Sunday, March 08, 2009

Star Trek: "It Ain't Canon"

As usual, the fan whining began many months ago (maybe years at this point) about the upcoming J.J. Abrams reboot of the Star Trek franchise. As it happens, I've seen two things in the past couple days the reenforce the idea that this reboot is not only going to be good (maybe even great), it's also going to be true to the roots of Star Trek. Roots that even many die-hard fans have (often conveniently) forgotten.

First thing, is the latest trailer. Check it out if you haven't seen it. I'll wait...

I feel like I've a little street cred to talk about Trek. I've been a big fan since I watched the first airing of "Man Trap" live on NBC back in (mumble-mumble), and I've since worked on three Star Trek prose projects for Pocket Books with my wife Chris (two "Star Trek SCE" ebooks, one since reprinted in paperback, and a "Next Generation" ebook, all of which are, I believe, still available for download, ebook fans).

A lot of what you hear is griping about it not being "canon," that is, the established history of Star Trek. There really has been a fantastic amount of effort over the years to document all things (on-screen things, that is, the books were never considered "canon") Trek and bind them into some sort of whole.

But behind-the-scenes efforts at this really didn't take root until well in "Next Generation's" run, and they were never entirely consistent. Despite what you may have been told, Trek has repeatedly contradicted itself in dozens of important ways, through it's entire run, in all of the series, and pretty much all of the movies.

Don't believe me? If you've got half an hour or so, check out the following series of fan-produced videos on Youtube highlighting a good number of these contradictions. Actually, if you don't have 30 minutes, the first few minutes of the first video should be plenty to convince you.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

The fact is, Star Trek "canon" has never held up to close scrutiny, and this is especially true of the original series, where such continuity was never a large concern, and "facts" were established with no thought of how it might fit into a larger continuity or time-line.

Yet that hasn't stopped the endless sniping, based on the few stills and trailer clips that have been released.

In fact, these are probably the same people who were bitching all the way through the three year series run of "Enterprise." Let me tell you, Enterprise had a lot of problems, but continuity is among the smallest of these. Really, is the "first contact" date for the Ferengi really that important in the greater scheme of things? (Don't get me wrong. I love the Ferengi, but you can pretty much ignore anything about them that happened until Deep Space Nine came along.)

But let's not get side-tracked (and there's so much Trek, it's easy for that to happen). Let's address the cries that, based on what we've seen so far, the new Trek movie "isn't Trek," and "isn't canon."


First of all (mild possible spoiler here) it's clear that the plot of this movie deals with some kind of time travel plot from the future mucking up young Kirk's life. What little we know about his early life (that which doesn't already contradict itself) from the original show and movies just doesn't necessarily apply.

Get over it. The details aren't important. What matters to me is, are we going to end up with the Kirk, the uber-captain, that we all know and love? (And watch the moment in the trailer when he apparently first takes the Big Chair, and tell me it isn't so?)

Another common complaint. Spock shows emotions. Spock fights. That's not Spock!

Sorry, kids. You weren't paying attention. That's very much Spock.

First of all, as Leonard Nimoy (in a performance whose depth and subtlty is constantly overlooked, even by fans) and the writers developed him, Spock is not some kind of meat-robot without emotions. He's the son of a violent warrior race that has learned to supress and control the expression of emotions, born of a mother whose species revels in them.

It's where pretty much everyone else who played a Vulcan in the other series (other than Mark Leonard, who played his father, Sarek, and maybe Jolene Blalock by the end of Enterprise) got it wrong. The brilliance of Nimoy's performance was to act out all the emotions while almost always keeping a mask over them.

The full range of emotions were still there in the eyes, in the posture, in the subtlty of expression, if you were watching closely enough. But even if you weren't watching, you were unconsciously aware of them, and it kept him from being a stilted, human-shaped computer. It was as though he was always performing the role of a poker-player in mid-bluff -- a poker player with a "tell."

And on occasion, the mask slipped aside (think specifically of the moment in the TOS episode "Amok Time," Spock believes he has killed Jim Kirk. On seeing him alive, the mask slips totally aside for a moment of unbridled joy, and then is pulled back with embarrassment.

