When it was announced that there would be a film prequel of the 1966 Science Fiction series Star Trek, fans of the series, myself included, were through the roof with excitement. The film stars Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine in the roles of Spock and Kirk. The men come up against the villain, Nero — a Romulan commander on a mission of vengeance.
To see the old dynamic between the triumvirate of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy is a special treat for Trekkies. But plenty of us were concerned that our favorite characters and the universe Gene Roddenberry created wouldn’t be depicted accurately.
From my perspective, J.J. Abrams’ rendition contained hits and misses, though the misses might be justified by Abrams’ fans by the switch to an alternate universe. For Star Trek’s 10th anniversary, I’ll mainly discuss the characters of the film and compare Gene Roddenberry’s vision with J.J. Abrams’ slightly modified reincarnation.
Kirk, Spock, and McCoy
Like Gene Roddenberry’s Kirk, the young Starfleet student is an intuitive, emotional, and somewhat impulsive man. Chris Pine does well to embody the role William Shatner originated without being a mere copycat of Shatner. The main way this version of Kirk departs from the original is in his level of rebelliousness. In the episodes Shore Leave and Where No Man Has Gone Before, Kirk describes himself, as “grim” when he was at Starfleet. So focused was he on his books, that his friend from the aired pilot, Mitchell (Gary Lockwood), sent a woman his way to distract him from his studies.
To the contrary, J.J. Abrams’ Kirk can’t be bothered with his studies as he prefers dirt biking and prurient evenings with Orion girls. Some of these changes can be justified, given Kirk’s womanizing tendencies in the original series, but his impetuousness is difficult to reconcile with the level of responsibility he obtains as a Starfleet captain.
Seemingly inspired by the more emotional Spock of the early episodes, including The Cage and Where No Man Has Gone Before, Zachary Quinto’s Spock is largely true to Leonard Nimoy’s. He is cool and logical, yet by the same token unusually peremptory. Rather than allow Nimoy’s first few performances as Spock slide by as first trials before he settled into the character, Abrams seems to want to explain the change in temperament using the Vulcan’s youth and part human ancestry.
Also somewhat interesting is the alteration in Spock’s mating habits. As Quinto’s Spock is dating Uhura, it’s clear that Vulcans — or at least half human ones — in Abrams’ universe can mate year round instead of once every seven years, or else Uhura wouldn’t be the happiest of human women.
Though most fans seem comfortable with these changes, I found that they served only to pander to popular audiences by making Spock appear more relatable and even a little Sheldon-esque. The strength of Spock’s character is in his misfit status, and this doesn’t come across as strongly in Abrams’ Star Trek.
But perhaps the best of all the portrayals in Star Trek is Karl Urban’s performance as Dr. Leonard McCoy. As the ornery, country doctor, Urban embodies the character as effectively as his predecessor, DeForest Kelley. Despite being younger, McCoy plausibly retains his incredulity in the face of change and also the familiar mannerisms and speech pattern from the old series.
Uhura, Sulu, Scotty, and Chekov are not copycats of the originals, but they carry the best traits from the originals while adding new qualities. Montgomery Scott (Scotty) was a particular standout. Simon Pegg as the chief engineer of The Enterprise bears little physical resemblance to James Doohan (the original Scotty) and he brings to the film a stronger comedic presence than did the role’s originator.
One of my favorite characters, however, was absent from the film — Number One, Captain Pike’s female first officer from the unaired pilot The Cage. Portrayed by actress and wife of Roddenberry’s, Majel Barrett, she counts as an intriguing character because she existed in Roddenberry’s first vision of the show.
For a show that began in 1966, it was incredibly bold of him to place a woman in the role of second in command from the get-go. Though her character was erased from the Star Trek universe, she became canon in the two-part episode The Menagerie from season one. It would have made some fans happy to see her character shown again more prominently.
J.J. Abrams and Storyline Originality
The original series contained many memorable storylines, most notably from such episodes as Amok Time, Mirror, Mirror, and Space Seed. But after ten years, the plot of Star Trek failed to stay with me in any meaningful way. Nero was a solid, but generic villain bent on destruction. He couldn’t compare to unique favorites like Ricardo Montalban’s Khan or even Q from The Next Generation. The primary interest I had in this film was the depictions of the various characters. Granted, if I watched the film a few more times I would enjoy the experience again and appreciate the performances, but Gene Roddenberry still reigns as a storyteller with whom J.J. Abrams cannot compete.
Even though the film only partially held up to my expectations, a more recent prequel Star Trek Discovery is closer to what I like to see from a Star Trek series. Perhaps J.J. Abrams might deserve credit for reigniting interest in the original series. And for that, we can all look back fondly at Abrams’ Star Trek.
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[…] weren’t stupendous, but aside from the “lens flares” mentioned in a comment on that blog, I loved all of the characters and the films. I don’t see the need to compare the new to the […]
I enjoyed all three new films thoroughly as I was not deterred by comparison. I get what you are saying is valid but my criteria are different. Thanks for your article!
Interesting post, thank you! I love all Star Trek incarnations up to the reboot, but unfortunately I’m not a fan of J.J. Abrams’ style. I don’t like his aesthetic (all those lens flares!!!), I don’t like the need to make everything bigger and louder, and I don’t like the fact that he seems to take a product, copy its form but forget about its substance…
I didn’t hate Star Trek (2009). I even gave a chance to Into darkness (2013), and that’s when J.J. lost me forever. Now I’m watching the full TOS and the full Voyager rather than giving a chance to Discovery, which reminds me a lot of J.J.’s work. I might watch the new series with Picard, though, since Patrick Stewart is involved! :–)
I think we can only look back at anything fondly if that subject was good. I enjoyed this movie when it came out because it was Star Trek and it was back but the anticipation soon faded after watching it as it left a bad taste in my mouth. It was like looking forward to a meal you’ve had many times and realising when you start eating that the food had gone off. The deviations from the timeline, although giving the writers freedom to change the characters in fact ruined it for many of us fans. These were characters we had loved for decades in a Universe we all loved and in this movie all of that changed. When taking on a beloved subject matter like this or any other that has a fan base already in place the rule should always be do the subject matter justice, give the fans what they want and not, let’s change things around a little. The fans know what they want so why not give it to them. If you want to change things around, do something original and I know that word is like a swear word just lately in Hollywood but come on guys, I’ve said this before, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
I think you nailed the differences well. I also struggled to remember much of the re-imagined Star Trek. I blame some of that on pop-culture. Back when the original aired in ’66, science fiction on the big and little screens was just starting to gain serious traction. In 2006, we’d become jaded by the many science fiction and fantasy movies and series that’d germinated in the forty years between the two events.
I think, too, that the 2006 Star Trek had an extra challenge for people like me, of meeting an impossible standard of being as thrilled by the new ST as I was by the first ST. It would’ve had to be pretty damn amazing to do that.
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