Infinite Diversity in Infinite Trek

Written by Dan

Published July 18, 2016

(Or if you like a clichéd title, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Reboot”)

I’m not exactly a prolific writer these days. (Or ever, depending on your point of view.) As we approach the premiere of Star Trek Beyond, the third movie in the reboot franchise, I think it’s high time to speak up and explain why I’ve enjoyed the story so far.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan for 23 years now. That’s not even half the life of the franchise itself. As television and storytelling has evolved, so too has the series. Looking back on the 50-year journey, each series has been distinct from its siblings, a reflection of the time in which it was made.

Reboot Fever

Let’s start with the obvious: I think that reboots have gone overboard in general. It was a relatively interesting idea when Ron Moore launched the new Battlestar Galactica, which I think was a compelling story and a great exploration of the original premise. (Though my sister was a fan of the original, and to this day refuses to watch the reimagined series.)

What can make a reboot good or bad? There’s three general elements to a story: characters, setting, and plot. A reboot basically reuses at least two of these elements—usually the characters and the setting. This can be both a shortcut to get audiences involved in relatively new characters, and a way to establish a universe without having to spend valuable screen time focusing on lots of background details. I think the problem is when reboots reuse too many elements from their predecessors—the shortcut has become a crutch.

I have to admit my sister has a point, too: if there are enough differences, why even reuse the title at all? I think that sadly, that’s not up to the writers, but it’s driven by the executives who would rather have an allegedly sure-fire blockbuster by building on the success of an existing franchise. This can result in great stories, but is certainly still a cheat.

For the first 43 years, Star Trek was a constantly expanding universe, always adding new crews and ships (and a station). The decision to go back and explore the same familiar characters was certainly something that bothered me. We’ve learned plenty about Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the others—why can’t we get to know someone new?

New characters would have been preferable, but J.J. Abrams and the other writers came up with a clever in-universe justification: the alternate timeline. This device allowed them to take well-known characters and settings and transform them into something that is both familiar and different at the same time. I think this is what bothers most long-time Star Trek fans: I know I’m watching Kirk and Spock, but it’s not MY Kirk and Spock!

Does this make the new characters better, or worse? No, it just makes them different.

Getting to Know Old Friends Again

Star Trek came out in 2009, and it’s been 7 years since I first watched it. The opening scene drew me in and then immediately blew me away—as it was clearly meant to. It was an emotional and dramatic demonstration that Star Trek would never be the same. And yet it’s taken me almost 7 years to truly accept the lesson that I told myself I’d learned watching the trailer for that movie: that the franchise has evolved and changed.

I could nitpick all sorts of details all day. Fans always love to do that. I think the biggest flaw was the conceit of ensuring that Kirk, and Kirk alone, was qualified to be Captain of the Enterprise. This was a flawed assumption, in my opinion, but they made it work. Mostly.

Then came Star Trek Into Darkness. I very much enjoyed watching the movie the first time, but as I walked out of the theater, I was already starting to second-guess my feelings:

A great movie is one you like more when you think about it afterwards. Does that make a movie you think less of upon reflection a bad one?

— Dan Carlson (@minutiaeman) May 17, 2013

I wanted to like Into Darkness. I could get over most of the plot holes, and I could even accept the villain turning out to be Khan. (It didn’t help that Abrams and others outright lied to the fans before the movie came out.) But Kirk’s death scene didn’t feel like a homage. It felt like an outright ripoff. Spock’s “dramatic” shout was inexcusably out of character, even for such an emotional moment. It just felt like a joke that was too clever for its own sake. And Kirk’s resurrection, though technically justified by the plot (and amply foreshadowed), still felt like a complete cheat.

So maybe Into Darkness left a sour taste in my mouth, but I’ve still wondered what felt different about the reboot movies. Am I reacting differently because I want to cling on to the past stories? Is this like the Babylon 5 DVD movie, which almost but didn’t quite recapture the spirit of the original show?

Feature Films are Not Television

And now we get to the real reason, I think, for a lot of the die-hard fan backlash. We’ve only had four hours to get to know the new variations on these characters so far. That’s hardly a fair comparison to the 80-plus hours with the original crew! We grew up (literally or figuratively) with Shatner’s, Nimoy’s, and Kelley’s portrayal of the Enterprise crew. Now, all of a sudden, we’re introduced to people who are almost, but not quite, the same. We’re still in the getting-to-know-you phase.

Feature films are by definition short, distilled action and character development. We get two, maybe two and a half hours to develop connections with the characters. That’s a tough challenge for even a normal story to overcome, so how can we expect to fall in love with Chris Pine’s or Zachary Quinto’s characters when we’ve barely just met them?

Feature films also can’t tell the same kinds of stories that we got in our beloved television shows. Feature films always deal with the extreme, the dire, the extraordinary, and a thousand other superlatives. Star Trek is popular now, maybe even mainstream, but it still can’t draw blockbuster crowds with a two-hour discussion of the consequences of immortality, or an introspective journey to discover the values of emotion versus logic. Mainstream blockbuster movies are about action first, story and character second. Good blockbuster movies should strike a sufficient balance between all three—while certainly favoring the action, still including meaningful character development and insightful thoughts.

The first Star Trek was clearly plot- and action-heavy. I easily forgave this when I saw it, because it was all about establishing the characters and setting. The first and most important task was to create this new alternate timeline.

In some ways, Into Darkness was actually a huge success for developing character: it explored the consequences and implications of Kirk’s cocky, overconfident leadership style when he runs into a situation that he can’t handle. And it explicitly addressed the age-old friction between logic and emotion that Spock has dealt with, but in a different way than past stories. This Spock is far more in tune with his emotions (though he might not admit it). Does that make him better or worse than Leonard Nimoy’s Spock? No, it just makes him different.

And so, I may not have liked all of the plot elements in these movies, but do I like the characters? Yes.

Star Trek is About the Infinite

Is this like the Star Trek that I grew up with? In many ways, the answer is clearly no. But is that really a bad thing?

Nostalgia is a very powerful feeling. Everyone longs for the familiar, but there’s an inherent paradox: you can never recapture the same feelings again. No show will be exactly the same. Besides, why would it be worth making a new show that is exactly the same as one you’ve already seen?

This is why I continue to appreciate the genius of the alternate timeline concept. No matter how you argue the minutiae of temporal mechanics, it’s perfectly reasonable to most fans that any changes in characters and circumstances can be explained by the different sequence of events in the alternate timeline. Sure it’s a cheat, but it’s a damn clever one.

Star Trek has always been about diversity: diversity of culture, diversity of belief, diversity of life itself. The reboot movies are not the same as the stories that came before. They may not be perfect, we may have different favorites, but the core philosophies are still there. Star Trek has changed, but it hasn’t lost its identity. We are still exploring the final frontier.

And that final frontier is infinite… as long as there are more stories to tell. I can’t wait for the next one.

“I am pleased to see that we have differences. May we together become greater than the sum of both of us.” — Surak of Vulcan, “The Savage Curtain” (TOS)