[Opinion] - Where Star Trek Needs To Boldly Go From Here

Courtesy of Paramount Studios
Into Darkness made only as much as it's predecessor did four years ago over the weekend and was not the box office Goliath that Paramount was hoping it would be. I suspect this is because, despite Abram's attempt to make it as accessible as possible, Trek has a nearly 50 year old cultural association with a certain kind of person that, say, Iron Man doesn't (also, less Robert Downey Jr.), and that trying to convince someone who associates Trek with that sort of person to see the film would be an up hill battle. It is also a seriously flawed film (see my opinion of it in detail first here, then here). Rather then use the rebooted timeline as an opportunity to create a fresh, original story that long time fans and the general public could equally enjoy, instead they went the fan-wank remake route, and alienated both groups (opening in the middle of the week only works when you generate good word of mouth. Otherwise, it's only the diehards that will be watching).

So where does it go from here? Well, the cast at least made out well from the second film, having largely established the roles of these iconic characters for themselves (Pine, Quinto and Pegg more so then the others, by benefit of having had more to do across the two films then the rest). So, there is a cast who can be relied on to play to their strengths no matter the script's weaknesses, something the original cast was more then capable of doing as well. But in terms of story, of connective narratives between features, and in terms of celebrating fifty years of Star Trek without using the Seth McFarlane method of referencing, what needs to happen to ensure the next film, the fiftieth anniversary film, will be better?

Hit the jump for my thoughts, which contains spoilers for Darkness.

I should make clear, as far as I'm concerned, these are not either/or options. Each and every one of these conditions needs to happen before a third film can move forward, and for there to be an expectation of quality in that picture.

Ditch The Creative Team

While I adamantly believe more of the blame for Darkness' failures rest on the writers then on the director, Abrams was there, approving this script all the way. And for that alone, they all need to get gone. J.J. Abrams is already committed to Star Wars, and if the studio desire to have a Trek picture out for 2016 are to be met, then he won't be available. But even if they wait another four years (long enough, one would have thought, to develop an original idea rather then steal someone else's better one from thirty years ago), Abrams needs to step back. And he needs to take his writing team with him. Kurtzman and Orci brought the franchise back, but have become far too reliant on checking Memory Alpha for every little Easter Egg they can squeeze into a scene. Real movies don't go around winking at themselves all the time, and when they do, they are subtle and graceful about it (see 007's Die Another Day compared to Skyfall). The closest the original films came to that was Voyage Home, and even then they were just having fun rather then making fun. And the addition of Damon Lindelof to the credits at the same time the movie became bogged down in abandoned subplots and needlessly complicated twists can't be an accident.

I have no problem with Bad Robot producing the film, the latest Mission: Impossible movie proved that under Bryan Burk's watchful eye, a director can bring his own style and directions to a film without being overwhelmed by the master's hand. So if BR wants to observe from a distance, go ahead. But bring in new blood. And there are as many writers in Hollywood who had their minds shaped by Trek as there have been Star Wars, it just seems like Wars fans are more vocal about it. In terms of directors, why not look at people like Alfonso Cuarón or Brad Bird. Cuarón's forth coming Gravity certainly makes it look like he's got a handle on this whole space thing, and might bring a greater sense of realism to a Trek piece, which Abrams touched on to great praise in the '09 reboot (no sound in space, and so forth). His filmography certainly promises that he'd be able to capture the raw humanity of the characters, and would bring something excitingly basic to the franchise. Alternatively, Brad Bird has honed his art of comedy with the Simpsons, the art of story with the masters over at Pixar, and his live action credentials are shaping up nicely. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocal was a critical and financial success that managed to balance action with character, and his forthcoming Tomorrowland is getting early buzz (though, again, Lindelof). And, both have established relationships with Bad Robot, Cuarón through his new TV series Believe, and Bird through M:I5.

Maintain The Trinity

The emotional backbone of Star Trek is not Kirk and Spock. It is Kirk, Spock and McCoy. They are archetypes for the human condition: Kirk, the strength; Spock, the mind; Bones, the heart. Even their roles on the ship; the warrior, the scientist, and the healer are archetypal. It's the three of them together that are the strongest force of good on the ship, not just the two. It was the three of them together on the original series opening credits, it was the three of them that were always part of the landing party, and in every moment that mattered it was the three of them together. Remember, McCoy was there when Spock died too. The reboot films have done very little to establish anything beyond a comedic relief role for Karl Urban, who was the first recast actor to really inhabit his role, and done nothing to unite the three of them together. Bones knows Kirk, Kirk knows Spock, but Spock and Bones are only ever adversarial towards each other. Oddly, Into Darkness, in an effort to give more material to fan favourite and marketable name Simon Pegg, put a lot of Bones' tranditional role onto Scotty. But it has to be Bones. 

