Boldly Going Where, Exactly? (The Future of Star Trek)

Keenser will be playing the role of Groot.

Keenser will be playing the role of Groot in Star Trek 3.

It’s been announced that Simon Pegg, the actor who plays Scotty in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek and whose Trek bonafides are indisputable, will be co-writing the next Star Trek movie. This after news that Justin Lin, director of some of the more highly-regarded entries into the Fast & The Furious franchise, will be taking over as director of Trek 3. Rumor is that Paramount wants the next installment to “feel more like Guardians of the Galaxy,” which I don’t think is automatically a terrible idea, depending on how it’s executed. Especially with Simon Pegg in the mix.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a big Trek fan. But I don’t fall neatly into any of the Trekkie stereotypes. I’m the kind of guy who notices that Vulcan had a blue sky in JJ Trek when it’s always been red, but I don’t care as long as the movie is good. Which the first of the reboot series largely was, though a lot of my opinion of it has been colored by what came next. Into Darkness was largely a rehash of old ideas, and though some of them had the potential to be interesting and even clever, I couldn’t ignore that in the end the movie was really just another instance of big budget disaster porn in Star Trek clothing.

I feel like there’s a bit of a funereal air regarding Star Trek right now. It’s the combination of a few things, I think: JJ Abrams has left to reinvigorate the franchise he really loves, the relative “disappointment” of the last movie both financially and creatively, this being the last of the three films this cast are contracted for, and a sense of obligation to commemorate the franchise’s 50th anniversary in 2016. (Especially given the recent high profile golden anniversaries of both Doctor Who and James Bond, both of which set high expectations for a celebratory landmark like this.)

That’s really the word for it: obligated. It seems like everyone feels “obligated” to make a third movie. And in some ways, the lowered expectations might be a blessing in disguise. Maybe the next movie will do something interesting and different. I’m already interested to see what a JJ Abrams’ Trek movie looks like with another director. And they’ve set themselves up to begin the 5-year mission of the TV series at the end of the last movie, so maybe we’ll be getting to some more strange new worlds instead of threatening Earth with a vengeful villain this go-around. But unless Star Trek 3 happens to be some sort of gargantuan hit which, to be frank, I don’t think it will be, I have a feeling Trek is in for another little rest.

But probably not for too long. There will always be new Star Trek for one simple reason: the economics of the entertainment industry dictate that any pre-existing brand has inherent value. Star Trek’s problem is that it’s never been a big winner overseas as a movie franchise, and the overseas audience is where the money is for blockbusters. But there is and always has been a pretty sizable audience of hardcore Trekkers who can be depended on to flock to anything Star Trek. They’re just not enough to justify the cost of a $200,000,000 movie every three years. So whatever form it takes, it’s gotta be relatively cheap.

So Star Trek should return to television.

Star Trek was never really suited to be a film franchise anyway. Its home has always been on television, and that’s where it works best. It’s episodic in nature, and though any future incarnation would almost certainly include serialized elements, I’d argue it should remain mostly episodic. (Format-wise, modern Doctor Who has been doing exactly this very successfully and could be looked upon as a model.)

There are two approaches to doing new Star Trek. (Or, at least, two that will work. I think continuing on in the future of the “Prime Universe,” acknowledging the events of the existing television series, is a mistake. Even if it’s set in the far future ala Bryan Singer’s Federation concept. There’s simply too much baggage that raises the barrier to entry for a new viewer.)

First is the Iconographic approach, which places the emphasis on all of Trek’s familiar trappings. The new movies have largely relied on this. You have your Kirk and your Spock, you have your Enterprise, warp speed, beam me up Scotty Star Trek. They even kept those pretty insane primary colored uniforms that, frankly, look a bit ridiculous by contemporary standards. And why did they do that? Cause iconography. Cause nostalgia. Cause that’s what Trek is supposed to look like, and that’s what everyone remembers it looking like. This is also the reason they tried to shoehorn Khan into some kind of super nemesis role ala Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Night. Cause everybody knows about Khan and his wrath.

