Editor's note, Monday morning, March 2: I don't really believe J.J. Abrams is plotting to ruin Star Trek. But I have issues. See the comments.
“Live long and prosper, Spock.”
“I shall do neither, for I have killed my captain and my friend.”
---Star Trek. Season 2, episode 1. “Amok Time.” Mr Spock’s and Leonard Nimoy’s best episode.
You probably don’t need me to tell you the news of Leonard Nimoy’s death. And there are plenty of tributes up all over the web already and there’s nothing meaningful I can add. But I do have a few thoughts, not so much about Nimoy himself or about Spock or even about Star Trek. More about what I think J.J. Abrams has been doing with Star Trek since he was handed the reboot, which is, basically, deliberately trying to ruin it for fans of the original series.
J.J. Abrams never liked the original Star Trek. He’s admitted this. He even seems proud of it.
But before we get to that, let’s star with Nimoy.
I imagine it’s a strange thing to be a famous actor, anyway. People love and admire you for your having impressed yourself on their imaginations as various someones who are not you. Must be stranger still to be famous for one particular not you. Everywhere you go people seem to think they know you intimately but the you they know is a character you played and that character is more real to them than the you standing right in front of them. And it must be terribly frustrating when one of those people to whom you are that character is someone you need to hire you to play a completely different character. That’s the whole premise of Birdman, isn’t it?
There were probably times when Nimoy felt like Michael Keaton’s character in Birdman and found himself in the same emotionally and psychologically confusing state of hating and resenting the character who made him famous---who gave him his life at the same time as taking it over----as if Spock was a real person who’d deliberately stolen his identity and any chance at having a different, more artistically satisfying career. I know there were times when Nimoy tried to be done with Spock once and for all.
Clearly, though, he came to terms with his predicament, the downside and the very considerable upside. It probably helped that he was able to have a serious actor’s career apart from playing Spock---not a star’s career but one that he could take professional pride in. (See Sheila O’Malley on his performance opposite Ingrid Bergman in the TV movie A Woman Named Golda, R.I.P. Leonard Nimoy.) He was never reduced to the plight of his fictional counterpart in Galaxy Quest of having to earn his living signing autographs at Star Trek conventions, answering questions about life on Vulcan, and having to listen to supposed grownups intone “Live long and prosper” at him and expecting his approval. Whatever the state of his fortunes on television at any given period of what should have been the prime of his career, he continued to act seriously onstage. He directed. He had a successful second career as a photographer. He lived long enough to see science fiction and fantasy develop a broader and more intellectually and artistically respectable appeal so that going to conventions and meeting fans became a very different and I expect more satisfying experience than the one parodied in Galaxy Quest. And at some point he realized that being Spock gave Leonard Nimoy an authority he would not otherwise have had and he made intelligent use of that.
And all the while he apparently managed to be a warm-hearted, generous, kind, and generous human being.
It’s also helpful that Star Trek has turned out to be a significant cultural achievement, boldly going where no television series had gone before or, arguably, has gone since, into the world of of popular myth and legend. Star Trek is a part of our collective conscious and unconscious, influencing the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. And Nimoy himself had a lot to do with that.
It’s something when the President of the United States feels called upon to deliver a statement on the death of an actor at all, but it says something wonderful about the actor and his most famous character that the President could put it in the form of a joke just about everybody will get.
And while it was what Nimoy did on TV that made Spock iconic, I think it’s the movies, two of which Nimoy directed, that have kept the series alive and vivid in the popular imagination. That’s a tricky case to make. You could argue that it’s worked the other way, that people care about the movies because of the TV show. At this point it’s hard to sort that out and I’m not going to try here. The main thing is that all the movies starring the original cast are good movies. As good or better than any of the best sci-fi movies of their time. Well, except for one. But really the worst that can be said of The Final Frontier is that it’s like watching a mini-marathon of the weakest episodes from the original TV series strung together except with higher production values, and nobody involved embarrassed themselves, unless it was Shatner as the director. But he didn’t as the star. The “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” singalong at the end is goofy but it’s also kind of sweet and it says something true and heartening about the three friends---Kirk, Spock, and McCoy and Shatner, Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley---as they approached old age and were reaching the end of their adventures. The other four films---or five. I’m never sure if the first movie counts as a real Star Trek movie.---need no apologies.
Especially not The Wrath of Khan.
