Popular guest host Kathie rejoins Jakob and Mandi for an impromptu episode to talk about Star Trek Beyond. They all saw together a few weeks ago and have varying opinions about the latest Star Trek fan-film, some of which they’d forgotten already.
Making It Out Alive
As often happens, as soon as I hit “stop” on the recorder, I remembered what I mean to talk about on the podcast. It ties in to the premise of my previous blog post, which was how Hollywood movies, especially franchise films, have taken on the characteristics of fanfiction. I’d written the piece just previous to seeing Star Trek Beyond (because I didn’t expect to see it until it made its way to Netflix) but if I had, it would’ve been a prime example of the phenomenon. And not just because Simon Pegg, an avowed Star Trek fan, co-wrote the script making it literally a fanfilm.
Mainly it’s fanfic in how the characters of Kirk, Spock and McCoy are shallow, point-form caricatures of their original incarnations (as played by William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley). In Beyond, they admittedly do feel a fair bit closer to the classic characters we know and love, but in a superficial way, and Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban come off a bit like cosplayers mugging for the cameras at a convention as they toss out catchphrases instead of delivering an actual character performance.
The result, for me, was actually a lot more negative that the complete “WTF am I watching?!” experience of Star Trek 2009 and Into Darkness. As much of a mess as Into Darkness was, and is a film I have no time for, at least Quinto’s divergence from Nimoy’s portayal of Spock was becoming a character unto itself. In Beyond, Spock is more… Actually, I didn’t get the sense he was anything at all. But he did say a few of the right lines to let me know he was Spock.
And this could be said for any of the classic characters in the film. Kirk and McCoy also serve merely as dolls to hang the right coloured costumes on and say typical Kirk or McCoy lines when you push the button in their back. So, why doesn’t it feel that way with the original cast in their films? To an extent it does, especially as the film series progressed. A combination of them feeling like they’d begun to phone-in their performances and the fact they were only being given a sack of catchphrases to utter on cue (which makes their phoned-in performances understandable at least). But why does it work better with the original cast? The original cast films have two advantages.
The first is three seasons (and a few films) worth of character development, as developed by the actors who play the characters. When DeForest Kelley delivers a curmudgeonly one-liner as the irascible Bones, it feels completely natural. Kelley is playing a character, but he’s also delivering the line in the manner he might himself (though he was reportedly too nice a fellow to do so). Urban, on the other hand, is palpably uncomfortable as he tries to deliver a suitably Kelley-like performance without his New Zealand accent. It’s also the only character trait he’s given. Kelley’s McCoy was actually a pretty jolly guy, really. A generally optimistic person, with a strong ethical code, and one who had no patience for injustice or cruelty—hence his being constantly triggered by Spock’s cold, clinical analysis of situations. Urban’s McCoy is only allowed to be a snarky dick. Similarly Quinto’s Spock is only allowed to flip between his coldly logical Vulcan side and his psychotically emotional human side. The character of Nimoy’s Spock journeyed on this spectrum as well, but it wasn’t a hot/cold spigot—it was a nuanced, wavering balance. Nimoy’s Spock spent as much time being genuinely amused by humans as he was unimpressed by what humans inexplicably found amusing. Quinto’s Spock simply doesn’t understand jokes, the same way Data was unable to (being a freakin’ robot), and occasionally flies into a rage like Worf overcompensating for not being Klingon enough. Instead of being an intriguing, multifaceted character, he’s a bit of a moody asshat.
The second advantage the original cast films have is simply the way movies are made now. Star Trek Beyond is front-loaded with a twenty minute, destruction-porn action sequence before we have a chance to swallow our first handful of popcorn. That eats up a lot of time for story-telling. For me, the failing of Beyond is that it is entirely devoid of stories. None of the characters have any “stakes” in the film other than just making it out alive. Making it out alive can be a story in itself when done right, in many films it is, but since it’s the baseline for every single character in Beyond, it ceases to serve as a personal journey for anyone. Besides his life, what does McCoy stand to lose? What does he hope to gain? How about Scotty? What’s motivating him? These don’t have to be huge character dilemmas, but it’s fundamental to storytelling that each main character has some “stakes”—something they can lose or a goal they’re desperate to achieve that motivates them to action (or inaction).
