The Poetics of Star Trek

May 22, 2009

Okay.  I saw the Star Trek movie tonight… and it's time I discuss this.

This is going to take a while.  If you're interested, strap in.  If not… just skip this one.  I'll understand.

The Background:

As with anything I discuss or analyze… I can't really understand it unless I pass it through the lens of my own personal experience.  So this entry is as much an analysis of me as it is a movie review.  Sorry.  I told you this would be long. 

Let's get to it, shall we?

Suffice it to say – I'm a fan.  But "fan" can mean a lot of things.  So, in the interest of precision, let's explore that.

Let's start with what kind of fan I'm not.  I'm not the kind of fan who affixes rubber points to his ears, or owns a 23rd century chess board.  Nor am I the kind of fan who translates works of literature into Klingon, or tells his friends to "live long and prosper" when they dock at his moon base.  Those guys, and I've met many of them, love the particulars of Star Trek.  They get lost in the stuff of it. 

Now, I love the stuff.  I love that Klingon actually has its own linguistic laws.  I love that each alien race in the series has its own written language.  I love the space ships, and the uniforms, and the lazy cosmetics on each anthropomorphized head.  I love the characters, and the laser guns (phasers, technically).  I love the lights and the buttons and the chirps of each machine.  It's fun for me.  But those things are not the focus of my love for Star Trek.  In the end… those things are little more than fun trivia to toss around… they're the grammar of Star Trek.  The parameters.  They are not the meaning.

Consider baseball for a moment.  Personally, I hate baseball.  It's boring.  It's long.  It's played outside, in the summer, when it's hot.  But let's consider it anyway. 

To start, let's cut out the millions of people who watch baseball just to
have an excuse to drink in the sun.  Okay.  They're gone.  What are we
left with?  Enthusiasts. 

Baseball enthusiasts (crazy though they may be) memorize stats.  They can tell you who hit what ball however far in whatever year in whatever park.  They reminisce about this game or that.  They own pennants, and pendants and don hats and jerseys.  They drape their rooms with posters and placards.  They swap old stories about their favorite games. 

When viewed from the appropriate angle – baseball fans are really no different from Star Trek fans.  Their obsession is simply more socially acceptable.

But is an enthusiast merely a collection of trivia?  Some are, perhaps.  But let's cut them out, too.  Think of them as the music snobs who scour the internet for unreleased, Japanese vynil copies of Neu! records… just to consume them.  They don't love the music… they just need it.

There exists another kind of appreciator – another kind of person in baseball… as well as music… as well as Star Trek.  There are people for whom baseball is something larger than its particulars.  Baseball is a memory of their father's hand on theirs.  Baseball is a metaphor for human achievement.  Baseball is a national identity.  A concept.  A passion.  It is a simple, mundane thing in the world for so many… but for a few it is a mirror.  It is a reflection of their heart and mind.  For some… baseball is a Form.

So too is it with Star Trek for me.

I love Star Trek because it was my first language with my father.  Because it became the go-to metaphor for our discussions, and the universe of our relationship in the same way that other fathers and sons (presupposing their actual communication) have baseball.  My father is my Spock.  He cools my passion when I fly into a frenzy… when I set fire to my life.  It happens so often, and he's always there to soothe me with logic.  Jamie, it seems, is my Bones McCoy.  She helps me thaw when my logic freezes me – inhibits my ability to love, or to yearn or to simply take a chance.  Like I've said before – of my dad is Spock… and Jamie is my Bones… then I am, through the process of deduction, James Kirk… the roiling mixture of two extremes.

Even though who I really want to be is Garak.

Look it up.  He's amazing.

I love Star Trek because I love and yearn for meaning and poetry in those things which entertain me.  Not everything has to be Shakespeare – of course.  I can appreciate dumb shows like Ninja Warrior or Captain Planet as well as the next guy – but what moves me is the Platonic cocktail of enrichment and education. 

