After the lackluster box office performance of director Stuart Baird’s “Star Trek: Nemesis” (2002) and the sudden cancellation of the TV prequel series “Star Trek: Enterprise,” it looked like Paramount’s storied science fiction franchise had run its course. With 10 motion pictures and 18 years of back-to-back syndicated TV spin-offs of the cult “Star Trek: The Original Series” (starting in 1987 with “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and ending with the less-than-stellar “Enterprise” in 2005), perhaps there had been too much of a good thing.
Still, some executives at Paramount (which owns, with CBS, the license to the franchise created in 1964 by the late Gene Roddenberry) thought there might still be a few more missions for the starship Enterprise. Starting in 2007, they hired J.J. Abrams, a young and multi-talented writer, producer, and director best known for creating TV’s “Felicity,” “Alias,” and “Lost” series, to develop a possible 11th “Star Trek” feature film.
Abrams, Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof had many issues to consider before coming up with a story. They couldn’t continue telling stories with the original cast because DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy) and James Doohan (Chief Engineer Scott) were dead. William Shatner and the surviving cast members were theoretically available, but Capt. Kirk had been killed off in “Star Trek: Generations.” Worse, Leonard Nimoy had expressed little interest in playing Spock after his appearances in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” and the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode Unification.
(Fortunately, Nimoy agreed to play Spock one more time, thus making the existence of Abrams’ “Star Trek” possible.)
The Abrams-led creative team eventually settled on rebooting “Star Trek” with an eponymous prequel film with younger versions of the main characters from “The Original Series”
The approach Orci, Kurtzman and Abrams took with “Star Trek” is similar to director Nicholas Meyer’s on “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” As outsiders who had no professional links to the franchise, the trio could replicate what Meyer did during his involvement with the Original Cast films: explore story possibilities with fresh eyes and no preconceived notions about Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the Enterprise crew.
Reviving An Old Concept…With a Twist
On the surface, “Star Trek” resembles former feature film producer Harve Bennett’s “Starfleet Academy,” an intriguing but rejected concept for “Star Trek VI.”
Back in 1989, Bennett had come up with the notion of rebooting the series by taking a look at James T. Kirk, Spock, Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and Montgomery Scott during their cadet years at Starfleet Academy. A cross between “The Original Series” and “Top Gun,” it would have shown us Kirk as a somewhat rough and tumble rebel from Iowa and Spock as a reserved but brilliant new cadet from Vulcan.
Paramount, afraid that such a huge departure from the tried-and-true formula of showing the familiar but now aging Original Series staff would flop, passed on Bennett’s “Starfleet Academy” script and the idea of a “Star Trek” prequel was shelved for 18 years.
Interestingly, Abrams’ “Star Trek” bears some resemblance to Bennett’s “Starfleet Academy” concept, since it boldly goes to explore the youthful exploits of the crew of the first Starship Enterprise.
“Star Trek” begins in the early 23rd Century. The U.S.S. Kelvin is in deep space investigating a freaky lightning storm. Unfortunately for the Starfleet vessel this phenomenon is the precursor to the appearance of an artificially-generated black hole.
Out of this black hole emerges the Romulan mining ship Narada, which attacks the over-matched Kelvin. In a valiant but ill-fated effort to end the confrontation, Captain Robau (Faran Tahir) agrees to board the Narada to negotiate with Romulan commander Nero (Eric Bana)…and is killed by the Romulans.
This leaves First Officer George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) in command, but his captaincy is short lived. Aware that the Narada appears to hell-bent on attacking the Federation, Kirk orders the evacuation of his new command, which means placing his pregnant wife Winona (House’s Jennifer Morrison) aboard one of the shuttles even though she’s in labor.
Even as Kirk proceeds with his doomed attack on the huge Romulan vessel, Winona gives birth to James Tiberius Kirk.
“Star Trek” then flashes forward in time a few times, once showing us a very precocious James T. Kirk as a car-stealing pre-teen (Jimmy Bennett) in rural Iowa, then finally settling into the 2250s-era where he’s now in his early 20s and a somewhat rebellious Starfleet Academy cadet (Chris Pine)
By then, the film has already given us glimpses at Spock’s childhood on Vulcan, which (thanks to “Star Trek: The Animated Series’) has previously been glimpsed and alluded to in both the “Original Series” and “The Next Generation.”
We first see him as a child (Jacob Kogan), facing off against three fully Vulcan bullies and interacting with his dad Sarek (Ben Cross). Then as a somewhat rebellious Vulcan teenager (Zachary Quinto) who turns down an appointment to the Vulcan Science Academy in order to apply to Starfleet Academy. (We also see a couple of scenes where Quinto interacts with Winona Ryder, who plays his Terran mother, Amanda.)
Although “Star Trek” borrows from both the original series and its feature film spinoffs, the film’s main story takes the younger versions of the familiar characters into a somewhat different ongoing mission aboard the still-new Enterprise.
To me, the fact that “Star Trek” heavily depends on the time travel scenario makes its radical changes to Trek lore more palatable.
Yes, I was somewhat taken aback by some of the film’s “alterations” to the familiar version of James T. Kirk’s back-story (the messiest in the Star Trek canon). Even four years after the film’s premiere, I still think that promoting Kirk from Starfleet Academy midshipman to full captain is mind-boggling.
However, since I like the altered timeline scenario, I can therefore accept the new version of the “origins of Star Trek” story without all the angst expressed by Trekkers regarding all the changes that tick them off.
The most appealing aspect of Abrams’ “Star Trek,” to me, anyway, is the cast he assembled to basically give the Enterprise a new lease on life.
Pine and Quinto – whose motion picture debut this is – acquit themselves quite well as Kirk and Spock. There is no attempt by either to imitate the 1960s’ version of William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy; nevertheless, there’s a certain chemistry between the two actors that eerily mirrors the Kirk-Spock relationship familiar to even the most casual of classic Star Trek watchers.
Equally fascinating was Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard McCoy, MD; he also refrains from trying to imitate the late DeForest Kelley, yet manages to capture the essence of “Bones”. McCoy gets off some of the movie’s best lines. He also proves to be pivotal in shaping young Kirk’s “first, best destiny” as a Starfleet officer.
Also interesting were the performances of Simon Pegg (Scotty), John Cho (Sulu) and Zoe Saldana as a very modern and sexy Uhura, whose first name is finally revealed onscreen.
Like most of the movies based on “Star Trek: The Original Series” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Abram’s “Star Trek” is more of an action-adventure than it is about Gene Roddenberry’s original notion of issue-oriented science fiction.
Its space battles are closer in spirit to “Star Wars” than to the two more popular TV incarnations of Trek, and the plot’s inclusion of Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) at the new saga’s start might seem anathema to many “Trekkers.”
In some ways, “Star Trek” and its recent sequel “Star Trek Into Darkness” are best enjoyed as movies independent from the Roddenberry-created franchise. Yes, Leonard Nimoy’s presence as “Spock Prime” lends the films some Trek-cred, but there are still many fans who dispute their inclusion into the canon.
“Star Trek” is currently available in various home entertainment editions from Paramount Home Media Distribution:
Star Trek [Blu-ray] (Single Disc Edition)
Star Trek Limited Edition Replica Gift Set (Three-Disc + Digital Copy) (Amazon Exclusive) [Blu-ray]
Star Trek [DVD] (Single-Disc Edition)
Star Trek 3-Disc Digital Copy Special Edition [Blu-ray]