Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Second Star to the Left…

As Leonard Nimoy has described it, there was a moment in this scene--when Spock asks Kirk if they are so old and inflexible that they have outlived their usefulness-- that he felt was also Nimoy asking Shatner that same question.

The relationship of actors and characters is an inevitable part of this movie. Throughout it, the Enterprise crew continued the breezy camaraderie and quick ease of interplay that developed during Star Trek IV, an informality that was as much about veteran actors relaxing in their roles as about veteran shipmates. Suggested in other moments, this doubleness hits home in the movie’s final scenes.

The adventure is over, Kirk and his crew are revived and ready to go on. But Uhura receives the order for the Enterprise to return to be decommissioned. Spock provides a classic Spock/Data “if I were human” profanity, and Chekov asks softly: “Course heading, Captain?”

Kirk looks deep into space. His line, which Nick Meyer apparently added at the last minute, is taken from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. “Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.” It’s the directions to Neverland, where boys remain boys forever, engaged in adventures.

Kirk says it with impudence, wonder and a smile. Then the Enterprise does what the Enterprise always does to properly end a Star Trek movie: it starts off on its next mission. Only this time it doesn’t disappear in a warp of color. It moves slowly into the corona of a star—it simply fades into the light, into the infinity of legend. Not going anywhere in particular, the Enterprise just disappears into everywhere.

Star Trek VI has its problems and inconsistencies. But basically it is an efficient, satisfying final journey for this crew—the proper ending that the Next Generation crew got on TV but not to their films. This final scene caps it perfectly.

After Kirk’s order and before the final fade, the crew looks forward, and the actors look at us. It is the moment when the actors and the characters become one.

This identification is fitting, because these actors did not just play these characters—in large measure, they created these characters. In a TV series, most writers and directors come for an episode and go. (The exceptions for Star Trek were principally Roddenberry, Coons and D.C. Fontana.) Producers control the big arcs and continuity, but they aren’t on the set every day. The people who deal with the details that accrue a character and, in many ways, a Star Trek universe, are the cast and crew.

Actors are always advocates for their characters—so much so that it’s a theatrical in-joke. But in a series, actors have the institutional memory—how their character responded to a similar situation, what previous episodes established, etc. They inhabit the character. They look for creative ways to explore new nuances. But given the time pressure and the toll on human energy, the character begins to take on more characteristics of the actor. (And sometimes, actors begin to take on the characteristics of their character.)

Writers pick up on what the actors are doing. But sometimes, actors have to defend their characters, from writers, directors and studio executives. These actors had to do this for nearly every movie, including this one.

Leonard Nimoy’s role in creating Spock is perhaps the most obvious and most documented, and Captain Kirk is clearly the work of William Shatner. Characters with less to do are in some ways more difficult to create, but particularly in the movies, the other cast members went beyond mechanical icons to substantive characters. That they did so with a few scenes, a few words and gestures, is pretty remarkable. As actors, they all embodied Star Trek.

A series of TV shows and movies is co-created, and the actors are usually pivotal, because they make it real for the audience. The Star Trek actors got the fan mail, and they learned what was working. A combination of writing, how the actors played the scenes, and the actors noticing the fan response (according to DeForest Kelley) led to building what became the basic dynamic of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy relationship, which became central to Star Trek storytelling.

Some of these actors did not get to do as much with their characters as they could have, and perhaps the new actors will have better opportunities. But the work they did get to do established these characters. They modeled diversity in a professional setting for a time that had little of this diversity in reality. These characters have been criticized because they didn't demonstrate much conflict with each other. But they became models for millions precisely because they treated each other with respect, loyalty and affection.

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