Wednesday, June 04, 2014

#750. Star Trek's Perfect Symmetries...are in the movies

It's funny, but Star Trek only really understands its best relationships in the movies.

I know, there're a ton of great relationships in the TV shows.  The original series was best defined by the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triangle.  Data and LaForge  were the closest family members of the Next Generation set.  Bashir and O'Brien sang "Jerusalem" together in Deep Space Nine.  Drunk.  It was hilarious.  Paris and Kim created Captain Proton together in Voyager.  Tucker and Archer traded stories with T'Pol in Enterprise.

But it only got better, in the movies, every single time.  Removing McCoy from the equation (not completely, but enough) made Kirk and Spock so much better.  The Motion Picture put both of them through the emotional wringer.  Wrath of Khan did it even better.  Search for Spock was probably the definitive statement in that incarnation of the characters.  They came as close to hating each other as possible in The Undiscovered Country.

In the Abrams reboot, Kirk and Spock took the Country dynamic, mashed it up with Search, and ended up with something even more beautiful than ever before.  That's what I've loved so much about these films, Star Trek and Into Darkness.  Every critic says they're more Star Wars than Star Trek, just because they feature better action and budgets than ever before.  That, apparently, is all you need to be Star Wars.  Apparently Michael Bay has been making Star Wars for years.  Who knew?  But to me, the Abrams films have been about Kirk and Spock, almost exclusively, brilliantly, better than ever.  The first one goes back to the beginning for both characters, and then sees what happens when they meet for the first time, try and figure out what their disparate worldviews look like when put up against each other.  A lot of arguments, apparently.  Possibly a few instances of trying to end careers and/or lives.  But in both instances a thing of beauty.  Exquisite.

The thing I've been realizing is that the Next Generation movies are exactly like that.  Data and Picard are the main characters in all four.  They're the only instances where either is so important to each other, besides "The Measure of a Man" (when Picard makes the winning argument for Data's continued independent existence).  In Generations, the stellar cartography scene in which their paths finally cross during the story is perfect.  Picard is thinking of his problems, Data his, and all the while they're supposed to be focusing on something else entirely.  Picard begins musing on the need to focus on the moment.  He forcibly requires Data to do the same.  It's the only time Data wants to deactivate himself.

In First Contact, they unexpectedly converge again as the Borg attempts another invasion.  They're practically inseparable.  It's true, Picard references what Data did for him in "Best of Both Worlds, Part II," but that was less to do, at that point, with what they meant for each other and more a matter of the greater family from that crew.  I think as the years progressed, Picard valued Data more, his unique perspective, something that made more and more sense, especially after realizing how much they had in common during Generations.

Insurrection gets so little respect, but it's almost a sequel to "Measure of a Man," with Picard coming to Data's rescue after Starfleet has apparently decided once again that the android doesn't need a great amount of consideration.  The rest of the movie is about what Picard discovers, that Data was absolutely right to go rogue (ironically, Data himself veers in a completely different direction for the duration), once again realizing how important his friend's perspective is.

Nemesis gets less respect than Insurrection, but it deserves more.  The parallels between Picard and Data's arcs are the most blatant in all four movies, but the conclusion more subtle.  Throughout the movie both must contend with cracked mirrors of themselves.  Both variants are gone by the end, but at the price of Data's life.  What does it all mean?  Most people just assumed that Data would have just come back, just like Spock, and wrote off Nemesis as a cheap knockoff of Wrath (it's the ultimate dismissal for Star Trek fans, their favorite trump card).  The point, I think, was that Data's life was a culmination of the decisions he'd made, just like Picard.  The decision he made was the opposite of the one Picard made, however.  Picard ended his problem by eliminating his doppelganger.  Data had done that before.  He went the opposite way this time.  He sacrificed himself not only for Picard, but for his doppelganger as well.  And I think that was the real point of the movie.  He made the ultimate selfless gesture, something even Picard hadn't been willing to make.  And that was what Picard had always wanted to learn from Data, which he only really started realizing in Generations.

Watching the movies this way, I think, is to discover what Star Trek is really about.  I'm glad we had J.J. Abrams come along to make it so obvious.  Maybe the fans will catch up at some point.  When Gene Roddenberry first came up with Star Trek, his first idea for the pilot, "The Cage," was all about Pike realizing how profound relationships are to human existence.  We try and pretend life is about everything else, our great potential in every other regard.  But it isn't.  It's about what we mean to each other.  Not the families we have but the ones we make.  If that message is best distilled into perfect friendships, their perfect symmetries, then, well, make it so.

9 comments:

Pat Dilloway said...

To some extent the stories in the movies reflect that Kirk/Spock and Picard/Data were/are the most popular characters and thus have to get more screen time. It's like why every X-Men movie has to focus on Wolverine. And probably a big reason why R2D2 ended up in the Star Wars prequels.

The Armchair Squid said...

In exploring TOS, I've grown to recognize the triangle relationship you describe as the heart of the franchise. There's the interpersonal side, of course, but also the relationship between logic, emotion and judgment embodied in those three characters.

Tony Laplume said...

It's funny, but Uhura has basically replaced McCoy as the third lead in the new movies. Which is both awesome and completely fine.

Spacer Guy said...

I enjoy Star Trek because most of the actors know where to draw the line between logic and parody. These guys just don't take themselves too seriously which makes it a winner in my book.

Tony Laplume said...

Brent Spiner is definitely the master of that.

The Armchair Squid said...

The seeds for that were planted early, too. "The Naked Time," 4th TOS episode to air, is downright goofy at times.

Tony Laplume said...

Certainly. William Shatner normally had a bemused look on his face. DeForest Kelley's whole job, it seemed, was to keep everyone in a similar mood.

The Armchair Squid said...

Here's a good topic for this crowd. Let's talk about DeForest Kelley for a moment. He is definitely the odd man out for most fans among the Trek Trinity. Why? I think McCoy's generally too grumpy to be as likable as the other two. Thoughts?

Tony Laplume said...

Except he's a good grumpy. Without him, Spock would seem too alien. He's the one who brings both Spock and Kirk down to earth (as it were), leveling the playing field. He's the cynic who doesn't allow Kirk's ego to go unchecked. Same for Spock, actually, constantly needling the Vulcan, drawing the viewer in, letting them in on the joke (which was your original point).

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