Fixing The Abrams’ Star Trek Movies: Part 1

“Fixing” is kind of an ugly word, because I’ve previously admitted that I actually really liked the Abrams films when looked at as action movies with likeable actors and colorful characters. I also defended the movies’ characterization of Kirk. I argued that this Kirk is definitely not the same as Kirk from TOS, but COULD be plausibly seen as a younger version of that character who has grown up without a father figure. So while, perhaps, some minor tweaking of his character development might be needed (which I’ll get into), I don’t think his character requires as significant redesign as long-time fans of the series think.

But there’s no denying that both the first and second Abrams Star Trek films suffer from serious writing issues. I believe, however, that it is possible to keep the “bones” of the films in place while still being able to improve the writing.

Disclaimer: I am not a Trekkie. This is both a good and bad thing for this sort of analysis. Good, because I’m looking at this from the perspective of a more objective outsider. I don’t have the emotional attachment to the original characters that longtime fans have. Bad, because I lack the detailed knowledge of the characters that might let me provide a more in-depth analysis of where the modern portrayals went wrong.

My impressions of characters will NOT rely solely on the memory of the handful of Star Trek episodes and one non-Abrams movie I have watched. All information I use will be cross-checked by the Star Trek wiki if I am unsure of something, and I do invite commenters to point out places I have messed up the facts.

This is going to be a “Novel Ninja” analysis: I am not attempting to come up with my own idea, but instead alter Abrams’ ideas in ways that would improve the movies.

And so, onward and upward we go.

I actually don’t think the first Abrams film needs as much work as a lot of Trekkies apparently think. The new scenes showing the birth of Kirk and the death of Kirk’s father were well-done and dramatic, and the moment where young Kirk messes around with the car is entertaining as well as a nice character moment: It’s the sort of incident you can imagine a father, perhaps, being able to prevent when a mother might be powerless.

Remember, even TOS Kirk was a bit of a maverick. The Star Trek database website declares that Kirk “still holds the record” with 17 different temporal violations, and is described as an “independent” who “always bucked the system”. Though he was an ultimately responsible leader the idea that a fatherless Kirk could become reckless as a young man is a perfectly reasonable extrapolation.

As for Spock’s early years, I had no complaints except for what I imagine are everybody’s complaints: Spock’s relationship with Uhura. Let’s be frank here, Uhura’s characterization was awful. Awful. She is a rude and insubordinate young woman who takes advantage of her relationship with Spock to manipulate her way onto the Enterprise despite her superior officer’s absolutely correct concerns that this could be looked at as nepotism. The fact that SHE can order SPOCK to put her on the Enterprise just proves Spock’s point that he provides her with special treatment. Later she lets her petty sniping with Spock potentially jeopardize an important mission…but that’s for next post.

Once again, I don’t really have any complaints about how Kirk joined Starfleet and met Bones. Pike’s interest makes sense: He knew Kirk’s father and was probably keeping an eye on him in the background, and notes the he has genius level aptitude tests. Like joining the military, Starfleet is the exact sort of thing that could shape a kid like Kirk into a man. Bones’ little monologue about his wife was a nice scene for Karl Urban as well.

If we’re going to change Uhura’s character back to the way it was in the original series, her relationship with Spock will have to go. Good riddance. It adds nothing to the story.

The reaction to Kirk’s tampering with the Koboyashi Maru was interesting. In “Wrath of Khan” Kirk claims he gets a commendation for original thinking, but the Abrams version of Kirk seems to be facing trial. My opinion is rather divided on this. On one hand, it’s a fairly pointless and inexplicable diversion from TOS. On the other hand, from a character perspective it makes much more sense to see this version of Kirk get cut down as opposed to commended. So I say keep the new version.

I would have preferred Kirk actually being taken onto the Enterprise by Captain Pike rather than having Bones break regulations to sneak him on, and for no clear reason (the audience recognizes Kirk as the protagonist and hero, but why would Bones think he has something to add to the mission?). It would be a simple thing to do – just say that the suspension hasn’t officially started yet because the trial was interrupted or something like that. It’s not a hard sell. While we get unfortunately robbed of a very funny scene where Bones runs around frantically trying to cure Kirk of an allergy he caused, the payoff is that Kirk is a more legitimate authority later on in the movie, and if you’re a professional writer it shouldn’t be too difficult to work in some other form of comic relief to lighten the mood.

I’ve been saying “no complaints” a lot, so I’ll run through some stuff quickly: No complaints with the scenes on Vulcan, no complaints on Pike’s kidnapping, and an excellent introduction to Sulu. This brings us up right about to the section where Kirk and Spock debate the purpose of the alternate timeline.

The problem: Spock is correct, and entirely correct. Kirk is WAY over the line at this point, and Spock’s logic is far more sound than Kirk’s, who is engaged in a classic logical error known as the fallacy of the predetermined outcome: Just because events have gone a certain way in a different timeline, doesn’t mean that things will go the same way in this timeline, because the situation leading up to those events has changed. The classic example comes from baseball: If you walk a batter in the eighth inning with one out and the next batter hits a home run, it would be a fallacy of the predetermined outcome if you said, “Just think: If he had only struck him out, we would have won 1-0.” You don’t actually know that: The team might have scored in a different way, later in the game, for one example. The circumstances leading up to the next inning are not the same, and so what happens in the game proper – in the next inning the team is shutout – is not a given in a hypothetical game where that player strikes out.

