Star Trek: Beyond (2016)

“The Miserable Have No Other Medicine”

star trek beyond

One disagreement I have with Star Trek fans concerns the credit sequence of the TV series, Enterprise (UPN, 2001-2005), one of the best things bequeathed to us by that which Gene Rodenberry hath wrought. “It’s been a long road / To get from there to here,” sings Russell Watson in a cover of a Rod Stewart single, “Faith of the Heart.” The scriptwriter of the new film, Star Trek: Beyond (2016), Simon Pegg refuses to watch the series, declaring the song, “probably the most hideous Star Trek moment in history.” On the contrary, the credit sequence, tracing the history of maritime and then space flight via images of vessels named “Enterprise,” makes me cry every time.

At stake here is the very soul of Star Trek: Is it a grandiose project of dire seriousness, the best that science-fiction can be, grappling with utopian themes amidst the violence that poisons our Earth? Or, is Star Trek low camp from the late 1960s, a cheesy vehicle for William Shatner to chew scenery? Gene Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek to NBC as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Shatner berating a Neanderthal alien for butchering the Preamble to the Constitution as the “E Plebnista” is one of the funniest moments on 1960s American television, making it more like “Batman to the stars.”

I begin with this tension because Star Trek: Beyond is a terrific film—not because it commits to the ponderous seriousness of Star Trek: The Next Generation, nor to the pitch perfect comedy of 1967’s “Trouble with Tribbles”—but because it has the good sense to balance these traditions. In the middle of the proceedings, Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) consoles Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) after he yet again destroys the Enterprise, abandoned on a planet ruled by yet another alien madman. Channeling the utopian Rodenberry, Spock observes, “We will find hope in the impossible.” To fulfill their role as the Laurel and Hardy of the 24th century, Doctor McCoy (Karl Urban) jokes about Spock quoting Shakespeare in the midst of their desperate circumstances. The Vulcan observes, “The miserable have no other medicine / But only hope,” from Measure for Measure (1603), the imprisoned Claudio’s response to a cloaked Vincentio, undercover attempting to discover how things really stand in his dukedom of Vienna.

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s infamous “problem” plays, featuring a strongly comic ending despite lingering tragic components which only ambiguously resolve. What is great about Star Trek: Beyond is that it recognizes Roddenberry’s show is just this sort of a problem, now falsely revered as solely a great work of science-fiction (particularly when compared to that empty space oater, Star Wars), yet papering over its similarly campy origins. Star Trek: Beyond is a delightfully funny film, invoking the full anachronism of the franchise, mixing a song by the pop diva, Rihanna with the film’s serious critique of colonialism.

The fun of Star Trek: Beyond is that it allows the ridiculous free reign amidst an intriguing script about the return of the repressed, a more bellicose moment in the Federation’s history attempting to wreak vengeance on its current technological wonder, a state of the art space station named Yorktown. Star Trek: Beyond is not just a cerebral science-fiction film exploring what its villain, Krall (Idris Elba) calls “the poetry of fate”; it is also a film by Justin Lin, director of four of the execrable Fast and the Furious movies. Correspondingly, his Star Trek film features a preposterous sequence in which Kirk drives a motorcycle found within the remains of an ancient Earth spaceship. Kirk pops wheelies in dusty circles to distract the enemy while his crew escapes to safety.

To return to the purportedly “sappy” credit sequence of Enterprise, the campiest facet of this new film is its soundtrack. As if Rihanna were not anachronistic enough, one battle revolves around using hideous rap music, 1994’s “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys, to confuse a hive of bee-like alien spaceships threatening the Federation. Our intrepid heroes broadcast the song on radio waves to confuse the aliens’ ship-to-ship communications with the hideous noise. In another instance of Spock and McCoy’s comedic banter, the good doctor queries, “Is that classical music?” Unable to accurately access distant Earth’s sub-cultural history, Spock declares, “Yes, it would appear to be.” Amidst ponderous declarations by the villain—“unity is not your strength, it is your weakness”—such campy banter is like music to my ears. If such sound “be the food of love,” Justin Lin, “play on!”

–Walter Metz