In 1966, the original Star Trek set out on its maiden voyage as a short-lived television show on NBC. Ratings for the series, which followed the crew of the starship Enterprise on a series of interplanetary adventures, were low and popular reaction was mostly nonplussed. At the time, science fiction had yet to penetrate the mainstream, and was still considered by many a shamefully juvenile pursuit. What was this strange production, with its rubbery reptilian villains and laborious technical jargon? Who would believe that a futuristic human society could exist without money or intraspecies war? And why all the weird outfits?
Only a handful of viewers really took to the show, but those who did were deeply devoted. So when the network tried to cancel it, they made their opinions known. Fan-driven letter writing campaigns kept it alive for three seasons before the show was canceled, leaving a mere 78 episodes behind. But in the 43 years since its debut, Star Trek has helped to create and define pop culture fandom, spawning, from those early letter-writing drives, an obsessive, multi-generational, global pop cultural movement that spawned an entire universe of spin-offs, movies, video games, and novels, as well as countless conventions and fan communities—one that still lives today.
Why would anyone love Star Trek? The acting was hammy. The stories were often contrived, metaphorically heavy-handed, and downright bizarre. The special effects looked cheap; the sets seemed to have been constructed from Styrofoam blocks and cardboard boxes. The fight scenes often appeared to have been specially choreographed for geriatric stuntmen. No, Star Trek's fans didn't love it for its stellar production values or high-end effects, nor for its subtle metaphors. They loved it because it was positive about the human condition, both curious and hopeful about the future, and genuinely concerned—if sometimes in the most gratingly obvious ways—about the state of world affairs, present and future. It was, in other words, a show with a grand vision that took big ideas seriously.
Now, with the release of the simply-titled Star Trek, a big-budget prequel featuring early incarnations of the original cast, TV superproducer J.J. Abrams, the brain behind mystery-box serials Lost and Alias, has given the aging franchise a major overhaul. This is more than a fresh coat of paint. It's a wholesale reinvention: new actors, new creative team, new scale, new sensibility, even a whole new timeline. There are similarities to the original—all the major characters are still around, personalities mostly intact, and the mid-century modern design ethos still reigns. But under Abrams's control, Star Trek has reversed course on all of its previous failings: the effects are as slick as the best summer blockbusters, the story moves at maximum warp, the humor is broad and rapid-fire, the action set pieces are often breathtaking, and the actors are young and attractive. Abrams has rebuilt the Enterprise and its crew from the ground up, this time as an energetic pop collage.
Thanks to a clever time travel conceit, Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman escape the franchise's mass of cumbersome continuity, a black hole in the screenwriting continuum that could've destroyed any attempt at a reboot. Freeing themselves from the narrative baggage of earlier incarnations, the creative team decided to start over with a brand new alternate universe in which Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the original cast still end up on the Enterprise in essentially the same roles.
Yet there are substantial departures, both in tone and character: McCoy (Karl Urban) remains the delightfully cranky sidekick, but he is no longer the voice of impassioned moral authority. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are now adolescent rivals, competing for status and female attention. Spock's placidly wise demeanor has been replaced with a keen but condescending intelligence and far greater emotional turmoil.
It remains an open question whether fans of the original will accept any of these revisions. Surely no one will complain about the swift pace, the cutting-edge effects, the dramatically amped-up interstellar action—it's a marvelously taut film, almost certainly the most viscerally exciting Star Trek story ever. But how, for example, will Trek diehards take to the prominent inclusion of a Beastie Boys song on the soundtrack during a key early scene, or the transformation of Uhura into a sexually manipulative Aaron Sorkin-esque Ivy League striver?
All of which is to say that there are things to love in Abrams's Star Trek, yet very little of the original series' appeal remains. Rather than concern itself with politics, ethics, or social organization, Abrams's Star Trek focuses on familiar quests for individual self-discovery. Like so many successful comic-book movies, it's about adolescent heroes coming to terms with themselves and their pasts, struggling with friends, rivals, and enemies while searching for power and place in the world. Where the original was poorly fashioned and outwardly focused, this one is gorgeously designed and self-obsessed. It's personal rather than political, aesthetically pleasing at the expense of conceptual depth. Star Trek, then, is continuing its mission: boldly going where the franchise has never gone before, seeking out new fans and new pop culture relevance. But it may lead fans of the original into unfamiliar space, struggling to come to terms with a series that, for the first time in more than four decades, feels strangely alien.
Peter Suderman blogs at The American Scene.