Science fiction writer and all-around deep thinker Samuel R. Delany once wrote something to the effect that (and I’m paraphrasing wildly) the problem which a lot of people have with the SF genre is less a matter of being put off by its fantastical and/or futuristic aspects than by its semantics. They’re bothered by the way that invented words are used to signify invented concepts so that the accumulation of plot detail is contingent on the reader being able to glide over the bumpiness of coined names and nouns in order to comprehend a sometimes vast and always imaginary place. For some people it just doesn’t compute, or doesn’t seem worth the effort, while others absorb the synthetic lingo with ease. Delany was talking about written science fiction, of course, which has traditionally been more dense and complicated than the cinematic kind, but I was reminded of his observation fairly early on during the new Star Trek movie, when one of the characters asked the entirely reasonable question, “How can a Reman be Praetor?” Though the plot was barely off the ground, the alternative language was already in high gear.
And with the memory of the Delany exegesis came a sigh of contentment borne on a small wave of fondness. Those of us who read a great deal of science fiction at an impressionable age (and even, out of habit, during the less-impressionable ages that followed) have always appreciated Star Trek’s aesthetic connection to written SF. Unlike the Star Wars series, which is more an elaborate quest fantasy than it is science fiction, Star Trek’s techno-allegorical projection of a possible future is squarely in the mode of SF’s many permutations on the concept of galactic empires (the prototype being Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series). It’s a subgenre so essential that when James Blish, one of SF’s more original thinkers, took on the job of creating a series of Star Trek novelizations, he didn’t seem to be slumming, or at least not too much.
Of course the Star Trek series, being movies and not books, still seemed like entry-level SF despite its literate qualities, its effectiveness relying a great deal on conventional derring-do, a certain amount of spectacle, dubious makeup and, as time went by and the original cast began to show their age, moments of shameless sentimentality. But even so, for the discerning SF devotee it was the fun ride of choice and, at its best (e.g. The Voyage Home), it was very good.
Too bad, then, that this latest and perhaps final (it has been hinted) entry in the series isn’t. Not that that’s surprising. Ever since the leadership baton was officially passed from Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), the pleasure-factor of the movies has been dipping with each outing. It’s not the fault of the new crew, who are even more individualized than the old one. (We’ve gotten past the stage where future enlightenment has to be represented by a cast that seems like a mini-United Nations.) It’s not even the writers, who still layer the plots as though the audience were smart enough to follow them. No, what makes the new Star Trek movie and its immediate predecessors seem a little dull are the yawn-inducing fights and the seen-it-all-before special effects. Especially deadening here is a protracted battle sequence between two starships which engenders awe only in the way it seems to make time stand still. (After the screening I saw, somebody referred to the draggy battle stuff, with appropriate disorientation, as having occurred during the movie’s “middle half.”)
As for the plot, Picard must confront an evil clone, who doesn’t look a bit like him (something that’s unconvincingly “explained”), while Data (Brent Spiner), the ship’s resident android and slightly effeminate Spock stand-in, has his always precarious sense of self challenged by the discovery of an early and still functional version of his particular line of ’bot. And Earth is in danger of being destroyed, down to the last molecule. It might have made a decent episode in the TV series, where budget and time constraints would have led to a paring down of the effects sequences, but as it stands the movie is like Shatner just before he finally bailed: a little bloated and a little past its prime.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at email@example.com.