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“Dare to do better.” Retro Review: Star Trek 2009

“Dare to do better.” Retro Review: Star Trek 2009

Both the original and Next Generation crew had said their last farewells on the big screen, while on TV Star Trek’s eighteen year run had suffered franchise fatigue and low ratings, leading to the cancellation of prequel series Enterprise.

Certain that there was still plenty of final frontier to explore, Paramount moved forward with a bold relaunch of the franchise. Forming a new universe, bringing together a new cast and redesigning everything for the modern blockbuster audience, Star Trek got a new lease of life in the form of JJ Abram’s 2009 revival.

Since that revival Star Trek has been somewhat reborn. Despite some pushback on a new approach from some segments of the fandom, the 2009 movie was a critical success that spawned two sequels and led the way for a return to TV, with Discovery launching just a year after the third instalment – Star Trek Beyond – and gaining enough success that we now have five Trek shows in production and a new film under development.

In what is a new golden age of Star Trek, our Retro Review is going back to where the new era began…

I’ll get this out the way now. When this film was placed into development many moons ago, and details began to flood out, I was completely swept up in the “Not Real Trek” movement. New designs, new ideas and a new Kirk? No thanks. It didn’t help that when the cast was announced, all I could see was “The MILF Guy”, “Tim from Spaced” and “Syler”.

Needless to say, I wasn’t really keen. But sometime in January of that year, soon after reviewing The Wrestler for BBC Radio Scotland, I got a call asking if there’s anything else I’d like to talk about. After seeing the trailer, which was possibly the biggest and boldest to be launched for a Trek movie, it was my obvious choice.

Only problem was the review would be live on air the day of release and the only time slot available in Glasgow left twenty minutes between the credits rolling and the green light telling me to speak. Going in expecting to hate it, I was not prepared for what I’d experienced as both a Star Trek and film fan.

A lot of that came down to the first ten minutes, which I can say without a doubt, was the best opener of any Star Trek film to date.

Your father was captain of a Starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives, including your mother’s and yours. I dare you to do better.
– Christopher Pike

All of us Trekkies know the story of James Kirk ascending to the Enterprise and his family back story of him being proud that his dad, George, lived long enough to see him take the big chair. This time round, James Kirk wasn’t born in Iowa, as he famously quipped in The Voyage Home. And his father doesn’t live long enough to see him become Captain. He doesn’t even live for ten minutes into the films teaser.

Thanks to some time travelling shenanigans, a Romulan from the future invades the past, forcing the USS Kelvin to change course and investigate. It’s future tech overpowering the old and tattered Kelvin forces it’s Captain to leave the ship in his XO’s hands and visit the Romulans to be swiftly killed off.

As the Romulans attack, that XO, George Kirk, knows he can’t win and desperately fights to save the crew, including his wife Winona who, during the battle is in labour. Throughout the firefight, as the Kelvin’s crew races to escape, everything goes wrong. The only way to buy time to save everyone is to set a collision course against the Romulans, but with damage taken it has to be done manually….

For a film I didn’t have high hopes for, the first few minutes were an emotional roller-coaster. Tension, confusion swiftly turning into a scramble for survival at breakneck speed. To Abrams credit, there’s really no moment wasted in turning a quick investigation into a tragedy that sets the whole film in motion. And within all of that, the tragedy of George having to sacrifice himself to save – not just the crew – but his wife and child, moments after hearing young Jim cry for the first time.

It was a heartbreaking hook to what would become a film born out of emotional struggle and potentially one of the most humanised acts of heroism the franchise has ever seen. The entire incident revolving around George’s personal sacrifice really sets the tone for whats to come next, accelerating the film into a more deeply personal tale than previous instalments.

Jim, I just lost my planet. I can tell you, I am emotionally compromised. What you must do is get me to show it.
– Spock Prime

As controversial as it was to forma new timeline, the idea did have it’s benefits. Instead of going by the original timeline of events, the 2009 feature allowed the creative team to make enough changes so that each of the crews path to the Enterprise converged in a much different way.

The first big change was obviously Kirk losing his father, and therefore his inspiration to become the Captain he was always destined to be. Instead of growing up knowing what he wanted out of life, he just rebelled. Against his step father, against the world and against the pain of being born out of such a tragedy. Young Kirk here is someone without a real clear idea of what he wants, there’s plenty confidence, but nothing to inspire him to be anything better. Until, of course, Pike arrives to step into the mentor role and give him the nudge he needs stop wasting his life and follow in his fathers footsteps.

