So first I want to define the verb "to fridge", as in "The new Star Trek movie fridged Spock's mom." Here's what Wikipedia has to say:
The term "Women in Refrigerators"[...] refers to an incident in Green Lantern #54 (1994), written by Ron Marz, in which Kyle Rayner, the title hero, comes home to his apartment to find that his girlfriend, Alex DeWitt, had been killed by the villain Major Force and stuffed in a refrigerator. [...]
Writer Gail Simone coined the term in early 1999 during on-line discussions about comic books with friends. Simone and her friends then developed a list of fictional characters, superheroines who had been "killed, maimed or depowered."
The term is also used more generally to mean the killing off of a female character solely as a convenient source of angst for another character, usually male. It's about taking away the woman's personhood and leaving a symbol. This woman lived and died, and what that means to her is unimportant. She has no say in it--generally her death isn't even a heroic sacrifice. She's just a victim. Her life and her death are important only because of what they mean to some guy. A lot of the time, it's not even like the male character seems to miss her for the person she was. It's more like he misses her for what she represents.
For example, in Dark Knight Returns, Maggie Gyllenhaal represents Batman's last chance at a normal life. In Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, Penny represents the goodness in the world and within Dr. Horrible. In the new Star Trek movie, Spock's mom represents his emotional side. As sistermagpie says in this conversation:
And even where George is important as a symbolic father to Kirk, his individual personality is very important. Kirk wants to know what he did. He's not just a martyr, he's a specific man who acted a different way. We understand that Kirk is like his father. Pike admires George for the kind of commander he was, different from Pike himself but just as valuable. He encourages Kirk to beat his father's record--again bringing George back to life as a character in the story even though he's dead.
Despite the fact that Amanda represents Spock's human side, we don't see her behaving in a human, emotional way and then see Spock emulating her[...S]he just definitely comes across as being symbolic of something for Spock where George the man is important to Kirk, to Pike and to Starfleet.
So I was mad about that. But then inseriatim said something REALLY interesting:
"Not only did they fridge Amanda[...], but they basically fridged Vulcan. [emphasis mine] While its destruction is heartbreaking (and for what purpose, other than shock value?) to long-time fans, the whole planet's significance to the plot of this particular movie was: serve briefly as a backdrop for Spock's traumatic childhood and then get blown up so we'll know how high the stakes really are when they go after the planet that we actually care about, Earth. We learn that 'the essence of their culture' was preserved in the three or four old people Spock rescued, and... that's it."
I think she's absolutely right.
And I think this gets at the heart of the difference between original Trek and the reboot. Gene Roddenberry and the writers and creative team were sci-fi writers, and they had something to say. They were trying to show a vision of the future, a idea of how humanity might or should evolve, a model for racial harmony, peace, a responsible military/policing force, culture clashes, interspecies cooperation or lack thereof, social progress, etc., etc. They frequently didn't succeed, but they were trying. JJ Abrams just wanted to make a cool-looking movie.
Star Trek, the original series, is all about seeing the other guy's point of view. Over and over we see other cultures and other life forms who are presented as having their own points of view. These cultures and species are similar to ours in some ways and different in others, but they all have an equal right to exist.
Non-interference is the Prime Directive. Because we don't have the right to judge. We don't have the right to tell anyone, "You should live like I live," because every way of being is legitimate. (One of Vulcan's key principles, by the way--maybe their highest principle--is "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.")
And okay, the Prime Directive is something of a running joke in the fandom, right? Because Kirk interferes all the fucking time. He makes endless value judgments about the right way to live. But it's not just lip service either. In episode after episode we see the landing party beam away from an incredibly fucked-up situation on another planet and the Enterprise just leaves, because they don't have the right to tell that society how to live. When the Enterprise does interfere, it's often because the ship and her crew are being directly threatened or because a Bad Starfleet Officer has already fucked everything up because he thought he knew best.
And episode after episode sets up situations where the crew of the Enterprise is presented with an alien society or species that seems or is hostile to them. An us-them situation and mindset is created, only to be turned around at the last minute and shown to be false and destructive.
*"Devil in the Dark." The Horta is evil! And ugly! She is killing men right and left! She is a lifeform based on silicon, not carbon, completely alien and incomprehensible...Oh wait, she's actually a peaceful creature who is only trying to protect her children. She has her own language, her own culture--she even gets to think that humans are just as ugly and weird as she seems to us. In the end, the Hortas and humans learn to live together peacefully.
*"The Omega Glory." The Yangs appear to be a violent race without the power of speech. The word "savages" is used repeatedly by our favorite characters in a very uncomfortable way. Then it turns out that this is actually a parallel planet to Earth, the Yangs CAN speak, and moreover they are the descendants of this planet's Americans. They aren't just like us, they aren't just as good as us, they are us. But because we were looking at them from another angle, they appeared "inferior."
*In the first episode with the Romulans, "Balance of Terror," they are set up as bloodthirsty, evil, vicious, etc. But when we actually see the Romulan ship, the captain of that ship faces the same challenges and inner struggles as Kirk. He doesn't want to start a war. He has to watch his best friend--very clearly and explicitly his Spock--be killed by the Enterprise. He's fighting for his life, his ship, the lives of his crew, and the safety of his people just like Kirk is. And yet, and this is important, he is also different. He has his own, Romulan code, that he follows as uncompromisingly as Kirk follows his own.
*In "Day of the Dove," the race hatred between Klingons and humans is shown to be just as destructive and bigoted as any other form, including anti-Vulcan racism. Klingon culture has aspects that seem negative to us, but that doesn't give us the right to hate them. We see their commitment to their values and their loyalty and love for each other. They are people too.
