"This is great. Usually it's just cardboard walls in a garage." - Tim Allen as Jason Nesmith in Galaxy Quest (1999)
After the sequel allowing success of Mission Impossible 3, Abrams was given the task of rebooting the Star Trek franchise, which was in a much sorrier state than Mission Impossible. Star Trek, of course, had been revived once before. After the original series was canceled in 1969, the show's already dedicated fans kept pressing and demanding a revival. At first there was just a low budget animated show that ran for only one and a half seasons on Saturday mornings, the cheapest possible way to cash in on existing fandom.
Then in 1977, Star Wars (which quickly became Star Trek's arch rival franchise) piled up unheard of ticket sales, which prompted the entertainment gods to realize that there was gold in space movies and authorize the less than creatively titled Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The 1979 release was a huge success, and turned the franchise from a geek curiosity into a reliable box office performer. After three more movies, Trek even made a triumphant return to television with Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987.
The 80s and 90s were the heyday of the franchise. The final movie with the original cast (their sixth) was in 1991, but just three years later the Next Generation cast took over on the big screen and began pumping out sequels just as their elders had. Meanwhile, on teevee, two more shows earned long runs, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine went from 1993 to 1999, and Star Trek: Voyager lasted from 1995-2001.
That level proved to be unsustainable. Both Deep Space Nine and Voyager limped to their finales under declining ratings while the last two Next Generation movie installments were critically disparaged, with the final one, 2002's Nemesis (the 10th film overall), doubling as an outright box office flop. The franchise staved off death on television when Star Trek: Enterprise began in 2001. But the show was never a hit and was canceled after just four seasons on the slowly dying UPN network. That was the shattered wreckage of a franchise that Abrams was handed: box office poison on the big screen, unwatched on the little one.
In that situation, it's understandable that the people in charge would fall back on Kirk, Spock, Bones, and the rest of the original characters as the means to revive their languishing intellectual property. Recasting the original crew of the Enterprise with actors who were born after World War II* kept the original formula intact so audiences would know what they were getting. It was, in short, a reboot.
(*Fun fact: when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out in 1979, the youngest member of the cast was George Takei at 42, DeForest Kelley and James Doohan were both nearly 60.)
Reboots are a curious phenomenon of modern movie economics. Because copyright periods have been repeatedly extended, major franchises like Star Trek that should be entering the public domain remain private property. When the original Star Trek characters were created in 1966, U.S. copyright law allowed for a 28-year period of exclusive rights with one 28-year extension for a total of 56. If that term was still in effect, Kirk and company would become public domain just six years from now, in 2022. Thanks to repeated acts of a bought out Congress, most recently the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” of 1998, the Enterprise and her crew will remain private until at least 2061 (and probably longer, See: Appendix A).
Since the characters can still be used even after the original actors have either died or retired, reboots allow new actors to take over roles and fresh box office receipts to be collected. In other words, the value of a franchise like Star Trek is in the names, not the faces. And so, a Star Trek reboot was authorized and Abrams was brought in to make it sell.
That's Abrams in the captain's chair on the right. (Incidentally, that photo is from a Spy Hollywood story entitled "J.J. Abrams, The Reigning King of the Reboot".) Someday, not that long from now, there will be a third group of people to the right of his cast, and then another.
This is a trickier proposition than the basic idea of "take something successful and do it again" might make it seem. Star Trek has a devoted and multi-generational fanbase who are the kind of people that might pay to see a movie several times before ultimately buying one or more versions of it on home video. But that cohort isn't enough. Regular people who hardly know warp drive from Worf also need to buy tickets and rent the damn thing. Creating two hours of video to appeal to both is a delicate balancing act.
These dual priorities are explicitly acknowledged on the DVD commentary with Abrams, co-producer Damon Lindelof, and the writers, frequent Michael Bay scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.* Early on, they refer to some of Spock's dialogue as a way to please, "hardcore Trekkers", then moments later mention that "the boob gag works because you [Abrams] didn't have a closeup of it". That the word "genius" is frequently used without irony gets to the heart of how pleased they all were with their efforts.
(*In an alternate timeline where movies are treated with even a modicum of respect, Orci and Kurtzman are in some kind of writer prison. Among their many unwatchable screenwriter credits are The Island (2005), Transformers 1 (2007) and 2 (2009), and Spiderman 5 (2014). Those last two are so incoherently mindless that no court in its right mind would let them shift all the blame to the directors.)
