Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Gimmickry

I’ve been a Star Trek fan for longer than I can remember. I was only two years old when the original series was cancelled, but I watched it early on in the syndication – around the same time I watched the Animated Series. I’ve seen all the movies on or shortly after opening day. After seeing the pilot of The Next Generation, I didn’t bother watching it again until the Third Season – by which time it was a much better series, and I’ve watched the subsequent series, but not with the dedication of the original.

Of course, an adult looks for different things in entertainment than a child – at least I hope that’s the case. When I watched Trek initially, it was for the “neat-o” things: phasers, photon torpedoes, the ship being thrown off axis and crewmembers flying everywhere. Later, at a time when my own family was breaking up, I watched for the familiarity of the crew. Even later, I picked up on the social/political commentary embedded in many episodes. Not long ago, I was watching an episode called “A Private Little War” which concerned the Klingons and Federation arming different factions on a neutral planet, and I realized the episode was an allegory about Vietnam.

Many of these thoughts returned to me after watching the latest Trek film: Into Darkness. It’s certainly entertaining, in that it holds the viewer’s attention. Like most genre films these days, it’s paced relentlessly fast. I saw the movie twice, mostly because it was in 3-D, a first for a Star Trek film. But I don’t plan on seeing it in the theater again.

First, there is the issue of the villain, who’s revealed to be none other than Khan Noonian Singh. Let’s ignore the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch, while a fine actor, is totally unsuited to the role of a North Indian superman. Let’s focus on how the character is written. Khan as portrayed in the movie is a psychotic killer without remorse or redemptive qualities, who committed genocide during the 20th Century. This is poles apart from the way Khan was written in the original series, where he was described as “the best of the tyrants…there were no massacres under his rule.” The writing, and Ricardo Montalban’s performance, exuded a sense of ruthless nobility. During the course of the episode, Khan killed precisely ZERO crewmembers. It was for this reason that Kirk dropped charges against Khan and his followers and settled them on a planet – which subsequently suffered an ecological disaster. Even the revenge obsessed, Ahab-Like Khan of the second Star Trek film, who rightly blamed Kirk for neglecting to send follow up ships to check on their progress, was restrained enough to maroon the crew of the Reliant on Ceti Alpha V rather than killing them – although he killed several people later in the film. The original Khan and the alternate Khan are not the same villain, and the alternate timeline of the new movies is not an adequate excuse for that.

Secondly, there is the film’s portrayal of Kirk as a reckless youth, too big for his britches and not worthy of commanding a starship. By the end of the film, he’s had his comeuppance. Whether he’s matured into the character seen in the original series remains to be seen.

To be blunt, I find the portrayal of Kirk in the two most recent Trek films to be offensive. Although the new films’ kirk grew up in an altered universe from the original series, the modern portrayal is certain to cast a negative hue on the classic character. It’s worth remembering that the young Kirk was remembered as “a stack of books with legs” by associates who knew him while in Starfleet Academy.

The impression most people have of the original series' Kirk as a shoot first, talk later, bed down with every space-babe Captain is exaggerated. In reality, he was a lot closer to Pike and Picard than he is to the Kirk character in the two most recent movies. Also, William Shatner’s acting style has been so often and broadly parodied that it has changed the perceptions of casual and non-fans regarding his real portrayal. It’s worth remembering that Shatner’s performance in early TOS episodes was initially criticized as “wooden” by TV Guide. Shatner did his share of scenery chewing, but those were rare and mostly toward the end of the series’ run and in the movies.

Take for example, Kirk alleged aggression. There are plenty of episodes where Kirk resisted the impulse/advice to act more aggressively against a real or perceived enemy (Where No Man has Gone Before, The Devil in the Dark, The Corbomite Maneuver, The Conscience of the King, Arena, By Any Other Name, The Omega Glory). In nearly every episode in which there’s aggression, Kirk is backed into a corner until there’s no alternative (Where No Man has Gone Before), or undertakes it to stave off an expansion of hostilities (Balance of Terror).

Then there is the issue of Kirk’s alleged promiscuity. He certainly had his share of “action”, but there were often qualifiers: under a spell/hypnosis/posession (Elaan of Troyus, Dagger of the Mind, Return to Tomorrow); amnesia (The Paradise Syndrome); divided in two by the transporter (The Enemy Within); the female was an android/simulacrum (What Are Little Girls Made of, Requiem for Methuselah, Shore Leave); operating under false pretenses (The Conscience of the King, Mirror Mirror, Catspaw, By Any Other Name, Wink of an Eye, The Mark of Gideon). He also had his share of exes – intelligent, independent females – most of whom regarded him highly, and vice-versa (Court Martial, The Deadly Years, The Wrath of Khan). There was one exception, Janet Lester, who was arguably psychotic. Kirk also suffered his share of romantic tragedy (The City on the Edge of Forever, The Paradise Syndrome), and was even given the brush-off (The Voyage Home). Finally, anyone who followed the series even casually could discern that many of these flings didn’t go “all the way”. Somehow, I can’t imagine the series’ Kirk bedding town with two alien females while the Beastie Boys blasted from his sound system.

Ultimately, of course, it's the writer who's responsible for the character's arc. Classic Trek was blessed with a great writer D. C. (Dorothy) Fontana, one of the few female writers in television in those days. She and the rest of the creative team - including the actors - made Kirk and Spock into complex, interesting, and imperfect characters. The J. J. Abrams franchise is run by post-adolescent fanboys who place cleverness and contrivance before substance. Not that the new Trek isn't entertaining - but it's not a character driven drama – and it doesn’t stand up to repeated viewing.

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