Since the announcement of Star Trek XI there has been a frenzy of both excitement and anxiety. Scores of people are speaking up with their opinion on how J. J. Abrams should craft the story, with some championing strict adherence to the Trek canon, while others wish he would throw it all out with the bathwater much as Ronald D. Moore’s re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica. But in all of this, the truth is that the Trek franchise began dying more than a decade ago as viewership declined from a peak during the height of Next Generation to the abysmal ratings of Enterprise and poor box office results for Nemesis. Mr. Abrams has a massive task ahead of him. He must breathe life into a franchise that has lost its fan base by finding a way to open Trek up to an entire new generation. However, I believe that in order for the movie to be successful, he must also find a way to also connect with ‘old school’ fan base. There are a lot of us out here with purchasing power of a demographic that spans every generation. J. J. Abrams will have to pull out those things that were great about Star Trek and “reboot” the franchise in such a way as to attract a mainstream audience. It is a monumental task, but one that could be accomplished simply by talking with the “Old School.”
In with the New, but not out with the Old (school)
Who is the “Old School?” This group, of which I am a proud member, has been with Star Trek since the beginning. We started with The Original Series from the 60s, whether as it aired or in reruns; were some of the first to see The Motion Picture; and celebrated the rebirth of the television series with The Next Generation in 1987. We clearly remember when Gene Roddenberry was securely at the helm of the franchise and still get chills when we hear the name D.C. Fontana.
Roddenberry’s vision still matters
More than anything else we “Old Schoolers” were attracted to Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry’s positive vision of the future. At a time when the Cold War loomed over us with the threat of nuclear annihilation and social strife seemed to permeate every level of society, Star Trek offered a breath of hope in a world that seemed to be growing increasingly dark. Mr. Roddenberry believed that humans were good, technology was glorious, and despite all of our problems, we would eventually work it out and become great. As the man himself said:
It speaks to some basic human needs, that there is a tomorrow – it’s not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids human beings built them because they’re clever and they work hard. And ‘Star Trek’ is about those things.
– Gene Roddenberry, "StarTrek" 25th Anniversary special, 1991
In addition, the positive, uplifting, and heroic message of the series spoke to us in different tones outside the dark vision of most contemporary science fiction. Compared to the New Wave and Cyberpunk movements in SF, Star Trek gave us genre fans a place to feel good.
In the annals of science fiction, where dystopias rule the imaginative roost, Star Trek stood nearly alone in telling us that our future would be better than our past, that our common problems could be solved, that we as a species were fundamentally good, and that the universe would reward us for our goodness.
– Mike Marqusee and Charles Shaar Murray, “The End of The Trek” Prospect Magazine (August 2001)
which future do you want to go to?
Then it all changed
But then it all changed. A new regime took over at Paramountand launched series after series that seemed to do more to drive audiences away, and many of us “Old Schoolers” stopped watching. Star Trek fell out of the mainstream, falling from a high of over 17 million weekly viewers in 1993 with The Next Generation, to less than a third of that by the end of the decade with Voyager and DS9. As I mentioned previously, the ratings catastrophe that was Enterprise and the abysmal box office performance of Nemesis helped seal the coffin. But by this time, many of us “Old Schoolers” were already gone.
What drove us away? Very simply it was the abandonment ofGene Roddenberry’s hopeful vision of the future—the core thing that brought“The Old School” to Star Trek.
The slide began with Deep Space Nine. As many can agree, it was a well written and well-produced television series, but even Ira Steven Behr admitted that many fans believed that DS9 had “gone away from the image of the future as a paradise.” It lacked the enthusiasm for what was to come, so we, along with the “mainstreamers,” stopped watching, and each subsequent series had difficulty attracting the throngs of viewers as did Next Generation.
The latter films also didn’t feel like Trek to us. RogerEbert said of Generations:
In "Star Trek:Generations," the starship can go boldly where no one has gone before, butthe screenwriters can only do vice versa.
– Roger Ebert, “Review of StarTrek: Generations” Chicago Sun Times(November 18, 1994)
In the end Generations performed adequately, but nothing could help Nemesis:
Star Trek was kind of terrific once, but now it is a copy of a copy of a copy.
– Roger Ebert, “Review of StarTrek: Nemesis” Chicago Sun Times (December13, 2002)
Nemesis only brought in $72 million worldwide, making it the worst performing of and possibly only money-loser of the franchise.
