Wednesday, 18 April 2012

A Star Trek Autopsy

This is a recycle - with a few new thoughts and some illustrations added - of a note I originally posted on Facebook back in January 2010, after first re-watching the 2009 Star Trek re-hash movie. I've re-watched it a couple times since, to be sure I wasn't just being randomly moody about it, and while I never hate it quite as much as the first time in the cinema, I still can't begin to like it much. It was crap, and I think it's now safe to call Trek dead, in much the same way that Star Wars is dead. Sure, they're still making new stuff under the name, and raking in heaps of cash for it, but the essence of the thing is gone. It's a trend that's been building up in all the most recent Trek stuff, but this latest one was the worst for me and it pleases me to dissect it publicly. And, after all, isn't that why I write here and why you read what I write?

I should warn, even though it's a few years old now: Spoilers Ahead!

Second disclaimer: The standard I hold Star Trek movies up to is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That was a brilliant movie that stood on its own without jarring badly with the world created in the TV series, and I've never met anyone with any taste who disagreed. (Re)watch it for yourself if you don't believe me. But I'm not looking for clones of that movie (because as Star Trek X: Nemesis showed, that doesn't necessarily work well at all), but I do want movies that can match the quality of writing, directing, acting and editing seen in Wrath of Khan.

Third disclaimer: I mock 'dumb action movies' several times below. This does not mean I want an action-free movie (Wrath of Khan wouldn't fit that description, for one thing), but rather that I don't want mindless, pointless, excessive action to be the main focus of the movie.

For a different and entertaining perspective on this movie (as well as the TNG movies, the new Star Wars trilogy and a few other movies), consider watching Mr Plinkett's Reviews. The humour may not be to everyone's liking, but his points are all excellent.

The Single Biggest Problem
Star Trek is a big entity, compromising 6 TV series, 11 movies, umpteen games, hundreds of books and at least one fully functional artificial language, all spread over 46+ years. It's featured cast members born in 3 different centuries. With all those writers, directors, actors and other creative sorts, shit was bound to change over time, and yet they managed to keep one golden ideal throughout almost all trekkish stuff, until recently. This was a simple notion that the original creator, Gene Roddenberry, insisted on for as long as he remained involved, which was pretty much until he died, and which was upheld by his colleagues for years after that. That ideal was: The future will be better, because we will make it better. Almost all trek has revolved around that ideal. People are still flawed, but they strive to better themselves. Wars still happen, but not without massive, sincere efforts to avert or end them peacefully. The pursuit of that ideal does away with poverty, bigotry, disease and so on.

And what does this movie offer? Everyone starts out almost superhuman and doesn't have to grow or develop in any way. And the future's pretty much the same as now, with the same sort of bars and cars and music, but with weird aliens. Kirk, the great hero, starts out as a delinquent bar thug, and while he does pass close to growing some interesting character, he ends the movie exactly where he started: A rough, immoral thug who goes out of his way to kill a helpless foe. Even Spock (who had otherwise been the only character to really develop at all) happily goes along with that, throwing all established Vulcan pacifism and lawfulness out the window. A thug with a shiny new starship and a captain's uniform is still a thug.

He and his crew are not just good at their jobs, they're inhumanly talented, to the extreme of 17 year old Chekhov, who's portrayed as a better science officer than Spock, and a better engineer than Scott. Why? What's wrong with characters who're pressed into tough circumstances they're not qualified to deal with and only barely manage to get out of it? Not only does it fit Roddenberry's ideal of striving to be better, but it also makes for better story telling. Where's the drama in a threat that isn't really a threat at all? If there's no risk of failure, there's no tension. Can Scotty figure out how to transport them onto the Enterprise? Why yes! He's already done it without even having to try! By the start of the climax of the movie, the conclusion is foregone: The heroes have shown they have no noteworthy flaws, and the villains are clearly no real match for them. The end battle was blatantly a mere formality.

