Spock”, played by the wonderful Leonard Nimoy (who has spent a lifetime in this role), makes a short but crucial appearance to make sense of all the time-travel madness.

The one element this Sunday-DD nostalgist thought was missing from the film? The music score of the original show, sans any orchestral frills. The end credits just felt wrong without it.

[Did this nostalgia piece for the Sunday Business Standard]

16 comments:

  1. Sorry - to disagree with something you've written: the new ST movie does not bring things back into sync with the original series. The new movie is a different storyline with the same characters - here, Spock and Uhura are close, Spock's mother dies, Vulcans are endangered, etc etc (please edit my comment if you think it gives too much away). Do you not think so?

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  2. Vaishnavi: I didn't mean to suggest that the plot of the new film is exactly in sync with the back-story provided in the original series (which I'm not completely familiar with anyway) - just that the characters grow into their familiar roles in a satisfactory manner.

    But since you've brought the subject up: any time-travel story (in this case, Nero mucking about with the progression of events) by definition permits a revisiting/altering of the past. In that sense, I don't think inconsistency with the original series should be a problem here. In fact, the older Spock even alludes to this during his conversation with Kirk - and he suggests to the younger Spock at the end that with Vulcans having become an endangered species, maybe he needs to be more open to propagating the species (hence the Uhura romance).

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  3. That's a very well written article. Completely in sync with you... except...Bones here was super. U do not do him justice
    The movie was spectacular. Even for Trekkie virgins.
    May the Force be with Trekkies. Eagerly await the next with these actors.

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  4. Loved the film a lot, and a nice writeup.

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  5. Seems like Star Trek is on the brain. And coincidentally, I just reviewed City on the Edge of Forever.

    Gotta disagree with you on the music: I am an anti-Trekkie slowly warming to the series (thanks to the new film), and the one thing that definitely hooked me with the new film was its score. The old soundtrack (which plays over the credits) would have distracted me with its cheese - I (and I think other people my age) tend to associate the original show's score with camp + cheese.

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  6. Wonderful, I am waiting for the movie. Am a diehard fan of the older series.

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  7. Vaishnavi: in the initial few episodes of Star Trek, there is affinity between Uhura and Spock, but not romance. They decided not to continue with it. So, perhaps, the intensity of the romance between the two in the new series will die out.

    But you're right - this is an entirely new frontier. With the Vulcan now almost wiped out, and Spocks mother dead (I couldn't even recognize Winona Ryder) the upcoming series of ST films will not be a prequel true to the storyline of the original series. For me, that makes it all the more interesting. At the same time, it has remained true to the relationships between the characters - particularly between Spock and Kirk - which, for me, made the originals more interesting than the next generation series.

    Jai: love the Spock-Jughead bit.

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  8. To be fair , the name star trek does bring back some memories consigned to a wardrobe called childhood. However it was never a great series in terms of content , execution and even style. The same goes for all star wars films which have quite amusing characters though are otherwise duds as far as entertainment is concerned.

    I am sure that star wars and star trek can be entertaining to some however from the same period I found 'Indiana Jones' to be a much better series with the exception of the second instalment, (if you take over the top hokum films of the time). Star trek had a couple of interesting characters , however they seemed to lack a human touch .

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  9. To be fair , the name star trek does bring back some memories consigned to a wardrobe called childhood. However it was never a great series in terms of content , execution and even style. The same goes for all star wars films which have quite amusing characters though are otherwise duds as far as entertainment is concerned.

    I am sure that star wars and star trek can be entertaining to some however from the same period I found 'Indiana Jones' to be a much better series with the exception of the second instalment, (if you take over the top hokum films of the time). Star trek had a couple of interesting characters , however they seemed to lack a human touch .

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  10. I used to watch the original Star Trek late at night in my early teens in the 90s on Star Plus. And I wasn't alone I am sure! So another generation of kids heard their parents/older siblings gush about Star Trek from its DD days and watched it on cable TV. Don't know if the brand lived on with kids after that.

    "For boys of a certain age and temperament watching the original TV series, the cucumber-cool Spock – briskly efficient in a crisis, invulnerable to cheap human emotion – was always more fascinating than the relentless skirt-chaser and macho-man Kirk, the same way Jughead was always cooler than Archie."

    Bang on! Ah those innocent, idealistic days!

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  11. I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed the new Star Trek. It's hard to balance the old and the sense of familiarity it provides, while fashioning new storylines in such a well-trod series, but I thought Abrams did so ably.

    Maybe I don't get out enough, but I thought Star Trek was pure entertainment.

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  12. The one element this Sunday-DD nostalgist thought was missing from the film? The music score of the original show, sans any orchestral frills. The end credits just felt wrong without it.

    Huh? I don't know what version of the end credits you watched, but the music playing during the end credits is quite clearly the opening theme to the original series, with minor augmentation. Personally, I thought it was the one bright spot in an otherwise entirely inane film. Ships passing through black holes? Please. And a Star Fleet that takes juvenile delinquents and lets them assume captaincy of their newest ship? Come on. The original series was silly, yes, but it wasn't stupid.

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  13. Falstaff: dude, what I heard was definitely not a case of "minor augmentation".

    "The original series was silly, yes, but it wasn't stupid."

    Now I insist that you clarify this statement by writing detailed thesis-length posts on each of the 78 episodes of the original series.

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  14. J'wock: Really? This is the version I heard. Which struck me as being pretty close to the original (at least for the first two minutes).

    And no post on the 78 episodes (of which I've only seen, maybe, twenty). Though if I ever get out of my blogging funk I will do a post on all the ridiculous things about the 2009 movie.

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  15. nice blog, it is true that we just wait for that thundering voice filled in room.future reloaded :the new star trek certainty very horrible.
    -------------------------------------
    Alexander Cruz
    sapience

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