Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lights, Camera, Action!

Trek Needs Exploration

In the recent Star Trek movie by director J.J. Abrams, when Captain Pike listens to James Kirk about an upcoming disaster, a contrast naturally is drawn to the conflict Captain Pike faced in the pilot of the original Trek. A glaring difference strikes the viewer between the original series and the new movie, daring us to ask why the writers missed opportunities in dealing with the conflicts. The conflict in the 2009 movie focuses on the action of destroying Nero’s threat, while the conflict of the past centered on how Pike defined the quality of life. We all know that fiction needs conflict, but that word can define more than action paced movement. Conflict means a confrontation between a character and an obstacle. That obstacle can be how he copes with his world or himself.

The core of the world of Star Trek always sought to look at science fiction as a way to use philosophy to understand others and the forces within the world. Pike’s disabled body in the Menagerie episodes of the original series allowed creator Gene Roddenberry to focus on how Pike could accept a world of his imagination rather than reality. The conflict showed Pike’s struggle with living in a type of wheelchair with a lover who was equally disabled. His conflict led him to view imagination as a vehicle to surpass his limitations.
Roddenberry always asked questions about, what is sentience, how does a person know he is alive, how should a person interfere with others, and how does the definition of slavery take on new meanings as technology increases.

Any version of the world of Trek can play with various conflicts, expand alternative universes, it can even change facts that are part of the characters’ background. All of that can be achieved as long as an internal consistency exists. But to carry the name of Trek, the story should retain the core focus of Roddenberry — the philosophical exploration of life.

The 2009 movie could have explored those issues by looking at how Kirk transformed himself from a rebellious youth into a leader, or at how Spock toiled with having emotion and at how displaced Vulcans coped with the loss of their home world. Instead, the movie focused on the active conflict of a space opera through a series of quick moving events to find and destroy Nero.

How does a rebellious youth become a leader? The movie introduces us to the young character of Kirk who defies authority and only joins Star Fleet because of a prodding from Pike. Yet he quickly becomes a concerned leader who cares about others. He grows to analyze key details and decides how to save others, a characteristic of selflessness. How did he transform himself? What inner anguish did he experience? How did he accomplish those changes? All we needed was a scene or two to show reasons for that transformation. Yet that scene did not emerge in the most recent Trek movie.

How does Spock use his emotion with his logic during a crisis? We saw Spock being alienated as a child on Vulcan, reluctantly giving a kiss to Uhura and swaying one way then another in making a decision on how to counter Nero. But the ultimate emotional breakdown, that forces him to relinquish command, happens because he is compromised as a Vulcan when his homeland is destroyed. The exploration of how to deal with the emotion is missing. The questions the Doctor from Voyager or Data from The Next Generation asked about how to use emotions does not take place with Spock. There was a chance to explore meanings in life. But the movie missed the opportunity.

How does a Vulcan society face the devastation of their world? Does a group that prides itself on logic set the tone of systematically reconstructing their culture? Do they resort to a type of super patriotism that questions all those not of their group as potential enemies? Do they build a rage that could change their commitment to logic? None of these issues were explored.

The 2009 movie excels in a fast paced series of action that shows conflict between Kirk and Spock, Kirk and Nero and Kirk and Bones. The audience is treated to a whirlwind of activity from evading a giant ship, a singularity, giant insects and a black hole. But the conflicts that occur within people are as valid a story as the movement through space. Those elements could have been included without taking away from the tone of the new action, and with little added footage. Tackling the legacy of Star Trek requires more than just making a space opera. It means going where few movie philosophers dare to go.

"Star Trek" image courtesy of

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