SPOILER ALERT: this blog post makes no attempt to avoid giving away information about the movie “Star Trek.” Do not read further if you do not want to know how it goes.
My first thought upon leaving the movie “Star Trek” tonight was that they cheated. I was excited to learn about the early days of Kirk, Spock and the gang, perhaps how they came together to be on the Enterprise, and other interesting bits about their history. I hoped the movie would be character driven (it was) and mix action and a change to really get to know the main characters (it did). But we didn’t see anything about the history of the cast of the original series. This wasn’t their history at all. Instead, it was an alternate history, from an alternate universe where Vulcan was destroyed, Kirk lost his father at birth, and the crew is brought together early as the Federation is in peril.
It’s not that I don’t like the idea. Earlier this week I took a walk with my friend Steve Pane, who had already seen the film with his family. He gave away nothing of the story, just noting that his wife enjoyed it even without knowing the original series, and his sons wanted to watch some of the original episodes after seeing it. We started talking about episodes, and both agreed that “City on the Edge of Forever” was one of the finest, where Kirk stops McCoy from saving Edith Kieler (Joan Collins) in 1930s New York because it would change history allowing the Nazis to win WWII. Changing history was a big no-no in the original Star Trek, it made time travel dangerous (the later Trek series did, to be sure, move away from that stance.)
I told Steve I thought the fear of changing the future was stupid. If you got to the past and you changed something, it would just create a new timeline — the old timeline would have to still exist (otherwise there could not have been the creation of a new one) and you’d just have different realities. So if time travel backwards is possible, so would be alternate time lines. Steve smiled and said, “I agree and will say no more.” I looked him quizzically — it seemed an odd response. “We’ll talk Monday,” he concluded. I knew then that timelines would be a part of the show; I didn’t realize it would be the device they’d build it around!
Still, I couldn’t help but feel cheated. I still didn’t know about the past of the original series’ cast of characters, these were people of a different timeline creating different experiences. That meant they weren’t precisely the same people.
Then it hit me: the film was overt about the fact it was cheating. It featured Kirk cheating on the Kobayashi Maru, a Starfleet test designed to be unwinnable (mentioned in the original series, as well as the second Star Trek movie). Spock was the designer of the test, and presses charges against Kirk. It then features an elderly Spock coming back from the future (having gotten accidently caught in a black hole). Before he can do anything he is captured by the bad guy (the Romulan Nero) and sent on a planet to watch Vulcan be destroyed. There he meets Kirk, and, in Kirk’s word, “cheats.” He tells Kirk what’s happening, and how he has to stop it.
In other words, cheating was a theme of the film, and I think the producer knew it was what he was doing too. Doing it this way they can now reinvent the original Roddenberry cast, younger and gritier, without being tied down by all the ‘facts’ of the first series. They aren’t condemned to be just younger versions of Kirk, Spock, et al., setting up a series that began 43 years ago. They have their own uncharted universe, already profoundly different than the one of the original series.
That can be forgiven. The original series played by ear early on, not quite realizing that every throw away line, reference to the past, or technological trick would become a holy grail to which all future Star Trek series and movies would have to be faithful. Star Trek’s strength was not its science fiction, nor even its plot (by year three the scripts were often really bad). The strength was its characters — likable, flawed, and working as a team. Without cheating, there’d be no way to really recapture that. A pre-quel that had to stay loyal to everything that came before (ie, after) would be too limited. A new series with characters like the original would be seen as simple mimickry of the old. This gives them a chance for a 21st century redo of a formula that worked.
To be sure, I don’t know if they’re going to make this into a TV series — or perhaps simple have a sequel or two. But they have that option.
It’s also got some pretty cool philosophical implications. What if there can be different realities, where even whole civilizations are wiped out in one timeline, but dominate another? Is there an Earth history where Carthage defeated Rome and altered the entire civilizational history of the planet? Where Rome took the next step and developed technology that allowed it to expand further, developing things like automobiles around 600 AD? Where Jesus died as an infant, Muhammad was killed early by the Quraysh, and the main world religion became Zorastrianism?
Or to take it a step farther, if old Spock can meet young Spock (old Spock entered a new time line, and met that timeline’s Spock), is it possible that there could be multiples of each of us, living very different lives. Or a step further, could all our different aspects populate even a single timeline, meaning that all the conflicts, love, and hate we have for each other in this world is really just different aspects of ourself interacting?
In any event, it was a good movie and hopefully a good take off to a new set of Star Trek adventures. I’ve been a Star Trek fan as long as I can remember (probably back when I was very little and the originals were still on weekly), and have seen every movie that came out, many on their opening night. So this was a treat. But next week I’ll have another treat, a movie I’ve been waiting over a year for is out, and I’ll see it soon: Angels and Demons. But tonight was Star Trek night. And, by cheating, the film’s producers and writers scored a true victory.