So yeah, other bits of idealism they just threw out the window:
1. Violence, violence, violence. Starfleet policy used to be to ask questions first, ask questions second, and when in doubt, ask more questions, and then maybe consider resorting to violence. In this movie, all of the Starfleet officers who get the opportunity to shoot shit, do so without hesitation. That might fit well into a dumb action movie, but I don't watch Star Trek for dumb action. Idealism aside, the appeal of the various series has always been the intelligent plots. Granted, they don't always hit that mark - in over 700 episodes and movies, you're bound to get a lot of turds - but they managed it often enough (I hold up anything written by D.C. Fontana as a shining example of how to tell a good story of this sort), and the recent trend towards appealing to the violence-hungry, low-brow audience is just one more sign that the powers that am have lost sight of what made Trek distinctive.

2. Bigotry. It might not seem so special these days, but the original series was considered extremely daring back in the '60s for having such a racially diverse crew, with everyone treated equally, even women! So what does the new movie do? It takes a step back for no good reason. Sulu was always a fencer, but he used to use a rapier, because that's a proper fencing sword. It was a sport he did, a hobby. But now he's got to have a katana instead, as he's "the Japanese guy". (Worse still, it's a magic space katana, that folds away to nothing.) (Worserer stiller, in response, his opponent then has to draw a magic space axe, that does a similar flick knife trick for no good reason.) And Uhura was always a bit of a minor character, little more than a receptionist who barely featured in any other context, because the delicate sensibilities of TV-watchin' '60s racists couldn't have tolerated a stronger black female character than that. But now we've all been sensitive '90s types and we can afford to let that character grow into something deeper, right? Sure, so long as deeper only means "doting love interest to a more important male character." There was even a deleted scene where Kirk can't tell he's talking to the wrong green Orion woman, because they all look the same to him.

[EDIT: I've only just read a fairly compelling argument for why Uhura's romance-role in this movie, given the intersection with race, may actually have been a positive thing. I do think, though, that she should have had more technical scenes too, to really flesh out the character fully.]

So that was the Single Biggest Problem. Rather than a grand future, populated by people who're genuinely interested in making things even better, all this movie gives us is big guns and shiny lights, plus a couple girls in their nether-garments.

Watching the DVD extras, I've decided J.J. Abrams is a tosser, a hyperactive fool who's as full of sound and fury as the stuff he creates, and he surrounds himself with like-minded people. From that point of view, it seems unsurprising now that this movie was so badly written.

Consider the opening battle, with the USS Kelvin. The Starfleet vessel is reduced to borderline scrap in mere seconds by Nero's surprise attack. Then they stop to chat. All fine so far. Then Nero opens fire again, and suddenly can't scratch the Kelvin significantly anymore, so that Mr & Mrs Kirk can have a long chat about their new son, before the Kelvin collides with Nero's ship, pretty much unimpeded. Why couldn't they have had that chat before the battle, when it wouldn't have stretched out the battle unrealistically? Or if you really wanted to open with the battle as soon as possible, then why not just skip the mushy dialogue, and have Mrs Kirk torn from her doomed husband quickly and painfully (not letting them say goodbye would almost certainly have been more emotionally significant), while he barely has enough time to get the disintegrating hulk of the Kelvin up to ramming speed.

The whole movie is full of dumb things like that, where they have to stretch believability and add in unnecessary complications, just because they failed to set things up properly earlier in the script. Why does old Spock have to give Scotty the transporter trick to sneak them back on the Enterprise? Because they needed to squeeze an encounter with old Spock in somewhere, and the best the could think of for that was to illegally (i.e. against Spock's character) jettison Kirk onto some random ice moon (which apparently orbits around or near the hot desert world of Vulcan, close enough that old Spock could easily watch Vulcan's destruction in the sky, without thawing). And then they had to reverse that. It was over-complicated, because of poor writing.

Why did they need the magical 20-year time gap between Nero's arrival back in time, and old Spock's arrival? Because they were married to the idea of looking at Kirk's youth in great detail, and they were also married to the idea of bringing Leonard Nimoy in to meet the young-adult Enteprise crew, and this was the best way they could think of to get the two to mesh. By just glossing over 20 years.

Someone's even neatly marked all the docked ships for us here
Why did they have to crew entire starships with green academy cadets instead of proper qualified crews? Seriously, there were about a dozen large starships docked at Earth; where were their intended crews? Did Starfleet build more ships than they could actually use? Had they just laid off a lot of people? It's another example of bad writing. They couldn't think of a better transition from the academy scenes they wanted to put in (specifically the Kobayashi Maru) to the next set of space battles, so they just forced it.

