Forty-three years after Gene Roddenberry first boldly went where no one had gone before and thirty years after the first cinematic endeavor and twenty-two years after the coming of the next generation and seven years after the last movie attempt (and at least fifteen years after anyone really cared anymore), Star Trek has been reborn - or should I say, rebooted.
Daring us to once again boldly go while at the same time tagging us with the bold statement that this was no longer our father's Star Trek (or in the case of us "older folks" who grew up with the original series - "our" Star Trek), TV wunderkind J.J. Abrams has managed the seemingly impossible. He has made a Star Trek so ingrained with four plus decades of sci-fi mythology as to please even the most discerning of die-hard Trekkers (even those still living in their parent's basement at near middle age - their own phasers set on stun) while at the same time keeping it youthful enough to bring aboard legions of novice Starfleet cadets. He, just like a young and cocky James Tiberius Kirk, has beaten the unbeatable Kobayashi Maru - and he only cheated a little. How's that for a reference sure to confound all those aforementioned neophyte cadets yet thrill the legions of Trek nerds I boldly announce myself as completely in tune with.
Using the time-tested (pun very much intended) Trek standby (re: cheat) of time travel to create what is in essence an alternate reality Star Trek, Abrams comes aboard, as brash and full of bravado as Chris Pine's newly retooled rebel without a cause Kirk himself, with not just a beloved sci-fi universe rolled out in front of him, but with the suave beauty of a clean slate to boldly go wherever he damn well pleases. Abrams (born mere months before the original series first flew into living rooms across America) can have his space cake and eat it to - and blow it up if he wants (which he does in part). Just like Roddenberry back in '66, it lays at his feet for him to do with whatever he so desires. After seeing the finished product, this self admitted Star Trek nerd can safely say he believes that Roddenberry is looking down from his resting place amongst the stars with a happy heart - or at least he should be.
The story begins, as always, in the heat of battle. A federation ship is being attacked by Nero, a renegade Romulan looking more like a Maori beyond Thunderdome than the traditional Romulan of Trek lore. When the ship's captain is summoned over to the Romulan's obvious deathtrap, he places a young officer by the name of George Kirk in command. To make a long story short, Kirk goes down with his ship after making sure the crew, along with his giving-birth-right-now wife and their fresh-faced new son, one James Tiberius Kirk, are shuttled off to safety. It is pure space opera and it works on just that level. After this we get backstories and character introductions (and even get to see cadet Kirk's tryst with a green-skinned alien) and finally just why that damned Nero is so pissed off at the federation - and especially Spock. We even get allusions to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan when Nero screeches Spock!!! into the otherwise soundproof environs of space just as Shatner's Kirk yelled Khan!!!. It's just as cheesy and just as fun. Pauline Kael once wrote of the second Trek movie that it was "wonderful dumb fun" and this is certainly no different.
And the new cast, the veritable nexus of chat room speculation and argumentative controversy ever since Abrams' revamping plans began to first unfold, works as well. Chris Pine as the iconic Captain Kirk is a twenty-something horndog roustabout who joins Starfleet more out of spite or on a dare than out of any sense of duty. The perpetually brooding Zachary Quinto plays the even more iconic Mr. Spock with a Vulcan calmness just this side of emotional eruption. He looks so much like Nimoy one must wonder if he wasn't born to play the part. Karl Urban, in one of the most dead reckoning impersonations in the group, plays Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy with the same bug-eyed curmudgeonry as DeForest Kelly's original grizzled anti-social country doctor with a taste for bourbon and a definitive distaste for space travel. Then there is Simon Pegg doing Scotty in high brogue as only a comic actor can and should do him. My one major criticism of the film is there is not enough Scotty (he doesn't even make an appearance until around minute 85 or 90). We also get Zoe Saldana as the smokin' hot Uhura in retro mini skirt and gogo boots (she really doesn't have much else to do), John Cho (sans Kumar) as the helmsman Sulu, Anton Yelchin as a seventeen Pavel Chekov with a major case of 23rd century ADD, Bruce Greenwood as the ill-fated Captain Christopher Pike, Ben Cross and Winona Ryder as Spock's star-crossed parents, Eric Bana as the aforementioned Khan-esque Nero and even Tyler Perry as a Starfleet Admiral (luckily not trying to be "very funny").
All the favorite characters are here (but where are Nurse Chapel and Yeoman Rand?) fulfilling their duty as newly appointed icons, replete with all the old standard lines that have become part of sci-fi lore, but still, as always, this is the Kirk and Spock show. Philosophically set against each other - Kirk and Spock, body and mind - we watch the beginnings of an eternal struggle put to rest by the almost symbiotic way these two opposite reactions work together toward the same goal. Both are great in the parts but it is Pine who has the decidedly tougher mountain to climb. Pine has to channel the bravura of Shatner's Kirk but also avoid falling into the drama queen over excess of Shatner the actor. A friend describes Shatner lovingly (sort of) as that embarrassing uncle who tries to get you to fish around in his pocket for a present. Shatner's presence, bloated jackass or not (and don't get me wrong, I loved him in the original role), will always be there and yet Pine manages to parlay only the good into his transformation into Captain James T. Kirk.
Yet, the old school Trekker in me (I was just two years old when the original series was canceled due to low ratings!? but grew up on the seventies reruns) cannot help but keep returning to Leonard Nimoy's Spock Prime. More than just a glorified cameo, Spock Prime, who's inadvertent delineation of the known timeline which flips everything on its head is the nadir of the film's story, is the very heart and soul of the new Star Trek. Watching Nimoy back where he belongs and obviously loving every moment of his trek back home (pun intended again) is like once again seeing that beloved childhood friend you never even realized you missed like crazy but who has been in the back of your mind for years and years and years. Just as Nimoy has gone home again (and who said you couldn't?) so to has this once, and always, impressionable perpetual youth.
Forty-three years of pop culture references - from South Park and Family Guy to Galaxy Quest, SNL and even That 70's Show - and the franchise of Star Trek, with its phasers and communicators and its "beam me up Scotty" apocryphals, is still alive. Perhaps it has been on life support for a while now. Kept alive long after any real interest in the later spin-offs and elongated episodic cinematic endeavors has gone as kaput as a red-shirted ensign on a landing party. But no matter how sick it may have become, the imagery has never died. It is this very pop culture and all the mythos and iconography which surrounds it that makes Abrams reboot work as well as it does. His sleek new look that never takes away from the now-retro original series is a pitch-perfect melange of old and new sensibilities. My critical half (aka my pretentious half) is inline with my nerd half and I too can have my cake and eat it.
In the final scene, when everyone is on the bridge in those iconic (and somewhat cooler) original episode uniforms - I actually got chills (God, I am a nerd!!!) and Pine's subtle Shatneresque smirk and slap on Bones' shoulder and the way he sits in that captain's chair, legs crossed ala Shatner, along with the obvious love and care in giving us Nimoy's Spock "Prime", shows that though this is not our father's Star Trek and is definitely boldly going where no one has gone before, it would and could still hold high reverence for all that had come before it. The mythology is still there and yet, like Zefram Cochrane making first contact, Abrams brings new life to this long dead Phoenix and we realize we can boldly go anywhere from here. What more could we ever ask for. Now bring on the Klingons. [05/09/09]