‘Star Trek’: New…and Improved?
The franchise has been out of gas for years. Now director J.J. Abrams is leading it into a whole new galaxy, one that’s sexy and young. Will the next generation follow?
By Benjamin Svetkey
Everyone is right where they should be. Chekov and Sulu are manning the navigation controls, Uhura’s monitoring communications, and pointy-eared Mr. Spock is hovering over his science station. But standing on the set in front of the ship’s blank viewscreen (planets and stars will be digitally added later) is an all-powerful being capable of destroying the U.S.S. Enterprise and the entire United Federation of Planets. Or, for that matter, saving it. No, it’s not Khan. It’s a guy in chunky eyewear peering into a video monitor.
”Oh, I feel the pressure,” says director J.J. Abrams, 42, creator of Alias and Lost, and now the force behind Star Trek, Paramount’s ambitious relaunch of the once great, though often terrible, 43-year-old franchise. ”In the eyes of a lot of fans, this is sacred material. Every shot, I’m wondering if this is where I’m going to f— it all up.”
The film’s got a cast of young, eye-catching unknowns — Chris Pine stars as rowdy Starfleet cadet James T. Kirk, while Zachary Quinto plays a green-behind-the-ears Spock, and Zoë Saldana is feisty Uhura. At the moment, it’s January 2008, and they have all gathered to shoot the scene in which the Enterprise is launched on its maiden voyage. If, that is, Sulu (John Cho) can remember to disengage the ”parking brake” and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) can make the speech-recognition software understand his Russian accent. Later, when they finally get the ship moving, they’ll clash with a Romulan (Eric Bana) and encounter a familiar bowl cut from the future (Leonard Nimoy as an older, time-traveling Spock). For now, all you need to know about the plot is that it doesn’t just propel you hundreds of years into the 23rd century — it also transports you four decades into the past, telling the story of how the crew that zoomed around the galaxy on TV from 1966 to 1969 met on the Enterprise in the first place.
For a while now, the Star Trek franchise has been stuck in neutral. After years of drifting in space, leaking gassy TV flops (Enterprise) and noxious features (Nemesis), the Star Trek brand had ossified into a pop culture punchline. Abrams’ two-hour mission in theaters on May 8 is to fire up those rusty old warp engines and make Star Trek watchable again. Somehow, he must find a way to turn this cornball idyll of space-age idealism, built on Kennedy-era optimism and Great Society hopes, into a tentpole event relevant to cynical 21st-century audiences. Or at least make it a lot less dorky. It’s a repair job even Scotty (now played by English comedian Simon Pegg) might have trouble pulling off. ”The space adventure has been done to death,” Abrams notes. ”How do you navigate those waters without turning into parody? Without becoming Galaxy Quest? All that stuff looms large.”
Still, when Star Trek whooshes across movie screens, it will have a strangely familiar feeling. And that’s something Abrams’ movie has in its favor: The zeitgeist seems to be primed, as it was in the 1960s, for a show about hope. When the original series first aired, America was at war in a faraway land, we had lost a charismatic young president, and protesters marched in the streets. Today, as this new Star Trek arrives in theaters, America is again at war in two faraway lands, the nation has just elected a charismatic young president, and protesters are in the streets (well, Lou Dobbs is pretty angry, anyway). ”Star Trek began during a time of great upheaval,” says Nimoy, the only original cast member to return in Abrams’ movie. ”There were antiwar demonstrations. There was political turmoil. There was social unrest. The world was a mess. A lot like it is now.”
When Star Trek debuted on NBC in 1966, it was a flop. It was only when the show began syndicated reruns that it grew into a cult hit. And then a pop culture colossus.
Yes, it showcased alien babes in tinfoil bikinis, monsters with visible zipper lines, and brain-like creatures living in supermarket dairy cases, but it was still the first TV drama to take space travel seriously. Star Trek pushed all the hot-button issues of its day by dressing them up in thinly veiled sci-fi metaphors: Cold War tensions (meet the Klingons), civil rights issues (TV’s first interracial kiss), and even the sexual revolution (Kirk chased after everything in a velour miniskirt). And who could forget that mind-blowing episode (we can’t, but then we need to get a life) about an omnipotent computer controlling a planet’s social activity…four decades before Facebook!
By the end of the 1980s, Star Trek was raking in millions. There were movies, such as The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home, a popular new TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and a thriving ancillary market of toys and home video. But then Trek made the classic business blunder of the 1990s — it overexpanded. More spin-off TV shows, such as Deep Space Nine and Voyager, were cranked into production, while the cast of Next Generation began elbowing their elders off of movie screens. Eventually, only hardcore Trekkies (the ones offended by the word Trekkies) stayed interested; the last film, 2002’s Nemesis, grossed a piddling $43 million. ”It got too big for its own good,” says Ronald Moore, who used to write for Next Generation and Deep Space Nine before going on to reinvent Battlestar Galactica. ”We’d be sitting in the writers’ room pitching ideas, and you’d have to stop and check to make sure a plot point didn’t contradict something that happened in episode No. 25 of a different Trek show. It really started to constrict the creative process. At a certain point, Star Trek just choked on its own continuity.”
