Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Beam Me Up, I'm Done

(I gather that there's a desperate shortage of online commentary about popular science fiction franchises: here's my contribution to remedy that shortfall).

When I was young, I watched repeats of the original Star Trek series, usually on BBC2 at 6 o'clock. This was just about tolerated by the rest of the family: my grandmother quite liked it and it filled a gap between Australian and European soaps for the rest. I liked it because it was utopian, troubled and thoughtful. Though there was a certain amount of bug-eyed-monster zapping, and Kirk's rampant heterosexuality gradually dawned on me, it was clear even to an undiscriminating viewer like me that here was a series that used encounters with the Other to examine the dominant culture's values as well as to reinforce them.

Vietnam (originally for, eventually against), colonialism, nuclear weapons, racial hatred, the role of the individual in maintaining or ending oppression, the tensions between emotion and logic, principle and pragmatism – all these dilemmas were played out in bright colours amidst a beautiful late-60s version of the future, written by serious SF writers who often felt they were rather slumming it by doing TV work.

I took a pass for The Next Generation, which felt too weedy for me: part of the 1990s' fashion for a particularly egotistical version of spiritualism and self-help (a ship's counsellor? Really?) though it does have some strong elements. Deep Space Nine was a poor rip-off of Babylon 5, though Sajid Javid's philosophical and physical resemblance to the Ferengi is striking. I loved Voyager, which seemed to be a return to the stripped-down dynamic of the original: a small crew lost and struggling to comprehend and survive encounters with each other as well as with profoundly different peoples.

Then there was Enterprise. Oh dear. A show with such promise: back to the early days of humanity emerging into the community of civilisations, but which in fact became the TV analogue to Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror, gleefully endorsing torture.

As for the feature films: I have a much softer spot for them than many people. The Motion Picture got by on wide-eyed mystical fun. The Wrath of Khan had a top-quality bad guy and a line in Shakespeareanism that several of the movies retained

plus of course the death of Spock and the start of a space-bromance story arc that just about kept Star Trek III: The Search for Spock alive (along with some Jewish-derived ritualism and the pleasure of seeing Shatner et al. trussed up in corsets under their generously-cut uniforms). Number 4, The Voyage Home was well-meaning eco-criticism with some fine moments of comedy. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was rather poor and the sixth one, The Undiscovered Country (that's a Hamlet line kids) was a confused but again well-meaning attempt to examine the messy consequences of the end of the Cold War. The First Next Generation movie Generations, was appropriately about a failing and ageing franchise tried to come to terms with irrelevance through a plot line about an alien race keeping itself young by rather unpleasant methods, then accepting that time marches on. Star Trek VIII: First Contact was what inspired the Enterprise series: an enjoyable tale of myth-busting as the Enterprise's crew go back in time to meet the unlikely and largely unpleasant selfish drunk who got humanity into space back in the day. Good knockabout fun.

And then, having discarded most of the original actors from TOS and TNG, we got the JJ Abrams reboot. The first two were kind of fun: glossy high-octane stuff with more than an added touch of 90210 or Dawson's Creek. In Space. Bearable, but not particularly Star Trek beyond the signifiers.

Beyond this, I've even incorporated Trek into my professional life: stardate 2017 sees the publication of my seminal, earth-shattering paper on Star Trek, Doctor Who and Governmentally. I even bought the Beard of Evil towel to drape over the lectern for the conference presentation version.

Last night, I went to see Star Trek: Beyond. 

Beyond Parody.
Beyond Belief. 

Beyond me, certainly. How bad was it? Warp 10 bad. Phasers-on-stunningly terrible. So execrable that I cannae take any more. Worse than any pun I could come up with. I went with, amongst others, an astrophysicist: we didn't even get on to the film's scientific delusions, so engrossed were we in enumerating its dramatic flaws. Visually, of course, it was amazing. The design of the space station Yorktown was clearly derived from 1960s science fiction illustrations. The rest though, was dreadful. Preening post-teen Californians? Oh yes. Appalling, leaden bromance? Present and correct. Faux-profound exposition of the moral and philosophical underpinnings of the Federation that could have been written by a teary-eyed 4 year-old? You got it. Apparently we should all be nice to each other.
Spock: Fear of death is illogical.
Bones: Fear of death is what keeps us alive.
Captain James T. Kirk: We got no ship, no crew, how're going to get out of this one?
Commander Spock: We will find hope in the impossible.
Captain James T. Kirk: My dad joined Starfleet because he believed in it. I joined on a dare.
Doctor 'Bones' McCoy: You joined to see if you could live up to him.
Doctor 'Bones' McCoy: You spent all this time trying to be your father, and now you're wondering just what it means to be you. 
Krall: Unity is not your strength. It is a weakness.
Captain James T. Kirk: I think you're underestimating humanity.

Every time an actor assumed the expression usually associated with severe constipation, you knew one of these 'deep' statements was coming. By about an hour in to this overlong film I was sighing. Another 15 minutes in I was balling my fists. By two hours I was curled up in a ball, sobbing and begging for the pain to stop. But at least I understood the ennui expressed by James T. Kirk a couple of years into his five-year mission.

An ancient weapon taken apart and disposed of in deep space so that it can't be used again, suddenly reacquired? It's there, apparently borrowed from any old episode of Stargate and indeed the later Hitchhiker's Guide novels. There's some awful, soul-sapping attempts at humour, an ancient motorbike found in the bowels of an ancient ship on an alien planet that still works and is integral to what passes for a plot, and the universe is saved by a Beastie Boys track played on a galactic stereo system. The women are still largely objects of fantasy, and rather dependent despite superficial attempts to make them heroic. The weakness of one woman's emotion is the means by which the bad guys acquire the fearsome weapon too. Feminists: in space, nobody can hear you scream.

The whole thing felt like one of the Transformers movies, or The Fast and the Furious. Some of the characters appeared to be directly derived from their Galaxy Quest parodiesRelentless, shouty, loud, plot holes deeper than the biggest black hole imaginable and a deliberate insult to the intelligence and moral core of the original series (and even the movies). It felt like the dialogue was simply filler between overlong music videos. No reflection, no moral doubt, no nuance. Just some uniformed teenagers getting bored and angsty and fighty.

It felt like someone had dug up the corpse of Star Trek, smeared it with their own faeces, then worn its skin as a suit in some kind of enormously profitable act of necrophilia. Except without the 'philia'. Yes, the old Treks were often cheesy, morally flawed, overly-sentimental and subject to the whims of lazy scriptwriters and hack directors, let alone the vicissitudes of its cultural context. But they were never, ever, cynical. They reached for the stars and sometimes – often – failed to reach escape velocity. Star Trek: Beyond lacks ambition, soul, brain cells and purpose. It's dead, but it doesn't even deserve a decent burial in space.

I have been Star Trek's friend. I can no longer claim that I always shall be. Its assimilation into the mindless collective has been completed. This is what Justin Lin, Paramount and the whole damned crew have done:

In the words of this film's Kirk, 'let's never do that again'.

PS: It was nice that Sulu is shown to be in a same-sex marriage. That bit was fine. The other 119 minutes though…

1 comment:

Benjamin Judge said...

I quite liked it. It was the EU referendum again but in space, and the good guys won this time.