Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Where Noonian has gone before

Was it just me, or did the latest Trek film seem strangely familiar?

 I touched on Star Trek in my last post, and although I’m by no means a Trekkie/Trekker, the recent release of Into Darkness on disc prompts a look at this most recent reincarnation of what is commonly referred to as ‘Classic Trek’. That is, with a male, Caucasian Captain, sporting hair, in stories where the only character not displaying a full range of emotion is doing so on purpose.

A discussion of the various other programmes with Star Trek in their titles probably won’t occur on this blog.  Although The Next Generation had some great episodes, and one very good film, I just didn’t invest in anything which came afterwards. For my money, in the nineties the criminally under-rated Babylon 5 was where US science fiction TV was at, doing it all with so much more freshness and verve. (And there will be more about this show in later posts).

Having said this, the original television adventures of Kirk and Spock often don’t hold up terribly well these days either. It’s glaringly obvious that they were produced at a time when two-fisted westerns ruled the networks, and even if women were witches or genies, they had to be housewives first and foremost.
Of course, a handful of original Trek episodes do still truly deserve the label classic, transcending the limitations of their time to still entertain and challenge today.  You’ll have your own picks, and one of mine is Space Seed, a season 1 story famous for the thawing out of GM Indian Despot: Khan Noonian Singh.  This character had two things going for him to ensure his place in the pantheon of great science fiction villains –not evil simply for the sake of it, to him he was the betrayed hero of his own story, willing to make any sacrifice for his exiled followers.  And secondly, he is magnetically portrayed by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban, casting which made as much sense as Sean Connery playing a Russian U Boat captain in Hunt for the Red October, but with an equally iconic result.
And referencing a submarine film is not as random as it might seem, because when all the Space Seed players returned for the cinematic sequel in 1982: Star Trek 2- the Wrath of Khan, we got exactly that – a tense, seek and destroy, U-boat drama in space.

The bloated and self-important first Star Trek film was a major disappointment to me (and apparently the studio).  Wrath of Khan paid for the ‘sins of the Father’ and was given a fraction of the budget - but impossibly turned this to its advantage.  With no location work and essentially the same set serving as the bridge of both duelling vessels, an already taut script was actually enhanced by the claustrophobic, and money-saving, settings.  The emphasis shifted from ponderous effects sequences to character interplay, delivering themes of retribution, responsibility, sacrifice and even love.
It’s a long-running point of difference between a couple of close friends and I, but I maintain this film knocked it so far out of the ball park that it not only still remains the best pre-2009 Trek film, but amply deserves it’s place in modern pop-culture.

At the risk of seeming smug, the fact that JJ Abrams, facing his Star Trek equivalent of the difficult second album, pulled out the biggest guns he could and brought back Khan seems further testimony to my conviction.  Indeed, not only does he bring back the franchise’s best ‘big bad’, but within this ingeniously skewed version of the classic universe, where previously-established continuity no longer applies, Abrams  also replays many of the beats, lines of dialogue and entire sequences from the first Star Trek 2.  This is an audacious move, not entirely dissimilar to Bryan Singer’s slavish 2008 Superman re-make/sequel, but unlike that film, Into Darkness also manages to give us an entirely new story.  A new Khan too: Benedict Cumberbatch’s icily-controlled human weapon has none of Montalban’s charm, perhaps showing more in common with the character’s original television debut than the deliciously unhinged, affably Leer-esque figure who helped steer big screen Trek in the right direction over 30 years ago.

There are many reviews of Star Trek: Into Darkness available on line, written by far more clever people than me.  What really fascinates me is that we live in very privileged times. Enormously talented new directors and writers are taking characters and stories which they loved as much as we did when they were young, and are dusting them off, polishing them with the very best contemporary technology and casting can offer, and launching them across the screen once again.  Myths and legends have always reinvented themselves for new generations and that is a good thing.  Even if the results sometimes fall a little short of our own expectations, seeing newer generations discover and enthuse about our childhood heroes is a pure delight and an unexpected bonus to no longer being that young ourselves. And if we occasionally tire of the frenetic pace and exhausting scale of contemporary interpretations, we can always wait till everyone else has gone to bed, put on the gloriously restored ‘originals’ and sit back to be transported to simpler times when the Kirby wire, matte painting and miniature model were king.


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