The Secret Recipe For Making A 'Star Trek' Movie Work
Not unlike the sexy Scottish ghost planet where Beverly Crusher is from, the future of the Star Trek film series is foggy. After the 2009 reboot hinted at a promising return, the sequel was a tangled ball of unnecessary twists and 9/11 trutherism. Then its chief architect, J.J. Abrams, crossed the cafeteria to hang out with his cool new buddy Star Wars. And after underwhelming returns for the third film, no one knows exactly what's next. Quentin Tarantino's R-rated romp likely isn't happening. Fargo and Legion showrunner Noah Hawley is set to direct the next movie, but it probably won't feature the reboot cast.
So how do we get the series back on track? Easy: Focus on old age and death. Seriously.
It may not sound exciting, but an obsession with mortality was the lifeblood the original films -- and a theme largely ignored in the more recent movies. Before Abrams came onboard, almost all the big-screen Star Treks featured older people grappling with existential crises. Even the very first entry, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, plays like middle-aged fantasy. Kirk is a respected admiral, but he's been put out to pasture. The Enterprise is commanded by a new, younger captain. Naturally, Kirk replaces that whippersnapper a mere 20 minutes in.
The Wrath Of Khan delves even deeper into the angst of aging. It literally opens with Kirk's birthday, which McCoy notes is being treated "like a funeral." They continually reference how old Kirk is getting, and McCoy gifts his friend a pair of reading glasses -- presumably because giving him a personalized tombstone would be a little too on the nose.
Bones urges Kirk to get another command. But Kirk is "afraid" -- seemingly of himself, or of failing to live up to his legendary younger self. By chance, Kirk finds himself again taking charge of the Enterprise, again in place of a bunch of incompetent youngsters. But this isn't a typical adventure. The Wrath Of Khan essentially drags Kirk through the detritus of his past escapades, forcing him to confront his various failures and regrets. The titular "wrath" is a consequence of Kirk's dickish decision to exile Khan and his men (and in a deleted scene, his friggin' baby) on a remote planet.
Kirk also has to reckon with his history of interplanetary philandering, reconnecting with an ex-lover and the son he unknowingly left behind.
And famously, it ends with him eulogizing a friend.
The Search For Spock again taps into the senior zeitgeist, being essentially about forced retirement. The original crew is taken out of commission and literally has to steal back the Enterprise. The Voyage Home uses time travel to put the crew in a position where they feel confused and out of place in the world. Adding to the parallels with elderly dementia, Spock spends the entire movie in a bathrobe. And The Final Frontier concerns an old man's desperate search for God, and the sad realization that He probably doesn't exist -- a depressing sentiment nearly expressed via an army of rock monsters.
Then there's The Undiscovered Country, which is basically Gran Torino in space. It's all about Kirk's blatant racism and refusal to adhere to society's advancements. Despite the fact that the Federation has made peace with the Klingons, Kirk can't get over the fact that someone of the same race (who died years earlier) was responsible for the death of his son. In this story, Kirk isn't replaced physically, but rather ideologically. The Universe is moving on, with or without him.
By the time the Next Generation crew took over the reins, they weren't exactly spring chickens themselves, and the movies reflect that. Generations is all about time -- specifically, how frustratingly little of it we all have. In a depressing turn, this movie opens with Kirk seemingly dying, then cuts to a fun scene of Captain Picard and his friends palling around on the Holodeck ... until he receives word that his entire family burned to death back on Earth.
Picard regrets that he never had children of his own, and that he doesn't have the time to do so anymore. We know this because when he enters the Nexus, the magical space ribbon in which time doesn't exist, he conjures a fantasy family and celebrates Christmas in a way no one in Star Trek ever does, presumably because the Federation banned references to Jesus sometime in the 23rd century.
Even the movie's villain is yet another old dude who wants to live inside the Nexus, where he can make time stop and live forever. He and Picard share the same fears; one just expresses them with slightly more murder. Picard saves the day by teaming up with the similarly regret-filled, family-less Kirk. They accept that they belong to a legacy of Enterprise captains, a family of sorts. And Picard accepts that time isn't something to be feared, but something to be cherished for imbuing our lives with meaning. It's poignant, goddammit.
First Contact dabbles in themes of overcoming past trauma. Then came Insurrection, which explicitly deals with the realities of getting older. The movie is about a planet that grants its inhabitants eternal youth, which has a physiological effect on the crew. They start to experience teenage emotions, and poor Worf has to go through Klingon puberty again. In their final film, Nemesis, the theme of wrestling with your past is made very literal, as Picard battles a young clone of himself. It's all of these recurring anxieties made manifest in the form of Tom Hardy.
That's ten whole movies, almost all of which explore the fears of becoming irrelevant, being replaced, and ceasing to exist.
Then came the reboot.
By necessity, the new "Kelvin Timeline" movies aren't about the trials and tribulations of one's golden years, because it stars a bunch of attractive young people. Which is fine. Go ahead and make a bunch of movies about the ambition of youth. But for some reason, these movies rapidly became intent on replicating story beats from the earlier films, which felt weightless without the context of life experience.
In Star Trek Into Darkness, Kirk battles Khan again -- which means something to us the audience, but nothing to Kirk, who's never met this (inexplicably white) dude. They even restage Spock's death scene, but with Kirk biting it instead. Not surprisingly, it pales in comparison to the original, in which a decades-long friendship is tragically ended by an act of self-sacrifice. As opposed to two guys who barely know each other and hated each other's guts until fairly recently. (Also, the guy who dies gets resurrected only like 10 minutes later this time.)
In Star Trek Beyond, a disillusioned Kirk has a premature midlife crisis and decides to bail on the Enterprise for a vice admiral job, even though he's, what, like 30? Again they mirror a scene from an earlier movie. Kirk and McCoy share a mournful birthday drink, just like in The Wrath Of Khan. Which is kind of weird. Didn't Kirk just begin his adventures?
On TV, however, Trek is managing to straddle both modes of storytelling. There's a fresh-faced cast of characters on Star Trek: Discovery, and soon we're getting a brand-new show all about the geriatric adventures of Captain Picard. Star Trek is a lot of things to a lot of people, but as we look towards to its big-screen future, don't write off the potential for exploring mature themes with older characters, even if they rant about space-teens and need a little replicated Metamucil from time to time.
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