I Boldly Went…

…to see Star Trek last week.

All in all, I felt the new Star Trek hit all the right emotional notes. I believe much of the credit goes to the cast. Though the writers clearly played homage to the original characters, each of the cast members worked to make the iconic Star Trek characters their own and turned in consistent and believable performances that I truly enjoyed. The two standouts for me were Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike and Karl Urban and Dr. McCoy. Credit also goes to Michael Giacchino for creating a stirring soundtrack.

The premise was a fun twist on the idea of a madman seeking revenge on the crew of the Enterprise. In this case the villain is essentially an ordinary miner accidentally sent back in time when his planet is destroyed. I especially enjoyed how the writers and cast explored and embellished upon the classic characters. In the original series there were moments, especially early in the series, when Spock and Uhura flirted. This has been turned into a full-fledged romance. Also, Sulu finally got to show off his fencing ability. If I had a complaint about characters, it’s simply that they could have spent more time with the miner, Nero, and allowed Eric Bana to develop that character more.

Overall, I felt the plot was serviceable but not extraordinary. It served the purpose of introducing the crew to one another and was a fun ride worth taking. Even though I did like the little spin the writers put on the familiar revenge plot, I think it would have been stronger if the crew had faced a more original challenge. For me, revenge is a dish that has grown cold.

I really liked the movie’s production design. In my last post I mentioned that I was especially interested in the look of the Enterprise’s engineering section. After watching the movie, I definitely felt that an engineering section full of pipes, conduits and big machines seemed more correct for a starship like the Enterprise than the set used in the original series. In the series, I never could figure out why engineering was this big empty room, but Scotty always had to crawl into cramped spaces filled with pipes to actually fix something. That said, because engineering in the new movie was a redress of an actual industrial location, it somehow felt too big to fit in the ship. It would be nice if in the next movie they could find a compromise between the two extremes and find something that seems both like it’s functional and fits inside the ship.

My favorite element of the production design was the uniforms. In the original series, there were hints that the crew wore colorful shirts over black t-shirts. In this movie, it’s clear that’s the case and it was nice to see the classic uniforms on the big screen.

Given my background in astronomy, there was one moment in the film that particularly bothered me. It was a scene in which Spock is standing on one planet and watches the destruction of another planet. The only way he could see the event with the clarity shown would be if the planet he stood on was orbiting the other planet. However, from the course of events in the film, it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. However, the context of the scene is that Spock is conveying his memories to Kirk through a mind meld. It occurs to me that Spock might not have literally seen the destruction of the planet in question, but might have felt it much like he felt the destruction of a starship in the original series. Given that Spock has been there and done that and given that Obi-Wan Kenobi also went there and did that in the first Star Wars when Alderaan was destroyed, it’s probably just as well that Spock didn’t go there and do that again. I think it’s good that the writers came up with a new way of presenting his reaction to the destruction of a planet. However, it would have been nice if it was more clearly a “visual metaphor” than it was.

All in all, I must say I enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ version of Star Trek. I’ve already seen it twice and I look forward to getting it on DVD so I can see it a few more times.

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14 comments on “I Boldly Went…

  1. Rick says:

    To me the great strength of Trek TOS – as with the late lamented Firefly – was the characters and their interaction. The characters are what most made the show memorable and ultimately iconic. (‘I’m a doctor, Jim, not a scriptwriter!) Everything else was ultimately secondary if not tertiary. So I was thoroughly delighted with the new film. The plot was somewhat muddled, with holes you could fly a starship through, but so what? So were plenty of classic Trek episodes!

    Regarding the engine room, I had no problem with its size – the Enterprise is a big ship, several hundred meters long. I saw an interesting suggestion (probably in comments at Making Light) that the part we saw, with the water tube, might best be understood as related to the life support system rather than the drive engine.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly about the characters. They were by far the best part of the film and they make it shine.

    I think the plot and science could have been tightened up quite a bit with fairly minor changes that would not have sacrificed the visual styling of the film. Not bad as it was, even with starships flying through plot holes, but seems like it could have been better with just a little more effort.

    As far as the engine room is concerned, I’ve read quite a few posts that have been very hard on it. To me, I think they got it mostly right. Mostly I’m thinking about it in terms of having been in the engine room of the Queen Mary — which is about the same size as the Enterprise is supposed to be if my memory is correct (both are somewhere in the 200-300 meter range). There’s a very nice site that shows a photo of QM’s engine room: http://hull534.freeshell.org/er.html — Really it’s pretty similar to the Enterprise engine room in the movie, but with just a little more of a closed-in feeling. That’s what would have been nice to capture. While the QM has a lot of passenger space, the Enterprise has to carry more supplies and life support to achieve it’s mission, so I’m guessing the engine rooms would be similar in scale.

