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The Starfleet Divide: The 'Star Trek' Universe Revisits One Of Its Great Debates

Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in <em>Star Trek Into Darkness</em>.
Zade Rosenthal
Paramount Pictures
Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto in Star Trek Into Darkness.

[Caution: contains pretty abundant spoilers about the Star Trek universe, but only fairly nonspecific ones about the new film.]

Star Trek,director J.J. Abrams' 2009 reboot of the ever-optimistic LBJ-era science fiction franchise, somehow walked the flaming tightrope of pleasing Trekkies and civilians alike. Brilliantly recasting the beloved and ancient-or-dead crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise with an likable company of actors in their twenties and thirties, and on a budget befitting a would-be blockbuster for the first time since 1979's bloated and unloved Star Trek: The Motion Picture,Abrams' hyperactive movie talked fast and walked fast — when it wasn't at a dead run. Indeed, in its breakneck pace and its camera-flare and whip-pan-loving photography, Star Trek '09 often felt like Star Trek '66 projected in fast forward. It had a relationship with the series' existing stories that was both loving and restless, centered on the film with the greatest continuing resonance for fans: 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan.

Trek '09 showed us an event first referred to as a part of Captain Kirk's reckless past in Khan. Back when he was a brash, young-and-dumb space cadet, Kirk reprogrammed Starfleet Academy's famed Kobayashi Maru simulator — an unwinnable scenario intended to test how prospective starship captains face impending death — so that it was possible to complete the mission (rescuing the souls aboard a disabled spacecraft in the no-fly Neutral Zone) and survive.

"He cheated," Kirk's child says of his deadbeat dad in Wrath of Khan.

"I altered the conditions of the test," Kirk protests.

Abrams' new reboot-sequel Star Trek Into Darkness is even more consciously beholden to Khan than its 2009 predecessor. Trek '09 established, to its credit, that this clean-slate telling of the Star Trek mythos would not necessarily hew to the version we know. It selectively contradicted established continuity — destroying Spock's homeworld of Vulcan, to name just one example that has significant repercussions in the sequel. Star Trek Into Darkness carries even further the making of sacred cows into burgers, warping way past fan service into something more like fan baiting.

Screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof bring back Khan, the villain introduced in the 1967 original series episode "Space Seed" before being ultimately immortalized in the film named after his temper and featuring his debut as a now-iconic scream of anguish that has its own .

Embodied with scenery-chewing brio by the great Ricardo Montalban, Khan was a merciless, genetically engineered, 20th-century warlord who had much of Earth under his iron rule by the year, er, 1996. Eventually, he and his crew were defeated and fled into deep space, sleeping in their cryo-tubes though the ensuing centuries, during which humankind supposedly grew more compassionate and civilized. And in Into Darkness, a part of Khan's story is restaged, but with a substantial alteration.

While messing with Khan risks upsetting fans, and while it feels wrong to wrap up a Star Trekjoint as Abrams has this one (with a humdrum earthbound foot chase), Abrams' speed-lined approach is probably the swift kick in the warp nacelles the franchise needed. Like its close contemporary, the James Bond franchise, Star Trek must be saved from itself every generation or so.

Abrams, who was born just a few months before the first episode of Star Trek aired in 1966, has said that Trek was always too talky and philosophical for him. He never liked it until he started working on it.

We have heard this story before — the story of a man who isn't sure he buys into the Star Trek universe as it's been done but builds something from it anyway. He directed The Wrath Of Khan.

Nicholas Meyer was mostly known as the bestselling novelist of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a smart revival of Sherlock Holmes, when he was hired in 1981 to direct the second theatrical Star Trekfilm.In Meyer's fine memoir The View From The Bridge: Memories Of Star Trek And A Life in Hollywood,he also claims to have written the script, cobbling it together from the salvageable pieces of five drafts by other writers, for no money and no credit, in a single, sleepless, 12-day period. The various quotes and allusions to A Tale of Two Citiesand Moby-Dick that pepper the movie, says Meyer, all came from him.

Gene Roddenberry, the World War II bomber pilot-tuned Pan Am pilot-turned Los Angeles police officer-turned screenwriter who'd created the TV series, had been forced out of the Trek film biz for the time being after the runaway production of The Motion Picture.

