May 12, 2009

Star Trek

For this review of the new Star Trek film, please welcome BonnieBelle of A Working Title. She called her review "Star Trek: Deconstructed" when she sent it in, and I have to say it's a darn thorough deconstruction! Thanks for making BonnieBelle feel welcome, I know we're all looking forward to some good discussion. -Skye

First of all, let me say that I am a Trekkie. I love the original Star Trek, and TNG and all the other ensuing seasons and spin-offs. Star Trek: TOS was a pioneer show in its time, portraying not only non-stereotypical characters of color, but women in strong roles. I'm going to spoil the heck out of the new movie, so read on at your own discretion.

Director JJ Abrams did a fantastic job of reimagining the style and visual impact of the series, the story he told was original and very much in line with the Star Trek legacy. The actors he chose, many of them unknowns or B-list stars, were perfect for their roles and very similar visually to the previous stars. It is a true restart for the series, and I hope to see more Star Trek movies in the future from this cast and director.

And yet... And yet...

I didn't take notes during the movie, because I wasn't expecting to write about this. But after thinking about what I saw, I really feel like I have something to say. The thing is, it was very much in line with the original incarnation. Too in line, in my opinion. If you're going to update a classic story for modern audiences, why not stretch their imaginations beyond what has gone before? Isn't the premise of the show, to boldly go where no one has else has?

I'll start with the women. Or should I say, woman. Specifically, Lieutenant Nyota Uhura. (There are five women with speaking parts in the entire movie. Lt. Uhura, Spock's mom, Kirk's mom, a female doctor, and Uhura's roommate. :( This is my frowny face. And they all fail the Bechdel test.) Uhura is of African decent, originaly played by Nichelle Nichols and reprised here by Zoe Saldana. She's super intelligent, strong-willed, and doesn't put up with anyone's bullshit, as evidenced by her repeated brush-offs of the womanizing Kirk. In the original incarnation, she remains unmarried and unattached throughout the series.

I'm wondering why the hell JJ Abrams and crew decided to romantically involve her with Spock. WTF? That's actually a step in the opposite direction! Not only is Spock her teacher, he's her commanding officer. There are all sorts of negative connotations there. Dominance, power plays, submissive and smart black girl, blah blah blah. And if you come to me, saying this is an alternate reality so they can do whatever they want with the characters, go fuck yourself. They took a cracker-jack character who took no man's shit, and made her the Pining Damsel. "I'll be monitoring your signal." reads as, "I'll be waiting for you and saving myself for you, you big strong man, you." Gag, barf, hurl. She becomes the prize for Spock!! Argh!!

And if they're going to give Sulu a chance to kick ass, which I'll talk about shortly, why the hell didn't they give Uhura that option? When Pike asks for officers trained in combat, I don't recall him specifically requiring men. And if he did, shame on JJ Abrams. Someone mentioned to me that her position on the ship was too important for her to leave and go fight, and also that she was the only one who spoke Romulan. These are so obviously constructs and excuses. If Kirk can ignore regulations and go off ship as the Captain, then Uhura definitely can. If Sulu can consider himself combat trained, then there's no reason she couldn't have been. And she never actually translates anything from Romulan in the movie, so that's shot down as well. I'm frowning big time now.

I'm not even sure I want to talk about the uniforms. Okay, I do. I know they're giving the nod to the old series. I get it. I'm a fan! But really, you can't tell me that in 200 years, women officers will be wearing pencil skirts and go-go boots in the military. If you try to pass that one off on me, I'm gonna call you on that shit. They don't even require that in today's military! It's an option, but not a requirement. But in Star Trek, we never saw a single woman officer in pants, for crying out loud.

What's the reasoning behind only one main character who also happens to be female? They took away her independence by making her "Spock's Girlfriend." If you're going to create an alternate universe, go all out! Battlestar Galactica changed the sex of one of their main characters, and pulled it off! Why couldn't Star Trek make a leap like that?

I'd say this is a big FAIL on the feminist front.

