In 2006, when word came that filmmaker J.J. Abrams had signed on to direct a “Star Trek” prequel, even die-hard fans like me had to admit that it was time for an overhaul. The long-running sci-fi franchise had been limping along on one-quarter impulse power for some time, and the handful of Picard-centric films of the 1990s and early 2000s did not have enough juice to kick the Enterprise into warp drive again.
Justifiably criticized for their frequent hammy acting, cheesy special effects, sluggish pace, pretentious story lines and affected dialogue, the 10 pre-Abrams “Star Trek” films had begun to lose sight of what was so great about “Star Trek” in the first place, going back as far as the second film (“The Wrath of Khan”), when the then-middle-aged “Admiral” James T. Kirk first started wearing reading glasses. Where was the hot-tempered horndog of the original television series, which ran for three seasons from 1966 to 1969? It didn’t help that those horrible new double-breasted uniforms made Starfleet officers look like the kitchen staff of a Las Vegas casino.
The “Star Trek” television series was always something of a hybrid beast: part swashbuckling action-adventure, part intellectual exercise. Conceived by its creator, Gene Roddenberry, as way of exploring such social issues of the day as racism and U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, it was just as comfortable showing a scene of bare-knuckled, hand-to-hand combat between Kirk and some alien dude as it was allowing his character to speechify about the beauty of the U.S. Constitution (“The Omega Glory”).
Both of those elements survive intact in the Abrams films.
Trekkies — excuse me, Trekkers — will be delighted to see that “Star Trek Into Darkness” features a lengthy sequence of mixed-martial-arts-style action between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the film’s villain (Benedict Cumberbatch), who opens the fight by knocking the Pointy-Eared One’s phaser from his hand. But the new movie also boasts a highly topical plotline that involves terrorism, as well as the suggestion that those who fight evil run the risk of becoming evil themselves.
The presence of that ripped-from-the-headlines plot point is pure “Star Trek.” The fact that it’s handled with a degree of subtlety is not. The old “Star Trek” could be terribly preachy at times.
Abrams, of course, has been praised for bringing back a Kirk with a libido, in stories by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who were joined by Damon Lindelof of “Lost” on “Into Darkness”). Their films honor the original characters, while allowing them room to grow.
There will always be those who complain that the Abrams films have ruined the franchise by allowing too much room to grow. The time-travel plot of the 2009 film helps explain why a number of things about the Abrams movies don’t line up — at all — with the sacred “Star Trek” canon.
The complainers would be wrong.
While time travel is a favored trope of Abrams, it’s also a beloved “Star Trek” plot device, from such episodes of the original TV series as 1967’s “The City on the Edge of Forever” to the 1986 “Star Trek” film, “The Voyage Home.”
In fact, the prevalence of time travel in “Star Trek” explains the existence of the Temporal Prime Directive. That, as any good Trekker knows, is the rule forbidding interference with events of the past, in order to avoid changing future outcomes. It’s a rule that applies to all Starfleet crews.
Open-minded fans will have to make an exception in the case of Abrams, who, like Kirk, is something of a rule-breaker.
May he — and his “Star Trek” reboot — live long and prosper.