Star Trek turns 50 next year. Yet it feels like it’s at a nadir in its cultural importance. A movie every few years just isn’t enough. Iconic cinematic franchises continue to churn out movie after movie: Harry Potter, DC, Marvel, Hunger Games, Marvel, Star Wars, Marvel, Fast & Furious, Marvel. Michael Chang Gummelt, creator of fan-made story Star Trek Beyond (coincidentally the same name chosen for the new Star Trek feature film) and owner of www.StarTrekBeyond.com, takes a look at the state of the franchise through the eyes of a fan creator in the below essay.
UPDATE: The project is now officially titled “Star Trek Uncharted” and is hosted at www.StarTrekUncharted.com.
Fantastic fan productions are doing nearly as much to keep Trek relevant as the films (especially among longtime fans). But for Trek to fully regain its place as a forward-looking source of inspiration for our next generation of scientists, leaders and adventurers, it must return to the medium that it was born from: TV.
I’ve written Trek before (the “Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force” video game) and had a series concept that I’d been toying with for 20 years. So I figured: why not? Write up my proposal, try to get it noticed and start a conversation amongst the fan community about what Star Trek should be in the future, and what that future might look like. I wrote a series bible, a 2-hour pilot, and 4 episodes. I named it “Star Trek Beyond” and put it all up on www.StarTrekBeyond.com (UPDATE: now at www.StarTrekUncharted.com). I sent it to any industry contacts I could find as well as Trek and sci-fi blogs. Of course, nobody showed much interest in it because everyone and their brother has a Star Trek idea to pitch.
More than a year later – by sheer happenstance – it turns out Paramount has chosen the same name for their next movie! Suddenly the website and concept are getting lots of attention! I’ve been getting tons of great feedback on the idea and even some industry insiders are responding to my e-mails now. And I’m certain Paramount is aware of it, too. Before the announcement, my website was getting maybe 50 hits a day, but the day that TrekMovie broke the news that the new movie was to be titled Star Trek Beyond, it jumped to 6,500.
So this is my chance – my chance to express why I think it’s so important that Star Trek return to TV; why it needs to be reborn and modernized – in format, technology and in its themes.
Star Trek on film has always been different from Star Trek on TV, and necessarily so. Big-budget movies need to stick to a high adventure, short-story format for the masses. The audience wants to see the heroes win and get closure in the span of about 2 hours. The problems have to feel “big” to justify it being a movie instead of a TV episode. This has been a curse for Trek films since the beginning. If you make a movie with a story that feels too small (like, perhaps, “Insurrection”), then people complain that it feels like just another episode. But if you make the story too big (Earth/Galaxy/Timeline in peril), then fans complain that it doesn’t feel like Star Trek anymore.
I can’t think of another franchise with this peculiar dilemma. Star Trek is a TV series that has become so popular that the movies need to somehow simultaneously distance itself from the show while maintaining its spirit.
I love what Pegg has said he wants to do with Star Trek 3. It’s the perfect direction for the movie series and it’s sorely needed. We need to see this new incarnation be explorers, to have a sense of camaraderie like the Roddenberry/Coon crew had. We need to see them on a heady sci-fi adventure like TOS had, written by some of the best sci-fi writers of the time. We need to see the crew be friends, be competent and have fun.
The film that accomplished this best was “Star Trek IV: The One With The Whales.” It was the first Trek film to really reach a wider audience. Maybe because it stripped away a lot of the trappings of Star Trek (the Enterprise, the future, Klingons, etc.) and brought the characters to our era, and then just had fun with its concept. It was a fish-out-of-water story (so to speak). It had high stakes (established concisely at the onset), was broadly appealing (relatable, funny) and felt like a Star Trek episode (time travel was nothing new to Trek). A neat hat trick, and certainly difficult to repeat.
I think Pegg may be onto something, though, when he mused about possibly taking a story people are familiar with (a heist, a western, etc.) and putting the Star Trek characters in it. This might actually be the secret sauce to finding a way to have your cake and eat it, too (and other mixed metaphors). Maybe he’s busy writing the NuTrek equivalent of Star Trek IV (I have faith in him – his movies have always been entertaining, he’s clearly a bright, insightful person and loves Star Trek).
And yet, still, Star Trek movies are not what most consider the heart & soul of Star Trek. It needs to return to the format that made it what it was in the first place: episodic television. Not because TV is superior. But because a multi-hour series allows the show to slowly introduce you to the wonderful world-building that Star Trek is so great at – all of the amazing technology, interesting civilizations, bizarre lifeforms and strange new worlds. As good as the movies are, they don’t have the time to reveal these things to the audience.
But most importantly, like any good TV series, the characters get time to reveal themselves, grow and change. We see them in quiet times and in crisis. We learn their quirks and idiosyncrasies. We see how they behave in all different situations. We get to know them, understand them, feel for them. They become important to us. And Star Trek, as much as it’s been about sci-fi, space opera and action/adventure… has always been about the characters when it’s at its best.
Episodic TV has come so far, even since The Next Generation. On my website, I propose a 10-13 episode premium cable format series along the lines of a Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, or the new Daredevil series on Netflix. I see the amazing potential for Star Trek if that premium, quality-over-quantity model was applied to it. Imagine the deep storytelling, compelling narratives and character growth that you could get out of a show like Star Trek when approached with modern storytelling techniques. It could be the greatest Star Trek ever. That’s my hope, and that was my goal with my proposal: to bring Trek into the modern era of TV.
