It is hardly a spoiler to begin this review with Star Trek Beyond’s final moments: just before the credits roll, the entire crew of the Enterprise comes together to provide a voiceover of the famous lines about the Enterprise’s continuing mission: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” Each crew member contributes a few words in their distinctive, in-character voice and accent, and, significantly, the final part about going “where no one has gone before” is said by Uhura, a noteworthy fact because it’s a change from the Original Series voice-over of “where on man has gone before.”
This voice-over at the end gets at something that has always been at the heart of Star Trek since the very beginning: diversity and exploration, symbiotically intertwined. Star Trek has been about discovering the unknown, but it’s been equally about accepting the diversity and wonder of our human realm, as well as the universe at large. These final lines bring together every character – of various genders, races, orientations, and even species (in the case of Spock) – together to voice that ethos.
These few lines, then, then, neatly encapsulate the heart of Star Trek Beyond: an homage to the Original Series of Star Trek, it’s a fun, fast-paced movie with its share of philosophical musing, humor, deep character relationships – in short, everything the Original Series was. It’s a breath of fresh air from the two previous films, made by J.J. Abrams, who significantly stated in an interview that he never liked Star Trek much as a kid” because “it was too philosophical.”
But Simon Pegg (who also plays Scotty) and Doug Jung (who has a cameo as Sulu’s husband) clearly adore the Original Series, and this movie, despite its numerous action sequences and explosions (can we please stop blowing up the Enterprise? Please? No? I’m sure Kirk is going to have some Words about how we’re treating his beautiful Silver Lady) feels like an extended episode of the original Trek. The plot is relatively silly, the storytelling campy -– kind of the way that Guardians of the Galaxy was campy, with Kirk saving the galaxy to the tune of 20th century pop music – but, like the Marvel movie, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It has plenty of humor, and is more than self-aware about using The Beastie Boys as the soundtrack to a climactic battle.
But at the heart of that silliness is what has always made Star Trek great: that depth of humanity, the careful characterization and poignant character relationships, as well as touches of philosophy. Instead of undressing its female characters to get young boys into the theatre (as the previous two installments so notoriously did) or opening the movie with a birthing scene to get women into the theatre, Star Trek Beyond seems to have a lot more respect for its viewers, and in particular, for the Trekkies that have always loved the franchise. In fact, whereas the previous films superficially gave its characters names and references from the Original Series without following through (of course Carol Marcus is a scientist and engineer, of course Spock quotes Sherlock Holmes, but neither of those things end up being particularly relevant or functioning as any kind of continuation of these’ characters Prime timeline counterparts), this movie is full of actually meaningful references to previous incarnations of Trek.
The best thing about these references is that they’re like hidden presents for Trekkies (like yours truly, who squealed loudly in the movie theatre at the mention of the green hand) while still being accessible to the viewer who doesn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of a 1960s TV show. Chekov’s line about Scotch being invented by a little old lady in Russia, for example, is hilarious outside of context given his obvious Russian accent; at the same time, it’s yet another layer of hilarious as a reference to Chekov insisting in the Original Series that Scotch was “inwented by a leettle old lady in Leningrad.” In short, this movie is inclusive: it doesn’t make jokes at the expense of any particular demographic, doesn’t drive away those who have never seen the original show with gatekeeping, but also makes Trekkies feel loved. It’s a movie for everyone, not a feel-good fantasy for a particular demographic that can relate to its white male protagonist the easiest.
This emphasis on inclusiveness is in the little things, too; the Original Series was groundbreaking in its diversity (particularly in the portrayal of Uhura, a recurring black female character who wasn’t a maid), and the reboot series has some catching up to do on that front. It’s hard to imagine a movie today being as progressive as Roddenberry’s 1960s vision, but at least in this movie looks forward in time rather than backwards.
In a candid moment that made headlines everywhere, for example, Sulu disembarks from the Enterprise at Yorktown Starbase into the arms of his husband and daughter – finally, after all this time, giving us a gay Star Trek character. There’s multiple shots of the crew of the Enterprise, too, and this time the officers and crew in the hallways of the ship show a startling diversity of genders, races, and even species – a nice contrast from Star Trek: Into Darkness, in which every single senior officer of Starfleet at the emergency session and pretty much everybody on the crew of all the spaceships is a white dude – including one of the franchise’s most iconic characters of color, Khan.
