The core problem with JJ Abrams’ Star Trek

(Warning: this post really shows my geekiness. I make no apology for it.)

I finally figured it out. And now, I have to share it.

I went to JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot prepared to dislike it. I generally hate remakes, even good ones, because no matter how well done (i.e., Battlestar Galactica), their success is merely a reflection of those who did the original work. But I ultimately did enjoy the film. It was fast-paced, funny and the liberties it took with canon did not seem to be arbitrary (i.e., “Let’s make Starbuck a girl!”). But still, something bugged me about it.

It’s the “Chosen One” syndrome.

In the original Trek, Captain Kirk was notable for being Starfleet’s youngest captain, but beyond that, he was not singled out as special. He came up through the academy and served on different vessels in various capacities before finally being promoted to the captain’s chair. And there was the implication that, as wild as they were, Kirk’s adventures might not be unique; perhaps every other Starfleet captain was out there experiencing the same kind of excitement.

I don’t presume to know Roddenberry’s reason for this, but I sense it might be grounded in his own World War II military experience. In that war, everyone served; heroism was neither rare nor overly praised, and the idea of contributing to a greater good was crucial. You can see those aspects in the Star Trek he created and supervised (for example, in “Court Martial,” Kirk encounters other members of his academy graduating class).

But then along comes Star Wars, and a subsequent generation of filmmakers who have spent their lives only as filmmakers. They bring nothing new to the table, no life experience or unusual perspectives, just all the films and TV shows they grew up watching (and their king is, of course, Quentin Tarantino). And everyone of that generation grew up watching Star Wars, where first Luke Skywalker, then in the prequels Anakin, assume the status of divinely chosen avatars.

So now we have a Kirk who was born in miraculous circumstances, found in a backwater burg by wise older warrior Captain Pike who then awakens the Force (whoops! I mean, his sense of duty) and invites him on a quest. In short order this mentor is eliminated, and Kirk must rely on the help of Han Solo (dang! I mean, Mr. Spock) to defeat the supervillain of the moment. If Eric Bana’s Nero had said at the end, “No, Kirk, I am your father,” it wouldn’t have been that surprising.

And then there’s a moment that’s so contradictory to the previous incarnation of James T. Kirk that it soured the whole film for me. Kirk offers to rescue Nero’s crew, but Nero refuses; Kirk then lets them all die. This is supposed to be (at heart) the same character who told the Metrons he wouldn’t kill the Gorn captain? Who, when Maltz the Klingon protests “You said you would kill me,” replies, “I lied”? Who repeatedly, after enduring violence and humiliation, offers friendship instead of punishment when he regains the upper hand?

Roddenberry’s Kirk was a man who, at his best, was exactly who we’d want boldly going where no man has gone before. Abrams’ Kirk is a boy delighted with his new toys, and is not even remotely who I’d want representing the human race.

10 Comments on “The core problem with JJ Abrams’ Star Trek”

  1. I agree with your assesment and I haven't even seen it yet.

    Seems they wanted to make it hearken back to the idea of "Hero with a 1000 Faces" and have it resonate with people for the idea of that classic special hero archetype-which I don't have abeef with stories like that-but i also don't like re-makes either especially when too much stuff gets changed around.
    I hated the rather recent Beowulf for that very reason.

  2. Pile on top of that the epic fail of the Spock/Uhura idiocy. Spock is a VULCAN. Better than VULCAN, he had to be stronger, and more logical than other vulcans. And why does every movie have to make a slut out of the lead (or in this case, the only) woman?

  3. Right there with you. I hadn't analyzed it from the "hero story" angle, but from the military angle and the absolutely ridiculous jumping of rank from cadet to Captain.

  4. Thank you so much for putting it into words. I felt all these things, but didn't want to inspect them, as I was trying to enjoy a movie. After the movie, well, I decided to just leave all the uncomfortable feelings in the past. But, you are right, they need to be expressed. THAT was not Kirk's life story. It was a good children's story, but not Kirk's history. Thank you.

  5. I didn't see it at the time, but you're so right. I enjoyed the movie, but I suspect I wouldn't have if I were a true ST fan. I admit it–while I've seen every TNG episode, I've never sat down to watch TOS! Shameful, I know.

  6. Not to mention that we're making the entire prior series impossible by changing the parameters. Liberties are fine, but let's not re-write the entire series.

  7. StrRaven wrote:
    "And why does every movie have to make a slut out of the lead (or in this case, the only) woman?"

    Uh, what?

    I really enjoyed the movie, but do agree with Alex about this "divinely ordained" business, as well as the failure of the new Kirk to live up to the heart and ideals of the original.

    But I found the relationship between Spock and Uhura to be very well done, and Uhura a strong, sympathetic character. Her reactions to what Spock was going through were genuinely moving. I thought introducing that dynamic brought a good amount of humanity to both characters, and to the film. And Spock is, of course, half human. Having him involved in a surreptitious romance, just as he tries to keep his emotions hidden, was thematically smart.

    And the woman is a "slut" because she's involved in a sexual relationship? Really? What decade, nay millennium, are you living in?


    Tim Byrd
    Home of the Frogs of Doom

  8. Normally I try not to jump into an argument, but I have to back Tim on this one. It's questionable dramatically–one of Spock's most powerful qualities has always been his intense, self-imposed loneliness–but establishing a relationship between Spock and Uhura no more makes her a "slut" than it does Spock.

  9. Haven't yet seen the movie, but I grow, with you, weary of the Hero's Quest/prophecy driven plot. Why does it have to be one particular guy (it's usually a guy)? I know these stories are supposed to be all mythopoetic but certainly they do something to undermine other themes: the power of people working as a group, the power of an individual CHOOSING to sacrifice him/herself, not because "it was written" but because it might just be the right thing to do in the moment.

  10. I completely agree with you, Alex, even though I did enjoy the movie and thought it was well done, for what it was. And I'll admit that I'm more of a ST:TNG fan than the original.

    You can extend the "chosen one" issue to the fantasy genre, too. Look at LOTR. Neither Bilbo nor Frodo was "chosen." Frodo did what he had to do with the burden that fell upon him and the story is in large part about his internal journey–journey toward becoming the person needed to complete the task. And in the end, he couldn't–perhaps no one could?–and yet wasn't diminished because of it. It's really a story of the capacity within each of us and the necessity for all to do everything possible–the importance of each role played. It *is* a Fellowship, and not just of the 9, but of all players.

    Not that there's anything wrong with the chosen one mentality–or with things like Harry Potter, etc, that express such a viewpoint. But it is an intrinsically different worldview, perhaps informed by the growth of solepcism.

    If that makes any sense. 😉 Anyway, great blog post and I've referred several people over here to read it.

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