Making a Star Trek film was always a strange project. Both the original series and Next Generation were meandering affairs, with few clear villains and many episodes with confusing premises. The movies have been many different things — sometimes fan service (Search for Spock), sometimes glorified children’s fare (Voyage Home), and sometimes little more than a way to give paying work to series regulars (The Undiscovered Country, Generations, Insurrection, Nemesis). There are films in the franchise that attempt to do essentially a really long episode with better special effects, above all the first (The Motion Picture), which closely followed the plot of an original series episode (“The Changeling”). And sometimes they’ve been embarrassing indulgences (The Final Frontier). At their best, though, they have combined a clear villain with a conscious awareness of the questionability of the undertaking.
This is above all the case in Wrath of Khan, where the mesmerizing performance of Ricardo Montalbán provided an improbable level of depth and where, through a series of more or less obvious meta-commentaries, the plot and dialogue openly questions whether the franchise can be rejuvenated. The pattern repeats itself in the second most-successful film, First Contact, where the best villain of all — The Borg — is enlisted in a story that can be read as Next Generation‘s claim to be the authentic heir of the franchise (indeed to be closer to the original conception than even TOS) while also openly admitting to the improbability of a future like Star Trek ever coming about.
At the same time, both plots were deeply personal for their respective captains, forcibly confronting them with their greatest mistakes (Kirk stranding Khan on a random planet) and moments of weakness (Picard being abducted by the Borg). This element was mostly missing in the Next Generation films, however, given that Picard was much less of a “personality” than Kirk — which was admittedly a part of his appeal — and had much less investment in his relationship with his crew than Kirk did in his relationship with Spock. The attempt to present Picard and Data as the new Kirk and Spock thus rings almost as hollow as the attempt to make Patrick Stewart into an action hero.
I’ve recently rewatched the reboot movies, and I think that they have finally turned Star Trek into a bankable movie franchise — which is exactly what’s wrong with them. While there are a lot of detailed homages (which are fun for fans and are probably just experienced as dispensable sci-fi gobbledygook by the uninitiated), at the end of the day JJ Abrams has forced the materials into the mold of a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster.
This means that Kirk has to be a messianic figure, down to the miraculous birth as his mother escapes from the ship on which his father dies. He must be a “diamond in the rough” who resists discipline and training but instantly excels in every way once he enters into it. He must be a “chosen one,” the proverbial “only one man” who can save the world. He must suffer — the films do a great homage to William Shatner’s elaborate performance of suffering, surely his greatest gift as an actor — and barely succeed through sheer dint of will. They even kill him and resurrect him, completing his performance as messiah (and like the old Kirk he is revived through the blood of Khan…).
The messianic hero’s friendships cannot be as simple and complementary as the classic Kirk and Spock dynamic. They must instead be based on rivalry — preferably a rivalry between the “chosen one” and someone who has succeeded according to more standard meritocratic means, ideally from a disadvantaged position. The model here is Harry Potter (the wizard messiah) and Hermione Granger (the Muggle who succeeds through sheer hard work). In the films, Spock has become a tormented Hermione, the hard worker who admittedly lacks the “special something” the messianic character has. The back-and-forth between Spock’s logic and Kirk’s gut has been transposed into a conflict in Spock’s own character, between his will to self-control and his one uncontrollable emotion: anger. This darker cast to Spock’s character goes along with the darker, more conflictual tenor of his relationship with Kirk (hence the character might be more immediately legible, but at the cost of making it difficult to understand Kirk and Spock’s mutual loyalty).
I don’t think it’s any accident that the reboot franchise hasn’t yet done a “real” Star Trek plot in deep space, instead doing the earth-centric “origin story” (a ritual requirement of any blockbuster franchise) and then, contrary to all common sense, doing an Earth-based terrorism plot where Kirk can yet again be the “only one man” who can save Starfleet from its own corruption.
The deepest irony here, of course, is that the “messianic” blockbuster plot is ultimately a story about white privilege, a fantasy set up to present it as deserved. No matter how hard anyone else works, the white hero always has that “special something” everyone else lacks — and his close friendship with the meritocratic rival always turns crucially on that rival’s acknowledgment of the white messiah’s right to be in charge and save the day. In contrast to this overtly white-centered paradigm, the Star Trek franchise has always been marked by diversity in casting, and over the years, it showed a profound interest in imagining alien cultures, sometimes in great depth (Klingons above all, but also Ferengi, Vulcans, Trill, and even the Borg). To start the reboot by actually destroying the alien culture most important to Star Trek, and in the process making Spock more human, is a profound betrayal on this level.
Supposedly the third film will be in outer space — but I’ll believe it when I see it. In fact, I would bet any amount of money that it reprises the earth-based time-travel plot of The Voyage Home. You can’t go where no one has gone before when — just like all the many comic book “reboots” we’ve witnessed in recent years — your entire enterprise depends on forcing the raw materials of an entertainment franchise into the repetitive and self-referential formula of a “white messiah” Hollywood blockbuster plot.