Here is a true statement: in the great 2009 Battle of the Origin Myths, I gave Wolverine a pass and plan to watch Star Trek. What? It is the subscription required to keep my nerd card current.
However, much as I grew up watching repeats of the original series (thank you, Rupert Murdoch!) and The Next Generation, and although I will admit to not changing the channel when Deep Space Nine came on – this is a bit of a new experience for me. It’s one thing to watch a TV show, it’s entirely another to make the leap to the big screen. So I wasn’t out there waiting in line to watch Nemesis or Insurrection, etc. The Wrath of Khan is the only Star Trek movie I’ve ever seen and that because it was on TV. Besides, it’s like The Godfather of sci-fi movies – you have to see it. It’s the law!
So what prompted this change of mind? Well, it didn’t hurt that this was a JJ Abrams movie starring Eric Bana, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, for sure. Plus, here’s what I’ve been reading in the run up to watching my first ever Star Trek movie on the big screen:
Those laughs never slide into mockery. Mr. Abrams doesn’t treat “Star Trek” as a sacred text, which would be deadly for everyone save the fanatics. But neither does he skewer a pop cultural classic that, more than 40 years after its first run, has been so lampooned (it feels like there are more “South Park” parodies than original episodes) it was difficult to see how he was going to give it new life. By design or accident, he has, simply because in its hopefulness “Star Trek” reminds you that there’s more to science fiction (and Hollywood blockbusters) than nihilism. Mr. Abrams doesn’t venture into politics as boldly as Mr. Roddenberry sometimes did, though it’s worth noting he does equate torture with barbarism.
When celebrated science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr. (AKA Alice Sheldon) started watching Star Trek in the 1960s, she wrote in letters to her friends about how the one aspect of the show that truly fascinated her was Spock. She wrote a fan letter to Leonard Nimoy, explaining that his sexual magnetism came from humans’ natural exogamy, their urge to marry outside their own groups. An alien would be the ultimate outsider, the ultimate object of desire. In one besotted passage, she described Spock’s “touching shoulder blades, the tremor, the shadowed and infinitely effective squint.”
Hmmm… I’ll give you three guesses where all this talk of sexy Spock the Outsider is going:
For those of us who watched the show in the 1960s (or during the countless reruns since), Nimoy’s alter ego was the harbinger of a future in which logic would reign over emotion, and rational thought triumph over blind faith. He was a digital being in an analog world; the Pied Piper who led our generation into the Silicon Age.
Anyone who followed the early “Star Trek” with regularity knows how charismatic Spock was. If there were two characters I wanted to be as a young man, they were Spock — and James Bond. Both displayed total self-confidence, and amazing problem-solving skills. Both traveled to exotic destinations, and were irresistible to women. And both shared a quality that my generation lacked completely: composure.
The original “Star Trek” imagined the futuristic fulfillment of John F. Kennedy’s inspirational oratory, in which his New Frontier became “the final frontier.” The budget surpluses and budding space program of the early 1960s gave rise, in the 23rd century, to the utopian United Federation of Planets. On the Starship Enterprise, men and women, blacks and whites, Americans, Russians and Asians — with names like Uhura, Chekov and Sulu — worked side by side, reflecting Mr. Roddenberry’s belief that “when human beings get over the silly little problems of racism and war, then we can tackle the big problems of exploring the universe,” said David Gerrold, a writer for the original “Star Trek” series.
I won’t enjoy it quite the way I used to. Star Trek will be a slightly melancholy pleasure, like spotting your high school sweetheart years later, all dolled up on the cover of a magazine. Cause and effect: with all this rebooting, I suspect something ineffable has finally been booted right out of Star Trek. There won’t be that sense of intimacy, of something both brilliant and ridiculous, that told fans what they were watching was secretly theirs. That was all in the past. This is the future.
And so when Nimoy appears in this “Star Trek” as the older counterpart to Quinto’s character — this is where that time-bending plot device comes in — we get to see both the man Spock grew out of and the man he’ll grow into. Nimoy is playing the character who’s already been where Quinto is boldly going, and he looks wonderful. He’s got the face of an actor who’s actually lived, not of one who’s tried to hide the effects of living. His youth is alive in him, as opposed to being an indistinct, vaguely remembered thing. And he’s perfectly at home in a movie that recognizes how reinvention can be a form of rejuvenation. The original “Star Trek” aired only from 1966 to 1969; you could say its life didn’t really begin until after it was canceled. With “Star Trek” Abrams honors the show’s legacy without fossilizing its best qualities. Instead, he’s whisked it off to a planet where numbing nostalgia can’t kill it, and where the future is still something to look forward to.