Debunking ‘Go Forward Not Backward’ October 1, 2006by Dennis Russell Bailey , Filed under: Editorial,Star Trek (2009 film) , trackback
This editorial is the first of a series from Dennis Russell Bailey on ‘Bad Reasons for not doing a TOS movie’
Based on published reports, it appears likely that the storyline J.J. Abrams has conceived for his “Star Trek” movie takes place in Trek’s 23rd century and revolves at least partly around youthful versions of James Kirk and Spock. Some long-time fans of the Franchise are excited by this possibility, and some are dead-set against it.
Those fans who dislike the TOS-based movie premise have been active out on the Web advancing a number of assertions-passing-as-arguments as to how the premise somehow violates basic principles of “what ‘Star Trek’ should be about.” There are several themes that crop up again and again on blogs and message boards.
Here’s one of my favorites: “Star Trek is about the future. It should move forward, not back.”
Playing the Roddenberry Card
This attitude is sometimes attributed retroactively to Gene Roddenberry himself, as in the case of this 2005 interview with George Takei. Speaking of “Star Trek Enterprise,” Takei said: “It’s alright but it certainly doesn’t keep with Gene Roddenberry’s vision. Gene was always looking to the future.”
Okay…leave aside for the moment the fact that despite some fannish distain for time travel stories, tales which contrive to place Trek characters into “the past” – theirs and or ours – have been among the most successful and popular entries into the canon. These would include “City On The Edge Of Forever,” “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” DS9’s “Past Tense” and “Far Beyond The Stars” and the movie “First Contact.” It’s clear that what people mean by Trek being “about the future” is that each new Trek project should take as the primary setting for its main characters some point further into the mythical “Star Trek future” than previous projects.
Why should that be so? It’s certainly not because each successive “Star Trek” series moving further into the “Trek future” has been more popular or successful as drama than the previous series.
In the interview quoted above, Takei elaborated: ”Gene was always looking to the future, shocking people with things they’d never seen before.”
All well and good, except that as of 2006 we’ve taken extended tours of three eras of “Trek history” and been given the odd glimpse of a fourth (the 29th century introduced in the Voyager episode “Future’s End.” And guess what? Far from presenting shockingly new things that we’ve “never seen before,” it turns out that every “Star Trek” era is pretty much the same for the next thousand years.
The writers and producers move the furniture around every century or so. One example: by the 24th century the Klingons, who were introduced in TOS as militant jackbooted fascists who spied upon and slit one another’s’ throats when they weren’t torturing Federation officers, had evolved into an honorable society now friendly to the Federation. Things have changed so much in a century that the Klingons are allied with the Federation against some newly-invented folks called the Cardassians: militant, jackbooted fascists who spy upon and slit one another’s’ throats when they aren’t torturing Federation officers.Shocking and new! Substituting the hard “C” for the “K” must be the magic difference.
These boots were made for thugging
In the 22nd century, our heroes explore space in a faster-than-light ship. They encounter aliens who are a lot like human beings. They defend themselves with ray-guns called “phase pistols” or lasers and they go to and from their ship by using a teleporter called a “transporter.” They fight totalitarians called “Suliban.” They try to avoid interfering with primitive cultures and think maybe they should write that down as a “directive.”
In the 23rd century, by contrast, the main characters explore space in faster-than-light ships. They encounter aliens who are a lot like humans, defend themselves with “phasers” and go to and fro using a teleporter called a “transporter.” They fight totalitarians called “Klingons.” They say they don’t interfere with primitive cultures because of their “Prime Directive.”
In the 24th century, Picard and Sisko and their crews explore space in a faster-than-light ship (we’re told that it’s a faster faster-than-light ship), meet humanoid aliens, pack phasers and beam around space using their transporter. They fight the totalitarian Cardassians. The Big Change this time around is that the transporter has been upgraded into a “replicator” to deliver hot tea to Picard on demand while he debates with himself over whether it might ever be permissible to violate the Prime Directive.
Okay, let’s skip over Janeway – the accidental explorer whose ship has gone further than any in history to discover a wondrous new sector of the Universe dominated by some totalitarians called “Borg,” while resisting the temptation to violate the Prime Directive – and peek into the 29th century.
Surely, things will be different in the 29th century; we’re talking, after all, about a period of time at least equal to that between Columbus’ arrival in the West Indies in three wooden sailing ships and Richard Branson plotting of orbital getaways for billionaires.
