Went to see the new Star Trek this morning and golly it is good. Smart and exciting and often very funny, and I’ll avoid spoilers in what follows.
Jim Kirk is a bit of a tearaway in the Iowa of the future. But his dad was a hero in Star Fleet and he’s encouraged to sign up himself. As he meets some new chums – “Bones” McCoy and a girl whose surname’s Uhura – he’s got to battle the guy who sets his exams, an alien dork name of Spock…
Oh, and then there’s a big battle in space. With a dude called Nero – which is, m’colleague tells me, the Finnish word for “genius”.
I used to really resent Star Trek as the sort of popular, beefy schoolground bully to Doctor Who’s weedy victim. I even wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Star Trek: First Contact and the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie (basically: both try to make a long-running television series accessible to a wider audience by making them darker and more violent, with varying success). In them days I’d argue – a lot – that Doctor Who at least had people running up and down corridors, rather than walking and being pompous. But most of all what I begrudged was Star Trek being really quite good.
(My favourite episode of TNG, which used to scandalise its fans, is that one from the final year where they turned down the lights and turn the regular cast into monsters. Ryker’s a Neanderthal, Howlin’ Mad Murdoch’s a spider, and Worf is some kind of were-buffalo chasing the increasingly gibbonish Picard. It occurs to me now it the episode of Trek that’s probably most like Doctor Who.)
But recently this childhood injustice has been turned about. Voyager and Enterprise seemed – from as much as I could watch of them – to tediously go where no one else has bothered before, with ratings and credibility ejected into space. While Doctor Who, this side of the pond at least, is now all big and much beloved of the cheerleaders.
There’s a small part of me that wants to crow at this reversal. But the heroes of both franchises have a thing about extending a hand to their adversaries. And so not only was I hoping to enjoy the new film, but I even did some research.
“Where No Man Has Gone Before” is the second pilot episode, ignoring the not-broadcast-til-later pilot which didn’t even have Captain Kirk in it. It’s a bold, exciting story in which Kirk’s best mate of 15 years – no, not Spock but the not wholly sci-fi sounding Gary Mitchell – is infected with some kind of space alien something that gives him shiny eyes. Gary starts being able to control stuff with his mind and, since he seems to like causing mayhem, James, er, R. Kirk has to take him down.
There are lots of surprises, even though I thought I knew my Trek. It’s a visually dazzling episode, full of neat effects and coloured costumes. The multiracial crew is really quite radical – Kirk calls the heads of department at one point, who include a woman, an old doctor and Mr Sulu, without it being remarked on. Yet at the same time, Gary Mitchell is surprisingly rude to the blonde psychologist – effectively tugging her pigtails because really he thinks she’s nice.
It’s also odd not to see the expected regulars – Scotty and Spock are there, but no Bones, Chekov or Uhura. (There was some talk about Uhura at a panel at Gallifrey earlier this year and her positive role as a Black person on telly. I love the idea of Dr King slumped in front of Star Trek; and perhaps his wife asking if he couldn’t find anything useful to do…).
Kirk is also surprisingly terse, ready to shoot his pal the moment he’s taken over. He hardly needs Spock to enforce logic – he’s a steely guy in command, as ruthless as Connery’s Bond. Life in Star Fleet is sexy but also obviously dangerous: they seem quite used to losing their comrades. I suppose the production crew and most of the actors would have served in the army, and for all its brightly coloured sense of fun, the Enterprise is a submarine out in uncharted waters.
There’s no Gary Mitchell in the new movie, and there’s no patented ripped shirt for Kirk. And yet I can easily believe the crew in the cinema will grow up to have that more-than 40 year-old adventure. There’s no walking pompously up and down corridors discussing the new political regime of the planet Ng'othruok, either. Trek has damn gone and got its groove back.
I’ll post some more (when the film is out next month and I’ve seen it with Scott) on what it does that’s a bit like Russell’s reboot of Doctor Who.
Meanwhile, my chums Will and Nimbos have both blogged about making “Pressure Valve”, their own sci-fi movie, which they did in 48 hours as part of a Sci-Fi London dare: