Review: From Star Trek to Dark Trek

Posted on Thursday, June 4, 2009

Professor Vicky Kaspi, McGill’s Lorne Trottier Chair in Astrophysics and Cosmology and Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics. / Photo: Owen Egan

Astrophysicist Vicky Kaspi reviews the new Star Trek film

Professor Vicky Kaspi, McGill’s Lorne Trottier Chair in Astrophysics and Cosmology and Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics, is an internationally respected expert on neutron stars. Her list of accomplishments include, most recently, being the first to witness the cosmic act of recycling, involving a dying pulsar devouring material from a nearby companion star. Kaspi, once an avowed Trekkie, has credited her early interest in science to the original Star Trek television series.

Star Trek, the cliché goes, is all about the characters. As much as I hate clichés, I tend to agree with this one. The original series had an interesting, natural mix of people that made their interactions plausible and recognizable.

The series’ appeal lay in this familiarity being turned on its head, as recognizable people struggled with bizarre extraterrestrial challenges, like alternate universes or furry, squeaky, massively reproducing tribbles taking over the starship.

The character foundation, I’m happy to report, lies intact in the new motion picture incarnation of Star Trek. The characters are essentially the same, with even added depth. The actors avoid caricatures and breathe new life into the original gang.

The young Bones was superb. He absolutely channeled Leonard McCoy, and not just DeForest Kelley’s version of Bones. This was the real McCoy.

The young versions of Kirk and Spock were also well done. The actress playing Uhura did a fine job in fleshing out the character, giving her depth and competence well beyond her previous role as interstellar switchboard operator.

OK, Sulu, Chekhov, and Scotty remained fairly one-dimensional, but they are so much fun to have around, so who cares?

I particularly liked the Winona Ryder cameo as Spock’s mother. In those few milliseconds that this highly billed appearance lasted, Winona radiated essence-of-mother: loving, unconditional acceptance even in the face of an unsmiling, pointy-eared, bowl-cut, majorly high-strung offspring.

I wanna be a mom like her. (Except for the part about getting sucked into a black hole.)

So that’s the good news.

The bad news is that with a plot full of holes larger than the one left where Vulcan used to be, the new Star Trek film is bizarrely illogical, particularly given its strong Spock presence.

For starters, how could the old and new Spocks meet?!  I hated that scene (except for the part when old Spock said that speaking the line “live long and prosper” would be “oddly self-serving”).

And how about the unbelievable coincidence in which Kirk is abandoned on the one planet out of presumably billions on which old Spock happens to be hiding?

The same one in which one Montgomery Scott (and his grouchy olive-eating Ewok/teddy-bear sidekick) happens to be hanging out, preparing to invent the transporter?

And why, once history is so irrevocably and radically changed, such that Spock’s mother is relegated to a singularity and Spock is getting it on with Uhura, does Captain Pike still end up in the same wheelchair he inhabited in the original series?

My list of “how coulds” could go on and on.

This is ignoring the gross implausibility of much of the physics of the show. Actually, that part is fine with me. Science fiction is meant to be, after all, fiction.

And I truly am as impressed with writers’ creativity in dreaming up new effects (tiny drop of red goo creates black holes… wow!) as I am with nature’s creativity. Of course nature beats us humans hands down in implementation, but that’s another story.

My greatest beef with the new Star Trek, however, is neither the illogical nor the unphysical. It’s the violence, particularly given its G rating.

How could this be G-rated?  Many, many people die violent, horrible deaths in this movie, often shown in considerable detail.

Only minutes into the film, a crew member aboard a doomed starship is sucked out into space, screaming in horror. There’s a vicious sword impaling and many gruesome fights.

Is that really appropriate for all audiences?  I’ve admittedly been avoiding the action/thriller genre for a long time as I don’t enjoy violence in general. So I was shocked.

If this is considered appropriate for all audiences, our thinking on this has really evolved in the past decade.  We have become desensitized to violence. This amount of violence would never have been G-rated 10 or 20 years ago.

In larger terms, I found an overall darkness, a scary realism to the film that was simply not there in the original. I believe this is a symptom of a larger truth: there’s an overall darkness to our culture that was not there in the 1960’s.

Another cliché about the appeal of the original Star Trek was its optimism and idealism. I don’t see that aspect in the new version.

The original series was about exploration and boldly going where no one has gone before; this movie is about defending ourselves from a vicious, insane monster who appears out of nowhere.

In the old series, what’s out there—the unknown—is interesting and worth studying and examining.  In the new movie, what’s out there is frightening and potentially catastrophic.

In the old version, moms aged gracefully and smiled nurturingly.  In this version, moms are sucked into black holes and/or shriek in the pain of childbirth while a lunatic kills the dad.

Maybe the inevitable new Star Trek’s film sequels will lighten up and recapture some of the hope of the old series.

That would be nice.  Coupled with the absolutely charming cast, the combo would, in my mind, completely overwhelm any conceivable criticism regarding physical plausibility.

I’d become a Trekkie all over again.

This review originally appeared in the Faculty of Science blog at http://blogs.mcgill.ca/science

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