And Kirk makes that exact error. “Being unpredictable” is dumb advice, almost nonsensical. They already ARE unpredictable in the way Kirk is using the word. The timeline has changed, meaning that Nero can no longer say “I know what will happen next”. He doesn’t know, because the situation is different, and thus Kirk’s words are meaningless. Spock nails him on this exact point, and quite concisely to boot.

A better writer would never let Kirk go down that path. Instead, he would just have Kirk do what he already does anyway – argue that Spock’s plan would have them moving too slowly and that the only way to rescue Pike, take Nero by surprise (which is still an option without the timeline crap Kirk tried to pull), and regain the upper hand is to strike quickly and create a rescue plan. This would highlight the leadership differences between Spock and Kirk nicely and succinctly. I find it interesting that Abrams actually spots this sort of solution but gets too cute with it, and as a result makes Kirk sound dumber by mistake. Odd.

For the plot to work it is necessary that Kirk somehow be removed from the Enterprise. In the movie as-is they find their excuse when Kirk tries to get into a fight. Is this the right way to go?

Possibly, but Kirk needs stronger motivation. In the movie as-is it’s pretty clear that Spock has made the right call. Kirk is a nuisance and arguably a danger. He is adding nothing to the ship. For Kirk to be portrayed more sympathetically it would perhaps be a good idea if Kirk had some piece of information Spock was missing – some game-changer from a conversation with Captain Pike Spock wasn’t privy to. Location of Nero’s ship? Knowledge of his specific plans? It could be a billion different things. If this is the case it is at least more understandable that Kirk would lose his temper.

Next is one of the more difficult scenes to adapt: The “Old Spock” sequence.

My understanding of the film was that Kirk was supposed to be dropped off directly at the space station that Scotty was located at, but Spock miscalculated. This meant that Kirk’s survival depended on him being rescued by Old Spock. Well and good.

The problem is how Old Spock convinces Kirk to re-take the Enterprise.

Spock’s explanation in the original film is just plausible enough for me, at least, to suspend disbelief: “I know you’re a great leader because I knew alternate you”. All right. The problem is, the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. Spock knew Kirk as Captain at the age of 33 8 years older than he recommends young Kirk take control of the Enterprise. Not only that, not having grown up with a father, Abrams Kirk is clearly far less mature than TOS Kirk – notice that Old Spock never takes into account why it was that Kirk was thrown off of the Enterprise. He simply assumes that Kirk deserves command.

Can the scene still be salvaged? I believe so. Old Spock can point out to Kirk that young Spock really is severely emotionally compromised, which is affecting his judgment. This comment would make more sense in light of our altered scene where Spock refuses to take into account potentially important data Kirk has that can impact events. Kirk, being the highest ranking officer available, should be the one to take command.

That doesn’t solve all of it though: There would simply be a different high-ranking officer if not for Spock. Why Kirk?

The answer is Scotty.

In the movie Old Spock gives Scotty the equations he supposedly works out in the original series for, if my understanding was correct, warping onto fast-moving objects. Kirk’s plan would need to be flawed until Old Spock introduces the ace in the hole with the introduction of Scotty (who, by the way, could remain largely the same if you get rid of that little elf/alien thing he hangs out with. What was with that?). With Kirk having the relevant information to form a plan and the knowledge to manage a ship (knowledge, not skill), Scotty with the proper ability to execute the plan that Kirk previously lacked, and Spock unable to cope emotionally with the rigors of being a Captain, the time is finally ripe for Kirk to take control of the ship.

In the movie he does so by provoking Spock into fighting him. Is this necessarily the right way to go?

It could be, but it has to be subtle. In the movie Kirk’s taunting of Spock got too personal. His reaction wasn’t necessarily an indication that he was unfit for command, but just losing his temper at some asshole yelling at him. Kirk’s taunts would need to be – NEED to be – directly related to the Spock’s inability to command. It wouldn’t be enough for Kirk to taunt Spock by claiming he didn’t love his mother. The taunt would need to be that Spock was letting the effects from his mother’s death impact him from doing his best work as Captain. And so Spock could snap and give up command, but the way Kirk gets Spock to snap is less related to personal insults and more related to Spock’s leadership ability: A subtle but very important difference. At some point it would also be necessary to make it clear with some scene on the enterprise that Spock’s emotions were very definitely affecting his judgment.

As far as I’m concerned, the rest of the movie could more or less proceed as-is. Kirk offering Nero asylum in exchange for surrender is an important and necessary moment, and the handwavium science plan for escape was nicely paced. Kirk could use his information from Pike to track the ship (something Spock was unwilling to do) and Scotty’s warp abilities to carry out his plan (as he does). This takes us to the end of the movie, where we reach by FAR the most important difference:

The movie should not end with Kirk getting command of the Enterprise.

In fact, NONE of the characters should end up in their “final positions” yet, so to speak. Kirk and crew should receive medals for their daring rescue of Pike, and there should be promotions all around. Kirk should perhaps make it to the rank of Lieutenant, and we could get a line from Pike to the effect of “Maybe this kid does have potential after all, as long as he doesn’t get a swelled head. Might have the guts to make a good captain one day…” And the movie ends with a shot of Kirk and Spock taking their place as part of the crew of the Enterprise – NOT in their positions from TOS. And Old Spock gives the “final frontier” monologue as the movie ends.

So there’s my version of the new Abrams’ “Star Trek”. Next up: “Star Trek: Into Darkness”, a movie with much poorer writing, and thus much more difficult to salvage.

Do I think it could be done? After doing some thinking yes, I do, but not easily. It would require one enormous change, a change that would completely redo the entire perspective of the film, but I think it could still be recognized as an altered form of the same movie. We’ll take a look at what would need to happen in the next post.

Comments are welcome.