I’m impressed by critics. After watching something for the first (or maybe second) time, they have to form a strong and distinct position that they have to be able to stand behind. Every so often I’ll come away from a movie or a TV show with such a fully-formed, opinion, but just as often I find I need time to articulate exactly what I think.
Take the most recent season of House of Cards. I had the luxury of being able to hole up one weekend and excitedly watch all 13-episodes in two days. I came away with generally positive feelings, and as is my routine after watching something new, I quickly went online to read what other people had to say about it.
I was very surprised by what I found.
There are a couple of message boards that I read regularly, and the House of Cards thread was, well, pretty damn negative. There’s always some hyperbole on internet forums, and some people just get their kicks in by sniping from the sidelines, but the general consensus was that this season was not of the same quality as the first two. There were some very articulate arguments to back up these judgments, and I read them with an open mind. There were valid points, even some that had already crossed my mind. But it was the certainty that struck me the most. How right they were and how wrong the show was.
There they were, laid out point-by-point, all the reasons why the show was objectively bad and why I, therefore, was stupid for not realizing it. Maybe these people were smarter than me. Or maybe I just don’t have strong opinions about things.
After a bit more thought I shrugged away both of those thoughts. No, I’m not stupid, and anyone who knows me will tell you that I have very strong opinions about very many things. So why, then, such a disparity between my opinion and theirs?
That’s a big question, but here’s my first grasp at an answer: I want to like things. Did I like everything about House of Cards season three? No, but nothing so glaring that it hampered my enjoyment of the piece. I’m willing to give the show the benefit of the doubt, especially knowing that they have a guaranteed fourth season coming down the pike. Maybe some of the things that made my antennae stand up will make more sense after seeing how they play out next year. I don’t know. But I do know that this latest season was far, far better than many of these armchair critics were making it out to be.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion when it comes to something as subjective as a piece of creative work. I grant that. But I’d wager that not one of these hyperbolic internet posters has ever written a novel, or directed a film, or produced a television series. Or maybe they just like feeling smart, and pointing out flaws in a work demonstrates their superiority more than showering praise. Part and parcel of any creative pursuit is acknowledging the risk that your ideas might not work the way you hope. Many writers and directors admit they fear being “found out” as a fraud, that everything good they’ve done until that point was a fluke.
It takes courage to do that. Certainly more courage than sniping from the sidelines.
I didn’t intend to write two Star Trek-themed pieces in a row, but it seems appropriate: Not only did we lose Leonard Nimoy last week, but also Maurice Hurley (writer/producer of Star Trek: The Next Generation and creator of the Borg), and Harve Bennett just a few days ago. Bennett helped resurrect the Trek film franchise after the “disappointment” of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as producer of the follow-up feature Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And Star Trek hasn’t been the same since.
The Wrath of Khan has been the template that so many Star Trek films have tried to emulate, usually with middling results. Every new film is the “best since Wrath of Khan,” every new villain is measured by how Khan-like they are. But the lessons learned from Star Trek II have been all the wrong ones.
Because Wrath of Khan was so successful and the titular villain so effective, writers and producers feel every Trek film needs a bigger and badder villain than Khan. This has had the effect of reducing many a Trek film to a hero versus super-villain formula, which is a format not generally suited to Star Trek. Many of these villains are fueled by revenge, but their motives don’t bear much scrutiny. Think Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis, Nero in Star Trek (2009), and, well, Khan again in Star Trek Into Darkness. The most successful Star Trek film until Trek ’09 was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which had no villain at all.
First Contact, the most successful of The Next Generation films, also owes a debt to The Wrath of Khan, in the sense that it acts as a sequel to an episode of the TV series. The Borg in First Contact has weight as an enemy because it was a rematch with a foe previously encountered on the show. We don’t give a shit about Shinzon in Nemesis because we’ve never met him before. We don’t know who Nero is in Trek ’09, but he gets extra badass points for killing Kirk’s dad and destroying Vulcan in that movie. (First Contact, like Wrath of Khan, also lays the Moby Dick allusions on pretty thick but that’s neither here nor there.)
