The early 80s. On a Sunday morning, they came into my life. The pointy-eared man. The original serial kisser. The sardonic doctor. The Aye Aye captain engineer. The adventures of the star-ship Enterprise.
Strange creatures. New planets. The transporter. Tractor beams. Red alert. All hands to deck. Incoming Incoming !!! Sparks flying. Warp factor. Fire photon torpedoes.
I was too young then to understand everything about Star Trek. But I fell in love with the idea of space explorers, facing the most extreme of challenges jumping from one planet to another.
Then in 1985 I came to Canada. Where I saw more of Star Trek. And started reading Star Trek fiction, which the local library had enormous quantities of. At the age of ten, a bit more mature than when I first saw Star Trek, I was able to look beyond the alien masks and the explosions and the “thrills” and became drawn to the themes of friendship ,trust and universal co-existence that Star Trek embodied. I enjoyed thoroughly the verbal jousts about logic and emotion between Kirk and the Doctor on one side and Spock on the other.
I cried copiously when Spock says “I have been and always shall be your friend. Live long and prosper” to Captain Kirk and dies saving the Enterprise from the “Wrath of Khan”. I rooted for his revival in Star Trek 3. And as I pranced about wearing a red Star Trek sweater that my mother had sewn for me (which even had the iconic Star Trek logo) and pretended that the pocket torch was my phaser, I wondered how soon it would be till the transporter would be invented and I could be beamed back and forth to India whenever I missed my grandmother.
Then once back to India, I again started re-watching reruns now being aired in the afternoons. In the late teens, people get rebellious and start pooh-pooing everything they liked a few years ago. Star Trek became one such “That’s for kids” things for me . I began to see how hokey the special effects were, how funny the space monsters looked, how William Shatner chewed up and then spat out his lines, how some of the “guest stars” hammed atrociously. Most importantly, I lost respect for the Captain as I saw that how, far from being the paragon of wisdom and bravery I had always taken him to be, he was nothing but a skirt-chasing horndog eager to kiss any space-object that moves, often to the detriment of the mission at hand. I also noticed for the first time how short Lt Uhura’s skirt was. Among other things.
I moved away from the Star Trek world. The books gathered dust in my book-shelf. I outgrew the red sweater. The Next Generations was being shown on TV. I saw a few episodes of it. The special effects were better. So was the acting. But somehow I hated it. I later realized why.
It was in 1999 once I came to the US to pursue my graduate studies that I got reacquainted with this friend from my past. As I watched back-to-back episodes of Star Trek the Original Series (TOS) on the Sci-Fi channel, I finally “got it”. Unlike the Michael Bays and the Jerry Bruckheimers and yes even the George Lucases and Steven Spielbergs, Star Trek TOS could not rely on the wow factor of special effects to take audience attention away from the story. This made the episodes all the more remarkable because every bit of impact had to be made by the story, the script and the characters. And what an impact they made on me now. The themes I discovered were much deeper than those of friendship and peace—-there were political messages about the Cold War, disarmament, prejudice, absolute power and the balance of it, civil rights, environment and conservation. There were fascinating insights into alternate realities, the power of the mind and of our basic instincts, the complexity of personality, reflections on the evil inside all of us, the reality of dreams and the nature of time.
What was remarkable was that I often realized how great Star Trek TOS was when I was watching something else. There were countless times that I would be watching a science-fiction movie or TV series and I would discover that the plot was a derivation of a theme previously covered (and usually covered better) in a Star Trek TOS episode. Not that I believe everything I saw were cases of Anu Mallikian “inspiration” but so wide is the spectrum of themes explored in those three glorious seasons, that overlap with it for any sci-fi creation becomes inevitable.
This was also when I realized why I never liked the Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. For me Star Trek means Captain Kirk and First Officer Spock. Anyone else on the bridge of the Enterprise were imposters. Simple.