Now on to the race issue. First of all, they kept the two standard characters of color, Uhura and Sulu (played by John Cho), and actually cast them with very attractive actors. Thumbs up there. But Star Fleet was totally white-washed. The cadets of color stood out because there were so few of them. Again, 200 years from now, whether people like it or not, the population is going to be just a little bit more mixed than that. I mean, geez, hello, our first African-American POTUS was sworn in just four months ago!

And statistically, the ranks of the military, mainly the enlisted, have much higher percentages of people of color than other employment areas (51% of enlisted women and 36% of men). Of course, the percentage of officers of color is still much lower, (18% for combined genders) but you can't tell me that in 200 years, those percentages won't even out. (Here's a source for information on the military's composition.)

Now, Sulu really held his own in this movie. Originally played by George Takei, he's done justice here by John Cho. He was funny, without being the sole comic relief, and he had action scenes and was good at it. He even managed to save one of the main characters! And his combat training is not "Martial Arts," it's fencing, which according to Wikipedia's entry on Sulu is in line with the original Sulu. They could have easily made it something like Kendo and didn't. I think the two characters of color in the show were dealt with well, they weren't portrayed stereotypically for their race, and they had major roles. But there were two, period. Look at that picture up there and tell me that's equal representation. Major frowny face.

I'd say this is a race FAIL, too.

No characters from the LGBTQ community, no characters with disabilities, and actually, very few "Alien" characters. Most of the Federation is apparently human. Boooring, but really, not surprising.

Star Trek was a pioneer show in 1966 and I'm glad they did it such a fine homage in this new reincarnation. But it's 2009. You're telling me, in 43 years, we couldn't come up with something new? The movie was great. It was beautiful and gripping and action-packed, while still full of the relationships and (male) friendships that made it such a hit all those years ago. Imagine how much better it would have been if it were all-inclusive. That would really have been something to see.

It's worth seeing, especially for fans of the original, but don't expect anything new. It's the same old stuff in a shiny new package.

Other Commentary:

12 Comments

Hi BonnieBelle! Welcome aboard as a reviewer! :D I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and hope you do more of these in the future! :)

And you just might get that conversation Skye! It seems opinions are just all over the board on this one - from people saying how awesome it is for women, and people saying how wretched it is, BonnieBelle included. :)

Haven't seen it yet, but there is one thing I wanted to yak about. I'd say Uhura and Spock are an improvement, not a step back. It sounds like they should have done it much better than they have (like make them colleagues instead of mentor/mentee, for example), but even if it only remained what it is, I am glad it's there.

Eons ago I read an article about ethnicity and relationships, and a young guy spoke about how on the exchange floor on Wall Street there was an African American woman who many of the other fellow traders thought was simply beautiful, and really liked. None of them asked her out, but just the fact that they thought she was beautiful is a great step forward in ethnic relations between black & white americans.

Um...yeah...

And eons ago means the early 2000's.

To have Uhura the only unattached woman in a movie where ever other speaking female is attached just reinforces the same unspoken taboo of putting together African American characters with European American ones. If Hollywood, who excels at pairing leads romantically, even if forced, constantly keeps African Americans and European Americans as "friends", this seems more about underlying prejudices and/or fears than any sort of true stance towards gender equity.

I'm trying to keep this brief or Skye'll have my head! But Eraser comes to mind. I really liked Eraser. But Vanessa and Arnold have noticeable chemistry to me, and it seems almost forced to have them not get together.

If Uhura is attractive, then it would seem false to have no crew member be attracted to her. We know why that happened in the 60's - it shouldn't happen now. And if she had just had sex with any one of them, it would have become the whore stereotype. So it had to be a relationship, and Spock is the best candidate for that.

And besides, we've often seen films where the one woman allowed to be tough and unflappable is a woman of color. So I think it's nice that this time around she gets to show her romantic side too.

thx.

Skye's got me trained to view films through a HC filter, at least on the walk home from the theater.

As a Trekker since my youth, I'd been looking forward to the film for a while. It mostly delivered; I have a big problem with product placement in the scenes on Earth, and the whole plot point that spawned the story from the original storyline was done in a confusing fashion.

