The history of the new Star Trek movie really started with the writing team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci over three years ago. In our most in-depth interview yet, I talked to the writers about taking on the task of reviving Star Trek, and also get into some detail on the plot of the new movie and how it all ties into the Star Trek that we know. We also talk about the sequel!
INTERVIEW w/ ALEX KURTZMAN & ROBERTO ORCI
This interview is an extended version of my interview in the May issue of Geek Monthly Magazine.
You guys have been a hot property in Hollywood, with your names seemingly mentioned with every new big high-profile project. Star Trek was on a downturn and yet has this persnickety fan base. Why did you guys take on the monumental task of satisfying those fans while also saving Star Trek by bringing in new fans?
Alex Kurtzman: Initially we were very skeptical about it and part of it has to do with us being enormous fans ourselves. Obviously the idea of inheriting something that we loved as kids is both really frightening and incredibly tempting.
Orci: Frankly we had an idea and we thought ‘man, this actually might work.’ We actually locked into it once we had an idea of what we wanted to do. Once you have an idea, it is hard to ignore it. It stays in your mind and you think ‘wow if we don’t do it, then someone might come in and ruin it.’ It was both defensive and inspired by an idea of what we thought Star Trek needed.
Did you guys have an idea of what you wanted to do with Trek before that first phone call from Paramount?
Orci: We talked about it in general before, but not as specific before the phone calls came in. But we had discussions about what to do and about going back to the youth of some of the characters we knew. That was rattling around in our brains.
Alex Kurtzman: The immediate problem that we faced was, for us, there was no version of going and doing some new iteration of Star Trek which was, as Bob calls it, the Next Next Generation. That didn’t hold any appeal to us. It was always about going back to The Original Series, but the problem becomes that we know the fate of the characters from The Original Series. So if you are going to breathe new life into Trek, how do you do it while making it unpredictable? If you know how they die, you can never put them into real jeopardy. That led us to where if we altered the timeline we can tell a whole new set of stories with our characters.
Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci didn’t want to do the ‘Next Next Generation’
Back when the film was first announced, much of the speculation revolved around whether or not this film would be a total reboot, like "Batman Begins," or a traditional prequel, like "Revenge of the Sith." By using an alternative timeline, have you done both?
Orci: Yes. We always felt that Star Trek fans can handle paradoxes and multiple interesting thoughts. Yeah, that is why we couldn’t say ‘no’ once we hit upon the idea of it being both a prequel and a sequel. It is literally a film for two audiences. If you know Trek, then you understand where it all comes from. If you aren’t, it acts very much as a prequel.
The fact that you are using an altered timeline has some fans wondering if this is still our crew, or is this some alternative crew?
Alex Kurtzman: The characters have not changed as characters. They still have all the personality traits that we know of the original bridge crew. I think the gravest mistake would have been to try and reinvent the characters. That would have made everybody, including ourselves, very unhappy. It would have felt like violating sacred ground. This was a way to stay true to canon, and to take the stories in a new direction
Orci: Their souls are intact. And we would argue that we would have settled on some of the same character introductions, with or without the incursion from the future. In our minds some of the events overlap completely in both timelines.
Even though things are different in this timeline, like Kirk coming aboard the Enterprise first as a cadet, by the end of the movie every one of the original bridge crew end up where they are supposed to be. Is there some kind of notion that it is their destiny to be on that bridge, regardless of what timeline you are on?
Kurtzman: Yes. In fact there was one version of the script where Kirk points out that it is incredibly odd that they all sort of turned as they would have. Nimoy Spock tells Kirk ‘I knew this character as this person and that character as that person’ and Kirk says ‘wow, those characters are exactly the same ones that I know’ and Spock says something like ‘Fascinating, that must be the timestream’s way of trying to mend itself.’
Orci: It is a nod to destiny. And there is still something like that in the film.
It is their destiny to be on that bridge
So the time travel and the original timeline is discussed in the movie?
Kurtzman: It is the whole plot. It is acknowledged and embraced as an inevitable part of this story. You could not tell this story without it. We are not dancing around it and pretending it doesn’t exist. The whole story is about how their lives have been changed.
Time travel is well established within Star Trek, but I understand you still did a lot of research into real world scientific theory related to it and quantum mechanics. Do you feel that, unlike Star Wars, there is something about Star Trek that requires a scientific approach?
