Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Big Booms vs. Deep Thoughts: The War Between Star Trek Past and Present

by Jimmy D. Gillentine 

Editor's Note: Today we're going to take a break from our usual discourse about writing to jump into some fandom discussion instead. So where better to start than with old Trek vs. new Trek? And there's also some fun stuff in here about what a young unknown writer like Gene Roddenberry had to do get get his flagship idea to launch. 

Summary: “Space... the final frontier.” With those four words, a science fiction phenomenon was born. Star Trek, developed by Gene Roddenberry, went on to become a popular culture mainstay that lasted far beyond its original three-year run on TV.

It has returned in the form of several movies starring the original cast from the show, plus several shows that enjoyed just as much popularity as the original show, if not more.

Recently, Trek has returned with new movies retelling the adventures of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, with different actors in the roles and with changes to the origins of the story. Many fans were looking forward to seeing their childhood show returning with modern-day special effects.

However, this has not gone over that well within the fan base. There is now a division among the fans, and the arguments that have raged online are frequent. Which shows and movies are better? Which fans are right?

When Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to NBC, it took several rewrites and two pilot episodes to get the show launched. (The Making of Star Trek, Whitfield. Stephen, Roddenberry, Gene. Del Ray Books, 1968) Roddenberry was met with resistance when he first tried to get his show on the air. But he did not let that deter him from achieving his goal.

‘Compounding every young writer’s frustration is the fact that actually getting any professional experience as a writer on any large-scale production is almost impossible without the assistance of a competent and rather crafty agent. With all that in mind, Gene Roddenberry knew he’d have to resort to some incredibly unusual guerrilla tactics in securing professional representation. And that’s exactly what he did.’ (Shatner, William, and Chris Kreski. “Star Trek Memories”. New York, NY: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1993. Print.)

Using these ‘guerrilla tactics,’ Roddenberry at last convinced the executives to take a risk on his outlook on the future. It was well received by science fiction fans when it was first aired, even though the show was different from most other shows about space exploration before it. Roddenberry used the show as a platform to discuss the social issues that were hitting the country at the time the show was made. Issues such as racism, the war in Vietnam, and the Cold War with the Soviet Union were told through the medium of science fiction.

Star Trek writer David Gerrold says this can be attributed to Roddenberry’s approach to the scripts for the show. ‘Gene Roddenberry had a great speech: "Tell me the story no one else will let you tell. Tell me the one that sticks in your craw. Tell me a story that says the way things are is not the way they have to be." And writers would be inspired, they would bring back a better story than they thought they were capable of writing.’ (Gerrold, David. Online Interview, April 2015)

Roddenberry was attempting to do more with Star Trek than simply entertain the TV audiences that watched the show every week; he was trying to teach us how to be better people. Elizabeth Donald, writer for the pop-culture blog CultureGeek, had this to say on the subject: ‘Star Trek was allegorical science fiction. Best suited to television, it combined entertainment with a positive view of the future. At a time when many people doubted the human race could even have a future, Gene Roddenberry envisioned a time when we outgrew our childish stupidity, our prejudices and hatreds, and the old divisions of the past would make as much sense as “Irish need not apply.” Sometimes it was very good and sometimes it was very bad, but it nearly always meant something.’ (Donald, Elizabeth. Online Interview, April 2015.)

With Roddenberry doing his best to make the show mean something more than just a spaceship traveling between planets and sometimes getting into space battles, its following grew beyond the standard science fiction crowd.

However, despite this innovative approach to getting messages across, the original show was canceled after three seasons, and the Enterprise and her crew went off into the deep space of cancellation. But the show rose again through syndication, and it soon began to gain more fans than when it was originally on regular broadcast TV. This was the time that I was introduced to the universe that Gene Roddenberry had created. When I was in first grade living in Chicago, we were lucky to have a black and white TV in the bedroom. One night I was staying up much later than I should have, hoping to find a Godzilla movie on late-night TV. What I found was a strange show that took place on a spaceship with people in uniforms, and one person called Spock that had strange-looking ears.

I found out years later that this first episode that I watched of this strange TV show was entitled “City On the Edge of Forever.” I loved this show and wanted more of it.