Recently, Hollywood has succeeded in zapping some comatose franchises back to life with fresh origin tales. Audiences were introduced to James Bond in Casino Royale as if they’d never met the man before, while the Caped Crusader became a new sort of brooding superhero in Batman Begins. But going dark and edgy, the way Bond and Batman did — that’s not really an option for Star Trek. The original series was, after all, among the most optimistic shows in the history of television. Nobody wants to spend $9 on a moody Kirk. ”You’ve got apocalyptic movies like Watchmen and Dark Knight — movies that explore the darker side of human psychology — and they’re great,” says Pine. ”But this is not going to be one of those movies. This is not nihilistic. This is not grim. This is a bright vision of the future, full of hope and optimism.”
Abrams, a self-described nonfan of Star Trek — ”I always thought it was a little talky” — was putting the final touches on Mission: Impossible III, his first big-budget production, in 2006, when Paramount knocked on his door dangling the keys to the Enterprise. Recent regime change on the backlot had shaken the property loose, and the studio was open to new ideas. Abrams only had an old one. ”My first reaction was that it should be a story about Kirk and Spock — because I didn’t know anything else about Star Trek,” he says. He signed on as producer and turned the project over to screenwriting partners Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who’d worked with Abrams since Alias. ”We tricked him into directing it,” says Orci, who, as a fan of the original series, helped shape a script that revisits many of the high points of old Trek mythology. Expect, for instance, appearances by Capt. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), the Enterprise’s first commander, as well as Spock’s ambassador dad and human mother (Ben Cross and Winona Ryder). ”We only let J.J. read 20 pages at a time,” says Orci. ”It was like having Jaws on our line. We just kept reeling him in with pages.” About 120 of them later, Abrams was hooked. ”I decided I would be jealous if anyone else directed it,” he says.
Abrams may have started the production not knowing tranya from Tribbles, but he ended up a supernerd. His movie is festooned with enough Easter-egg references to classic Trek trivia to keep fansites humming for months (look carefully and you might even spot one of the aforementioned fur balls in a scene with Scotty). The set designs have all been updated in the sleek glass and white-plastic Apple Store aesthetic — the transporter room looks just like a Genius Bar — but even the sound effects and lighting techniques hark back to an earlier, simpler era. ”When Captain Pike sits in the chair on the Enterprise for the first time, there’s a splash of light right across his eyes,” Abrams says. ”They used to do that all the time on the old Trek — a splash of light across Kirk’s face to heighten the drama. I did that on purpose. I wanted to show people that we weren’t trying to undo Star Trek. We were embracing it.”
”The movie doesn’t shatter everything you know about the show,” says Quinto. ”It just comes at Star Trek from a different perspective. It straddles a line between giving people what they’ve known about these characters for 40 years and what they’ve wished they knew about them.”
Some viewers may find metaphors in Star Trek — there is a cataclysmic, timeline-altering disaster that Kurtzman refers to as ”the September 11th of the movie” — but for the most part the film goes easy on the allegories. Instead, the screen is filled with eye-popping phaser battles, harrowing free-fall stunts, even a sword fight between Mr. Sulu and a Romulan thug (”That’s all we know about Sulu from the TV series — he fences,” says Cho). Pine, for one, is happy to hold off on metaphors, at least for now. ”Exploring grand social issues can wait till the next movie,” says the actor, who, like the rest of the cast, is signed on for two more. ”The goal this time was to make a Star Trek that wasn’t alienating to nonfans. We mainly wanted it to be accessible.” Quinto agrees. ”Just the idea that people are coming together for the advancement of the human race is metaphor enough for me,” he says.
When Abrams was announced as Trek’s director, there was some fear of fan backlash. Abrams had endured the wrath of Harry Knowles once before, when, years ago, aintitcool.com leaked his controversial script for a Superman remake (in Abrams’ version, planet Krypton never got blown up, among other heresies). But no Last Temptation of Spock controversy appears likely. The fans who’ve already seen Star Trek — such as the audience in Austin last month who thought they were attending a special promotional screening of The Wrath of Khan, until Nimoy popped into the theater and showed them the entire new movie instead — certainly seemed pleased. ”This is the Star Trek that I’ve been waiting for,” Knowles gushed on his website after attending the Austin screening (confessing in the same blog that the sight of Mr. Spock ”in person” had him blubbering like a baby). ”God bless J.J. Abrams!!!”
That loud swishing sound you hear isn’t the turbolift — it’s Abrams exhaling with relief. ”People are saying, ‘Oh, Star Trek is an optimistic film for the Obama era,”’ he says, taking the compliment, even if he doesn’t totally agree with it. ”It’s a nice idea, but we started making the movie three years ago. Around the same time Obama was considering running for president. So I’m not so sure that theory holds up.”
Maybe not. But there is evidence to suggest that every era gets the Star Trek it needs, if not necessarily the one it deserves. In the ’60s, the series helped viewers see the world with fresh, unprejudiced eyes, which made the turmoil of the times easier to digest, and gave reason to hope for the future. In these equally troubled days, perhaps we need Trek to perform a simpler mission. ”We all live in this age of cynicism,” says Abrams. ”Whether it’s terrorism or a sense of conspiracy or the idea of being spun all the time — we’re all just exhausted by it. So when we started this movie, we wanted to make an antidote to all of that. The goal was just to entertain. That’s all.”
If Abrams pulls it off, Scotty should buy him a drink.
Additional reporting by Jeff Jensen