The original Star Trek universe was, in many ways, a universe made for a niche audience. Its appeal has never been quite as broad as its planet-sized imprint on popular culture. So when the franchise appeared to hit a wall with 2002’s Nemesis film, fans speculated that Trek might have finally run its course. Then, in 2005, the Enterprise television series was cancelled. No new films or shows were in development at the time. The fan base, much like the Federation, was getting older. All signs pointed to the end of era.
Then J.J. Abrams came along.
As a lifelong Trekkie myself, I have to admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of Abrams’ 2009 reboot. There was plenty to love about the film — the cast was outstanding, the action was loads of fun, and the pacing was perfect — but something was missing. That “something” wasn’t enough to dampen my enthusiasm for a Trek revival or lessen my appreciation for the film itself, but it did temper my expectations for future Abrams-directed Trek films.
Into Darkness, on the other hand, left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. Many other Trekkies felt more strongly about it than even I did; it was voted the worst film of the franchise by fans at the annual Star Trek convention in Las Vegas in 2013. And that wasn’t because of an anti-Abrams bias; the ’09 reboot finished sixth on the list, putting it ahead of six other Trek movies and the 1999 science-fiction parody Galaxy Quest.
Abrams deserves all the credit in the world for taking Trek off of life support and restoring it to its former glory. If the franchise was to survive, it had to expand its reach and successfully court a newer, younger generation of fans. Abrams did just that. That’s his contribution — nay, his gift — to the franchise. You don’t have to like the way he went about it, but you should respect it. Without that gift, you’d almost certainly be stuck binge-watching old reruns of The Next Generation to get your fix.
That being said, the “Kelvin Timeline,” which is what this new Trek universe has been officially dubbed, has struggled mightily in one critically important regard; it may walk like Star Trek, talk like Star Trek and look like Star Trek, but it hasn’t always felt like Star Trek. Some people don’t see that as a problem, but I would argue that those people are mistaken. The success of this franchise, like so many others, depends heavily on preserving the loyalty of its core constituency. You can never and should never count on casual fans to carry you across the proverbial finish line — just ask any failed politician about the risks inherent in such a strategy — which is why bringing the oft-mocked but remarkably passionate Trekkies back into the fold was such a high priority for the team behind Star Trek Beyond.
Fortunately, director Justin Lin and co-writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung were up to the task.
Teamwork. Camaraderie. Exploration. Technobabblicious dialogue. Those are just a few of the hallmarks of old-school Trek, all of which are prominently featured in Beyond.
Scotty acts more like an engineer in the film, spending most of his time working through mechanical issues with the assistance of Jaylah, played by breakout star Sofia Boutella. His quirky personality remains intact, but he’s an engineer first and a comedic prop second, which feels much more appropriate for the character than what we got in the previous two installments. And it’s fair to say that his interactions with Jaylah provide some of the most enjoyable moments in the film. His experience and dry wit meshes really well with her youthful innocence and cheeky personality. They make a surprisingly good pair and accomplish a great deal together. Hopefully, this won’t be the last we see of them working side by side.
Spock and McCoy, played by Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban, respectively, are finally given the opportunity to play out the love-hate dynamic that defined their relationship in the original series, and the results are both genuinely amusing and undeniably nostalgic. The chemistry between Urban and Quinto has a lot to do with that, but that chemistry wouldn’t have been realized if not for Pegg and Jung’s expertly crafted script and Lin’s willingness to give those two characters sufficient time to shine.
In addition to spending more time showing off the capabilities and ingenuity of the Enterprise crew and developing relationships that had previously taken a backseat to the one shared between Kirk and Spock, Beyond also gets a little more philosophical than its predecessors by reintroducing a question as old as the franchise itself: Is the Federation truly a force for good?
Each and every Trek series has raised this subject at some point, but since it’s an open-ended question, it’s a subject of discussion that never becomes stale and tends to elicit pretty strong responses from diehard fans. That Star Trek would even be willing to question the nobility of its own vision is a testament to the degree of self-awareness exhibited by the franchise. By simply revisiting the proposition that the Federation, an institution that has often been accused of blurring the line between blissful cooperation and subtle coercion, might not be all it’s cracked up to be, Lin, Pegg and Jung have opened the door to a more thoughtful and introspective universe that more closely resembles Roddenberry’s Star Trek than the one that Abrams constructed.
The film doesn’t go so far as to endorse everything the Federation does and stands for, but it makes one thing crystal clear: No matter how imperfect the Federation may be, it’s a far better alternative to what came before it, and there can be no going back. I can’t think of a stronger endorsement of Roddenberry’s Trek than that. Perhaps that’s what makes Beyond feel more like a genuine Star Trek movie then either the 2009 reboot or its Into Darkness sequel.
What’s most impressive about Beyond, though, is how it manages to return the franchise’s most important elements to the forefront without diluting the playful, lighthearted and action-oriented vision that Abrams brought to the table. Lin, Pegg and Jung did what some might have deemed impossible; they successfully fused Roddenberry’s old-school Trek with Abrams’ new-school coolness in a way that ought to appeal to both dedicated Trekkies and fresh-faced newcomers alike. And that’s exactly what this film needed to do.
The big takeaway here is that in the right hands, the old and the new can not only coexist, but can also strengthen and elevate each other. All you need to make that happen is a healthy respect for the source material, an understanding of the demands of modern audiences, a team of writers like Pegg and Jung to put it all together, and a director who, like Lin, knows how to execute.