Star Trek: The still (almost) motionless picture

Star Trek: The first thirty minutes or,

Why I (almost) never go out to the movies anymore

More years ago than I care to count, the science fiction writer and editor Judith Merril taught me one of the only vital rules of writing.

"When you're editing your work, think about every word in every sentence of every paragraph. If anything doesn't have to be there, take it out!"

Never a dogmatist, Judy didn't mean that that rule (or any rule) had to be slavishly followed. She did mean that, if you broke a rule, you should know damned well why you were breaking it.

Which, yes, brings me — typically late to a Hollywood party — to J.J. Abrams' "re-boot" of the venerable Star Trek franchise.

Star Trek has received pretty good reviews. The Globe and Mail gave it three-stars, saying, "Star Trek gets its mojo back in J. J. Abrams's swinging reboot of the franchise. Smart and youthful, with a well-balanced package of humour, crisp action and character-based drama ...", and it's getting about 95% positive ranking on (whatever exactly that means).

All of which strikes me as at once bizarre and all-too typical of the (lack of) film criticism, at least when it comes to the latest "blockbuster" offering.

Now, the movies has its moments and I can assure nervous Trekkies (if there are any who haven't yet seen it) that Star Trek's casting and characterizations of the iconic characters are both pretty good. The new-comers successfully walk the fine line between imitation and interpretation of such stalwarts as Kirk, Spock and McCoy. On the other hand, there would be no movie were it not for its idiot plot — if you can tell me why Leonard Nimoy's "Spock prime" (as I think I've seen the character referred to) didn't just walk the 14 kilometres to the Star Fleet outpost on his own, I'll give you a gold star.

But never mind the plot details or the casting specifics; I want to talk about the film's first 30 minutes, a bloated and ponderous admixture of emotionally pointless action scenes and a pseudo-psychological, "realistic" background for the (re-booted) James Tiberius Kirk.

Star Trek clocks in at just under two hours, though the actual story doesn't really get underway until we're past that first 30 minutes, during which half-hour minutes, we learn the following:

  • Kirk's father was (for 12 minutes) a starship Captain who died heroically, saving his wife and his in-the-process-of-being-born son (I don't know about you, but I am sick to death of The Birth Scene);
  • as a child, Kirk was already a hell-raiser and had a poor relationship with his step-father;
  • as a young man, Kirk was still a hell-raiser as well as being a drinker who enjoyed (but wasn't particularly good at) bar-room brawling;
  • Kirk is nevertheless very intelligent, stubborn and an original thinker; and
  • er, that's about it (to be fair, four or five minutes of that 30 minutes is also devoted to Spock's childhood and early adult years).

That's an awful lot of time to spend learning so little and, frankly, were I not an old (if lapsed) fan, I'd have have walked at around the 15-minute mark.

Compare the above with what Russell T Davies managed in only two minutes, with his "re-boot" of the even more venerable Doctor Who franchise. (Here's a Youtube link, well-worth taking two minutes to look at. I'll wait until you're done.)

* * *

As (I hope) you'll have seen, in that 110 seconds, we learn the following about Rose, who would be the viewer-identification character over the subsequent two seasons of Doctor Who, and who was an entirely new character to boot.

  • The opening (not-quite) 20 seconds, panning from empty space, to the moon, to the Earth, to England, to Rose's alarm-clock, give us the sense this isn't going to be a domestic drama but rather one with a very broad scope;
  • Rose is young enough that she still lives with her mother;
  • Rose's mother doesn't seem to have a job;
  • Rose does have a job, as a clerk in a department store, and uses public transportation; in other words, she is working class; and,
  • Rose has a boyfriend, who appears to be a bit of a clown and who is, apparently incidentally, black, while Rose is white.

And at the one-minute, fifty-second mark, the story begins, while at the same point in Star Trek we've just witnessed a generic battle scene, the significance of which we know absolutely nothing about. If this kind of long-winded story-telling is typical of what Hollywood is producing nowadays, I'm going to keep staying away from the movie theatre, no matter how many stars are awarded by the critics.

With some judicious editing, and some repairs to the idiot plot and Star Trek would have made a decent one-hour television episode. At twice that length, I am simply baffled by its apparent popularity.

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Do I get a gold star?

"Spock Prime" didn't walk to Starfleet outpost himself because he was, at that point, hiding from the savage beasts that wander the surface. He probably didn't land on the planet in the same place as rebooted Kirk did, so his journey to safety across the planet may have been a lot longer and have involved an awful lot of hiding in caves.

A lot of the criticism of this film has rightly focussed on the central drama surrounding black holes which can both destroy planets and pull people into other dimensions completely unscathed. It's the most ridiculous macguffin ever and the only thing keeping it from ruining everything is that the film keeps us focussed on the characters in the hope that we won't notice this elephant in the room.

The first section of the movie (did it last 30 minutes?) has been, for many people, the best part of the film that the rest of the runtime didn't live up to. The guy playing Kirk's dad managed to make me care more about him in that first scene than any of the other characters in spite of their much longer screentime.

Also, I'm sorry but the whole sequence introducing Rose in Doctor Who was horribly mundane. To be fair, I thought that was intentional in order to contrast with the exciting arrival of The Doctor. In that opening Rose and her mum both feel like characters from Eastenders. Finding out their job and class status is not a big revelation. After all, the characters at the beginning of Star Trek are in fancy uniforms on a space ship, giving us a pretty similar level of insight.

Re: Do I get a gold star?

A gold star? Why not? What you won't get is a closely-reasoned rebuttal to your arguments about this film. I haven't seen it seen I wrote the review and I'm not likely to watch it again, ever. Well, except that I seem to recall Spock Prime was within visual range of the base, wasn't he? Didn't whoever he met there later saunter on over quite handily?

As for Rose, what so impressed me about the opening minuted and a half or so was the information density. Rather than wasting the viewers' time with wankish car crashes, we met an (apparently) ordinary girl, learned about her family and romantic circumstances, her work and even got a hint of her courage — all within that impressive two-minute montage.

I stand by my contention that that was a masterful piece of expository film-making.

YouTube link is gone now, but

YouTube link is gone now, but I know the Doctor Who intro you mean... and you're right - 'Rose' makes good use of its first two minutes setting the scene and then BAM! Straight away we're into the actual story :)

"YouTube link is gone now, but"

It's a pity, isn't it? And rather stupid on the part of the BBC, as it makes one hell of a promo for the program. I could probably find another version somewhere (or rip one of my own and upload it, but no doubt their lawyers would find it and take that down as well, so I'll let it go).

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