More than any other franchise, Star Trek represents the possibilities of science fiction as a genre, mixing the otherworldly with the devastatingly human and letting wonder and philosophical explorations sit side-by-side. Star Trek’s hopeful utopian nature sets it apart from other long-running franchises and is the reason many fans have been drawn to it. In 2016 this also feels like a liability, at least on the big screen.
Fifty years after the first episode of Star Trek aired, the franchise finds itself in a precarious place artistically. Sure, the J.J. Abrams rebooted film series has been successful financially. But these films come across as almost embarrassed by the cerebral nature of the incarnations that have come before it. The recent films trade philosophical exploration for the generic sheen of a well-crafted action movie. Watching Star Trek Beyond, it’s clear that the new series of films, even at their best, feel like Star Trek in name only, lacking the heart and interest in framing humanity’s intelligence and diplomacy as its best traits.
The Justin Lin-directed Star Trek Beyond goes a long way to fix the missteps of the previous J.J. Abrams films. It pretty much feels like Star Trek Into Darkness didn’t even happen, which I think we can all agree is for the best. Star Trek Beyond has great alien designs, sleek visuals, and the cast chemistry is undeniable. But the moments that affected me most weren’t the new elements but nostalgic fan service nods and updated aspects of what Star Trek: The Original Series already mastered.
This is evident in everything from the film’s obsession with caves to the Spock/Bones dynamic to the way it talks about the friendship between Spock and Kirk (even though it doesn’t develop it much further). It’s there, too, in the way it seems interested in the philosophical underpinnings of its main villain’s actions (even if it doesn’t spend much time exploring those underpinnings). I’m not saying that Star Trek Beyond or anything else in the franchise shouldn’t reference its predecessors or incorporate anything we’ve seen previously. But when nothing gets added to the mix besides stellar action sequences and more sophisticated production design, that’s a problem. Which begs the question, if Star Trek can’t evolve beyond its past, what does that say about its future?
Each Star Trek series has brought something new to the table while still embodying creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision. Roddenberry’s desire for Star Trek to mix intelligent, unconventional characters traveling through space while discussing what amounts to heady philosophical conversations proved revolutionary. But it’s his vision of inclusiveness and desire to have more than just have the image of diversity that’s helped gain the franchise a dedicated following. Roddenberry once said, “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”
The Original Series set the template with its dedication to including characters of color and interest in commenting on modern problems through its alien worlds. That’s stayed with the series ever since. The Next Generation fleshed out Klingon culture and introduced one of the Star Trek universe’s best villains, the Borg. Deep Space Nine featured fascinating commentary on faith and some of the best writing of the franchise with its interest in long form arcs. And so on.
What does Star Trek Beyond add to the mythos? It’s undoubtedly the best out of the new film series. Lin has an incredible eye for action, creating sequences that are equally suspenseful and thrilling. The film is the most beautiful the series has ever looked. The cast has settled into a comfortable rapport that can’t be underestimated. It’s also the closest the recent films have come to actually feeling like Star Trek to the point where there are moments that feel like a slicker, higher budgeted episode of The Original Series. Evoking Leonard Nimoy repeatedly helps, too.
But the emotional storylines, despite the capable chemistry of an amazing cast, don’t fully resonate. Where the various television series focus on the philosophical and political machinations of the universe through the lens of the crew, the Star Trek films of the past prefer to focus on the crew’s personal journeys specifically. The various personalities and emotional arcs gain more importance in the films. After following various Star Trek crews on television, it’s the actual characters that draw us to the movies, not primarily the philosophical questioning for which the shows have become known.
Star Trek Beyond introduces some interesting thematic and character threads only to forget about them as it pivots from one action sequence to another. While the film comes back to these ideas at the end it feels like too little too late. But what worries me most isn’t that it only occasionally feels like a Star Trek film. It’s that it only feels like one when it’s putting a new, higher budget sheen on what we’ve seen before. The most moving moment doesn’t involve anything between this new crew but Zachary Quinto’s Spock going through the belongings of his alternate-timeline self played by Leonard Nimoy and the picture of the original crew he finds. It’s a nice bit of nostalgia but also suggests an inability to move beyond the past. There was a lot of noise prior to Star Trek Beyond’s release that it would return to the roots of the series. Yet in many ways Star Trek has always been a series actively against nostalgia for the past in the ways it critiques nationalism, racism, and sexism that our world still wrestles with.