Star Trek Into Darkness goes so far as to re-introduce Khan as the villain in the rebooted universe. But it’s the pop culture version of Khan that Into Darkness trades on rather than the actual character. They wanted Khan to be to Kirk what The Joker was to Batman in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. But Khan was never the Enterprise’s worst enemy. He only has such notoriety among Trek fans because he’s indirectly responsible for Spock’s death and because the movie he was in was really good. Into Darkness even knows Khan isn’t that fearsome; they have to rely on a cameo from Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in a superfluous scene to tell the audience that “Khan was the most fearsome enemy the crew of the Enterprise ever encountered.” Which, for anyone who has seen any Star Trek, is patently untrue. Khan was formidable enemy but he’s hardly a super-villain. He got lucky because Kirk made a mistake, both by letting him off the hook in “Space Seed” and by letting himself be too complacent in Star Trek II. Khan forces our characters to reevaluate themselves, and Star Trek II is a movie about the past returning to haunt the present.
The Wrath of Khan is a great movie because it’s about more than space battles and fisticuffs. The stakes are personal, and the movie is willing to upset the status quo of Star Trek to explore new territory. As is often pointed out, Khan and Kirk don’t even meet face-to-face in the whole movie. I’d like to see a Star Trek movie that could pull that off again.
2016 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek, and as of this writing it seems like the only commemoration we’re going to get is the third entry into the JJ Abrams film franchise. I’d like to hope that we’ll get a story that’s more than just another super-villain threatening the galaxy. Star Trek is capable of so much more than that.
Many people have highlighted Spock-centric scenes or quotations on social media following Leonard Nimoy’s death this past Friday. I’d like to recognize a particular Spock performance that I think has been overlooked throughout the years. It’s from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Yes, that Motion Picture. Conventional Trekkie wisdom says TMP is, well, bad. That it’s sterile and ponderous. That the uniforms are ugly. (Which they are.) But they’re neglecting the emotional journey that Spock takes in that movie. It’s not without its flaws, sure, but it’s one of the most important and misunderstood entries in the Star Trek franchise. Spock’s story in the film is central to its message and to Star Trek as whole.
By 1979 Star Trek had been off the air for over ten years but had been kept alive through a hugely successful run in syndication and a passionate fan base. In the wake of Star Wars, Trekkies were finally going to get their due when Paramount green-lit The Motion Picture after several false-starts throughout the decade. And the film we ended up with does something rather bold. Rather than picking up the status quo of the TV series, it starts out with the crew of the Enterprise split up. Even Captain Kirk isn’t Captain Kirk any more—he’s an admiral now—and the newly-redesigned Enterprise is no longer in his charge.
But more surprising than that is where we find Spock at the start of the film. Long-haired and on his home planet of Vulcan, Spock has been studying the discipline of Kolinahr, a Vulcan ritual that purges all emotion in favor of pure logic. As he is about to undergo his final rites, a consciousness from space calls out to his mind and reveals his emotional side to the elders. They tell Spock that he will not attain Kolinahr and must find what he seeks elsewhere.
The consciousness from space is V’Ger, a massive spaceborne entity that’s been destroying everything in its path and is on a direct course for Earth. Admiral Kirk uses the emergency to get the Enterprise back along with his old crew, even drafting the now-retired (and bearded) Dr. McCoy. On their way to intercept V’Ger, Spock manages to catch up with the Enterprise and asks to join the mission. The crew is overjoyed to have Spock back, but this is not the Spock they (or the audience) knew from the TV series. This Spock is colder, more aloof, barely acknowledging his former comrades and the friendship they once shared. McCoy wonders aloud if Spock could be using the Enterprise to reach V’Ger for his own means; a notion Kirk rejects outright. “I could never believe that,” he tells Bones of his old friend.
But when the Enterprise encounters V’Ger, Spock steals a spacesuit (neck-pinching a guy with an awesome 70s ‘stache in the process) and makes direct contact with the entity by himself. Kirk goes after him and finds an unconscious Spock floating in space; the result of an overpowering mind meld he attempted with V’Ger.
