Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Heath Holland On...Fear, Hope and Star Trek Beyond

by Heath Holland
With a new Star Trek movie just around the corner, I’m a nervous wreck.

Star Trek and I go way back. Not as far back as I do with Star Wars, my first love (and the first love of several people involved in the future of Star Trek), but pretty far back. As a kid, I would come home from school, watch Ducktales and TaleSpin (and later Darkwing Duck) until five in the afternoon on my local independent television station WPMI. At five o’clock, back to back episodes of Gilligan’s Island would come on, and I’d usually watch those because there was nothing better on. At six, though, if my dad still hadn’t gotten in from work and dinner wasn’t waiting, I was able to watch the original episodes of Star Trek in syndication.
Back in those days, Star Trek was something of a mystery. It had bright colors and cool makeup effects and a guy with pointy ears and a funny haircut. The sets looked kind of cheap and I could tell that the backgrounds were often simply a painted screen, but I was all the more intrigued by this. I hadn’t seen anything else like it before, and my imagination was captured by cool aliens and the vast emptiness of space, more a dangerous sea of solitude and danger than the space depicted in Star Wars, which makes space seem kind of like the Autobahn. I wasn’t picking up on the plots and stories in those days—that came later--just the surface elements. When I was older I was able to appreciate all the wonderful themes and issues that the show was able to address, and I admired the show more than ever when I realized that all of those cool aliens and weird sets that had drawn me in as a kid were just window dressing for some of the most intelligent stories I had ever seen. I dove into Star Trek: The Next Generation and found that it too was full of many of the same themes and addressed similar complicated issues as that first crew aboard the NCC-1701.

I feel the same about the movies, though the movies are admittedly a different beast. The original ten films, beginning with 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture and culminating with 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis are varied in quality and some of them simply have less to offer me than others. Still, there is at least something in each film that I find to have value and to keep me coming back appreciatively. Even the “bad” ones have a sense of reaching and convey the search for enlightenment that I value. They still represent a singular vision of our future, in which humanity seeks to transcend racial and religious discrimination, war, famine, and crime. To me, the shows and films depict a human race always moving forward, sometimes hitting snags along the way and losing track of the ultimate goal, but ultimately advancing and becoming more open minded, more tolerant, and more free from the bonds that have restrained it.
When J.J. Abrams was hired to direct and co-produce 2009’s not-a-reboot film Star Trek, I was a bit dubious. I liked Abrams and had been a mega-fan of his television show Alias (Lost, not so much). I was a bit iffy on the involvement of Damon Lindelof as Abrams’ co-producer because of his reputation of starting projects and not finishing them. I’d been burned by Lindelof’s Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk comic book series which saw a THREE YEAR DELAY between issue two and issue three, so Lindelof was not my favorite person in 2009. I still thought Abrams was up for the task because I had seen and loved Mission Impossible III, but with a new cast, a new, grittier take on the future, and a focus on action instead of exploration and existentialism, I just wasn’t expecting the same things I had from earlier movies. Time had passed and this was a new beast. Nevertheless, with the inclusion of Leonard Nimoy and some fancy dimension hopping, I actually ended up being relatively satisfied with the finished product, which relaunched a series that I loved into the pop culture conscience again and had people who would never have given Star Trek the time of day discussing the exploits of the U.S.S. Enterprise. It had the unenviable task of having to please old Trekkies (some say the term Trekkies is derogatory, but I embrace the label) which is a notoriously difficult-to-please group, and bring in new fans at the same time. By introducing a new bad guy and adding his love of Star Wars to Star Trek, Abrams made something that was acceptable by the mainstream and gave Trek fans a legitimately exciting film with space battles like they’d never seen. While far from perfect, it succeeded and set the stage for what was sure to be a great next chapter.