It's just a shame that in the original films, the best material featuring the three of them together comes from the worst of the original movies, Final Frontier. It was the one thing that Shatner got exactly right.

Use The Characters
Courtesy of Paramount Studios

The presumptive addition of Carol Marcus, played by Alice Eve, to the recurring Enterprise crew was smart for two reasons. First, it added a second female character to a character set that needed one. And two, it added a female character whose role wasn't entirely based around a romance with a male lead. Despite the franchise history between Marcus and Kirk (she bore him a secret son, who was then gutted by Klingons), there was only minimal flirting (more so between her and Bones), and no romantic subplot in Darkness, about the only subplot there wasn't. Now, wouldn't it have been wonderful if she had had something else to do as well?

In a two hour movie, it is hard to balance a large cast of characters. Few non-Joss Whedons can pull it off. Inevitably, someone gets less time then others. The NextGen movies didn't even try, making it all about Picard and Data, and forgetting that poor Dr. Crusher was even a member of the crew. This was a complaint against the first film, in which Simon Pegg (at the time, the biggest name in the film) didn't show up until the third act and had barely anything to do otherwise. His role in Darkness was significantly expanded. But at least in the first film, Sulu had a function, and Chekov had a role. And even the Orion girl had a moment. In Darkness, Sulu gets to sit down, and Chekov hits a button. Marcus is introduced, but not used. Bones makes some jokes. Even Uhura, whom the advertising would have you believe had replaced Bones as a member of the Trinity, does nothing of substance in this film except try to make tough-talk at a Klingon (which, by the way, Saldana's Klingon was terrible). Trek is at its best when it is about characters, and at its worst when the characters are just putting in appearances.

No More Cameos

Leonard Nimoy's role as Spock in Star Trek was important and necessary for two reasons. One, it actually was part of the plot, that Nero's revenge was against Vulcan, but focused on Spock, which carries over to the younger version. Second, it provided a connection to the past, not just within the film in regards to establishing the alternate timeline, but with the original cast in real life. It is never easier to accept a new actor in a role then when an established character looks at them and says "hey, I know you," (look at Don Cheadle's first line of dialogue in Iron Man 2). And as much as we all love William Shatner and Captain Kirk, it really is Nimoy and Spock that are the stars of the franchise, and had more creative influence over the series. It provided a touching farewell to the original version of the character, who unlike Kirk, never got a proper one. Knowing that gets to live to death, in the days of youth, still helping to bring peace to his people, was nice.

His appearance in Into Darkness was the opposite of all that. It was intrusive, disruptive, and undermined all the meaning and grace that I described above. And worst yet, it meant that Khan's potential character arc in the film had only one possible conclusion, rather then any possible new directions the writers might have considered. It also suggested that Spock Prime is just setting around New Vulcan, waiting for his young self to call, like a tired old grandfather, sucking on hard candy and talking about The War. His brief appearance devalued the character, and the plot (which didn't have much value left at that point anyway).

The NextGen films didn't feel the need to put an original series cast member in each of their films. They had Kirk in the first, to pass the baton, and after that they were left to stand on their own. So too does this new timeline. Any chance they had to include any of the old guard else left them in 2009. From here on out, it needs to be just the new actors, to grow into their roles in the franchise. Otherwise, all they can ever be are pale imitations. And I honestly believe that this new cast can own these roles as wholly and completely as the original actors did. They just need the chance to prove it, and they can't do that with the echoes of the future hanging over their heads.

Plus, it's really unfair to Quinto. It's like looking at a cosplayer stand next to the real thing.

Be Original
Courtesy of Namco Bandai Games

Darkness ends with the Enterprise setting off on their famous five year mission. While a nice expression that the films are moving into the emotional territory of the show, it is also dangerous. Clearly, the writers are not beyond simply copying and pasting material from old scripts. So the temptation will be there to simply take an old episode and expand it out to the length of a film. This is so utterly the wrong way to go, and the major flaw of Darkness. As tempting as it might be, now that Wrath of Khan was xeroxed, to redo Mirror, Mirror, or Errand of Mercy (and to be fair, they are the two original series episodes that could best be adapted to film) that impulse needs to be supressed in favour of original content.

