Sunday, June 14, 2009
Get Your Trek On
Star Trek premiered on first-run TV when I was just a tad, and though I have a few memories of the show in its original run I never really watched it until I went to college. My freshman dorm had a lounge with a television -- what, have your own television in your room? That's crazy talk! -- and the local TV station showed reruns of Star Trek every night at 10:30 pm. (In those days it wasn't referred to as TOS, since there were no other shows from which to distinguish it.) I forget now what drew me down there in the first place, since I never had really watched the show, but I know what kept me coming back: the sense of community. The audience was mostly guys who had watched the show so many times that they could tell you from the opening shot of the Enterprise circling a planet which show it was. In fact, they would compete to see who could shout out the name of the episode first.
I still have happy memories of those evenings in the lounge. For one thing, even though the gender makeup of the audience was about 80 male/ 20 female, there was no misogyny, no sense of anyone hitting on anyone. People were there to share their love for the show, and that was it. All attendees were welcome. For another, the fans' affection for ST was not blind hero worship but rather ironic. I was introduced to all the tropes of the show early on (i.e., Captain Kirk sleeps with alien girl and converts her to the cause of the Federation). My favorite moment may have been the bit when the crew was hiking up a mountain and somebody yelled "Dammit Jim, I'm a doctor, not an escalator!" After an evening of panicked studying, it was a refreshing break.
Years later when I was in medical school along came Star Trek: The Next Generation. You may not remember how eagerly this show was awaited at the time: Trust me, I sat in a lecture hall with Trekkies every freakin' day and I can tell you it was a hot topic. It was pretty good, actually, though the earnest PC premise of the show wore thin after a while. My real issue with it was the persistent theme that everything, everything, would be solved in the future. I'll give you an example. In one episode Captain Picard is complaining of a headache, and what's her name the Betazoid empath replies earnestly, "Something must be wrong. No one in the twenty-fourth century has headaches any more." I'll tell you what my response to that was: BULLSHIT.
Fast forward to residency. Deep Space Nine premieres. I'll tell you, as far as I am concerned this was the best Trek show ever. It had character development, conflict, drama, and the show wasn't afraid to develop plot arcs that took more than one season to resolve. This is almost unheard of in television even today; fifteen years ago it was an absolutely revolutionary idea. It also had Garak, the tailor/spy/refugee from Cardassia, and the most morally ambiguous character since Captain Renault in Casablanca. Oh, and did I mention the brilliant writing? Okay then.
I am finally getting to my point, which would be the recent Star Trek movie. I had not intended to see it, assuming it would be terrible, till I read a couple of glowing reviews online. Last night a couple of friends (who had already seen it once) invited me along, swearing I would love it.
They were right. It really is that good. It's true to the spirit of the show and the writers get the essence of the characters, but it doesn't take itself so seriously that it adheres fiercely to every bit of the backstory. And there's a good reason for this which is worked into the plot very nicely. The words "alternate reality" may make you cringe, but in this case they shouldn't - it works. What I really liked, in fact, is that "alternate reality" is usually just a toy for the writer to play with, but in this case you see the implications (very serious implications: the loss of a parent) play out. These implications are a bonding point for Kirk and Spock, who can't stand each other to start with.
All the characters get their moment in the sun. McCoy is a hoot, Scotty is a joy, Uhura is hot and smart. She and Spock appear to be getting along quite well by the end of the film, and I can't wait to see what happens with them next. If you're looking for small nods to the audience, the film has them: Kirk's commanding officer is Christopher Pike, and at the end of the movie he shows up in a wheelchair - you have to have seen a particular episode of TOS to get this. When we first see Scotty he's got a pet Tribble in a cage. And so forth.
Suffice to say my expectations were low, mainly because I have a deep distrust of movies that rely on special effects rather than character development (we had to sit through trailers for G.I. Joe and Transformers II, which are exactly the sort of dreck I am talking about). Star Trek does not make that mistake. You don't have to be a raging, con-attending Trekkie to enjoy this movie; despite my comments above, I don't fall into that demographic. Go and enjoy.