Old Trekkie, New Universe: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Abrams’ Trek

I am forty years old and have quite literally been watching Star Trek as long as I can remember. I must, alas, admit that by accident of late birth I did not catch Star Trek in its original airing. However, some of my earliest TV memories are the animated series (I was born in 1972 to save you the math) and reruns of the original. I was a child in the ‘70s running around with my Mego phaser toy that shot little discs and my Dad had built the old AMT model of the Enterprise, which on rare occasion I was allowed to zoom around the room under careful supervision. Additionally, my Dad gave me the Science Fiction Book Club edition of the Star Trek Reader which collected three of the James Blish prose adaptations of the classic episodes. I read it and I kept reading it, until it fell apart. I still have that original gift from my now departed Dad held together with electrical tape from a poor 12-year-old’s rebinding.

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Then, in 1977 I saw Star Wars and most of my interstellar travels involved the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon rather than the bridge of the Enterprise. I did though pay close attention to The Motion Picture when it came out, and later The Wrath of Khan. I even got the Dinky toys die-cast 1701 to woosh around any time I wanted, and periodically hyperspace had to make way for Warp Speed.

Then, Christmas of 1983 my Dad — much to my Mom’s chagrin — continued to further his over-smart, under-sized son’s development by buying me the Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set in the red box. I found l really liked role-playing and saw ads in the included flyers for TSR’s Star Frontiers. As much as slaying orcs was cool, rolling the dice to ply the spaceways would be better, so I caught a ride to my local game shop with Mom to look for that. (She was convinced D&D would make me a Satan worshipper, so the jump to SF RPGs was highly encouraged.) I did not find Star Frontiers that day though; what I did find was FASA’s Star Trek: The Role Playing Game. With but a single Starfleet character generation, my love for the universe was reignited and despite Lucas’ best efforts I was once more in the hands of the Great Bird of the Galaxy.

Keep in mind we were still in kind of a Medieval Age of fandom. Sure, if you were near a city there were conventions, but if you were thirty minutes south of Sierra Vista, Arizona — itself at the time only a town of 30,000 or so — no one was throwing conventions or making clubs etc. My fandom came from scouring thrift and used bookstores to find old issues of Starlog, the rest of the Blish books, and finally little collections called Best of Trek.

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Trek: The Magazine for Star Trek Fans started out as your typical fanzine and ended up running for nearly 20 years. A lot of the shared fan speculation now known as “fanon” came from articles in Trek and eventually its notoriety became great enough for the editors, G.B. Love and Walter Irwin, to start collecting well regarded articles into paperback book collections. As my own fandom grew in the years leading up to the debut of Star Trek: The Next Generation the Best of Trek volumes helped me fill in gaps left by the Original Series. They discussed things that seemed odd about Classic Trek and its two — then three — movies and made them work.

See, here is a dirty secret we tend to forget these days: Classic Trek was not perfect.

I love Classic Trek like I love my wife, kids, and dogs combined, but there are flaws. That’s okay though, because back in those days of fandom we didn’t sit around complaining about continuity fails on the part of Trek writers. We figured out how they weren’t failures. When Spock says in Classic Trek that Vulcan has no moon, but The Motion Picture shows one, an article in Trek magazine posited Vulcan’s sister planet of T’Khut. When “Turnabout Intruder” says women cannot command starships, but The Voyage Home has a woman in command of the Saratoga, Trek talked about why Janice Lester’s belief was part of her madness. We loved Star Trek so much we wouldn’t let it be wrong.

I realize I am nearly eight hundred words into this and haven’t started my argument, but I wanted to establish two things: I am a Trekkie (and I neither balk nor shy away from said moniker) from way back, and those things we love that entertain us deserve our protection rather than our derision. Now, let’s talk about JJ Abrams.

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I saw the 2009 Star Trek film with one of my dearest friends, also a Classic Trek fan from way back. We went in prepared to hate the film. How dare this upstart Abrams — who damn near ruined Superman with a horrible script a few years earlier — think he can remake our beloved show? Arms crossed, I scowled through the Bad Robot stinger and then, well, I fell madly in love with this film. Yes, it was bigger, louder, and faster than the Treks we were used to, but the characters were there; more importantly the adventure so ingrained in Classic Trek, and perhaps lost in subsequent sequels, was also there. Even some of that fanon or pseudo-canon from the old days was there. A nearly exact update of the teasing Vulcan children from the Animated Series was there. The Katric Ark and Vulcan Hall of Ancient Thought from the novelization of The Search for Spock were there. We even, finally, got an actual first name for Nyota Uhura. That’s right; no previous canon version of Trek had given us that.

Yet, I saw some things that made me go “grrrr” from the continuity perspective as well: The Enterprise launched in 2258 and it’s now bigger than the 1701E from a century later? The Kelvin has a crew of 800? Chekov is 17 when he was born in the Prime universe only 13 years earlier? Engineering looks like a brewery?

Honestly a few of these changes happen because of the chosen visual style. The Narada is a “simple mining ship” but looks like a nightmarish behemoth easily dispatching older warships. It looks that way so the bad guy is scary. Enterprise was originally going to be about the same size as its classic counterpart, but the physical shuttle set was much larger than the classic shuttle and therefore led to a scale increase in the CGI model. That’s nothing new to Star Trek however. Fanon found it necessary to create three different models of the Klingon Bird of Prey, identical in appearance but completely different in size, to account for different directors in episodes or films choosing to film the single model at different scales. In First Contact the Defiant is reduced in scale to appear tiny next to the Enterprise E during the Borg battle. I won’t even discuss how Voyager’s Delta Flyer would not fit in an Intrepid Class shuttle bay. I argue though that rather than just ignore some stylistic changes there’s a better option: go old school, and give some Trek Magazine like explanations.