I would suggest that a much cleaner transition (if you really must do the academy bits at all) would have been to get that out the way, and then skip ahead a year or so to Kirk & co. already serving on the Enterprise, when bad things happen and Kirk is forced to take command prematurely, but at least with some real experience under his belt. (Again, if a totally inexperienced cadet could beat Nero, then what was so scary about him, apart from his capacity to set a good ambush?) That way, you can throw out the silly pretence that they all studied together, like some space college fraternity. There's absolutely nothing wrong with random individuals being randomly posted to the same ship in a large fleet of ships and forming their special bonds in that context - the same way nearly all stories about people serving on ships and space ships go. All the trouble they went to make it seem like they were all magically predestined to stick together for life was silly, and the convoluted plot twists and excuses they had to force into the script to make that happen were clearly beyond the very limited writing talents of Kurtzman and Orci.

The core plot wasn't awful, but it was held together with all these stupid, badly written bits, and had so many elements crudely pinned onto the outside of it that a fairly simple plot became clunky, and the only way they could disguise that was to move everything at a really rapid pace, with no time to stop and think about what you're actually seeing. I heard one of the writers say they wanted to emulate the quick pace of Star Wars (and then he weirdly gave Empire Strikes Back, probably the slowest-paced Star Wars movie, as an example); this strikes me as a huge mistake, because they've ended up emulating the new Star Wars trilogy, at least in terms of pacing, and that sucked. What they've copied is the opening scene of Revenge of the Sith, which was just a mad blur that barely makes any sense when you slow it down and really think about it. It's easily the worst example they could have followed. Don't believe that the new SW trilogy really influenced this movie that much? Then tell me which movie had the scene where someone is getting chased by a big monster, but then the monster gets eaten by an even bigger monster.

Also, time travel and alternate universes are extremely easy to abuse very badly in fiction, and should not be left in the hands of second-rate writers. In this case, that's a thin excuse that they hide many of their questionable decisions behind, especially decisions about changes from the original version of Star Trek. It's an excuse I simply don't buy in most cases, because it's so clearly just a throw-away excuse and not the result of any deep consideration.

1. Villains are a mirror for the heroes: By contrasting the good guys and the bad guys, seeing what they have in common and what they do differently, we get a better understanding of what makes the protagonist tick. It's one way to add depth to main characters without explicitly taking time to explore their life and personality. So what does Nero tell us about Kirk and Spock and the others? Well, for a start, Starfleet Academy apparently teaches you to talk in something other than short grunts. But they're also all vengeful, violent bastards, who would kill an enemy over past grudges, rather than show any mercy. Nero reflects nothing positive back on the protagonists; they're really pretty much the same, except that Nero happens to be the one who started it. (Except he thinks they started it, only he's confusing the past, alternate universe lot with the ones who actually did it, although even they didn't actually do anything wrong, since it was a natural disaster that set all this in motion in the first place, and somehow he didn't figure any of this out in the two decades he spent sitting around waiting to re-appear.)

Contrast this with Khan, the antagonist from Star Trek II. His cunning, tenacity and daring mirrored Kirk, and his crew were just as devoted as Kirk's. But where Khan is portrayed as plain old bloodthirsty, Kirk is shown several times to be more trusting and merciful, even when it's not the best idea, tactically. Khan has several opportunities to play it safe and protect his crew, but instead keeps pushing beyond his limit. Kirk, on the other hand, is shown to cut and run when things are looking too risky, choosing the safety of his crew and ship over achieving his goal. Scenes like those are subtle, but they paint Kirk and Khan as very different people, despite their superficial similarities. The new movie can't claim anything similar, because it was written by guys who don't know what they're doing.

