(Level 3 spoiler hazard: I will proceed to give away the events of the re-imagining of Star Trek by J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman as it serves my purpose throughout this review. I do this not out of malice—though I positively hate that movie—but because science fiction that makes no sense at all annoys me, and today I will have my revenge. So without further ado, I’m posting something very different today.)
Star Trek is a science fiction mythology about humanistic values and progressive hopes.
The Liberal Ironist is not going to talk about humanism or progressivism today.
No, today’s post is stand-alone self-indulgence: The Liberal Ironist is going to carry on angrily about Star Trek, the J.J. Abrams-produced, Damon Lindelof-directed reboot of the Star Trek film franchise. This will be an angry review for no reason more-complicated than that this movie doesn’t make any sense. Star Trek, heretofore and eternally known as Star Trek: FUBAR, is a nonsensical mess that insults our intelligence.
“FUBAR” is an informal military shorthand for “f***ed up beyond all recognition.” This is nothing like what I normally write on this blog, but I wanted to clarify a few problems with a mostly critically-acclaimed (and very financially successful) sci-fi action/adventure movie.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a Trekkie. I have seen all of the Star Trek movies. But I’ve only seen several episodes apiece of the classic TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I haven’t really seen the often-panned Voyager or the apparently-authentic but short-lived Enterprise at all. I’m not very engaged in the lore of the show, and I am often quite comfortable with the shifts in tone that occur when a franchise is “re-imagined.” I am a loyal observer of several other pop culture crazes, prominent among them the TV series LOST, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who, each of which similarly straddle the line between science fiction and fantasy in ways that put them in a similar general category with Star Trek. In declaring myself a LOST fan (and I am a big one), my disappointment with Star Trek: FUBAR should nonetheless be clear. I expected a whole world of brilliance from J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, 2 of the principal lines behind the groundbreaking TV series that sold me on the value of allegory as a means of mapping out the web of one’s themes and cultural influences. What I got from Star Trek: FUBAR was nonsensical manic bunk even in comparison to the mediocre big-budget action or disaster movies we see today, and it was so distracting that there was really no chance of me enjoying all the pretty special effects and warp-speed dialogue.
Without further ado, I will now do my best to spoil the movie. For a standard post on politics or philosophy, please just wait a day or 2. You’ve been warned…
Star Trek: FUBAR opens aboard the Federation starship on which George Kirk, the father of James T. Kirk, serves as 1st officer. But his 1st officering is violently-interrupted as a huge, spiky and evil-looking ship suddenly emerges through a wormhole. I don’t know why a ship piloted by an evil person has to be huge, spiky and evil-looking…particularly considering that it eventually turns out to be an unremarkable Romulan mining vessel from 175 years in the future. So, consider that stupid thing #1 about this movie.
Oh, wait—that’s actually stupid thing #3. Stupid thing #1 is the fact, also unknown at this time but causally prior to the 1st scene, that this mining ship fell through this wormhole from 175 years in the future completely by accident. Isn’t it a little convenient to fall into a black hole as a result of a careless maneuver and to simply ride it back into the past? Stupid thing #2: Isn’t it way too convenient to fall into a black hole completely by accident and to be transported 175 years into the past to the time and place in space of James Tiberius Kirk’s birth? I mean, what are the odds? Why not fall through time to…well, a location close to the system Romulus is in, or somehow accounting for galactic drift and rotation, to a location still in Romulan space?
Don’t give me that “many worlds theory” bunk. Just don’t.
Wow. I’m just through the 1st scene of the movie and already I have so many problems with it that I’m getting lost. That’s funny, because when I would watch LOST I would see so many things I liked in it that I’d get lost. Am I over-thinking this? No, this is really reall dumb, and I am just getting started.
Stupid thing #4: Romulan mining vessels 175 years in the future are obviously pretty advanced, as they are able to utterly destroy capital class Federation starships in a matter of minutes. An Alaskan fishing ship today is definitely more technologically-advanced than an Imperial frigate of the late 1700s, but I still wouldn’t put my money down on the fishing ship if the 2 did battle. I mean, the frigate does have cannons…
So long story short, George Kirk’s captain is killed, his ship comes under heavy attack from a…futuristic evil mining vessel, and in order to save most of the crew George Kirk has to ram his ship into the enemy vessel, sacrificing himself. This is a deviation from Star Trek canon, as Captain Kirk’s father “historically” went on to become a captain and died an old man having lived to see his adult son become captain of the Enterprise. James Tiberius Kirk, who was miraculously being born at that very moment, grows up fatherless. 25 years later, he is a complete jerk.
