In Slate’s Star Trek reader poll this week, The Wrath of Khan is handily (and deservedly) walloping every other Star Trek–based movie. As of this writing, 46.8 percent of respondents prefer the 1982 Shatner-vs.-Montalban showdown to any other cinematic installment in the ever-expanding, Talmudically complex Trek polyverse. (Khan’s closest competition, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home—the one where the Enterprise gang travels back in time to save the whales—has garnered less than 10 percent of the vote.)
But in a more disturbing development, the original 1960s show is getting schooled by its ’80s/’90s descendant, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Only 18.7 percent of poll-takers thought the short-lived show starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy was the best Star Trek television series, with a heart-sinking 51 percent opting for TNG instead.
Matthew Yglesias has already made the case for TNG’s superiority in his galactically well-researched Completist essay. I won’t make an attempt here to defend the (in my view self-evident) position that the original Star Trek—utopian naiveté, salt-shaker props, and all—is not only the crowning glory of the Trek franchise, but one of the great achievements of late 20th-century American popular culture. I’ll just let it be known that for better or worse I’m something of an original-series purist, someone in whose 1970s childhood the presence of Star Trek reruns loomed large, and who still revisits the show every few years not just with nostalgic pleasure but with renewed aesthetic admiration. I watched the first season of The Next Generation with a Star Trek–loving boyfriend (is there any other kind?), but we always fell, despite ourselves, into a mode of genial hate-watching. We just couldn’t get past the stupidity of the holodeck as a narrative device.
All that is to say that J.J. Abrams’ theatrical reboot of the original Star Trek, now in its second installment with Star Trek Into Darkness, had a lot of hurdles to clear with me. Forget about trying to spin off new universes from the inimitably weird original—now you want to recast the roles of Kirk and Spock themselves? Dammit, J.J., you’re a director, not a magician!
Actually, Abrams may be a bit of both, because for two movies in a row now—and possibly even more in the second than the first—he’s caught some of the spark of the first Star Trek without either mimicking or desecrating the original. Into Darkness’ cumbersome action plot may not quite track (and the semi-gory gun battles and alarming body count aren’t really true to the series’ constitutive pacifism). But Abrams’ film succeeds where many recent big-budget ransackings of the pop-culture archive have failed: It takes familiar, beloved characters who are strongly associated with very distinctive actors and somehow makes us not mind imagining them in the body of someone else. Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk isn’t at all an impersonation of the young William Shatner (Shatner impersonation being a rich career path unto itself). But Pine convincingly channels Kirk’s hotheaded management style and Clintonesque appetites—he makes us believe that this is a man who needs to sit at the helm of a starship, just as he needs, every once in a while, to share his shore leave with a pair of identical-twin alien honeys with long, switching tails.
In this jump-started Star Trek timeline (remember how Eric Bana’s villain in the 2009 Star Trek movie changed history so that continuity with previous story events could be broken? Now you do), the familiar crew is getting used to life after the academy, flying on peaceful missions around Federation space. When Kirk, newly in command of the Enterprise, salvages a botched rescue by violating the Prime Directive (don’t even make me tell you what that means. It’s the Prime Directive, for God’s sake), he’s relieved of his post by his superior, Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood), and the crew is dispersed to different vessels. But Kirk convinces the top brass to give him back his ship and his crew when a mysterious terrorist known as John Harrison (an icy-eyed but underutilized Benedict Cumberbatch) starts bombing Federation strongholds.
The Enterprise crew locates Harrison on the home planet of the bellicose Klingons, meaning that they can’t go after him without provoking an intergalactic war. To the extent that Into Darkness makes the now perfunctory gesture of linking its fictional mayhem to contemporary political events, it does so in the scenes between Kirk and his first mate Spock (Zachary Quinto), as they argue over whether to take their prisoner alive or torpedo him into oblivion. Extraordinary rendition? Ticking time bomb? Imprecise drone-strike analogy? Abrams seems eager to get through this part of the shooting schedule and on with the planet-exploding, eyebrow-raising action.
Michael Giacchino’s playful, un-pompous score and Abrams’ never-still camera keep the action scenes moving along at a reasonable clip. But there are more Die Hard–style shootouts and shattering plate-glass windows than anyone who cares about this series needs or wants. The warp core of the original Star Trek has always been the deep, conflicted love between Kirk and Spock. Not for nothing were these two among the early muses of slashfic. They can be seen as unrequited lovers, romantic rivals, wisecracking space-bros, or (to get fancy) a single divided self locked in eternal struggle: the Vulcan and the human, reason and instinct, head and heart.
Abrams seems to get that the connection between these two men is crucial, and Quinto and Pine’s scenes together crackle with alternating currents of affection and resentment—which makes it even more inexplicable why so much time is spent on a curiously un-juicy office romance between Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana). Both actors are attractive and appealing (as is the whole cast, almost to a fault), but their love for one another (and Jim’s vaguely implied envy) never stopped seeming like a screenwriter’s contrivance. The overfocus on the Spock-Kirk-Uhura love triangle also cuts into our time with the rest of the likeable crew, especially Karl Urban’s laconic Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who’s absent or sidelined for virtually all the film’s big dramatic moments. I hope in future installments (whose abundance is plainly hinted at by the closing voiceover reminding us of the Enterprise’s “five-year mission”), Uhura will be allowed to be more than Spock’s girlfriend—maybe she’ll even be relieved of that no doubt thankless post, the better to up her quota of digitally augmented stunts and, who knows, perhaps even a character-developing scene or two.
Zachary Quinto’s Spock looks and sounds persuasively Vulcan, with some of the quiet, catlike hyperawareness that made Leonard Nimoy’s performance on the show so memorable. But when this Spock’s tamped-down human half makes an appearance, he can lean on the scenery a little hard. I’m not sure I’m ready to see a tear roll down Mr. Spock’s face midway into the second installment of an ongoing J.J. Abrams Star Trek series (a concept to which I wouldn’t be at all averse). In one of my favorite moments from the original show, Nimoy’s Spock didn’t even recognize what human tears were: “Your face is wet.” At the rate Abrams has him growing emotionally, by the time they reach the Delta Quadrant he’ll be journaling.
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