2. Scotty and his little monkey: While I was satisfied with most of the new cast and their re-created characters, Simon Pegg and the writers completely missed the mark with Scotty, far worse than they screwed up any other character. Montgomery Scott was never a comic character, he was always dead serious, apart from one scene in Star Trek IV. He was sort of the worried father, always babying his ship. But Pegg got it all wrong, and just turned the character into a clown, with a little monkey sidekick, and barely any interest in the ship and its machines. Why? No idea. I can only assume that someone thought, "Hey, we've got Simon Pegg: He's really funny, therefore whatever character we give him must be a comic role." (Another minor complaint I'll file here for simplicity: Why was Scotty permanently dressed in non-uniform winter clothing, even after they'd boarded his shuttle to leave the ice planet, right up until they'd been absorbed into the Enterprise crew? And why didn't he just fix his facility's heating system, so he didn't need to wear that much?)

To be clear, I didn't expect any of the re-created characters to be exact duplicates of the originals. But obviously they're trying for some similarity, in which case Scotty was a complete fail. They may as well have left him out and had Pegg play a completely new character... Welshy, perhaps.

Minor Tribbles
1. Uniforms: Why the different uniforms for Starfleet personnel working at HQ on Earth (the red, black and grey ones) and for those serving on starships (the classic red, yellow and blue)? It's hardly a big deal, but it has no precedent in any other Star Trek, so why add the extra complication here? Is it meant to serve a real purpose, or did the wardrobe department just get bored? (And I know the Klingon scenes were cut out in the end, but couldn't the money saved on double uniforms for everyone have been better spent on decent Klingon head prosthetics, than on the stupid full-face helmets they used instead?)

And why was Kirk forced to stay in his dirty, torn black under-top for most the movie? He couldn't find another yellow over-top in his size? Bear in mind, he had plenty of time on the way back to Earth (see the bit about travel times, below). He didn't get changed or shower at all during that time? His bumps and bruises don't heal in that time either? Again, crappy writing and poor planning.

2. Why did Spock's mom look younger than him? I might have to give them credit for finding a good actor (Winona Ryder, even) for such a minor role who managed to closely mirror Jane Wyatt, who played the same role in the '60s - except that Jane Wyatt looked (and really was) old enough to be Nimoy's mom. As an interesting coincidence, Kirk's mom is named Winona, ever since her first appearance in an '80s Star Trek novel.

3. Nero: Why that name? The Romulans are supposed to be culturally similar to the ancient Romans, not a duplicate of them.

3. Shockingly poor sense of scale and speed:
3.1. Earth to Vulcan: The Enterprise fucks up its initial departure and leaves a minute or so (40 seconds, if you want to be anal) after it was supposed to. But they're not going to be at warp for just a couple of seconds; the trip from Earth to Vulcan would take days or weeks, because Space Is Huge. Since Vulcan is supposed to orbit a real star, and the top speed of the Enterprise is known, I did the maths, and it would take just under 12 days to get there from Earth. And that's assuming they could sustain maximum speed for that long, which they can't; the engine's cannae take it! Their best travel time is more like 18 days. Why couldn't they make up that little 40-second gap and get back into formation? And even if they stayed lagging slightly behind, was the whole rest of the fleet really wiped out in under a minute? Remember, when they arrive at Vulcan, the battle is over and Nero is focused on popping Vulcan, as if he's assumed that there aren't any more Starfleet vessels coming. He couldn't have waited 10 or 15 minutes, just waiting to ambush any stragglers or second waves that might foil his plan? He couldn't do a quick long-range scan to see if any other ships were coming? Even 2 minutes was really too long for him to wait? You can tell this was written by hyperactive people.

3.2. Hoth to Enterprise: When Kirk meets up with Scotty, the Enterprise has already been warping away for hours (his pod says it came down 14km from Scotty's outpost, which he would have had to cross on foot, with a creaky old Spock in tow for at least some of that distance), and yet Scotty's dinky old shuttle catches up to the Enterprise (one of the fastest ships in the fleet), at least to within transporter range, before the Enterprise has gotten too far. This means either Spock wasn't really in a rush to take the Enterprise anywhere (that would not be logical), or that Scotty's shuttle was hugely fast (in which case, why was he bitching about the food on his ice moon? He could have popped over to a new planet for dinner every day), or (and this is where I'm putting my money) the writers just didn't think things through at all.

