Time, Time, Time, See What's Become of Me

A Consideration of the Lives and Times of Star Trek, Old and New

That's why they call it a trip through time.

While we now look forward to the Star Trek: Into Darkness, I thought it was about... time ...to examine the nature of temporal and narrative continuity in the J.J. Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise.

...and therein lies the rub.

Because, you see, it's not really a reboot, or a re-imagining.

Now, allow me to offer this caveat.  I am perfectly okay with re-imaginings, and I kind of hate the fanboy fixation with continuity.  I spent a LOT of years dealing with comic books, and getting sick-to-death of the kind of hardcore nerdistry that placed rigid statistical consistency about the telling of good stories was a big reason I finally walked away from them.  Events are not stories, and stories came to sacrificed by the industry to the petty gods of events.  Then, when continuity of events becomes so convoluted, they end up scrapping it all and starting over again with characters who hold less and less of the iconic power that gives them substance.

First words, "...the hell?"
For an alternate example, look at The Simpsons.  Continuity is irrelevant to The Simpsons.  Bart and Lisa have been in the same grades for over 20 years (temporary story lines notwithstanding).  In that time, they have experienced at least two first days of school, a number of Christmases, and a ton of Halloweens, their Aunt Selma has been married a number of times, Apu has married and had children who now walk.  Still, Bart and Lisa remain the same age.  Even Maggie, the baby, remains the same, despite pre-existing the Nahasapeemapetilon children who are now older than her.

And that's okay.  That is their character, and those are the stories the writers have to tell.

I tell you this to make it clear that continuity is not sacred to me.  Story matters. The narrative is all.

That said, the world of Star Trek is one where continuity hasn't always been iron-clad, but it has come to be an area of great consideration, particularly given its relationship with time travel.

Which brings us back to 2009's Star Trek movie.  It's a reboot of the series... except it isn't.  It would have been one thing if they just took the same basic concepts and created a new series from (nearly) whole cloth.  Batman Begins did this.  Battlestar Galactica did this.  But Star Trek didn't.

Hands out of your pants, nerd.
They just HAD to have Spock.

By building the story around a time travel conceit in which Leonard Nimoy's original Spock travelled back in time, they not only laid claim to the legacy, they bound themselves to the continuity.  So this is not merely a universe in which some classic concepts are birthed anew; this is a universe in which the same people and events -- barring redirection -- are occurring.

Why does this matter?  I'm glad you asked.

In the film version of both Star Trek and The Next Generation, the most powerful elements were those that carried the emotional weight of pre-existence.  In short; Khan.  Wrath of Khan is unanimously (or as near unanimously as is possible in a world that allows for insanity and wrongness) the best of the six original cast movies.  It's not necessarily the best story of the bunch -- or at least not exceedingly so -- but because we know Khan, and we understand the hatred between Khan and Kirk, it resonates for the viewer.  When Spock dies, that has weight for us.  When, in Search for Spock, Kirk's son is killed, we really don't care because he doesn't have that emotional weight for us, even though we know his death is permanent where Spock's was not -- and it's not just because we're glad to be rid of a whiner in an early-80s perm.

No other villain in the Trek movies resonates like Khan.  Probe on shrooms?  Angry Klingon?  Spock's brother we never heard of before?  Conniving Romulan?  Meh.


Oh sweet!  Pinhead!  No, wait...
Likewise, in the Next Generation movies, the characters that resonate with us most are both in First Contact; Zefram Cochrane and the Borg, both of whom have ties within the history of the series.  The weaknesses of Insurrection and Nemesis include this absence.  F. Murray Abraham's plastic surgery addict exists only to die in the end, much like the "nemesis" that we've never heard of before.  So what if he's Picard's clone?  We didn't care about Spock's brother that we never heard of before, why would we care about Picard's clone that we never heard of before?  We don't actually care so why are there so many scenes with them discussing this tenuous connection?  There's no weight there, and they didn't even bother to connect him to Tasha Yar's Romulan daughter.  That, at least, would have meant something to the viewers.

SO, when they -- rather than rebooting or re-imagining, but -- rewound the series in 2009, there was a great opportunity to recreate things that the viewers will have an emotional connection to, in fresh new ways.  Eric Bana's Nero, frankly, didn't bring that much interest of his own, other than the borrowed interest of bringing us Nimoy as Old Spock.  The team behind the new series tried to have it both ways, and as a result, really kind of has it neither way.  By paying homage to fan service, it's not wholly fresh and unburdened of history.

You still want to buy it?  Even when I rub it like this?
With all the anticipation for the new film, fans are looking for Benedict Cumberbatch's villain to be Khan, which we are told he is not.  That's okay.  Technically, these new films occur in a time frame prior to the original series.  Kirk did not originally go directly from Starfleet Academy to his own command, as happens in the alternate timeline of Trek '09, so there is clearly a window for new experiences.  But the Botany Bay is still out there.  That history hasn't been changed.  Likewise, Charlie X is still gaining powers, Harry Mudd is still smuggling and scheming, Cyrano Jones is still managing a small marketing concern for black market pets, Zefram Cochrane is still making freaky-deaky energy love to a far-out light show...

Therefore, not merely does the opportunity to revisit characters and situations of emotional gravity fall to the new vanguard of the franchise, but so does the responsibility incurred by tying themselves to the original series through Spock.  Pumpernickel Pumpkinpatch may not be Khan, but Khan is out there, and he's going to need to be addressed in due ...time.

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