Look, I try to be flexible. Things change, I can change, new things can come to be. I love Star Trek, but that thing is now nearing its 50th anniversary. Star Trek can change, too—spinning through many incarnations, hopping between mediums, swapping out cast members, and stepping on and off the Enterprise, the franchise has always committed to flexibility.
But that doesn’t mean I have to like Star Trek Beyond. Here’s the trailer:
I don’t think that’s a trailer for an awful movie. It could really be a lot of fun, with the dirtbikes and the Beastie Boys and the whole spacey Justin Lin action-comedy thing it’s doing. But that ain’t Star Trek, cats and kittens. Not without a little more; there’s a major piece missing still.
I admit, it’s got the uniforms and the Enterprise and Kirk/Spock (b)romance. But something’s wrong; something’s off. Something fundamentally different is going on in this trailer, even after the visual leaps of the previous two movies. The names and faces are the same, which leaves the whole trailer especially unsettling. An entire universe has been replaced by an impostor.
The immediate frisson comes when this thing opens with the first chords of “Sabotage”, the ’90s rock-rap song which provides the only soundtrack for the trailer. It’s not the genre—while Star Trek has a preference for sweeping, operatic scores, it’s not as if the electric guitar has been lost to time. The problem is that the song is recognizable.
Star Trek works when its timeless—yes, the special effects will always wrap a firm date around whatever you’re watching, but you don’t forget that you’re watching the future. And not the future of 1966, with Shatner and Nimoy and LBJ, or the future of 1988, with Stewart and Spiner and Reagan, or the future of 2009, with Pine and Quinto and Obama. For that moment, you suspend disbelief and imagine that you’re seeing the real future, as it will be in the 23rd century.
Aggressive pop culture references can collapse that vision. It doesn’t feel like Kirk likes the Beastie Boys, it feels like some producer likes the Beastie Boys, because unlike James Tiberius, that guy heard Mike D on the radio in high school. We’ve even heard it already in the reboot.
Which isn’t to say that Star Trek must eschew any reference at all—after all, Picard and friends boot up a holodeck simulation of Sherlock Holmes. But Holmes is timeless; it’s easy to imagine a young Jean-Luc Picard writing his own fanfiction about the consulting detective. The Next Generation took one shot at pop culture references, dragging up Joe Piscopo four years after he left Saturday Night Live for a guest spot playing hologram who teaches Mr. Data about comedy. Even Taylor Swift can’t shout “1989” that loud.
The Beastie Boys happened once; I love’em, but you can’t see their fan base lasting another two hundred years. If you want to send them to the future, you’ve gotta put their heads in jars, as Futurama accomplished.
Futurama is a satire aggressively tied to the present moment. That’s not what Trek is for. Even when it speaks to current issues, it promises a glimpse into something more. Something yet to come.
The music stands for everything that seems to be going wrong in the movie. It’s not only a movie that plays the Beastie Boys, it’s a movie that would play the Beastie Boys, seeming dated somehow even before it’s released. The plot is barely alluded to, replaced with a string of action clichés that only seem to recall other generic sci-fi movies or as Kirk does motorcycle tricks, Lin’s previous, Fast/Furious work. The Enterprise darts between asteroids, a vague recall of another, rather popular science fiction franchise that’s hogging the limelight lately.
Star Trek isn’t about action. Never has been, not really. Through seven seasons of The Next Generation, nobody even puts on a spacesuit. This is a series built upon inquiry, negotiation, and compromise. The captain rarely has to leave the bridge to save the day, much less spend an afternoon lurking around some alien world. For once (Spider-man notwithstanding), we are asked to ponder the responsibilities that come with great power, rather than rooting for a team of underdogs fighting against all odds to beat the system. Star Trek, at its heart, is about hoping that the system might actually work. I need more dialogue than grunts and wisecracks.
But I’m not ready to give up on the movie, not just yet. Halfway through, one of Kirk’s alien adversaries growls, “this is where the frontier pushes back!” Maybe it’s only a pun, a writer turning the franchise tagline into a bit of combat banter.
Or maybe, if we’ve been very, very good this year, it shows that there’s still something going on in Star Trek. Maybe the series—which has always stood for the best of cosmopolitan American values—is ready to ask a few questions about the dark side of those ideals, embracing the peoples crushed as the American frontier pushed across the continent.
If the system actually works, it has to work for everyone, a thought which Star Trek has always taken very seriously as it negotiated the inevitable conflicts of a galaxy-spanning nation-state. For one thing, the series pushed respect for local civilizations as the Federation’s Prime Directive, cautious almost to a fault. In practice, this meant thoughtful episodes about the nature of an ever-expanding frontier, even with an on-the-nose episode about removing a population of Native Americans from a planet they settled after fleeing Earth.
The search for new life and new civilizations always came with a cost, which has gone largely unpaid in the reboot. The first Abrams effort ignores this altogether, focusing on a battle between Kirk and Nero, where the cost is paid by the planet Vulcan—a founding member of the Federation which was never threatened by human expansionism. Into Darkness almost forgets that this is a universe with multiple civilizations, again focusing on a clash between Kirk and another individual, where the threat is not only aimed at human city, but at an American city, blowing off the fundamental conflicts of the series.
The Beyond trailer is so vague, it’s possible that these issues will emerge between the explosions. Maybe the dialogue is just still in post-production. Maybe we’ll get the Star Trek story we’ve deserved since the franchise went off of television years ago.
Or maybe they just pulled a rejected Guardians of the Galaxy script out of the trash. We’ll find out.