If you (re)build it…we will come (back)
To “reboot” the franchise—to make Star Trek great once again, it is as simpleas looking to the past. For a series to maintain such loyalty and passion overa forty-year span is unprecedented, but it’s slow death over the past ten yearshas been a result of ignoring those things that thrust it into the mainstream. For this, “The Old School” may be able to help. If we could encapsulate the three things that are important to us, that speak to the core of Trek and may help Mr. Abrams in his quest, they would be as follows.
First, stay true to the basic Star Trek canon.
For a series that has been around for forty years, it leaves a lot of impressions on pop-culture in its wake. In contrast, BattlestarGalactica was a one-season TV series from the seventies with little to no impact on pop-culture. Even so, Ronald D. Moore had to endure fallout from a legion of fans of the short-lived series when he re-imagined BSG in 2003. Considering the vast size of the fan base and popularity of Trek, manhandling what has come before would confuse tens of millions around the world who have enjoyed Star Trek for the past four decades. It would do more to alienate rather than create a welcoming film for old and new fans.
By adhering to the basic canon a lot of the groundwork has already been accomplished with regards to gathering an audience. For a filmmaker this allows the glories of a work that is almost self-promoting. When the mainstream thinks of Star Trek they have certain pre-conceived ideas — some good and some bad. But in the end all publicity is good publicity and if the film is as magnificent as we hope, this word of mouth will only encourage people to slap down ten dollars at the theater. This doesn’t mean that the canon can’t be bent. There has been a rich history of writers messing with some things minor, and some major,in order to craft Trek into their image:
- In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Kirk orders one-quarter impulse while in spacedock. Seems a little fast to me. Thrusters maybe
- Klingons change their appearance
- Transwarp drive
- Many Trek Alien Races come and go, depending on the serie
- Character of Zefram Cochrane discrepancy in First Contact vs. TOS
Yet what didn’t change were the basic concepts of StarFleet, warp drive, the Romulans, Klingons, phasers, photon torpedoes, and all those things that seem to continue from TheOriginal Series through Enterprise. From an “Old School” perspective, keeping with the big picture and staying with the basic commonality that has existed throughout all incarnations of Trek will satisfy us and provide a great jumping off point for new fans
Second: Give us heroes.
Loyalty, honor, and integrity were all traits of Trek characters, especially those through The Next Generation. Sure they were conflicted and had personalflaws (Spock dealing with his humanity—Data dealing with his lack thereof), but they were heroic and the types of people we would follow to the ends of the universe.
Third, and most important: Stay true to Gene Rodenberry’s positive vision of the future.
This, more than anything else, is what defined Star Trek and drew us “Old Schoolers” into the franchise. The idea that we will work out our differences and journey out into space to unite different alien races into the Federation of Planets is powerful, uplifting, and compelling. It gives us hope. It allows us to see a bright future for our children in times as dark as these. It gives us faith in technology—that it is good and necessary for our survival. Humans are the only species that completely rely on technology to survive, so Gene found it important to sing its praises while others sought to demonize it. This is the essence of Trek and what made it so great. Yet, Gene Rodenberry’s vision was abandoned to the detriment of the franchise. Resurrecting this hopeful vision will have us “Old Schoolers” flocking to the theaters, dragging along our friends and families to share with them what we hope will be the rebirth of something that millions have enjoyed for over forty years. 20 years ago Roddenberry summed it up best when asked why the franchise had endured:
There is a tomorrow – we humans are going to make it – we’re something. To any young-minded person, that’s a very important statement
– GR, "Good Morning America"interview with Joan Lunden, 1986.
here we come to save the day…
So, Mr. Abrams, as the member of the “Old School,” if you want to open up Star Trek to a whole new audience, all the while keeping the old guard happy, stay true to the basic premise of Trek, give us heroes, and give us hope. Gene Rodenberry gave us hope — a hope for our future that was bright and compelling. It gave us faith that the human race will go on, thrive, and be a force for good in the galaxy.
NOTE: the preceding is one in our ongoing series of guest editorials, the opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of TrekMovie.com. TrekMovie.com will continue to support a diversity of opinion and discussion; and we encourages open minds.
Michael L. Wentz is a writer and lifelong fan of Star Trek — a proud member of “The Old School.” His debut novel “Resurrection of Liberty” has been nominated for several awards,including the 2006 Prometheus Award for Best Novel. Find out more at his Official Website, or his blog: Phantom Reflections.