Thanks to syndication, I was able to watch all of the old episodes and become a huge fan of it, as did millions of people from my generation. Moreover, the original cast coming back to do the Star Trek movies created even more fans for the franchise.

Then Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, and it seemed like Star Trek had not only returned, but actually began to gain more momentum. Trek had a very long run with four sequel television shows and XX movies, but in the year 2005, the last Star Trek show entitled Star Trek: Enterprise was canceled. Once again, Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future was sent off into deep space, and the fans of the shows had to be content to watch their favorite version of Trek on DVD.

However, in November 2007, filming began on a new movie as a complete reboot of the franchise. This is when a division within the fan community of Star Trek began to take place, and it started with the director of the film.

J.J. Abrams was chosen as the director for the movie, and this quote from Elizabeth Donald shows why fans began to get worried about Abrams being in charge of the new movie.

‘Abrams himself said in interviews that he didn’t like Star Trek growing up. He said it was “too smart” (ref. Daily Show interview) and he preferred sci-fi movies that were less philosophical.’(Donald) This one statement by Abrams did not sit well with most of the fans, but this is not the first time that the fans were worried about a Trek movie. Star Trek novelist, Keith DeCandido recalls this fact from when the second Trek movie The Wrath of Khan was released: ‘Nobody remembers this now, but Gene Roddenberry spent most of 1982 telling fans not to go to see WRATH OF KHAN, that it wasn't really Star Trek, that Harve Bennett (the scriptwriter for the movie) was some interloper who didn't know anything about Trek and was being brought in to ruin it.’(DeCandido, Keith. Online Interview. April 2015)

However, that movie went on to become the most favorite of fans of the old shows and is still considered one of the best movies of the entire film franchise. Keith DeCandido brings up this point about the situation. ‘Roddenberry shut up after the movie was released and became a hit, and is still considered the best of the Trek films by many – but at the time, he was saying the same things about Bennett and Nicholas Meyer that a segment of the fan base now is saying about JJ Abrams.’

But once the new Trek film was released, the division between the fans did not decrease; in fact, it has only risen. The new movie released in 2009 was full of action, fight scenes, lens flares galore, and some of the most state-of-the-art special effects Hollywood studios could produce. It had all of those things that screamed blockbuster and made over $257 million worldwide.

But to many of the fans of classic Trek, something was missing: the heart and feeling of what made Star Trek stand out from other shows and films of its kind. In fact many people thought it felt more like a Star Wars film than the thought-provoking social commentary that was in the classic series. Craig Maull, writer of the blog Future Dude, said this about the film: ‘The new film’s key plot points — like a fatherless farm boy challenged by an elder to leave his home and venture into space, and an entire planet being destroyed halfway through — were completely derivative of Star Wars. The only problem is that the two franchises have nothing to do with one another and never should! They are based on totally different foundations.’ (Maull, Craig. "Why Star Trek (2009) Is a Terrible Film." N.p., n.d. Web. 14 April 2015.)

Many felt this was one of the main problems with the reboot. Action, big explosions, and a moody, young hero were all tropes from George Lucas’ universe, of which Abrams admitted that he was more a fan than what Roddenberry was trying to get across with his creation.

Roddenberry’s view of the future was one of optimism, in which we as a people had gone through hell and came out the other side a better species for it. Yes, we still had problems, but for the most part we had reached a point where we had achieved peace on Earth and could spend more time looking for more worlds. But in the reboot from Abrams, we were treated to the sight of Kirk getting into barroom brawls and even seeing Spock as a child getting into fist fights with his fellow classmates.

When the next movie was announced, older fans’ hopes were slim that it would get any better. The movie Star Trek Into Darkness, was released in May of 2013 and was once again directed by Abrams. When it was all said and done, it made more than $467 million worldwide, nearly double the amount of the first film, but once again fans were divided on the movie.

‘From “red matter” to “black holes don’t do that” to mind-boggling stupidity on the part of all the “smart” characters, it was clear that no one was actually writing the movies. And that was before Carol Marcus took her shirt off.’ is what Elizabeth Donald said about the second movie. ‘When Trek Beta threw out the depth and philosophy of the original Trek, it threw out everything that made it Star Trek.’