Orci: Absolutely. Star Wars is self-acknowledged fantasy and Star Trek is a possible extrapolation of our future based on what is known now scientifically. That has always been part of the fun of Star Trek. And Mr. Spock has always been the moral soul of Star Trek, and what was he? He was the science officer.
Time travel has been a staple of Star Trek, including many favorite movies and episodes. Did you use time travel again because it had worked in the past?
Orci: Actually the opposite. We hesitated to use time travel, because it was so used. However, it was such an important reason to use it — to have both a prequel and a sequel — to maintain canon, yet free us up. Despite its overuse, we thought ‘let’s use it one more time before we put it away, and then not use it again.’ It was also the only way to justify the level of involvement that we felt for Nimoy to be a genuinely active participant in the movie. And that was worth it and specific enough that it didn’t feel like a gimmick. So we allowed ourselves to use it to jump off.
Nimoy’s Spock is the constant from that original timeline. What is his role in the film?
Orci: He does not simply exist in flashback. He is one of the pivotal turning points that causes the events of the film to happen. In a sense, he is the reason for the events of much of the film.
Kurtzman: And he carries the burden of that throughout the film.
Nimoy’s role is pivotal in ‘Star Trek’
There has been a lot of talk about this film being for future fans of Star Trek, but what is in it for the current fans of Star Trek?
Roberto Orci: It was designed for both. That is the way we pitched our approach from day one — it has to be two movies in one. It is a continuation of continuity and the idea of not giving it up completely, even having bought ourselves some freedom thanks to an altered timeline. What is there for fans going forward is the fact that the universe as it was is not going to be completely ignored as long as we are around.
In addition to the main crew, this film also has a number of other familiar Trek characters. So we see Pike and Sarek and Amanda, but not say Nurse Chapel. How did you make the cut?
Kurtzman: Actually Nurse Chapel was in the first draft. She was in a fun scene early, but I can’t remember why she didn’t end up in it.
Orci: It is just space. You start to eat up real estate. Unlike some other properties, Star Trek already has an ensemble cast that has to be serviced. One of the things we wanted to make sure of is that at the very least our core group of characters had to have a real reason to be in the movie and have their moment to shine. But we tried to make sure that nothing is precluded. So even if we don’t see him, there is nothing in the movie that precludes the existence of Gary Mitchell. Just like Chekov was never technically seen by Khan in The Original Series, but is recognized by Khan in Star Trek II. Why? Because if you had turned left in "Space Seed," you would have run into Chekov.
For the Trek fans, this film includes many little references. For example you have Kirk dropped off on the planet Delta Vega, which was seen in second Star Trek pilot. It is a cool reference, but didn’t you also fudge canon by ignoring that Delta Vega was way out next to the galactic barrier.
Orci: True. Yeah we did. We moved the planet to suit our purposes. The familiarity of the name seemed more important as an Easter egg, than a new name with no importance.
Delta Vega — not as we remember it
There has been a lot of talk about this film bringing a little Star Wars into Star Trek. I believe you guys referred to it as bringing in a little ‘Rock and Roll.’ Can you get specific as to how you are bringing some Star Wars into this movie?
Kurtzman: I think in its simplest form "Star Trek" has been about naval battles, essentially submarine battles in space, so everything was a bit slow, which is great. It is a wonderful staple of Trek because that forced storytellers to come up with amazing ways for the bridge crew to deal with these problems. Star Wars was about World War II dogfights. As a kid, I loved Trek for the characters, but I loved Star Wars for the speed. But there is no reason why those things should be mutually exclusive. Also, at a practical level, if we going to be introducing Star Trek to a new generation of kids, and given what kids are used to now with Star Wars and Transformers and Iron Man and the speed of those movies, it was going to be very hard to bring them back to a slow naval battle. So we thought must be respectful to the naval battle aspect of the franchise, and yet we can bring something else to it.
Orci: Also I think in later Star Trek incarnations, as a result of the adherence to one of the more fascinating aspect of Star Trek, which is the chain of command — it got a little stiff. So saying that ‘it needed a little Rock and Roll’ was also a way of saying that it needed to loosen up a bit.
Part of that loosening up can be seen in that this film has a lot of humor, including broad slapstick humor. Do you feel that is part of Star Trek or something you are bringing in?
Orci: Humor was always part of "Star Trek." You cannot sit in a pile of tribbles and lay your flag into humor, the way the original series did. I think it got a little sidetracked and it was our intention to try and reintroduce it. We tried to find the exact right formula that was achieved by some of the best episodes of the original series, that had a mix of everything.
