Don’t get me wrong – I love explosions in stories. Very exciting in movies, in books, in games, and so on. They can be cathartic, they can assist tension building, they can be fun to watch unfold.
They don’t count as conflict, though. They don’t, in and of themselves, do anything. They do not tell stories. If you don’t believe me, go back and watch Transformers. I challenge you to tell me what that movie (and franchise) was about, besides explosions for the sake of explosions. Same goes for GI Joe.
Of late, I’ve been hearing more and more backlash against Star Trek: Into Darkness. It has been criticized as a ‘bad movie’, as a ‘stupid tent-pole action movie,’ and the rest of it. Though I enjoyed watching the film, I can’t really defend it against such criticism. It was a stupid formulaic action movie. Fun, loud, but lacking anything approaching substance. What might make it a ‘bad’ movie (though I’m not really sure I can go that far) is that it pretended to have substance. It made reference to drone strikes, to government overreach, and to the idea of friendship. It did not, however, really care about those things. Mostly what it wanted to do is have a big spaceship crash into a city and then have Spock punch somebody in the face over and over on top of a garbage truck. That’s what it really wanted, everybody. You were duped.
Let us reflect for a moment on what Star Trek has lost as a franchise. It used to be a show (series of shows, movies, etc.) about something a bit more important and interesting than just fighting aliens and blowing stuff up. When I was a kid, I failed to appreciate this. When I saw “The City on the Edge of Forever”, I was bored by the lack of ray guns. I loved Star Wars over Star Trek, mocked the silly beige hallways of the Enterprise-D, and thought that the Federation was a sissy organization run by silly peacenik innocents who, by all rights, ought to have had their butts handed to them years ago by the Klingons.
But I was a kid then. I was, almost by definition, an idiot.
Star Trek is a morality play. Star Trek is, or ought to be, about the human struggle to do what is right in the face of all that is wrong, and how horrible and difficult that struggle is. There are very few franchises that have done this so well as Star Trek has, whether in science fiction or out of it. Those who turn their nose up at the franchise either lack the maturity to appreciate the messages it sends (i.e. the generation of adolescent males who prefer more ‘kablooey’ to more ‘thinking about their problems’), or hasn’t actually watched what they need to see about the series to make it all make sense. Those people I refer to episodes like “The City on the Edge of Forever”, “The Measure of a Man,” “Rocks and Shoals,” “In the Pale Moonlight”, “Family,” and, of course, “Chain of Command.” There are many, many more besides, plus movies such as The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country round out the great message and moral weight of the universe Roddenberry created.
Now, while I have enjoyed the Star Trek reboot as ‘good time films’, I am increasingly reminded of how much my enjoyment of those two movies is dependent upon that which had been done by the original series before it. Honestly, what relationship or character work has been done in this new series that isn’t entertaining simply because of the echoes from our old friends Shatner and Nimoy and Kelley? Did we really think Benedict Cumberpatch was cool as Khan, or were we just happy to see Khan again, regardless of his form?
I am not a Trekkie, but this, ultimately, is what all of us who love scifi have lost in Star Trek. This is what I hope somehow we regain, but that I sadly must conclude is gone for good. We have watched character be replaced with effects and story be supplanted by explosions. If it works, it is only because of the coattails it’s riding on. I mean no offense to the cast of the Abrams movies, nor even do I particularly dislike Abrams himself (he is playing to his demographic, after all – explosions sell). I do not think, though, that we will ever again see the likes of this: