The James Clayton Column: Star Trek into Original Series lightness

The arrival of Star Trek Into Darkness has James looking back at the original series, and the moments that could appear in future movies...

I really like Star Trek. I was not raised on Roddenberry, but over recent years I’ve been increasing my familiarity with certain parts of the Trek canon, and I get a massive kick out of it.

There’s a lot of unexplored territory for me to trek through, but I’m excited about boldly going where many a man, woman and Romulan has gone before. All these assorted TV series, film spin-offs, books and suchlike are all out there waiting for me to eventually absorb them. Right now though, we’ve got the second blockbuster in the JJ Abrams reboot cycle, Star Trek Into Darkness, in cinemas and that’s presently arousing both my Vulcan-like objective curiosity and fanboyish enthusiasm.

I enjoyed its 2009 predecessor, and am eager to see how Abrams expands the scope and vision in a fresh movie. Star Trek, for me, felt like an action-packed foundation feature that was engaged in essential franchise-building groundwork – an origins story that introduced the mythos (or re-introduced it in its brand-spanking new form), developed characters and set up a series to come. Now that we’re all familiar, the adventure can really get going.

Of course, I was already familiar with the characters and concepts because I’ve seen Star Trek: The Original Series. That’s my touchstone, and the region of the franchise that I know on a slightly more than a casual basis. Entirely informed by the episodes I’ve seen, that constitutes ‘my Star Trek’.

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JJ Abrams’ Star Trek is therefore not ‘my Star Trek’. I watch it and see marketing materials for Into Darkness and my response is, “ah, it’s Star Trek but it is not my Star Trek“. This isn’t a bad thing or a problem necessarily. The 2009 movie’s very good and I’m psyched about the sequel, even more so because it’s bringing us the bonus presence of Benedict Cumberbatch.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that I can actively accept, appreciate and enjoy the Abramsian Trekverse, but I can’t conceive of it as my personal preferred vision of Star Trek. In my mind, the definitive Star Trek will always be the original series lead by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley.

Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban are all well-cast class acts, but I don’t think of them when someone mentions Captain Kirk, Spock and Bones. It’s exactly the same with the Star Wars franchise and will continue to be when Mr Abrams starts adding to that multiverse – I’ll embrace it enthusiastically and revel in it, but I don’t think anything will displace the original trilogy as ‘the definitive Star Wars‘ in my heart, mind and soul.

As I say, this isn’t an issue, but it does raise some slight ambivalence as I approach the reboot movies. They’re dealing with the same characters and contextual premises of the Original Series, so there are uncanny double vision effects and ghostly echoes occurring at points. Occasional stabs of nostalgia permeate my consciousness, ting my perception and I start suddenly yearning to see William Shatner in a yellow shirt. I start wishing for touches of the Original Series to show themselves in this new Star Trek, which is familiar yet notably unfamiliar.

This is hopeless fancy, and if it were to happen the result could be awful. A few hardcore Trekkies might appreciate geek in-references or a really unsubtle cameo from George Takei, but the end outcome would undoubtedly undermine Abrams and company’s efforts at establishing a strong self-identity for their movie run. Leonard Nimoy’s appearance as Spock in Star Trek 2009 is nice and provides narrative logic (naturally), but carrying on with heavy-handed nods to the Original Series and vintage Trek films won’t do the franchise many favours.

It’s best if the new crew piloting the Enterprise do their own thing and cast this canon off-shoot in their own image, breaking with the past while simultaneously respecting it. After all, you can’t boldly go where no man has gone before if you’re held back listening to the lamentations of conservative fanboys, fangirls and fan-Gorns.

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Affronted naysayers and over-imaginative geeks who’d get a kick out of a George Takei cameo should probably be ignored then. Still, if any of 21st century Trek set were to summon me up to the bridge and ask, “Jim, what would you like to see in these Star Trek movies?” I’d level with them and lay out my silly fantasies.

Those silly fantasies are all inspired by my affection for the Original Series, and if I had any input I’d make sure that the following things feature in Star Trek Into Darkness, the threequel and future franchise instalments that may surface. Although I approve of the serious, determined thrust of Abrams’ reboot and am eager to see Into Darkness‘ move into darkness, I’ve a feeling that we may need a bit more in the way of stimulating old-school sci-fi fun and optimistic spirit around here. It’s quite possible that the reboots lack a little of that quirk, strangeness and charm that make the Original Series so geektastic and satisfying on several levels.

Allow me a moment to reminisce on some of my favourite things about the Star Trek teleplays. They aren’t likely to make it into new movies unless I somehow end up being the man entrusted with the franchise when Abrams departs to direct all his energies into Star Wars.