    I agree absolutely about the water pipes from the scene where Scotty was trapped. That looked like a water-processing plant that would have been part of life support. I don’t see it as part of engineering per se. However, there were lots of smaller pipes in the actual engineering section itself.

    Again, thanks for the comments. I see this as kind of fun stuff to think about while watching the film.

  3. Rick says:

    Yes, some plot holes could have been stitched up without compromising pacing or look. I just didn’t sweat it because the characters were right, and they are the heart of Trek. (Other criticism I’ve seen, relating to Trek ‘canon,’ seemed way beside the point, since much of the canon is a patchwork of retcons.)

    The engineering spaces indeed could have felt more closed / filled in. The life support system would presumably be in the chief engineer’s bailiwick. In practice a spacecraft with a long term life support system might have a chief ecologist in charge, but no such billet was ever specified for the Enterprise.

    Incidentally, in case you miss it, I also commented on your guest post about space piracy over at Space Snark.

  4. My issue with the plot holes is that it always amazes me that for all the money and time that goes into a major motion picture that someone can’t take a day or two of time in pre-production to make a few simple fixes. Of course, given how big a bureaucracy Hollywood is these days, “simple” changes probably do involve many meetings and hours to make. In the end, though, these are really relatively minor nit-picks. I’m happy it came out as right as it did.

    Canon is one of the things the new team got absolutely right in my opinion. They were respectful of what came before without being slavish to it. Over the years, I think many in Star Trek’s hierarchy have taken the canon far too seriously, letting it be something that’s constrained them, rather than allowing themselves to have fun with it and explore it.

    I think you’re right that life support would be the chief engineer’s bailiwick. There is a life support station on the bridge and presumably an officer who mans it, but I’d guess that officer reports to the Chief Engineer.

    Thanks for the comments over at Space Snark. Since I work at an observatory, this is still early in my “morning.” I’ll get over there shortly with some thoughts on your comments.

  5. Rick says:

    Regarding plot holes, I imagine it isn’t so much Hollywood bureaucracy as that the key players are eye oriented. They are all about scenes, visual images, not really story. The cult of the auteur director amplifies this. The screenwriter may turn in a cohesive story – but then someone says, ‘wouldn’t X be cool!’ And it would be, so X is shoehorned in, without much worry about its effect on the plot.

    Are you familiar with the Atomic Rockets website?

    http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/index.html

    It is an outstanding resource on hard SF (and SF generally, plus much eye candy such as old SF magazine covers). Somewhere he has a section, from a Hollywood person, on the somewhat related question of realism [tm] in SF film.

  6. I think you may have something there as far as the importance of visual imagery and the cult of the auteur director is concerned. I’ve read in interviews that the whole reason the Enterprise was built on the ground in the movie was because J.J. Abrams thought it would look cool — and he’s right, the scene where Kirk looks up at the Enterprise being built does look cool. The same is true of some the astronomy-related visuals that didn’t quite work for me.

    Of course this begs the question, if you can make it accurate and make it look cool, is it worth doing? You can probably guess that my answer is yes. Be that as it may, the filmmakers still gave us a positive and essentially optimistic view of space exploration and I do give them a big thumbs up for that. Even as it is, it’s likely to inspire people to ask questions — like I did when I first saw Star Wars and wondered what a parsec was. Of course Lucas got that wrong, but I still learned the right answer!

    Thanks for the Atomic Rockets link. I’ve bookmarked it and will take some time exploring.

  7. Rick says:

    I’d also certainly like to see accuracy when possible and cool. But even beyond the specific Hollywood context, graphic arts types just don’t seem to think that way. It isn’t on their radar. Consider a quite different tech, swords. I hang around 3D graphics forums a bit, and there is an amazing bias toward swords that look ‘wicked’ (huge blades tarted up with notches, etc.), but don’t seem like they’d be practical in a swordfight. Even though there are plenty of historical swords, from multiple cultures, that are both beautiful to look at and known to be practical and deadly.

    Putting it another way, graphics people tend to steal from each other, and in the process have created their own conventions of what stuff should look like.

  8. I don’t think it’s fair to generalize quite so broadly. Certainly I’ve known graphic artists that are guilty as charged, but I also know a large number of graphic artists that do their research and take great pains to get things right. That said, I think there can be a place for both approaches. “Wicked and cool” can be fun as long as it’s not passed off as “accurate.”

  9. Rick says:

    Fair point! I see beautifully researched weapons too, and there can be a place for both approaches. (And admittedly much is intended for fantasy settings, so wouldn’t be expected to look like historical blades even if designed as practical fighting weapons.)

