Wednesday, May 13, 2009

An Inherently Counterfictional Star Trek

The whole intent of this most recent Star Trek film is to provide a counterfictional environment in which to tell stories using the classic Trek characters without the burden of hewing to continuity of the myriad existing properties. Additionally, as the filmakers desired to get the entire crew together years earlier than within the existing timeline, new events must occur to thrust them together.

Basically, it's right up this blog's alley.

The mechanism which the filmmakers chose is reasonable in its basic conception, and perhaps the best available. The execution of this mechanism, as well as some of the ramifications for future stories within this rebooted universe are the subject of this post. This is in part critique of the movie, but moreover it's an examination of storytelling, physics and The Rules of the Game as established or discounted by the film.

Those avoiding spoilers should stop reading NOW.

Seriously, there are tons of spoilers below.

Okay. They must be gone. Let's proceed.


Physics and Star Trek.

One main difference between Star Trek and, say, Star Wars, is that Trek always tried to come up with a plausible explanation for things, even if it ended up wildly wrong. In the original series (TOS) this technical continuity was sometimes as simple as a button on the helm doing the same thing each week. And, given that hard science articles were probably a bit harder to track down during the writing of what began as a western in space, I tend to forgive a lot of the issues in The Original Series. When you're breaking new ground, sometimes you misstep. They tried. And things did get better by the time The Next Generation (TNG) rolled around.

For movies made today, with so much good science as close as the internet, I'm way less forgiving when physics are thrown out the window.

Here's the thing. Star Trek has always been intended to be our future. It's not a fairy tale. It needs to take place within a plausible version of our universe or it loses a fair amount of its power.

Continuity and a reboot

The writers of the movie committed to a choice which prevented them from giving over continuity altogether: Ambassador Spock travels from the 24th century. Because they're using a character from the accepted timeline, there is an expectation that everything that is “canon” has actually occurred to Spock. That is, he made the necessary calculations for time travel in “The Naked Time” in 15 minutes. He died in ST II and Returned in ST III. He traveled back in time in a rickety Bird of Prey in Star Trek IV.

I can understand adjusting issues of time ine to make this Star Trek relevant to us (clearly the Eugenics Wars of the '90s did not produce Khan. Unless I missed it), but the essential events that make him the Spock we know and love must needs be true, otherwise this older fellow named Spock carries no weight when he tells us things.

Part 1: The Inciting Incident.

The incident which allows the reboot is a supernova in the 24th century. Spock tells us that it needed to be stopped or it could destroy all life in the galaxy. I buy this... He's over simplifying, but a very powerful supernova could threaten life throughout Star Trek's alpha quadrant with its intense radiation.

But the star that novas cannot be the main star in the Romulan system, if we believe Spock's version of events. If it were to suddenly go supernova, Romulus would have only minutes to react, and collapsing the star with a singularity would do the citizens no good; without starlight, they'd all be dead anyway.

So if we take Spock at his word, that he tried and failed to save Romulus, the star has to be at least a few lightmonths away from the Romulan system, which gives plenty of time to begin an evacuation. As much as I admire Spock, were I a Romulan I'd make double sure of my survival and get off the planet while Spock works his magic.

Additionally, as this is the Spock who has been through TOS, the movies, TNG, etc. he is fairly adept at time travel. Failing to stop the Supernova by minutes or hours should be no problem for him, because he can zip back in time and make things better, especially considering he's in the fastest ship available, made by the Vulcan
Science academy. The one possible explanation would be that one cannot time travel with red matter, but that is proven false by subsequent events.

Here's what I think may have happened: studies showed that the Romulan star was approaching Nova (there is precedent for monitoring things like this, I believe, in TNG episodes) and Spock planned to stabilize the star and save the Romulans from having to give up their home world. But his plan went horribly wrong. He caused the star to go supernova, thus destroying Romulus. He had to act quickly to prevent the supernova from threatening the rest of the quadrant.

This direct guilt makes the case for Nero's lust for vengeance even more compelling. As it is, he is seeking retribution against someone who failed to be a hero, rather than someone directly responsible for an event. Which makes Nero more crazy than he really needs to be.

And, perhaps Spock's guilt for what he has done (having doomed both Romulus and Vulcan) plagues him, and has shaken his confidence in his ability to do rapid time travel calculations, etc. This is why he accepts a self-imposed exile in this alternate timeline in the 23rd century.

Or, as my brother points out: Spock could be lying. For all we truly know, he may be the evil Spock from the mirror universe who has cleverly shaved his goatee. Think about it.

