Peter M Howard ::

wintermute.com.au

Still Star Trek

10May2009 [movies]
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In which even after a reboot, Star Trek is still Star Trek, and the future is full of white people

Still Star Trek

JJ Abrams has been pushing the idea that his Star Trek is unlike those that came before. The studio loves the idea, because they need the film to appeal to a wider audience, and the media have obediently repeated the message, painting traditional Star Trek nerds in opposition to the new, more appealling Star Trek.

And the film does a good job of rebooting the franchise. Some sort of accident in the future flings a mad Romulan back to the day of Captain Kirk’s birth. Kirk’s father is killed prematurely, leaving Kirk to grow up a delinquent. But — and though this isn’t actually said in the film — the universe really wants to see Kirk become captain of the Enterprise. The film is basically just a series of coincidences — each more unlikely than the last — that setup a return to the status quo, with a few tweaks to allow the filmmakers to set about making lots of money by retelling the Star Trek mythology all over again.

So with the movie just being a giant setup, it’s certainly more approachable than it could have been — one doesn’t need any prior knowledge of Star Trek beyond basic pop culture references, though I get the impression there were lots of references and in-jokes for the fans.

But just as the plot drives inexorably back to the Star Trek myth, the film can’t escape the trappings of Trek. It is, despite what the marketing would have us believe, still Star Trek. For those of us who never really got Star Trek, or its fans, it’s a pretty light-show, and it’s entertaining enough as an action film, but it won’t be enduring.

I had never before actually sat through an episode, nor a film, in the Star Trek body of works. So any of my knowledge of the mythos is assumed and absorbed from popular culture. But I’ve always associated Trek with the wrong sort of science fiction, the sort in which science becomes indistinguishable from magic, and science fiction becomes fantasy, in which characters and storytelling take a back seat to technological gimmicks and one-dimensional plot devices. And unfortunately, this Star Trek suffers from all the same issues. It really does feel like events are occurring because they have to — that’s the setup. None of the characters have any real motivation, except maybe old Spock (which is ironic, given he represents the “old” Star Trek). And there are just way too many coincidences, without even an attempt to explain them away with cheap metaphysics (eg, that the universe is trying to put the crew of the Enterprise back together, to heal the rift in time). The dialog is, for the most part, too simple. It’s either horribly expository — at one point, the characters spend a few minutes explaining to the audience that this Star Trek takes place in an alternate reality to the Star Trek we know — or lame comic relief.

And then there’s Chekhov.

The Future Is Full of White People

It’s curious, and I can only assume it’s because many of the people writing for American film and television today grew up during the Cold War, but for some reason, a lot of American media seems to think it’s still okay to make fun of Russians. Chekhov is absurd — his accent a parody, his inability to pronounce the letter ‘v’ so over-the-top that it’s used only for comic relief in some incredibly cringe-inducing scenes.

But he’s also only the most obvious racist caricature. When considering him as a token minority, I realised the film was full of them — Sulu is the token Asian, Uhura the token Black person. Aside from them, everything is run by white people — the Enterprise, the Starfleet Academy, and presumably the Federation. But even stranger, it’s not only a matter of having whites in positions of power. Even among the extras, there are extraordinarily few non-whites. When Kirk first meets Uhura, his line of questioning about her name implies that he assumes she is from another world. One can only assume he’s not seen a black Earthling before, and that the future is, in fact, full of white people.

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