When Spock awakes in sickbay, he laughs. “I should have known,” he tells Kirk. V’Ger, having amassed all knowledge in the known galaxy, is now questioning its place and purpose in the universe. All the knowledge in the universe isn’t enough. It’s asking questions that it can’t answer on its own. Spock grabs the hand of his best friend, telling Kirk that V’Ger is unable to grasp “this simple feeling” of friendship. Through V’Ger, Spock discovers that in order to achieve true wisdom, he must embrace the emotional part of himself which he had previously tried to bury. It is through his understanding of V’Ger that the Enterprise is able to save the day. With Spock whole again, so too is Star Trek.
Spock embodies the values at the core of the Star Trek franchise; the merging of the rational and logical with the passionate and emotional. The pursuit of truth and enlightenment can be neither a purely rational nor purely spiritual one. The struggle between logic and emotion is personified in Spock. His struggle was central to Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek. Indeed, besides the Enterprise herself, the Spock character is the only carryover from Trek’s first pilot (“The Cage”) and the TV series. Beginning the first movie with Spock in crisis, and making it about the journey he takes to reconcile his dual nature, is nothing short of a bold reaffirmation of Star Trek’s mission statement.
There’s not another entry in the Trek franchise that so totally encapsulates Spock’s journey as The Motion Picture. Not “Amok Time,” not The Wrath of Khan, not “Unification.” We get glimpses in those, but nothing shouts as loudly or as clearly as TMP. We need both parts of ourselves, the rational and the spiritual, the logical and the emotional, in the pursuit of discovery.
Spock is as much a creation of Leonard Nimoy as Gene Roddenberry. Nimoy’s death is a great loss to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider or that they didn’t belong. Because through Spock’s example, we learned that we must look inward and accept who we are before we can truly understand the world in which we live. And that is a legacy that will outlive all of us.
I’m going to say something that will get me into trouble. So come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off, as Malcolm Tucker would say.
I don’t think I like Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.
It’s taken me some time to admit this. When his casting was announced I was ecstatic because, well, Peter Capaldi is awesome. I loved The Thick of It and Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker is what elevated that show to instant classic status. And Capaldi’s inaugural Who season has been the best since, well, Matt Smith’s first season as the Eleventh Doctor.
It’s not because Doctor Twelve is grouchy. I like grouchy. And it’s not because he’s older than previous NuWho Doctors. No, the problem is that I have Malcolm Tucker to compare him to.
Malcolm Tucker and the Doctor should switch costumes next season. And there should be a next season of The Thick of It.
On Armando Iannuci’s The Thick of It, Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker is a “Fixer.” When there’s a problem in the Prime Minister’s government, Tucker descends out of nowhere, takes control of the situation, prescribes and implements the proper solution and does it all before breakfast. He’s all-knowing and all-hearing. He shows up when he’s most needed and when he’s least expected. His origins are mysterious and the stories about him legendary. His enemies shudder at the mere mention of his name. And, sometimes, so do his friends.
Sound familiar? Malcolm Tucker’s Fixer is the Doctor with the sweary bits left in. And the sweary bits are what made Tucker’s chicanery so sublime. And the swearing is not just for yuks. No. It transcends potty humor. It’s poetry.
I fully admit that this has nothing to do with Capaldi as an actor and everything to do with me. For me, Capaldi’s defining role will always remain Malcolm Tucker and not the Doctor. And Doctor Who, today more than ever, is designed to operate as a cultural event. Anyone tasked with casting a new Doctor should know that, for better or worse, the cultural baggage an actor carries will precede them.
Which is partly why Matt Smith was such a revelation as Doctor Eleven. Smith had no such encumberances. Aside from a brief stint in a show called Party Animals, in which he played a very un-Doctor-ish character, Matt Smith came out of absolutely nowhere. And that allowed him to be the Doctor in a way nobody has since Tom Baker.
