Saturday, March 27, 2004

Time travel was still a much bigger deal than it would become in the Next Generation era. Nimoy the director wanted to portray it, not as people moving through the externals of time (as was done, for example, in the original George Pal production of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and Nick Meyer's movie about H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper in late 1970s San Francisco, "Time After Time") but as an internal experience. On the DVD commentary he expresses disappointment with the result, while Shatner praises the creativity of the art department expressed in the sequence. They both might be right. The sequence has a nice eerie charm, and a certain amazement factor in this early suggestion of morphing, but it doesn't really signify much that seems specific to time travel.

When they come out of their trances, Kirk sees the earth: the question is when. "Judging from the pollution content of the atmosphere," Spock says, "I believe we have arrived at the latter half of the twentieth century." Harve Bennett has left the building, temporarily. Nick Meyer is in the house.

So far we have the makings of that grand but not grim adventure Nimoy wanted. On the DVD he describes it as following the Joseph Campbell monomyth pattern: the hero's journey common to many cultures. Their homeland is in peril (but only potentially; so far all we've seen are some lights going out, some bad weather and broken windows. Nothing like, say, people dying horribly of disease.) Our heroes have begun their journey into the unknown by going back in time, to save their earth "if we can," as Kirk says in his brief but stirring pep talk that launches them into the dangerous world of...1980s earth. He tells the crew they are in "terra incognita," a neat choice of words considering the circumstances.

The danger is signaled in Meyer's first laconic Spock line about pollution, and Kirk's warning in his pep talk that they are about to enter a "primitive, paranoid culture." Though Gene Roddenberry again had little to do with this film---Harve Bennett said he made some small changes based on Roddenberry's memos---this is consistent with his view of contemporary humanity, which he would soon make most explicit in the opening episode of Next Generation. But in this section of this film, the words and the point of view are Nick Meyer's, who ironically or not had some distasteful run-ins with Roddenberry during Star Trek II, which Meyer wrote and directed.

Of course, it was a point of view generally shared by the other principals on this film. Opportunity for another political comment came as the Enterpriseless crew ventured onto the streets of San Francisco. They gathered on a busy streetcorner, peering at the daily newspaper in its transparent box. Nimoy had to devise a headline that would be topical and yet perennial. He chose "Nuclear Arms Talks Stalled," which coincidentally referred to the other Greenpeace issue.

"It's a miracle these people ever got out of the twentieth century," Dr. McCoy observes.

We did, but as for getting out of the twenty-first century, that could be even tougher. Consider this: as I write this in 2005 (20 years later, and the Soviet Union long gone), nations of the world are about to send representatives to New York to discuss updates to the nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaty of 1970. Just days before its scheduled start, the participants cannot even agree on an agenda. An appropriate headline might very well be: Nuclear Arms Talks Stalled.

There is social and cultural comment as well. Kirk and Spock are discussing "colorful metaphors." Kirk says they appear in the literature of the day, such as "the collected works of Jacqueline Susann, the novels of Harold Robbins."

"Ah," Spock says, "the giants."

Take that, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It's the literary equivalent of the future people in Woody Allen's "Sleepers" saying that they've discovered that smoking and eating fat is good for you.

By now, the high adventure with hints of humor ("Everybody remember where we parked") has become full-blown funny. At first it's situational: the "fish out of water" humor enabled by time travel. Star Trek made its mark with comment on current day issues displaced into the future. Now it was bringing the future home to create comment on today, and have some fun doing it.

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