Saturday on the (Rebooted) Final Frontier
We went and saw the new Star Trek movie last weekend, which means I can now allow myself to look at all the various reviews and internet postings on the subject.
The various reactions I’ve seen have been, you should pardon the expression, “fascinating.”
First of all, to get the review out of the way — we loved it. Loved it so much we went again a day and a half later.
The second time we went with Carla and her son Phenix and they loved it… even though all the way to the theater, Carla was warning us, “I dunno, I’ve never really been into Star Trek, I never got into it at all.” We just shushed her and bustled them both into the movie, confident that she and Phenix would love it as much as we had.
And we were right. They both came out converts. Carla was shaking her head and grinning ear-to-ear, saying, “Finally! I get those guys now! I never got what the characters were about before.” Phenix wanted to know if we had any more like it in our collection at home. (Ha! If he only knew….)
(Although, just as a quick aside — our first time going, Julie and I got screwed by the fake IMAX deal at the AMC theater. Be warned that unless it’s playing at your old IMAX theater from five years ago or so, one attached to a planetarium or something, it’s NOT IMAX. It’s something called “IMAX Digital.” So for an extra $5 each, my wife and I got to see a slightly sharper picture than we would have on any of the other screens in the multiplex, and as an added bonus we got to wait in line for an hour and a half, instead of just walking right in… as we would have been able to do had we gone to any one of a dozen ‘regular’ showings. What we did NOT get was the giant 70-foot tall IMAX screening we thought we were paying for. IMAX at your local AMC or Regal multiplex is a shuck, it’s not what you think. Save your money. The reason I’m going on about this at such length is because I was trying to do something nice for Julie, who loves old-school Star Trek even more than I do, and it makes me really angry that we just got our pockets picked instead. So I am going to denounce this vile bait-and-switch anywhere and everywhere to anyone who cares to listen. Regal and AMC should be ashamed of themselves, and they would be if they weren’t such soulless corporate whores.)
The IMAX business aside, though, as far as the movie itself was concerned, we adored it.
So I’m thinking, at last, Trek is finally back to something I can really get behind. After all the various disappointments and almost-but-not-quite-good entries from over the last decade and a half or so, I was sure fans would be embracing this new kickstart of the franchise.
And many are. But — this amazes me, though I suppose it really shouldn’t — it seems that just as many aren’t. Quite a few are being extremely vocal about their disgust at what J.J. Abrams has “done to” Star Trek. “No respect, no understanding of what Trek is.”
Well, I’m afraid I have to disagree. It’s one thing if you want to pick on the movie itself — there are certainly visible seams in the plot, though really I think that if you’re going to complain about the scientific validity or the military verisimilitude of Star Trek, you are simply in the wrong theater to start with — but the criticism that baffles me is the one I keep seeing about “disrespect.” As though it’s the act of rebooting itself that’s the problem.
To which I can only reply, are these people all nuts?
Star Trek‘s entire history in all media over the last four decades has been nothing but revisions and reboots. Hell, the original Kirk-and-Spock version was actually a reboot after the first pilot failed to sell.
Star Trek originally was going to be about the voyages of Captain Christopher Pike, his female exec Number One, and the half-Martian science officer, Mr. Spock. As any Trekkie could tell you, NBC said it was ‘too cerebral’ and wanted it redone with a lot of cast changes and a more action-adventure feel.
Which is how we ended up with James T. Kirk, that two-fisted ripped-shirt Casanova of the spaceways. That version ran for three years.
Then it was revived in animation for Saturday morning, and revised again.
Regulars Uhura and Chekov were replaced with alien crewmembers like Arex and M’ress, and episodes were shortened to a half-hour. This ran for two seasons.
Meanwhile, the Gold Key comics being produced in Italy by the Giolitti studio had only the faintest resemblance to any of these versions.
These chugged along just fine on the newsstands for years despite their lack of fidelity to either the live-action or animated shows, outlasting both by a respectable margin of years.
