Sci-Fi: Looking Back at J.J. Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ Movies

Screenshot of Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard McCoy in ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’. Copyright goes to Paramount Pictures, Skydance Media, and Bad Robot.

Hey! Hallie here!

It’s pretty well known among Star Trek fans that the J.J. Abrams movies are quite a bit different from other Star Trek projects. Personally, I got into these movies before I started getting into regular Star Trek. That isn’t to say that these movies were my introduction to Trek. I’d seen various episodes of ‘The Next Generation’ before I watched these. But at the time I sat down to watch these movies, they were much more aligned with my interests. The movies not only boasted exciting action sequences, but also well-developed characters, and an amazing cast. But some of my opinions of them have changed since I started loving the entire Star Trek franchise. So in honor of the announcement that the fourth movie in this series will FINALLY likely be coming out next year, let’s talk about the main things I noticed in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek trilogy!

Tone:

This is the big thing most Trek fans have a problem with. Star Trek isn’t boring by any means. Those who think the series is boring clearly haven’t seen any of Qs episodes in ‘The Next Generation’ or the entire Dominion war storyline in ‘Deep Space Nine’. That said, Star Trek couldn’t be considered action-packed either. Each series balances episodes where characters are getting into space battles or encountering a dangerous foe on a planet they’ve never explored, with episodes focused on negotiating and showing understanding to those who may be different from you. On many occasions Star Trek makes a point of noting that fighting your way out of a problem may not be the best option. That really isn’t present in any of J.J. Abrams’ movies. While Kirk could be a good negotiator, we never get the chance to see him use those skills in any movie. All the antagonists Kirk and his crew face off against kill a mass amount of people and threaten the lives of the crew way too early in the story for negotiation to ever be an option. In some ways it’s a loss. Star Trek’s largest episodes covering subjects such as racism, sexism, or prejudice tend to be episodes where characters get to sit down and discuss their differences. These movies don’t cover any deeper topics at all, instead opting to focus on action and adventure. But I wouldn’t say these movies suffer for it, necessarily. Not all Star Trek needs to be about holding a mirror up to society, and the format here does admittedly make the franchise more accessible to people who are intimidated by an occasionally slower and more complex show. In fact, these movies brought Star Trek back into the public eye after it started fading into the background by the end of the nineties. That’s worth praising.

Characters:

I have a bit of an unpopular opinion when it comes to the characters in these movies. I think they’re better developed than their counterparts in ‘The Original Series’. There are reasons for this, though. The most notable reason is that ‘The Original Series’ aired at a time when deep-diving into characters wasn’t really a popular thing to do in television. Characters were built on a base level so they could transfer easily from episode to episode given the lack of popularity overarching storylines had at the time. So while we did get episodes that explored a bit more of the lives of Kirk, Bones, and Spock (And really no one else), there still wasn’t a ton of development done on any of these characters until the movies that came after ‘The Original Series’ stopped airing. Trends in storytelling have changed since then. Now people expect long, well-developed plots and deep, relatable characters. The movies reflect this. They give us way more time to get to know Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov. They flesh out Kirk and Spock’s childhood right at the beginning of the first movie. They take time in each film to strengthen the bond between crew members through meaningful character interactions. In fact, the first two movies are mostly just about Kirk and Spock’s relationship going from rivals to close friends. And the third movie gives us a classic “separate the group” scenario, where different crew members get paired off to both strengthen friendships between characters we hadn’t gotten to see interact too often, and to confess the beliefs and desires they hadn’t gotten to confess to before. I firmly believe that the character writing and the unbelievably on-point casting choices are the main things that make this movie trilogy so good.

Female Rep:

Here we get to a mutual negative between both these movies and ‘The Original Series’. ‘The Original Series’ is notoriously bad at female representation. It’s not surprising that it’s bad at this. Women weren’t written well in nearly every television show at the time. Still, Christine Chapel could be replaced with a cardboard box and most people wouldn’t notice. And while Nichelle Nichols is a badass, Uhura is very rarely given a scene to herself and her job on the ship is never treated with the importance that other jobs on the ship receive. In the J.J. Abrams movies they try to remedy the problem. Uhura is immediately introduced with a sharp wit capable of disarming Kirk and a skill that’s unrivaled by any of the other cadets at the academy. But then she doesn’t do much in any of the movies but be Spock’s girlfriend. She comforts him when he’s sad, kisses him so Kirk can be jealous, argues with him when Spock risks his life needlessly, and misses him after they break up. These things are always her main storyline. They’re never in the background. Occasionally Uhura will do something cool like try to negotiate with the Klingons or make a sacrifice play to save Kirk, but her story always comes back around to Spock. At that point, I’d rather just watch Nichelle Nichols make a pompous dude-bro lock himself in a closet. The movies also tried to introduce Carol Marcus, another character without much, well, character introduced in ‘Wrath of Kahn’. But they proceeded to give her a scene where the audience could stare at her undergarments and then took her out of the final act due to injury. The only improvements the movies made occurred in the third movie, when Jaylah was introduced. Though she does spend a lot of the final act helping out Scotty or Kirk instead of kicking ass on her own, they establish early in the movie that she can kick ass and they never diminish her abilities as the movie goes on. So I’d still say the movies one-up ‘The Original Series’ when it comes to female representation, but both needed serious work.

I really like J.J. Abrams approach to Star Trek. It isn’t perfect. Just like ‘The Original Series’, it has its problems. It also isn’t my favorite Star Trek media I’ve ever consumed. I do feel like there are full Star Trek series that manage to juggle good character development, satisfying action, and philosophical debate much better than these movies do. But I do think they’re really enjoyable. Each time I come back to them I find something new to catch my interest. Watching these movies even led to the realization that McCoy is one of my favorite Trek characters, whether he’s being played by Karl Urban or DeForest Kelley. I think they should receive major credit for reigniting public interest in Star Trek. But I also think that, if you like these films, maybe try out a series of Star Trek and discover for yourself why the deep messages about hope and humanity make Star Trek fans come back to it so frequently.

Don’t do anything fun until I get back!

Hallie

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