The last three big budget blockbusting Star Trek movies seem a far cry from the morality tales delivered in the original television series of 50 years ago.
Some fans profess love for one and contempt for the other, with both iterations of Captain James T Kirk and crew having their fans and their critics.
But when you analyse the new films, and the original series that inspired them, you discover they have far more in common than you’d first think.
It’s no secret that the Star Trek series of 50 years ago was created by Gene Roddenberry so that he could tell morality tales that would be nixed by the censors on a conventional show. Star Trek commented on sexual and racial equality, and was deeply unpopular with the establishment for doing so. But it also slipped through other, less obvious, morality tales which flew right under the noses of the censors who couldn’t get past the science fiction format. For this reason, the original Star Trek series, ahead of all the others, is considered by many to be the best.
That same thinking often espouses televised Star Trek, which could tell deep and intimate tales in your living room, the definitive version. Star Trek on the big screen, it follows, is less than pure Star Trek because the format has to be altered to pull in the punters. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) is an example of Roddenberry trying to spin a small screen story on the big screen with a budget to match. While it did OK it did not bust blocks, and is widely criticised by some. (I happen to love it).
When you start reading up on the original series, and delve behind the scenes in books like Inside Star Trek and the brilliant These Are The Voyages series, you discover that while Roddenberry and his crew were breaking many moulds they were also forced to fit into some.
Star Trek’s first pilot, The Cage starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike, was rejected for being “too cerebral”. Roddenberry was forced to come up with something closer to the action and adventure format of other shows of the time like Bonanza. The second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before starring William Shatner as Captain James T Kirk, was more like it. And when it went to series fistfights were part of each morality play. Half a century later we remember the morality plays, but forget Kirk’s ripped Starfleet shirts.
The new films set in an alternate timeline have a similar genesis.
While telling engaging stories about Kirk, Spock, Bones et al, JJ Abrams reboots have also had to pull the paying punters in. In science fiction, these days, that means blowing up planets and starships. And, just like the torn Starfleet shirts and fist fights in the original series, we see plenty of that in Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) and Star Trek’s 50th anniversary film Star Trek Beyond.
Star Trek (2009) skilfully sets up the alternate time line, created by original Spock (Leonard Nimoy), being thrown back in time to just before Kirk’s birth. It’s a film with an emotional wallop that goes some way toward explaining the loyalty and friendship of the original crew of the Enterprise.
Star Trek Into Darkness is a darker film, that tries too hard to emulate elements of the original series down to frame by frame recreations. The irony is this ended up being lost on the new viewer, who enjoyed Into Darkness as an action packed romp, while feeling contrived to the die-hard viewers. All that said, Into Darkness includes some heavy social commentary around the state of the world in 2013 if you’re prepared to dig for it.
Thankfully Star Trek Beyond gets us back on track, in Star Trek’s 50th year, and hones in on all the things that make Star Trek work. A central story point is the unity of the United Federated of Planets, and the film includes 50 new races to celebrate Trek’s half century. Kirk’s (Chris Pine) opening log entry about the 966th day in space winks to the audience since Star Trek was first aired in September, 1966. But at its core this film is about relationships between the main characters, and explores them in new ways. Kirk is paired with Chekov, played by the late Anton Yelchin, Spock (Zachary Qunito) with Bones (Karl Urban), Sulu (John Chow) with Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and Scotty (Simon Pegg) with a new, alien, character, as the story unfolds.
Kirk and Bones have a wonderful scene together, early on, that echoes a discussion from the first season episode Balance of Terror.
It’s these relationships that make the Enterprise crew strong, and Star Trek Beyond a worthy carrier of the Trek torch. Nimoy’s and Yelchin’s deaths, before the film was released, are also sweetly referenced in the film, as is a nod to the original cast.
Star Trek endures.