Thursday 9 May 2013

From the archive: "Star Trek"

You know you're getting old when even the Vulcans start to look younger. After The Next Generation, director JJ Abrams' renewal of the much-loved Star Trek franchise practically comes as Foetuses In Space; even that bold, bald title, stripped of its customary suffixes, expresses a youthful blankness, a desire to start again from scratch. Make no mistake: Star Trek 2009 will make even those of us in our early thirties feel newly geriatric. My own personal bus-pass moment came early, when I realised the actress dolled up in the mottled skin and dowdy headscarf of a Russian grandmother as Spock's mama was Winona Ryder, a performer I'd spent the best part of the 1990s crushing on; for others, it may follow around the halfway mark when a key player from the Enterprise's original crew is discovered on an ice planet, where he appears to have been cryogenically frozen for the past thirty years.

Abrams has clearly decided to plot his own course here: this is what comic-book aficionados refer to as an origin story, depicting how the well-known crew first came to occupy their places on the Enterprise's holodeck. Kirk (played as a boy by Jimmy Bennett, then as a boy-man by Chris Pine), himself the son of a heroic, self-sacrificing Starfleet captain, is conceived as a causeless small-town rebel, speeding and brawling his way around the flat-earth of Iowa over which the Federation HQ looms as a destiny he cannot, for all his bad-assery, escape. Spock (Zachary Quinto) makes a calmer - logical, you might say - progression through the ranks, taking particular care to oppose the rash, headstrong and bumbling Kirk at key intervals. Back-to-basics villainy comes care of the Klingons (led by an unrecognisable Eric Bana), who are up to their old trick of interstellar nuisance, with the evaporation of Spock's home planet.

I should confess at this juncture that, unlike Winona, the Enterprise, in its myriad permutations, cast no particular shadow over my childhood and adolescence; I sensed more seasoned anoraks around me chuckling heartily throughout Abrams' film at in-jokes and back-nods that were some distance off my radar. As an experience, then, Star Trek proved amiable yet mildly perplexing, an astronomically budgeted pilot for a TV show that's long been in syndication, placing a heavy emphasis on light, knockabout comedy that suggests the influence of Joss Whedon's Firefly/Serenity project. (The fanboys' fanboy, Simon Pegg, enjoys a jocular walk-on as Scotty, and immediately distinguishes himself from his teen pin-up co-stars by virtue of his receding hairline.) Any in-film dissent is left to the young Bones (Karl Urban), who arrives for training carrying a hipflask and a decree nisi, and declares "Space is disaster and disease, played out in silence and darkness".

This being a 2009 event movie, there's a fair bit of light and noise, too. The spaceships have more whistles and bells these days; the black holes are bigger and blacker; warp speed goes right through you. Arguably, the final frontier has never seemed larger - doubly so, if your intention is to watch Star Trek in the IMAX format - and yet its dramatic dimensions (humans good, Klingons bad) and character dynamics (petty squabbles on the starboard bow) remain almost identical to those of the television series that inspired it. Abrams is revered among the 18-30 demographic for his work on the interminable island saga Lost; here - and it's a double-edged sword - he's true to Gene Roddenberry's original vision (the film is dedicated to Roddenberry, and - in an affectionate touch - his late wife provides the voice of the ship's computer), conceived as it was for seven-inch screens back in 1966.

I suspect fans - resistant as they generally are to change - will respond better to this; to put it another way, there's a lot of space for agnostics and anyone over thirty to get lost in. Compared to, say, Starship Troopers, which Star Trek vaguely resembles in its early stretches, this is determinedly clean and bright sci-fi, destined to be shown uncut on long-haul flights and American television networks: Kirk's womanising is limited to some above-the-bra fondling, while the new Uhura (Zoe Saldana, underemployed) shares a couple of chaste, consolatory kisses with Spock, possibly Abrams' idea of affirmative action. In the main, though, the cast aren't ever asked to do anything more than assimilate the characteristics of their illustrious predecessors. 

Quinto, whose villainous Sylar has long been the only compelling aspect of TV's increasingly flagging Heroes, puts on an admirable display of eyebrow-raising and nostril-flaring, but almost everyone else is reduced to bit-parts by the thinness of the dramatisation. Urban's furrowed brow is rather fun, and John Cho's sincerity is nicely deployed as Zulu; there's even a foxy redhead (Rachel Nichols) floating around in the background, as I always seem to remember there being on those rare occasions I caught the show in my impressionable youth. But all these players have to do is push buttons, pull levers, and wait for the inevitable sequel to come around. As for the new Kirk: Pine, sometime leading man to Britney and LiLo, proves more makeweight than talismanic, only one or two ranks above the corn-fed underwear models who routinely populate American teen movies. As he's destined to become William Shatner, this - like much else about Star Trek 2009 - may not be a matter of too much gravity.

(April 2009)

Star Trek is available on DVD through Paramount Home Entertainment; a sequel, Star Trek: Into Darkness, opens in cinemas nationwide today, and is reviewed here.

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