Editor’s Notes: Star Trek: Beyond opens in wide theatrical release today, July 22nd.
Fifty years after debuting on network television, lasting three seasons before an ignominious cancellation, a brief Saturday morning animated revival, and a semi-miraculous return fueled in part by the renewed popularity of space operas and science fiction in general, a sub-par big-screen entry followed by a far more commercially and artistically successful sequel, Star Trek expanded beyond the realm of self-selected “Trekkies” and “Trekkers” to become a pop-culture phenomenon rivaled only by George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy and its myriad, never-ending multi-media off-shoots over the last four decades. More films followed with the original cast, a sequel/spinoff series ran on television for a healthy seven-season run, with three more television series and big-screen adventures with the new crew in rapid-fire succession. But as with any series or franchise, creative exhaustion inevitably set in (the last series set in the original timeline, Enterprise, lasted only four seasons). It took J.J. Abrams to bring Star Trek, dubbed “Nu-Trek” by fans and non-fans alike, back to multiplexes, but after two middling, wildly uneven entries, the series seemed doomed to irrelevancy once again.
. . . bringing the series back to Roddenberry’s original vision of storytelling with purpose, storytelling with personal stakes and universal implications.
Thankfully, with the third, best entry, Star Trek: Beyond, we can set aside any talk of irrelevancy or mediocrity – at least until the already announced fourth entry arrives in theaters at some point in the near or distant future. With Fast & Furious helmer Justin Lin taking over for Abrams as director and co-star/co-writer Simon Pegg (Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scottie” Scott) on screenwriting duties (along with Doug Jung), the series has finally found its footing, mixing humor, drama, and action/adventure in equal amounts, giving moviegoers the balance of character, story, and spectacle missing from the earlier entries, and almost as importantly, bringing the series back to Roddenberry’s original vision of storytelling with purpose, storytelling with personal stakes and universal implications, storytelling grounded in socio-political commentary of the left-leaning, liberal variety.
The Federation we encounter at the beginning of Star Trek: Beyond reflects the values of diversity, tolerance, and pluralism Roddenberry valued so highly five decades ago, a utopian vision that made lifelong fans of the original series and its subsequent iterations in practically every media imaginable. At the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, the U.S.S. Enterprise, led by Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), had finally begun its five-year mission of exploration and discovery. Three years into that mission, however, and Kirk has lost his way, questioning whether he wants to continue serving as captain of the Enterprise or receiving a promotion to vice-admiral and accepting a desk-bound position on Earth. Spock (Zachary Quinto) faces a potentially life-altering dilemma of his own. Despite a long-term romantic relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Spock feels pressured to leave Uhura and the Enterprise behind to help rebuild the Vulcan way of life on New Vulcan (Old Vulcan expired in a cataclysmic explosion in the first entry). Events, however, table their respective dilemmas when a ship with a single passenger arrives at an advanced space station, the Yorktown, requesting help in an out-of-the-way nebula for her stranded crew.
. . . the series has finally found its footing, mixing humor, drama, and action/adventure in equal amounts, giving moviegoers the balance of character, story, and spectacle.
Alas, Kirk and the Enterprise fall into a potentially deadly trap (Admiral Ackbar was apparently busy in another cinematic universe), leaving the Enterprise in literal pieces scattered in orbit around an Earth-like planet and the detached saucer section a flaming wreckage below. Setting aside the question of Kirk’s gullibility and whether a captain with three years experience would respond to the request for aid without hesitation or more importantly, a back-up plan of any kind, the chaotic, asymmetrical space battle between the Enterprise and a swarm of small, drone-like ships sets the bar – an incredibly high bar, it should be added – for future space battles to come. Lin effortlessly switches between and among different members of the crew and different sections of the Enterprise as the battle inevitably turns against Kirk and his crew. In the aftermath, Kirk ends up with Chekov (the late Anton Yelchin), an injured Spock with Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Uhura with Sulu (John Cho), and Scott with a new character, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), an alien warrior with a major grudge against Krall (Idris Elba), Star Trek: Beyond’s resident villain, a villain with a grudge of his own against the Federation and its pro-peace, pro-diversity, all-unity philosophy.
Krall spends most of Star Trek: Beyond trying to find an ancient Whats-It, the plot engine or device that turns him from a minor villain with anger issues into a potential super-villain with a doomsday weapon at his disposal. Krall, however, never quite emerges as the kind of memorable super-villain that the one-and-done nature of the crew’s big-screen adventures merits. Every villain has been motivated by revenge or revenge and a secondary, subsidiary motivation, making them, including Krall, one-dimensional, forgettable villains. The same can be said for the ancient Whats-It Krall spends most of Star Trek: Beyond pursuing. It moves the plot along between the obligatory, spectacle driven set pieces that have become de rigueur for blockbuster-sized science-fiction/action films, and not much else. On the other hand, Star Trek: Beyond is at its best not when its aping other space operas with outer-space battles – though, again, Lin choreographs each set piece with an impressive attention to epic scale and human drama – but when it focuses on characters, character interactions, and their relationships. Even when the humor tends toward the cheesy and cornball (more often than anyone would like, to be honest), the combination of the characters, finally developing a measure of depth and complexity, and the actors playing them, that makes Star Trek: Beyond the finest entry in the new universe.
Even when the humor tends toward the cheesy and cornball (more often than anyone would like, to be honest), the combination of the characters, finally developing a measure of depth and complexity, and the actors playing them, that makes Star Trek: Beyond the finest entry in the new universe.