The answer is a resounding YES. Yes, this is Star Trek. The intellectual and philosophical parts of Gene Roddenberry’s creation have been dialed down somewhat, but the characterizations along with the action have been cranked up, and the universe to which they belong has been reimagined without violating anything that went before. Abrams and company have shrewdly used the old Star Trek to create an all-new one. This, of course, bears some explanation.
The very shrewd and clever thing that Abrams and his fellows have done has been to use perhaps the most beloved of all Trek characters to create an all-new, alternate Star Trek universe; a universe that changes nothing we know, but starts the whole thing over and makes it something fresh and incredibly exciting. Under the Many Worlds Theory of quantum physics, time travel into the past cannot change history; whatever you do in the past only causes a new reality with a different history to peel off the history from which you came. This is what happens when Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) travels back in time to try to prevent the destruction of the planet Romulus in a supernova explosion. (Star Trek: The Next Generation left Spock behind the Romulan Neutral Zone, trying to effect the “reunification” of Romulus and Vulcan.) A Romulan leader named Nero (Eric Bana) is accidentally swept along with him and holds Spock responsible for Romulus’s fate. While Spock and Vulcan itself (and ultimately all Federation planets) are Nero’s actual targets, the first to feel his wrath is the 23rd-Century Federation Starship Kelvin, whose acting Captain, George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth), lays down his life in a failed attempt to stop Nero.
Just as Kirk is dying, his son James Tiberius is being born! This boy will grow up to be played by the excruciatingly beautiful Chris Pine. (Seriously, Pine will have you saying “William Shatner Who?”) This new Kirk will one day command a different but superficially familiar Starship Enterprise with reincarnations of the same crew we know from the 1960s series, in a reality where Spock’s time travel will have acted like a cue ball hitting the rest of the balls on the pool table in startling new directions. Even the familiar things, the things that Trekkers know and revere, will have new twists and wrinkles. (The new Enterprise Bridge has been amusingly compared to an Apple Computer store!) And it will be incredibly fun to watch!
Everything we know about our beloved crew has been kept intact, with new details added that were not in any of the previous TV episodes or films, and some new details created. Nichelle Nichols and Gene Roddenberry had long agreed that Uhura’s first name was Nyota, but this never made it into either the TV or film series. It’s in this picture, where it comes out in the midst of one of those billiard-ball ricochets of character. (We’ll get to that in a moment.) Likewise we learn the origin of Leonard McCoy’s (Karl Urban) nickname. He’s called Bones because his ex-wife “took the whole planet in the divorce settlement,” leaving him “nothing but the bones”. Ingenious, and very much in character.
Kirk’s predecessor, Captain Christopher Pike (originally the late, gorgeous Jeffrey Hunter, played here by Bruce Greenwood), is also in the story, and as in established canon, Spock is already serving with Pike before Kirk arrives. Our new, young Spock, of course, is Zachary Quinto (the evil Sylar from Heroes), and notwithstanding Chris Pine as Kirk, it is Quinto who inhabits his character most perfectly. The way Quinto captures Spock is just uncanny, as if Spock were a mold into which Quinto had been poured. All the stuff we know about Spock is here: his parents, Sarek of Vulcan (Ben Cross in a performance that the late Mark Lenard would have applauded) and the terrestrial Amanda Grayson (Winona Ryder), the cruelty of Spock’s classmates over his half-human heritage, and the conflict of Spock choosing Starfleet over the Vulcan Science Academy. I’m only surprised they didn’t find a way to work in Spock’s pet sehlat!
One of the most delicious twists of character is that Spock and Kirk start out as foes. Why? Remember the Kobayashi Maru Test from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, the “no-win” scenario that Kirk reprogrammed to his advantage? Three guesses who turns out to have written that test! When Spock, the author of the scenario, calls Kirk out for cheating, the future best friends start out as adversaries! And things only get more interesting from there.
How interesting does it get? How about this: Nero succeeds in destroying the planet Vulcan! Get this now: Vulcan, the planet that along with Earth is the cornerstone of the United Federation of Planets, is destroyed! And there’s no time travel trick to bring it back; Vulcan is annihilated for good, with almost its entire population. Spock succeeds in rescuing his father from the artificial singularity that Nero creates at the planet’s core, but...Amanda dies! Spock’s mother--gone! And when Spock, in his Vulcan way, is grieving, who do you think is there to comfort him? Uhura, that’s who! Yes--Uhura (Zoe Saldana), in scenes that show us in no uncertain terms that the half-Vulcan and the Swahili Communications Officer (who is now also an interplanetary linguist) are lovers! Spock and Uhura--lovers! We have here a Spock who seems able to mate at will and not have to wait for his pon farr! And if all that isn’t enough to send your mind reeling, you must have been through the Kohlinahr!
All of this comes on the heels of Kirk’s fruitless attempts to hit on Uhura, who won’t tell him her first name when he’s flirting with her. (The interstellar tomcat is still on the job; as always he’ll try to bed anything female and humanoid. One of my greatest misgivings came when I looked at the TV promos and thought Kirk was sleeping with Uhura; I truly did not like the idea of her becoming another notch on his phaser, and I’m glad it turned out not to be so. Kirk is instead bedding Uhura’s Starfleet Academy roommate, who is one of those legendary green-skinned Orion women.) Kirk is truly nonplussed when he discovers that Uhura prefers Spock, and it is Spock, not Kirk, to whom she tells her first name, Nyota. This, I appreciated.