On the flip side of the coin, while this is at it’s core a story about a renegade Kirk having to essentially grow up and discover what he’s really capable of underneath all the brash ego, the more balanced Spock’s tragedy comes during the key moments in the film when he loses his emotional anchor; his mother.

The destruction of Vulcan was another controversial and rather bold decision, but that personal point for Spock and love for the one person who never judged him for being “handicapped” by his underlying humanity, makes for a powerful breaking point. The Spock of old rarely broke, even when he aged and became more at peace with the duality of his self, there was no moment of grief so strong that he broke down as hard as he does in 2009 after losing everything he valued most.

Star Trek is often well remembered for it’s more intellectual battles such as the often cited game of wits in The Wrath of Khan. Sit’s also often remembered for big and challenging ideas, such as Data’s rights as a sentient machine. Though sometimes it’s just at it’s strength as a personal story. Here we have a sort of coming of age film where a brash young cadet struggling to be heard clashes with the more experienced level headed Vulcan who’s about to lose his cool. It’s a story of growth for them both. Each side having to accept what they hate about each other is their strength; Kirk’s self belief and need to save the day against all odds versus Spock’s hurt caution.

Nero as a villain does get some time as well and under the menacing facade, we learn his sympathetic back story. Though he’s not a Khan, or even a Shionzon sent to challenge our heroes; just a catalyst to bring them together. Much like Spock Prime, who travelled back with Nero; a welcome addition to the cast to bridge the two universes and much like Pike, nudge Kirk towards the path of his own friend.

It’s not just about that dynamic, of course. Everyone gets their moment to shine. From Zoe Saldana as a more bold and confident Uhura to Simon Pegg as he brings the comic relief through a more techno-geek Scotty over the old school engineer Doohan brought to the role. Each bringing their unique skills to the table as they muddle through without their Captain, who intentionally repeats the mistake Robau made in the opening act when confronted with Nero. At the heart of that world of mostly inexperienced rookies, the Kirk and Spock dynamic brings it all together as they realise how much more value they have working as a team than they do following their own ego’s alone.

Where JJ Abrams and writers Robert Ocri and Alex Kurtzman were at their best was within that realisation that underneath the sci fi, Star Trek is all about characters. And the 2009 sequel is all about them, giving everyone a chance to shine while creating a new origin story for the Enterprise’s most famed Captain and first officer.

So, the Enterprise has had its maiden voyage, has it? She is one well-endowed lady. I’d like to get my hands on her “ample nacelles,” if you pardon the engineering parlance.
– Montgomery scott

Years ago my father told me that the Motion Picture hooked him as the scale inside the Enterprise opened his eyes to how huge and technical a beat it was. I was apprehensive when I heard about that part of the ship being filmed on location but seeing it on screen was amazing. In harsh contrast to the small, safe environment of Next Generation or previous movies the film opens up the whole hull as one giant industrial area that you could see Richard O’Brian running around in whilst playing a harmonica. It took away some fantasy technology of the Enterprise and replaced it with something real and believable.

Of course, it’s obviously a set and the location used for Into Darkness merged with the CGI backdrops worked a lot better. But for the first time I really felt the scope of what these wondrous ships would feel like after seeing it mostly on a TV budget where it was all confined to one small room.

The shuttle bay visual for the Kelvin – while a bit illogical – was also some stunning CGI work, with the geeky twist of the shuttles mirroring the 60’s version. While the Kelvin was more industrial looking overall, I did enjoy that the internals of the Enterprise, while better presented in seuql Into Darkness, had a duality between the bright and shiney command decks and the more complex locations used for it’s engineering sections, giving a sense of scope and a working enviroment more in line with modern ships.

In the bigger picture the Enterprise itself looked amazing. While other ships seen just seemed to be patched together and a little ‘off’, the Big E looked spectacular from all angles; the only real gripe with this new stylised ship was not seeing enough of it. Ryan Church had done some wonderful work keeping it’s design elements and giving it a modern, yet retro, feel. Then we have the effect. Warp was how it should be. Zap! and she’s gone. Then just like that she appears out of nowhere into the middle of all the wreckage Nero caused when she catches up with the fleet that went off to save Vulcan.