    ‘Steal from each other’ was also a bit unfair, but that said, I do think the graphics world has developed its own traditions of what stuff should look like. For example, the film ‘Metropolis’ established a tradition of what Cities of the Future look like, a tradition still going strong after 80 years. (!)

    Irrelevant aside, but as a rail transit geek one thing I wish they’d shown in Star Trek’s future San Francisco was a cable car, or perhaps the F Market St. streetcar line making a loop in front of the Starfleet Academy building. From the brief zoom-in the academy seems to be located (appropriately) near the Presidio, and the F line may well be extended there in the next few decades.

  10. You’re definitely right that there are traditions about what certain things in science fiction and fantasy “should” look like. Clearly some of that is due to standards shared among artists, but I think there’s also a certain amount of fan/audience expectation there, too. An example of that can be seen in the design of the Enterprise from the new movie. When you get right down to it, it’s not all that different from the way the ship looked in the TV series. However, even with the fairly simple changes, I’ve seen some comments on blogs and forums that indicated some people really dislike the new look, calling it a “major” departure from earlier designs. To be honest, I wasn’t that thrilled with the design when I saw the first publicity stills either. However, it has grown on me and rather like it now.

    Wow! Future San Francisco cable cars. Wouldn’t that have been fun to see!

  11. Rick says:

    Yes, fan/audience expectation definitely plays into this. But I’m surprised about the tsurris regarding the Enterprise. To my eye it only really differed from the original in the ways you’d expect for the big screen and CGI versus the simple small model used for a 60s TV show.

    Well, I just googled the grumps, to see the specifics complained about. I supposed these went past me because I was never a fan of the design as such, so am hardly a purist about it. All I’d expect is what I got, the iconic overall configuration. One specific I did like was seeing multiple shuttles in the shuttle bay – in TOS it always seemed not quite right to have such a huge hanger for just the one shuttle!

    Maybe they’ll catch up to cable cars in a sequel! It’s hard for me to imagine that Trek-era San Franscisco would NOT still have cable cars (and probably the streetcars as well). The Golden Gate Bridge, by then some 300 years old (more or less; I’m hazy on Trek chronology) has clearly been preserved, not replaced by a ‘modern’ bridge. I’d expect San Francisco’s other piece of iconic transportation infrastructure to be likewise preserved. The city itself, in comparison, has clearly been rebuilt as you’d expect a city to be over centuries.

  12. I’ve always kind of liked the quirky rockets-put-together-with-a-flying-saucer design of the Enterprise. However, the first publicity stills I saw made it look like some parts had been fattened while other parts were slimmed. It was a little like putting Oldsmobile parts on a Porsche. It just looked wrong. However, after seeing it in the movie and after seeing some better publicity stills, I saw that what you say is true — it really is just a better-detailed version of the ship. I think I detect a little more of a battleship sensibility added to the design. There are certainly sturdier struts, less bright colors and what looks to be more armor. As I said before, it’s grown on me and I like it now.

    I would enjoy seeing cable cars in 23rd century San Francisco. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it appeared that the Golden Gate Bridge had been adapted to some kind of future transportation. The asphalt was gone and there was some other kind of road surface. It’s just a fleeting shot near the beginning of the movie, but kind of a nice touch.

  13. Rick says:

    Even though the nacelles are not reaction drives (isn’t the impulse drive at the back of the saucer section?), that is how my eye interpreted them, and made it seem that either the struts would buckle or the ship would pitch down into an inside loop. 🙂 Yes, an anal approach to spacecraft design!

    I didn’t remember that glimpse in ST:TMP, but it sounds right for an old bridge preserved in original overall form but still used for regular traffic.

    And I made the mistake of googling ‘star trek future san francisco,’ hoping a local might confirm/refute my guess of the Star Fleet Academy’s location. Alas, what I found were mostly complaints, from ‘overbuilt’ to ‘didn’t match what earlier movies showed.’ Ah, well!

  14. Yes, the impulse engine on the back of the saucer is supposed to be a reaction drive. The nacelles are supposed to be field generators, though that’s something of a retcon. I know Roddenberry originally envisioned them as rockets, which would certainly be strange. I’m not sure when they became “warp field generators”, but the first I remember reading about that was in The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In that book is a memo by Isaac Asimov discussing how he envisioned the warp drive would work.

    I’ve come across many of those complaints, too. I don’t know if you came across it in your Google search, but I came across a YouTube video from before the movie’s release by a San Francisco developer complaining about the look of future San Francisco in the movie and demanding that J.J. Abrams change it in the film. It’s amazing what gets people riled up!

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