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May 20 2013

Burning Questions: The Dumbing Down of Star Trek

Did you see "Into Darkness"this weekend?Hey everybody.Michael C.here.

When the Trekkies complain that the JJ Abrams reboot had abandoned the spirit of the franchise,I understand their point.I am certainly no Trekkie (or do they prefer Trekker?See,I have no idea.) But I was raised onStar Trek: TNG,and while that show was never a gateway drug to the largerTrekuniverse,it did instill a respect for what the brand could be at its best.Its combination of exploration adventure,an optimistic portrait of the future,and Bradbury-esque ethical conundrums is a potent mix when it's firing on all cylinders.

So I sympathize when the die-hard fans accuse Abrams of gutting the heart out of the franchise and stuffing the shell with streamlined,box office friendly action.Sure the ship is still the Enterprise,and Kirk and Spock are still at the helm,but is it stillStar Trek?

At the same time,as a movie fan first and foremost,I also felt the thing to do is judge the movie on its own terms.Should I deny I had a good time at a film because it didn't meet my preconceived notions of what constitutes aStar Trekmovie?

Now thatStar Trek: Into Darknesshas delivered more of the same hyper-charged fun and kicked off the debate again (Headline from Vulture: Prepare to be Bombarded Into Happiness) I think it's about time I resolved the issue.Just how upset should I be about the dumbing down of Star Trek?

One cannot dismiss the displeasure at the reboot as the whining of unpleasable fanboys.

The films really have jettisoned the series' spirit of philosophical exploration like it was so much useless ballast.Even the most action heavy installments of the original incarnation had thoughtful underpinnings.For all its histrionics,Wrath of Khanwas about Captain Kirk's grappling with middle age and the no win situation he spent his life avoiding.You could make a case the reboot is about teamwork or fulfilling your destiny or something like that,but I'm not buying.Abrams'Star Trekis all about shiny surfaces,and unrelenting heart-attack levels of excitement and bad guys screaming "Kill them all!"I doubt Gene Roddenberry would recognize little of his original creation beyond the character names.

So that's on the one hand.On the other hand: Wheeeeeeeeeeee!!!

the first movie opened 34 years ago...into a different cinematic landscapeI can judge Abrams guilty of every charge I just outlined but it would be intellectually dishonest to pretend I'm not entertained by his glossed up take on the material.The newTrekgets so much right that I criticize other action movies for getting wrong,I feel obligated to takes its side.Sure,these films would benefit by taking a cue from the original Trek,and mixing some substance into the nonsensical action clothesline theTrekreboots call a plot.The thoughtful blockbuster isn't impossible yet.District 9pulled it off,to name just one recent example.Still,for all the good points the purists make about the shortcomings of these movies I just can't muster any outrage.Getting angry at Abrams'Star Trekis like getting angry at cotton candy.Yes it dissipates instantly,but it hit the spot while it lasted.

Trekkies should acknowledge that the brand that was pretty much dead by the time Abrams got to it,and the 2009 reboot amounted to a cinematic adrenaline needle to the heart.Now thatTrek'sblood is pumping again the proper place for the intellectually engagingTrekthat the fans long for is back on its original home,television.If a studio tried to release a film as slow paced and cerebral asStar Trek: The Motion Pictureit would premiere at Sundance alongside the likes ofMoonandPrimerbefore opening on 2 screens in New York and LA.Meanwhile,intelligence and patience is the watchword of this golden age of TV drama.A new refurbishedTrekwould be so happy alongside the likes ofDr.WhoandGame of Thrones.

So I guess in the final tally I give the new films a pass.What about you?Does the new slickTrekleave you feeling empty or do you apprectiate the thrill ride?

Previous Burning Questions
You can follow Michael C.on Twitter at@SeriousFilm. Or read his blogSerious Film

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Reader Comments (23)

well this timeline is basically 75 to 120yrs or so before Picard....so,starlfeet is till in its' Learning Phase"- as aTrekkie - I loved the movie..but I do look forward to StarTrek getting more into its Exploration roots as opposed to constant Fighting stage its in now.....