Well…in the 29th century there are these folks exploring in big ships – oh, wait, here’s something: now they travel in space and time. That changes everything, no question, which explains why they all still work for something called “Starfleet” and get from place to place (and time to time, now) using transporters and worrying themselves about something called the “Temporal Prime Directive.”
See, the “shocking future” is mapped out for us for the next millennium and it’s based on an ever-repeating fictional template. Set a new movie or series in the 29th century, and I’ll bet we find some “shocking” totalitarians to fight with our “new” temporal phasers.
Are we there yet?
All “Star Trek” eras are the same.
Trek never moves forward. It turns in now well-worn circles. Every few years, concepts and storylines that date back to the beginnings of TOS are dressed up in new Spandex pajamas and sent out to explore the Universe with new foam rubber pieces glued to their foreheads.
That will be true even if the next ship “explores” another galaxy rather than the Delta Quadrant.
Some fans who believe that Trek should “always move forward” propose ideas for future stories that they believe will advance and enlarge the “Trek universe.” When one examines these proposals, too often they simply function within the same repetitive template that we already know.
Let’s take a look at two popular, recurrent proposals of this kind: the “25th Century Return To Exploration,” and “Fall of The Federation.”
The “25th Century Return To Exploration” usually posits some means by which the cast of regular characters are to be propelled into some distant galaxy or some other previously unexplored, distant region. The flaw in this is easy enough to see, given the multiple examples of the Cyclical Trek History Template cited above. The next galaxy over – M-113 or Andromeda, or whatever – will still be made up of stars and planets and a lot of aliens who for the most part will have to be portrayed by human actors. They’ll have their own alliances, and doubtless their own totalitarian baddies. It’s not, after all, as if the producers will actually be exploring a new corner of the real Universe, where unique and wonderful things might in fact be discovered. Writers and producers will be working within the same practical constraints, with the same materials and same budgets, as if the story were set in the 24th or 23rd or 22nd centuries.
“The Fall of The Federation” idea posits the collapse of the overbearing political structures that have long formed the background of the “Trek Universe” in favor of a less civilized, less well-settled and well-explored setting than the one we’ve been watching for forty years. The thought behind it seems to be that this will make Trek shockingly unpredictable again. The scenario as described is usually acknowledged by those who advance it as somewhat similar to that of the recent “Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda” television series.
In fact, this premise is not “moving forward” in any but a strictly chronological sense. It’s a kind of resurgent atavism, a way of setting the story in a pre-22nd century galaxy while calling it the 25th or 26th or 27th or whatever.
Perhaps more troubling is that in so doing, it discards the single real substantial change that Gene Roddenberry introduced into “Star Trek” when he created “The Next Generation.”
Roddenberry’s “vision,” the vision that’s so often called upon to support the “Trek should always move forward” argument, the vision that he was committed to by the time of TNG, was that human beings are perfectible. We will become different and better than we are, we will be more effectively socialized and less selfish and less prone to “criminal” behavior. Now, I don’t personally agree with that . I think that it’s stripped a lot of the potential for real drama out of the Franchise. That said, moving further into the “Trek future” by dumping it is really going backwards in a more fundamental and disrespectful way than the proposal to do a movie set in the somewhat rougher, more adventurous continuity of the original “Star Trek” television series could possibly be.
The Twelve Colonies The Federation
Setting is not story.
Setting doesn’t dictate plot or tone or the visual scope and design of a film. “Shakespeare In Love (1999)” and Elizabeth (1998)” are two films set in the same country, within a few years of one another, even sharing a good deal of the same cast. They were both successes, and they could not be less alike as stories or as films.
There were five or six decades of the 20th century during which the Western setting and its themes dominated American popular cinema and television. Everything from drama to adventure to comedy (Lee Marvin won a Best Actor Oscar for his character in “Cat Ballou’) to family sagas were successfully placed during a period of American history which had been less than a century long.
No one suggested during that era of Hollywood entertainment that after a few very successful films set in the 1890s had been made it was pointless to go back and make a movie set in the 1850s or 1860s. Likewise, an inspired “Star Trek” story featuring attractive characters can be a complete success whether set aboard a starship in the 22nd century or a “timeship” in the 28th century – or, as in “City On The Edge Of Forever,” in a block of tenements in 1930s New York.
Where would you folks like to go?
Dennis Russell Bailey is the coauthor of two episodes of Star Trek The Next Generation, "Tin Man" and "First Contact." Most recently he’s served as co-producer, writer, CG effects and design artist and bottle-washer for the independent film ‘Starship Exeter‘