fan service

Why Trekkies Don’t Like J.J. Abrams — And Why Star Trek Into Darkness Might Make Them Reconsider

Photo: Jaimie Trueblood/Paramount Pictures

J.J. Abrams brought Star Trek back into theaters, but not all fans were eager to board his redesigned Enterprise. The 2009 film continues to polarize longtime Trekkies, many of whom feel that it failed to capture the spirit, scope, and intelligence of classic Star Trek. Arnold Blumberg, a University of Baltimore media studies professor and Star Trek aficionado, was firmly in that camp — until he saw Star Trek Into Darkness. “Everyone who knows me knows: I really hated that first movie,” he tells us. “And now that I found this one rather enjoyable, I’m seeing all these reviews rolling in from websites and friends and colleagues, saying, ‘wow, this one is really dumb.’ It’s like living in a Bizarro World.” The conventional wisdom springing up around Into Darkness is that it alienates fans. (“Star Trek Into Dumbness,” reads the headline on io9’s review.) But is it possible that the film could win over Trekkies who hated the first film? Since Blumberg was game, Vulture asked him to make a case for giving Abrams another shot.

Talk to me about your personal relationship with classic Star Trek.
Star Trek
was a part of my childhood right from the very beginning. I’m in my forties, so I actually am of the first generation after the show had already left the air. I saw it as a child in repeats. During most of my childhood, I was deeply into Star Trek. If there was a novel, I’d read it. I’d get the books about the show. It was one of the things I really cared a lot about. So I have an emotional investment in it that obviously is going to color my reactions. It’s tough to step away from.

Did you object to the decision to relaunch the series with the original characters?
One of the inevitable things that’s going to happen with any media franchise if it lasts long enough is that it’s going to outlast the actors; it’s going to outlast the people who began it. I think, in essence, the choice they made was a perfectly understandable one and, already I hate that I’m falling into something this cliché, a logical choice. To go back and use those original iconic characters, rather than simply doing what they’ve been doing for years, which is keep introducing a new crew — that made total sense. You say “Kirk and Spock” and even people who don’t know
Star Trek well understand what that means.

So you went into the first Abrams film with an open mind, and hated it.
I genuinely still believe that the 2009
Star Trek is one of the stupidest movies I have seen in my entire life. That movie is awful on almost every conceivable level. The plot, the structure of the film, the characterization, the action set pieces — it’s one of the rare occasions I’ve ever sat through a movie where I felt it was insulting my intelligence at every turn. The entire plot hinges on one of the silliest McGuffins in cinematic history, this “red matter” that basically does whatever they want it to do, whenever they want it to do it, in contradiction to the very rules set up for it, just because they wanted to do something to keep the plot going. That’s not playing fair with the audience. It has nothing to do with Star Trek; it has to do with telling a story. So then add to that the fact that it’s supposed to be a reinvention of characters that you grew up emotionally invested in. And it felt like, well, this is not Star Trek.

Was J.J. Abrams the wrong person to relaunch the series?
I find it interesting that J.J. Abrams is moving on to the
Star Wars franchise, because that is clearly what he has a personal passion for. He’s been very open in interviews that he was never a Star Trek fan, and he basically reinvented Star Trek with much more of the visual and action and emotional structure of the Star Wars films.

Tell me what you mean by the movies having more of a Star Wars than a Star Trek sensibility.
I realize this argument can often sound silly. If you look around online, every time a quote-unquote Star Trek fan talks negatively about any of this stuff, people automatically start going, “Well, Star Trek had a lot of stupid stuff in the show.” Yes, absolutely. It’s hard to argue scientific accuracy, or even the differences between Star Trek and Star Wars, when Star Trek had episodes with Kirk fighting the lizard guy and McCoy putting a colander on his head and learning everything he needed for brain surgery.

The argument I would make, though, is that Star Trek was always scientifically based. Even when they made up their gobbledygook — or by the time you get to The Next Generation, they called it technobabble — they tried to create the illusion of something making sense. Star Trek exists in a world in which science is real. And it’s still science fantasy; you can’t have the transporter without it being science fantasy. But it had an element to it of being in a semi-realistic extrapolation of the future.

And Star Wars isn’t about a technologically plausible future.
Star Wars is a sword and sorcery movie. Take away the technology aspect of Star Wars and it’s the Arthurian legend. It’s space opera, but it’s most definitely fantasy. Nothing in Star Wars needs or tries to behave in a way that’s technologically logical. Star Trek had a different sensibility about that. “Red matter” is a perfect example; red matter is something that is absolutely magical. Although, I’m trying to anticipate the inevitable reactions on 5,000 comment threads, which will be people pointing out that the Genesis Planet and the Genesis Effect in the original Star Trek movies are kind of magic too.

Should the 2009 film have tried harder to cater to original Star Trek fans?
Actually, I think maybe one of the worst mistakes that the filmmakers made in 2009 was in feeling they had to pander to fans of Star Trek at all. And by that I mean, the extremely convoluted time-travel plot they come up with in that movie. Because they somehow felt they needed to say, “No, no, Star Trek has always existed, that time line is real, and we’re now going to change it, but we’re changing it within the fiction of that reality.” So they felt they desperately needed to try to make fans feel okay about it. If they had simply gone ahead and started that movie from scratch, dropped us into that universe, said, “We’re just starting again, there’s no need for an explanation — here is a young guy named Kirk, here is a young guy named Spock, they’re going to be on the Enterprise one day, let’s watch them grow up and have adventures” — then, in many ways, it would have been easier for classic Star Trek fans to say, “Okay, well it’s not mine. It’s something new.”

