Friday, May 8, 2009

Finally, The Kobayashi Maru Test Explained

The new Star Trek movie (the first one actually called Star Trek) has a charming young cast, nonstop action, great effects, even a slavering beast resembling a Venus flytrap that chases James Kirk across the terrain of a desolate ice planet. The Enterprise NCC-1701 -- that's the Enterprise, not one of its alphabetized successors -- gleams in the sun like the gangly Trekkie love object it's been for over 40 years. I first gazed on it in 1966, when I was 12, which is an impressionable age.

And so at five this afternoon, we were mostly people of a certain age sitting in the dark, and from the whispers and knowing laughter you could tell we were watching a home movie revealing secrets about old friends' youthful lives that we'd suspected or guessed all along. There's Scottie as a young man, for instance, just like you'd expect to find him -- marooned at an outpost on a desolate ice planet because nobody believed his theories about mid-warp beaming. Young McCoy, Uhura, Chekov, and Sulu are there, too, along with the exquisitely cast Kirk (Chris Pine, shown here) and Spock (Zackery Quinto), hating each other at first (can you say Kobayashi Maru?) and yet fated for a male bonding clutch-o-rama that will transfigure the universe.

Literally, because the film, brilliantly directed by J.J. Abrams ("Lost," Armageddon, Mission Impossible III), involves a classic mind-numbing Star Trek time travel scenario that, at the end of the movie, has set the core narrative (stay with me here) on a course that is fundamentally different from what unfolded in the original 1966-69 series, the seven movies featuring the original cast, and indeed all the other series and films that sprang from them. One may think that it's all just a setup for a sequel that will enable the Enterprise crew to go forward in time (or back, whatever) and correct the time line. But if they did, then the characters we know and love would have known that all this happened in the past, and talked about it, unless in the sequel, their memories are erased...

Oh, never mind. If Star Trek weren't such a good movie, I might be upset that it's the narrative equivalent of the season of "Dallas" without Bobby Ewing, later explained as a bit of nightmare-inducing mustard on Victoria Principal's cheeseburger. Abrams revamps Star Trek for our times without disrespecting it. Our century's sophisticated, Obamian ethos is a bit too cool for Gene Roddenberry's naively Utopian original vision, hence the altered time line's elements of global catastrophe, genocide, and parental demise. But the core relationships among the characters -- based on the timeless propositions that broken people can create families from strangers, adversity molds character, optimism is a powerful force in the world -- remain intact. Star Trek even improves on the purely human dimensions of the original by movingly envisioning the circumstances of Kirk's birth as well as the young Spock's relationship with his mother and even revealing a love affair between the core characters that you'd never expect -- unless, if the time line is ever restored, they...Oh, never mind.

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