While CBS owns the rights to produce a new Star Trek series, there’s no reason it couldn’t air on a premium cable channel like Showtime (in the same corporate family as CBS). In fact, a premium cable Star Trek series might be freed from the restraints of the 4-act format, 42-minute running times, a budget stretched thin over 23 episodes and commercial sponsorship. These days there are new options, such as Netflix series or Amazon.
Star Trek has been off the air for 10 years. It is true that almost 20 years passed between TOS and TNG, but keep in mind that TMP was originally going to be a series called Star Trek: Phase II, which began production in 1977. If no new Star Trek series is in the works already, this is certainly the longest time that TV Star Trek has lain completely dormant.
The 50th anniversary of Star Trek is coming up. That’s half a century of mind-expanding science fiction on TV and film! What better time to both celebrate what it has meant to all of us… while at the same time giving it a rebirth and launching it into the future with a new focus, a new mission and a new outlook on the very different world we live in today?
Why Star Trek Beyond?
Star Trek Beyond is an attempt to revitalize a vision that Roddenberry had, modernized for the 21st century. With a new format, new technology, a new crew and a new mission. I’ve been working on this concept for 20 years, revising and polishing the concept, continually updating it as the years passed. All the while, I tried to keep the core values of Good Trek in mind:
- Interesting, diverse characters who interact and grow
- A progressive, optimistic view of the future
- The thrill of discovery, the adventure of the unknown
- Space exploration
- High concept sci-fi, but with a respect for and grounding in real science
- Cutting-edge technology
Star Trek Beyond is set several decades after the time of Captain Kirk. Starfleet is more diverse than it has ever been, with people from over 1,000 member worlds serving in active duty. It is a time of relative peace, the “Pax Galactica”. There have been no major wars for 20 years. Much of the Galaxy has been explored and Starfleet is largely a policing force.
But unknown to most, a mysterious signal was received 20 years ago – from the Andromeda Galaxy. A new Enterprise with a new generation of explorers are sent to answer the call, in person.
Here are some key elements of my concept:
The diversity in the crew is designed to allow for stories that can comment on our modern world of ethnic, cultural and gender diversity, of always-on connectivity, of escapism, of stress and overworking and of inequality and prejudice. For the first time, Star Trek would have a balance of male and female characters as well as some sorely needed genderqueer characters. Characters of all races, cultures and variations (both Human and alien) that would reflect our modern world and the issues we face today, like classic Trek did in its time. One of the best decisions TNG made was to add Worf. To take a species that had been the “other”, a one-dimensional aggressive enemy, and make them a friend. By making Worf a protagonist, we got to see the depth of the Klingon psyche and come to understand them. We came to see how they are really a part of us. The Klingons became the Vulcans of TNG. By bringing diversity to “Star Trek Beyond”, it adds diversity to our own self-image.
It is easy to be very pessimistic about the future. The economy is depressed, jobs are still difficult to come by, there is still much prejudice and conflict in the world and we even seem to have given up on space, itself. It’s been a very difficult 10-15 years where we’ve been turned inward as a people, instinctively, protectively. I believe we need to be optimistic about the future; we need to return to lofty goals, great dreams and reach for the stars, both figuratively and literally. The crew of Star Trek Beyond will rise to the occasion, face the unknown and venture into a whole new galaxy in search of answers. We get to see a real frontier story, reminiscent of TOS. It will take Trek in a new but familiar direction, let it grow, let it build off of what came before, and let it recapture some of its original “wagon train to the stars” spirit.
One major approach that could help revive Star Trek is to present its stories in a more modern way. The best shows nowadays tell their stories in a more naturalistic format, with less expository dialogue and more reliance on acting and directing to convey subtext (“show, don’t tell”). Stories don’t all wrap up nice & neatly, with everything back to normal by the end of an episode. I’ve designed Star Trek Beyond in this way: there’s a theme to each season of 13 high-quality episodes and stories are told in long arcs with overlapping subplots, mysteries and character arcs.
Star Trek has many “old” new ideas built into it as part of its legacy – communicators, transporters, replicators, touch screens, warp drive, artificial gravity, etc. My goal is to keep those that still make sense and introduce or update others that seem likely given the direction of modern technology (for example: already our smartphones have far surpassed the PADDs and communicators in previous Star Trek series’, so I’ve jettisoned them for the most part and introduced new technology to replace them that still seems futuristic).
Star Trek Is A Community
At the beginning of this piece, I said this is “my chance”. But, really, I think this is our chance, as a fan community, probably the largest, most vocal, most active fan community in the world! We should speak up and be heard; we should let the powers that be know that we want Star Trek back and better than ever! We should let all the stakeholders know that, whatever the obstacles, it will be worth it and Star Trek can be a cultural phenomenon again if it’s allowed to be reborn again and run free. It’s up to all of us to make this happen: Star Trek has always been made stronger by the passion of its fan community.
As so many of the people who have responded to my concept have said to me, so I say to all of you: “Make it so!”
For more thoughts, see my Captain’s Blog