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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Boldly going backward?

Like myself, you have probably noticed a disturbing trend with these weekly ramblings of mine. Even though my aim is to pontificate on weighty movie matters, I always seem to get sidetracked into writing about such trivial subjects as European politics, the Iraq war and Irish history.

But sometimes something occurs to make us realize just how insignificant those sorts of topics are in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes something happens to make us realize what is really important in this world. Just such a thing occurred within the past week. Yes, that’s right, I am talking about the news that there will be an eleventh Star Trek movie.

I think we all know that there is a problem with Star Trek. For me, the problem is best exemplified by the fact that I cannot get very excited about the prospect of another Star Trek movie. Around the time of the third (the “bringing Mr. Spock back from the dead” one) or fourth (the “saving the whales”) one, the movies couldn’t come soon enough. Now, it’s more like, yeah, yeah, whatever.

My relationship with Star Trek has always been affectionate, if a bit distant. There are two primary reasons for the distance. One is that I have always felt like a johnny-come-lately to the Star Trek party. While my friends were watching the original series in its original run on NBC on Thursday nights, I was going to Boy Scout meetings, so during the first season I saw only the second half of each episode. Strangely, my father was a bit of a fan. He had never before (or ever would again) show any interest in science fiction, but for some reason Star Trek caught his fancy. A couple of times I came home to find him watching the show avidly. I think it was because of the episode in which a boy named Charlie turned out to be a mutant. Dad knew what a mutant was because he occasionally encountered mutant cotton plants on the farm. Anyway, I eventually saw every episode of the original Star Trek (multiple times) in syndicated reruns, but I never quite shook the feeling of being out of the Trek loop.

The other reason for my emotional distance is my compulsive personality. The sheer hugeness of the eventual Star Trek franchise virtually guaranteed that I would never feel that I could get a handle on all things Trek. Certainly, I have managed to see most episodes of most of the various spinoff TV series, as well as all of the movies. But there was no way that I would ever manage to follow all the other extensions of the Trek empire, i.e. the merchandise, the animated series, the comic books, paperback novels, the hardback novels, the fan literature, etc. etc. And don’t even get me started on the strange Kirk & Spock stories that some women starting posting on the internet. It was too overwhelming. Less commercially successful TV series like Dark Shadows and Babylon 5 were more suited to me. Not only could I manage to see all the episodes, but I could also manage the spinoffs, the knockoffs and the merchandising without too much trouble.

And let’s face it. The Trek franchise has pretty much been run as a business for the past 15 years, i.e. since the death of Star Trek’s creator. The late Gene Roddenberry guarded his most famous property with proud zeal and, although he may have had shortcomings as a producer (his utopian vision of the future wasn’t always to conducive to the dramatic conflict necessary for engaging drama), he had a clear and unified vision for his story and his characters. In the hands of his successor, Rick Berman, the creative decisions became a bit more calculating. The rabid fan base was respected, out of economic necessity, but the creative spark in the latter years was not always consistently present. No one safeguards Trek anymore, in the way that J. Michael Straczynski (JMS, to his devotees) watches over the integrity of Babylon 5. It is certainly too much to ask that a single person write every line of every script for something as large as Babylon 5, let alone Star Trek, but ideally it should at least feel that way. JMS accomplished this by keeping iron-tight control on B5 as well as personally writing a huge proportion of the series’ screenplays himself. On the other hand, I got an insight into the Star Trek writers’ mindset back in the 1990s at a Star Trek convention in Bellevue, Washington. In an informal talk, a scriptwriter, who had worked on one of the ST series, confided that the writers generally approached Trek like any other TV show, i.e. they were mainly worried about coming up with a plot to fill 50 minutes, and that they only worried about consistency with Trek canon and previous episodes and series and movies to the extent that they needed to keep the fan base off their backs. They knew they would be inundated with complaints if a character or a piece of technology departed from what was already known about them.

Overall, Star Trek, in all its incarnations, has always been nothing less than entertaining and comfortable and familiar, like an old friend. For me, it reached its peak in the last several years of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The stories and writing were so good that I eagerly tuned in week after week. Other series, like Deep Space Nine and Voyager had clever ideas and frequently well-written stories, but somehow they never quite spoke to my heart like the best of Next Generation and Babylon 5 did. The characters never seemed to evolve into something more than stock TV characters.

Will J.J. Abrams be able to do better? Frankly, I don’t have enough evidence to make a prediction. The Mel Gibson adventure Forever Young, on which Abrams was writer/producer, was okay. I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of Lost and a few snippets of Alias. And I don’t know if the upcoming Tom Cruise vehicle Mission: Impossible III will be a good indicator either. We’ll just have to wait and see.

From what surfing I’ve done of fan reaction, the Trekkers appear fairly willing to give him a chance. They seem more concerned about the reported premise of the new movie, a prequel of sorts chronicling the adventures of young Kirk and Spock at Starfleet Academy. There are the usual diehards who claim they will boycott any movie in which those two characters are played by anyone other than William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. I presume that means they don’t want this sort of prequel at all, since at this point not even all the makeup in the world and the tightest girdle in the universe will turn Shatner into a callow youth. Others are opposed to a prequel on more general principles. The Star Trek powers-that-be went down that route with the series Enterprise, and it wasn’t a winner. Maybe Paramount has been impressed by all the money George Lucas generated with is elaborate Star Wars backstory. But here’s a news flash. Most people, even die-hard fans, prefer to see stories move forward, not look backward. Only the geekiest of fans get a major kick out of seeing dramatizations of events that fill in prior gaps rather than advancing the over-arcing story.

Having said that, I will keep an open mind. And, yes, I will go see the movie. By now, it’s a deeply ingrained habit.

-S.L., 27 April 2006

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