Meyer had directed only one prior film, an adaptation of the light sci-fi novel Time After Time. He had no love of Star Trek, but he wanted a career as a filmmaker, and here was Paramount Pictures inviting him to direct a high-profile film — albeit for a mere 25 percent of Star Trek: The Motion Picture's budget. Meyer took the gig, on the condition that he be allowed to do Star Trek in a way that made sense to him, which meant departing substantially from the what we might call the founder's intent.

Meyer wrote in his memoir that Roddenberry envisioned Starfleet as not a military organization but a patrolling one — a notion he considered "manifestly absurd." For him, Kirk was heading up "a species of gunboat diplomacy wherein the Federation (read America, read the Anglo-Saxons) was right right and aliens were — in Kipling's queasy phrase — 'lesser breeds.'"

Starfleet as a military organization was something Meyer could work with. Outer space had never excited him as a boy, but he'd loved C.S. Forester's adventure novels about the British sea captain Horatio Hornblower, set during the Napoleonic Wars. (Years later, he would learn Hornblower had been Rodenberry's inspiration for Kirk, too.) So he set about remaking Starfleet as something more explicitly like the U.S. Navy in space.

He redressed the Enterprise to make it look more cramped and dangerous than in prior voyages; less like a Hilton, more like a submarine. Suddenly, there were ladders all over the ship. (The producers drew the line when Meyer tried to hang a "NO SMOKING" sign prominently on the bulkhead of the Enterprise's bridge.) He replaced the uniforms he called "Dr. Denton's" with military-styled dark-red tunics, with insignia denoting rank and function.

His cosmetic and attitudinal changes would remain a part of the Trek-iverse until the original cast signed off with 1991's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, also co-written (for credit, this time) and directed by Meyer.

What didn't stick was Meyer's killing off of Star Trek's most popular character.

In his book, Meyer professes not to know for certain exactly when or by whom Spock's death warrant was signed, though he repeats the oft-told rumor that Leonard Nimoy himself wanted out. But killing Spock was, in Meyer's view, a key objective of the mission he'd accepted. He was determined to give Spock a tragic, self-sacrificing, ship-saving demise worthy of the noble character, and he did that.

And then Paramount un-did it.

The resuscitation of Spock was done later, over Meyer's screaming objections. The scene that plants the seed for Spock's resurrection was shot by a producer and added in post-production, after Meyer refused.

Whether in spite or because of its mushy stance on Spock's expiration, Khan was the hit the franchise needed. Janet Maslin's New York Times review began, "Well, this is more like it."

But there was at least one person who did not love the movie: Roddenberry. Perhaps that was to be expected, given that Paramount Pictures had ripped his baby away from him and handed it over to some novelist who by his own admission didn't know Mr. Spock from Mr. Peanut. Years later, when Roddenberry learned that Meyer's screenplay for The Undiscovered Country was an end-of-the-Cold War allegory, wherein hawkish factions within both the Federation and the Klingon Empire conspire to sabotage the peace treaty being negotiated between the galactic superpowers, he hit the roof. Meyer's screenplay depicted some members of Starfleet — not the least of them Kirk, whose son had been executed by a Klingon — as harboring racial prejudice against the Klingons. This made perfect sense to Meyer, who'd never bought into Roddenberry's utopian ideas about the perfectability of humankind (and of other species, too), but for Rodenberry, it was too much.

Intentionally or not, Star Trek into Darknesstakes this generation-old backstage battle for the franchise's soul and puts its back on the screen.The movie's big allegorical payload concerns Starfleet's gathering hawkishness, a sad but predictable response to the genocidal obliteration of Vulcan.

The audience I saw Star Trek Into Darkness with groaned when the end credits included a dedication to post-9/11 veterans. But it may be more appropriate a reference than those groans indicated. Science fiction and general, and Star Trek in particular, has always been a delivery system for social allegory. Star Trek Into Darkness may alienate casual viewers with its sermonizing, and may alienate diehards with its almost gleeful strip-mining and rejiggering of the Wrath of Khan's grandest moments. It goes where other, better films have gone before. But it goes there unusually — what's the word? — boldly.

Into Darkness operates even more explicitly as a post-9/11 allegory than The Dark Knight did five years earlier: Spock tells Kirk that mission he has accepted to, in essence, drone-strike Khan rather than capture him for trial, is "morally wrong." And Scotty, the Enterprise's chief engineer, resigns his commission after Kirk orders him to bring a cargo of mysterious new long-range weapons aboard the ship.

"We're supposed to be explorers!" Scotty objects, capturing the Rodenberry-Meyer divide, decades later, in a photon torpedo casing — er, nutshell.

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