Delightful teaching.  And Star Trek is certainly Platonic in that respect.

When you look past the fun particulars of Star Trek, you can see the power of its form.  The original series of Star Trek was groundbreaking in its social message – it was hope.  In spite of the justified cynicism of the time… and the general mood of its genre, Star Trek had the gall (the audacity, thanks B-rock) to hope.  Science fiction is fucking bleak most of the time.  It's dystopian.  It's a warning and a parable and a gut-check to human arrogance.  Star Trek is the opposite of that.  Star Trek presents a future where human beings have transcended their quarrels, their wars, their hatreds and their greed… and simply explore.  They explore space.  They explore their own humanity.  And those two things are what I wish my life could be – a journey outward, and a journey in.  So, of course, I love Star Trek.  It is the manifestation of everything I want my life to be. 

To boldly go.

Just think about that line.  "To boldly go."  Screw you, I can hear you snorting already.  I'm serious.  Consider the poetry of those words.  Has there ever been a greater description of human behavior?  Going, boldly into the future.  Creating.  Questioning.  Turning our heads up to look at the stars… to quest for light in the dark. 

Star Trek always opens with a shot of a starfield.  I think this is an apt metaphor for not only the show… but for humanity itself. 

What are stars but potential?  Warmth and light and life, smoldering in a vacuum.  Each burning itself away so that life can thrive and be.  And what are we and those we love, our community, our passions, but tiny flickers of light amid an often oppressive and strangling dark?  We pull others to us with our gravity, we warm them with our love… and when we die, our death changes all those around us.  We're stars.  We're made of stars. 

Sometimes, when a star dies and casts itself to shards, the radiation that results from its explosion traverses the yawning nothing of space… and finds life.  A band of cosmic radiation can sometimes fall through the sky of some tiny little planet… fall through the clouds and toward the ground where it finds a tiny living thing.. and it falls through that, too.  Cosmic radiation – the shattered bits of a star long since dead – is one of the many things that can cause random genetic mutation.  Think about that.  A star, billions and billions (<3 Carl) of miles away could have been the very thing that set our evolution in play.  It could have respelled the genetic code of some distant ancestor, and set us on a long, twirling, evolutionary path where, at its end, some creature actually learns to know itself.  To look up at the stars that birthed it, and try to know what they are, and what they mean. 

Woah… I'm sorry.  I'm rhapsodizing.  This is all coming out without revision… I'll have to get myself back on track here.  Star Trek.  Back on point.

So Star Trek is a form of entertainment.  It is a metaphor for humanity.  Star Trek is a social message of hope.  It is a subversion of genre.  It is a way to love my father. 

So why was I so terrified of the new movie?

Because I'm tired of seeing the things that used to mean something turned into little more than a scheme to make money.

Yes, I realize that Star Trek is a HUGE franchise which has conjured millions of dollars over the years.  I'm not ignorant to that fact at all.  But in doing so, it inspired me… it inspired millions to go, boldly.  And over time, and through over exposure, it tarnished, and its quality faded.  Voyager.  Enterprise.  The last two movies (this new one aside).  Some time in the late nineties, it lost its Form… and became nothign but its particulars.  It became a copy of a copy of a copy… and with each iteration it lost its focus.

Star Trek got pretty bad, and while I was sorry to see it go, I knew it was time to put it to bed. 

And then I heard that J.J. Abrams wanted to reboot the series and make another movie.  J.J. Abrams – a clod.  A man whose claim to fame – Lost – has proven over time to be little more than a parody of itself. 

A story is like a rope – its useful, it's strong, it has a purpose.  And sometimes, to make that rope stronger or even more effective… you can put a knot in it.  You can twist that rope up to make it easier to grasp.  But if you continue to knot that rope… eventually it stops being a rope… and it simply becomes one big knot.  Useless.  Useless, and really rather tragic… when you consider what it could have been.  What you could have used it to do.  Lost is exactly what it calls itself… it's lost.  And I blame J.J. Abrams for that.  So when I heard that he'd be helming the remake… I braced myself for impact.

