Star Trek is now one of those pop culture inventions, like James Bond or Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who, that’s always going to be around and always going to be in line for a make-over or re-imagining no matter how spent or uninspired the previous incarnation may have been. This franchise hit its low point about ten years ago with the pretty dismal Next Generation outing Nemesis and the final TV offshoot Enterprise, a prequel which may actually have been OK but had such an appalling soft-rock theme tune that nobody I knew could bear to watch it. By then it seemed like the world might have reached Trek saturation point, what with four multi-season spin-offs from the original series and ten feature films of varying quality to digest and for the first time since the 70s the stream of new product dried up as the age of the cast members started to preclude demanding action sequences and the scope for new scenarios seemed limited. Eventually however Paramount studio bit the bullet and hired the hot producer and ideas-man J.J.Abrams (previously of Lost and Alias) to fully re-boot the concept, starting at the beginning with the origins of the Enterprise crew and as part of the process re-casting such iconic parts as Captain Kirk and Spock and McCoy for the first time. The result was a 2009 movie that boldly went and called itself simply Star Trek in a bid to establish itself as the definitive article and surprisingly it turned out to be pretty great, despite a few bits of slightly laboured retro-continuity designed to placate long-standing fans by providing an explanation for inconsistencies between events in the film and those in the established Trek universe. The original series became a cult hit not because it was about spaceships and aliens but because it was funny and charming and presented moral dilemmas and tests of character that felt authentic even while the external situations were blatantly not, and Abrams, despite not being a particular fan of the programme, was careful not to let the spectacular big budget explosions and chases in his film overshadow the human (or, in one case, Vulcan) elements. It took a bit of adjusting to, but the new cast pulled off an impressive coup by gelling just as well as William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and co, and even Simon Pegg’s enthusiastic but not always convincing accent didn’t have one missing the original Mr Scott agonising about dilithium crystals. In particular, Chris Pine as the young Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock fitted into their parts so well it was slightly uncanny.
The film was such a huge hit that a sequel was inevitable, so now we have Star Trek Into Darkness which is made absolutely to the same template but seems to run more smoothly as it doesn’t have to waste time with all that bothersome character set-up that took up the first half of the running time before. The movie kicks off by throwing us straight into a manic chase sequence on an alien world that involves an erupting volcano, a horde of possibly hostile natives and an underwater Star Ship Enterprise – it plays like the climax to a film rather than its opening scene and raises the worry that they’re going all out for thrills and spills this time, but things settle down in short order with an assured and well-paced storyline about a rogue Star Fleet officer emerging and some nice points of conflict between the impulsive Kirk and the unshakeably logical Spock being established. Our heroes set out on a hunt for the mysterious John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch, who from some angles looks like an elongated George Osborne…rather appropriate, given the character’s disdain for the weaker members of society) which leads them into a hairy stand-off with the Klingons and eventually to some call-backs to the original series that will have the hardcore Trekkers in the audience whooping. The plot is clear and engaging, with some surprising twists that never irritate by seeming arbitrary, and it’s all further enlivened by some good jokes, touching character moments and some judiciously applied stock Star Trek memes (usually via Karl Urban’s lovely turn as Dr McCoy, it’s not every actor who’d get away with the hoary old “dammit Jim, I’m a doctor, not an engineer” line). Rather ironically it’s the stuff that the production have spent most money on and put most effort into that is the least interesting and most distracting aspect of the film, namely the extended CGI-enhanced climactic scenes of things crashing and exploding that go on for what feels like hours – it’s all terribly impressive, but you can get all that in a video game these days. Happily though STID has got more than enough going on elsewhere to make it worth sitting through. Once again Abrams has made a smart, funny and visually spectacular film that will appeal to Trek fanatics and the general public alike and that’s no mean feat.