Having re-discovered my love for Star Trek, I accepted the inevitable. I was a Trekkie. And a Trekker. I bought and read Leonard Nimoy’s autobiography. In a journal paper, I named a section “Amok Time” (on inconsistent timing requirements in a medical device) as a tribute to one of my favorite Star Trek episodes. With my first salary after getting my PhD, I bought the entire 3 season collection of Star Trek TOS DVDs each of them in a case shaped like a tricorder (aah the joy). Recently I blew an obscene amount of money to get my photo taken in the original Captain Kirk’s seat in an exhibit at the San Diego Space Museum and the framed picture is placed on the table where I am presently typing this post.
Yes like Brooke Shields and her jeans, I let nothing come between me and my Star Trek.
When I heard that Lost and Cloverfield’s “visionary” director JJ Abrams was going to revive the Star Trek TOS characters, I felt a mixture of hope and apprehension. Hope because the Batman series, which like the Star Trek one had degenerated to camp, had been spectacularly revived by Nolan. Apprehension because the Superman series had been similarly “revived” and been reduced to the love-story of a suburban dad . Considering how Paramount Pictures had mismanaged the franchise for decades, I was worried a fate similar to Superman would befall Star Trek. More importantly who else other than Nimoy could be Spock? Will the eyebrow arch so beautifully? Will the voice be so powerful? Similarly how would someone who is not William Shatner ever be a convincing Captain Kirk?
So, scared and expectant, I went in last Saturday, a day after its release to see the afternoon show. Would they murder my old friends on celluloid by reducing them to a collection of pixels? Or would they be re-invented for a new generation?
With the exception of Spock necking Uhura on the transporter, which made me squirm in my seat, it is perfect. Yep. Perfect. Bones is perfect. Scott is back in all glory. Uhura has lost a loss of weight and is curvaceous, in the context of a new aesthetic different from the 60s. Spock is good (have to accept slightly disappointed with the face). And Kirk. The person whom I thought would be the most difficult to replicate and would be the weakest link is truly truly the revelation of the movie. Chris Pine. He captures the boyish arrogance, the rascally skirt-chasing, the side-grin, the “devil-may-care” attitude and most importantly the endearingness in a way that is remarkable. He grows into his character as the movie progresses and as he sits on the iconic Enterprise captain’s chair at the end, as an old-time die hard romantic I must accept he fit right in.
When I say that Star Trek is perfect, I need to qualify that. It is perfect considering that this is the first in a series of movies which ultimately seek to re-cast the original characters for a new generation. JJ had an unenviable task—-on one hand he has to mainstream Star Trek for kids used to bleeding-edge special effects and explosions (after all they are the studio’s meal ticket) and at the same time he cannot risk alienating its base of geeks (like me) who enjoy its philosophical underpinnings and its “vision”. Given these constraints, Star Trek is the perfect opening shot—–it establishes the chemistry between the characters and goes heavy on visual thrills. The philosophy is, for the time being, kept on the backburner.
This is a necessary compromise because it would be impossible to both establish characters and as well pour in heavy philosophy all in the space of two hours without compromising on both on them. I expect subsequent installments of the franchise to gradually layer in the complexities, now that the characters have been established. For now, Star Trek is a delirious space romp (which is how I initially liked it in the early 80s and I would expect newbies to view it similarly before they graduate to appreciating the deeper aspects). It is light and frothy but with an arresting storyline, unashamedly commercial yet with potential for morphing into something greater.
If there is anything controversial about the new Star Trek is that the director, in order to free himself from the established mythology of the Star Trek characters, has introduced a plot-device (which I shall not expand on further) by which everything we know about the Star Trek universe has changed. While to many old-hands this may sound like “cheating” I am prepared to give JJ this liberty to “surprise” us with innovative twists and alternate character developments —-after all if there is anything Star Trek teaches us is , it is to embrace the new and to look at change with an open mind.
For now however after seeing the new Star Trek, my dilithium crystals have become fully charged. My shields are working fine.
After many years, the final frontier again lies in front of us.
Full warp speed ahead.
Steady as it goes.