At last month’s official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas, I had the privilege to speak about “Treknology”. The experience was great – I was thrilled at the response of my fellow fans to my presentation. What struck me was the response from Jordan Hoffman’s “One Trek Mind” panel on the best Star Trek movie. The feedback from fans was pretty unanimous – the best film was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the worst… was Star Trek Into Darkness.
Fans were more kind when a similar vote took place at the Seattle Star Trek Convention a few days later, where STID ranked 6th, but even then the fans were very vocal and very critical of the film. The sometimes-rabid criticism, much of which was echoed by some film critics and online commentators, gave me pause… and as I reflected on this reaction I came to a conclusion.
Star Trek is broken.
Star Trek, like all long-running entertainment properties, has had peaks and valleys – Some very high highs… and very low lows. In my opinion, Star Trek is at (yet another) turning point.
Star Trek reestablished itself as a cultural phenomenon with the 2009 reboot, and now the franchise is… not quite working. An noted above, lots of old-school fans are unhappy with the newest film, and after talking to some casual fans I doubt Into Darkness will have the same success in bringing new fans into the fold like the ’09 reboot did.
More than that, Into Darkness had underperformed at the box-office – while it was a moderate success and is in the Top 10 films of the year, it is nowhere near the billion-dollar blockbuster that Paramount had hoped. With many other competing geek-friendly properties on the market, Star Trek just isn’t appealing as it once was, and a lot of people are pointing their attention elsewhere.
What can be done to bring Trek back to the forefront, to once again be the seminal piece of entertainment it was before? Here are my thoughts on some things that could be done.
It’s about the Mission Statement
The best television series’ have a “mission statement” – a phrase that describes what the show’s premise is and what it’s all about. Decades ago, that premise was often expressly stated in the lyrics to the show’s theme song (The Patty Duke Show, Gilligan’s Island, etc.). Even today’s shows have an “elevator speech” description that the producers use to make sure they never lose sight of their premise (Breaking Bad’s is “Mr. Chips turns into Scarface”). Star Trek’s mission statement is clear and obvious, and we see it at the very beginning of every episode of the original series:
“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
The best episodes of Star Trek never lost sight of this very simple statement, and still provided excitement as well as provocative ideas. Where was this mission statement in Star Trek Into Darkness? At the end, just like in 2009’s Star Trek. The placement was appropriate in the first film, as it was less about seeing out new life and new civilizations and more about “putting the band together.” That they put it at the end of STID was also correct… because they STILL haven’t done it yet.
When you now have two films that don’t live up to the basic premise of the concept… you have a problem.
It’s about exploration and new ideas
In order to once again “live” that mission statement, Star Trek has to once again be about exploring the unknown, about going beyond what we are comfortable with. About moving forward, finding out what’s “out there.” It could be a Doomsday Machine, or the Horta, or the Guardian of Forever, or Apollo… or something new. Star Trek was a reflection of the “wanderlust” that is a key part of humanity, and how we continually strive to learn, to grow, to understand.
Actor Karl Urban recently stated in an interview that he wanted the third film to be “an original story” and not a rehash of characters or plots from earlier films.
“I really think that what we should do from here, in my personal opinion, is strive to be original. Strive to be something different and new. You know, let’s not forget that Star Trek as envisioned was about space exploration. And it would be really wonderful to harness the spirit of that and apply it to the next film, so that we do something different than a revenge-based picture.”
Hear, hear. Another issue that many critics had with STID was that the “fan service” references to The Wrath of Khan were not well done and made the new film look worse in comparison.
It’s about exploration
It’s about good characters
Making Star Trek once again about exploring the unknown isn’t enough. When you encounter the unknown, when you come across something that no one has ever seen before… how do you react? What do you say or do? That’s about character, who the people you see on the screen really are. The appeal of the best of Trek is when you respond to the characters and understand them – we all know who Kirk Spock and McCoy were on the original series because they were clearly drawn and well written. The outcomes of many episodes were informed by their reactions and decisions, and the best Star Trek – the best FICTION – is about character. Good character (and good acting) can elevate bad material and make it better.
The issue many had with STID was that several of the characters were either not the characters we are used to seeing (from the original series) or thin caricatures (Carol Marcus). You can gloss over that first criticism (it IS a different universe, after all) but the second is more of an issue. Trek without solid characters could end up being… well, a live-action cartoon.
It’s about breaking from the past
Most science fiction on TV before Star Trek was, effectively, children’s programming. Shows like Space Cadet or Lost In Space, where fantastical concepts and action sequences were more important than dramatic storytelling and strong characterization. Star Trek and other shows like it broke from that juvenile cycle and were adult stories targeted at intelligent viewers. Looking at Star Trek Into Darkness, one sees the same storytelling trend that other summer blockbusters are suffering from – an over reliance on action sequences and bombast, where visual effects supplant acting and story. It’s more like Space Cadet on the big screen than Star Trek.
Just as the original series broke from convention to tell adult stories, Star Trek needs to once again break from the past and stop being about the Enterprise and crew. Yes, I know, this might be a scandalous idea to many of you reading this, but think about it: We have had hundreds of episodes and almost a dozen movies about the crew of the Enterprise. We need to look at a new ship, a new crew, and explore new ground. Have a link to the past (maybe a crew member or two), but Star Trek needs to move forward.
And that means saying goodbye to what came before, in a clean break.
It’s about good writing
A lot of critical barbs were aimed at the writers of Star Trek Into Darkness about the script and plot of the film. I won’t join in that chorus, because writing a multi-billion dollar film is something I have never had to do. The pressure must be IMMENSE, and there are many hoops that you have to jump through to produce a script for such a project. That being said, Star Trek at its best has always had top-notch writing, no matter the series.
How can we once again elevate the writing in Star Trek? Simple: Go outside of the Hollywood bubble and hire some science fiction writers. Lots of science fiction writers are also Trek fans, and asking writers like Neil Gaimen or John Scalzi to write new Trek would immediately elevate the profile of Trek with many fans.
Having writers such as these working on a big-budget Hollywood screenplay is not the best idea. You need to let them play in a bigger, more expansive playground. Which is why the final and number one way to fix Star Trek is…
It’s about being on TV
Where is the quality writing coming from right now? No offense to the writers of Hollywood films, but the best writing is on television right now. Shows like Homeland, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and more demonstrate that the golden age of entertainment isn’t in cinemas, it’s on TV. Star Trek started out on TV, and it is the best medium for the property. Even William Shatner recently said that Star Trek is best suited to TV, and he makes the argument better than I could. Here’s the relevant quote:
“When you get into the small screen, you need stories… entertaining, interesting, vital stories that have a philosophy and also have an excitement about them, so that the viewer stays with it, but receives the philosophy as a byproduct. Those were the best of Star Trek, those kinds of stories. And that kind of thing, there is always room for that. That kind of imaginative approach that stirs young people into wanting to be connected with science.”
Right on, Mr. Shatner. Star Trek should be back on TV. Period.
There you have it, some very direct ideas on how to “fix” Star Trek and make it relevant and exciting once more. What say you? Respond in the comments with your ideas on how to make Star Trek the groundbreaking entertainment property it once was… to once again bring new blood and new viewers into the fold. To continue to boldly go…