As someone who grew up with Star Trek (The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine to be specific) when I watch any modern entries into the series I don’t want to see a pale approximation of what I have seen before. I want to see something new. That the most affecting moments in Star Trek Beyond are just clever re-workings of what the original series already did well isn’t something to cheer about, it’s something to question.
Watching Star Trek Beyond it’s clear the franchise’s greatest chance of evolving artistically and still honoring what came before is where it began — on television. On television the series would get more room to explore the kind of philosophizing that Star Trek is prone to. But that’s still not a good excuse for the recent film series failures.
It isn’t enough for Star Trek to have diversity in front of and behind the camera if it doesn’t use these optics to comment on matters like race and gender. Worse yet, when it makes Lt. Uhura primarily a damsel-in-distress and only has fleeting moments of thoughtful emotion between the crew, does that make its diversity a hollow gesture? Star Trek never settled on just the image of diversity; the series has continuously critiqued racism, slavery, terrorism, and sexism in a way that made it stand out from other long-running franchises. To say it’s been ahead of its time is an understatement.
Television would allow Star Trek to engage with the themes that make this series what it is. While Star Trek has at times been a bit constrained by having to work within a Hollywood system that isn’t a tenth as progressive as it wants to be. LGBT characters tend to exist in mirror universes. And episodes like The Next Generation’s “The Outcast,” which plays with gender and sexuality with a guest character, ultimately roots things in paltry metaphor. Cast and crew have often fought to include LGBT characters. Today Star Trek doesn’t have an excuse for not pushing the envelope further. And isn’t this the perfect time for Star Trek to live up to its past potential exploring the ideas of racism, terrorism, and bigotry?
The thoughtfulness put behind the choice to make Sulu gay and married to another Asian man is more than commendable. In an interview with Vulture John Cho discussed the choice saying, “Basically it was a little Valentine to the gay Asian friends that I grew up with. This may be presumptuous, but I always felt the Asian gay men that I knew had much heavier cultural-shame issues. This is probably more so for my generation than for yours, but I felt like those guys didn’t date Asian men because of that cultural shame. So I wanted it to seem really normal in the future. I thought that would be the most normal thing, that there was zero shame in the future.” But watching the film it almost feels like a half measure. The kiss that was filmed between Sulu and his husband was cut. And despite the many times he nearly dies we don’t get any mention of his husband (or even hear him called that). If it wasn’t for the publicity around the choice would people have interpreted the intimacy as romantic?
Paramount may be a bit confused about what caused audiences to fall in love with Star Trek in the first place and how to make sure the franchise honors its roots while still moving forward. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to see more of it. A fourth film has been announced with Chris Hemsworth returning, which means some time travel is probably going to come into play. (Look forward to some more father/son stories, as if we need more of those.)
More encouraging, there’s a new show with Bryan Fuller at the helm, Star Trek Discovery, set in the original timeline, coming up too. But in order for Star Trek to evolve as a series and return to its roots in a non-superficial way, it can’t settle for just the appearance of diversity. It needs to actually be inclusive and privilege the stories of its characters of color, give fleshed out explorations of sexuality for LGBTQ characters, not just hint at their existence, and fully engage in commentary about present day America in ways that its predecessors did with ease. Star Trek has always felt revolutionary because its characters of color weren’t forced to stand on soap boxes; their place in the crew and value was perceived as normal. Television would allow the series to actually go where the previous cast and crew wanted to as well but couldn’t due to the constrains of the network demanding a series like The Next Generation to be family friendly.
Star Trek has never been the easiest franchise to get into. It’s dense, cerebral, and utopian in a way its modern sci-fi peers are not. But in trying to be more action oriented and shunning its philosophical underpinning, Star Trek has lost sight of what it truly is as a series. Now is the perfect time to boldly explore the political and philosophical interests that have always existed at its core. This is the series that Martin Luther King Jr. deemed important and loved urging original Lt. Uhura Nichelle Nichols to stay on despite her desire to do other things professionally. It’s the series unafraid to call out the racism of its time and treat its characters of color with importance. Television gives Star Trek more room to embrace what made it revolutionary in the past. But more than that Star Trek needs to be willing to embrace what makes it different rather than becoming a standard, sci-fi flavored action extravaganza. It needs to be willing to embrace its mission statement that the most recent film closes with: To boldly go further than it has gone before.