I’ve been cautiously optimistic about the new Trek reboot movie until now, but the final product let me with a bit of a “meh” response. Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t dislike the film, nor do I think they have ruined Trek or or committed any blasphemies. In a lot of ways I agree with the generally positive reviews that the movie seems to capture the essence of the 60s original series (TOS) in some way, only amped up and refreshed for modern sensibilities (i.e. more sex, more violence, more explosions. I’m not complaining).
However I do still feel surprisingly un-invested in the outcome and direction that this new trek is taking us. I think this is because in a lot of ways, TOS was not “true” Trek for me – it was more of a backstory to the real Trek, namely the Next Generation (TNG). Not to say I didn’t like TOS either – it’s one of my favorite series of all time, up there with Galactica, Firefly, and yes, TNG. What made TOS great was not Kirk’s hypermasculinity or the short skirts. It was about the relationship between the three main characters, of whom Spock really stood out as the defining icon. The three of them formed a Holy Trinity of Science Fiction and every episode was ultimately as much about them as anything else. Others have written about how TOS was shaped by its Cold War conception and how it represented a positive vision for humanity unlike anything else ever written, but to me as a child, I didn’t really get all that. It was just simply a great show because it was cool.
But while I loved TOS, it was the first set of movies that really sealed the deal and ignited my fandom. For anyone watching the series and then the first three movies in particular, there’s a gigantic disconnect. The reason is because the movies were where Trek grew up and embraced its science fiction heritage identity. Instead of social issues like racism or war, which were staples of the TV series, the movies delved into concepts like humanity, sacrifice, duty, identity, intelligence, and even destiny. The screen was bigger and the story expanded to match. And there were at last real consequences, with Spock and the Enterprise both sacrificed so that the others may live. Yes, they brought Spock back, but not without cost.
When TNG started, it started out a bit schizophrenic, trying in some ways to evoke TOS (remember the male miniskirt? ugh) but also cognizant of the movies’ style too. Ultimately, in terms of both style and tone, TNG evolved beyond the movies and became something wholly new in its own right. TNG went for seven seasons – more than twice as long as TOS – and explored science fiction themes in incredible variety and depth. Just off the top of my head – Dharmok. Data’s trial. The Enterprise-C. “There are four lights!” And everything with Lt. Barclay. I’ve barely scratched the surface here – TNG had an incredible versatility and maturity to it, which I think helped reinvigorate science fiction as a whole genre, in both TV and literary forms.
and now? (spoilers follow)
We ar being asked to essentially throw that all away.
For years, the alternate, temporary timeline has been a staple trope of Trek – giving new meaning to the vulcan maxim, IDIC. And yet, with the new film, we have an alternate timeline which is not reset, which doesn’t go away cleanly at the end. And what a timeline! Kirk’s life shattered by the loss of his father. Romulans being known to the Federation as a Vulcan offshoot. The arrival of Spock Prime 150 years earlier. And to top it all off – pulling an Alderaan on Vulcan?!
The new timeline is fixed. It can’t be reset because neither agent of that change, Spock and Nero, ever escaped from it. So in one fell swoop, all we have known is gone.
Think about all the events still yet to occur. V’Ger. Khan. The Nexus. The Borg. The Dominion. It’s all new, all changed. There’s not even a guarantee that there will be an Enterprise-D or a man named Jean-Luc Picard.
I feel a sense of loss. For a history that we grew up with, a timeline that despite all the save-the-whales meddling and Temporal Cold Wars and omniscient Q machinations, was still our timeline, dammit. It’s gone.
I remember thinking during the TNG finale, where Picard leaps through three periods of time, past present and future, how interesting that future was. Worf and Riker enemies over Deanna, Beverly married and divorced to Jean-Luc, Geordi and Data in civilian life… the kickass Big Gun and Third Nacelle on the old Enterprise-D. there was a lot of attention given to that future, and then it was erased. And at the end of the first TNG movie, when Enterprise-D died, we knew for a fact that our timeline was still somewhere we hadn’t gone before.
Yes, that timeline was abused by Braga et al – Voyager’s entire series run was basically a circle around the drain, and the less said about Insurrection and Nemesis, the better. But those missteps don’t erase 7 years of TNG, then seven more of Deep Space Nine (DS9) and a handful of decent episodes of VOY and ENT (especially the final season).
And yet, we mourn the timeline because we knew it well. Theoretically, every one of the disposable timelines that TNG and its heirs used up over the years had as much significance. But that’s true of everthing; whenever a person dies, it’s a tragedy to those who knew them and a statistic to those who didn’t. That doesn’t make those who did know them feel any better, however.
So, okay then. A brave new world ahead. One that is likely to be explored and fleshed out in detail over time, though no series of movies can ever hope to approach the level of detail that even a few seasons of a recurring TV series can. If this new trek spurs movies and TV shows, and two decades worth of follow-up, in the same tradition of science fiction and intellectual inquiry as TNG and DS9 before it, then yes, it will be worthy of the name Star Trek. But there’s a long road, getting from here to there.