But there was a sense of inevitability to Peter Capaldi’s casting, wasn’t there? Capaldi’s own credentials as a Doctor Who fan are well established. (A 6 year-old Capaldi famously wrote to a fan publication declaring his intent to become an actor so he could play the Doctor one day, among other shameless acts of fandom.) Showrunner Steven Moffat had made it known that he already had Capaldi in mind to take over from David Tennant as Doctor number eleven before 26 year-old Matt Smith walked through the door, bowling him and everyone else in the room over (and quite right to). Capaldi himself had already guest-starred in an episode of NuWho, as well as playing a prominent character in Who-spinoff Torchwood as the cowering Frobisher, a very un-Tucker-like civil servant. (A role in which he shone, lest you think I’m questioning Capaldi’s ability to play anyone but Malcolm Tucker.)
And the kicker: we all wanted to see Malcolm Tucker be the Doctor, didn’t we? We all wanted the Doctor to show the Daleks his bollocking face. We just never imagined we’d get it. I’d venture to say that I liked the idea of Capaldi as Doctor more than the reality of it.
So call it a lack of imagination on my part. Peter Capaldi is, by most measures, a fantastic Doctor. It’s just that his tenure in the role will always be eclipsed by his turn as Malcolm Tucker (a distinction he doesn’t have to share with any other actor). Malcolm Tucker was the role that Peter Capaldi was born to play. Sorry, 6 year-old Peter.
But he still has (at least) two more seasons to change my mind.
You know what we need? We need Armando Iannucci to take over Doctor Who when Steven Moffat steps aside. Then the show can overthrow the government properly, just as Andrew Cartmel always wanted.
Doing PIONEER ONE was an eye-opening experience for many, many reasons. One of the most interesting was the huge lesson we got in the dynamics of creator/viewer relations. We were thrown off the deep end when we released the pilot, receiving dozens of emails and tweets and Facebook messages daily for weeks afterward. It was an incredible feeling to know that people were watching and enjoying the work we had done, and to all of a sudden be on the other side of the fan/producer divide. We courted this engagement, as one does, but were unprepared for when it actually happened. It was a hell of an adjustment going from an idea in your head, living with it 24/7 while struggling to make it a reality, to all of a sudden being dissected and discussed by people you’ve never met.
Something that’s happened with content creators’ access to and participation in social media is that the boundaries that traditionally separated producers and fans have broken down. As a fan myself, this is a great thing. More than ever, people know what it takes to make a TV show or movie because they have regular access to those who make them. It’s great for creators too, because for the first time, they are able to get real-time, unvarnished feedback from their audience.
Well, mostly great. In some cases, this increased access creates a sense of “fan ownership” of the work. Sometimes, fans feel because they’ve been given a glimpse of the process, they’re experts on that process. Or because they’re so invested in the work, they somehow have a say in the direction that the work takes.
That can be problematic. Especially when fans get nasty. And, as anyone who’s ever read a YouTube comment or a message board can attest, people can be pretty nasty. And the nasty ones are usually the ones with the loudest voices.
I don’t think most people actually want to have a say, even those who would argue otherwise. At several points while we were making Pioneer One, there were suggestions that we open up the writing process and allow viewers to contribute to the story. I understand that impulse, especially since we had already broken ground by crowd-funding and crowd-distributing the show. But what people who had supported us, either by donating money or spreading the word, were really doing was giving us was freedom to make the show we wanted to make the way we wanted to make it. They were allowing us our creative freedom. And, at the end of the day, I think most people still want to sit down and be told a story, and have confidence that that story is coming from a specific point of view and the people telling it have a specific vision. To open up the creative process to the masses would dilute that vision.
We always encouraged fans to engage with us and we always tried to give them a glimpse “behind the curtain,” as it were, on the theory that showing the process would help them understand where we were coming from. But it was always to a point. I think there has to be a space where creators feel free to create without taking into consideration the whims of every Twitter follower or YouTube commenter. And the audience has to be willing to allow the creators to make mistakes, because having the freedom to take creative risks is how you end up with great work.
