The following essay comes to us from Lukas Kendall at Film Score Monthly (www.filmscoremonthly.com), whose Star Trek credentials including producing or co-producing most of the recent collector’s edition soundtrack CDs like the 15-disc La-La Land Records TOS box set. He also assisted with the recent publication of Return to Tomorrow, the oral history of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Lukas says he’s a lifelong Trekker who follows the ongoing dialogue about the franchise, and thought he had something to add about its fundamental appeal—and, among other things, the reason why J.J. Trek is so polarizing.
There has been a cottage industry of essays about how to make Star Trek more popular. Many of the prescriptions are simple: Put it back on television. Hire good people to make it. (Certainly, good creators always help.)
But there is a basic assumption that Star Trek could be every bit as successful as the Marvel universe or Star Wars—or even DC—if only CBS and Paramount could work through their business problems.
I think it’s not so simple—and the reason why is not a matter of taste. It is a matter of story.
Star Wars and the Marvel movies are action-packed spectacles that appeal to attention-deficit teenagers—the blockbuster sweet spot. Star Trek, by contrast, appeals to the brainy outsider. It’s slow, talky, even philosophical—a little bit like eating your vegetables.
The same things that are the source of Star Trek’s appeal are also the source of its limitations. Try to change it to appeal to everyone, and you’ll appeal to no one.
Star Trek just had two mega-budget blockbusters that were aggressively made and marketed for the modern, global movie audience. They are spectacular productions that cost a lot of money, made a lot of money, were popular and well reviewed—but did not set box-office records. A third film is likely to continue the trend.
Tellingly, some Trek fans revile the new films. That is because, in order to appeal to a modern global audience, they fundamentally alter the franchise’s DNA. This has nothing to do with the creation of an alternate timeline, which is ingenious. It is about taking a pacifist, cerebral, talky television show and turning it into an action-adventure movie. Something is lost along the way.
Star Trek is fundamentally not action-adventure. Drama is conflict, and blockbuster movies are about “branding” the conflict as specific forms of physical fighting: Comic book movies are superpower slugfests. Star Wars is lightsaber duels, blasters and spaceship dogfights. James Cameron’s films are commando-style militaristic warfare. The Matrix is “bullet-time” kung fu.
Star Trek has always had its share of fighting—from 1960s fisticuffs to submarine-style warfare—but the best Star Trek “fighting”…is talking. Kirk talks a computer into exploding. Picard talks a bad guy into laying down his arms.
Star Trek has never translated well to movies. Its style and ideas play best on television, without the need to: (1) encapsulate its entire world (2) into the fundamental transformation of a single character, (3) that happens over two hours, (4) with all of civilization in jeopardy, including (5) stuff for the supporting cast to do and (6) all the de rigueur “He’s dead, Jim” moments, while (7) humoring die hard fans by not changing too much and (8) pandering to morons.
The best Star Trek film is still The Wrath of Khan—which doesn’t put Earth in jeopardy or climax in a fistfight, kills a major character (as a requirement of being made), and was shot cheaply on recycled sets. At a time when Star Trek was only 79 episodes of the original series, a cartoon, and a widely seen but unloved movie, Nicholas Meyer and his colleagues had the freedom to do what they wanted, so long as it was cheap: tell a good, literary and character-based story. Today, that movie would not survive the first development meeting.
A common refrain is to put Star Trek back on television and make it for adults—the Mad Men or Game of Thrones of Star Trek series. Sounds exciting!
It’s also impossible. You can’t make the “adult” Star Trek series because Star Trek is not about adults. It can be for adults, but it is not about them.
What are the driving realities of adult life? Sex and money. What is never in Star Trek? Sex and money.
Sure, there’s suggested sex. Off-screen sex. Characters have romantic relationships, but viewed as a child would—Mommy and Daddy go to their room, and come out the next morning.
