So, I finally caught the new Star Trek. The word that comes to mind to describe it—the thing that really makes it work—is verve. And verve covers a multitude of sins. In fact, on some levels, this the most satisfying interpretation of the well-traveled Trekkie mythology. JJ Abrams has managed to bring a freshness and a vitality to the proceedings that no other of the Enterprise’s many creative captains has been able to match.
At the outset, I should make it clear that I’m no fanboy. I’m a moderately geeky sci-fi consumer generally, with a slightly higher than average interest in and knowledge about Star Trek. As a kid, the original series was part of the regular weekday afternoon menu (bereft of much nutritive value) that included The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family and Gilligan’s Island. I’m definitely not one of those people who got all exorcised about the “reimagining” of Battlestar Galactica. Starbuck’s a woman? Fine. Boomer’s a Cylon? Whatevs. As long as it makes for good storytelling, I’m on board; there are no sacred cows in my entertainment universe. I just want to be engaged and entertained with intelligence and wit. In that regard, Firefly was pretty nearly perfect, and, thus, doomed to fail.
To me, the Star Trek franchise peaked with The Next Generation and got less relevant/more cheesy with each subsequent iteration. One unintended consequence of this latest installment is that it renders all Star Treks almost unwatchably dorky, no matter how much Shakespearean thea-tuh credibility Patrick Stewart brought to the bridge. I think, though, that’s as much a function of timing and evolution—for its time, TNG was not only a great improvement on the original but a really strong sci-fi series in its own right. One thing that really drew me to the latter-day Battlestar Galactica was how deliberately un-sci-fi it was. But it also had the benefit of being higher up the evolutionary ladder in terms of creative and audience sophistication. So to give credit where it’s due, one big reason Abrams’ Star Trek works so well is that some of that BSG attitude—including a premium on plausibility that underlies other recent “reboots” from Bond to Batman—has rubbed off on it. Given how Abrams really made his bones reinventing the 1-hour TV action/drama, I’d love to see what he could have done with Enterprise. Talk about promise squandered right out of the gate.
I read somewhere how Abrams fretted over not alienating die-hard fans while not scaring away the (non-costumed members of the) mainstream audience. Happily, there’s no genuflecting to orthodoxy here. Abrams very shrewdly jettisoned most everything unnecessary, though he retained some fun atmospheric touches—the little ping-pew-ee-oo sonar on the bridge, a hover-cycle that sounds for all the world like George Jetson’s car, and a sick-bay nurse rocking a mini-skirt smock—as a comforting nod to nostalgia. Abrams succeeds by according the Star Trek myth just enough deference to function as setup for some pretty hilarious in-jokes. The film’s buoyant charm and winking humor even won over my wife—quite possibly the galaxy’s biggest sci-fi anti-fan—whom I’d dragged along almost caveman-style, but who emerged from the theatre gushing about it. I thought I’d gone through a worm-hole, let me tell you.
A few things don’t work—Scotty’s inadvertent beaming into the giant tube of otherwise harmless water was by turns reminiscent of Willy Wonka and Galaxy Quest. Never a good sign when your references point to a parody instead of the original thing. And the Delta-Vega monster chase/dénouement was rather baldly “Obi-wan scares the Sand People out of the Hoth Snow Cave.” Also, the time-travel crutch has become tiresome, but who can expect a guy like Abrams to leave that alone? In other words, none of these is a deal-breaker, given how irresistible and enjoyable the whole experience is. It’s as if Abrahams said to the writers and actors, “I need more fun!” And they all answered back, “Captain, we’re givin’ ‘er all she’s got!” Mr. Sulu, ahead, verve factor nine. Engage.