All you need to do for proof of this is look at the ongoing IDW comics. When they began, they were straight up retellings of classic episodes, using the new actor's faces and altering little things about the story to make it more relevant to the reboot film. The versions of Galieo Seven and Where No Man Has Gone Before are placid, not inspiring anything but "hey, I know this story already." Far better are the Vulcan's Vengence, which seemed like a far better plot for the follow up film, or the recent character study issues starting with the excellent Redshirt's Tale, or the issue exploring the backstory of Scotty's sidekick Keenser. With a new timeline comes the potential for new stories, new adversaries and new challenges. There simply isn't a point in getting excited about the franchise moving forward if all they are going to do is make "old shames" shiner looking (ask Doctor Who how that's worked out for them this past series).

One option to explore might be the current Marvel route, who is using each new feature to explore a different genre of film (IM3=mystery, Cap 2=espionage, Guardians=space opera). While Trek is a science fiction, the original series had western episodes, and gangster episodes and ran the gamut on genre exploration (strange new worlds, and all that). Why limit the films to a single genre too? Voyage Home was a comedy, Wrath was a submarine movie, and Undiscovered Country was a political thriller. How about a horror movie?

New Villains

Following on from the last point, the movies need to keep including new villains. Say what you will about Nero, but he was original, he was effective and he was a threat. The original films, Khan aside, never dipped into the original series for adversaries, and because of that we got Christopher Llyod and Christopher Plummer playing Klingons, we had Sybok, who for that film's flaws was at least unique. The Voyage Home didn't even have a villain, unless you count the inanimate carbon rod, but it was little more then a MacGuffin. Even the NextGen films that didn't work still kept it original, introducing the Borg Queen, Picard's Romulan clone and F. Murray Abraham as the guy with the skin condition.

Replicating Khan was a huge mistake, and if they had left him as John Harrison a lot of people wouldn't have as much of a problem with Darkness as they do (also assuming that a Khan-less script would have required the writers to actually write something rather then transcribe the DVD closed captioning). I have a hard time believing that in four years, they couldn't come up with a better idea. I have a hard time believing this because they had a better idea the year the reboot came out. Said Kurtzman and Orci in a 2009 interview with Collider, "the exploration sci-fi plot where the unknown and nature itself is somehow an adversary or the villain model. That’s an active discussion we’re having right now." Not active enough apparently. Moving into the five year mission is the perfect opportunity to explore a high concept like this. How many episodes were about some entity effecting the crew's emotional states, paired with the ship being out in deep space on their own, without the rest of the fleet to back them up, gone from their homes and families for years at a time. A tense, psychological thriller set on board the Enterprise might be just what the franchise needs.

The instinct might be to make the next film about Klingons. I say resist that urge as long as possible. The Klingons are like the Daleks, they've been used too often, and there are plenty of other races to explore (which was the reasoning behind using Romulans in the reboot), or invent a new race. By the same tact, Kurtzman and Orci have been saying stupid things about using the Borg or Q, things that have no place in the reboot universe. 

Return To TV
Courtesy of Paramount Studios

TV is where it began, and because Star Trek is at its best when about character rather then plot, TV is where it is at its best (I've always maintained that TV is for characters, who evolve over time, and film is for story that gets told and gets out. Or TV is a novel, film is a short story. Take your pick). Cho's Sulu and Yelchin's Chekov have had little or nothing to do in the movies, because they are Kirk and Spock's movies. It will always be that way. There won't ever be a Chekov movie. But there would be Chekov episodes. 

Not Chekov though, obviously. Despite Quinto, Cho, Pegg and Urban all coming (or going) from TV, the cast are increasingly becoming movie stars, and the Enterprise has grown a bit big for the small screen. But, if Bad Robot is known for anything, it is getting shows put on TV. Next season they'll have four series across three networks on air. And Bryan Fuller, current creator of Hannibal and former Star Trek Voyager writer (helps to have the pedigree even if it was on the worst of the series) has an idea already. Speaking to Den of Geek, Fuller said, "I would love to do something on the Reliant... I want Angela Bassett to be the captain, that’s who I would love to have, you know Captain Angela Bassett and First Officer Rosario Dawson. I would love to do that version of the show and but that’s in the future to be told."

An original series, set during the film's timeline, running parallel to the movies but not overlapping. Where have I heard something like this before? Oh, right. Agents of SHIELD. Abrams and company would be wise to watch how Whedon and Marvel handle SHIELD in the coming season, and see if the same methods could be applied to a Star Trek series. Apparently, there are complex rights issues that prevented Abrams from doing this already, but if enough money passes overhand, I'm sure there is a way to resolve them so that everybody wins. Ideally the show would exist on cable, with limited episode counts, though considering how much creative freedom NBC has been giving Fuller on Hannibal, and their relationship with Abrams (two of his current shows are on the peacock), could this be the opportunity for the franchise to return to the network it originated on?
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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