Star Trek Beyond is a sequel to J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, but it takes greater effort than either of those two films to root itself in the spirit of The Original Series. Beyond is first and foremost an action film, yet it’s not afraid to slow down and allow the characters to interact. …
*** SPOILER WARNING: I will discuss some major spoilers, so it is best to watch the film before reading any further. ***
At the start of the film, the Enterprise is three years into its five-year mission of exploration. The starship docks at the Starbase Yorktown for some rest and relaxation. An alien refugee arrives on the station and asks for help rescuing her ship from a mysterious nebula. However, it turns out to be a trap. A swarm of alien ships attacks and destroys the Enterprise. The crew escapes to a nearby planet and discovers an old, abandoned Starfleet vessel, the U.S.S. Franklin. The crew has to fix the ship and escape before Krall’s fleet can destroy Yorktown.
Back in 2009, Paramount seemed to want to use the Star Trek reboot to show how Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise crew became the legends we all know and love from The Original Series. (Or, at least approximations of them given that the reboot is set in an alternate timeline.) Indeed, Star Trek 2009 was a classic origin story, beginning with Kirk’s birth and showing his first meeting with Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the crew at Starfleet Academy. Unfortunately, the ending of Star Trek 2009 undercut much of this potential by promoting Kirk to captain of the Enterprise. Aside from making Starfleet look incompetent for giving its flagship to an inexperienced cadet, the ending robs viewers of the chance to see Kirk earn his promotion to captain. Perhaps Paramount didn’t have plans for sequels at the time, but it seems like a missed opportunity.
Star Trek Into Darkness seemed to recognize the problem, but only committed half-heartedly to addressing it. In the first few minutes of the film, Kirk was demoted to commander for violating the Prime Directive. Admiral Christopher Pike, Kirk’s mentor, told him that he lacked the maturity for command. Meanwhile, Kirk and Spock still don't trust each other; Spock informs Starfleet of Kirk’s violation. Yet, the film drops these character threads soon after they’re introduced. Admiral Marcus repromotes Kirk to captain a few minutes later, rendering the earlier demotion meaningless. We never see Kirk taking responsibility for his recklessness and never see him bonding with Spock. There’s no payoff for the setup.
Star Trek Beyond takes a different approach. The film starts off with Kirk undergoing a midlife crisis. He finds himself daunted by the vast unknown of space. Kirk applies for a cushy desk job as an admiral at the starbase Yorktown. Spock also faces an existential crisis of a different sort. When he learns that the other Spock (Leonard Nimoy’s Spock) died, he considers leaving Starfleet in order to help the Vulcans build a new homeworld. I actually found this setup intriguing (perhaps because I’m also experiencing a midlife crisis). We’re so used to seeing Kirk and Spock in their uniforms, but this film prompts them to ask why they’re still in their uniforms.
Longtime Star Trek fans know that the franchise has typically glorified Starfleet as the career path of choice. Starfleet embodied all of the ideals of Roddenberry’s liberal humanism. It wasn’t until Wesley Crusher decided to drop out of Starfleet late in The Next Generation that the franchise seemed to admit that not every young boy or girl grew up to become a Starfleet officer. Deep Space Nine was the first incarnation of Trek that took the time to explore life outside Starfleet. Having Kirk and Spock experience a midlife crisis is a subtle but meaningful way to update the franchise for the 21st century, when Millennials are less certain about their career prospects than their parents were.
Of course, Kirk and Spock both ultimately decide to remain in Starfleet, but for different reasons. Kirk finds renewed vigor in protecting people from the unknown. He’s a father figure to the crew, the one who can protect them from the dangers out there in space. For his part, Spock discovers that the Enterprise crew has become a surrogate family. The scenes between him and McCoy on the planet work wonderfully to illustrate their complicated love-hate relationship. There is a wonderful moment when Quinto’s Spock finds photos of Nimoy’s Spock with the original Enterprise crew, which helps him realize that his destiny is on the Enterprise. It’s to the movie’s credit that it takes the time to allow these character beats to breathe.
Another improvement is that Kirk and Spock act like competent adults. Kirk no longer behaves like a frat boy. Spock no longer devolves into fits of rage. Spock and Uhura are still in a relationship, but they don’t bicker like teenagers. The rest of the crew behaves as trained professionals, men and women who are good at their jobs. I especially appreciate that the crew uses their scientific and engineering prowess to overcome problems (admittedly, most of it was nonsensical technobabble). In classic Trek tradition, they have to use their brainpower to find a clever – if cheesy – way to defeat Krall. Unfortunately, the ending is undermined by the obligatory fistfight between Kirk and Krall, but even that evoked William Shatner’s infamous fistfights on The Original Series.
I liked the character work for what it was, but the two character arcs proved too big for one film, especially one that also had to dedicate so much time to big action sequences. We’ve only seen this version of Kirk and Spock in three films, so I still feel like I don’t know them well enough to fully invest in their midlife crises. Kirk’s transformation happens a bit too quickly (he seems oddly enthusiastic about exploring the unknown after being nearly killed by it). By contrast, when Kirk experiences a midlife crisis in The Wrath of Khan, viewers already knew Shatner’s Kirk from three seasons of television, a movie, and over 15 years as a pop culture icon. That said, I criticized Star Trek 2009 and Into Darkness for their lack of character development, so I have to give Beyond credit for nudging the franchise in the right direction.
In Part 2 of my review, I plan to focus more on the plot of Star Trek Beyond, particularly the villain…
Dom Nardi is a Contributing Writer at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published academic articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.