This sounds to me like a plot a grade schooler would come up with—a smart grade schooler, sure, but still…
So Kirk grows up as a trickster with a death wish (although it is only the petty criminality involved that makes this Kirk different from the original, as he too had a devious side and sometimes exhibited a death wish). He gets into a fight in a bar, right after buying a drink. He pays for this drink…with money. Again, I’m not a Trekkie, but I do know that in the humanistic future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned, money has been abolished within the United Federation of Planets because all people labor for the rational betterment of society as a whole. (Granted, one may say this is not only ridiculous but in a sense unnecessary, as money is a perfectly valid means of measuring the exchange of a given number of hours of labor of 1 type for another, and the efficiency with which money tracks that exchange would remain regardless of the prevailing economic order. The point is that this is a central feature of the world J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof have to work with, and there is no explanation of this glaring departure from canon by these 2 avowed Trekkies, making this stupid thing #5.)
During this bar fight, Kirk has the audacity to assault a Federation officer who tries to stop him. That’s not just a death wish, that’s a stupid thing to do. But young James Kirk isn’t the only person whom has taken leave of his senses, as he is visited in the brig by Captain Christopher Pike, who challenges young Kirk to be a real man, joining Starfleet like his valorous but deceased father. It’s true Captain Pike knew Kirk’s father and understandable that he is troubled to see his friend’s son wrecking himself, but it’s showing extraordinary faith indeed to encourage a young delinquent to distinguish himself at Starfleet. That’s not stupid thing #6, but it’s a little hard to fathom.
Stupid things #6, #7 and #8 are all biggies, spectacular failures of imagination, even common sense. First, after the (still completely mysterious) Romulan mining vessel from the future destroyed a Starfleet ship, no Federation fleet has been sent out to counter this menace; apparently no Federation ship has even attempted a reconnaissance of that part of space. This splendid desolation allowed Nero, the villain of this movie, to wait 25 years for his as-yet-unidentified quarry to pass through the wormhole himself—something the villain couldn’t have known for certain would happen at all—so that he could take him prisoner and set his plan for revenge in motion. That absurd single-mindedness is stupid thing #7. The fact that his crew made no noteworthy attempt at mutiny or defection for 25 years is stupid thing #8. Apparently his entire crew is absolutely bent on revenge. When you hear their reason why, that will sound pretty stupid, too.
Stupid thing #9 is the fact that Spock apparently devised the Kobayashi Maru test taken by Kirk. (The Kobayashi Maru is a fictional freighter ship that issues a distress call to a Federation starship, only to face simultaneous sneak attack from 5 Klingon birds-of-prey. As capital class offensive ships, there is no way for a single unprepared Starfleet vessel to defend itself; it is disabled and then either boarded or destroyed—a no-win scenario conceived to test the character of the pilot under evaluation.) Now we learn that the test was conceived by Spock in a pointless and excessively aggrandizing bit of history. Kirk takes the test and hacks it, contriving an utterly implausible way out for himself in a famous but never-before-seen moment in Star Trek canon. Kirk and Spock confront each other in an inconclusive competition over who has the most-formidable ego.
This battle of egos is inconclusive because, after 25 years of silence, our villain has now decided to attack the planet Vulcan. Because Starfleet’s main force is unavailable for some reason, a ship full of recruits is mobilized to combat this mysterious and powerful menace. That ship is the Enterprise, commanded by Captain Christopher Pike. Is there any canon significance to the timing of this? No, nothing—it is a complete coincidence that out of all Starfleet, the Enterprise would be the only capital class ship available for deployment to Vulcan, and that James Kirk would be a cadet of sufficient standing to get roped onto the crew by the captain at the last second. Talk about a cosmic coincidence; this is stupid thing #10, along with the fact that Starfleet apparently isn’t able to provide an adequate standing defense for 1 of the Federation’s core planets.