Again, doing the maths quickly, if they managed to maintain a really optimistic 5km/h on the way to find Scotty, then the Enterprise was already over a 100 billion kilometers away. And it would cover even more space during the time the little old shuttle is trying to catch up; the shuttle could never get close enough. They mention the speed the Enterprise was doing on the way back from Vulcan to Earth, and it's way slower than full warp (presumably because of the slight scratch to the warp nacelle when they're flying through the wreckage?), but Enterprise still manages to get about 130 billion km away from Kirk, old Spock and Scotty before they start trying to catch up. That's almost 1000 times the distance from Earth to the Sun, which easily puts it outside Vulcan's solar system. It also means Kirk had about 3 months (yes, months) to find a new yellow top. Just to put it in perspective.

Kirk's first change of clothes in 6 months.

3.3. Supernova of Doom: Supernovas don't just come out of nowhere. Stars evolve slowly and fairly predictably over billions and billions of years. Even the most rapid changes are measured in decades. If Romulus was threatened by a supernova, they would have had more than enough time to transplant their entire civilisation, brick by brick, to a safer spot. So why were they still wiped out by a supernova? It's never explained in the movie, but the prequel comics suggest that political dithering caused the Romulans to ignore their problem til it was too late. Centuries of dithering? No. It was just bullshit crappy writing again, which they couldn't even bring themselves to include in the final movie.

3.3. Popping Vulcan: This seemed like overkill, and was also clearly just a case of copying the Death Star. But where the Death Star represented the sheer brute force of the Galactic Empire's resources, engineering and military (to put the Rebel Alliance's puny struggle into serious David vs. Goliath perspective), Nero's ship was just a (really stupid) mining ship that happened to have a super-weapon stolen from Spock (who really didn't need more than a drop of the stuff in the first place); there was no great symbolism behind it, it was just big and scary for the sake of being big and scary. And so wiping out Vulcan was equally over the top. It would have been just as effective to nuke the surface of the planet or something (I think a re-appearance of the Genesis device might have been a nice touch, though harder to justify), killing billions and making the point that Nero is Evil™, without the ludicrous elimination of every last pebble of the entire planet. Completely destroying things, when severely damaging them would serve the same plot purpose, strikes me as another example of bad story telling. What if you decide in a sequel that you need Vulcan for something? Now you've got to make up a replacement, which is extra work for no good reason. The same goes for popping Romulus (and presumably Remus) back in the main timeline.

3.3. A new black hole right near Earth: New Spock's way of killing Nero's ship was also stupidly over the top and poorly thought out, using all the Red Matter to form a black hole and suck the Romulan ship in. Granted, he had the foresight to warp away from Earth before doing this, but not very far. We know Enterprise was able to follow along just a couple minutes later, which either means Enterprise was still travelling slowly due to damage (and so the black hole is barely any distance from Earth at all) or that the more advanced future ships dawdled - Old Spock specifically calls his ship "our fastest ship" - to allow Enterprise to catch up (so there's still a black hole pretty much on top of Earth) or, again, the writers just didn't think this through. At best, there's now a great big new navigational hazard at the heart of Federation space. If we assume that lots of Red Matter makes a bigger black hole than just one drop, and one drop was enough to cancel out the Romulan super-duper nova, then the more likely scenario is that the whole Alpha Quadrant is now going to get sucked in to a trap only designed to kill Nero.

Assorted relatively small bridge crews. The only odd one out, bottom right, is the Oasis of the Seas, currently the absolute biggest cruise ship, and it still has a smaller bridge crew than Abrams's alternate Enterprise
3. All the bridge crew: The bridge has a few well-established positions: The commander, science, helm, communications, maybe engineering if Scotty's bored of staying in the bowels of the ship, and only rarely extraneous visitors, who're almost always there for some specific, short-term purpose. This movie filled all those slots, and then crammed in another half-dozen people. What were they all doing there? Filling space, is all. They served no plot purpose at any point, and didn't seem to be fulfilling any crucial ship-operating functions either. They're just a part of the same production philosophy that's plagued the new Star Wars trilogy, and the remakes of the old trilogy: Cram as much shit on the screen as possible, in case the audience gets bored of looking at the same thing for more than 2 seconds. You'll also note that modern ships have only a small number of people on the bridge, for a very good reason: This isn't a social club, it's the nerve center of the whole ship, and you want all your intra-ship networks to link up here and condense into a handful of clear voices that the captain can clearly understand and respond to. From a story-telling point of view, that's remarkably useful too, because it lets you present the plot to the audience in equally clear terms. Adding too many people to that mix makes it impractical, both in real life and in fiction.