2013’s Star Trek: Into Darkness is where things really fell apart for me. I’ve ranted before so I won’t repeat myself here. However, I’ll say that I do not like the darker tone, I do not like the reliance on previously established villains, I do not like the fact that J.J. Abrams repeatedly outright lied about the villain of the film which led us to believe the series was going into bold, uncharted territory, and I definitely do not like how much Into Darkness leans on and borrows from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The franchise as a whole needs to establish itself as its own thing, not remind us of things that we love about other movies in the series.
Yet lots and lots of people like Star Trek: Into Darkness. Some people even love it. And on the eve of the release of the third chapter in the series, Star Trek Beyond, I find myself with an awful lot of questions. As someone who has been interested in this franchise since I was a little boy when I watched a man with pointy ears after Gilligan’s Island reruns, am I no longer the audience for Star Trek? Has it chosen to move beyond me and those older fans (is that why it’s called Beyond?) and capture the summer movie crowd? This time it’s being co-written by star Simon Pegg, himself more of a Star Wars fan than a Star Trek enthusiast by his own (frequent) vocal admission. And it’s being directed by Justin Lin, known for the fast automobile action of the Fast and Furious series, not exploratory science fiction. If you had told me a few years ago that the future of cinematic Star Trek would be in the hands of a guy who loves Star Wars and the guy who directed those cool Vin Diesel movies, I wouldn’t have believed you. We now have three Star Trek movies in this new continuity and yet none of them have been created by people with a deep, long-lasting affection for Star Trek. Welcome to the 21st century. To paraphrase Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer, a hero of mine, who are we to protest when all that popcorn is at stake?

And yet, I remain hopeful. Despite a trailer that features the new pop song from Rihanna and more explosions than every Arnold Schwarzenegger movie combined, it looks possible that this new Star Trek film is going to be something that could very well please a fan like myself. We have a new antagonist, a threat that is not easily solved with brawn, and the promise of a great moral dilemma. Of all the new Star Trek films, this one looks very much like it could be the Trekkiest. Star Trek is about hope and trying to be the best version of ourselves possible, so I will be there in line to see this movie with no grudges (well, maybe a little one) and with my mind as open as possible. I want to give it a fair shot. I want to be able to say “I really love the new Star Trek movie” and mean it. I haven’t been able to do that since 1996 with Star Trek: First Contact, which was itself pretty mainstream popcorn entertainment, after all.
In spite of my hope, I’m very much worried that it’s going to be exactly the movie that I’m afraid it is: something that pleases the masses, but is miles away from the wagon train to the stars that Gene Rodenberry conceived some fifty years ago. At the end of the day, I just hope that there’s something on screen that the little boy who watched with such curiosity some 25 years ago would recognize as Star Trek. It’s about battles and aliens and adventure, yes. But it’s also about seeking out new life, new civilizations, and boldly going where no one has gone before. I hope that the people in charge of the future of this franchise remember that the name Star Trek comes with an incredible, lengthy history filled with many breakthroughs. That history consists of five decades of stories about our struggle with ourselves and our attempt to transcend our own boundaries. No one should be a slave to the past; yet the past should be valued and remembered lest mistakes be repeated or we stray too far from the core of what we are. Hopefully this new movie—and anything afterward—tries to live up to the name of Star Trek. If this new movie does that, no Trek fan can ask for more. As long as there are continuing voyages of the starship Enterprise, I’ll be there.


  1. I too am optimistic and need some visual popcorn but with a bit of hope as opposed to mass devastation and heroes duking it out with each other.

  2. As worried as I am that this one won't be very good, my excitement is big enough to override it. I'm pumped!

  3. As a lifelong Trek fan, Into Darkness (which I didn't even bother seeing in theaters, opting for Justin Lin's Furious 6 instead) pretty well killed off my lingering warm thoughts of Star Trek (2009). If Beyond is the last movie we get from the Kelvin Timeline - and maybe it both will and should be - I do hope it'll be one great one-off adventure both casual moviegoers and dedicated fans can wholeheartedly enjoy.

    I've got to wonder, however, if the success of Star Trek (2009) was a pop culture fluke, in that it served as a single, finite moment of collective nostalgia at a time when there simply weren't big-screen space franchises. (It was released four years after the last Star Wars movie, but now we're getting one of those per year, not to mention Guardians of the Galaxy.) Sure, huge numbers of general audiences were willing to go on a rollercoaster ride with Kirk and Spock once, but unlike the demonstrably durable MCU or Fast and Furious franchises, that didn't necessarily mean they were all in. (I suspect the lackluster B.O. take for this year's Ninja Turtles sequel is a similar case.) And personally, despite my lifelong fandom, I'm even willing to question if the franchise should continue on indefinitely, though Nicholas Meyer's involvement with the new TV series certainly piques my interest.

    In any case, Darren Franich has been writing long, in-depth, and loving retrospectives of all the Trek films over at the Entertainment Weekly site, and all us fans should give them a read and Like. :)