When the Enterprise reaches Vulcan we find that our villain, Nero, has launched a giant drill into the center of the planet. This will also turn out to be stupid. Anyway, Captain Pike is taken prisoner by the renegade Romulans following a failed diplomatic mission, but not before appointing Mr. Spock, his 1st officer, as acting captain, and James Kirk, a cadet in the middle of disciplinary proceedings, as acting 1st officer. Is Captain Pike insane?! That would be stupid thing #11. An aerial insertion onto the giant drill by three trainees follows. These are cadet–I’m sorry, acting 1st officer Kirk, ensign Sulu and an unknown man in a red suit; who do you suppose is killed in action? While the drill is damaged by the strike team, it comes too late to prevent the launching of “red matter” into the planet’s core. A pseudoscientific scan by a young Chekhov reveals that this “red matter” has produced a black hole in the core of Vulcan.
This brings us to stupid thing #12. A black hole can have an event horizon of about 1 light-month; for perspective the distance from the Earth to the Moon is only about 1.2 light-seconds. Yet apparently for this “red matter” to effectively produce a black hole that can consume the planet Vulcan entirely requires insertion directly into the core of the planet, an operation that requires…entire minutes! Nero has jeopardized his harebrained revenge plan just to center a planet-destroying superweapon.
So, Vulcan is destroyed in a major history-altering event (as nothing like this ever happens in Star Trek canon). Spock’s quick thinking saves the Vulcan High Council (or at least most of it), and his father whom out of the entire planet is conveniently located at the same place; his mother, however, is lost. (Maybe they couldn’t afford to keep Winona Ryder on in the part?) Most of Vulcan’s 6 billion inhabitants are killed. As Captain Pike has been taken hostage, Spock remains acting captain. He is deep in shock, of course, but still able to calmly follow orders to meet with the rest of the fleet. Kirk angrily protests Spock’s refusal to pursue Nero (even though he is obviously an incredibly-dangerous, little-understood quantity, and they have a ship full of trainees), and proceeds to make a fool of himself on the bridge of the Enterprise. Spock orders him loaded into an escape pod and dropped off on the next terrestrial planet, which amazingly has an atmosphere! It’s also so close to Vulcan that the planet can be observed in the sky. So, these planetary conveniences are stupid things #13 and #14.
Kirk receives an automated warning that the planet is a near-hostile environment and that he should stay with the escape pod; this he promptly ignores as he sets out on foot for the nearest Federation military facility. Along the way he gets caught up in a pretty intense game of big fish, bigger fish as a few native predators chase him down. He runs into a cave where 1 man with a burning branch—Where “on Earth” did that even come from?—scares off a predator the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and far more-agile. This turns out to be Mr. Spock—as in Leonard Nimoy, old Mr. Spock! This is definitely stupid thing #15. Yeah, I know time travel is involved and I’m just supposed to run with that—but this really doesn’t make sense: When’s the last time you were marooned on an ice planet and after being chased by a succession of predators just happened to run into a cave where you incidentally met a much-older, gentler version of the man who marooned you just minutes before? That’s not a cosmic coincidence, it’s a colossal plot convenience.
I should make an aside here. I’m a huge fan of LOST, a show that practically runs on cosmic coincidences. The difference (and a crucial narrative element in that show) is the fact that these coincidences aren’t supposed to be coincidences. There is a manipulating force behind a series of long-shot encounters, it is purposive, and this purpose is central to the perspective one will have on the show. Star Wars, of course, is centrally about the Force, the various shifts in which (depending on your perspective) either determine the nature and scope of our actions, or else provides a resource for the fulfillment of our wills.
Star Trek: FUBAR has no such prior metaphysical entity to address the point of why such an extraordinary chance encounter as Nero’s retreat through the past to the moment of James Kirk’s birth, or the James Kirk’s stumble upon old Spock, should ever happen. This is simple plot convenience. I mean, they only have about 2 hours with which to reboot the franchise!
