Science fiction is the medium of the future, yet as the icons of that genre grow older they have gathered some considerable history. In November 2013, Doctor Who enjoyed an international and interplanetary celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of its first episode of An Unearthly Child with The Day of the Doctor, and this September will see the fiftieth anniversary of first broadcast of The Man Trap, though as is well known Star Trek had two earlier pilots, The Cage and Where No Man Has Gone Before, shot respectively in 1964 and 1965.
With only three seasons in a rigid weekly adventure format, Star Trek had unexpected durability and flexibility, reborn as an animated series, a successful motion picture series, multiple spin off prequel television series and hundreds of novels, as well as inspiring generations of legions of devoted fans.
Doctor Who was more consciously adaptable to new requirements out of necessity; with an elderly principal actor in declining health, it became necessary for the producers to recast the Doctor, an ongoing innovation which has allowed the show itself to be periodically creatively rejuvenated and contributed to its astonishing longevity, the ongoing embodiment of the notion that science fiction is the genre of change.
Star Trek was different; the core characters were constant from the second pilot through to the fourth motion picture, 1986’s The Voyage Home, and crucially all the actors remained in place in the roles in which they had been cast thirty years before. When Star Trek The Next Generation was launched in 1987 it was consciously a sequel which honoured and acknowledged what had gone before, maintaining a continuous timeline and featuring numerous cameos from previous stars, DeForest Kelley, Mark Lenard, Leonard Nimoy and James Doohan.
The 2002 domestic box office failure of Nemesis, the fourth motion picture to feature the new crew, was rather blindly blamed by the producers on the fans whom they felt were suffering from “franchise fatigue” rather than the oversaturation of a product of markedly diminished quality and their own appointment of a director with little experience in science fiction and minimal knowledge and less understanding of what Star Trek meant and represented.
This led to the longest gap ever between Star Trek feature film releases and the biggest gamble ever undertaken when J J Abrams took the unprecedented step of recasting the original characters when he relaunched the Enterprise into what has since come to be known as “the Kelvin universe” in 2009, named after the crucial junction in the timelines where George Kirk died saving his wife and newborn son James from a Romulan who had travelled to the past to seek retribution for the death of his own family.
That film acted not only as a rebirth but a symbolic passing of the torch from Leonard Nimoy’s “Spock Prime” to his successor Zachary Quinto and his shipmates in what was possibly Nimoy’s finest performance ever in the role he had by that time been playing for forty five years and guaranteed a sequel reuniting that cast and the creative team of Abrams, producer Damon Lindelof and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.
Unexpectedly, that second film was an unannounced thematic remake of its counterpart from the original run of films, Nicholas Meyer’s The Wrath of Khan, though twisting, subverting and reversing many of the plot points; while a remake had in no way been required or desired, it was the correct approach but it became indisputable that the third film would have to break new ground, would have to go boldly where the first two had chosen to follow established patterns, or the new cast would forever be regarded as a covers band.
Fortunately, despite the loss of J J Abrams to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, for their third outing, the first under the direction of Fast & Furious’ Justin Lin from a script by Hot Fuzz’s Simon Pegg and Dark Blue’s Doug Jung, the decision has been wisely made to go Beyond, to the very frontier of the United Federation of Planets, ostensibly to explore strange new worlds and to boldly go where no one has gone before, but also to reflect on the history and ambitions which have taken them there.
Opening with a diplomatic mission which ends up as tattered as the golden shirt of Captain James T Kirk (Chris Pine), it’s stardate 2263.2, the 966th day of the Enterprise’s five year mission in deep space and “just another day in the fleet,” but the ennui of the routine is beginning to take its toll on the crew. “If the universe is endless, are we not striving for something forever out of reach?”
Taking stock at Starbase Yorktown, Kirk confesses his misgivings to Commodore Paris (The Expanse‘s Shohreh Aghdashloo in a role which amounts to little more than a sounding board for Kirk, a poor replacement for Bruce Greenwood’s Admiral Pike) who says they will continue the conversation when the ship returns from a search and rescue mission spurred by a distress call from the alien Kalara (Never Let Me Go‘s Lydia Wilson) whose crew are stranded beyond a dense, uncharted nebula.
The Enterprise is dispatched, but what they find is a vast swarm of small but powerful ships which they are not equipped to defend against, the crew forced to abandon ship as the flagship of the Federation is swiftly and comprehensively overwhelmed by the destructive boarding pods. While the Enterprise goes down it is not without a fight, and her end is both painful and spectacular.
Separated on the surface and with many of the crew apparently held as slave labour by the leader of the attacking force, it is the first time the new command crew have been split up in this manner and given their own missions in order to first escape from captivity and then the planet to warn the Federation of the coming assault, and while all the returning cast revel in their prominence the mechanics of the story feel contrived, focused on an object (a “death machine”) rather than a conflict of character.
Poorly served by Into Darkness, Karl Urban’s Leonard McCoy is called upon not only to render emergency medical aid but to go far beyond the call of duty of a country doctor, and primarily teamed with Quinto their relationship is as fractious, confrontational and deep as it has ever been, and Zoe Saldana’s powerful Nyota Uhura continues to make up for all the time Nichelle Nichols’ ability was sidelined. Regrettably it is Anton Yelchin’s Pavel Chekov who has least to contribute, doubly sad as it was his final appearance in the role.
Surprisingly, it is Prometheus‘ Idris Elba as Krall, leader of the swarm, who fails in an underwritten role, angry, stomping, resentful and determined that his planned genocide is justified, unconvincing under the heavy prosthetics with both his malleable appearance and monomania reminding too much of F Murray Abrahams’ Ru’afo of Insurrection while the Abronath itself is nothing more than the Thalaron device of Nemesis under another name.
With too heavy a reliance on gadgets to keep the plot moving – Scotty (Pegg) teams up with escaped prisoner Jaylah (Kingsman: The Secret Service‘s Sofia Boutella) who has access to cloaking technology, hologram projectors, a smokescreen which solidifies into a defensive wall and a handy derelict spaceship, the USS Franklin, NX-326, a century old yet with working transporters and still able to fly – the final battle relies on the most improbable magical handwavium solution since William Shatner last talked a computer to death.
Best known for his action films, Lin’s fight sequences, of which there are many, are impressive though what should be the most spectacular, through the corridors and across the primary hull of the downed Enterprise, is painfully murky and confused, a tremendous opportunity to show something new and dynamic which instead frustrates and misses the point.
Conversely, described by McCoy as “a damn snowglobe in space waiting to break,” Yorktown is an audacious expression of the technical achievement of the United Federation of Planets, inspiring and stunningly designed, a serene jewel in the dark which comes with underground parking for spaceships.
Easily the most impressively conceived and realised environment of the film, while the practical effects such as the shifting gravity gradients are constantly impressive the digital effects vary from a beautiful timelapse of a starship construction to those which draw painfully obvious attention to themselves, among the worst being the new species from the opening scene, fully rendered and utterly fake.
Never soaring to the joyous heights of Abrams’ instalments despite the pleasure of spending two hours in the company of these characters who are as familiar and welcome as old friends, Star Trek Beyond lacks the sense of adventure, excitement and danger of its predecessors, its disappointing mediocrity magnified by following directly from those two films and by the responsibility and weight of expectation of the fiftieth anniversary which it conspicuously fails to carry.
Star Trek Beyond is now on general release, screening in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX