Not content to mop up over the course of three days, Paramount moved up the release of Star Trek Into Darkness to today. It’s actually a pretty clever move; it gets an extra day of box office this week, then undoubtedly a bump from the holiday next weekend, ensuring there’s no big second week drop like most of these blockbusters suffer. Assuming, of course, it does big business this weekend. And there’s no reason to assume it won’t. Because this version of Trek belongs to everybody now.
I think that’s the reason behind some of the resentment towards J.J. Abrams’ reboot. For the longest time, Trek was our thing. It belonged to the geeks. Even when names like Kirk and Spock and Picard were in the mainstream consciousness, the actual property, the movies and the TV show, were still pretty niche. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, still arguably the franchise’s high water mark, grossed just $78 million in 1982. Now granted, that’s 1982 money, and a time when breaking $100 million was still a big deal and not the stuff of opening weekends. But Trek was never really a blockbuster franchise. Before Abrams came along, the biggest hit of the bunch was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and that was only good enough to rank #5 for the year, behind such classics as Crocodile Dundee and The Karate Kid Part II. It was popular, it was profitable, but it sure wasn’t Star Wars.
And I think most Trek fans liked it that way. Theirs was the serious franchise, the one that was about ideas, not money. I know fans who thought Voyage Home was a huge sellout, that it was Trek dumbed down for the masses. It wasn’t that they didn’t want Trek to be popular; they just wanted it to be popular for the right reasons. And if success meant diluting the property, well, those fans were happy with modest box office if it meant Trek continuing on as it always had. Some of those fans gritted their teeth when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, seeing it as a pale imitation of the original, even as interest in the new show led to more people rediscovering the old one. But even with Next Generation‘s popularity — which didn’t really translate to box office success — the Trek franchise still felt like it mostly belonged to the geeks.
Then along came Abrams’ Star Trek in 2009, and suddenly, Trek was cool. Instead of aging TV actors and British thespians, the cast was full of good-looking young people. Everything looked iPod sleek. It was new and unfamiliar, and furthermore, Abrams was daring to undo some forty years of Trek history and start the whole thing over again. Never mind that it was exactly what the franchise needed, a shaking off of the layer upon layer of burdensome continuity. Even tossing in Leonard Nimoy as Spock felt to some more like insult than homage, forcing him to stand by as he was essentially written out of the Trek timeline. And when the film went on to be the biggest Trek of all time — it made more than the highest grossing original series and Next Generation films combined — well, that was it. That cool indie band you’d always wished everybody listened to more was now being listened to by everybody, and you couldn’t stand them anymore.
Not that there weren’t valid complaints to be made about Abrams’ Trek. Nero’s entire plan doesn’t hold up to a lot of scrutiny. The whole red matter thing borders on deus ex machina. And yes, the lens flares can be a little annoying. But the energy of the cast and of Abrams’ pacing of the film simply steamroll all those issues. It’s a big, crowd-pleasing film that may not be Trek in the sense of exploring strange new worlds, but which is Trek through and through when it comes to the core relationships of the main characters.
Of course, Abrams didn’t do himself any favors by raising the specter of Trek‘s holy grail with Into Darkness. ”The villain is Khan!” rumors started almost as soon as the credits rolled on the first film, and Abrams’ deliberate obtuseness about the matter only further fuel the speculation — and the ire of fans for whom Wrath of Khan is simply unassailable. And I’ll admit, I think a Khan story without the weight of years behind it lacks the resonance that made Wrath of Khan so memorable. Then again, I haven’t seen the new film, and I’ll withhold judgment on how well this story works until I do. But there’s a lot of uneasiness out there among Trek fans over Abrams even making the attempt that will undoubtedly color their impressions of the film, no matter how good it may be otherwise.
We’re already seeing the same sort of reactions about Abrams and the new Star Wars movies. That they’ll either be retreads of the original films, so why bother? Or that they’ll be so removed from the original films, why bother? We have this fear of seeing something familiar get treated in an unfamiliar way. We cling to our weathered paperbacks and our bagged comic books and our DVDs, always looking backward, insisting that our memories are the correct ones. It’s an attitude not entirely unjustified in light of some of the dreadful remakes and reimaginings that we’ve been subjected to over the years. But it’s also an attitude that would have cost us The Magnificent Seven. Or the original Star Wars. Debate and discuss the quality of a film all you want. But the fact that the film exists at all shouldn’t be held against it.
And if the new Trek isn’t your cup of tea? Guess what? The original series still exists. Wrath of Khan is on a gorgeous Blu-ray. You can stream Next Generation on Netflix. Nothing Abrams does can take those away from you. If you’re a true Trekkie, you’ll know the Vulcan IDIC, which means “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” It’s the core of Vulcan philosophy, celebrating the innumerable variety existing in the universe. Surely among those infinite combinations there’s room for more than one version of Star Trek.