Money? There are “credits” but I still don’t understand the Federation’s economic system. Do the crew get paid? Is the Federation communist? (There was a great article about this: https://medium.com/@RickWebb/the-economics-of-star-trek-29bab88d50)
There have already been 726 episodes and 12 movies of Star Trek—and too many of them revolve around misunderstood space anomalies.
Would it be best to start from scratch? Creatively—no doubt about it. But Star Trek fans would never allow that. Star Trek is not like James Bond or Batman, where every decade you cast a new actor and wipe the slate clean. Or like Marvel’s movies and TV series, which are drawn from fifty years of mythology, but nobody expects them to slavishly reproduce the comic books—or even be consistent with each other.
Star Trek fans demand every installment connect with every other one. We already have the “Abramsverse,” which was cleverly constructed as an alternate reality. Can there be another recasting, with a third actor playing Kirk, or a second playing Picard? I doubt it.
Stay in the Abramsverse? Possibly, but Into Darkness demonstrated the problem of doing this: you’re constantly running into characters and scenarios you already know. Not only do the writers have to tell the same story twice—for the people who know the original, and the ones who don’t—but it’s never as good the second time.
Go another hundred years into the future, aboard the Enterprise-G? Maybe. But no matter what, you have a consistent, intricate universe that has to be respected. Hard to bump into an asteroid without it being like that time on Gamma Epsilon VI.
Star Trek already had one fundamental storytelling upgrade: when The Next Generation got good in season three (circa 1990) and took a turn into Philip K. Dick issues of perception and reality—which is to say, postmodernism. It jettisoned the 1960s melodrama—great move—but replaced it with technobabble. Ugh.
The Problem With Star Trek
Unlike the Marvel universe—which takes place in contemporary reality—Star Trek takes place in the future. And not just an abstract future, but a specific vision of the future from fifty years in the past. It’s not only a period piece, but a parallel universe—a “double remove.”
Before man landed on the moon, manned space travel was plausible. Roddenberry intended the bridge of the Enterprise to be completely believable. (Next to The Beverly Hillbillies, he was doing Chekhov—that’s with an h.) But we now know that (Interstellar and Avatar aside) interplanetary space travel is not realistic, or certainly not happening any time soon.
As a result, Star Trek is irrevocably dated. What was meant to be the actual future has become a fantasy future—but it’s not allowed to acknowledge it. Star Wars is unashamed space fantasy, set in a make-believe galaxy, but Star Trek is supposed to be real. (I guess I missed the Eugenics Wars.) Ever wonder why in Star Trek they only listen to classical music, or sometimes jazz? Hearing anything recorded after 1964 would puncture the reality (except for time travel stories). This is the same reason why The West Wing never referenced a president after Kennedy.
Roddenberry aspired to do cosmic wonder and weirdness—“The Cage,” Star Trek: The Motion Picture—but these stories are wildly expensive and dramatically abstract. (How do you fight an alien that can destroy you with its thoughts?) Star Trek became a more elevated version of Flash Gordon or Buck Rodgers, a predecessor to Star Wars, transplanting 19th century colonialism (instead of feudalism) into space. Klingons instead of Russians, Romulans instead of Chinese (or vice versa). It’s a futuristic version of Captain Horatio Hornblower, as Nick Meyer realized—and Roddenberry intended—that could be practically produced on a weekly basis. (Master and Commander is a great Star Trek movie.)
Why can’t you do a variety of stories set in different corners of the Star Trek universe? Because Marvel can go anyplace in the contemporary world to mine relatable characters and interesting storylines—from the corridors of a high school to the streets of New York City to foreign countries to mythical Asgard. But Star Trek has to go different places within its own, make-believe universe, bound by specific storytelling and ideological rules: it is, by definition, a ship in space. They tried space without a ship (DS9), a ship lost in space (Voyager), a prequel ship (Enterprise), and an alternate universe ship (Abramsverse); how many more variations can there be? One wonders if even Star Wars will be able to sustain its “expanded universe” movies and TV series, but it has the advantages of a bigger fanbase, more action-adventure style, and fewer continuity restrictions.