Regardless, I’d be very happy to see the following things from way back when in fresh Star Trek movies…

The Enterprise crew going crazy

Isn’t it brilliant when everyone onboard the starship completely loses it and has a total persona-shattering meltdown? I love the episodes where for some reason – pheromones emitted by noxious plants, crossover to a mirror universe, need to dupe a machine-like alien race – crew members succumb to a personality crisis and act in a hilarious, highly unusual manner.

We need more sequences where Sulu suddenly releases his repressed ‘Casanova Musketeer’ persona and starts dashing around with bared torso and a dancing rapier. We need Chekov pulling Russian dance numbers on the bridge while Spock gets emotional and starts falling in love and blubbing tears everywhere. If we can have a moment where an undone Kirk starts screaming “I’m Captain Kirk!” everyone’s having fun.

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Silly japester fools causing confounding botheration

Outbreaks of kookiness are a key part of the Original Series’ appeal, and the contrast between Starfleet’s professionalism and characters you might identify as being ‘a bit silly’ is a fascinating proposition to behold. It’s fantastic when the Enterprise crew encounter ludicrous eccentrics and silly imbeciles who, inevitably, end up causing a tremendous amount of trouble.

See, for instance, Tribble-trader Cyrano Jones, telekinetically powered-tantrum teen Charlie X, Mudd the idiot moustachioed lech and Trelane, the pretentious Squire of Gothos. All of them are unintimidating and infantile yet they succeed in tying up our heroes. The whimsical ordeals that follow make for some of the most memorable episodes and some of the funniest and most frustrating personal battles that Kirk and his peers have to overcome. In conclusion, it’s sometimes better when Starfleet’s ultimate nemesis turns out to be an irritating moron oddity.

Gladiatorial combat

Moving to clashes of a more athletic kind, I love the episodes where Kirk (and sometimes his colleagues) are pitched into arena-style life-and-death skirmishes. I thrill at the intimate fight scenes where Shatner gets to showcase his signature martial arts moves against the Gorn, the Thralls of Triskelion or others in faux-Roman gladiatorial combat. The same is true for any occasion where Kirk has to personally handle an affair by engaging in one-on-one brawling.

It’s possibly the most suspenseful and violent drama to come out of 60s television, and grounds the peril to a personalised, primal level on a conceivable scale. When the highest stakes and the fate of the entire Enterprise rest on Kirk’s physical performance in a formal hand-to-hand engagement, Star Trek is a outstandingly gripping action attraction. We need more flying dropkicks, Captain!

Tribbles

The ever-multiplying cute little creatures’ only purpose is to eat and reproduce, and they have a wonderful soothing effect on all those who pick ’em up for a stroke. I reckon that the adorable aliens deserve to play a more important role in the canon, and would say that they are precisely the unique type of antagonist that modern action cinema is missing (namely, furry and pregnant.)

Outrageous Alternate Earths

Mindboggling moments are always guaranteed when the landing party beam down to a planet to discover that it’s a bastardised version of their home world, distorted on an alternate path of evolution. Most often it’s entirely the fault of a deranged rogue Starfleet captain disobeying the Prime Directive to interfere in the native culture. We then subsequently get to see our heroes struggling against an ersatz Roman Empire or Spock dressed as a mobster to fit into a society modelled on 30s Chicago gangland.

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Most often Roddenberry and his fellow writers are using the glee-inspiring gimmick to make a heavy handed sociopolitical point, but who cares when you’re watching Kirk versus the Nazi Planet? Star Trek is a brainblitzing blast when it’s got disturbing doppelgänger Earths and the Enterprise crew caught up in scenarios that run like an interstellar historical re-enactment gone hideously wrong.

Immense sentient organisms exposed as vulnerable, reaffirming the value of humanity

Have your mind blown by the surprise emergence of incredible omniscient entities and bow down before their great intelligence! But all is not entirely awesome with these superior beings, however, for in spite of their eminence they still require the assistance of the Earth people (and the Vulcan Spock) in order to achieve their ends or free themselves from a quagmire.

For all their exceptional telepathic abilities and advanced evolved state, the stellar sentient organisms are lacking and need the input of human empathy or human hands (because some of them don’t even have physical form). It’s fantastic to contemplate, say, supreme beings of pure energy or the divine prowess of Adonais, but it’s also fantastic to get the affirmation that human beings are not inferior or unimportant in spite of the infinite wonders lying out there in the galaxy.

That prevailing human connection and the humane spirit that remains rooted in the experience of vast cosmic adventure is what makes Star Trek Star Trek. May it live long and prosper as the franchise explores bold new frontiers.

James Clayton is a writer, Jim, not a doctor or a Scottish engineer or one of Mudd’s Women. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James’ previous column here.

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