May 20,2013 | Unregistered Commenterrextrek

it may not follow roddenberrey's time tested formula,but to be honest,as a devoted trek fan since tos,a break every now and then from the deep ethical quandaries can be nice.

even tng had the borg to provide a needed break from q.it's about balance.

May 20,2013 | Unregistered Commenternorthalabama

Great assessment,Nathaniel.I had a great time watching Star Trek,but apart from a few clever lines of dialogue,I walked out the theater with nothing much to discuss.Contrast this with Iron Man 3,which got me thinking about national and individual anxiety,how to respond to threats from within,and what really makes someone a superhero (is it just the suit?If so,Pepper Potts spinoff NOW!).Star Trek used to do this kind of thing on a weekly basis,and I agree that TV may be the best place for it in the end.

May 20,2013 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

Emily -- Michael wrote this article!He always does "burning questions"but i'm really glad you liked it.I always look forward to the burning questions posts.

May 20,2013 | Unregistered Commenternathanielr

Oops - apologies to Michael for not giving him credit for this great post!

May 20,2013 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

It's not that I am all that invested in Star Trek but my love of Star Wars has me freaking out when fans of the franchise feel like this movie (and to a lesser extent the others) are a desecration.I really don't get the casting of Khan if we are supposed to follow continuity even in a separate timeline and if the new Star Wars movies have ghosts of franchise past (I know elder Spock is not a ghost) telling characters and therefore the audience all of these conflicts are important because of events that happened in better movies,people are going to be as upset as they were with the prequels.

Abrams was such an uninspiring choice for me as a Star Wars director and hearing reports from people seemingly more invested in the Trek universe than he is really lay into this movie makes me feel that skepticism was deserved.

Also,if Abrams had any hand in the marketing,he did Paramount no favors.Khan is revealed in Act 1 to not be John Harrison but the best known baddy in the Star Trek universe.This was made a secret.Why?It was not like the Mandarin identity that had a 3rd act payoff.Cumberbatch only got into the marketing late in the game only to still be pasty,angry man of mystery John Harrison.That is terrible marketing.And if I knew Peter Weller was in it as a baddy akin to Guy Pearce's role in Iron Man 3,I would have run to the theater- but I also love RoboCop more than is healthy.Abrams comes across as almost M.Night Shyamalan with these mystery boxes that really are not these game-changing moments in narrative.

Abrams is like a few other action filmmakers who seem to have the directorial eye and are clearly reverential of the early action masters like Spielberg to the point of going beat by beat of those masterworks.Problem is,there is no real hear or emotion in them.They are handsome movies but are practically soulless.At least that is what I felt with Super 8.

May 20,2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I love Star Trek,along with James Bond,are staples of my 80's cinematic diet.The new Star Trek makes me warm and fuzzy but,doesn't fill my heart or mind with anything substantial.That's fine for making money but,the older incarnations of Trek maybe dead,for the younger people who want to explore the universe.

May 20,2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Michael and Nathaniel: Apparently J.J.Abrams and Paramount executives feel that the needs of the many (general,popcorn-crunching moviegoers) outweigh the needs of the few (Star Trek fans).

I'm no huge fan of the TREK universe but at least it was distinct.Abrams has made it a roller coaster ride.It's a well-made roller coaster ride but the first was derivative of STAR WARS,this one's derivative of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK,and when it's over you take nothing with you but a spinning head and the memory of the whoosh.

My review:

May 20,2013 | Unregistered CommenterErik

Michael - great article.Huge Trek nerd from waaaay back,and I agree that the more philosophical aspects of the Trek franchise are more properly suited to TV (and I really,really wish that they'd pull the trigger on a new Trek series),and am content to let Paramount and Abrams have their action packed franchise pictures.Haven't seen Into Darkness yet.I suspect my objections to it won't be so much about the action but the apparent gigantic continuity clustercuss presented by the villain.

May 20,2013 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

Emily and Roark - Thank you.

Erik - Star Trek 3: Memory of the Whoosh.I'd go.

May 20,2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Despite the fact that JJ is behind this,I'm not sure that this movie is dumbed down at all.This movie shows the sinister sides of 'exploration.' Like Europeans in the Modern era,that 'exploration' just a way for colonialist or imperialist condescending and interfering on the lives of 'indigenous' groups (despite of good intentions,of course).It also shows the evils that both The Federation (which is America,let's face it) and Harrison (UBL).And Harrison being white shows 'race' as a construct with complexities we've been ignoring for decades now.

My only problem with this is that JJ's filmmaking methods,which makes it seem that any movie character he touches seems to have no life before,after,and between the scene in his movies,makes the symbolism too on the nose.And JJ making Star Trek II look like 9-11 makes the movie seem dated.What would Star Trek III be about,would it be about fucking WIkileaks?

If this comment makes no sense,it's just that I just woke up.

May 20,2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

If the brand was dead before Abrams got to it,then I object to the desecration of the corpse.Put your pretty non-Trek adventure into a,I dunno,non-Trek adventure.Stop joyriding on the bones of something I loved dearly.

May 20,2013 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

I'm just gonna put it out there.I'm not a trekkie/trekker;I have not followed these movies in any way;BUT I watched this yesterday and I enjoyed it thoroughly.It's a blockbusterSci-fi movie - I'm not gonna take it too seriously.A really throught provoking Sci-fi adventure is a blessing.I'm not gonna hold all movies to that standard or else there will be very little to enjoy at the mainstream movie theatre

May 20,2013 | Unregistered CommenterTony T

It's homogenized Star Trek,but that's less the fault of J.J.Abrams than it is merely a result of the current cinematic culture as a whole.Ever since the superhero craze began a little over a decade ago,Hollywood has been in the business of rebooting and adapting for mass consumption as many franchises as possible.Diehard comic book fans have mixed feelings about superhero movies likeThe Avengers,because while many of them recognize that they're entertaining in a typical summer blockbuster sort of way,they also lament the fact that,in all honesty,the vast majority of superhero movies are made for people who don't follow comics.In much the same way,J.J.Abram's Trek series is Star Trek for people who don't follow Star Trek.The Craig era of James Bond is Bond for people who don't follow Bond.Every recent franchise has been a case of taking something with a niche audience and translating it to reach the widest audience possible.So anyone complaining about the new Star Trek movies being watered down must accept the fact that it's just a sign of the times.

May 20,2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdwin

I'm avoiding STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS like the plague since I hate the first one so much.I don't even entirely remember why,I just know I walked out of that cinema in a total grumpy mood.

The new one looks like it's set on Earth,which is the most baffling element I can think of.Like,it just looks like THE AVENGERS.I never watched much of the Trek television series and hadn't seen any of the films before the reboot,but from what I have seen and know about its pre-Abrams inceptions,it was about the wonder of discovery and other worlds and the thrill of invention.The new ones just seem,as Michael says,like run of the mill action movies with a sci-fi element that isn't really utilised.Much like Uhuru.Yawn.

May 20,2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

How is "Into Darkness"not about anything?


The ways in which Khan is mirrored/contrasted with Kirk presents a really interesting dynamic,and two version of loyalty/leadership that differ in crucial ways while prove frighteningly similar in others.It's no coincidence Kirk's life is saved by having a part of Khan put into him - literally.

The film has plenty of other implications: the cycle of revenge,the cost of compulsive action,the friction between emotion and intellect.I feel like if you don't see any of this you're really trying pretty hard to ignore it.

May 20,2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

This is required of me as a card-carrying nerd,so please forgive me: It's Doctor Who,not Dr.Who.His name is Doctor,it's not his title.Anyway...

I agree the new franchise is fun and exciting,but my problem is not so much about it not being "Trek,"but about it not being particularly coherent.I try to judge it as a film on its own merits,which frankly I wish it were.I mean,if you're going to toss out the continuity,philosophy,and tone of Trek,why not just make an original franchise about awesome dudes in the future flying around in spaceships and blowing stuff up?It's not like J.J.couldn't get a greenlight for that without it being called Star Trek.If anything,he might have been better off because then you wouldn't have fanboy complaints or the nerd-stink of a franchise that most regular people associate with low budget syndicated TV shows and action movies starring 50 year olds.