I also took into cons
ideration the fact that we live in an age of creative cowardice.  How many remakes have you seen?  Too many.  I guarantee it.  Think of all the remakes thre have been in the last ten years… you know why?  Because the internet and cable and DVDs have made moviegoing a dying form of entertainment.  People don't go to the movies like they used to.  They stay home and order the DVD on netflix.  Better than spending ten bucks to sit next to some schmuck who texts his girlfriend while he crunches, open-mouthed, on a terrine of taco chips, slathered in a neon vomit of "cheese." 

People don't go to the movies anymore… and so movie studios, being business-minded cowards, push titles that they know will draw a crowd.  So they go with what's familiar.  And what's more familiar than that which we already know?  I saw a preview for the G.I. Joe movie tonight.  You know what I saw when I watched it?  I saw manipulation.  My generation grew up playing with G.I. Joes.  And now we're an older demographic with money.  So what does Hollywood do?  They target us where they know we're weak – they target our childhood.  And so we have a movie based on a fond memory.

Transformers, Star Wars, Indiana Jones… all of these things have come back to the screen.  And every time they have… they've been spoiled.  Dumbed-down for the lowest common denominator.  Bubbly and sweet like some mouth-rotting soft drink.  Easy to swallow.  Unchallanging.  And empty of whatever magic made us fall in love with them in the first place.  Most people don't mind this, it seems.  Most people watched Star Wars Episode 3 and left with a smile on their face.  I left shaking my head.  Because it was the worst – yes, the worst – Star Wars film ever to be puked onto the screen.  I'd be happy to go into that… but it's late, and I'm already talking about one space saga.  And I still have so much more to go with this fucking post.

So first I've got the aging of Star Trek.  And then I've got J.J. Abrams.  And then I've got the fact that so many stories are rehashed… and every time they are… they lose something of what made them wonderful in the first place.  Add to that the fact that movies today are always too loud, too long and too empty… tits and explosions… never any poetry.  All delight.  No teaching.  And you can see where I might get my huge fears regarding the Star Trek film.

Now.  Background's done.

The Film:

I didn't hate it.  I didn't love it – but I didn't hate it.  I'm getting tired, so I'm probably going to run through this as quickly as possible.  Sorry for those of you still reading.  Such masochists you all are to read this ramble.

Did this film respect its source?  Absolutely.  Endless tips of the hat to each character's father (or mother).  Even the plot – the parallel universe idea – served as a near meta-narrative… explaining not only the story within the story… but the story in our own life.  A black hole (overlook the science fuck up) changed time.  So yes, this is Star Trek… and yes these are the characters we know… but they're a different version of those characters.  I thought that was surprisingly clever writing… speaking not only to the story itself, but the reality of that story as well.  Very very good.

The characters – The guys who played Kirk and Spock… I thought were excellent.  Polar opposites of one another, too.  The handsome guy who played Kirk – he totally reimagined the character.  Still a swaggering love machine… still a brawler and an inspiring, if somewhat foolhardy leader… but not Shatner.  Chris Pine, I think is his name.  He knew he couldn't do Shatner.  Nobody can do Shatner but Shatner.  So he didn't even try.  He stayed true to the character, and gave the original actor his own due by not attempting to copy him.  Though, that last scene… when he walks onto the bridge and chirps, "Bones!" in a decidedly Shatnerian way… I thought that was classy.  Another tip of the hat.  Very good.  I really liked Kirk.

Spock?  Total opposite.  The guy who played Spock, while he did his own version of the character, molded his performance off of Nimoy's.  And he did it seamlessly.  He did it justice.  I was very impressed with how he played that character… and am happy to let him try it again.