Simon Pegg’s Scotty – seen stuck in water pipes – delivers much of Star Trek’s humor
Alex, you once said that one of your goals was to have a memorable villain akin to the ultimate Trek bad guy, Khan. So how did you go about creating Nero, and what makes him different than Khan?
Kurtzman: The best bad guys are those that, when you finally understand their story, you sympathize with and you can relate in some way. You may not agree with what they are doing, but you can connect with them emotionally. That is why Khan was so great. Once he tells that story about losing his wife, you get why he is so mad. That was a kind of compass for us in figuring out who Nero was. But as for what is different, as much as you sympathize with Khan, he seems to be a character without a conscience and I can’t say that about Nero.
Orci: Khan was royalty; Nero is working class. Khan was from the distant past; Nero is from the distant future. And I think the focus of their obsession also defines them. For Khan it was Kirk, but for Nero…well we will find out what the focus of his obsession is.
This film is very much a back to basics approach with Kirk, Spock and the original crew. So why then did you go with the Romulans, instead of the more traditional original bad guys, the Klingons?
Orci: We wanted to do a mix, with some classic stuff, but with a twist. And the battle had already been won by fans of Mr. Worf to accept Klingons. So it seems to be going backwards into demonizing a race we had already made friends with on The Next Generation. Whereas the last time we see Nimoy’s Spock, he is in a tenuous sort of cold war with the Romulans. That was the last place where we left that character and we wanted to continue from his point of view.
How are Nero and his crew of Romulans different than the Romulans we have met before, like in "Balance of Terror" or in the Next Generation era?
Orci: The main difference is that they are loyal to each other, but they are not a diplomatic or military arm of the Romulan Empire. They are working-class, normal Romulans, who dreamt of a life in peace on their home planet with their families. They are not people who begin their journey as imperialists. Nero and his crew are not Empire builders.
Like Spock, Nero and his crew of Romulans have traveled back from the 24th century. Will we be seeing other Romulans besides Nero’s crew, maybe even some 23rd century Romulans?
Orci: No. Just like Khan is a singular villain, so too is Nero, and his crew.
Nero — a different kind Romulan
With all the change involved with this movie, what is the fundamental thing you need to still be a true Star Trek movie and not just a big sci-fi action movie with the name Star Trek.
Kurtzman: Two things. One is optimism. I think Star Trek is defined by optimism, even though it goes to very dark places, it is always ultimately a hopeful vision of the future. And the second is the sense of family. The bridge crew as family was always a staple of Trek.
Orci: I would add a third thing — you need a spaceship. I think this bodes poorly for a Deep Space Nine movie, but in my mind Star Trek means a beautiful ship that is your home.
Coming to the end of this three year process and having seen the film, what has been the most surprising thing in the final result?
Orci: So many things had to go right, it is a long list. For every single one of the cast members, when you see them you think ‘I can’t believe that worked.’ But for a headline from me, I would say I was surprised at how emotional it turned out. Especially for something that is considered a big action and sci-fi movie, the emotion is last word that comes to mind, but it really is emotional. Because again it was important to make it about the characters and the people not just make it about spectacle.
Kurtman: I agree with that.
You talked about how there was trepidation when you took on the project, but now after the film is done and fans have seen clips and trailers, are you now more relaxed?
Kurtzman: We have all been living in this world for the last three years. So the idea that it is finally going to be exposed to everybody is daunting, but at the same time very exciting. Inevitably there is going to be a group of people that don’t like what we did, but hopefully there will be more that do. The one thing I can say for sure is that we all did our homework — not just the two of us but Damon [Lindelof], JJ [Abrams], and Bryan [Burk] all really saturated ourselves in the world so that we knew that whatever choices we are making, we were informed. For that reason we are feeling confident, but nervous because it is such a big thing we are putting out there.
How much thought have you put into the sequel?
Kurtzman: A little bit.
Orci: Not a whole lot. We are superstitious about counting our chickens before they hatch.
Does your alternate timeline approach make anything possible in a sequel? So could Kirk and crew run into Khan, but have it play out totally differently than it did the first time?
Orci: Without a doubt. The benefit of doing it this way is that the universe is not entirely changed, but it is not entirely predictable anymore. So the same characters can encounter the same situations, but have different outcomes.
Buckle up for the sequel to Star Trek — where anything can happen
This and more in May’s Geek
To see a version of this interview, plus an interview with JJ Abrams and much more full coverage of Star Trek, pick up the May issue of Geek Magazine, on newsstands now.