I think it’s a net-gain. It’s a good thing that people are more aware of how a show or movie is made. The price is that you sometimes have to deal with people who feel like you owe them something and are nasty about it. How you respond is a case-by-case thing. You can tell by the tenor of the comment whether or not its worth engaging that person. I’ve generally tried to stay above the fray, but sometimes, something gets under your skin and you have to weigh in. Most of the time, the person takes a step back and the hyperbole falls away. But not all the time.
It’s amazing that we’ve had this experience, and we owe it to all the fans who have followed us. It’s flattering because it means we’ve successfully engaged people enough that they are chomping at the bit for more show, and want to know every little thing that’s going on with it. If we could do it over again, I would have tried to be a little more transparent about what our plans were. But the simple fact is, back in 2010, there was little precedent for a project like ours. And, more to the point, we didn’t know exactly what it would take to make the show, how much it would cost, or how long it would take. Obviously, armed with this knowledge, we would have done things differently.
We still get the errant irate fan demanding to know what’s going on with the show and chastising us for our radio silence. I understand their frustration. We share it. But, at the end of the day, we’re just a group of dedicated people who shared a vision that was Pioneer One and did everything humanly possible to make it a reality. What are our obligations beyond that?
See reddit user beardsayswhat’s original list of “unpopular” screenwriting opinions here.
1. Most amateur screenwriters write movies they wouldn’t see. I read a lot of loglines that are poorly written, but even if they were snappy and sharp, they’re for what could be generously described as character dramas and more accurately as tedious faux-deep nonsense. Write rad shit. Write things people want to see.
If there was ever a point where I would have bristled at advice like this, I can’t remember it now. This is just common sense, and frankly, I don’t understand why this would be an unpopular opinion. Maybe some read that and think he’s advocating becoming a sell-out, or to stick to churning out formulaic, commercial fare. But what he’s really saying is don’t be boring. Not to never write something experimental, or that explores real issues, or that says something important. Do any or all of those things. Just don’t be boring while you do it.
As for bit where he seems to shit on character dramas, I don’t think he means you can never write a character drama, or that your high-concept script shouldn’t include strong character drama. Remember, this is advice for non-established screenwriters. Writers who are trying to get noticed. A screenplay about a lovelorn white guy who finds new meaning in life when he meets his manic pixie dream girl isn’t going to raise any eyebrows. (I admit that The Lionshare has surface similarities to some of those cliches, but I think it successfully tells a story with deeper meaning. Plus I made that movie seven years ago, sue me.)
Don’t be boring. That’s a great motto. You know how to tell if you’re writing something boring? If you are bored while you’re writing it. Even if you think you’re writing something with limited appeal, if you have enthusiasm for the material, that enthusiasm will come through. Enthusiasm is infectious. Don’t be boring.
This also doesn’t mean you have to write something that appeals to everybody. If it excites you, there are others out there who will feel the same.
In my last entry I gushed over meeting Ronald D. Moore. You know one of the most important things I learned from him? Not to treat your characters, or your stories, like porcelain dolls. There’s no reason to play it safe when you’re writing a story. You can, and should, take risks. If what you’re writing feels perfunctory, take a step back and re-evaluate. What’s the craziest thing that could happen in your story? How would it change things? What if you, gulp, went ahead and did it?
Go ahead. Kill that character. Jump a year ahead in time. Have the will they/won’t they relationship be consummated between seasons when no one is looking. How did that change things?
Maybe you decide it’s not right. That’s fine. It’s probably not a good idea to shock for shock’s sake. Whatever you do should work within context and should enhance the story you’re trying to tell. But, at the very least, this is a good exercise to challenge yourself and make sure what you’re writing is the best, and most interesting, that it can be.
The Fall of 2006 was probably the height of my obsession with Ronald D. Moore’s “re-imagining” of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. The third season had just premiered and somehow surpassed, at least for me, the high expectations set by the second season cliffhanger.
I was near the end of my time at Binghamton University when my friend Russ noticed a flyer posted outside of the Cinema Department lounge: Ronald D. Moore was going to be giving a talk at Cornell.
Cornell is an hour away from Binghamton.
