There was a time when Star Trek strode the Earth like a might colossus, unshakable in its success, unerring in its ethos, unmatched in its merchandising. There was a time when two new Star Trek series were airing simultaneously, movies were making money (sometimes) at the box office, and Trek conventions were bigger business than ever. Around 2000 or 2001, though, Star Trek began to stumble. Star Trek: Nemesis tanked at the box office (even not adjusted for inflation, it remains the lowest-grossing of all the Trek movies). Enterprise was engaged in a constant struggle to stay relevant and new. Voyager and Deep Space Nine were long off the air, and the future was uncertain. When Enterprise was canceled in 2005, it looked like that was the end of the road.
As a die hard Trekkie from my early days, I was at peace with this. We had a lot of trekking over the years, and I was satisfied with the now-deposed empire Paramount had built around the shows and movies.
Of course, only four years later, a new team, a new cast, and a new operational ethos was applied to Star Trek by marketing-guru-and-sometime-filmmaker J.J. Abrams. Trek was revived in a new, hip, sexy package. It took something that was previously about peace and egalitarianism, and turned into military-minded action-packed space nonsense. And it was a big hit. Then there was a sequel. It was bad. It was shameful fan pandering, and it further transformed Trek’s placid thoughtfulness into an even more military-minded actioner. Needless to say, apprehension has been high ever since.
With the release of Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond, the 13th film in the series, we are granted a small mercy. Star Trek Beyond is enjoyable beyond mere fan recognition, and pleasing beyond mere visceral space battles. Perhaps it was due to a switch in screenwriters (co-star Simon Pegg co-scripted Beyond), or perhaps it is merely an active display of a more powerful creative life form asserting itself from underneath, but the spirit of the original Star Trek seems to be allowed to breathe again. For several films, the central appeal of Star Trek has been – perhaps deliberately – submerged underneath the brackish waters of dark revenge films. And while Beyond still features a dull villain who is, once again, motivated by revenge, it has managed to retain something that audiences may have feared lost.
It’s been several years since Capt. Kirk (Chris Pine), Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban) and the rest of the Enterprise crew (Pegg, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, the late Anton Yelchin) have left Earth, and they are getting restless. Kirk is thinking of retiring into a cushy sub-admiralty, and Spock is thinking of retiring into a life of Vulcan meditation. A brief respite is granted in the form of a missing crashed vessel whose crew may still be alive on a distant enshrouded planet. Pack up the Enterprise, it’s time to go trekkin’.
What they find is a swarm of robot drones that make short work of the Enterprise, and before long the crew is separated, sans vessel, on a planet’s surface, convening with other lost aliens (in the form of a white-faced Sofia Boutella, the legless badass from Kingsman: The Secret Service), and doing battle with an embittered alien creature (Idris Elba) who is hellbent on destroying the Federation for revenge reasons.
Star Trek has always been most appealing when it displays its attention to technical details, and to the dynamic of military chain of command; the old makers of the show were always very tidy about incorporating actual astronomy and workplace managerial dynamics to their dramas. Beyond, wisely, incorporates more of these structural elements than its immediate predecessors. When the crew of the Enterprise is finally reunited, and they begin making intelligent suggestions as to how to get out of a tight spot, we feel that we’re finally seeing the crew at their best. After two films of growing pains, the crew is simply allowed to be good at their jobs.
Doing “fan service” has always rubbed me the wrong way, and it can be horribly handled; just see the new Ghostbusters and its string of protracted and forced cameos for a recent example. Don’t service the fans. Service the material. The fans will follow. While the new Star Trek does make a few allusions to fan-friendly imagery (there is a crack about a ship being beset offscreen by “a giant green hand,” a reference to the original series episode Who Mourns for Adonais?), they are mercifully brief and unforced. There are more for-fans-only elements in Beyond, but, bafflingly, they come from Enterprise. There are references to the visual and character details from that show, and much of the action hinges on certain experiences that people first saw in 2001. Perhaps Pegg, in wanting to please deep-cut fans, elected to include details that only true Trekkies would be familiar with. And what did only Trekkies force themselves through? Enterprise.
Star Trek Beyond is not a grand return to form, nor is it a stellar life-affirming entertainment. But it is a modest step in the right direction, and feels like we’re – at long last – where we need to be. For the fist time in a long time, I’m looking forward to yet another Star Trek feature film.
Witney Seibold has been a film critic for nearly 20 years, and is currently the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast on CraveOnline. He also co-hosts the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. You can contact him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.