JJ Abrams’ Star Trek as Amen Break
June 16, 2013 § 1 Comment
Stephen King once described his writing of Salem’s Lot as taking the novel Dracula and playing handball with it. Taking themes, motifs, even entire scenes from the original novel and changing them, altering their parameters, rearranging their context and characters. It produced a novel that is obviously very different than its inspiration, yet still feels very much like a product of that process. I bring this up because every time I think about the two JJ Abrams Star Trek films, this idea flashes into my head.
One of those little pieces of information I picked up online that always sticks with me is the idea of the Amen break. This one six second drum solo has become, through sampling and recontextual use, almost ubiquitous in modern music. It’s been chopped up, rearranged, used and re-used, until it has almost become akin to a virus traveling through our musical medium. When watching Star Trek Into Darkness I started to think again about the Amen break, and specifically how in these two movies Abrams seems to be using the entire Star Trek mythology as a kind of Amen break. Characters are recontextualized – Pike’s role expanded and his importance increased (going from just Kirk’s predecessor to his father figure) and moments are reshuffled and rearranged. In order to discuss it, I’ll need to go into spoilers, so I’ll give you that warning now.
I had this feeling of looking at Abrams’ version of Star Trek as massive sampling when I was watching Into Darkness. Khan’s appearance in the film, the Klingons, the role of Section 31, it all felt like I was listening to a song that I had never heard before constructed out of songs I had. To a degree it also feels like that game of handball Mr. King described – Khan showing up when Kirk is still new and untried, the scene of Kirk in the radiation chamber, the call backs to Deep Space Nine and Enterprise – it started me thinking about how the first of Abrams’ movies used the time travel story to, basically, remix the entire franchise. You have Kirk, but not quite the same Kirk. Spock, but a more conflicted, divided Spock. A recognizable McCoy, yet a completely variant Scotty who barely resembles the one we know. Checkov very much unlike the original, Sulu very close. A Uhura who gets to do things. If you think of them less as characters and more as musical elements you can almost start to imagine the original show as the break, and see how they’ve been lifted out and recombined with new elements to make a new composition.
This makes Leonard Nimoy’s presence in both films sort of a refrain – a structure that recapitulates the original in order to contrast with it. He exists to show you what this isn’t by showing you what it came from. The narrative of both movies is structured around elements that we recognize used in ways we don’t, in order to create that feeling of familiarity and then do the unfamiliar with it. In the service of that goal the ‘sampling’ for lack of a better word serves to drive hooks into you that can be subverted by the script. Orci and Kurtzman (and Lindelof in the sequel) clearly know enough about the body of myth of the original franchise to play narrative games with it, leapfrogging between periods to mine elements to place in a new framework. It kind of reminds me of the Tales of the Black Freighter scenes in Watchmen, used to challenge what we believe is happening in the story, except in this case the Black Freighter is itself the original series and all that came from it serving to inform us. The more knowledge you have of Star Trek as a phenomenon and franchise, the more the script can play with you. You expect Kirk and Khan to fight, so instead they work together. You expect Spock to die, so he instead goes on a chase and combat with Khan.
Of course the script has its own story to tell – one about the dangerous of runaway militarism and forgetting your basic values and morals out of the fear that war and peril bring – but it uses the utopianism of the original as the backbeat, the underlying looped sound that provides the contrast. The return to a state of exploration at the end of Into Darkness is, like the presence of Nimoy’s elder Spock, a contrasting refrain that serves to highlight the struggle between a realized and a conceptual place – the utopianism of the original Star Trek is inherent to the setting, whereas in Abrams’ version it’s not real, but rather an ideal to struggle towards, a goal to achieve and not a real, factual part of its existence. Roddenberry’s Star Trek is a utopia, but in Abrams’ hands, in Orci and Kurtzman’s scripts that utopianism is used to provide the tension between what we expect the Federation to be (what it has been in our minds) and what it is being presented as. And they have the entire body of myth, years of movies and TV series, to choose from.
Which is a lot more to work with than a six second drum loop.