Seemed a lot of people among my online circle of friends and acquaintances honored Nimoy’s memory last night by watching that one. Fitting and proper. (Best comment I saw came from Rob Farley of Lawyers, Guns & Money: “I've noticed, Chekov never really talks about the Putin period in Russian history.”) It contains Spock’s---and Nimoy’s---finest moment. It’s a heartbreaking scene, of course, and “I have been and always will be your friend” makes for a beautiful farewell from Spock to Kirk, from Spock to us fans---remember, Nimoy had announced he was not going to return for any more movies---and now, we like to imagine, from Nimoy himself to all he has left behind.
But that moment’s power depends on our understanding that Spock does die.
And not a comic book or TV show death.
And he doesn’t come back.
The resurrected Spock of the subsequent movies is a different person.
I don’t mean he’s been changed by the experience of dying---which he doesn’t remember. He plants his katra in McCoy’s head before he goes into the chamber---and rebirth. I mean he is somebody else. Somebody other. He’s Spock transfigured. And I think Nimoy plays him so, and not just in the seemingly addled way of The Voyage Home. I also think Shatner plays Kirk’s scenes with him with a sense of loss and a touch of loneliness: Kirk feels the absence of his old friend and misses him even while rejoicing at having “him” back. But that’s beside the point right now. The point is it’s a powerful scene that means an awful lot to Star Trek fans and J.J. Abrams went out of his way in Into Darkness to try to take it away from us.
I can’t remember for sure if at the outset of The Wrath of Khan David knows Kirk is his father. I think he doesn’t or at least he doesn’t let on to his mother that he knows. I am certain he doesn’t like him. Partly it’s the intellectual’s jealous contempt for the man of action. Really it’s the born rebel’s dislike and distrust for what he regards as the embodiment of an unthinking, unimaginative, reactionary authority bent on maintaining the status quo that gives it its authority. What he doesn’t know is how much he and Kirk are alike. The Genesis Project succeeds---and then fails---because David is a chip off the old block and like Kirk can’t accept there’s such a thing as a no-win scenario. He does to the project what Kirk did to the Kabayashi Maru test at the Academy. He defeats the problem by cheating. This makes him partly responsible for Spock’s death and the agent of his rebirth.
This is why David a very significant character in the Star Trek universe even if The Search for Spock did make short work of him.
The question is how did David get in the picture to begin with?
You have to figure that by the 23rd Century birth control’s one-hundred percent effective. David can’t have been an accident. His birth must have been planned. This suggests that Kirk and Carol Marcus were planning to have a family together. To be a family.
They might even have been married.
I’m sure their youthful romance has been dealt with in at least one of the many novel tie-ins. I know it’s been handled in a comic book, although I have no idea where the writers took it. But there must have been a couple of years when they were in their twenties when either Kirk tried to settle down and be a good family man or Marcus tried to live the life of the wife of a Starfleet officer and it made them miserable for a variety of reasons, mainly, I’d think, because it meant that either way both would have found themselves married to a person very different from the one they fell in love with.
Although it’s quick and easy to jump to the conclusion that Marcus fell for what females across the Star Trek universe fall for, Kirk the swashbuckler, it’s important to remember that Kirk was a nerd and a grind at the Academy and only got in touch with his inner pirate later. Marcus would have thought she was falling in love with a fellow science geek and have been surprised that he didn’t want to spend his days with her in the lab. He wanted to be “out there,” his guiding principle being “Second star to the right and straight on to morning.”
All of space was his lab.
But it’s also important to note that he would have had no doubt about what kind of person he was falling in love with. That’s why he fell in love with her. It’s established, first in the TV series and then in Wrath of Khan, that the two most important women in his romantic and erotic life were brilliant young scientists. Of course one of them turned out to be a mad scientist. But Marcus is serenely sane and sensible, responsible, diligent and dedicated but warm-hearted, self-aware, witty, and filled with and fueled by a generous sense of wonder. And whatever she might have thought Kirk was when they met, it probably didn’t take her long to figure him out. She knows what he and she were really like then and forgives them both for it, even likes them for it, and she knows exactly what he is now.
She has two key exchanges in The Wrath of Khan, one with David:
David: Remember that overgrown Boy Scout you used to hang around with? That's exactly the kind of guy...
Carol: Listen, kiddo, Jim Kirk was many things, but he was never a Boy Scout!
