I used to be a huge Star Trek fan.
I watched TOS reruns repeatedly and religiously in high school. Even watched the cartoons. Bought the James Blish episode adaptations, then the (better-written) Alan Dean Foster ones, then an endless series of mostly-forgettable tie-in novels (a few written by the likes of Joe Haldeman and Vonda McIntyre). I reread the Gerrold and Whitfield commentaries until the pages fell out of their bindings. I wrote Star Trek fanfic.The very first con I ever attended was a mid-seventies Trek con at the Royal York. I was pulling graveyard in the Eaton Center’s IT department that summer; I’d work from 10pm to 10am, stumble down to the con for the day, stumble back to work again at night. (My most vivid memory of that weekend was Harlan Ellison introducing his then-wife as the love of his life on Friday evening, then publicly excoriating her as a faithless slut on Sunday afternoon. Not quite sure what happened in between. I may have dozed.)
I still have the original Franz Joseph blueprints of the Constitution class starship hanging around somewhere, along with the Technical Manual and the Medical Reference Manual and the Star Trek Concordance and the Star Trek Spaceflight Chronology and— I kid you not— the official Star Trek Cooking Manual (authorship attributed to Christine Chapel). I always hated the third season but I blamed NBC for that, not the Great Bird of the Galaxy. I endured The Motionless Picture, breathed a sigh of relief at The Wrath of Khan, grimly held my nose and watched the first two seasons of Next Gen until they put Gene Roddenberry out to pasture so it could finally get good.
Of course, this was all seventies-eighties era. Eventually I got tired of lugging a steamer trunk’s worth of paperbacks back and forth across the country and unloaded most of it onto Goodwill. I only made it halfway through DS9, got less than a season into Voyager before giving up on it (honestly, I wanted to throw in the towel after the pilot), and made it about as far as the easy-listening opening-credits song for Enterprise before deciding I’d had enough. I was clean and sober for years afterward, and proud of it.
Point is, I’ve earned a certain amount of ST cred. I didn’t just know episodes, I knew writers (on of my happiest moments was when Norman Spinrad raved about my work in Asimov’s). So I’d argue that my opinion, while watching these Abrams reboots coming down the pike, is not entirely uninformed. I mostly loved the first one even though it went of the rails in the third act, even though it arbitrarily relocated a whole damn planet (Delta Vega) from the very edge of the galaxy (where it lived in TOS’s “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) to mutual orbit around Vulcan for chrissakes, a planet which has no moon (“The Man Trap”). I mostly hated Into Dumbness for far more reasons than I mentioned in passing back in 2013. Didn’t really weigh in on either of them here.
A couple of weeks behind the curve, though, we finally checked out Star Trek Beyond, our hopes stoked by its stellar rating on Rotten Tomatoes (No, I will never learn): 216 professional critics, 180 of whom applauded. And finally having seen it for myself, I gotta ask that Ratey-One Eighty: What the fuck were you on?
For starters, forget the bad science. Or at least, forgive it; Star Trek has never been the go-to franchise for rigorous verisimilitude, and that’s okay. Forget the depiction of “nebulae” as impenetrable fogs of cloud and rocks jammed so cheek-to-jowl that they’re forever colliding with each other. Just accept whatever weird biological mechanism grants you immortality by turning you into a horny toad (the lizard, not a sexually-aroused amphibian). Forget the fact that we shouldn’t even be using starships any more, since Into Darkness showed us Federation transporters reaching from Earth to the Klingon homeworld without straining, and communicators that did the same without any noticeable time lag.
Let’s put all that aside, and consider these questions instead:
- Stripey-warrior-girl Jaylah is hiding from Krall’s forces in the wreck of the Franklin, which she has cleverly cloaked to avoid detection. But the Franklin was originally Krall’s ship; he was the one who crashed it on Altamid, back when he was Edison. So why doesn’t he know it’s there now, even though it’s invisible? In fact, why doesn’t the fact that his crashed starship has suddenly vanished raise all manner of red flags, draw attention to Jaylah’s hideout rather than concealing it?