And that's the key. It's like a proper church-lady. Yes, she certainly has breasts and a vagina, but she certainly isn't going to show them in public, or even acknowledge their existance in polite company. And yes, those five kids came from somewhere, but we certainly aren't going to talk about details, and you'd be unspeakably rude even to draw attention towards the subject.

(Looked upon this way, and in retrospect, the occasional taunting and prodding by McCoy, and to a lesser extent, Kirk, seems cruel and culturally insensitive. You can perhaps excuse it a bit by imagining that they see Spock as a human with some Vulcan ancestry, rather than as a Vulcan with some human ancestry, though Spock clearly portrays himself as the latter. And some of it can simply be written off to the pre-PC era in which the show was spawned. But I prefer those moments in which Kirk very appologetically asks Spock to engage in a mind-meld with an alien for the greater good, despite the way it will force him to lower his emotional screens. Okay, to be honest, I'll be happy if the movie brings back the Kirk/Spock/McCoy banter. Those were good scenes. I just hope it's better justified in the context of their relationship this time.)

And the entire run of the series, and even more so in the movies, it's made clear that Spock has always struggled to control his emotions, and that this was even more true of young Spock. And by definition, the Spock in this movie is going to be a younger Spock. Why shouldn't he slip more?

Nothing we've seen of Spock in any of the trailers contradicts this. Sure, there's a lot of emotion in those early trailers, a lot of physicality. About five seconds of it. Don't the most dramatic bits always end up in the trailer? Even if Spock is that way through the whole film (and based on this last trailer, I don't think that's the case), it still could be justified in the context of what we take as "canon."

Which brings me to my last bit of evidence. The other night, which trying out streaming video on the computer I was hooking up to my television, I stumbled into the site, and discovered the Star Trek episodes available there. I pulled up the HD, remastered version of the first-season episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before."

"Where No Man Has Gone Before" is actually the beginning of the Trek most of us are familiar with it. It's actually the second pilot, the first pilot (Starring Jeffry Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike) having been rejected by NBC. Even more confusingly, it was the third episode to air in the original run. But it's more-or-less "our" original Trek. It's got Kirk, Spock, Scotty and Sulu (McCoy was yet to come, however).

See it here in standard definition or here for HD (remastered version) if you have the bandwidth.

I got sucked into watching the first few minutes of it. There was something very familiar about it, not just because I've seen it a zillion times before in my wasted youth (and occasionally since). It had a rawness, an energy like -- that last Trek movie trailer. It was there in the sense of adventure, the playful banter between the crew in the turbolift, the feeling of always heading into unknown territory.

Sure, it wasn't as fast-paced and kinetic as the movie. Nothing on TV was in those days. The shorthand language of storytelling just didn't exist yet. To a large extent in those days, television series (even Star Trek) were more like stage plays with cameras pointed at them than anything else.

But it feels much the same to me. And that's not a bad thing at all.

And of course, there's Spock. Spock, who claims not to have emotions, but who grins and smirks and growls and frowns through many of his scenes...

What is "canon" for Star Trek? The general rule is that it's anything that appears on-screen in any of the series or movies (with the exception of the 70s animated series, except for one episode, and maybe "Star Trek V," don't ask). This is on-screen, in-series, and Spock is pretty out there.

"Oh," but the die-hards argue, "it's the pilot. The character is still evolving. It doesn't count."

Bull. Purists don't get to pick an choose that way.

I do, of course, because I'm not a purist. I know that allowances have to be made for time, and human error. I get to embrace the emotional version of our Vulcan first-officer (not literally, this isn't your damned slash fiction!).

I get to pretend that the episode "Spock's Brain" never, ever, happened.

You're stuck with it, mr./ms. Purist!

As a kid, I always hated history, because it was always about memorizing dates and battles. It was only later, when I discovered that those things were only a template some stuffed shirts had put over a real world, where people had lived and loved and fought and built the entire world I knew.

That's how I feel about the purist view of Star Trek canon.

It remains to be seen how good or bad the new Trek film will be. I'm hopeful, but I haven't seen it yet. But if it succeeds, it will do so not on its slavish adherance to "canon" but on its ability to tap the spirit of Star Trek and its characters, and to reach not only us old-timers, but an entire new generation of fans.


  1. The link I posted for the "part 1" video was incorrect. Should be fixed now.