All of the above reminds me of the time I saw Nichelle Nichols in person when I was fresh out of the closet. Nichelle talked about how she had helped to create the character of Uhura. She said that Spock was Uhura’s mentor and the person to whom she looked as the kind of Starfleet officer she wanted to be. You’ll remember also, if you’re a good Trekker, that in the early episodes we saw that Uhura was the only person on the ship (besides Kirk and McCoy) who could confront Spock when she thought he was wrong, or tease him, and get away with it. (See “The Man Trap” and “Charlie X”.) For this film, they’ve taken that relationship, which was never fully explored on the show, and ratcheted it up as far as it could go. It’s another thing I applaud.
Playing with the Star Trek legend without violating it is what this movie is all about. (Well, except for the fact that Chekov [Anton Yelchin] is there in this first voyage; I’m sorry, no matter what Khan said, Chekov did not start until the beginning of Season 2.) Kirk has stolen aboard the ship with Bones’s help. Captain Pike gives Kirk a field commission and sends him on an away mission with Mr. Sulu (John Cho), then is captured by Nero, leaving Spock in charge. Sulu engages in swordplay worthy of George Takei’s shirtless turn in “The Naked Time”. Kirk challenges Spock, and Spock maroons him on the same planet where Nero has left the elder “Spock Prime” (Nimoy) to watch helplessly as Vulcan is destroyed. Spock Prime convinces Kirk to use young Spock’s grief to remove him from command and take his place--setting up what will be arguably the most important relationship of both their lives, and further catalyzing the rebirth of Star Trek. Oh, and the desolate ice planet is also where Kirk encounters his future Chief Engineer, Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg). The way Scotty gets himself and Kirk to the Enterprise--Spock gives Scotty a formula for transwarp beaming that Scotty himself will invent in the future--harks back to the “transparent aluminum” plot point in Star Trek: The Voyage Home. As in their intricate work on Lost, Abrams and company have worked out every piece of an elaborate puzzle.
The action and space-battle sequences are not the kinds of sequences you remember from previous Trek TV shows and films. The cinematography and effects have been updated, and the pacing has been stepped up. (In fact, if I have any small critique of the picture, it is that some of the action goes by too fast. Some of the editing seems to have been done for the benefit of people with short attention spans.) Parts of it actually remind me of the space-battle sequences in the revival of Battlestar Galactica; they are of a similar quality. But it’s all just riveting to watch.
The plot keeps hitting all the right notes. After the defeat of Nero and the rescue of Pike (whose ordeal puts him in a wheelchair, a nod to “The Menagerie”), there is a sequence at Starfleet Command where Kirk is awarded command of the Enterprise, which reminds me of the epilogue of the aforementioned The Voyage Home. For a man who started out as more of a devotee of Star Wars than Trek, J.J. Abrams has come around to a sure mastery of, and appreciation for, Gene Roddenberry’s universe.
In the later years of his life, Gene Roddenberry spoke of times in the future when people would take Star Trek and reinvent it, finding new ways of doing it that would be as enthusiastically embraced as the work that he and his peers did. He said that the new work would take its place in fans’ hearts and be accepted as the true, legitimate Star Trek. (There have been stories to the effect that in the office of Rick Berman, the Executive Producer to whom Gene personally turned over the franchise, there was a bust of Gene on which Berman and company had put a blindfold and a pair of earmuffs in a symbolic gesture. When I was at Star Trek--a story that will be our subject for the next several weeks--I never went into Berman’s office and never saw the bust, but I have every belief that it was there.) In part, I’m sure, Gene was speaking from the awareness that he’d soon be leaving this world and that it was time to pass the Trek heritage to other hands. But as of this weekend, he seems to have been anticipating what was unveiled in cinemas this weekend.
My skepticism about this film was short-lived. I think it was well and truly dead before the picture was half over. My question was, “Is this Star Trek?” What I meant to ask was whether this film would be an attempt to replace the Star Trek history and heritage we know with something new, a film that would be Star Trek in name only, which would lack the vision of the future and the deeply meaningful set of values that informed Gene Roddenberry’s creation. I think that if you go looking for the vision and the values, you’ll find them, because Gene invested them in the characters. And as for the integrity of the Star Trek universe as we’ve known it for the past 43 years, it too is still intact. That world absolutely still exists; nothing has been done to erase it. It lives in five live-action series, the animated show, and the previous ten movies. It hasn’t been taken away. What we’ve been given is a story that sends one character from that universe into the past and makes him the creator of a new Star Trek universe where the same characters, stories, and ideas we’ve loved so well are free to take on exciting new forms. It is no more a violation of the Trek legacy than The Next Generation was. And yes, it definitely is Star Trek. See it and love it. I’m seeing it again in the cinema at least once, and I’m already on board for the DVD.