The downside of today’s relentless review economy — the rush to cover every film and television show first and fastest — is that we’re constantly analyzing stories long before we know where they’re headed. Critics dismiss entire TV series based on the pilot. Fans turn the first issue of a comic series into a national crisis. And as our entertainment becomes more and more serialized, and we focus more and more on breaking it down into bite-sized chunks, we often miss the best part of an evolving story: the big picture. The recently released Star Trek Beyond may be the best available example. It has some major flaws, especially in its lackluster villain, but it’s still a solid standalone chapter in the Trek story, especially in the way it highlights the larger Enterprise crew. And crucially, it reshapes the previous two rebooted Trek films, revealing what they’re really about, and making them better in the process.
Seen in isolation, J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek is the story of a belligerent, aggressive asshole who careens through life acting on impulse, breaking the rules everyone else has to live by, physically or emotionally assaulting anyone in his way, and reaping huge rewards as a result. First introduced destroying his stepdad’s beloved classic car on a lark, James T. Kirk is a reckless rebel from childhood on. He picks bar fights, reprograms an unwinnable training simulation so he can win it, and fakes an illness to get onboard the starship he wants, even though he hasn’t graduated from the academy yet. When crisis looms, he baits Spock, a much more experienced Starfleet officer, into an emotional breakdown to get him out of the way. And for some inexplicable reason, Kirk’s transparent public bullying not only gets him command of the Enterprise, but lets him keep it after Spock recovers. His triumph in Star Trek is a validation of meathead entitlement, a cheery, vacuous confirmation that education, planning, experience, and maturity aren’t as important as the will to charge blindly forward, ignoring obstacles.
But the second film, Star Trek Into Darkness, deliberately refutes its predecessor. Over and over, Kirk comes up against situations and opponents that he can't defeat through bullheadedness, luck, or violence. His mentor, Admiral Pike, dies in his arms. Invited to take quick, satisfying, secret revenge for Pike's death, Kirk instead makes the harder choice to try to capture Pike's murderer and take him to public trial. Kirk tries to beat the hell out of his enemy Khan, who stands still and takes his punches with polite, amused condescension. Kirk faces the death of his entire crew, and he humbles himself for their sake, begging for their lives. And finally, he sacrifices himself for them. This is a nobler, more mature Kirk who spends the film learning some of his limits, and deliberately setting other limits for himself. As of the opening scenes of Star Trek Into Darkness, when he violates the Prime Directive to save Spock, he's still reckless and cocky. By the end, he's chastened, he's learned to depend on his crew, and he's a better leader for it.
Star Trek Beyond opens with Kirk three years into his five-year exploration mission, starting to feel the weight of responsibility and repetition, and looking for a way out. And when crisis hits, he's once again forced to fall back on other people's skills and specialties. Beyond doesn't emasculate him or sideline him, and it doesn't change his status as a two-fisted action hero with his roots in 1960s television. He still gets plenty of action, including the climactic fight, and a ridiculous motorcycle-stunt sequence that echoes Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. But as of Star Trek Beyond, Kirk has become much smarter about seeing his crew as a resource. He listens to them when they talk, instead of bucking every contribution they make. He looks to them for answers when a situation requires their specialties. Trek is about the cockiness and perceived immortality of youth, Into Darkness is about growing up and learning from setbacks, and Beyond is about teamwork. And each film improves the one before it by making it part of a larger and more sophisticated story.
None of which means the world should have waited seven years to see Star Trek Beyond before evaluating Abrams' film series on its own merits. It's impossible to predict where any long-running, multi-year franchise is going to go, and people are going to react to what's in front of them, especially if they pay for it individually as an installment of a larger series, and want to evaluate whether it was worth the cost in time, money, or attention. The next Trek movie has already been green-lit, so if we waited for every franchise to finish before evaluating it, I couldn't even write this piece.
But it's worth taking the time to step back and consider whether new chapters in a story actually deepen our understanding of either the characters or the context around them. They don't always, even with the blockbuster franchises that were overtly planned as ongoing series. Iron Man has gotten grimmer and more responsible over the course of six Marvel Cinematic Universe films, but he's still fundamentally the same jaded, angry wise-ass he became about 45 minutes into the first Iron Man. The Star Wars prequel trilogy tried to take Anakin Skywalker from precocious kid to troubled teen to iconic villain in three films, but it was rote and rushed, and never felt like an organic development. The Divergent movies keep forgetting who their protagonist, Tris Prior, is meant to be, and what her strengths are; the flexible problem-solver of the first movie becomes easily manipulated, naïve, and predictable as the series goes on, as if she's regressing instead of progressing. It's hard to maintain consistent character development over the course of years, especially with new creative teams, writers, and directors taking the reins for later chapters in an ongoing story.
And that makes the Trek movies seem more remarkable in the consistent story they're telling. At this point, they most resemble the original Star Wars trilogy, which let Luke start out as callow and famously whiny, while still making him into a brave hero and a relatable fan favorite. Over the course of three films, he transforms from a backwater farm boy with big dreams to a confident Jedi master who still has his weaknesses, but doesn't let them control him. Kirk in the new Trek films is following the same path, right down to his behavior in his first film: he's obnoxious, self-serving, and selfish, but he's still a hero, and he's still positioned so fans can relate to his swagger and his confidence.
Still, that swagger is easier to relate to in context, as the first stage in a long process of maturing. The later Trek movies never throw the first installment under a bus; they don't suggest that fans were wrong to like Kirk in the first place. But they do spell out that the early Kirk had a lot to learn about responsibility and heroism, and that he was going to need to do better if he was going to live up to the high caliber of the crew and ship he inherited, and if he was going to still be a hero once his initial luck ran out. It's actually more fun to watch the Abrams Star Trek now than it was in 2009, when it was the entirety of the story.
Kirk complains in Star Trek Beyond that his adventures are becoming "episodic," that they feel repetitive and samey after three years of deep-space exploration. He can make that joke because it isn't actually true; he's not accidentally identifying a problem with the Trek movies that critics can gleefully call out as ironic. Trek isn't necessarily getting better with each installment — the films have consistently struggled with logic problems and underdeveloped villains. But they're letting their characters change over time, in positive ways and toward meaningful ends, and gradually finding their way back to the ensemble feeling that's been a hallmark of the franchise from the beginning. At the risk of laying judgment on a story that still isn't finished, and may not be for many years to come, the Trek series currently seems to be in a very positive place. Its constant expansion — of its world, its characters, and its ambitions — makes it look better as a coherent whole than any one piece of the puzzle might suggest.