Okay, any other issues with the 2009 film that we haven’t covered?
If I spent time talking about all the things that are terrible about that movie, we’d be here all night. But in terms of its relationship to the original Star Trek, here’s one thing I found interesting. As we were talking about before, the most obvious corporate choice for the filmmakers was, “Let’s go back to the beginning and pick up the characters that have the most iconic stature and the most cache to them.” Okay. So you go back to Kirk and Spock. And then you proceed to tell a story in which those two men have completely different childhoods than the original characters. Now they’re deeply damaged individuals: Kirk becomes a rebel and a troublemaker and a fighter and a boozer, and the movie becomes about trying to save that man and make him realize that it’s his destiny to be in the captain’s chair. And then you have a Spock who loses his mother and his entire planet, and basically experiences an origin in the 2009 Star Trek that’s more akin to being the last son of Krypton.

So: If Kirk and Spock are such powerful heroic figures in pop culture that have stood the test of time for nearly 50 years, and you’re reintroducing a modern movie-going audience to those characters, why turn them both into extremely damaged orphaned individuals who bear so little similarity, except physically, to the original heroes that they’re derived from? Why would you do that? They’re not even Kirk and Spock anymore. Stepping back from it, though, it’s interesting, because I teach a lot of stuff about superheroes and comics. And one of the things that happens frequently in superhero mythology is that the characters are orphaned.

The fairy tale trope.
Yes, exactly. And notice what that also means: Once again, Abrams is not doing Star Trek, he’s doing Star Wars and fairy tales and superheroes. He’s taken the basic trappings of Star Trek and dumped them into other genres that apparently he’s more comfortable with, or maybe likes more. And let’s face it, the fact that the 2009 Star Trek was demonstrably a hit proves that it worked for millions and millions of people. So, forgetting my emotional point of view as a kid who grew up with the original version, what I would then say is: Well, what does that say about us as a culture? Is it that we need a Kirk and Spock today who have these flaws and this damage? Is that what speaks to people today?

What were your expectations going into Into Darkness?
I read it in advance, so I actually knew every single plot beat, down to some of the minutiae in the film, and, I was completely expecting to be mortified. It sounded atrocious.  And I sat and watched the movie last night. And I enjoyed it quite a bit — so much so that a few friends of mine, including a couple people from some other media websites, told me they were deeply, deeply sad and disappointed in me. [Laughs]  For daring to enjoy the movie!

So what turned you around?
While there are still a lot of flaws, it felt like the characters and the actors in Into Darkness were moving closer to something that felt a bit like Star Trek. There are themes that come up in this movie that finally felt like that’s the kind of thing Star Trek would deal with. There are several moments throughout the film when Kirk deals with very deep moral and ethical issues related to, is Starfleet an instrument of exploration, or is it an instrument of war? And does he want to be a part of that? And he has to step up. And in essence, while that cartoonish, impulsive Kirk who always disobeys the rules is a joke that they built on and not the original Kirk, the Kirk in this movie is more the one who will disobey the rules when he knows it’s morally and ethically right to do so. And I was happy to see that.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry always wanted the show to send a message, and that’s something that was definitely absent from the first film. Into Darkness is a movie about: We choose to be above war. We choose to be the people who make the thoughtful decision, the moral decision, rather than simply bash and explode. Now, that message is a Star Trek message. And yet, I will say, Into Darkness also features an extraordinary amount of punching. [Laughs] I can’t tell you how many scenes in this movie involve a character just punching another person over and over and over again.

One of the fan criticisms about Into Darkness is that it borrows heavily from elements of Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan.
From my perspective, they didn’t so much steal it, as take it and twist it. For instance, they took a lot of things that had to do with Spock in Wrath of Khan, and gave them to Kirk instead. And by flipping that dynamic, I think it actually gives you a fresh look at it. And a lot of other Star Trek fans are criticizing this movie already for relying on those emotional beats, saying that these two haven’t earned that because they don’t have the 30-year friendship that Kirk and Spock in Wrath of Khan had. That’s true. However, I thought, in watching Into Darkness, that the emotional beats in this one played pretty well for this version of Kirk and Spock.

If you’re going to steal from a movie, you could do worse than Wrath of Khan.
Exactly. And I did feel by the end of the movie that the plot hung together better, there was less of that red-matter-sized plot hole you could drive a spaceship through. The characterization was better. There was a sense of more emotional involvement. There were more moral and ethical issues to deal with. As someone who grew up with the original Star Trek, I might find things to appreciate in it; clearly, I did this time. But the way I see it is: It’s not Star Trek. It’s something different with that name stuck on it. And that’s not necessarily a good or bad thing. It’s just the way media works. It’s difficult when things get reinvented because people have an emotional investment in it and it’s hard to get past that. But you just have to realize that Star Trek as we know it ended in 2009.

Can Into Darkness Change Trekkie Hate for J.J.?