Now it’s time for exposition and back-story…really stupid back-story. 175 years in the future, a supernova explosion “would threaten the entire Galaxy.” (This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, as our own Milky Way Galaxy contains well over 100 billion stars, a number of which are massive-enough to go supernova and which have gone supernova in the past. These most-certainly haven’t destroyed life on Earth, which is located in a reasonably-busy suburb of the Milky Way where life has been evolving for about 3.5 billion years; meanwhile, supernova-prone stars are so unstable that they can only exist for a few million years at most. So, that’s stupid thing #16.) Anyway, the Vulcans invented or discovered something called “red matter,” which if freed from its containment will generate an instant black hole. So, the Vulcans equipped their fastest ship with the red matter so as to deploy the red matter, form a black hole, and swallow up the shock wave from the supernova. This doesn’t make much sense either, since a constantly-expanding supernova emanates in all directions and wouldn’t require long to exceed the event horizon of this “instant black hole.” So this plan to save the Galaxy by deploying red matter to absorb the shockwave of the supernova shouldn’t be very effective; you would have to envelop it with black holes, a task of far greater difficulty, even giving Star Trek technology, than I think the writers appreciate…So that’s stupid thing #17.
Stupid thing #18 is the fact that this supernova explosion destroyed Romulus before the Romulans had a chance to evacuate. Supernovas definitely don’t travel faster than light; and how far is this supernova from Romulus, anyway? The next-nearest star to the Sun is Proxima Centauri, about 4.3 light-years away. That means nothing could travel from there to here without taking at least 4.3 years to do so. It would, however, be possible with already-known (though little-understood) physical principles such as quantum teleportation to develop a system that could detect a supernova and relay a warning when it occurred, so it makes no sense that a star close-enough to Romulus to threaten it in the event of a supernova wouldn’t be closely-monitored.
Anyway, “the unthinkable happened,” and Romulus was destroyed by this supernova. Apparently the Romulans were just sitting around on their home planet, waiting for Mr. Spock to save the day with…a black hole…Nero was the leader of a mining team that returned to Romulus to find it destroyed. He decided to take revenge on Mr. Spock for not getting to Romulus fast-enough to help; both Nero’s and Spock’s ships were pulled into the black hole Spock created to absorb the force of the supernova. Nero passed through the black hole first; instead of being crushed along with his ship and his entire crew, down to a singularity, this black hole which they just happened to fall through delivered them, unscathed, to the time and place of James Kirk’s birth. That’s unbelievably stupid, but we’ve already addressed that.
Nero then waited 25 years in the hope that Spock would pass through the wormhole, which he eventually did. Stupid thing #19 is the fact that Nero never bothered to warn the Romulans that their planet would be destroyed by a supernova in less than 2 centuries. When Mr. Spock emerged through the wormhole, Nero took him prisoner, commandeering his ship and the remaining red matter, dropping him off on the ice planet they both are on now so that he could watch Nero destroy Vulcan with the red matter. Stupid thing #20 is the fact that Vulcan loomed as large as the moon in the sky of this planet; such a close orbital situation would either destroy both of these planets or at least wreck their orbits and send them hurtling into space or into their own star in reality.
It’s about to get real stupid here. Kirk and old Spock meet the young Mr. Scott on this ice planet. That’s right, he just happens to be stationed here, so they can meet for the 1st time. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Scottish engineer in a science fiction story, but finding him in this barren waste, especially after Kirk’s utterly implausible encounter of old Mr. Spock, is just too much. That’s stupid thing #21. It also turns out that Mr. Scott is the inventor of a teleportation system that allows safe beaming onto a moving object; he just doesn’t know it yet! So, old Mr. Spock literally says “Here is the equation for warp-speed beaming,” and Mr. Scott has the requisite knowledge to beam Kirk and himself onto the Enterprise. No need for a retrofit of any equipment, no need for a test-run to ensure that they won’t get left in space due to a rounding error or explode at the speed of light upon beaming onto the Enterprise…No: “Here is an equation,” and now teleportation onto an object moving at warp speed is possible. You could do it on your own teleportation device at home, just so long as you understand the math involved! I’m pretty sure applied physics isn’t that convenient. That’s stupid thing #22.