How do you reinvent Star Trek for a modern television audience? There already was a terrific, adult human space drama—from one of the best Star Trek writers, Ron Moore. Battlestar Galactica was adapted from an old TV show that Moore was at complete liberty to rework (since it sucked and no one cared).
One thing Moore took care to do: no aliens. Because aliens fundamentally don’t make sense. All over the galaxy, there are aliens who look and act like (white) humans with bumpy foreheads, they all speak English (somehow “universally translated”), each planet has a single culture and government, yet the Prime Minister’s office consists of three people, and no society has television—really?
But we can’t get rid of aliens on Star Trek—because of Spock. Who rules.
So as much as I’d love to see Star Trek on the small screen again, I question how it could be done without violating continuity or its fundamental appeal. It’s certainly not suitable for a True Detective-style reimagining.
What is the appeal of Star Trek? Forget about sex and money—the humans on Star Trek aren’t even human. The aliens are human. Let me explain.
The appeal of Star Trek—the drug that intoxicates a certain percentage of the world’s population—is Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future. We despair at the pathetic failures of our species—our polluting, warfare, cruelty and selfishness—but Star Trek says, “Relax. Humanity will survive. We will triumph. We will solve our problems and fly to the stars. Everything will be great!”
It is a wonderful, inspirational message. It deserves to have lasted fifty years—may it last forever. It’s not necessarily a future that will come to pass, but it’s good to have this positive message in the culture. (The best TV series of the last twenty years to carry this spirit? The West Wing.)
It’s not just the fantasy of us as a species. Roddenberry’s vision is one of adult life as seen by a child, anxious about a future as a grown-up. How will I live by myself, without my parents? How will I learn to socialize, to have romantic love, a family of my own, a job? Will the world still be there for me? Who will take care of me?
Starfleet will! You will have a job on the Enterprise, full of friends, colorful uniforms, understandable work (Warp speed! Level-one diagnostics!), galactic adventure, and a social life of fun on the Holodeck and poker in Riker’s quarters.
Think about the characters on Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry was adamant that humanity would evolve and shed petty and negative characteristics. Drama relies upon conflict between characters—but he didn’t want the crew to fight amongst themselves. Therefore—to the frustration of most of Star Trek’s writers—Star Trek’s human characters are bereft of the personality traits that create drama.
How does one tell a Star Trek story if drama (conflict between characters) is forbidden? The humans are drama-free—so you make the aliens the humans.
Consider Star Trek’s most pivotal characters: they are always the aliens. In Star Trek, humans are perfect—therefore dull. The aliens, however, are versions of human children learning how to become adults.
Spock is a repressed child. Data is a shy child. Worf is an angry child. Seven of Nine is a repressed, angry child with big boobs.
The same goes for the races: the Vulcans are repressed kids, the Klingons angry kids. (The Romulans have never quite worked because…what are they, exactly?)
Think of the three most-developed characters on Next Generation: Picard, Data and Worf. (Picard is the father figure, representing all of humanity.)
What did we really learn about Riker, except that he played trombone (because the actor did)? About Troi (half-alien, but close enough), except that she liked chocolate? About Crusher…at all?
And didn’t they struggle to find quality episodes for these characters?
In Star Trek, the human characters lack dimension—because they are idealized. They are viewed as perfect the way children view their parents as perfect—finding them incapable of dark or deviant behavior. At most, they are given trivial social problems to solve—like Geordi being nervous about going on a first date. (What was he, forty? The chief engineer on the best ship in the fleet, and he couldn’t get laid?)
The child-parent model explains why attempts to go “dark” on Star Trek—from Nemesis to Into Darkness, and even rebelling against the Federation in Insurrection—never work. It’s like watching Mommy and Daddy fight—it’s not interesting, it’s sickening. (The exception that proves the rule: the Mirror universe, a wacky funhouse that’s not real.)
