Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Missed Opportunities: How "Star Trek" Shortchanged Its Story

(By William "the elder")

While it was vastly superior to most of its space opera competition, J.J. Abrams' version of Star Trek cheated itself of its potential for greatness.

Abrams and his immensely talented creative trust achieved their primary objective, which was to rehabilitate a stale brand by making it "cool" (a word that receives a workout in the production team's interviews in the DVD's special features section). The film they produced boasted strong, compelling characterizations and human predicaments with which audiences of all backgrounds could sympathize -- but only through the middle of the second act

In terms of both characterization and narrative, the movie's teaser was far more interesting than its denoument -- which is exactly the opposite of what should happen. The movie ended with James T. Kirk in the captain's chair without offering a story that provided a plausible case for putting him there. 

To reduce the matter to vulgar terms, Jimmy T.  just happened to be the next guy in line when Acting Captain Spock lost his sh*t and disqualified himself. 

There are three key points -- call them "nodes" in the narrative -- where, with very little effort, the screenwriters could have fleshed out Kirk's character in ways that would have made him worthy to sit in the center seat. The first was the confrontation between Kirk and Spock at the Kobayashi Maru disciplinary hearing; the second was the confrontation on the bridge after Kirk was beamed back from Delta-Vega; the third was the ship-to-ship conversation with Nero in which Kirk offered to help the villain escape the singularity that was destroying the Narada.

Obviously, from the summaries above, I'm assuming that the reader is familiar with the film. With that in mind, here's how I would have enhanced the scenes referred to above in the effort to turn Kirk from a stock action movie caricature into a younger version of the legendary starship captain.

Scene One


(SPOCK has just told KIRK that he, "of all people," should know that no-win scenarios are a possibility, given his father's heroic death in the Kelvin's encounter with NERO). 

KIRK: Commander Spock, with respect, you know the facts of that incident, but you don't understand my father's reasoning.

SPOCK (with an undertone of mockery): Please, Cadet Kirk -- enlighten me.

KIRK: Eight hundred people -- including my mother and myself -- are alive today because my father didn't accept certain defeat. Yes, he died. But he beat the no-win scenario by giving us a fighting chance.

QUICK-CUT to show MCCOY's reaction: He sees his friend suddenly displaying a hint of his long-submerged potential.

A silent beat.

KIRK: You see, Commander, if I'm on the bridge and we're in what appears to be a hopeless situation, I want to know that the officer in the center seat isn't satisfied to accept death as a logical inevitability. I want to know that the captain giving the orders is going to do whatever he can to turn certain death into a fighting chance to live. And I think that your test ill-serves future command-grade officers by teaching them to accept death with composure, rather than encouraging -- no, demanding -- that they do everything they can -- cheating, if necessary -- to save their ship and crew.

Another silent beat. We PAN the room and find PIKE, who -- with his eyes very bright -- is nodding his head in satisfaction.

PIKE (s.voce): He's his father's son.

HOLD on a two-shot of KIRK and SPOCK -- the former still defiantly resolute, the latter grudgingly respectful of the other's logic. There is a palpable sense in the room that a future starship captain has just won a critical argument -- against all reasonable odds. 

Quick comment: This re-write would have taken up less than a minute of screen time, in exchange for revealing the Kirk that Trek devotees know and admire.

Scene Two (a)

 INT. Enterprise bridge, day

(KIRK is now Acting Captain, and he's conferring with his bridge crew. SPOCK makes his dramatic entrance -- but has yet to be convinced of the wisdom of taking on NERO).

KIRK (taking SPOCK aside to confer one-on-one): Commander, I know and understand your objections.  We're outmatched in every imaginable way, and victory seems impossible -- if we play by Nero's rules. (Lowering his voice) We will never fully agree with each other. But we have much in common. You've lost your mother, your whole world. I've lost my father, and my home -- your home, as well -- is about to be destroyed. Please, Spock -- help me defeat Nero. Where's the logic in simply allowing him to destroy Earth?

SPOCK (after a beat): Although the means employed were intuitive, your conclusion is irresistibly logical ... captain.

(The two of them turn back to the conference, and the scene unfolds much as it did in the film.)

Scene Three

(KIRK and SPOCK are addressing NERO via the viewscreen as the Narada distintegrates; NERO has just refused KIRK's offer to help.)

KIRK: You got it -- go ahead and die in agony. (Thumbs an intercom switch) Transporter Room One, lock on to Nero and as many of his command crew as possible; beam them aboard and hold them in stasis until further orders. (Turning to "CUPCAKE") Lieutenant, assemble a full security team, armed with class-1 phaser rifles, and report to transporter room one.

CUPCAKE (straightens visibly): Yes, sir ... captain!

(The Enterprise, delayed by the rescue attempt, struggles to escape from the black hole,  then succeeds as it did in the film.)

Scene Three (b)


"CUPCAKE" and three guards drag NERO at gunpoint to the bridge.

NERO (contemptuous, defiant): You said you would let me die.

KIRK (smiling slightly): I lied.(Gestures with his thumb as if to say "Get this scumbag out of my sight") Lieutenant, take the prisoner to the brig.

"CUPCAKE" (smiling in satisfaction): Yes, sir.

These three embellishments would have served both the story and its central character much better than what eventually ended up on the screen. 

Kirk would have been revealed as something more than a "Maverick"-style cocky smart-ass: He is principled, resolute, persuasive, committed to the sanctity of life -- even the life of a hated enemy -- and utterly unwilling to accept defeat. 

If the enhancements suggested above -- or something akin to them -- had been made in the final script, the audience would have felt a sense of unalloyed triumph as the young Kirk takes the center seat at the end of the story. As things stand, that moment is "cute," when it should have been triumphant.