Not all of it lasted, of course. In the new eras of Trek, it did become more cinematic in nature, but it also avoided the bright colours for more bold tones and industrial themes. But the JJ era did help to raise the bar and bring Trek into a modern style to match the ever evolving competition. That spread into many areas, including the redesigned uniforms by Michael Kaplan who delivered a new take on the classic styles with tighter cuts and more detail.

While not all of those style cues were adopted in the later revival of TV Trek, particularly in Discovery’s own redesign of the Enterprise inside and out, the idea of Starfleet being fast tracked to a new level of technology and all these familiar elements being shown to us in completely new ways were incredible. And in a sense, quite a brave more as a lot of it moved away from what we remember from the 60’s and updated it all to appeal to a wider audience, not just the nostalgia.

It may not be the most fondly remembered design in certain circles, but the work and detail within the sets and production really raised the bar and offered a level of scope and power we’d never been able to see before; and in some ways, reminded me of that effort made to show the scale of the original Enterprise in the Motion Picture.

Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.
– Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy

For the most part, Star Trek films tend to have a slower pace than the action adventure of 2009 and so far, they’ve always revolved around a veteran crew continuing their adventures into their twilight years. JJ Abrams revival’s key difference in tone was a fresh injection of energy. In contrast to the internal conflict of Picard in Nemesis, or the slow paced drama of The Undiscovered Country, the 2009 revival is a hit of adrenaline that races through the story. But it’s not just flash and lens flare, it has a cast of stellar actors, an incredible pace and stunning visuals. And, yes, despite critique, it has a good origin story too thats rooted within the characters emotional journeys and lets the world begin again for fresh adventures.

But like any outing, it’s not perfect. For a start, some of the humour is too slapstick. Star Trek isn’t known for humour, to be fair, and it doesn’t quite reach the lows of Insurrections firmness chat, but as funny as the “numb tongue” exchange is, the preceding “big hands” and bar room boob grab joke feels out of place. In contrast, simple lines such as Karl Urban’s channelling of DeForest Kelly are spot on, and even the simplest moment of Scotty asking for a towel in the middle of an argument brings a smile.

Other complaints can be hand waved. Trans-warp beaming? A lifes work brought back in time. I can take that. Red Matter being the gimmick of the film? Well, yeah. But thats nothing new – we’re just used to technobabble or a science adviser behind the scenes pulling his hair out trying to figure out how to make the words bend to known science.

Cadet to Captain at the epilogue of the film does hold some justified scrutiny. There are many reasons this could have been done. The fleet was in tatters and Kirk did save the day. But there’s more to being a Captain than a one off heroic rookie victory so the ascension does seem a little swift, even if somehow off screen Spock Prime intervened.

Into Darkness tried, and failed, to address the fast track. By admission of all involved, that film had it’s flaws. But the idea of Kirk instantly taking the seat after one win in this film was an immature line of thought; one somewhat rectified by co-writer Kurtzman’s patience in Discovery.

While preserving and respecting what came before it, even a few nods and secret handshakes to the fans and lines drawn from pop culture that everyone can smirk at, JJ Abrams has succeeded in making the first truly widely appealing Star Trek movie. If you know whats came before it you’ll get a few extra laughs, if you’re a newbie to Trek this is a perfect introduction.

For all the worry and concern that this would be to Star Trek what Phantom Menace was to Star Wars, seeing it on the big screen would set fans minds at ease. What we have is a roller coaster ride, a blockbuster film based around the original Star Trek concept that’s core strength is to reintroduce these characters with action, adventure, comedy and most importantly heart.

That heart and energy injected new life into the franchise. Since then we’ve seen a surge in interest, we’ve see new fans come on board and discover a vast history of everything that came before.

The film undoubtedly had it’s flaws. And even if I do like the redesign of this alternate history, I can understand why others don’t. Tastes and perception vary. But it’s hard to deny that this action adventure gave us a focus on characters we love, gave us an energy that was often sorely lacking and gave us the kick start we Needed to bring Trek to the modern world.

Our latest issue of Comms talks in depth – and we mean in depth! – about Discovery’s Third Season with episodic reviews, an overall season analysis and special featuring including a look at the 32nd century tech, the Crossfield Class, Tilly’s Journey, Georgiou’s exit and more! Comms is available as part of SFCQ2’s free membership! To find out more visit our Comms preview or Enlist Today!

ADM JT Marczynka, DoFA
Creator of things, writer of words, caffeine addict. Director of Communications for Starfleet Command Quadrant 2.

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