Part 2: Troubles with the Physical Universe

One of the things that TOS and TNG were both pretty good at is conveying the notion that space is big. Super big. And empty. It takes time to get places. One of my huge problems with the Star Wars prequels is that because it takes very little time to get to places that are supposedly far flung, it shrinks that galaxy in an unfortunate way. But in ST, we're used to hearing things like “The nearest ship is two weeks away.”

There's a compression of time in the new Star Trek that is difficult to parse; it seems that the journey from earth to Vulcan takes only a few hours. It's conceivable that Kirk is unconscious in sick bay for quite some time, but that's not the “hurry, hurry” feel that is implied.

Traditionally, Vulcan is 16 light years from Earth. Even traveling at warp factor 9 on the TNG scale (where v=[W^(10/3)]c ) it would take the Enterprise around 4 days to cover that distance. If that is reduced to mere hours, it compresses the Alpha quadrant in an uncomfortable way. The mission to seek out and new life and new
civilizations loses a lot of down time when you can go places so quickly, but it's often in the down time that we actually get to see non-action related character growth: the poker games in TNG, the holodeck, etc.

So it's not the specifics of how fast the ship can go that bother me; it's how it makes the vast emptiness of space less imposing. You could say that they moved Vulcan closer, but the likelihood of Vulcan being closer to us than 16 light years given the universe we can observe in the 21st century is very small. Again, ST should, as much as possible, take place in our future.

This compression of space is carried over to the end of the film, when the Enterprise hides from Nero's ship in the atmosphere of Titan. While the image of the Starship emerging from the clouds is absolutely beautiful, the Enterprise is a hell of a long way from Nero. If they wanted to hide within striking range, they should be behind the
Earth's moon. They've got a several hour trip from Saturn, unless they do some crazy point to point warp thing, which has traditionally been unacceptable in the ST universe. But perhaps the filmmakers are changing that for this retelling. If in this technological timeline it's perfectly acceptable to warp from one planet to another within a solar system, this point is moot.

In other physical problems, there's an inconsistency in the treatment of atmospheric reentry. Kirk, Sulu and the ill-fated red-shirt are able to dive into Vulcan's atmosphere with no ill effects, while the escape pod that carries Kirk later shows definite thermal effects on reentry. This is one decision that I just don't understand. It would have been a relatively simple effect to give the space jumping crew members an exterior shell that burned off upon reentry, leaving them in their sleeker action suits by the time they had to open their chutes.

Related to gravity and atmosphere: starships need to be built in space, not Iowa. There is no plausible way to get the Enterprise off its moorings and into orbit. The image of Kirk overlooking the construction is great, but I wish that writers had embraced the similarities with Star Wars on this point and given the farm boy a set of powerful binoculars which he could use to observe the orbital construction.

There are other physical points to nit pick, but I'll end with this: When an enormous piece of metal falls from a great height into San Francisco Bay right next to the Golden Gate Bridge, the bridge will not survive. Even if it chunk of metal misses. The bridge will be severely damaged, as will bits of the city, from the resulting ground and water shockwaves.

Part 3: The Vulcans, The Romulans, The Klingons, and Star Fleet

In the movie, it is a huge revelation to Captain Pike that Uhura overheard that 50 Klingon ships have been destroyed by Romulans. If she had intercepted this message, every captain in Star Fleet should know about that. Losing double digit starships is a big deal, no matter whose they are. And it's especially significant if you're in a cold/occasionally hot war with the Empire in question. Perhaps Nero's appearance significantly changed the Federation/Klingon dynamic: it doesn't matter. Every captain needs to know that the Romulans suddenly have some serious fire power and are using it.

In conventional Trek timeline, no one knew that Romulans looked like Vulcans until Balance of Terror. Here, everyone knows what they look like. I'm presuming that's because Nero showed up 25 years earlier, some of the survivors from the Kelvin's bridge saw that he was a Romulan who looked like a Vulcan and brought word back to Starfleet. Then the Vulcans had to have a very awkward conversation with the rest
of the Federation.

This would actually explain a number of differences in Vulcan behavior. Perhaps it made them a more solitary race, which prompted Spock to be taunted more for his human side, which in turn led him to embrace that nature more thoroughly in this timeline. A significant shift in Vulcan behavior could also partially ameliorate some of the

It was unclear to me on one viewing of the movie whether the report of a natural disaster on Vulcan is specifically related to the “lightning storm in space” that brings Spock's ship into the 23rd century, or if it is directly related to Nero beginning to drill. I presume the former.

