To qualify everything that comes next: while I’m a Star Trek fan, there’s a lot about Trek I cannot stand. I’m talking about the various TV incarnations and the current reboot, just to be clear. It’s the earliest memory of TV I can recall, and according to the dedicated Star Trek wiki, Memory Alpha, I likely caught it in the final season of its first run on the BBC (September – December 1971). I loved this show, and a big part of me still does.
It’s the easiest thing in the world for anyone to look back at old media and criticize poor writing and cheap production values, but without understanding historical context there’s no value there. I remain a fan of the original Star Trek despite all of that, and I can still watch the series even now and get pleasure from it – sure, it may be no more than nostalgia these days, but my love for the show endures.
Up through various other versions – the animated series, the movies, The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager, Enterprise, and now the JJ Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) reboot – my interest has been mostly watered down. I’ve greatly enjoyed some of the movies (The Motion Picture; The Wrath of Khan, First Contact) and some episodes of TNG were terrific, but the rest of it just comes off as bad fan fiction. I suppose that isn’t too far off the mark, considering many of these writers were fans of the original show. And while CBS is about to launch yet another new series in 2017, fans of Trek are currently making do with this newfangled reboot, which I’m not a fan of.
I don’t feel the need to explain why I didn’t think much of 2009’s Star Trek, or 2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness, because I have the same issues with those that I do for this year’s Star Trek Beyond. There are many reasons, and varied too. I don’t however, suffer from the obsessive love of Trek many fans do, or that slavish devotion to it. A brief example of this: Benedict Cumberbatch’s (The Imitation Game) role wasn’t much of a secret, but neither was it fully revealed in the trailers. Into Darkness was more or less the shoehorning of Wrath of Khan into the new Trek alternate universe – not exactly a remake, but a “reimagining”. I went in figuring Cumberbatch was the new Khan, but apparently not everyone did. During the reveal, an older guy in the audience – and I mean older, late 50s, early 60s – uttered a howl of contempt and was rightly pilloried by nearby audience members. This guy could not believe that Abrams had dared to violate the unspoken prime directive that exists within the mind of the fanboy (or girl). I wondered if, four years earlier, he was similarly outraged that not only was Trek being rebooted, it was being rebooted with other actors playing the iconic roles from the original series.
I don’t have any such issues with this, and it isn’t one of my big straws that broke the reboot’s back. I’m not tied to actors playing characters, I’m tied to characters, and for the most part, I didn’t feel Pine, Quinto, Urban and co did anything to the characters I’d consider blasphemy. Pin is the weakest of the bunch, I think. While the chemistry between Karl Urban’s McCoy and Zachary Quinto’s Spock feels forced, they do well in their roles without becoming weak copies of the original characters. Pine, however, had a different job to do, but hasn’t done it well. Kirk is one character where you cannot easily separate the role from the actor. Shatner was Kirk. All that swagger and ego, the overacting – that was all Shatner, yet it was also Kirk, a grandstanding jock who was naturally the Top Dog, The Big Cheese, Numero Uno Honcho … The Head Cheese, all of that. And Kirk got away with all of it, because for all that, he remained grounded. He wasn’t smarter than the crew, he was cunning, he was the leader, and he had a big enough personality to have others believe in him. At the end of Star Trek, there were glimpses of that Kirk, but in the two subsequent features, Kirk has become a mostly bland and personality-free character, upstaged by Spock in just about every scene. Even though Pine’s Kirk is still the one who saves the day, it feels like he is the one doing it by default, like everyone else is already doing stuff and they had to throw the captain some scraps.
The reboots haven’t been particularly well written either. Exactly what made the original show so great for me wasn’t the stories so much as it was the characters interacting within those stories, and to an extent, the reboot’s scripts have been pretty much exactly that. Yet at the same time, we’re not in the sixties, we’re not on TV with a crappy budget. Times have changed ,and the weight of expectation demands strong, well written stories. Star Trek Beyond suffers from having nothing of the sort.
Written by Simon Pegg, I didn’t really know what to expect. Pegg is not exactly known for his screenwriting ability, and doesn’t particularly strike me as a Star Trek fan. If nothing else, I was expecting something different, but Pegg, and Doug Jung, merely provide more of the same. A contrived opening that draws the Enterprise into the action completely invalidates the shore leave scenes that came before, especially since nobody expresses much of a surprise that their break has been cut short. When they get into action, in a region of space that’s uncharted even though it appears to be right next to a massive Federation outpost, the villains are so well choreographed and destructive, the scene just ends up being a simple plot point: destroy the Enterprise. Nothing about the actual scene feels like it was designed with any kind of depth or flair. Likewise Krall, the villain. About halfway in you’ll guess the guy’s secret, but he’s written with a single dimension and played that way too by Idris Elba. Villains are villains, sure, but they’re also people. Nothing about the writing of the Krall character made me care to wonder what he was about, or why he was doing what he was doing. It’s just another Hollywood villain; a guy with an axe to grind. In this kind of featureless plot, the world is black and white. Good guys are good guys who don’t have to do bad things to win; bad guys are bad guys, who exist to be beaten.
The movie introduces a new character, but she’s as uninteresting as the plot points she appears in, simply a “strong female character” – in Hollywood terms that means a girl who can fight and trash talk as good as the guys: shorthand to help you check off your boxes as you watch. In between these, are many generic action scenes that involve people dodging blasts while things explode around them – nothing that’s uniquely Star Trek. Pine’s big action scene involves him riding a motorcycle around the scene, dodging blasts, while the new female character gets to do all the fighting; a further reduction of the Kirk character.
What the movie did for me most of all was disappoint, even though I was already prepared for a third bland installment of the franchise. Despite the interactions of Kirk and Spock, and Spock and McCoy, and Simon Pegg’s dodgy-accented (yet fun) Scotty, the rest of the movie feels uninspired and lackluster. The worst thing I have to say about it is that even with the characters that turned the original series into a must-watch for me as a kid, this rebooted franchise lacks the main ingredient: heart.