Variety first announced Star Trek XI with this sentence “J.J. Abrams is becoming the next Gene Roddenberry.”, referring to the late creator of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as producer and co-writer of the first Trek feature film Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the recently reported debate, Free Enterprise producers (and big time Trekkies) Rob Burnett and Mark Altman agreed on one thing: Paramount did the right thing by bringing in a new team headed by JJ Abrams. Burnett went on to say that Abrams and his team “bring Star Trek creative blood not seen since Nicholas Meyer“. Meyer is the writer and/or director of the Trek classics Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. So which is he…the new Roddenberry or the new Meyer?
Lessons from the first two Trek films
The first two Trek films are a series of contrasts. The films look totally different and feel totally different. Probably the greatest difference is how ‘Star Trek’ they are. Even the characters themselves seem to be from two different universes. Gene Roddenberry’s Kirk in the first film seems stiff and aloof, whereas Meyer’s Kirk is an engaging warrior (see photo above). Josh Tyler from CinamaBlend has recently posted a Trek XI preview based on the the lessons he has learned from talking to ‘one of the men behind ST:II’ (he wont say which one):
What I can say about our conversations is that I’ve learned something important about Star Trek from him. Here it is: Star Trek works brilliantly when it’s not trying to be Star Trek, and fails miserably when focused on being whatever it is that makes it itself.
This notion of over-introspection is right on the money and it is pretty clear what film he is talking about. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was so lovingly adoring of the Enterprise and her crew that it forgot to make an interesting dramatic movie. Roddenberry’s story aspired to many lofty ideals, but in the end failed to capture the ‘fun factor’ that made the Original Series such a classic. The sad fact of the matter was that Roddenberry just didnt have the right approach to make Star Trek a film franchise…and it cost Paramount quite a lot of money to find out. Many thought Trek might be dead or irrelevent, but Nick Meyer was coming to prove them wrong.
Which one seems more fun?
Bringing in some fresh blood
Following ST: TMP Paramount bought out the remaining rights to the Trek franchise still retained by Roddenberry. They then brought in a new team with director Nicholas Meyer and writer/producer Harve Bennet to make a lower budget sequel. These two changed everything from the look of the ship and the uniforms down to the tone of the narrative. CinemaBlend’s Josh Tyler describes their approach thusly: “they just wanted to make a great movie and they had a ready made universe of characters and places to make it happen with”. Meyer even opened the film with ‘In the 23rd century’ abandoning the Trek convention of ‘stardate’. Something that many Trekkies struggle with is the notion that Trek movies are best when they appeal to a wider audience. A Trek film, especially today, cannot be an exercise in continuity-laden Trekie navel gazing. As Josh puts it, “The franchise needs to shake free all the baggage that comes with being a Star Trek movie, and simply focus on being a great science fiction movie”. Meyer went on to write the 4th film in the franchise (still the biggest earner) and was called on yet again for the successful Star Trek VI. It is noteworthy that Star Trek V, which seemingly killed the franchise again, was the first film Roddenberry was involved in since the first film.
Can Abrams save Trek like Meyer did?
Doing another ST:II isn’t easy
The notion of bringing back the magic of Star Trek II is not a new concept, in fact the impact of that film hovers over the film franchise and all films since are compared to it. What would be a mistake is to attempt to ‘copy’ Star Trek II. This was most recently attempted by the 10th film in the franchise, Star Trek: Nemesis. That film shared many plot elements with ST: II from the obsessed villain to the sacrifice of a beloved cast member. There were even attempts at broadening the appeal with hackneyed ‘action sequences’ (like the much derided dune buggy chase scene). But in the end Nemesis still couldn’t break its shackles of being a film that could only appeal to the loyal base. It never really tried to be just a great drama or even just great scifi and ended up just being too much of a ‘Trek film’. Nemesis co-star (and well regarded TV director) LeVar Burton summed it up best when he said “it sucked”. JJ Abrams has stated he didn’t even see the film, but will now to see where they went wrong.
So which is he? A bit of Gene…with a lot more Meyer
In a sense, Abrams is the new Roddenberry because he holds the keys to the entire franchise in his hands. That being said, the ‘post-Nemesis era’ is very much like the time after ST:TMP. Paramount has again brought Trek back, but with a new creative team. So in that sense he is very much the new Nick Meyer. Perhaps he is a bit of both, but I hope when it comes to his approach to filmmaking he takes a page out of the Meyer playbook. JJ Abrams has stated that Star Trek II is his favorite Star Trek movie. He has also made the point that science fiction needs to be a good drama first, something I am sure Nick Meyer would agree with. So JJ, if you haven’t done it already, why don’t you give Nick a call and chat about Trek.
UPDATE: Ron Moore Agrees
the following quote was given to Star Trek Magazine from former Trek writer/producer and co-creator of BattleStar Galactica Ron Moore:
Abrams’ lack of involvement in Star Trek is hopefully a positive thing, just as it was for Harve Bennet and Nick Meyer when they came in on Wrath of Khan. In that case, it let people take a clean look at the original series and wipe away a lot of the sentimentality in an effort to get at the roots of what the show was…and the results speak for themselves.
IMDB listings for: Star Trek: The Original Series,Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Star Trek: Nemesis