The new Star Trek movie, opening tonight, is a brilliant and exciting re-imagining of the original series. But the real revelation here isn't the new Trek - it's the hot, sexy new Spock. Spoilers ahead!
Spock was always the secret heart of the original Star Trek series. His half-human, half-Vulcan identity made him an Everyperson for young Americans dealing with a multicultural society where the familiar and the foreign were alloyed. In J.J. Abrams' new film, this subtext is made explicit: Spock leaves Vulcan to escape the anti-human racism he encounters everywhere, even among his people's most revered scientists. What's also made explicit in the new film is the intense emotional passion that Spock cannot repress. While the old Spock occasionally gave in to feeling, he generally remains imperturbable.
But our new Spock is less convinced about the rightness of Vulcan ways. He's been told by Vulcan authority figures that he's "defective" because of his human side. So why should he embrace the Vulcan path of repression? Though he remains obsessed with logic, his face often hovers on the brink of an ironic smile. This Spock seems to have a sense of humor. And when he's challenged by mean Vulcan kids as a child, and later by Kirk as an adult, he unleashes a wrathful violence that makes it clear he's a man of action as well as a logician. His emotions aren't limited to brief outbursts, though. In this alternate Star Trek universe, Spock is a lover. One of the most touching relationships we see in the film is between Spock and Uhura, his former student and lover. Because she is also devoted to an intellectual discipline - alien languages and culture - she appreciates Spock's emotionless devotion to duty. And his hot kisses in the lift.
When celebrated science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr. (AKA Alice Sheldon) started watching Star Trek in the 1960s, she wrote in letters to her friends about how the one aspect of the show that truly fascinated her was Spock. She wrote a fan letter to Leonard Nimoy, explaining that his sexual magnetism came from humans' natural exogamy, their urge to marry outside their own groups. An alien would be the ultimate outsider, the ultimate object of desire. In one besotted passage, she described Spock's "touching shoulder blades, the tremor, the shadowed and infinitely effective squint."
Tiptree's renegade nerd sexual desires have now gotten a lot closer to being the desires of the mainstream. Zachary Quinto's new Spock still has a thin, trembling body and the squint of a scientist, but he's emerged into this special-effects blockbuster of a film as a leading man, competent, virile, and sexually desirable. This triumphant sexualization of Spock could only have happened in the early 21st century, when geeks are culture heroes and dork actor Michael Cera has become a romantic lead. In this version of Star Trek, there is no contradiction between geeky logic and sexy action.
What director Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have done to reboot the Trek franchise is quite clever. They've created a solid, and entertaining, reason why the original set of characters from the series have completely new back stories. An accident with "red matter" in the future changes the whole timeline (yes, it's really called red matter and is so science-magical that it could be ripped right out of Fringe).
This accident sets off a cascade of events that change history. Kirk's father is killed when a time-traveling Romulan called Nero emerges from a strange whirling hole in space, and Kirk grows up a roughed-up, troubled kid. Presto: New Kirk. Nero is also on a mysterious vendetta against Spock, and he destroys Vulcan by using the futuristic red matter to create a planet-eating black hole. Presto: New Spock, with a far more tragic past. And with a Doctor Who-esque status as one of the few remaining members of his people.
Nero, as played by Eric Bana, is a terrific villain. I won't give away what his major malfunction is, but I will simply say that he manages to be the opposite of Khan while also conveying the same sense of tragedy and uncontrollable power. There's a terrific moment when he first introduces himself and he's weirdly casual, coming up on screen and saying simply, "Hi." You're expecting this grand speech and instead there's this strangely menacing Facebook-style greeting.
The way the whole crew of the Enterprise comes together has been changed, too. Nero's attack on Vulcan forces a desperate Star Fleet to crew the newly-built ship with cadets from the Academy. These cadets happen to include future officers Sulu, Spock, Chekov, and Uhura. McCoy manages to smuggle Kirk on board, despite the fact that he's been grounded, and so the crew begins to take shape. There's even a moment when the crew contemplates the fact that Nero has plunged them into a parallel timeline, and Uhura describes it as an "alternate universe."
Of course there were some disappointing bits and moments of pure cheese in this alternate universe. The premise - that a bunch of cadets inherit the Enterprise - is fairly hard to swallow. And a time-tripping elderly Spock comes across as a little bit too platitudinous. Most disappointing is Kirk, played by Chris Pine as a douchebag without charm who spends most of the movie yelling and getting beaten up.
For the most part this film was a successful retelling of a beloved story. And I have a feeling the alternate timeline is the one we'll be following as the franchise boldly goes where no one has gone before. With Spock, at last, taking his place at its center.