I admit I found it a little surprising that the creators went to all the trouble of setting up an alternate Trek universe and yet, with one obvious exception, by the end of the movie nothing has really changed. All the familiar cast members are there on the bridge of the Enterprise, and despite his detour into juvenile delinquency, James T. Kirk has been duly installed in the captain's chair. Even if the crew has been assembled somewhat ahead of the original schedule, making them younger and hotter than their classic incarnations, both the movie itself and a certain returning cast member are determined to undo the disruption caused by the villain's blunderings and restore the original status quo.
The goal of the plot, in other words, is to restore Kirk to his proper place as sovereign of the Enterprise, with Spock as his loyal number two. At first, I felt like this was being accomplished with a pretty wanton disregard for established Starfleet protocol (to say nothing of real-world military procedure). I know we're not supposed to think too hard about movie plots these days, but it must be a little dizzying to go from Academy washout, to marooned mutineer, to twentysomething captain of the Federation flagship without taking a break to change your underwear. Yes, it's meant to be fantasy, but I think it didn't really make any sense to me until I figured out what type of fantasy.
So here's my theory: The new Star Trek is actually Cinderella in space.
Say what? Well, consider the basic premise of your standard Disney princess movie: The noble heroine is robbed of her rightful station by the intervention of a scheming witch or jealous stepmother. Recognizing her good heart, magical allies intervene to help her reclaim her birthright. The story ends with a joyous coronation in which the princess is restored to her throne and paired off with her destined soulmate.
I don't want to push my analogy too far here. Sure, Nero's spiky black space octopus is somewhat reminiscent of certain Disney witches. But even though Nero's time travel adventure derails Kirk's predestined Starfleet career and turns him into the Terminator 2-era John Connor, he isn't deliberately trying to ruin our hero's life - he's trying to ruin Spock's life. As for interpreting the Kirk/Spock relationship as a fairytale romance, I'll leave that as an exercise for slash fans.
But you can't have Cinderella without a fairy godmother, can you? And Kirk, as in Sleeping Beauty, actually gets a triple helping. Every time he seems to be in danger of letting his birthright - his destined role as captain of the Enterprise - slip through his fingers, a twinkle-eyed elder pops up to nudge his personal timeline back on track. First it's Captain Pike, pulling strings to get our impoverished Ashenputtel into Starfleet Academy. Then it's Bones McCoy, working some classically half-assed magic transformations to smuggle Kirk aboard the Enterprise. And finally our Special Guest Star, who maps out Kirk's fate in no uncertain terms - right down to his foreordained BFF-ship with the bitchy young Spock - and then arranges a timely bit of interstellar teleportation to get him to the Captain's Ball on time. Beats the heck out of a pumpkin carriage, I'd say!
And so the irritation fades. Sure, catapulting the class clown into the captain's chair is a bit of a slap in the eye to anyone who might have been tempted to take Starfleet seriously. But on the other hand, J.J. Abrams and friends have managed the near impossible: Getting millions of grizzled sci-fi fans to swoon over what amounts to The Little Mermaid with phasers. A nifty magic trick, that.