I reckon there's about 20 people in there. Even the giant Galaxy-class USS Enterprise-D only had 6-8 bridge crew.
And this vital hub has a relatively thin windscreen, so that it can crack easily and kill everyone, as shown briefly in the final battle sequence. For those who don't know, Star Trek ships traditionally have a viewscreen at the front of the (well-protected) bridge, which is a big TV screen, not a fucking window

3. I would have liked to see those other Starfleet ships in a bit more detail. I like ships, far more than I like lens-flare and jerky camera in every single fucking shot.

3. Jellyfish? The official name for Old Spock's weird little ship was Jellyfish? I assume that's actually a Vulcan word meaning, "everyone in space has to speak American, plus don't bother going beyond the art department's temporary nicknames for ship designs."

3. I don't begrudge them for making up a bunch of new alien species, since there's a whole galaxy to populate, but it would have been nice to see more of the classics too. I'm always eager to see more of the Andorians and Tellarites (what with them being key members of the Federation who we almost never get to see), and there were plenty of weird, non-humanoid aliens in some of the later TV series that might have been nice to see done up in more impressive prosthetics and CGI.

Credit Where Credit Is Due
1. The Kelvin: The Starfleet ship right at the start of the movie pleased me, mostly. Even though it was a new design, it looked like it belonged among the ships of that era (obviously modelled on the Saladin class), with a lot of the look of Kirk's original Enterprise, and a few touches reminiscent of Archer's older, less refined Enterprise, especially the bare pipes everywhere.

Left to right: Saladin class, the USS Kelvin and the original Constitution-class USS Enterprise. The scale is likely off, as no reliable size information about the Kelvin is available, and I'm pretty sure it should be a wee bit smaller

My only real complaint (more of an uncertainty) is that 18 large shuttles pour out of it (enough to carry 800 survivors!?), which is odd, as the original Enterprise carries less than half that number, and they're definitely smaller shuttles too. Where does the presumably smaller ship fit so many big shuttles? Maybe the whole pod on top is nothing but a hangar section, making the Kelvin type a sort of carrier cousin of the Saladin class? I'm still not sure they could really fit that many (plus the one Captain Robau took to Nero's ship, which was presumably lost, plus a few others seen destroyed), but at least it's possible. It may also be relevant that the shuttle New Kirk was born on was called Medical shuttle 37 (and Robau flew out on shuttle 43, while there were also the low-numbered shuttles 2 and 3), suggesting the Kelvin may have carried twice as many shuttles as can be seen and counted. That makes the evacuation of 800 crew more feasible, but further complicates the question of how to fit that many shuttles aboard. I guess this all feeds back into the shockingly poor sense of scale complaint. But at least I liked the broader Kelvin concept.

18 little specks are shuttles evacuating the Kelvin

1.b. The Kelvin uniforms: It's hardly important, but I like how they took the opportunity to insert a "missing link" between ENT's blue overalls and TOS's pyjamas, with the Kelvin's crew dressed in almost TNG-like skin-tight pyjamas of two different colours (the original TOS pilot also only used two uniform colours, not three), with the command crew in blue instead of yellow (which also means the command colour has now been all 3 of red, yellow and blue at some point). It fits the fluidity of Star Fleet uniforms nicely without being odd like the double uniform standard later in the movie.

Earth blue + Vulcan skin-tightness = Early Starfleet uniform?
2. Casting: I liked most of the cast choices. New Spock could not have been done better, and I was also really happy with New McCoy. The direction they took New Pike was interesting (he's only supposed to be about 10 or 15 years older than Kirk), but it worked well enough.

Bottom line, for me, is that I have seen virtually every Star Trek episode and movie, and I guess I'll watch the sequel(s) to this one eventually too, just to keep my record up. But I'll be fucked sideways if I have to pay any money for it; no way am I rewarding Abrams and co.

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