But, back to HC. I had mixed feelings about Uhura. I felt she was a bit more fleshed out than in the original series, but I really wish she'd been given an opportunity to kick ass. However, with the sequel in prep, I'm hopeful that her linguistic skills will make her essential for away missions. I didn't have a problem with her having a relationship with Spock -- it's an interesting variation on what had been established and it provided Spock character with some connection to another person when the Kirk/Spock relationship was still nebulous. I also think there's some interesting relationship stories that could be told in the future, although probably not on the scale of a movie. I'd find it quite interesting to see what happens when Spock and Uhura break up, a real possibility considering the even greater anger and isolation that Spock probably feels now.

I'm hopeful that now that they've got all this origin story stuff out of the way, the second film of this series can really break the mold and fix a lot of things from the original series.

@d While I can see the point you're making, I'm afraid I still disagree. I didn't feel that this was some sort of interracial relationship statement. There really was no relationship. I think it was played more for titillation rather than advocacy. I think they were trying to show the "emotional" side of Spock, and the Uhura "relationship" was used as a plot device. Like, See! See! He can feel love/lust! Wow, character development!11! I think they have three scenes together (correct me if I'm wrong), and one is the elevator scene where we realize Uhura has the hots for him. He doesn't actually say anything encouraging to her or suggest that he returns her feelings.

And Kirk very obviously finds Uhura attractive, and actually is pretty creepy about it at some points. So Spock is not the only one. I think a professional woman can be appreciated for her beauty without being stereotyped by it, or downgraded to just the girlfriend because of it.

@Ben Combee I hadn't heard about the second movie yet, and I will be interested to see how they develop the characters more. But as I mentioned to d above, I don't like the idea of Uhura-as-Spock's-emotional-catalyst-plot-device. Not cool, in my book.

I don't know how I feel about their break up being "inevitable". I think that would open the door to a lot of ex-gf jokes and uncomfortableness within the crew, and I'd rather they took the time to develop the relationship and the equal status of the two lovers within it now that they've created the pairing, rather than have Spock dramatically state, it's not her, It's Him! He Needs Time! And Space! He's a Vulcan and shouldn't feel Emotion! Booo, overdone.

Thanks for the comments!

Keep them coming!

All good points, but I do want to clarify that there was an *inkling* in TOS that Uhura had a crush on Spock; so their relationship isn't entirely out of the blue. I believe that they never got together because he was going for logic more than emotion back then; now he's trying to balance them.

@Marina I haven't watched TOS in a while so maybe I need to go back and look for that.

(Here from Feminist SF.)

The Uhura/Spock relationship was set up, sort of. When all the cadets are going to their assigned ships, Uhura confronts Spock about not being assigned to the Enterprise (since she is the most qualified) and he says he "didn't want to be accused of favoritism" before then agreeing to assign her to the Enterprise. So I think that was supposed to be a hint that they had a romantic relationship. It also made me want to bang my head on the theater seat in front of me. Why couldn't they just be friends?? Why did they have to surprise reveal that she was with Spock as a sort of "suck it Kirk!" move?? Uhura's relationship with Spock was barely developed, and it certainly wasn't about her, as a person, having a serious relationship. It was about her, as a sex object, being marked as possessed by Spock and thus unavailable to Kirk. It was about Kirk having a grudging respect for Spock being able to tap that when he couldn't.

I agree that Starfleet seemed very white, but the movie did seem to have *slightly* more awareness of presenting a racially progressive future (whereas they had no clue about presenting a progressive gender equal/neutral future). The captain at the beginning (who turns over command to Kirk Sr.) was played by Faran Tahir, whom I last saw playing a stereotypical Arab terrorist in last year's Iron Man. There was also the African-American admiral(?) at the end who gave Kirk his commendation. It at least seemed to occur to them that maybe they should have some characters in positions of power who weren't white. Whereas it didn't seem to occur to them to create any female characters who weren't someone's wife/mother/girlfriend.

Of course, they still didn't think outside the box with any of the established main characters. You make a great point by citing BSG. Did Pike really need to stay a white dude? Was that intrinsic to his character? Could the movie have worked with McCoy as a woman? ("My husband took everything in the divorce!") The sad thing is I doubt they (Abrams, producers, etc) even asked these questions. Making Star Trek should require more awareness than that.

