Star Trek is one of those TV programmes that I’m always happy to watch, while fully understanding that it’s rubbish. Well, not complete rubbish: the central trio of characters has a kind of mythic resonance, with Spock the man of reason, McCoy the man of feeling, and Kirk the man of action who has to take advice from each of them before going out and punching people. And while the show’s well-meaning liberalism may seem half hearted to modern eyes – Lt Uhuru as space-receptionist etc – it was well-meaning and liberal for all that. (In all the pop culture I experienced as a child, I think George Takei was the only Japanese man I ever saw who wasn’t running out of the jungle with a gun, screaming, “Banzai!”)
Anyway, off we all went to Paignton yesterday to see the latest big-screen version, Star Trek – Into Darkness.
For some reason, while Star Trek the telly programme was about visiting strange new worlds and having adventures there, Star Trek movies are almost always about a mad villain who is trying to destroy the earth/take over the Universe, and has to be hit until he stops. This one is no exception. It starts off in a cheerfully neo-colonialist, Indiana Jones-ish way with Kirk and co escaping from alien tribespeople in a startling red landscape, but that storyline ends before the main title. It isn’t long before the the mad villain appears, played rather engagingly by that Benedict Cucumberpatch out of Sherlock, and the colour almost literally drains out of the movie: in the future, it seems, everything will be grey. (Star Trek – Fifty Shades of Grey would have been a better title, if it hadn’t already been taken.)
The cast are all pretty good: I particularly like Karl Urban’s peppery Dr McCoy, and Simon Pegg is fun as Scottie. There are lots of shiny futuristic cityscapes, a lovely bleak planetoid where great wind-sculpted rock towers rear up out of a flat plain of shale, and the costumes and sets look cool and contemporary while affectionately referencing the old stuff (though the grey dress uniforms with the peaked caps look creepily fascist). Of course, no Star Trek ship, on TV or in the cinema, has ever equalled the original Enterprise, a real ’60s design classic, and this one doesn’t either – the prongs at the back aren’t sleek enough. But on the plus side, there’s a tribble.
And yet, and yet, it all felt a bit meh. In terms of plot and pacing it certainly isn’t a patch on Star Trek 2 – The Wrath of Khan, which it references heavily. “I thought we were supposed to be explorers?” says Scottie at one point, and so did I, but this is an oddly earthbound Star Trek. There’s a quick trip to Kronos, planet of the Klingons, who were one of the best things about the later TV spin-offs, but have been woefully redesigned as dull, helmeted soldiers in grey greatcoats and grey body armour, more like First World War stormtroopers than the camp space-vikings of old. The focus is all on the evil Cumberbatch, and some shenanigans within Starfleet Command, so instead of pushing onwards and outwards, the story has to loop back to San Francisco for some collapsing skyscrapers and an explodey, punchy climax.
Right at the end Kirk gets to quote the ‘To boldy go…’ speech, and under the closing credits the old Star Trek music plays and the screen fills with vistas of the far, strange worlds and alien suns which the movie could have taken us to, but I guess that might have been too much fun. Because, weirdly, I think this is a Star Trek movie that wants to be taken seriously…
I suppose it probably says something about the mood of the 1960s – optimistic, outward looking – and the mood of the 2010s – insular, pessimistic, obsessed with terrorism, and keen on grey stuff. Maybe it also reflects the rise of ‘geek culture’ – things like Star Trek and Batman which used to be enjoyable fluff are now presented as if they’re profound and important works of art (there’s a good, long piece about that trend, by someone cleverer than me, here). That’s not quite fair, because there is fun stuff in this film, but it’s almost all in the interactions between the characters and in a couple of action scenes – there’s precious little allowed in the plot or the world-building.
All I can say for sure is that this is the sort of film in which the captain discovers that he has 72 sociopathic super-humans asleep in cryogenic suspension tubes aboard his ship – and they never wake up.
Chekhov (the playwright, not the starship helmsman) would have had something to say about that.