To be fair, Star Trek 11 was pretty well received by both of its audiences. There are a lot of things that don't quite make, for lack of a better term, "Trek-sense". Kirk and McCoy are supposed to be cadets despite the fact that they're clearly pushing thirty and forty, respectively; the Enterprise is apparently now crewed entirely by geniuses, and they do stuff like go to warp speed directly above Earth and arrive at far off destinations like Vulcan in a matter of minutes.
Those sorts of franchise violations flew right past the non-Trek audience, but even among people who caught them they were mostly considered tolerable. There is no regular sociological survey of Trekdom, so any claim to speak for "the fans" is self evident horseshit, but a plausibly representative sample can be found on movie website Ain't It Cool News (AICN).
The night before the official premier, the Alamo Draft House (a famously geeky movie temple in Texas) held an advertised showing of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (they used to use Roman numerals because doing so makes things seem fancy to idiots). The 1982 classic was purportedly to be accompanied by ten minutes of footage from the new film. Instead, the audience saw the entire new one.
The whole thing was a publicity ruse designed to attract Trek fans of the deepest vintage, and it worked. Not only did AICN have a correspondent there, they later received plenty of recaps from attendees, all but one of which were happy. Conclusions like...:
In fact, Just stop worrying, period. You've finally gotten the Star Trek movie that you've always wanted.
There are two or three "big knocks" I could shell at the film, mainly from a critic's standpoint. But really, why bother? It was fun, and enjoyable.
And, most dramatically:
With in my family, it's a well known anecdote that when my older brother was a kid, he would through his shoes at the screen of tv shows that excited him too much causing that show to be at least temporarily banned from the household. I have a feeling that this is the type of movie that would cause that kind of jubilant shoe throwing. It is one hell of a ride.
...aren't the least bit ambiguous.
Trek fans being Trek fans, even the positive reviews included negative observations, but the unscientific conclusion one gets from articles, blog posts, and the general pop culture consensus is that Abrams' Star Trek reboot worked.
Acknowledging that, two very worrisome traits stand out. First, and to the detriment of the film, is Abrams' compulsion to include ad-break cliffhangers wherever possible. Star Trek 11 is peppered with superfluous action scenes that time out well to anyone charged with cutting the movie for commercials. Among others, these include: a car chase(!), a bar fight, a make-out scene that includes two female movie stars in their underwear, a giant insect attack, and Scotty getting sucked through some tubes, Augustus Gloop style.
It's just not Star Trek without a log flume pipe in Engineering.
Most of them don't make sense, and none are the least bit relevant to the plot, but Abrams and his writers don't care. Their formula for entertainment is predicated on a home audience that might change the channel if there isn't some sex or violence every five minutes.
The second red flag is Abrams' seemingly reflexive need to reuse ideas. Updating old characters with new actors is a base part of rebooting a franchise, so a certain amount of recycling is to be expected. But Star Trek 11 is littered with concepts and even word-for-word dialogue that serves no purpose other than to be recognized by fans.
Making matters worse, Abrams and company plucked their largest items from Wrath of Khan. While it's true that Wrath of Khan is considered the best Star Trek movie with the same unanimity that Republican officials reject global warming, that doesn't mean that its various parts will work just as well after being inserted into an entirely different film.
For example, in Wrath of Khan, the titular villain uses extremely creepy brain slugs with nasty looking pincers to take control of two Starfleet officers in order to lure the Enterprise into a trap. The creatures themselves are indigenous to the planet on which Kirk marooned Khan, were responsible for the death of Khan's wife, and are integral to the plot of the movie. Star Trek 11 uses the same creatures, but with no context whatsoever and to no real point or lasting damage to the victim.
Elsewhere, they jam in the Kobayashi Maru scenario, an unwinnable command test which was originally used as a movie-wide metaphor for Kirk's denial of death. Here it's used as a jokey aside. Later, they have Leonard Nimoy repeat one of his most famous and poignant lines, "I have been, and always shall be, your friend". The difference is that the first time he said it, Spock had just logically sacrificed his one life to save the many lives of the Enterprise crew; this time, Kirk had just run into a random ice cave after being chased by an equally random giant insect that we never see again. Within its original context and meaning, the line is a capstone for a beloved character; stripped of that, it is inane fan service.
The one negative review AICN received sums up these complaints well:
It's undeniably a summer flick-big, loud, senseless, and ending with a sequel setup. If you're a continuity nerd, this movie basically erases all of Star Trek history....or makes a new "alternate reality" (a phrase used in the film) if you go by Back To The Future time travel rules. Much like Star Wars and Doctor Who, this long dormant property has been revived as an easy to digest, no gray area, spectacle fueled kids' program.
Criticisms of this kind hardly registered amidst the sea of positive reviews and ticket sales that accompanied the reborn franchise, but they would prove incisively prescient about Star Trek 12.