Then Gene Roddenberry tried a revival for syndicated television, Star Trek Phase II. Which was yet another revision of the basic idea of the voyages of the starship Enterprise.
Spock was replaced with the character of Xon, a Vulcan who was trying to learn how to be more emotional.
And other new characters were added as well — Commander Decker, a younger version of Captain Kirk, and Lieutenant Ilia, a bald alien girl from a race that was alleged to be so brain-meltingly sexy that she had to swear an oath of celibacy before Starfleet would let her join.
Roddenberry was still struggling to get this series made when Star Wars hit in 1977, and when the studio realized there was big movie money to be had in science fiction, the whole Phase II project morphed into Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Which meant Phase II itself got revised before a foot of film was ever shot, since Leonard Nimoy was persuaded to reprise Mr. Spock after all. So Xon was out, though Decker and Ilia stayed.
Reviews were decidedly mixed — I remember, in 1979, the word on my college campus was “see it stoned” — but we were all delighted to see the Enterprise back in any form. And it justified a comics relaunch from Marvel.
The comic didn’t last long, but the real success of that particular reboot came in another area of publishing. The licensed novels got a facelift too.
For years we’d been getting straight novelizations of aired episodes.
Nice stuff, well-crafted by SF mainstays James Blish and Alan Dean Foster, but by and large these were only for the hardcore fans, since they simply adapted stories we already knew. Then Bantam tried publishing a few original novels (several were literally reprints of fan fiction from Star Trek ‘zines) and those did pretty well.
But with the new movie came a new license agreement with Pocket Books, and this created still another version of the Enterprise’s voyages.
Vonda McIntyre’s The Entropy Effect served as a blueprint for the novelists that followed — not only did she do a great deal of extrapolation about Starfleet, the social structure of the Federation, and Vulcan physiology, but she also created a number of new characters that other writers went on to use also. So in essence we got another reboot, this time of the Star Trek novels; McIntyre’s Entropy Effect was the book that launched a publishing juggernaut. Originally part of a science-fiction imprint called “Timescape,” this soon was changed to simply the “Star Trek” line of books and it’s been a dependable cash cow for the publisher ever since.
Which is not to say that the licensed novels haven’t also been a series of reboots, relaunches, spin-offs, and revisions since then, each with its own following.
Today it’s huge, it’s not so much a series of books or even a publishing franchise as it is a genre. Whether it’s Peter David’s New Frontier novels or the Starfleet Corps of Engineers anthologies, you can find pretty much whatever flavor of Trek you want in prose. Barnes and Noble and other large bookstores usually give Star Trek its own section.
But that’s a whole ‘nother column. I was trying just to talk about Star Trek relaunches and their attendant “disrespectful blasphemies.” So let’s backpedal to the early 1980’s, over in the movie studio.
Everyone loved the idea of Star Trek being back, but no one liked the first movie. However, despite dire predictions from many industry insiders (given what a miserable experience making that first movie was, and how much it cost the studio to make it, these doomsayers were not being at all unreasonable) nevertheless, it was decreed that there would be more Trek movies. The studio’s thinking was, even the crappy first movie made money and was a licensing bonanza — think what we could rake in if we made a movie people actually enjoyed!
Which gave us The Wrath of Khan… a story everyone loved, and a movie still widely regarded as one of the series’ best.
And again, we were given a whole bunch of revisions. Sets changed, uniforms changed, the whole look was different. We also got new characters David Marcus and Lieutenant Saavik, among others.
Every relaunch to date had done this. Along with Kirk and Spock and the gang, we always got new characters — Arex, Xon, Ilia, Saavik, whoever — largely because the studio wanted new blood in there. Shatner and Nimoy were getting older, getting more demanding, and worst of all, they were getting expen$ive. Nimoy, especially, was very vocal about being done with Spock and wanting to move on. The only way he would agree to do The Wrath of Khan, in fact, was if the character of Spock was killed off.