Into Darkness also made the mistake of taking stories from the older movies and tried to mold and bend them for the new audience. Abrams and company tried their best to hide who actor Benedict Cumberbatch would be playing in the movie. It was known that he was the villain, but his name for his character was kept hidden. The day I went and saw the movie, the moment Cumberbatch said that his name was ‘Khan’, I put my face in my hands and just laughed. Cumberbatch is a fine actor, but he didn’t have the same air of superiority and ‘I’m better than you,’ mentality that Ricardo Montalbán portrayed in the movie Wrath of Khan.

Once again, most Trek fans felt cheated by the movie, and felt that it ‘reached near-parody status in trying to repeat the past,’ as Elizabeth Donald said about the movie.

However, the new Abrams films have its supporters. They feel that all the older Trek fans are just being old-fashioned and should try to embrace the newer movies on the merits on the entertainment factor alone. ‘I myself can be a purist, but I’m a realist and somewhat of a pragmatist. Even if I share idealistic views with said purists; I'll still admit when a movie is just great fun and pays homage (when it’s not required) to its source. I can turn off the purist and just enjoy a film experience without being pretentious about what I think or expect it’s supposed to be.’ (Camacho, E.F. "Breaking Down Arguments Against STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS & Why Trekkies Are Wrong." Comic Book Movie.com, 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 14 April 2015.)

To a certain level, I can see this point of view. There are some movies or TV shows that I watch just for fun and for entertainment, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. There is most certainly times when a person just wants to shut down their brain and enjoy a few explosions and see CGI special effects fly across the screen just for fun.

Movies like that for me include Jackie Chan films, several of the kaiju movies from Japan, something from the Terminator franchise, or one of the many movies that Marvel Studios has put out. A lot of those movies can be fun, entertaining, and a good way to go to the theater and munch some popcorn with some friends to relax and have fun.

However, Star Trek was never only about having fun and watching big booms happen when a ship is hit with photon torpedoes. It always meant something more and had something more behind it. I believe David Gerrold said it best when it comes to just what is missing from the new movies. ‘Yes, there's a lot of action, a lot of great special effects, a lot of stuff that looks like Star Trek done right. But what's missing is the heart and soul that Gene Roddenberry (and all the rest of us who worked on the original series) put into the storytelling. And I think that's the core of the disappointment that so many of the fans are feeling.’

In conclusion, the new Trek movies can be fun and a good way to kill a couple of hours. I’m sure when the next one comes out, it will make plenty of money and it will have it fans rush to defend it that it is just as good or better than what Roddenberry first dreamed of.

But until the stories behind all of the fancy ships, CGI effects, and lens flare that can blind a person have a true meaning and reason, it will just be another tent-pole movie during the summer, not really Star Trek. As David Gerrold said, ‘Star Trek, The Original Series was always about something. There was always a point to be made. Sometimes the finished episode was clumsy or heavy-handed, sometimes episodes suffered from behind the scenes circumstances that prevented them from being as good as they could have been. But the ambition was there in every episode.’

This is where the new movies are failing, the lack of ambition to be more than just another blockbuster. Perhaps with the next movie, a balance can be reached between substance and flashy special effects. Ms. Donald said this about it: ‘Is there anything we can enjoy? Clearly many people do, and perhaps that will keep enough corporate interest in the series that we might eventually get real writers writing solid scripts in the Trek 2.0 universe. So far, we’re still waiting.’


Cited Sources

Camacho, E.F. "Breaking Down Arguments Against STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS & Why Trekkies Are Wrong." Comic Book Movie.com, 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

Gerrold, David. Donald, Elizabeth. DeCandido, Keith. "Experts Who Write It And Rate It." Online interviews. Apr. 2015.

Maull, Craig. "Why Star Trek (2009) Is a Terrible Film." N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

Whitfield, Stephen E., and Gene Roddenberry. “The Making of Star Trek.” New York: Ballantine, 1968. Print.

Shatner, William, and Chris Kreski. “Star Trek Memories”. New York, NY: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1993. Print.