Onboard the Enterprise, Kirk taunts the young Mr. Spock into hitting him and attempting to strangle him (which is at least an understandable impulse considering how ridiculous this movie has been). The purpose of this is to invoke a Starfleet regulation that requires an emotionally-unfit captain to relinquish his command to the ranking officer. Once Acting Captain Spock realizes the extent of his impairment, he relinquishes command…and James Tiberius Kirk, who was a cadet facing disciplinary proceedings that very day, who isn’t yet a regular part of the Enterprise crew, who was just expelled from the ship by the previous acting captain and who just came aboard the ship unlawfully to pick a fight with that same acting captain, takes charge of a capital class Federation vessel. If you’ll pardon the resort to cliche: “God help us all.” That’s stupid thing #23.
Now it’s up to the Enterprise to protect Earth from Nero’s insane plan to destroy all Federation home planets, on the theory that “Only then will we (Romulans) truly be safe!” (Actually, since Romulus was only destroyed because the Vulcans couldn’t come to their aid fast-enough, it seems like the greatest danger to the Romulans is not enough Federation, not too much Federation; did I mention Nero is a genocidal lunatic?) Anyway, it’s all up to the Enterprise because the Federation fleet again is out of range. The capital of the United Federation of Planets is on Earth, mind you; Starfleet doesn’t maintain a force in the Solar System strong-enough to defend the Federation Capital or Starfleet Academy from a Romulan mining ship from the future. That’s stupid thing #24, and yes, by now I do regret deciding to enumerate the things about this movie that annoy me.
Kirk and young Spock finally teleport onto Nero’s vessel for a final confrontation; having been caught in the bowels of the ship surrounded by armed, fanatical Romulans, Kirk and Spock are able to phaser their way to safety. A series of dramatic fights in a floorless room ensue…There is a room without floors or guardrails on a mining ship. That’s stupid thing #25; why would anyone design such a ship?
Anyway, in a big climactic battle, red matter spills inside Nero’s vessel, opening a black hole inside it but somehow leaving enough time for communication from the Enterprise for an offer to take Nero and his crew prisoner. The Liberal Ironist won’t debate the ethics of offering the worst genocidal abomination imprisonment as opposed to a quick, crushing death; he will debate how there can possibly be any time to talk surrender terms while a black hole is forming in the hangar bay of Nero’s spaceship. That doesn’t make the cut as a stupid thing, though; it isn’t as dumb and ridiculous as the preceding 25.
Maybe you can see what was coming: While Captain Pike was rescued from Nero, he is promoted to admiral and the movie ends with James Kirk’s promotion to captain of the Enterprise. James Kirk, who enters Starfleet as a completely-unreliable jerk, essentially goes from cadet to captain after 1 day of active duty. True, he just saved the capital of the Federation…but is Starfleet sure about this? What about Mr. Spock? He clearly acted above and beyond the call of duty, and he did so by the book; indeed, he is a true exemplar of Starfleet discipline and competence. He also just lost 6 billion of his fellow-specimens, and still managed to act both heroically and gracefully. What does he get? He remains 1st officer of the Enterprise. Ouch.
During a climactic ceremony, now-Captain Kirk approaches a wheelchair-bound Admiral Pike, formally relieving him as presiding officer on the Enterprise. “I am relieved,” Pike says gracefully, with a warm smile. So am I, because this absurd, extremely-taxing movie is finally over.
Is there anything worthwhile about this exceptionally ridiculous movie? Well, Carl Urban makes a truly amazing Dr. “Bones” McCoy. That’s…about it. The Liberal Ironist eagerly-awaits a sequel in which the surviving Vulcans under old Mr. Spock’s guidance violate either the reproductive rights of their women or any biomedical ethics we humans could embrace in order to restore their species; an interesting depiction of such a challenging issue could at least allow some good to emerge from this complete absurdity of a movie.
Wait a minute…
Star Trek: The Motion Picture: lousy.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: good.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: lousy.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: good.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: lousy.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: awesome.
Star Trek Generations: lousy.
Star Trek: First Contact: good.
Star Trek: Insurrection: lousy.
Star Trek: Nemesis: very good.
Star Trek: FUBAR: lousy.
Remarkable: After 32 years and 11 movies, the Curse of the odd-numbered Trek remains…