Now, I’ve always thought this was a very gutsy move, in terms of plotting and story. Done right, it could have re-energized the whole series. However, halfway through filming, Nimoy allowed that he was having so much fun that he’d be willing to come back and do more movies, so the whole thing turned out to be a bit of a false alarm. The only place we ever really got to see Captain Kirk and his crew on a Spock-less Enterprise, in fact, was in the first few issues of the DC comic book relaunch.
Where it worked moderately well. But we all kind of knew the next movie was going to be about Spock’s return, so we couldn’t get too invested in Saavik being the new Vulcan in town.
Anyway, the two follow-up movies did well also, and after the success of Star Trek IV — it was the biggest moneymaker yet in the movies — Paramount started thinking about doing a new TV series.
The blasphemous part? They were going to do it without any of the original TV series cast. A real, honest-to-God new version of the starship Enterprise with a whole new crew.
Fans were ambivalent at best despite relentless cheerleading from Gene Roddenberry and story editor David Gerrold in magazines like Starlog, and it didn’t help that the actors from the original cast were making disparaging public remarks about the project everywhere on the convention circuit. And there was a lot of griping about “disrespect” then, too.
Nevertheless, in spite of nasty backstage disputes between Roddenberry and his staff (Gerrold walked out early on) and widespread fan skepticism, Star Trek: The Next Generation lasted seven years on television and launched two spin-off series there, as well as four successful theatrical movies and a veritable library of licensed books and comics.
(It even, sort of, rebooted itself with the second movie, First Contact, by putting the crew on a new ship and setting a more action-oriented tone.)
You can argue about the relative quality of any of these relaunches and re-imaginings — and we do, endlessly. (Want to see fireworks? Tell a bunch of Trek fans you like Voyager best of all the TV series, or that Deep Space Nine wasn’t really true to the spirit of Star Trek because it was on a station and not a ship. Or anything like that. Fans live for these arguments.)
But the bottom line is, every one of these projects — even Enterprise, a sort of retro-reboot that was a first try at doing the same kind of back-to-basics thing that we saw in last week’s new movie — was a success.
And — here’s the part I’ve been leading up to — every one of these has been guilty of the same crimes, the same general carelessness about established lore, that the new J.J. Abrams movie is guilty of. Star Trek, no matter what incarnation you are talking about, has never been particularly consistent. It’s never been terribly concerned with continuity.
There are all sorts of “official” projects that are flatly contradictory, not just to the established TV and movie lore, but even within themselves.
Fans twist themselves into knots trying to reconcile these things, they create stories designed to bridge the gaps and fill in the blanks.
And that’s fine. That’s what fans do. However, it can get embarrassing when the professionals start to buy into this same idea.
Even if some of the projects that come out of this tendency are good (I have to admit that I loved Star Trek: Early Voyages) it’s almost always because continuity is the last consideration and not the first one.
The Star Trek projects I’ve enjoyed the most generally are the “blasphemous, disrespectful” ones. Wrath of Khan. New Frontier. The new Abrams movie. The ones that take chances.
That’s how you get a successful relaunch. Star Trek Enterprise was widely regarded as a failure (compared to other Star Treks, that is — in television generally, four seasons on the air is pretty good) because it was dull. It was timid. It was the same old stuff. Worst of all, it looked like it was designed by people who’d spent way too much time on the fan convention circuit.
Look, here’s the secret to a reboot of any entertainment franchise. Whether it’s Star Trek or James Bond or The Flash or whatever series you’re going to do, you should follow these simple rules.
Story first. You know what? Give me a good enough ride and I don’t give a damn if your story has a massive continuity flaw. (The Wrath of Khan, probably one of the best-written of the Star Trek films, has a couple of real howlers… and the science is pretty wobbly too, even for Star Trek science.) If the story’s good, no one will care. This is the rule you can’t screw up or everything else is moot. Story comes first.