The other is with Kirk himself:
Carol: Please tell me what you're feeling.
Jim: There's a man out there I haven't seen in fifteen years who's trying to kill me. You show me a son that'd be happy to help. My son... my life that could have been... and wasn't. How do I feel? Old... worn out.
Carol: Let me show you something that will make you feel young as when the world was new.
In J.J. Abrams’ alternative timeline, Carol Marcus exchanges her scientific brilliance and interesting and likeable personality for sculpted abs. She also loses her independent spirit and becomes Daddy’s good little girl. And she bores Kirk.
The only time he notices her is when she strips down, that is, when she’s most like any of the hundreds of females of every variety of species he’s loved and left.
For all he’s interested in her, she might as well be Yeoman Rand.
Kirk doesn’t have the time this time. He takes a pass at making a pass and moves on to saving the galaxy yet again. So David doesn’t get born. Genesis never gets off the drawing board. Spock doesn’t die. And the best Star Trek movie is wiped out of the canon or, at any rate, stamped with a great big asterisk and a link to J.J. Abrams’ Wikipedia entry.
Did I mention that Abrams hates Star Trek?
I honestly think his object is to make Gene Roddenberry spin in his grave.
You can argue that what Abrams did with Khan accomplished this. But what the Khan plot of Into Darkness does is wipe out “Space Seed”, not incidentally one of the best episodes from the original series. As Abrams left things standing at the end of Into Darkness, Khan and his followers can still wind up marooned on Ceti Alpha V when its sister planet explodes laying waste to their home, bringing about the death of Marla McGivers who gets into the plot somehow, and setting Khan on his mission of vengeance. Possibly somewhere along the line Khan makes himself more interesting than Abrams made him---Carol Marcus isn’t the only character Abrams diminishes.---and memorizes Milton and Melville so if and when Abrams gets around to remaking The Wrath of Khan Benedict Cumberbatch can deliver the lines “He tasks me. He tasks me and I shall have him! I'll chase him 'round the moons of Nibia and 'round the Antares Maelstrom and 'round perdition's flames before I give him up!”
That’s presuming Abrams doesn’t blue pencil them out of the script for being “too cerebral.”
Abrams turned Carol Marcus into the babe and Khan into a standard issue action-adventure movie villain.
I thought that Abrams was going somewhere interesting with her in his first Star Trek movie, making her the one female in the galaxy who isn’t the least bit impressed or charmed by him. She’s immune to his roguish flirtations and annoyed by his swashbuckler’s devil-take-the-hindmost approach to life and command. She insists that he earn her respect by being every bit as good at his job as she is at hers, and she knows herself to be very, very good at whatever it is she actually does. That’s left a little vague, but gives her a lot more important work to do than Uhura had in the original series. It looks like she’s on her way to becoming Kirk’s Hermione Grainger and that the Big Three will be expanded to the Big Four.
But Abrams was working on something else at the same time and he dropped the Uhura as Hermione trope to make Uhura the girlfriend.
In Into Darkness that’s what she is and all she is.
She’s along for the ride, there to worry and scold and get into trouble she needs one of the boys to rescue her from, to be pretty to look at and prove that at least one of the nerdy boys is really a manly man smart popular girls secretly swoon over, and---her main job---to cheer the boys on.
Zoe Saldana is given more to do in any two minutes of Guardians of the Galaxy than Abrams has given her in his two Star Trek movies.
The Wrath of Khan came out in 1982, The Search for Spock in 1984, and The Voyage Home in 1986. But apparently the movie from that period that had the most significant influence on Abrams’ imagination as a budding filmmaker came out in 1985, The Goonies.
Abrams has a third Star Trek in the works but there’s hope. He’s not directing and he’s hired new writers. And maybe he’ll be too wrapped up in his Star Wars reboots, where his arrested-adolescent sensibility isn’t as much of a drawback.
And amazingly and fortunately, Abrams hasn’t been able to diminish any of the Big Three, although he tried with Spock by having him save the day with his fists instead of with logic. But I think Abrams has been defeated---so far---by forces beyond his ability to control. Chris Pine has tapped into the essential Jim Kirk. Karl Urban is channeling the ghost of DeForest Kelley. And Zachary Quinto is simply more loyal to his friend and mentor Leonard Nimoy.
So I think it’s probably a good place to leave off here, with Quinto’s farewell tweet.
But I can’t resist. I have to finish with this:
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