Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Little Prince

Well, I'm probably not the very last person on Earth, but it certainly took me long enough to get around to seeing the new Star Trek. On the plus side, I guess this means I don't have to worry too much about spoilers. So let's dig in!

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.

And they all lived happily ever after.

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.

Maleficent x Ursula = OH NOES!

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!

Hey, is there cilantro in this vaccine?

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.


  1. I felt that the new Trek was essentially a "Star Wars-izing" of the franchise -- this movie's Kirk is very much a Luke Skywalker type.

    As it happens... It seems to me that the story of Luke Skywalker very much parallels the Disney princess story model you describe.

    So, in other words, I agree with you. However, I still think the new Trek was pretty awful.

  2. Nngh... I think I reflexively want to rise to the defense of Star Wars here, but let's see if I can let my brain steer my gut instead of vice versa.

    Although the "Luke as prince" element isn't all that strong in the first Star Wars movie, I'll grant that the starting point of New!Kirk isn't that dissimilar - I can imagine him whinging about having to go pick up power converters, getting in bar fights in Mos Eisley, etc etc. And of course he's a hick from the middle of nowhere with a daddy complex.

    On the other hand, though, Luke's a bit more strongly motivated. From the moment he sees her holographic plea, his whole goal is to rescue the hot princess, which then segues into the whole Death Star thing; it's all very epic and quest-y, which is probably why it became Exhibit A for the whole Campbellian hero's journey thing. To the extent that Luke has a kingdom to reclaim, it's actually the kingdom of Being A Creepy Sith Lord Like Daddy, and Obi-Wan and Yoda are the ones who are trying to steer him away from it! Just as Tolkien's Lord of the RIngs is a fantasy epic about trying to get rid of a magical artifact, the original Star Wars movies seem like the story of a kid who successfully struggles to avoid fulfilling his destiny and following in his father's footsteps.

    In the Trek movie, Kirk does have a goal of sorts - he's got that crazy Romulan conspiracy theory to peddle, and he kind of wants to stick it to Spock. But I'm not sure why he joins Starfleet in the first place apart from simple boredom, and when the Special Guest Star shows up, he seems a lot less concerned with beating Nero than he is with installing Kirk as captain and putting Young Spock back in his proper sidekick role. So I came away with the feeling that the main concern of writers and characters alike was putting Kirk back on top, rather than rescuing princesses and blowing up Death Stars and whatnot.

    Maybe that all seems a bit technical - a matter of storytelling emphasis rather than plot fundamentals. But I feel pretty strongly that not all stories are identical and interchangeable, and it's these details that give them their distinctive character.

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  4. I think Spock would make a better captain... He's smarter. The computer on Kirk's escape pod said the atmosphere outside was inhospitable on the ice planet and he's like "screw it, I'm a badass, I can breathe hyrogen and survive at -60 degrees!"