A Trek By Many Other Names?: Alias and Star Trek XI September 20, 2006by James Heaney , Filed under: Orci/Kurtzman , trackback
Editor’s Note: this article is the first of a series that will explore the works of the creative team behind Star Trek XI. Warning containts some spoilers
What can Abrams ‘Alias’ teach us about Trek XI
Alias. It is a familiar name to those who follow the exploits of J.J. Abrams and his coterie of Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Damon Lindelof, and Bryan Burk (all of whom are producers and/or writers for Star Trek XI). It is also familiar to those of us who once watched the weekly ratings for Star Trek: Enterprise only to find that Bristow, Bristow, and Vaughn had once again fairly trounced Archer, Trip, and T’Pol in the only battle that mattered to the networks. With the announcment of Abrams’ involvement in the future of Trek, I got some DVD’s and started watching. I have now finished the first two seasons and part of the third in this five-season spy show.
Immediately you can tell that somebody on the writing staff of Alias (presumably Mr. Orci, self-proclaimed enyclopedia of Star Trek) was a major Trekkie. At first, I thought it was simple coincidence or wishful thinking, but the frequency of obscure Trek references dispelled that notion. The early seasons center around series lead Sydney Bristow’s double agent work at SD-6, a cell of the Alliance (a powerful terrorist group) which pretends to its low-clearance agents that it is actually an off-the-books part of the CIA. The very concept of SD-6 recalls Section 31 to the dedicated Trekkie, so is it merely coincidence that its leader’s last name is Sloane? That the S in SD-6 (Section Disparu-6) stands for Section? Well, maybe. If only the coincidences stopped there. But Alias continues with a near-obsession with the number 47, a number popularized by the writers of Star Trek and which frequently showed up in shield percentages, stardates, phaser frequencies, and room numbers. Alias took this already unhealthy obsession to a new level. So far, I have counted no less than three missions where the target was in Room 47 of John Q. Building. SD-6 was brought down by the discovery of the secret Server 47. Rambaldi, the sixteenth-century prophet who drives much of the series, made the 47th page of all of his manuscripts have "special significance." 47 shows up on pagers, computer screens, on walls, more ubiquitous than "Bad Wolf" in the first series of the new Doctor Who. Given these and other occasional hints and almost-hat-tips to Star Trek, we can rest assured that, for good or ill, someone on the staff
of the new movie has a profound investment in the current universe and will not be erasing forty years of history.
But enough of such shallow questions as continuity, especially when interviews about XI have already as good as put to rest any expectations of a Ron Moore-style "reboot." The heart of Star Trek is about hope, humanity, possibility, and, as J.J. Abrams so gracefully put it, "a sense of wonder." Is Alias about any of that?
yet another 47
Action, tragedy and a lot of grey area
In a word, no. Not really. Alias, like Lost, is a heavily serialized drama, to the point where it borders on being a soap opera. There are no standalone episodes, and it becomes very difficult, between the endless cliffhangers, to see any sort of hope that the good guys will ever win. Indeed, unlike Star Trek, Alias is populated by characters who are hard to define as "good guys" or "bad guys"—and, just when you think you have the hang of one of them, the writers go and change the story on you. Irina Derevko turns from CIA agent-killer to loyal informant and CIA aide… then back again to friend of Sloane and Sark… then to parts unknown. Arvin Sloane goes from leading SD-6 to running OMNIFAM (a world aid organization) in Zurich, all the while spinning his evil webs. And every character, given time, eventually dances on the seedy underside of the spy world before returning to heroism—if he/she returns at all. I see little real hope for humanity held out in Alias; the spy war simply takes its toll on human life without any sign of ever letting up. SD-6 goes down and Sloane springs back up with a neutron bomb. The innocent Francie ends up shot through the head in her own restaurant for the sake of a momentary advantage over the Bristows. Will Tippin accidentally discovers something and
ends up with his career and reputation destroyed—before another complication drives him into Witness Protection. It never ends, and, with the exception of the many amusing exploits of Marshall the Op-Tech guy, nothing ever gets better without something else getting worse. If there is any fear I have about Abrams’ control over Star Trek XI, it is that, in the milieu of action and tragedy, he and his team will completely miss the core purpose of Star Trek: charting the unknown possibilities of existence.
I forget…are you a good guy or a bad guy this week?
That said, Alias is not Star Trek and it isn’t supposed to be. It’s a spy show, about, well, spies fighting each other, not some abstract ideals of boldly going to seek out strange new worlds. Not to mention the fact that Star Trek has always thrived when the writers are not trying to express the core ideas, but just write good sci-fi. We need only look to The Wrath of Khan to see a Trek newbie trying to write a good action script and ending up with one of the greatest commentaries on love and hatred in the current canon of Western films (if I do say so myself). If Abrams’ team can just bring us a good story, the old Star Trek characters will naturally bring those core values to the adventure themselves, without any pushing from the writers.
It’s the characters stupid
Which brings us to what Abrams and his team have consistently gotten right, time and time again: Characters. Interesting, compelling, and not-just-a-little-bit complicated characters. Characters whom the writers are not afraid to throw into an emotional meat grinder or two on a weekly basis. Every person in Alias is believable in that every one of them acts according to his own specific motiviations without fail. Jack will always protect his daughter Sydney, at any cost to himself or others. Sloane will try to solve the Rambaldi puzzle. Sydney will always protect Vaughn (even if she has to stab him), and Dixon will always do his duty, whether to agency or family. It’s nice how reliable they all are, and an interesting departure from the Star Trek formula, wherein every character, with rare exceptions, is able to put aside every one of his personal problems for the greater good of ship, crew, and Federation. I personally would love to see an early Captain Kirk still growing into the man we know, still dealing with the demons of his past and still willing to put something—anything—above what will one day be an ironclad loyalty to Starfleet. If we can count on one thing, it’s that Abrams & Co. will deliver us a strong set of characters for XI, with a whole new set of internal conflicts, and yet who will somehow seem exactly the same as their Original Series templates. This is Abrams’, Orci’s, and Kurtzman’s strength, and, in a franchise that has long relied too much on technobabble, chronitons, antimatter radiation (whatever the heck that is), "sexual tension" and catsuits, it’s exactly what Star Trek needs.
Now, if we could only be certain that Captain Kirk won’t be changing into a new wig every light year or so…
father and daughter spy team know all about loyalty
James Heaney is a student from St. Paul, MN and has written several Trek parodies for FiveMinute.net. He also is one of the regular Wikipedia contributor/editors for Star Trek, especially the Star Trek XI page and is well known in Trek gaming for his work on the BCS:TNG mod (under his alias "Wowbagger.")