When I was a teen-ager, I used to write my own stories. It actually started when I was young child, but I didn’t write them down until I was a teen. As I went to sleep each night when I was small, I would lie in bed and make up stories. I was always the hero. As I got a little bit older, the hero would have a different name, but he was really still me.
In one of my stories — when I was about 14 years old — I was one of a group of teen-agers who went to Cape Canaveral and toured a real space shuttle on the launch pad. For some reason, the shuttle was ready for launch and they let a group of teens — about five or six of us — alone to tour the ship. Something terrible happened in the country at exactly that moment and we had to take off in the shuttle. It turned out to be armed with weapons. I was the captain, of course. I brilliantly guided my little band of kids to go blow up some bad guys and save the country.
What I didn’t know at the time is that my immature teen fantasy would one day be roughly the concept behind a reboot of the Star Trek franchise.
I went to a midnight showing of “Star Trek Into Darkness” Wednesday night and I left the theater with really mixed feelings. There were parts of it that were immensely satisfying in an emotional way. The actors do a dead-on job of recreating the original characters in a way that you’ll recognize.
In many instances, you’ll feel a sense that you really might be watching younger versions of the original characters. It’s not that they look exactly the same. It’s simply that they’ve taken care to interpret the characters in very similar ways. That’s emotionally satisfying if you already know the relationships between the characters in what will be their future.
The biggest problem for me is that these are essentially children who have been placed in senior crew positions of one of Starfleet’s flagships. In the original Star Trek series, we were told there were only 12 starships in the fleet, so we can assume there are no more than that at the point of the new films. (We can also assume there are many smaller vessels.)
Think of the modern U.S. Navy. There are hundreds of ships in the fleet, but there are only 10 active aircraft carriers and three more are under construction. A starship is roughly equivalent to a present-day aircraft carrier.
Now think about this. Can you imagine that a crew of Naval Academy cadets or recent graduates would be handed the keys to an aircraft carrier? Of course not. Young officers serve as junior officers. They get experience. The best of them get promotions and end up in command of smaller vessels and then increasingly important vessels. Eventually, the very best experienced captains in the fleet end up in command of the carriers.
If you look at science fiction books about heroes who end up in command of similar vessels, they all get experience and then move up to bigger jobs. (The Honor Harrington series is a great example.) The fact that Kirk and Spock and Co. end up crewing and controlling the Enterprise when they’re straight out of the academy is an indication that director J.J. Abrams’ conception of life is pretty close to that of my teen self who fantasized himself as the young hero to save the world.
The familiar characters in this series need to be the heroes of the movie. There’s no question about that. But the original Star Trek showed us a number of times that Kirk had a series of commands of lesser ships before he earned the right to command the Enterprise. A reasonable concept for this reboot would have been to put these characters into some small ship or setting that allows them to unexpectedly be heroes.
If Kirk, Spock and Sulu were set up as the young command crew of a 20-person ship that was old and not very important — but they managed to do something important and save the day — it would feel more real and more true to the concept of adult life. Give them increasingly better jobs as they move up successfully through a few movies. Have them longing for the day when they were in command of a starship.
That would feel like a concept for adults. The concept we’ve been given in the reboot is a concept for comic book characters who don’t live in a real world.
To me, things like this remind me all the time that the people who write, direct and produce today’s movies don’t have the life experience that writers and producers used to have.
Star Trek creator and original producer Gene Roddenberry had been a bomber pilot in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, right. After the war, he was a commercial pilot for Pan-Am and then became a police officer for the Los Angeles Police Department while he worked his way into entertainment. When you look at some of the things he injected into his fiction, you can feel the mature experience that comes from having lived a real life outside of entertainment.
What about J.J. Abrams, who is the guiding creative force for the new Star Trek? He’s never worked outside the film industry. He doesn’t have experience with what might seem like real life to the rest of us. He’s a good film director and he knows how to make a pretty film. But his work lacks the adult quality that someone such as Roddenberry brought even to his silliest work.
I generally like the new Star Trek movies. I’m glad I’ve seen the first two and I’m sure I’ll see the next one (or next dozen). But make no mistake about it. This is Star Trek as interpreted by children, not something with the depth that I think could have been brought to it.
I’m avoiding talking about the plot simply because I don’t want to include spoilers. The plot is a silly mess, but that’s secondary to my biggest concern. Both of the villains of the story — the obvious one and the surprise one — come across as flat and boring characters. In the case of the primary villain, I don’t think I’m giving away too much to say that it’s someone from a future Star Trek episode. When you know who it is, compare the depth and strength of the character as originally created to the cold, boring and antiseptic version of him in the new film. There’s also a brief appearance by one of the original characters, but it only left me wondering why they bothered.
I hope you’ll see “Star Trek Into Darkness” and I hope you’ll enjoy it. I hope you’ll also think, though, about what the film could have been in the hands of an adult with life experience in the real world.