by Jay Johansen | May 27, 2009
I just saw the 2009 Star Trek movie. I found it entertaining and fun, but there were several points in the plot that really strained my credibility.
I'm not talking about the technology. You could debate endlessly what might or might not be possible hundreds of years from now. No, I'm talking about the behavior of the humans and other intelligent aliens.
Let me take a step back and put what I'm about to say in some context.
In any work of fiction, the author routinely needs some background fact about a character or some event to happen in order to move the plot forward. Like, for the story to work it may be necessary for Sally Jones to know someone in France or for Fred Smith's wife and children to be away from home when he returns from work or whatever. In such cases, the author typically throws in a sentence or two like "Sally had met Bertrand when she was vacationing in France five years ago" or "when Fred came home he found the house empty", and then gets on with the story. The event may be unlikely, but as long as it's within the realm of reasonably normal human events I just accept it and move on. But there are limits to how far a writer can go with this. If he casually tosses in, "When Fred came home he found that the entire city was empty", I'm not going to just accept that. If the author wants me to believe an entire city has been evacuated, he's going to have to make it plausible. He's got to tell us why and where they went.
Warning: A couple of trivial spoilers coming here. I say "trivial" because if you couldn't guess that in this movie a villain will threaten to destroy a planet or two and that the heros will beat him in the end ... well, you must lead a life full of awe and wonder at all the surprising things that happen around you every day.
A big chunk of the movie concerns the villain attacking the planet Vulcan. Now, throughout all the Star Trek movies, we've been given to understand that Vulcan is one of the key planets of the Federation, with an advanced technology and thriving culture. In this movie they mention that the population of the planet is 6 billion. And yet when the villain attacks, apparently the Vulcans are unable to do anything to defend themselves. All they can do is sit back and wait for help to arrive from Earth.
The villain is using a "drilling platform" as a weapon, which is a platform hanging on a long cable from his spaceship, and which then fires some sort of energy beam out the bottom to drill a hole through the surface of the planet. Doesn't Vulcan have any space ships that could have attacked this platform? Indeed, the platform is clearly within the atmosphere: there's blue sky around it and we see people walking on it with no space suits. Doesn't Vulcan even have some aircraft that could have attacked it? Wasn't there even one civilian aircraft that could have just rammed it? Later we see the Enterprise send Kirk, Sulu, and a red shirt -- yup, count 'em, three men -- to destroy this platform, armed only with hand weapons, and of course they succeed. (Oops, spoiler. I'm sure I just ruined the suspense over whether Kirk gets killed halfway through the movie.) Were there not three people out of the entire 6 billion population of Vulcan who could have done this? Their entire planet is threatened with destruction, and absolutely no one on the planet has any weapons to fight back, or the resourcefulness to improvise something?
This would be like writing a story set in our present time and have terrorists attack California, and the Californians can do absolutely nothing to defend themselves but must wait for help to arrive from Pennsylvania. There is not one army base, not one National Guard unit, not one police SWAT team, not even a few brave citizens who own guns or can find something to use as a weapon.
Furthermore, when Earth does send help, they throw in a quick sentence about "the fleet is tied up somewhere else", and so they send a group of teenage students from Star Fleet Academy. Fortunately they just happen to have a brand new spaceship, Enterprise, sitting around. We are told that this is the Enterprise's first flight. There are just a handful of experienced crew members available: the captain, the first officer, and the chief medical officer. I don't think any others are mentioned, though perhaps we're supposed to assume there are a few. In any case, the students have to make up the majority of the crew, including the helmsman, navigator, and communications officer. When the captain has to leave the ship later in the story, he tells the first officer that he is now acting captain, and then picks one of the students to become acting first officer. There must be an extreme shortage of experienced crew members if the departure of one man means that a student must assume the responsibilities of second in command. Throughout the original series we were told that the Enterprise was Star Fleet's top-of-the-line capital ship, so big and powerful that there were only twelve like it in the entire fleet. So the Federation must think of the Enterprise much as the present-day United States thinks of an aircraft carrier.
So not only are we asked to believe that when terrorists attack California, the Californians have to wait for Pennsylvania to send help. We're also asked to believe that the only help available, in the entire country, is a group of teenage students attending a military academy. But there happens to be a brand new aircraft carrier conveniently waiting in Philadelphia harbor where construction was just completed, and which is promptly given to these students to go rescue California.
I'm sorry, I just don't believe it. You had me sold on the transporter and the warp drive, but the people are too unbelievable.
© 2009 by Jay Johansen