on J.J. Abrams taking the helm of the Star Trek franchise
It was 40 years ago that Gene Roddenberry first taught the band to play. It was a seminal science fiction series called Star Trek. And despite having spawned a succession of spin-off’s and sequels, the original Star Trek, remains the most prescient and entertaining series of all by far four decades after it first aired on NBC. Ironically, while it’s nearly impossible to watch Next Generation or Deep Space Nine these days, both which seem hopelessly dated relics of the bland 90s; Classic Trek, with its 60s fuelled New Frontier zeal, despite its Styrofoam sets and dated visual effects, remains amazingly potent largely because of the inter-personal dynamics of its troika of leading men; Kirk, Spock and McCoy. It’s because of them I’d rather watch the worst episode of Classic Trek than the best of Enterprise or Voyager.
So now, in a time, where it appeared Star Trek had been buried under the apathetic aegis of Rick Berman forever, comes the news that a passionate fan and advocate of the original Star Trek is poised to resurrect it yet again by going back to the beginning and re-visiting Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the foundation and Mount Rushmore of the franchise that is Trek. 20 years ago fans were aghast at such a notion when Harve Bennett first proposed the idea of doing a Trek prequel, but there was one essential difference back then; the original cast were all still alive and young enough to get more tread from the tire. Two decades later, it’s almost impossible to imagine watching a new Star Trek featuring Shatner and Nimoy, not because they’re both septuagenarians, but because DeKelley and James Doohan are both gone and without them, a new Trek with the original cast seems futile (not to say that it couldn’t be done, but apart from die-hards like me it’s hard to fathom this being of much interest to a mainstream audience). Indeed, it was Kirk himself who reminded us that galloping the cosmos is a game for the young and while I don’t envy J.J. Abrams task in re-casting one of the most iconic characters of the 20th century (and certainly most distinctive), I wish him well. After his brilliant work on Alias and Lost, I can’t imagine anyone (other than the Free Enterprise creative team of Mssrs. Burnett and Altman) that could possibly do better justice to the legacy of the original series which is more relevant today than ever.
In a world overcome by cynicism, greed and pessimism; the timing seems better than ever to restore the luster of a franchise which celebrated optimism and heroism above all else. The great movies and television series of the 20th century were generally about heroes and people who made sacrifices for the good of the world, and in the case of Star Trek, the universe. Whether it be Alicia Huberman in Hitchcock’s Notorious or Vinnie Terranova in Wiseguy, popular culture celebrated those trying to make the world a better place. In the 21st, television shows like The Sopranos extol the mobsters and not the informants and government agents and it’s unfashionable in a political climate stoked by fear by its leaders to speak of optimism for the future and an embrace of other cultures when Republicans would rather build a wall, figurative and literal, creating a real continental divide between us and the rest of the world.
Star Trek was never about that and to me, even the reviled Starfleet Academy concept, always had the tremendous potential to tap into the importance of mentors in the formative lives of a man or a woman. Done right, I saw Starfleet Academy as The Paper Chase in space, with a Kingsfield-like muse (“you earn it, Mr. Hart”) imbuing our heroes with the fundamental decency and thirst for knowledge that would made them role-models toa new generation that has never boldly gone before.
J.J. Abrams, from what we can discern, intends to focus on an early mission of the Enterprise (don’t forget the “the” in Enterprise, Trek started going downhill as soon as they started referring to the ship as Enterprise instead of the Enterprise, BTW) with Kirk, Spock and McCoy, perhaps right after Kirk has taken command, maybe even earlier. Whatever it’s ultimately about, it’s a relief to have the franchise in the hands of those who truly care about Star Trek, respect its continuity and understand the significant place the original troika hold not only in American popular culture, but in the lives of those of us who grew up on it. Not unlike Ron Moore and Battlestar Galactica, J.J. Abrams and his screenwriters, Orci and Kurtzman, have the opportunity to jettison the shackles of the sci-fi stigma and musty cobwebs around the aged franchise and make Star Trek relevant again. Risky, sure. But, at the end of the day, risk is our business.
MarkA. Altman is the writer/producer of the cult classic, Free Enterprise (which begins airing on Showtime next month and is available in a Special Two DiscSpecial Edition DVD from Anchor Bay) and is co-publisher of Geek Monthly