Now I want to look at the portrayal of Vulcan in the episode "Journey to Babel." In this episode, the Enterprise is in charge of ferrying delegates to a Federation council. The Vulcan ambassador Sarek and his human wife Amanda turn out to be Spock's parents.
This episode is really just about Spock's family drama, and yet the portrayal of Vulcan is actually quite vivid. First, we find out that Spock and Sarek aren't speaking to each other because Sarek disapproved of Spock's decision to join Starfleet. He wanted him to go to the Vulcan Science Academy. (A conflict that is neatly removed from the new movie, by the way.) Amanda tells Kirk: "You don't understand the Vulcan way, Captain. It's logical. It's a better way than ours. But it's not easy."
AMANDA: My husband has nothing against Starfleet. But Vulcans believe that peace should not depend on force.
KIRK: Starfleet force is used only as a last resort. We're an instrument of civilization. And it's a better opportunity for a scientist to study the universe than he can get at the Vulcan Science Academy.
AMANDA: Perhaps. But Sarek wanted Spock to follow his teachings, as Sarek followed the teachings of his own father.
KIRK: They're both--stubborn.
AMANDA: A human trait, Captain?
And yes, okay, clearly we are supposed to think that Starfleet is great because they're our heroes--but Sarek has a point. (Note that Sarek's dickish behavior to Spock is not because he's too committed to logic, it's because he's too emotional. He is "stubborn," and probably hurt by Spock's perceived rejection. The issues here aren't in the Vulcan philosophy, or at least if they are, it's in a fairly complex way. The issues are Sarek's and Spock's, because they aren't representatives of Vulcan. They're people.
N.B.: Four or five old people cannot be the "essence" of a society of 6 BILLION. It is disgusting and offensive to be told that they are.)
Later, Kirk is injured. Spock is in command, the ship is under attack, and Amanda wants Spock to turn command over to Scotty so he can give his father a needed blood transfusion. Spock refuses.
SPOCK: Mother, how can you have lived on Vulcan so long, married a Vulcan, raised a son on Vulcan, without understanding what it means to be a Vulcan?
AMANDA: If this is what it means, I don't want to know.
SPOCK: It means to adopt a philosophy, a way of life, which is logical and beneficial. We cannot disregard that philosophy merely for personal gain, no matter how important that gain might be.
AMANDA: Nothing is as important as your father's life.
SPOCK: Can you imagine what my father would say if I were to agree, if I were to give up command of this vessel, jeopardize hundreds of lives, risk interplanetary war, all for the life of one person?
In these ten lines of dialogue, Vulcan has more depth than it gets in the entire new movie. Vulcans, in the original series, are not just repressed snobs who were rude to Spock's mom. Spock doesn't just need to learn to "follow his heart." There is an actual culture here: deeply held beliefs, a shared way of life, and another point of view that is different--even, in this instance, diametrically opposed--yet equally valid. A culture that, gasp!, actually might have something to teach us.
And okay, all of that, it's still All About Spock, right? But guess what! Even better, there are things in this episode that are not about Spock or his family. Vulcan has its own shit going on. When Spock leaves the room, things continue to happen there.
We learn that Vulcan (or at least Sarek) is an influential vote on the Federation Council, one that carries others. Sarek is confronted by another ambassador about whether he will vote for the planet Coridan to be admitted to the Federation:
SAREK: [...]We favor admission.
GAV: You favor? Why?
[The room goes silent.]
SAREK: Under Federation law, Coridan can be protected and its wealth administered for the benefit of its people.
GAV: That's well for you. Vulcan has no mining interest.
SAREK: Coridan has nearly unlimited wealth of dilithium crystals, but it is underpopulated and unprotected. This invites illegal mining operations.
So we know Vulcan is a force for fairness (although of course it's also pointed out that Vulcan doesn't lose anything by standing for fairness here, since it has no mining interest--Gav's point of view may be motivated by self-interest, but to him, it seems just as right). Vulcan is an important voice in the Federation.
What the hell is the Federation going to look like without it? And why isn't anyone in the new movie asking that question? Why is six billion Federation citizens, six billion people, disappearing into a freaking black hole played as if the only importance it could possibly have is how it influences Spock's career choice?
Yet, at the same time, with the way the new movie is set up, it's almost inevitable that it would be played that way. Spock's difference, in the new movie, is basically aesthetic. He's a human with pointy ears, and his logic and self-control isn't a commitment to a way of life--it's repression and self-hatred, pure and simple. Even Sarek doesn't seem to give a crap about Vulcan values.
Because JJ Abrams isn't saying anything with his world. He's not using the future to show us something about the present. Vulcan, to him, isn't a vision of another way to live. It isn't a culture with its own priorities and values and good stuff and bad stuff and billions of people making lives within it. It's Where Spock Is From--because in his vision of Trek, there simply isn't anything else for Vulcan to be.
ETA: I want to clarify that I don't mean that Vulcan's portrayal was more positive in the original series. I don't think it was. Even in "Journey to Babel," Amanda makes it clear that Spock was miserable on Vulcan and that he was bullied as a child. Sarek is rude and intolerant to everyone he interacts with, including Kirk, fellow diplomats, and his wife. When Kirk points out to Amanda that Sarek is bossing her around in public, her response is "Of course. He's a Vulcan. I'm his wife," which implies that gender equity on Vulcan is not all it's cracked up to be. We see the violence that the Vulcan way of life has done to Spock and to his parents and their relationship pretty clearly. Vulcans are absolutely repressed snobs who were rude to Spock's mom. They're just all these other things too. Because on the original show, Vulcan culture is allowed to have a personality and a worth that extends beyond Spock's experience of it.