- Krall— and presumably his whole merry band of lizard-faced minions— are actually human, physically modified as a side-effect of alien life-extension tech. (At least, if his minions weren’t Franklin crew, someone please tell me where they came from; we’re told that Altimid’s original inhabitants abandoned the place centuries ago). So what’s this weird alien language they’re speaking throughout most of the movie, the one that we require subtitles to comprehend? I’m pretty sure it’s not French.
- The last twenty minutes of the movie or so— basically, the climax— revolve around Kirk chasing a “bioweapon”— imagine that the Smoke Monster from “Lost” had its own Mini-Me— around the vast variable-gravity reaches of Starbase Yorktown. The weapon is on the verge of detonation. Kirk has to fly around and pull on a bunch of levers in a specific sequence to open a convenient airlock and suck it into space. One of the levers gets stuck. The clock ticks down. And not once does anyone say Hey, we’ve got transporters— why don’t we just lock onto the motherfucker from here and beam its squirmy black ass into space?
I mean, seriously: transporter technology and warp drive are the two most iconic technologies of the whole 50-year-old franchise. Not using the transporter— not even mentioning it— is like putting an asteroid on a collision course with the Enterprise, then expecting us to believe that everyone on the bridge has just kinda forgotten they can simply move out of the way. Such scenarios do not inspire you to grip your armrests and wonder how our heroes will escape this time; they inspire you to cheer for the fucking asteroid.
Two of these three quibbles are mission-critical plot elements; the story falls apart without them, yet they make no sense. And there are other issues, smaller issues, that chipped away at my increasingly desperate attempts to squeeze a bit of enjoyment out of this rotten fruit. The lighting was incredibly dark, even in locations that should have been brightly lit; it was as if the theatre’s main projector bulb had burned out and someone was filling in with a flashlight. The sound was almost as muddy as the lighting; at one point, Caitlin swore she heard someone make reference to “the dudette with the clitoris”, and for the life of me I couldn’t tell her what else it might have been.
Much has been made of Beyond‘s “return to basics” in terms of characterization, which seems like a fancy way of saying that Spock and McCoy get to trade jabs again like they did in the old days. That’s true; but these jabs are soft and flaccid things, never as funny or poignant as some of the sparks that flared between Kelly and Nimoy back in the sixties. “I do not blame him, Doctor. He is probably terrified of your beads and rattles”; “They do indeed have one redeeming feature. They do not talk too much.”; “I know why you’re not afraid to die: you’re more afraid of living!”
Now take a moment to consider just what Star Trek Beyond has driven me to: it has driven me to praise (albeit in a relative way) the quality of the dialog in sixties-era Star Trek.
I could go on. I could complain about the absurdity of a soldier who felt abandoned by the Federation because “Starfleet is not a military organization”— despite the fact that Starfleet’s ships are armed to the teeth, and carry out military engagements with the Federation’s enemies, and are crewed by uniformed people assigned military ranks who follow a military chain-of-command. (Yup, no military organization here. Just the galaxy’s best cosplayers…) I could remark upon the surrealism of two Starfleet captains locked in mortal combat while berating each other about their respective Captain’s logs: I read your diary! Yeah, well, I read your diary!—
Evidently, in this timeline, Starfleet captains tweet their logs for all to see. You might be forgiven for wondering if this doesn’t constitute some kind of security issue, were it not for the fact that Starfleet is not a military organization.
I could also go on at lesser length about the good things the movie served up. The FX were great, when you could see ’em. Nice to see a Universal Translator that needs to be programmed now and then, and which actually voices-over audible alien dialog instead of magically reshaping the speaker’s sounds and mouth movements into English. I liked the almost-sorta invocation of nearest-neighbor algos to explain the schooling behavior of the alien swarm, even if they used a hokey made-up name and hand-waved the exploit. The acting was fine; the cast, for the most part, both honor and improve upon the legacy they’ve inherited. And—
Well, to be honest, that’s pretty much it. Not great Star Trek. Not a great movie.
And you know what really doesn’t make much sense? I’ll still probably go see the next one when it comes out.
Maybe I shouldn’t have tossed all those paperbacks after all.