Let’s take Star Wars, for example. Not a film that’s ever been accused of deep character development, but each character has a goal other than just making it out alive. Luke Skywalker wants to go on an adventure, Han Solo wants to makes some quick cash, Leia wants to defeat the Empire, Vader wants to crush the rebellion, Grand Moff Tarkin desires power and glory, C-3PO wants to stay out of trouble at all costs, R2-D2 wants to fulfill his mission by any means necessary. Each of these motivations steer the plot. In fact, the plot of Star Wars is created organically out of these motivations and the push and pull of where the characters’ stakes are either in alignment or opposition.
Again, what are McCoy’s stakes in Beyond? Or Scotty’s? I can’t come up with anything. How about one of the supposedly more interesting original characters, Jala? Other than making it out alive, what drives her? It’s fair to point out her existence has been preoccupied with survival, but what has she lost? What does she hope to gain? There’s a few thin lines outlining her past, and she seems bent on revenge. But that’s a pretty superficial character trait. Her only internal conflict seems to be that she’s concerned Kirk and Scotty’s plans are going to get them all killed, but since she agrees to them immediately that has no bearing on the plot.
Almost worse, however, there’s been an attempt to give Kirk and Spock some stakes yet they’re somehow fumbled and don’t pay off. At the beginning, we’re told Kirk feels jaded about being a Starfleet captain for some reason. Since we’re told this in a mopey captain’s log voice-over instead of being shown it, we have to take him at his word that he’s really burned out and is going to accept a promotion to the admiralty. Meanwhile Spock is having an existential crisis because he’s learned that time-travelling Nimoy-Spock has died. This is somehow tied into his breaking up with Uhura so he can help repopulate the galaxy with Vulcans. Or at least, 3/4 blood Vulcans instead of 1/4 blood Vulcans (which his an Uhura’s offspring would be) because apparently Spock has become a proponent of some sort of Vulcan eugenics program and, I guess, Vulcans can’t simply donate sperm. It seems Quinto-Spock must have some time travelling ability too because he broke up with Uhura previous to learning of his implied motivation for breaking up with Uhura. Anyway, the upshot is Spock is leaving Starfleet. But he and Kirk aren’t telling each other this because they are in high school. So there’s no tension between them about this.
Still, what is set up at least has some potential for a nice parallel character journey. One in which Kirk and Spock each discover something about themselves during the events of the film which cause them to decide to remain on the Enterprise. Ideally, Kirk’s and Spock’s individual crises would inform their decisions during the events of the film and would also shape them. But once the action starts, Kirk and Spock are immediately back in the saddle (in Kirk’s case literally of you count the motorcycle seat) dealing with the situation at hand. Which does make sense realistically, there’s a bunch of making it out alive stuff they need to attend to which is bound to push navel gazing to the background. But from a story-telling standpoint, what happens is that when they inevitably decide to stay on the Enterprise at the end, it’s neither a surprise—because they essentially made the decision to stay in act one—nor has it any weight because they haven’t overcome anything. If the whole prelude where their crises are set up was excised from the film, the plot would be entirely unaffected. Everyone would have made the same decisions and taken the same actions. Since Spock and Kirk don’t even know the other was considering leaving, as they gaze out the window in the final scene, chins raised at a determined propaganda poster-like 45-degree angle, there’s no significance to their unity. It’s sort of a pathetic friendship fail if anything. Just two near-strangers who made it out alive.
Oh, Bones is there too. We should have felt a newly-forged bond between him and Spock in this scene since they were paired up in a classic doctor/injured patient bonding scenario for most of the film. But the lack of “stakes” on both their parts made their bonding experience hollow and rote.
Ultimately, what Star Trek Beyond suffers from most is not having a story. Things happen, lots of things, but a succession of things happening is not a story. A story is internal to the characters and how their internal lives affect the external world around them by their words and actions. None of the words and actions in Beyond have any meaning because the characters, like action figures, don’t truly have any internal lives.