Because the Vulcans should know what Nero is doing. They have the most advanced science academy in the Fedearation, and they can't see that he's drilling into their planet? Additionally, once it's detected that something untoward is happening, why don't the Vulcans begin to evacuate? They're being attacked by one ship which is in
geostationary orbit: surely a number of evacuation vessels could get thousands of people, if not millions, off the planet from other locations. Nero wouldn't be able to destroy them all. Additionally, there's no good reason presented why the Vulcan's don't try to do something about the planet drill themselves... For all the talk afterward of a population of six billion, the whole place looks pretty abandoned in the shots before its destruction.

The counter argument is that perhaps in this timeline the Vulcans feel that they are somehow deserving of punishment and are submitting to what comes. The problem is, the argument isn't very logical. It's also not particularly logical for the elders to be standing around big statues in meditation while the planet is in crisis. They should be taking action.

The problem with the treatment of the Vulcans continues into the denouement. The Vulcans have been a space faring race for thousands, of years (this is not something that should be affected by the chosen reboot device), warp capable for at least hundreds. It is absurd that only 10,000 were off planet at the time of attack; there should be millions in colonies around the alpha quadrant. Unless, of course,
the discovery of the common heritage with the Romulans caused them to withdraw to their home world. Again, this is not a logical action.

Part 4: Nero, his ship, singularities, and red matter.

Nero being a miner gives a casualness to his character which is great; he's not the stuffy captain we're used to seeing on the view screen. But here is where I come across another issue: yes, his ship is from the 24th century, but it's a mining ship. How does a mining ship have such advanced weapons that it can take out dozens of Klingon warships? In a one on one battle, I grant that it probably has an upper hand, not least due to advances in shield technology, but as portrayed in the movie it is nigh invincible, even against a great many ships. If it were a TNG era Romulan warbird, I would feel its superiority totally justified (those things are both huge and Bad Ass), but it is a non-military vessel.

I also find it interesting that it is the creation of singularities that provide the answer to the exploding Supernova, given that Romulan ships in the TNG era (which again we must accept, since Ambassador Spock is from that timeline) are powered by singularities. Perhaps the Red Matter is how they initiate the power for their ships.

That said, if all it takes is a little globule of it, why does Spock have such a huge orb of it on his ship? It is a decision made for no other reason than aesthetics.

By the end of the movie, we have a few smallish black holes floating around Earth's neighborhood. Which is why it's fortunate that Hawking radiation causes relatively small blackholes to evaporate over time. Otherwise they would float around warp corridors being the Worst Potholes Ever.

Part 5: Star Trek and Alternate Timelines.

In the past Star Trek has had a tendency to collapse alternate timelines into the existing narrative thread: ST IV, “Yesterday's Enterprise,” First Contact. The only ongoing alternate timeline that I can think of offhand is the Dark Mirror universe, which occurred in TOS and on multiple occasions in DS9.

The conventional Trek Universe must still exist in an alternate reality, because it's produced Ambassador Spock, who is clearly here... But this reboot produces a branching which is, I believe, unique to the franchise. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong.

I fully support having an alternate timeline, but the idea that it would essentially overwrite all of the Star Trek I know and love makes me a little queasy.

As does the loss of Vulcan within this timeline. Not having the Vulcan Science Academy should, theoretically, delay a great number of technological developments that were found in later branches of the ST Universe. Perhaps it won't matter as much since the starting point of their technology is much shinier due to advanced special effects (and lens flare).

Closing: The counterfictional crew

While a number of the preceding issues are troubling, the movie's premise did successfully throw together the compelling characters that we know and love, while giving them slightly different back stories that will allow relationships to develop in unexpected ways. The friendship between this Spock and this Kirk is based on very different grounds. They're both rebels, and both somewhat more reckless than
their conventional counterparts. This Kirk is more inherently cocky, a bit more of an ass, and his story will be one of finding maturity. He was always the youngest captain in Star Fleet. Now he's bested himself by several years.

What the movie does very well is show us why this crew is the best in the Federation, why they are deserving of our attention. Each character gets a chance to show off mad skills, even if only briefly, and the casting is spot on. I will gladly watch this crew on their counterfictional voyages... And I'm fairly confident that now that they've got the complications of resetting the timeline out of the way, future outings will be far more satisfying to me.

Provided they stick to the rules they've established.