Do the math. We were going.
Some set-up: When the first season of BSG first aired on SciFi (still SciFi then, not Syfy), Ron Moore (RDM as he’s referred to online) started doing podcast commentaries for each episode. What was great was that he took the opportunity to give a frank, unvarnished look at the process behind each episode, freely admitting when he didn’t like something and why he thought it didn’t work, and always making clear that, ultimately, the buck always stopped with him. It was an amazingly insightful and, at that time, unique peek behind-the-curtain of a television series. (The only other example I can think of is jms’s Usenet posts chronicling the making of BABYLON 5.)
As both a fan of the show and someone with aspirations of making television, you can imagine how much I enjoyed these podcasts. By the third season, I sometimes looked forward more to the podcast than the episode it was commenting on. RDM had also settled into a ritual of using the podcast to “put each episode to bed,” as it were, over a few glasses of scotch and some cigarettes. (The varieties of which he’d announce at the beginning of every podcast. He smoked my brand, at the time.)
Ronald D. Moore, Cornell almost-graduate
Knowing there was a Q&A period after his presentation, I had an idea. Instead of asking a question, I would present Mr. Moore with a bottle of scotch and a pack of cigarettes, so the next podcast would me “on me.” I went to my local Binghamton liquor store, asked what a nice bottle of scotch was, and walked out with a bottle of Macallan 12. (Not cheap for a college student.) The cigarettes were no issue because at the time I was a smoker and was buying American Spirit Lights by the carton.
I threw the contraband in a backpack and off we went. There were a fair amount of people in the theater, but no one in the front row. I looked at Russ and Mickey and we sat slightly off-center at the very front. There remained a buffer of two or three empty rows behind us (why, I do not know). Mr. Moore came out and started his presentation, remarking that this was his first time back to his alma-mater since dropping out during his senior year twenty years prior. Hard to argue with his decision on that one.
The presentation was mainly about how he went about adapting the original series, how it was both a reaction to 9/11 and to his time as a writer/producer on Star Trek, etcetera. Mostly stuff that I had heard in other places. I really just wanted to get to the Q&A.
I raised my hand. Glancing behind me, I saw I was the only one with my hand up. After what seemed like a very long silence, he pointed at me.
What happened next is a blur. I had just been spoken to by someone who, at the time, was the man on the earth I most wanted to emulate. Someone who I was used to listening to only from afar. So, adrenaline happened. Forgive me.
I know I said something similar to what I described above and gave him the bottle and the smokes, leaving him kind of dumbfounded. I don’t think he was expecting anything like that at all, but at the urging of his wife who was sitting off to the right front, he invited me up to join him on stage and shook my hand. And then something unexpected happened. while sharing the stage with one of my idols, the audience erupted with applause. Honest-to-god applause. A lot of it. It went on, at least in my memory, for quite a while.
I remember none of the questions after that. I’d done what I went there to do, and it was awesome. Better than I expected, even.
After the last question and people were getting up to leave, I was stopped by Mr. Moore’s wife, who had been sitting off to the side. She had popped on the podcast before and from time to time would drop in on the Sci-Fi Channel message boards to answer questions under the handle “Mrs. Ron.” After introducing herself to me, she said
“I just want you to know, we’ve done a million appearances and conventions. But no one has ever done that before.”
“I was happy to,” I hope I said.
“What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Josh. I’ll make sure he remembers to mention you on the next podcast.”
Russ, Mickey and myself strolled outside, past the crowd surrounding RDM for autographs, and coolly smoked a round of victory cigarettes on the sidewalk. As Mickey remembers it, “You could tell he was standing there surrounded by Trekkies just wanting to come smoke with us.” (No knock on those Trekkies, by the way; I can talk Trek with the best of ’em.)
This went on for quite a while. He signed autographs, took pictures, and spoke to everyone in the crowd. I figured I’d had my time, and it was a better move to stay above the fray. I think I was right. As he was being escorted to a waiting SUV, he stopped to say goodbye to us before being whisked away by mrs. ron.
And we headed back to Binghamton, riding high.
