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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Star Trek Beyond News Round-Up

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Edited by Robert Beach

Each summer season brings its own crop of questions for the blockbuster season. This year, we had questions like “can WB finally get its act together to make good movie?” (so far: no); “can Marvel produce a movie that’s part solo outing and part Avengers flick and have it work?” (yes) “is there enough ‘90s nostalgia for a new Independence Day? (a definite no)”

One of the few questions still looming over the season is whether or not Paramount’s Star Trek franchise can finally escape the ghetto of directionless mediocrity it’s been stranded in since the 2009 reboot. After Star Trek Into Darkness’s underperformed and lackluster audience response, the “Paramount” forces brought in Justin Lin to try and revive the Trek magic and bring the series back to the dynamite franchise it was 20 years ago. That attempt is Star Trek Beyond, and it’s coming later this month. Let’s see what we know. 

While the first trailer for Star Trek Beyond was less than stellar, the more recent installments have been encouraging. There’s still little indication that Lin has been able to alter the character line-up in any substantial way, which is a shame as the original series was always one of the whitest eras in Trek history. 

Many, myself included, had hoped Lin might bring his diverse sensibilities to the series. A move he did with Fast & Furious when he transformed it from B-list action series into a consistent blockbuster franchise. What does seem to be the case is that Lin has managed to inject a much greater amount of character into the films beyond the more limited set-up of the 2 previous installments of the reboot era. 

The problem with the reboot films has always been a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes Star Trek interesting, which is the characters. There are other elements that contribute to that core like the original series’ unrestrained creativity, the first movie cycle’s operatics, Next Generation’s ethics etc. But the core that’s driving all those components is the crew, how their lives are shaped by these experiences. That’s part of why it was so disappointing that Kirk doesn’t really grow through any arc in the first two films. He simply wants something then achieves because it’s his fate to run the Enterprise. 

It’s the same problem with so many of the supporting cast like McCoy and Scotty getting too little to do or Spock’s storyline always boiling down to him needing to feel emotion. That last one is a real problem because it’s the complete antithesis of one of Star Trek’s core principles: strength through differences. 

In every series, there’s always at least one character who’s strength and abilities come specifically from the fact they’re not human. Spock in the original series could often overcome threats thanks to his Vulcan physiology; Data’s android nature allowed him to avoid biological complications; Odo saves the entire Federation in Deep Space Nine. The point is that difference is something to be celebrated and cherished rather than struggled against.   

That’s where things were but I get the sense they’re improving going forward.  Scotty seems to have a major story involving the mysterious new alien woman; Kirk’s central plot is more about him searching for his own identity outside of the idealized Captain he’s built his father up to be in his own mind; even Spock’s emotional struggle seems predicated on philosophy rather than a stringent belief that “emotion good, logic bad!”  

It definitely seems like Karl Urban’s McCoy has a much bigger role in the film acting as the heart of the team, which definitely fits his character. Scenes like him speaking with Kirk about his quest for personal cause and identity or discussing his view on the value of fear with Spock are the character-driven stuff that used to be Star Trek’s stock and trade. 

I do wish we were seeing more of Uhura as Zoe Saldana remains the most squandered talent at hand in these films. There are a couple indications of some more Sulu scenes, which is a delight as one thing the new films have excelled is graduating Sulu from an off-beat supporting character to a serious figure with an actual identity. Also, John Cho is always a delight. I honestly wish he was the main character of these films.  

The big mysteries of the trailers are the new characters Jaylah, the kick-ass alien woman, and Krall, Idris Elba’s freaky alien villain. Both of these characters seem to be new additions to the franchise, and I couldn’t be happier about how weird they seem. Free imagination was always a big component of what made the original series era such a blast. While these two aren’t quite as cool as immortal alien cowboys or the cosmic ghost of Jack the Ripper, I like that they don’t seem like rehashes of old movie villains. 

That’s another problem with the previous films that Star Trek Beyond seems to be fixing, giving us a villain that’s new instead of just rehashing Khan again. Elba’s Krall doesn’t seem like any previous movie bad guy.

He’s reportedly a Klingon, yet unless the Klingons have been radically re-imagined, that doesn’t seem true. He reminds me a lot more of the Jem’hadar from Deep Space Nine. His philosophy is a little hard to work out, but I like that he at least seems to be ideologically opposed to the Enterprise crew rather than out on a personal vendetta.  

Stuff like “this is where the frontier pushes back” and “your unity is a weakness” speaks to a very regressive and xenophobic world view that would set him up as a solid antagonist of everything the Federation and Starfleet stand for. Maybe this conflict forces Kirk to greatly consider and embrace those values. 

As for Jaylah, I’m a lot less sure about what her deal is. She seems like an attempt to chase the Guardians of the Galaxy aesthetic, much like the entire first trailer with the monochromatic leather jumpsuits and off-beat needle drop music. It is nice to see an attempt at giving the series another strong woman character with real identity instead of the failure of Into Darkness’s Carol Marcus.  

Speaking of, it’s pretty telling that Into Darkness put so much effort into adding Marcus to the team only for her to be completely excised from Beyond. Hopefully Jaylah will stick better as the new films could really use better representation. She’d be a breath of fresh air to the very regressive sensibilities that have informed this reboot. 

Something fairly unique about the trailers is the way the film’s plot has been seriously intimated without actually getting revealed. We know several key plot points: the destruction of the Enterprise by an alien swarm, the crew getting separated on the alien planet and needing to reunite to escape, and something involving the Federation high command.  

I know a lot of folks are down on this being the fourth cinematic destruction of the Enterprise, and it is getting taxing at this point. At the same time, it’s also one of the most visually interesting things you can actually do with the Enterprise owing to its size. I’m much more interested in the nature of the alien menace at hand as they really do seem new and unique. 

What’s interesting about the aliens on hand is that their designs seem like a fusion of multiple previous races. I’d actually suspect they were some form of evil alien alliance if not for Krall’s line condemning unity.  

The ship design resembles the Tholians, the armored aliens remind me of the Breen. Krall looks like one of the Jem’hadar, and some of the other aliens appear to be the Remeans from Star Trek: Nemesis. It’s a curious combination, but if the idea is that all of those groups have joined forces to try and curb Federation expansionism, that’d actually be a nice way to incorporate the previous new continuity films into this one while also fixing their mistakes. 

In this continuity, the Federation and Star Fleet aren’t benign forces of exploration, rather a military armada who tend to engage in imperialistic adventurism, even invading into the heart of the Klingon Empire with their fancy new battleship The Vengeance. Given all that, it’d make sense if the B-list bad guys of the galaxy might get a lot more paranoid about their expanse into the frontier. This could work if the Krall acts as a representative of the Dominion, the big bad guys of Deep Space Nine (incidentally, 5 bucks says that big station is Deep Space 9 in the new continuity.)   

Honestly, this sounds like a solid movie pitch for Star Trek: Anti-Star Fleet alliance strand The Enterprise, and the Trek crew must rebuild, escape, and prove the Federation are a force for good. It would even reflect Kirk’s own quest for identity. 

Yes, with 3 weeks to go, I’d actually say I’m on board with Star Trek Beyond. I’m still cautious in my optimism as a lot of my interest in the movie comes from speculation rather than confirmation. And yet, I trust the people behind it; they like Star Trek as a series instead of viewing at something old, outmoded, and inapplicable to the modern experience and style of blockbuster.  

Most of all, it seems like Star Trek Beyond has an identity to it. It evades the Hollywood chase for blockbuster trends to slap on a bone simple space opera. There’s character, ideology, and a writing/directing team that’s genuinely excited to tell stories in this universe, and that’s really all we can hope for.

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