In space, no one can hear you explode

Zachary Quinto as Spock, Sofia Boutella as Jaylah and Karl Urban as Bones McCoy in Star Trek Beyond

Zachary Quinto as Spock, Sofia Boutella as Jaylah and Karl Urban as Bones McCoy in Star Trek Beyond

It didn’t have an ample budget for art direction or special effects. Alien landscapes and monster costumes often looked cheap and cheesy. Its main character was portrayed by an actor fondly remembered among the fanbase for his pompous, ham-handed thespian skills. And yet the original series (TOS) of Star Trek set a high bar indeed, in terms of viewer expectations. Five better-funded sequel series eventually appeared on the small screen, to greater or lesser acclaim, along with six movies starring the original cast and four based on the series Star Trek: The Next Generation, prior to the recent franchise reboot.

Hardcore Trekkies/Trekkers embraced some of the follow-ups more fondly than others, but, tacky sets notwithstanding, a deep loyalty to Star Trek TOS lingers on among those who watched it either when it first came out in 1966-1969 or in later endless syndication. What lies behind that attachment? Great writing and great characters, mostly – along with an innovatively antiwar, anti-imperialist, multiculti concept that departed from the usual militaristic space-opera clichés and fit the zeitgeist of the Civil Rights/Vietnam War era very well.


Among the scriptwriters for TOS were some of the top science fiction authors of their era: Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Jerome Bixby, Norman Spinrad. And of course, while we affectionately tolerated William Shatner as Captain Kirk, we fell unreservedly in love with Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, DeForest Kelley as Bones McCoy, James Doohan as Scotty, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, George Takei as Sulu, Walter Koenig as Chekov and so on.

Those were tough acts to follow, and a lot of hard-to-please longtime fans were dubious when J. J. Abrams undertook to recast the well-beloved original characters. But his 2009 Star Trek and 2013 Star Trek into Darkness, while more reliant on big-budget action scenes and CGI than their predecessors, were clearly made with love and respect for the franchise’s roots, and the new stars were adequately matched to their parts. Beyond the “final” frontier, all seemed well.

But then, alas, Abrams turned his interests to reviving the Star Wars universe and handed off the rebooted Star Trek series to a new director: Justin Lin, best-known for helming the last four of the Fast and Furious movies. Bad choice. Hire a vehiclecentric action-movie director and what you are most likely to get is not a philosophical jaunt into speculative fiction, but rather a vehiclecentric action movie.

And so it came to pass: Star Trek Beyond took the least rewarding elements of Abrams’ two Star Trek films – titanic CGI-based set pieces of spacecraft being ripped apart (including a whole lot of noise that, per the laws of physics, can’t actually be heard in the near-vacuum of space) – and turned them into the majority of its screentime. It even has a Thunderdome-style choreographed multiple-motorcycle race scene, thanks to a junk heap of antiquated technology left behind on the planet Altamid, where much of our story transpires.

So if car-chase movies are your cup of dilithium crystals, you may enjoy Star Trek Beyond nearly as much as its two most recent antecedents. If, on the other hand, you appreciate the franchise more for its quirky character development and its thoughtful handling of complex issues of interplanetary culture shock, you’re likely to as be disappointed as I was.

As narrative, Star Trek Beyond is cliché-riddled and derivative, complete with a Doomsday MacGuffin called the Abronath and a countdown clock to be raced by Kirk in order to save millions of lives. The tiny attack ships deployed by bad guy Krall (Idris Elba) to destroy the starship Enterprise (what, again?) move like a swarm of bees, so naturally have the exploitable weaknesses of a hive mind – just like the Formics in Ender’s Game and a host of other alien colonies in the sci-fi canon.

On the positive side, the glassed-in space station Yorktown that the survivors of the Enterprise are trying to save from Krall’s destructive designs is very cool to look at: an Escherian world in which the direction of the force gravity is relative to where you happen to be standing. The testy bromance between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban) is as fun to watch as it has ever been. And Sofia Boutella makes a winning debut as Jaylah, a feisty scavenger/engineer who’s remarkably adept at martial arts and bears undeniable similarities to the character of Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams must have left a character sketch behind when he jumped ship). I expect that we’ll see her again in the next sequel.

Bearer of the eternal flame of Star Trek: TOS though I may be, I have no fundamental objections to that next sequel happening. May the franchise live long and prosper. I just hope, very very deeply, that Justin Lin will not be directing it.