But even on its own terms,Into Darkness is a fairly incoherent movie.Moment-to-moment it's exciting,but each of those moments is about getting us to the next one,and not about one motivating the next one.Characters say and do things not because it fits their established behavior but because it's what is needed to set up whatever setpiece J.J.came up with first.Characters will argue against something right until they decide to embrace it for plot convenience,and then go right back to normal.The one benefit of J.J.rebooting the timeline was that you could explore how different choices have effected this universe.Except choices don't matter because what happens isn't motivated by anything internal but by what J.J.thinks will look cool on the poster.

May 21,2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris Fredda

My family and I appreciate the thrill ride but after seeing Into Darkness the other night I watched the episode of TNG where Riker is offered command of his own ship and has to confront his daddy issues while Worf is sulking because no one has remembered it's the tenth anniversary of his Age of Ascension.While I've made that sound kinda trite,I actually love episodes like these that address relationships between characters and give us some quite time to join in the domestic life of the crew.So I would have to agree that I would love to see a movie that also allows us the time to get to know everyone.

But as you say,that is the domain of TV these days and that is why our family loves Doctor Who and why I'm obsessed with Game of Thrones.Then again I would never get off the couch if we had reboots of all our favourites as TV series in the GoT mould.Battelstar did it well too.

May 21,2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoanne

I agree with both George and Edwin.There is some social commentary in the movie,but if it's not to the extent of traditional Star Trek,that's due to Abrams having to make a film for our current culture.The pace of the film really does reflect the fast pace of the internet age.I would love to see the kind of depth that we had in TOS and TNG,but we'd need a television series for that.Imagine a new Star Trek series done as well as Breaking Bad....

May 22,2013 | Unregistered CommenterKen

star trek!!ya.Very amazing movie.

May 26,2013 | Unregistered CommenterWesley

I have to say I was quite upset with the dumbing down of Trek however I do understand why they had to do it.

I think they tried to please as many people as possible - and I don't think they did the worst job in the world.

October 18,2013 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

I just saw the 2nd movie.After the first movie,I was not going to pay more than a dollar to see ST: Into Darkness.The 2nd movie was worth 50 cents.I'd like my change,please.

I appreciate the "alternate timeline"approach that Abram's used to create a new Star Trek universe.The approach allows him to create movies without being constrained to the original timeline.However,some of us liked the original timeline.And,by the stroke of a single sentence in the first movie (basically saying that the timeline has changed and now anything can happen),he single-handedly destroyed everything that every Trekkie ever loved and knew about the franchise.

That being said,if he's going to destroy the universe we know,then do not insult us and throw in bits and pieces of the old universe (tribbles,Kahn,same ending to Wrath of Kahn,etc).He doesn't deserve to use the universe we knew because he broke it.If he wants to change the timeline because he doesn't want to be constained,then he needs to come up with original story lines and stop leaning on the old universe to get ideas.

Also,I'm not sure how the alternative universe approach makes Spock into the galaxy's most emotional being.Please stop doing that.That's two movies in a row where Spock is the most emotional character.

Can you imagine if he pulls the same "timeline change"approach with Star Wars?Then he'll have two fan groups that want his head.

October 22,2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Trekkie

The first Abrams Star Trek left me so cold,I didn't get around to seeing Into Darkness until recently.These films seem to poke fun at anyone that thinks they know the Star Trek universe.From red lumance little Spock's tender young ears in Vulcan's sun to Kirk driving a stick shift,these films turn everything you grew up with on its head.In the original series,Spock had green blood and Kirk couldn't drive.It is as if every detail in these films was carefull crafted to dimetricly oppose something that a ST fan would know.

Right up there with Tolkein's elves are Rodenberry's Vulcans.They are so well loved that thousands of people wear "spock ears"every year.For some reason,Star Trek appeals to US Navy prosthetic technicians,so there are people running around with "spock ears"that are higher quality than the ones made for the actors.Abrams might as well have called every single one of these people "losers"when he and his writers decided to blow up these people's fantasy world.

"Trekies"don't hate the JJ Abrams films because of the pedantic characters,idiotic storylines,and dismal sets.It's that the films come across like a mean joke.

January 11,2015 | Unregistered CommenterUrbanHillbilly

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