In the last movie, watching Kirk be a brash asshole (again!) and the Federation warmongering maniacs is like seeing your dad as an alcoholic and your mom a hooker. Sure, it may make for a more interesting family, but it actually hurts to watch.
In marketing speak: it goes against the brand. (I hope someone reads this.)
The Best Star Trek
Maybe you think I hate Star Trek. Au contraire! I love it. I would love to see new Star Trek produced and be popular.
But it has to be good Star Trek, and that requires a leap of faith on the part of the producers.
For Star Trek to be high quality, it has to risk appealing to fewer people—less action, more talk. Fewer special effects, not more. Intimate, not epic.
Making a lot of it is not a good idea because it’ll start to repeat itself and suck (cf. Enterprise).
Fans are not necessarily the best people to dictate what Star Trek ought to be. They want exactly what they’ve already seen, while also being completely surprised. Can’t be done. (This is the problem with all sequels and franchises.)
Fans are also obsessed with “continuity porn”—brief moments of recognition with no storytelling value. They are empty calories.
Nick Meyer likens Star Trek to the Catholic mass, which has been set to music by composers throughout the centuries. The composers can change the music, but the text is always the same. Star Trek has a glorious text that can be set into music a few more times—at least. But the text is not well understood—certainly not by studio executives, and rarely even by fans.
There are doubtless readers of this essay who will bristle at my implications that Star Trek is for children—that by extension I am calling them children. Star Trek is not for idiot children. On the contrary, it is for very bright children—ones with big hearts and quick minds who long for purpose, a sense of belonging and a universe that is just and wise.
It is for the child in all of us, stripped of our adult baggage, forever hopeful, curious, eager to please and to experience love—not necessarily a romantic love, but the love of all of mankind. “All I want,” you may say to yourself, “is to be a good person, and be loved for it.”
Importantly, the best Star Trek stories involve death, from “The City on the Edge of Forever” and The Wrath of Khan to “The Bonding” and “Yesterday’s Enterprise.” They feature characters facing death, a little bit as a child would (the first loss of a grandparent), but accepting it with elegance and grace—an inspiration for all of us who must come to terms with our mortality.
When we accept death, we also accept life. We accept ourselves.
Or at least, I think this is what Spock was trying to tell me…on my birthday.
Live Long and Prosper
Star Trek has survived for fifty years, and will hopefully survive for fifty more. It’s a wonderful, timeless creation, with an important message about the human condition.
That message, says Linus on the school stage, is not to buy more DVDs, toys or movie tickets. When it comes to merchandising and exploitation, Star Trek may be the granddaddy of them all, but it will always to take a back seat to something flashier and more popular. As well it should.
Star Trek should not be run like a money machine, but curated like an important museum piece—which is paradoxically how it will become the most popular, and make the most money. This doesn’t mean it should never change. The “music” always needs to be updated, shorn of things that are dated and bad. But the “text” is immutable.
The next Star Trek creators need not be Star Trek fans—many of the best have known nothing of it (Nick Meyer), but also so have some of the worst (Stuart Baird)—so long as they understand and appreciate the text.
The text is the heart of Star Trek. It is story, not spectacle. It is gentle, not aggressive. It is optimistic, not dark. It is hopeful, compassionate and, above all—the captain says with a tear running down his cheek—human. In the right hands, it can, and should, last forever.
Lukas Kendall has produced collector’s edition soundtrack CDs to multiple Star Trek films and television series, along with hundreds of other albums for his label, Film Score Monthly, and others. His first film as a cowriter and producer, the indie thriller Lucky Bastard, is not for kids and not at all like Star Trek. He says some of his critical ideas about Trek and child psychology were inspired by a little-known 1990s book of essays called Enterprise Zones (http://www.amazon.com/Enterprise-Zones-Critical-Positions-Studies/dp/0813328985).