These are all really good points I generally agree with, though I’m not convinced this is a 1 star movie. I saw ST right after Wolverine (also 1 star), and the treatment of gender is definitely at least a star better in ST. The fact that the ST universe is -supposed- to have nonwhite people and women in decision-making/ass-kicking positions makes it much more palatable than Wolverine, where all the (politically) powerful figures are white men and female ass-kickers aren‘t even implied.

It seems strange to me that Uhura is the focus of so much of the feminist criticism I‘ve read, rather than Amanda, Mother-slash-Plot-Device. (Or Winona Kirk, who if I remember right, ran her own ranch. And Nero‘s Dead Pregnant Wife was HIGHLY unnecessary.) Even though Uhura’s depiction suffers a little because the audience is encouraged to follow the POV of Kirk, who thinks about/treats her (name) as an object to be won, in many of her scenes; I’d say Saldana plays Uhura as having her own agenda- part of which includes emotionally supporting the people she cares about, regardless of whether or not it‘d be easier or safer to stay away. (Spock, on the other hand, seems perfectly willing to alienate a close friend by assigning her to a different ship when it seems like the easiest way to maintain professionalism and avoid confronting his emotions.) Of the cadets, she seems the most mature, professional, and driven. And while I really like heroines who kick ass and take names, an action sequence for Uhura in this movie would’ve felt a little contrived and “Look At The Strong Woman!”-esque for me, especially since Uhura seems pretty focused on linguistics and communications rather than a captain‘s chair of her own. (That said, I’d expect her to have some combat skills, simply as part of the Starfleet curriculum.) I'dve rather more of the redshirts and goons been female- that would have suggested a more gender-balanced Starfleet as well as shown that pants are also a uniform option for female officers. (This is also why they should have shown some male cadets wearing skants/skirts in the background. Miniskirt uniforms become much less objectionable if they’re an option for everyone, although it’s still suspicious if the protagonists always happen to conform to modern social dress conventions.)

I’m sad that absolutely no time was spent fleshing Amanda out beyond her connection to Spock and Sarek. She’s always seemed kind of cool to me, because being one of the first humans to marry a Vulcan and then move to Vulcan? Had to have been difficult. On top of a serious case of culture shock, she’dve had to deal with Vulcans who thought her being there was a spectacularly bad/illogical decision, difficulties with creating a human/Vulcan child, and, uh, a spouse who probably isn’t that great at accommodating human emotional needs. And yet somehow she managed all that, raised a kid eventually renowned for many accomplishments, (I’m blanking on what her career was, but I’m pretty sure she had one,) and somehow was allowed in to the Big Important Cave of Vulcan Culture.

But as much as I think there are still problems with the new ST movie (C’moooon, why not combine Chris Pike with Number One? Number One is cooooool!)*, having non-white-male characters who did all this awesome stuff off-screen still seems better to me than Wolverine, where the female characters are pretty much all under the thumb of some guy, never do anything more badass beyond *sparkle*. The female doctor doesn‘t even press the button to start her own experiment. (& I can’t count “walk until your feet bleed and then keep walking” as badass because the scene in the credits severely undercut it. If all it takes to shrug it off is some dork in a tank asking him to stop, it‘s not badass!) Maybe more movies have caught up to TOS Star Trek, but sadly, it’s still typical for movies to whitewash and, uh, male wash(?) even the awesome stuff happening off-screen- which ST, to its minimal credit, doesn‘t do. So, uh, yeah. Great review, gave me many thinky thoughts- I just think it’s 2 stars. But maybe I'm just glad Uhura finally got a first name- and that they picked Nyota, which IMO flows together more nicely than Penda would've.

Hi Bonnie, great review.
Kudos to the alien comment. I was rather disappointed that the non humanoid aliens were all effectively silenced, - that's if you don't count the squeaks from the little alien that Scott spends most of the films screaming at.
RE: the Spock/Uraha relationship. I'm undecided. On the one hand, I see where the first commenter, "D" is coming from. I quite liked the fact that a woman of colour wasn't immediately aggressive and gung-ho. Largely, for how women are represented in the film, she seems to be fairly standard- rather than unattainable, an outsider, differentiated by her colour. Yet, the dynamics of the relationship with Spock did creep me out. She cries for him - represents an outlet for his pain. And when he finally does show emotion, it is severe aggression.
And the elevator scene. I had already inferred that they were together - but it was just yuck! It almost seemed like she was the embodiment of their emotion, yet really desperate at the same time.