But Star Trek doesn’t really do super villains or nemeses. Big action movies do. And that’s what these last two movies have been: (mostly) entertaining action movies that look like Star Trek but are clearly doing their own action movie thing. Which is fine, if that’s what you’re satisfied with. My problem is that it Star Trek can be so much more than just another action movie franchise.

Which brings me to the second approach, what I’ll term the Fundamental. Basically, you take away all the trappings of Star Trek, everything that’s dated, everything that doesn’t jibe with how we’ve grown both socially and technologically in the last 50 years,  and see what’s left. What is Star Trek actually about?

This is a tough question to answer, if for no other reason than it’s about lots of different things to lots of different people. It’s no surprise that the JJ movies went with the iconic approach, because in many ways that’s the safer way to go. (And they’re big budget spectacles to begin with, and big budget spectacles always emphasize style.) So a lot of JJ Trek is based on nostalgia, but Star Trek has always about looking forward. In so doing, a lot of the trappings the new movies chose to recognize were born from a very 1960s vision of the future with a 1960s television budget. Perhaps some of them could bear some re-evaluation. Things like the way we interact with computers. How every alien species is depicted as a monoculture.

So since I posed the question, here’s my version of the answer. Though Gene Roddenberry is often quoted as calling Trek “Horatio Hornblower in space,” it’s equal part Gulliver’s Travels in space. It’s about a group of diverse human beings, on a spaceship, who travel to new places and get into adventures every week. Most of the stories have an underlying allegory that makes a point about the human experience.

It’s set in a future where human beings still have center stage: our computers haven’t taken over, we’re still in charge, and people still act and behave largely as they do today. But these guys and gals are definitely ones with the “Right Stuff,” the ones who try to do the good and right thing no matter what, even if they end up failing in the end. They value discovery and seeking knowledge even as it puts them at risk. (And yes, the characters can and should sometimes have conflict with each other, something Roddenberry decided was not acceptable at some point between TOS and TNG.)

That’s really all it is.

You know what’s a great Star Trek movie? Master and Commander. I haven’t read the book series it’s based on, but that movie is basically what I think good Star Trek is. Except in space. And you’d probably better call the Navy the Starfleet and have starships that go to warp speed, otherwise you may as well call it something else.

So my answer, then, lies somewhere on the spectrum of Fundamental to Iconic, leaning more toward the Fundamental side. I think the real trick will be to create a future that’s as “futuristic” to a contemporary audience as classic Trek was to a 1960s/70s audience. Next Generation had touchscreen interfaces to illustrate 80 years of progress from Kirk’s time. And already we all have PADDs. But how far do you take it before it becomes unrelatable? That’s the balancing act.

One of the things that they hinted at in the beginning of TNG was the fact that this new Enterprise was on a 20-year mission of exploration. That’s why they brought their families and children along. Early on they seem to have abandoned that concept, probably because it was too expensive to realize in 1987. That’s not an issue with digital set extensions today. Maybe fully realizing that concept would be an interesting and sufficiently forward-looking take on humanity’s spacefaring future worthy of the name Star Trek.

Talk about nostalgia.

Talk about nostalgia.

Or not. Trek really belongs to pop culture now, which makes any attempt to change it nearly sacrilege to a large number of people. Any new Star Trek will never be able to please everybody. I don’t envy the guy (or gal) who gets handed the reins next. (What am I saying, of course I do.)

You know what? Maybe the answer is this. Fans seem to be doing a fine job on their own of making more of the kind of Star Trek they want to see. Maybe that’s all Star Trek should be at this point. (Take a look at Star Trek Continues, by the way. It’s pretty damn close to the look and feel of the original show. They’re currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for their next two or more episodes, and have cleared their goal by the time of this writing.)

Maybe Star Trek exists as a lot of different things now, not a slave to a one official canon production, every interpretation equally valid and legitimate. IDIC, as the Vulcans preach.

But regardless of where “official” Trek ends up post-2016, I’m cautiously optimistic for the next flick. With these new players, we’re at least going to get something a little different than the last two. And that means it has the potential to be better.

In the meantime, I hear there’s some new Star Wars movie coming out?

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