Nod to fans if you want — but you write it for everyone. Hey, fans will always show up. Many will show up even if they claim to hate what you’re doing. (Embarrassing personal example — I bought the first two issues of All-Star Batman and Robin, even though I loathe Jim Lee’s art and I was ambivalent about Frank Miller’s take on the character, because I’m a Batman guy and I had to make sure I wasn’t missing out. That’s a case of fannish reflexes overriding my brain, because I knew better. Hey, I’ll own it.) You already have the fans, no matter what, for at least your first issue or your opening night. You need to get everybody ELSE. Write it for them.
Lighten up. Again, using Star Trek as the handy example — in the decade between the original show’s cancellation in 1969 and the first movie in 1979, there were about a hundred articles about the growing fan phenomenon and speculation about why Star Trek was so popular. The answer always came back, “It’s optimistic, it’s intelligent, it shows us a future where we all live in peace,” etc., etc. So, naturally, Gene Roddenberry — who’d had fans treating him like a prophet for ten years — gave them exactly what they’d been asking for in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It’s thoughtful and scientifically plausible and tries to philosophize about the human condition and it’s a colossal bore.
Same thing with Star Trek: The Next Generation. (One of the most devastating criticisms I’ve ever heard of the first couple of seasons was the dismissal, “All they ever do is have a lot of meetings and talk in technobabble.”) The ugly truth of the matter is that the best Star Trek episodes happened when Gene Roddenberry stepped aside and other writers found ways to work around the ridiculous philosophical restrictions he laid down about the utopia of the Federation and did stories with characters that had real conflict. Usually it was coming from people like Gene Coon or Nicholas Meyer, who’d made their rep writing pulpy genre stuff like Westerns and crime stories.
Honestly? Star Trek works a hell of a lot better when they write it as a Western than when they try to do it as a meditation on humanity’s future. (Even Gene Roddenberry knew that, once upon a time, when he was marketing the show to TV executives as “Wagon Train to the stars.”) Don’t derail the fun train just because you think you have to prove you’re doing more than a rocking space opera. Just go ahead and do the best rocking space opera you can, as smart as you can, as well as you can.
Don’t abuse the audience goodwill. Remember, you sell the audience on your story based on certain expectations. Break that unspoken contract and you’re in trouble. No one bought a ticket for Spider-Man 3 thinking they were going to get a romance with musical comedy interludes, yet that’s what it felt like we got.
If you’re doing a new version of a beloved old property, that means you need to figure out what it was people liked and make damn sure it’s in there. That doesn’t mean you have to do it the same way every time, you just have to do it. James Bond movies have been retooled a number of times, but we never lose the license to kill, the exquisite stunt work, the Bond theme music, or the cool cars and hot girls. There’s about a million miles of difference between Moonraker and Casino Royale, but they’re both recognizably Bond movies and they were both successful, because they met the baseline audience expectation of what a James Bond movie would give them.
Don’t listen to the fans too much. I know, that sounds like it’s abusing the goodwill I just told you not to, but it’s really not. The audience goodwill is based on your entertaining them, not on your obeying them. If you are taking your marching orders from the audience then you better at least have some kind of a plot twist or innovative spin to put on it. Otherwise it’s just the same old stuff, formulaic and tired. You win by surprising the audience, and you can’t do that if you’re letting them order off a menu.
The new Star Trek movie followed all those rules to near-perfection as far as I’m concerned. There were nods to us Trekkies but it’s clearly a general-audience movie, it delivered on what it promised, it included the things I liked about Star Trek in the first place yet managed to keep surprising me (Spock and Uhura? Really? Never would have thought to go there… but I really like it.) And it was fun and it put the story first. As long as the movies keep doing those things, I’ll be there.
Considering all the lame superhero relaunches we’ve seen in comics over the last five or ten years, I hope publishers are paying attention to the example. Superhero comics are practically built on reboots and revamps, these days. It’d be nice if we got more of them done with the kind of verve we’ve seen in this new Trek. (Unlike, say, Flash: Rebirth; for all its over-the-top violence, that’s one of the most pedantic comic books I’ve ever seen.) I’d much rather have creators respect me than some continuity premise that was set up decades ago.
See you next week.