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May 7, 2009 - Rick Chatenever
After tonight’s sneak previews, when the Starship Enterprise sets down in megaplexes across the U.S. this weekend, its crew will encounter a different form of life than the last time they landed on our planet.
We’re a more technologically advanced civilization now. We no longer need wires or paper to communicate, even across great distances. More and more, we are planetary citizens. We are interconnected. Our economy is global. Media can now deliver us, almost instantaneously, to distant dots in what used to be called “faraway lands.”
There are no more faraway lands, just as there is no more wonder in thoughts of the Starship Enterprise roaming distant galaxies in pursuit of cosmic adventure. It was a big deal when Gene Roddenberry and his crew used all those cheesy special effects to bring its cosmic philosophy to black-and-white TVs in the ’60s. Now it’s just the epic of the week.
The folks flying the Starship Enterprise are different, too, although Leonard Nimoy has endured. He’s listed in the credits of the new movie as “Spock Prime.” Nimoy’s the lone survivor of the band of TV actors who dared go where no one had gone before — first to the planet of the icons, then through the sea of self parody, all the way home to Trekkie conventions in Bakersfield.
Publicity for J.J. Abrams’ sure-to-be-a-blockbuster features young actor Zachary Quinto now sporting the Spock ears. Although he resembles Nimoy — just as Chris Pine might be mistaken for a young William Shatner if you squint — still, the sight produces cognitive dissonance: Right ears, wrong face. Who are you and what have you done with the real Mr. Spock?
It also reminded me of my own brief voyage with the crew of the Enterprise.
It was 1986. I lived in Santa Cruz where I worked for a newspaper, much as now, covering movies. So when the folks at Paramount decided to film parts of “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” at the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium, the local casting director thought I might get a fresh angle on the story if she slipped my wife and me onto the set as extras.
The aquarium setting was crucial since the screenplay revolved around whales. The fate of the planet depended on saving the whales. Those “Star Trek” writers always had a prescient streak.
At one point on the set, I was within eavesdropping range of William Shatner and Nimoy, who was also directing the movie. They were pondering a gigantic whale skeleton suspended from the aquarium ceiling.
With that squinty sincerity and those mellifluous voices, even without the cameras rolling they sounded like, well, Kirk and Spock. Part poetry, part profundity, part hokum.
In the story, Spock and Kirk beamed back to our times to visit the aquarium and research whale species. How did they do this? By taking an aquarium tour. Starship uniforms or not, they didn’t stand out much since other people in the the tour were wearing various uniforms or logowear themselves.
Now, this being a movie, it took days to film the aquarium sequence. And when some of the extras who had been there the day before didn’t return that day, it caused problems. They had been extra special extras, wearing specific costumes.
Fortunately, the army uniform was just my size and the nun’s habit was a perfect fit for my wife.
(No, I’m not making this up.)
Another complication — aside from the large leap in lifestyle implied by the outfits — was my beard. It was a lot darker then, and there was more of it. It had been part of who I was, almost since I had been old enough to first grow it.
But hey, this was show business.
Even if my 15 minutes of fame would turn out to be more like 1.5 seconds on screen — which you really do miss if you blink — and even if it would take my 4-year-old daughter weeks to be sure it really was daddy after all, still I went for it.
Which was how I came to find myself in the makeup trailer, with a real professional Hollywood hair person separating me from my beard. Which was also how — sitting in the chair, face lathered, eyes wandering around the trailer — I suddenly noticed them. The ears. Right next to me.
They were mounted on a styrofoam head on a nearby shelf, in all their pointy glory. Being in proximity to such holy relics made me feel like an adventurer myself: Raider of the Lost Ears.
Which may be why I am not overly enthused about the arrival of the new, improved “Star Trek.”
Back when it had been a TV series, “Star Trek” would have been canceled if it hadn’t inspired such impassioned loyalty in its viewers.
The campaigns to keep it on the air were based on the fact that “Star Trek” wasn’t what it seemed to be. The faraway galaxies, the Starship Enterprise technology were camouflage — ways of sneaking topical messages into the scripts.
Klingons were as good as Greek mythology for pondering themes of good vs. evil, power vs. empathy, control vs. love.
The silly costumes and outer-space behavior was a convenient way to explore what made us human, in the show’s distinctive way — part poetry, part hokum.
I wonder if there’s any of that left. New “Star Trek” director J.J. Abrams — creator of TV’s “Lost” — is getting praise from reviewers who have gotten an early look. The action sequences and cinematography are reportedly breathtaking as the script fills in the back story of the brash young pilot Kirk and the more cerebral Spock, dealing with alienation issues from being half-man, half-Vulcan.
And you can bet it’s not your grandpa’s Starship Enterprise.
Why then, does it feel like something may have gotten lost along the way? Maybe for the same reason that this week’s box-office hit, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” has the special effects down … but doesn’t have a soul to wrap them around.
“Brothers” Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber manage to fight the Civil War, the first and second world wars and Vietnam before the opening credits have stopped rolling. That doesn’t really leave them anywhere to go next.
We learn how Wolverine got those sharp nails — but get little more than a hint of how he lost his heart. Hopefully the same fate won’t befall the new guys flying the Starship Enterprise.
Technologically advanced isn’t the same thing as just plain advanced. A long time ago, we used to rely on “Star Trek to remind us of that each week.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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