Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Star Trek (2009): On the Page

To misquote Kirk in The Undiscovered Country; I've never trusted Star Trek movies and I never will. I can never forgive them for omitting chunks of narrative.

With all the excitement over the arrival of Star Trek Into Darkness I thought it was a good opportunity to look back over the reboot that revitalised the franchise and dragged it brutally into the 21st century. The book of the sequel was a good read - but would the same be said of it's predecessor?

Previously I've only read four of the movie novelisations; The Wrath of KhanThe Search for SpockThe Undiscovered Country and 1993's Generations. What's always struck me is the goldmine of extra information that you can glean from these publications. Generations is a must for fans, returning the movie story to its preview audience version complete with skydiving Kirk and Soran shooting the Enterprise captain in the back. The Wrath of Khan novel opens up the story of Saavik and Peter Preston much more than you ever experience in the movie with the former getting even greater exposition within the following novel of Star Trek III.

The 2009 Star Trek movie is also indicative of this trend and was a real eye opener. For starters the opening of the book is as Abrams originally envisaged,  with the birth of Spock followed by Nero's arrival and subsequent destruction of the USS Kelvin/birth of Kirk. For pacing and understanding purposes,  I believe,  these were  switched. Logically it works better in the book to have Spock arrive first but it doesn't detract from the storyline in any way although it does provide you with a feeling that this is more of a directors cut.

There are a lot of scenes where there is additional dialogue and on occasion exposition narrative is shifted between scenes and characters. Notably references to Nero's Romulan heritage missing from the screened version are prevalent here on numerous pages while I felt this was played down in the movie.

Uhura's comments around the 47 lost Klingon ships while at Starfleet Academy are also slotted back in here.  While not a massive addition or loss it's when you look at the bigger picture that it is apparent how this all fits in with a line of dialogue here or a look there. The dame goes for the deleted scene featuring Kirk's step father and brother before he takes the car for a joyride at the mine. The page certainly offers a lot more insight (I won't say depth) to these characters and even goes to note why the Vulcans have retreated to a certain cave in a homage to the classic series and,  to a degree,  the short-lived Enterprise. I'm guessing the reason some of those exposition sections were passed over in the book and/or moved in the final screen cut was purely a matter of time and pacing. There's a whole section on Delta Vega for instance where Prime Spock wants to talk about the crew although this never made it off the page - which makes more sense when you consider the whole concept that Spock preaches about pollution of the timeline.

There were two things however that really shocked me considering how much was made of at least one of them back in 2009. There are no Klingons. As with the movie,  the book cuts out Nero's incarceration on Rura Penthe completely and I was expecting it to be there (it's there in the deleted scenes on the DVD); so much so I went back and reread a whole chunk of the book just to make sure. I can assure you it's not there even on a second pass through. The second bit that surprised me was the ending. Pretty much as with Where No Man Has Gone Before, it ended with Kirk in a fistful against his seemingly invincible opponent. In the book this has been completely altered meaning that there is no effective final confrontation and some of the thrill is lost.

In fact the whole ending seems to have been chopped and changed a lot. On screen it appears that Scotty beams Kirk and Spock into the heart of the Narada accidentlally while the book clearly mutes that it's a cargo hold although not empty of aggressive Romulans. Kirk's battle with Nero and therefore exposition over his future which is revealed during combat never comes and it's as though the book just doesn't quite pay off at then end after having provided so much more information about the characters on the whole, even down to when Chekov went to school. You can understand why the filmed version is the way it is (time and attention span) and having the absence of this confrontation is the biggest loss to the novelisation by a country mile.

Now the movie itself has been reviewed to death so anything I say about it, good or bad has more than likely been spoken, written or videoed before. The novel however is a much more thorough affair than you see on the screen. For apparent reasons the novel has to be more descriptive than it's cinematic relative. For one, the relationship between Spock and Uhura is more evident earlier on during deployment to Vulcan rather than while on the Enterprise. Prime Spock's introduction is played out more from Kirk's perspective than you would appreciate from the movie. One thing that does carry from the screen is that this is a story which does not give much in the way of characterisation. It is much stronger in the action and event department than anything else. Alan Dean Foster has captured the essence of the film and even in the style of the book it is distinctively a JJ-verse than a Roddenberry-verse.While  the character backgrounds of Spock and Kirk are explored from their birth, the other s seem more as background roles than they did within the film because the focus is much more on the perspective from the two most senior officers on the ship. I've probably been unfair on the characters in reflection. Kirk's growth from Iowa farm-boy reprobate to starship captain  is played out well and illustrated as well as it is in the film. The scene with older Spock though has more resonance perhaps in the book as you can see how his attitudes and understanding take a leap forward and he sees the potential that he has and that Pike saw reinforced by the aged Vulcan. Alan Dean Foster has retained the essence of Chris Pine's performance here and the dialogue makes it very hard to try and see a young Shatner in the role or anyone else (but that could just be cinematic influence on the grey cells).

