For anyone who doesn’t know, I love science fiction and fantasy, mostly because when I was little my family watched Star Trek. I’m not quite a Trekkie, I’m not an obsessive fan, and I can’t even say it’s my favorite, but it holds a special place in my heart, and I’ll always come back to it. Star Trek on the whole is unusual for science fiction because it holds at its heart a positivity that’s rare. In these stories, humanity isn’t just vicious colonialists or desperate survivors or gruff anti-heroes acting in contrast to a bloated evil empire. Instead, we humans explore, and create, and do our best to make the right choice and protect people. It’s hopeful.
(There will be spoilers, you know.)
The recent Star Trek movies are set in a timeline parallel to the TV shows. In the first one, the Enterprise crew comes together as a team in spite of personal differences, and a planet gets destroyed. In the second one, the Enterprise crew nearly falls apart but comes together. A city is destroyed, and a lot of people die, obviously not as many as the first one. Star Trek Beyond has a body count significantly lower than the previous two, and yet the stakes were raised significantly. I spent the last half of the movie on the edge of my seat, and that’s not an expression I use lightly. I was involved and engrossed and afraid Captain Kirk wouldn’t manage to save the day, and this time felt more intense than the previous two movies.
Series (TV, movie, and book) are meant to escalate. To keep someone interested in a story, things need to build up and build up until right before the end when things finally get better. This can get hard in a series because each individual entry has to have its own build up and denouement while still building up to the ultimate conclusion, and the longer it goes the more it builds up. In theory, after each individual victory the protagonist gets more and more skilled, so their antagonists and the accompanying issues need to get harder and harder. The stakes need to get higher.
Here are two ways Star Trek Beyond does it really well.
1) The movie is more personal.
While a destroyed planet is horrifying, and a ship crashing through buildings obviously costs thousands of lives, it’s impersonal. The audience knows that people have died, and a few might even be made meaningful by killing off characters we know, but with such a high death toll it’s easy to feel numb. In a story, a single death in the right place has power. Hundreds of deaths becomes a footnote all too easily.
Star Trek Beyond focuses on the Enterprise crew. They’re the ones who sacrifice, and because there are fewer deaths it’s easier to feel sorrow when someone is shot or sucked out into space. Their actions and their sacrifices affect them, not just nameless millions. With the story focus closer to the central characters, we feel their grief more when lives are lost around them, because while the audience might not know a thing about that red shirt guy, they do, and we empathize more strongly with the main characters.
When an audience feels more strongly connected, the stakes of a story automatically become higher because we care more about the outcome. Simple psychology.
2) The foes of this movie threaten the established thematic heart.
It is really hard to find a foe scarier or harder to beat than someone who can destroy a planet. Really hard. Therefore, a solution is to find a villain who relates on a more personal level to the main character. In Star Trek Into Darkness, Khan might not do more actual damage than Nero, but he still works as an escalating villain because his ideology squares off against Jim Kirk in a personal way. How far will they both go to save their crews?
But there’s another direction to go, and it’s a way that only works if you have enough story to demonstrate a clear theme. In the case of Star Trek, it’s hope. “To seek out new life and new civilization,” you know? There’s an inherent assumption there that all that new life won’t always try to kill you. That there’s not just death and destruction beyond the horizon, but something wonderful and beautiful.
Star Trek Beyond’s villain attacks hope. Not only does he go after it ideologically, but he goes after its symbol in the form of a space station at the edge of civilized space. If it gets destroyed, it takes with it a piece of the hope that Starfleet can make a difference and “boldly go.” By attacking a concept at the heart of what makes Star Trek so fascinating, it somehow threatens all that came before it, all that was built on that concept. If the crew of the Enterprise doesn’t succeed, it turns Star Trek into just another dystopian future in which no matter what people do, life will suck. When they win the day, it’s an affirmation of all that came before. Hope is victorious.
The stakes are raised because it’s not just lives that are threatened, but a way of life.
(Maybe I’m a little bit of a Trekkie, but this was seriously an amazing movie. Go see it!)