Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Has Star Trek gotten too Star Trekky?

According to Simon Pegg, who is penning (of is it co-penning) the next Star Trek feature film, at the moment titled Star Trek Beyond, he has had to make it less Star Trekky. What does this mean? Is this a good or bad thing. My take is that it is a good thing and here is why.

We have had Star Trek for over 50 years now (the final shots of The Cage, the shots of the Enterprise, were filmed early in 1965). But it is not a unified body of work. There are some distinct versions of Star Trek. It, of course, started with Gene Roddenberry's vision of Star Trek. Gene was a dreamer and crafted this utopian future where the crew of a ship would travel around and get into adventures. His dream is fully realized in The Cage, starring Jeffry Hunter as Christopher Pike. He had a chance to give us his pure dream a couple of other times, but let's keep this chronological for now.

Well, NBC like his concept but they wanted some changes. Gene made them. Some might argue that this diluted Gene pure idea, but I would argue that the success and popularity of Star Trek is directly linked to the changes NBC requested. They wanted more action, more relateable drama. What we got was the original Star Trek series starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, plus an animated series, and a series of 6 feature films. This is Star Trek, but is it really Star Trekky? I would say no. Read on.

Gene's second shot at Star Trek was Phase II (not to be confused with the fan production of the same name). Phase II had scripts, sets, costumes, test shots, a model of the Enterprise, and new cast members. Phase II turned into the first movie. The sole script used was In Thy Image, reworked into a "welcome back" movie. It is again that very cerebral story that we had in The Cage. It isn't looked to favorably on by most Star Trek fans. The second film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a return to the action packed style of story from the original series. And why? Nicholas Meyer sat down and watched the original series. The following 4 films followed that pattern.

Then Gene had his third and final chance to give us his vision and Star Trek: The Next Generation was born. This is Gene's vision. The pilot, Encounter at Farpoint, is the third installment of Gene's undistilled vision. Except that this time, what followed was something completely different. Star Trek: The Next Generation was unique. A magic feat of casting led to a group of people who were as close when the cameras were off as their characters were when the cameras were on. But Gene was fading. His name was carried on the episodes as executive producer, but as the series progressed, Rick Berman took on more of the production duties and the stories that were produced became more his vision than Gene's. Star Trek: The Next Generation became a second unique produce of the Star Trek franchise. It was followed, before it even ended, by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And as soon as Star Trek: The Next Generation wrapped and moved on to feature films, Star Trek: Voyager joined the franchise. All three of these had strong 7 year runs. They were followed by Enterprise, which had a truncated 4 year run.

But what has happened? Why has Star Trek been out of production for so long. After more than 15 years in constant production, there is no Star Trek. Why? Now we come to the issue. As it went on, Star Trek took on a quality that I grew to dislike. I'm a big fan of the original series and The Next Generation, but the others failed to grab me. It became formulaic and seemed distant, not only from the Star Trek that started it all, but even from Gene's vision. That unique mix of what Gene wanted and what NBC wanted was lost. It took on a pattern that I feel exemplifies the label of Star Trekky. It is what is expected, what fans think they want, what the franchise is perceived as. But that is NOT Star Trek. It is what we got, however twisted, in the latest two feature films. Roberto Orci is an avowed Star Trek fan. It is clear from what he gave us, along with Abrams wild ideas, is the type of story that Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise gave us. But when you paste those ideas onto the original 1960's characters, it really shows the flaws that have crept into the franchise.

What is sad is that the best episodes of Deep Space Nine and Enterprise are the ones that harken back to the original series. Trials and Tribble-ations and In a Mirror, Darkly bring back that action of the original series. So what has happened to Star Trek? Well, it has become its own worst enemy. It has become a franchise with an expected format. NBC's changes to Gene's vision have become the enemy. But what we have is NOT Gene's vision, it is other people's interpretation of it. Too much emphasis is placed on doing what Gene wanted. Why? He had three chances to give us his vision. It is great, but it is not what garnered all the fans. And more importantly, it is not what the studio wants in a film. Why did Star Trek Into Darkness not bring in the money? Well, sucky writing, to start with, but it had action and effects, and the original characters. But the biggest thing was it was hampered and derailed by that ghost of the franchise. Orci constrained how the story was told.

Now take a look at Star Trek: New Voyages/Phase II and Star Trek Continues. What are they giving us that Abrams and Orci didn't? They have returned to that original format. Essentially it is Gene's universe with NBC's storytelling. That gold combination isn't that hard to return to. NBC wanted the same thing that Paramout wants. They want something that is highly successful that reaches the widest possible audience. Gene's vision was in the sort of future we are going to have. It isn't really Star Trek if you leave that out (and frankly Abrams and Orci seemed to miss that part). But it also isn't really Star Trek, not Kirk's Star Trek, if you abandon that goal that NBC forced Gene to adopt. The magic happened from the mix of Gene's creativity and vision and NBC's experience of what worked and desire for commercial success. That was repeated in 1982 with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (6th highest grossing movie that year), in 1986 with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (5th highest grossing movie that year), and even to some extent in 2009 with Star Trek (7th highest grossing movie that year). If Paramount is to have a success with the new Star Trek, they have to do a different direction than Star Trek Into Darkness. They need that mix of Gene's vision and the action adventure that NBC originally asked for. You can't do that just by having a big action movie and steal some scene from the most popular Star Trek film. You have to understand that Gene's vision reflects the culture of the Federation and that you can then have a huge action adventure story that can carry those ideas.

So in my estimation, Simon Pegg saying the new film with be less Star Trekky is a good thing. He is a Star Trek fan himself and he knows how to make awesome films, so with that combination, I'm hoping he will be able to produce something more worthy of the legacy of Star Trek and at the same time less franchisey.

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