In regards to Nero, he seems even more reclusive and almost mute save for his conversation with Spock on the viewscreen. While some could say that this adds mystery to his character I find it means he becomes inaccessible and one of the many rather than the lead protagonist. The addition of the one-on-one fight with Kirk at the end does give him much more to do but as the story is from the point of view of Kirk and Spock, he gets sidelined without notice in the novel. While his threat is ever present to the story and the crew, he is not the centre of the show here.  Sadly the one thing that does seem to be mislaid along the way is the depth of character even within Kirk and Spock. 

Events are played out but the emotional impact seems to be left behind and this is where the "failings" of rebooted Star Trek is perhaps more evident than it is on the screen. The themes are less important and debated than they were on the smaller screen. The one thing you can never replicate in the novel however is the visual spectacle of the movie experience. While the page will never give that visual or auditory jaw dropping explosion, Foster's novelisation has described events in the most detailed way possible. Not only does this allow some degree of imagination to be employed by the reader, it also give chance to offer insight into events and characters. 

For instance, Kirk's first look at the Enterprise in the Iowa desert is breathtaking on the screen if not in line with classic Star Trek lore. But what Foster emphasises is the size of the vessel Kirk is viewing and the activity surrounding her which is not necessarily the focal point of that moment. In fact Foster is more keen to have Kirk think of the Enterprise as a woman than a starship. Of course we know in the Prime timeline he thinks of her as nothing less but it demonstrates that Foster has perhaps interpreted certain points differently or conveyed the depth that Abrams wished to portray more prominently. I, for example, had always seen this moment as Kirk realising his potential ambition could be in space and being simply in awe of the mammoth spacecraft and drinking in the moment. 

Talking of Foster's attention to addition and interpretation, the later sequence on Delta Vega and Kirk's escape from the predatory locals is well described, even down to naming the beasts which is something pretty much impossible on the screen. The frantic nature of Kirk's escape also captures the slightly comedic escape as his situation becomes perilous and this could have come off badly in comparison to the movie but still manages to convey both conflicting emotions at the same time. Perhaps the emphasis is increased due to the warnings from the escape pod which echo out through Kirk's first moments of awakening on the frozen world.

Foster also does an excellent job when it comes to the Narada. The epic scale and mishmash nature of the mining vessel really gets lifted from the page and you can sense the chaos and disorder it's design belays. When encountered from Pike and Kirk's perspective and no doubt in comparison to the sleek, pristine Enterprise it is this half finished design that strikes then and then suggests more about Nero and his psyche. Good thing really as he doesn't say a lot in the book and I still think the movie ending should have been reinstated.

The crew aside from Kirk and Spock are handled as aptly here as they are on the screen there is no expansion to their roles beyond the aired movie. It's not about them and you certainly feel it on the page given that there's barely an additional line or glimpse between them. They do get their moments to shine. Notably Chekov's transporter tricks take place on the bridge and lose the tension element created by his sprint to the transport room, but aside from that, it's business as expected.

Previous Star Trek movie novelisations expanded scenes and characters to give more insight to their natures, this book stays firmly in the 21st Century Star Trek mold remaining tightly focused on the action and adventure elements that JJ will no doubt be remembered for placing at the forefront of his re-imagining. Scotty probably suffers the most in the book, really giving nothing more to do than he has on the screen but vitally the last line of the whole book is just superb and is one of the great homages of the reboot era. While I get why it wouldn't have worked on the screen (post/mid titles per Avengers perhaps?) it is a cheeky little smile that just...works and I felt a little warmer inside. That's a bit twee but yeah, I liked it.

So, overall? The film is OK and the book is better. I would recommend reading it wholeheartedly even if just to take stock of the first reboot movie at a time when its sequel is getting a significant amount of limelight. It's what 21st Century Star Trek needed to get booted back into the mainstream and attempt to shed its talk-not-action image. Reading the Alan Dean Foster novelisation gives you time to absorb the events of the movie and then some more (but without the Klingons!!!!), appreciate the stupidity of Chief Engineer Olson, wead (yes, I spelt it like that on purpose) Chekhov's few lines, manage to avoid the razor-sharp whiteness of Nimoy's teeth and see the formation of a new chapter in the life of the franchise. It's an excellent companion to the film, fills in some of the blanks and helps with some of the head-scratch moments you might have had - and you can do it all at our own pace too.

Star Trek (2009) is available from Simon and Schuster priced £12.99. ISBN 9781439158869

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