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How does the Kelvin, which should be unaffected by changes until the arrival of the Narada, have 800 people on board? Don’t assume it’s a standard fleet patrol. It’s assigned to colony duty. A vessel would drop a colony, ferry supplies and then likely remain assigned to an area of space to protect said colony. When we catch up with the Kelvin it is about to drop its first group of colonists and equipment and then head back to Earth. The Kirks plan to stay on Earth for the birth of their second son, but the Narada attack sends her into labor early. (That may not be necessary to resolve the story change; James Kirk never says he was BORN in Iowa, only from there. I’m from Arizona, wasn’t born there.) What colony could the Kelvin be attached to? Obviously it was Tarsus IV. We know Jim Kirk is living on that failed colony in the Prime Universe when he is 12. Why? Because his family, still assigned to the Kelvin, will be patrolling that sector and he is a Starfleet brat. This explains the enormous compliment on the Kelvin, and ties nicely to canon on the original series.

So why is the 1701 suddenly so damn big? I see two logical reasons. Remember in the canon universe, no one really knows in 2233 what a Romulan looks like. The Kelvin gets Romulan language transmissions from the Narada, establishing this doomsday vessel has come from one of Earth’s oldest enemies. No one in the Fleet recognizes the Narada has come from the future until 2258, which means Starfleet has to assume the Romulans may have an entire fleet of five-mile long killer ships massing on the far side of the Neutral Zone. The Abrams-verse Starfleet would have a completely different attitude from the Prime Universe. They are also going to need more tech. Luckily, 800 (or slightly less) people survive the Kelvin with all of that sensor telemetry. Retroengineering that data takes some time, so rather than the 289 meter 1701 rolling off the assembly line in 2245, the future enhanced version takes until 2258 to complete. The Narada data would change all Fleet tech on some level, as would a stronger focus on weapons technology. Hence, everything from transporters to torpedoes to phasers are different. (Some of the spoilers I have seen for Star Trek Into Darkness would indicate this trend continues.)

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How about the brewery? Not my favorite part, but it is there. The Narada itself is the source of this particular switch. We see she is a fairly unfinished looking beast, but aspects of that design are going to be driven by the tech. Some of those aspects will make it into the tech derived from those scans, hence an unfinished looking Starfleet engineering section. The Narada itself? A killing machine dubbed “simple mining vessel”? I know we have the explanation in the Countdown comics of Borg technology on top of what was once a mining ship. However, I think that was Kurtzman and Orci bravely doing what I am doing here; offering in universe explanations to stylistic decisions, and I respect that. Let me say though, I don’t think you need it in this case. The Narada is a mining ship, but what does it mine? Likely asteroids: Huge chunks of planetary matter. Of course it had giant grabby arms on a five-mile long frame; it needs to hold enormous space rocks in place. It has a laser capable of drilling through a planet’s entire crust. It has missiles capable of breaking big planetoids into little rocks. This thing really would need Doomsday Machine like capabilities depending on its mission. The interior simply proves that Romulans have no OSHA. Otherwise, more handrails I think.

And Pavel Chekov? The Star Trek Chronology by Mike and Denise Okuda give Chekov’s birthday in 2245 based on the episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?” in which Pavel is 22 years old. 2245 is extrapolated from the idea that season two of the Original Series took place in 2267. Here is a simple fact though: nearly every date in the Chronology for Classic Trek history is supposition based on Data placing the first season of The Next Generation in 2363 in the episode “The Neutral Zone.” When Roddenberry first created TNG he put it 79 years after The Voyage Home (roughly 2284). From there we only have generalizations on when things were supposed to have happened. The Wrath of Khan was likely about a year prior to The Voyage Home. In that film Kirk states “a man out there I haven’t seen in 15 years is trying to kill me.” That would put “Space Seed” from the first season of Classic Star Trek in 2269. My point is not to show how wrong everything is, and my respect for the works done by the Okudas to assemble their encyclopedia and chronology is profound. Many of these dates are nebulous however, and it would be no great stretch to place the original five year mission at least a hundred years before TNG. Just moving the first season to 2263 makes Chekov 22 in 2264 and brings us within 18 months of the 2258 date for the modern film.

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That brings me to my final point. I railed against Star Trek: Enterprise for its seeming continuity violations even in episodes I found entertaining. What should my focus as a fan be? Yes, consistency in character and story telling is important, but any narrative when it gets long enough begins to have holes: Star Trek, comic book histories, Doctor Who, real history. All of these long narratives have details that don’t jive with other details. We as fans can decide we hate something pretty entertaining because it doesn’t line up with our own interpretation of previous stories, or we can try to figure out ways it does. That’s why Trek Magazine existed. That’s why Marvel handed out “no prizes.” That’s why we still mourn the Ponds even though the Statue of Liberty can’t possibly be a Weeping Angel because it’s made out of copper and not stone. Star Trek has been around long enough to tell some pretty diverse stories in some pretty diverse ways. Let’s give people who are trying to mold stories out of the existing eight-hundred hours of Trek the benefit of the doubt for trying to actually entertain us. I am not saying you have to like Abrams’ vision, but it is Trek and worth at least a fair comparison with other versions. As a long time fan I will be first in line when Star Trek Into Darkness opens, hoping to revisit new takes on old friends and see some great new Star Trek.

You better not screw it up, JJ.