I couldn’t wait for the podcast the following week. Was he going to mention me? Did he forget? I eagerly downloaded the podcast commentary to “Torn,” the sixth episode of season three.
And my heart sank. Well, maybe it didn’t sink, but I was disappointed. Cause RDM was a guest lecturer in a film class at Cornell, had shown the class the new episode a couple days early, and did the podcast while they got to ask questions. An interactive podcast. My dream. If I’d only known, I would have gone back and snuck in!
Back in 2008, I made a feature film called THE LIONSHARE. It was about how people relate to each other through technology and media. What’s interesting is that the further we get away from it, the more the movie becomes an artifact of its time.
Think about it. 2008. iPhones weren’t everywhere. There was no Facebook chat. And when there was, you did it on your computer. (In the movie, Google Chat is the messaging app of choice, which I guess is still used widely today, but if I were to make the movie now I’d probably rely more on iMessage texts.)
Electronic communication is a difficult thing to represent. Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting has made a video depicting the evolution of texting in film and TV. Check it out:
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.
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?
It was exactly five years ago that I started writing the first documents that would form the basis of PIONEER ONE, the “TV on the web” series that I created and produced with my partner Bracey Smith. (Along with so many, many others who provided invaluable support and resources along the way that I hesitate to name just one because this post will become a list of acknowledgments too long to bear. You guys know who you are.)
Five years. Ancient history in internet time. When we crowdfunded the budget for the pilot on Kickstarter, every plea for a donation had to be followed by an explanation of what Kickstarter was. Today, everyone’s brother and cousin is crowdfunding something on Kickstarter. Lots of things have changed.
Bracey met his wife while making the show, and just welcomed his second daughter into the world last month.
I moved my life from Astoria, New York to Los Angeles, California to pursue a career writing for television. Or film. Or anything with a screen, really. (Fuck it, I’d be happy writing for the Tuscaloosa Community Players if I’m being honest.)
I’ve wanted to write for television since I was 19 years old, but I never had the stones to make the move to LA. Pioneer One got me out here. We were courted by producers of varying stripes trying to reboot the show for television. We’ve had many false starts, and came extremely close a couple of times, only to have things fall apart at the eleventh hour. But then, that’s Hollywood for ya. The odds of the show continuing in any form, either on the web or on television, become increasingly slim with each passing day. But that’s okay. It’s what finally got me to make the leap that I needed to make for my career and for my life.
I do think we were really on to something. The six episodes of that first season still hold up (even the pilot, though it does make me cringe in places). You can see us learning how to make the show with each successive installment, and the finale episode, I think, is as solid an episode of dramatic television as any.
At the 2010 New York Television Festival, where we won for Best Drama Pilot, the show was praised for its originality. But, again, a lot has changed since 2010. Maybe there was something in the ether, who knows. But there have been a lot of shows and movies and books since then that have elements in common with Pioneer One. I’m thinking of shows like THE AMERICANS, an early 80s Cold War thriller, which has certain themes and plot points that would have come up in our second season. The novel THE MARTIAN, about an astronaut stranded on Mars, set to become a movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. Syfy’s ASCENSION, which deals with a secret space mission launched in the 1960s during the height of the Cold War (I mean, come on). A recently announced pilot about a new space race between two private corporations and their billionaire founders written by Eli Attie (THE WEST WING) and produced by Peter Berg (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS). And they just announced that J. Michael Straczynski (BABYLON 5) will be adapting the RED MARS trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson for SpikeTV. (I find it hilarious that in this new phase of jms’s career, there’s nary a mention of B5 in any industry publication regarding him. He’s an A-lister now!)
Does that make more Pioneer One moot? I don’t think so. There’s room for our show in today’s (albeit more crowded) landscape, perhaps with a little emphasis tweaking. But whether or not that happens isn’t up to me at the moment.
For now, my immediate and more achievable goal for Pioneer One is to get Phil Sandifer to do a psychochronographic review of our little show on his TARDIS Eruditorum blog.
And my own immediate goal is to write some new shows.