Bones?  Bones was awful.  You can't be Deforest Kelly if you're not Deforest Kelly.  They casted a talentless actor – Karl fucking Urban – to play one of the biggest supporting roles in the series… and the film faultered there.

Uhura?  They casted that hot girl from Center Stage – the ballet movie that I've watched ten million times.  Guilty pleasure film.  So totally absurd.  I've had a crush on her forever… I think she's stunning.  She's also a really solid actor, and I thought that whatever moment she got to be on screen and actually act… she did so wonderfully.  Her scene in the turbolift with Spock, after the destruction of Vulcan (more on that later) was surprisingly heartfelt and powerful.  Very well done.

Scotty, Sulu and Chekov?  Snore.  Better luck next time.

So the recreation of the cast was, overall, pretty solid.  I'll go see them do it again.

There were some interesting, bordering on arrogant plot choices.  The destruction of Vulcan being one of them.  "I suddenly find myself a member of an endangered species," says Spock.  Wonderful line.  As a plot-point, this was weak.  It speaks to the preposterously overwrought evil scheme – drilling holes in planets and dropping into it a rivulet of "Red Matter," all to create a black hole at its core.  Why all the fuss with the drilling?  If you want to destroy the planet… why not just put the black hole next to it?  Something like this is just a case of a writer writing around special effects.

"Won't it be bitchin' to watch a planet implode!?"

"Yeah!"

"How do we do it?"

"Uh… RED MATTER!"

Bad writing.  Silly, pretty, nonsense.

But consider what destroying Vulcan means.  It means that this aint-yo-daddy's Star Trek.  It's a rather strident statement on behalf of the series creators… or recreators, I guess.  "We're going to really play jazz with this universe," they're saying to us.  "We're going to scatter a mainstay to the wind."  I'm curious to see where they go with that.  As bad as the impetus to this idea is… where it can take us is exciting.  Gives me a bit of hope.  I just hope they're smart enough to elaborate on the concept.

The rest of the movie, though?  And this is the funny thing… the rest of the movie was a mess.  Completely unintelligable plot.  Horribly one-dimensional villain.  Preposterously over-designed badguy spaceship… it looked like dreadlocks in space.  But in spite of all of that… I was okay with it.  Because a movie like this… its responsibility really isnt to its plot.  Its responsability is to legitimizing itself.  To laying a foundation.  And I think it did that.

As far as a movie goes – this film was a complete wreck.  It was a noisy, if pretty, fireball.  Oddly reminiscent of Star Wars in its plot structure – lost farm boy, finds a grizzled mentor, loses him, finds another, more-grizzled mentor, loses hi
m… confronts a dad issue in space.  Lazy. Damn. Writing.  Joseph Campbell would have been annoyed.

But like I said… the plot isn't important in a film like this.  The tone is.  And the tone, I'm happy to say, was solid.

So does this mean that I'm not worried?  Hell no.  Because the test becomes not this film… but the next one.  In order for me to be comfortable with J.J. Abrams' control of this story… the next film has to have a solid script.  A good story.  And concern itself with Star Trek ideas.  Not necessarily social criticism – but Wagnerian-level drama.

Consider "The Wrath of Khan."  It's Moby Dick in space.  It's long-lost sons.  It's the sacrifice of one for the good of many.  It's a story about life and death and loss and regret and rage and hate and passion.  It's a really dramatic story, when you get down to it.  And that's why it's everyone's favorite Star Trek film.  Because it's ABOUT something. 

Abrams has to make this next film be about something… something human.  Something which reflects on all of us.  Which delights, yes… but teaches.  The next film has to be poetry… it has to be fire and love and passion.  And it has to make sense.  It has to conform to the science of writing – no quick and easy deus ex machinas (of which there were an obscene amount in this movie).  The next film has to be logical.  And it has to be emotional.

The next film has to be James Tiberius Kirk.

There.  I'm done.

I can't resist.

Live long and prosper.

a.

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