Re Uhura/Spock...I wasn't sure whether this relationship was going to be a good thing or a bad thing. It's not an inherently bad, (or original) idea (I've seen the old episode where Uhura sings to Spock about how sexy he is and he smiles) but the execution was terrible.

They made Uhura an awesome, kick-ass character--smart, driven, uninterested in Kirk, etc.--but unlike Chekov w/ the transporter or Sulu with the sword or Scottie w/ the black hole (all of whom save Kirk, or Kirk + other people) she never gets her crowning moment. Kirk steals her thunder on the decoding of the SOS transmission, because she doesn't understand its importance. The closest she comes is when she argues Spock into re-assigning her to the Enterprise--and that is utterly undermined later when they develop a relationship. It changes the scene from her standing up for her skills to her manipulating a man with whom she has romantic tension. (I didn't think they previously had a relationship so much as tension it took the crisis to bring into the open--but if it was pre-existing, so much the worse.)

And then the entire relationship consists of them canoodling in elevators/transport devices! I will admit I enjoyed the diss-Kirk-for-Spock dynamic. But as soon as Uhura was paired up w/Spock, she lost all power & agency, and became both his emotional bucket and an object to have won over Kirk.

I did like the treatment of Sulu very much, though. Wish we'd seen more of him.

I think one star was the perfect rating. While not blatantly saying that women are weak and need to be saved, the women still basically did nothing.

Before I started reading Heroine Content, I never really cared that much for a black person to be in a movie. Now I do. I love that they decided to make Uhura a prominent character, since she was black. And I liked Sulu, too, cause he actually saved Kirk.

I really hated how none of the women did anything. Like you said, BonnieBelle, there was no excuse for Uhura not to go off and fight. And even if none of the women went off to fight, a woman could have done something awesome anyway. Like, when Kirk and Sulu needed to be beamed back on board the ship, why couldn't a woman figure out how to do that? But instead it was a guy. And why couldn't Uhura do some fighting in the bar. She could have fought some of those dudes herself to defend Kirk while still making it very clear to him that she wasn't interested. And why did she have to rip her shirt off in her room when Kirk was making out with the green woman? Always some stupid excuse to see a woman in her bra.

I thought it was interesting, though, how the green woman wasn't made fun of and was socially accepted. But why was she having sex with Kirk?

I did think it was good, though, that Uhura wasn't actually seen having sex with Spock. But of course there was much embracing and the implied, "Be careful while you're out saving the world and I'll stay here and wait for you because I'm weak and you're so strong."

I also like how you mentioned the skirts. In the later series of Star Trek, the women wore pants. Why couldn't they wear pants in the movie?

As far as the two moms, it was stupid that Spock's mom died and that Kirk's mom was screaming and crying while having her baby and then screamed and cried while her husband was sacrificing himself for her and everyone else. And then she was never seen again.

For some reason this only showed up in my feeds today, woe.

There was a character with a (visible, physical) disability in the film. Christopher Pike. At the very end, when Kirk is getting his ship, Pike is shown being pushed around in a wheelchair designed so it must be pushed by someone else - it's impossible from its design for Pike to push it himself.

Apparently the wheelchairs available in 2009 are far more advanced than the ones in the future. And I love the idea that a ship that would - logically! - be designed so that multiple lifeforms could live and work on it is apparently inaccessible, so the new wheelchair user Pike can't be on his ship anymore.

I know this is an old post but I wanted to mention one thing about the uniforms. In the original series the skirt was actually an option for males as well. Now it's still suspicious and problematic because you only see a couple of background guys rocking the miniskirt uniform but I was delighted when I noticed it. As someone else said, it's more of an excuse since all the main characters conformed to gender standards but I thought it was neat that a show from the sixties tried that, even if only a little.

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