*With Star Trek Beyond now out on blu-ray we're taking a look back at how well the film landed with us.
Each and every one of the Star Trek shows over the decades has touched on this theme; it’s an important trope to hit in sci-fi, one that The Original Series helped to pioneer. The original show was a trailblazer not just because of its sci-fi nature, but the progressive and difficult themes it tackled, all blanketed under the guise of science fiction. In addition to the standard “what defines humanity” theme, other themes in various episodes touched on complex issues such as racism, classism, totalitarianism, and technology, all the while exploring the aforementioned human condition and the arbitrary flux of what is right and wrong. The show also helmed many television firsts, like the first black woman in a prominent and recurring role, as well as the first on-screen interracial kiss (on American television). It also pushed forth many females into more progressive roles both on the Enterprise and off, including those of officer roles, leaders of activist groups, and lawyers (at a time where approximately only 4% of lawyers were women). And while the characterization of all of the women on the show wasn’t perfect all the time, as there were certainly a fair share of women who were simply there to look pretty and be a love interest, some of the choices made in certain episodes for new female characters and for the recurring female crew members were virtually unheard of in 1966.
Which brings us to the new movies. In a time where sci-fi action movies are still a popular genre and more people are calling out studios for lacking diversity and representation, Star Trek Beyond had the opportunity to capitalize on this trend and please not only the fans of TOS but the expanding sci-fi fandom overall. Not only could they go with fresh new material, but they could expand the roles of women and other underrepresented groups and truly fit in the styles and themes of The Original Series, something the last two movies struggled with.
The last two Star Trek movies prominently featured the planet we know best, Earth. And only the most well-known aliens from the universe have made appearances, namely the Romulans, Vulcans, and finally the Klingons briefly in the second film. There was also a problem of white men dominating the screen, which again is disappointing in a culture that is demanding more credibility in diverse storytelling, especially in science fiction and fantasy, where diversity should not be out of place. That being said, the new movies have had great entertainment value: high production value, great CGI, clean and well-executed action scenes, and a nice amount of humor involving each character. It was satisfying seeing these classic characters in a new light with a new universe and to see a bit more of the background that made them the characters we are familiar with. In TOS, we got snippets of various characters’ pasts, such as Kirk's “survival-of-the-fittest” colony experience when he was first out of starfleet, and of course, the Vulcan mating ritual of pon farr. But so far in the movies we haven’t really had that extra depth to the characters other than general heroic actions with the occasional lover’s spat, which frankly didn’t add all that much. We have not had these deep stories that echoed TOS to sink our teeth into, no political or social commentary, just another sci-fi action flick. Don't get me wrong, the new movies are entertaining as hell, but nothing really sets them apart from other sci-fi action movies and sequels of the past 10 years or so.
My hopes were lifted when I saw that none other than Simon Pegg had penned this particular screenplay, along with Doug Jung, who has a few writing credits under his belt including episodes of Big Love and the short-lived but decently received undercover cop drama Dark Blue (He also makes an appearance in the film as Sulu’s husband). Pegg is one of our own, a nerd who grew up watching Star Trek and can geek out on a whole new level playing Mr. Scott, the Enterprise’s Chief Engineer. Thanks in part to Pegg, this movie looked like it could give us a story more akin to one that aired 50 years ago, and I have to say, I think he delivered.
The movie had a relatively simple and semi-original plot, not a reboot of an old classic Star Trek movie. It showed us what we had been missing: a new, unknown planet, the crew divided into captives and roamers trying to survive, and a villain who was motivated enough to be scary, but somewhat sympathetic enough that you didn’t outright hate him. Each actor had their moments to shine and the characters had a chance to expand on their personal lives or struggles.
The first thing that I was happy about was finally leaving Earth behind. Earth is pretty same old, same old—and admittedly TOS went there a lot (mostly due to budget)—but the story can allow itself to get so much bigger and take a more interesting direction when they are in deep space, which I am glad to say they finally accomplished. One of the best parts of Star Trek, and sci-fi in general, is letting them explore the unknown, confronting what is out there and being able to focus on those themes. But when Earth is under attack and must be saved, while a noble cause, it also very much limits the things we can expect to see and can get a bit boring.
That being said, admittedly I am a little tired of the recycled plotline of someone having it out against the Federation for personal reasons and then using those reasons to justify killing everyone (and admittedly Yorktown was pretty much the equivalent to a deep-space Earth). But they spend a majority of the film stranded on and trying to escape from a whole other planet, one that is unknown to the captain and crew of the Enterprise, making the stakes a bit higher for the crew and helped to keep the audience guessing a bit as to what the fate of everyone would be.
Secondly, this movie should get praise for its portrayal of women. Granted there are only 2 prominent women in the main cast, but both are handled well in terms of what they bring to the story. Uhura makes a calculated sacrifice and chooses to save her captain, securing a stint in captivity with the rest of the crew on the planet. She then risks her life by sneaking out of containment with Sulu and attempting to send a transmission to Starfleet so they may be rescued, but unfortunately is unsuccessful.
But the real star of the show, Sofia Boutella’s character, Jayah, is the badass female we have been waiting to see in this rebooted series. She is intelligent and capable of handling herself, which she clearly demonstrates time and time again throughout the movie, and no one tries to sleep with her or make her sexualized in any way. She doesn’t gain agency or legitimacy through the approval of the men in the movie, and moreover she is fully respected and trusted by each new male crewmember she encounters. They see her accomplishments and let those speak for themselves: an escapee from the prison that now holds the Enterprise crew, rigging up an old spaceship as her headquarters, building weapons and camouflage devices on her own, and salvaging parts from other wreckage to rebuild the engine of the ship so she can escape the planet once and for all. She knows what she is capable of and does it without hesitation, never looking for approval or permission, and surviving because of her wits and skills. This is the exact type of female character that has been few and far between, not only in this rebooted series, but films in general. There is also a female antagonist, although she is not the main antagonist she still plays a part in that arc, and there is a female admiral who makes a few appearances as well (played by the wonderful Shohreh Aghdashloo).
I think this movie is a step in the right direction for Star Trek and sci-fi, and I hope future directors and studios pay attention to the originality and the treatment of minority characters and expand these roles even more. Let’s just hope that they continue this momentum into the already announced fourth movie, as well as the very promising-looking series. Dare I say, boldly go?