The roles of women are more in line with the Original Series, too. In the previous two films, the iconic figures of Uhura and Carol Marcus were supremely competent, qualified women on paper – one spoke multiple languages, including a variety of Klingon dialects, while the other was an excellent scientist; in reality, their roles could be summarized by nagging girlfriend and hot blonde. Though Carol Marcus shockingly makes no appearance in this film, Uhura is neither nagging nor titillating, while the alien Jaylah is neither sexualized nor a Strong Female Character. And if the women have changed, so have their uniforms: instead of the barely-there dresses of the previous films, the women in this one are at least shown the respect of having their uniforms show their rank, and gone are the supposedly titillating lingerie scenes.
This might seem like a small detail – the aforementioned scenes lasted barely seconds – but they speak volumes. The scantily clad women in the Original Series were a way to distract the censors from the really incriminating stuff: commentary on the Cold War, race, gender, war, and politics. These days, don’t really need to mask commentary about terrorism or imperialism with distracting femmes fatales to get it onto the screen – if anything, those atrocious lingerie scenes distracted from the seriousness of the movies by reminding us that this is just a fun romp in space with a red-blooded male Hero. But there, that’s all changed: there’s seriousness in this movie, but it’s tempered by humor, not sexual titillation.
The plot is relatively silly, a little nonsensical, and could have used some fleshing out, but when you remember that the fifth Star Trek movie involves Kirk flying the Enterprise into a black hole to find God, you realize that is’ actually pretty par for the course.
The strength of Trek movies has never been the plots, but the ideas and characters therein. The premise of Star Trek Beyond is that a captain comes to Starfleet for help rescuing her crew, which is stranded in a mysterious nebula where sensors don’t work after an attack. This works out about as well as expected, with the Enterprise inevitably attacked by a mysterious swarm and the entire crew crash-landing on the planet. With the help of an alien named Jaylah, Kirk and co must help rescue the crew and then save Yorktown base, which is the real target of the mysterious attackers.
It’s not particularly strong as a plot, but what matters is what they do with it: it’s the vehicle for some excellent character moments, from Spock and Bones bonding as they discuss death to Uhura getting a heroic moment in which she makes the choice to save Kirk and stand up to the villain, Krall. There’s some frankly ridiculous moments, like Kirk riding a motorbike as a distraction, and some truly touching ones, such as an alien Starfleet officer’s particular differences enabling Kirk to hide the weapon of mass destruction that Krall is looking for. The plot if full of moments like this, gems that make you legitimately happy to be sitting in the theatre, sharing these moments with the Enterprise crew.
But it’s not just diversity that’s at the center of this film; it’s also the other part of the “boldly going” catchphrase: the unknown. True to its name, Star Trek Beyond asks questions about what it means to go “beyond.” If the universe is expanding faster than the speed of light, then to boldly go exploring the universe is by definition a goal doomed to failure. The unknown will never become completely know, the “beyond” is an unreachable finish line. It’s a step away from the positivism of the Original Series; while the 1960s show provided a drastically needed utopian vision of scientific and technological potential, this film asks some much-needed, down-to-earth (pun intended) questions about the nature of the Federation’s quest.
Is the Federation an expansionary, imperial force that assimilates everything as it goes further and further “beyond,” into the unknown? If the beyond can never truly be known, then what, really, is the purpose of all the five-year missions? And, most of all, what are the psychological effects on the Starfleet crew of spending years on the same ship, in space, in the unknown?
The film opens with Kirk’s slightly world-weary voiceover, as he strives to understand what it’s all for, and the rest of the movie strives to answer that question. How successful this is is debatable – the philosophical angle of Star Trek Beyond could certainly have been expanded. But that question is, at the very least, raised in the context of a film you can take seriously enough to think about it (without getting too bogged down in its own self-importance).
Star Trek Beyond, in short, lets us look at Star Trek in a new way while still honoring the original, and that’s all we ever really asked of a Star Trek reboot.