Friday, January 14, 2005

TrekCheck: the Star Trek Future

Tonight begins the second half of the Enterprise season. After a very good and promising beginning, it faces stronger competition from the Friday Sci-Fi Channel lineup, including the new Galactica series.

If that's not enough to warrant worry about its future, there are the unknown consequences of the new Paramount regime which will officially take over in a couple of months.

I asked a lot of people this summer their views on the future of the Star Trek franchise, and now I'm asking myself. Here's what I see at the moment:

If Paramount decides that the Star Trek franchise is worth continuing there, they will probably be very leery of too long a hiatus between new Star Trek stories, either on TV (through renewal of Enterprise, or a new series) or as a feature film. To let the franchise slide is to lose whatever advantage there is to be gained from its current assets. So I'm guessing that they will be looking at the possibility of re-investing, or selling off the franchise, or simply letting it lie fallow if they can't get the deal they want.

The use of assets, such as the brand name, the fan base, and the people associated with the franchise's success, seems to be a big consideration in today's Hollywood. We can guess a bit about how the current regime is thinking about this in the recent story that Paramount is not entirely happy with the idea for the next Trek movie, a prequel that doesn't use characters already associated with Trek.

First of all, there is a line of thought that says the problem with Enterprise is that it is a prequel. Manny Coto's mantra of making it a true prequel series is a boon to fans, and is shoring up that crucial aspect of the franchise. But the theory is that Star Trek has always been about going farther into the future with its vision. I have no idea if this point of view is prevalent or not, and of course it doesn't explain the parallel box office weakness of the last movie, set in the 24th century. But it does point to one problem: Trek seems to lack someone who has or can pull together a vision of an evolving future the way Gene Roddenberry did.

But making use of your assets is very likely to be part of the reason the concept for the next movie is on shaky ground. For it to work requires some other calculations. Do you save budget by employing unknowns as the lead actors? Or do you employ more or less bankable stars who haven't been associated with Star Trek before? This second becomes a possibility with the reputation of the new Paramount chief for taking risks with big name talent.

Yet neither approach is an obvious winner. So what other alternatives are there?

One might be animation. There are several new techniques that have been used in successful movies, that allow both more imaginative CGI effects and solve some problems regarding actors. Star Trek's assets include actors who are retired or have passed away, or would have difficulty playing their characters in their prime. Many of the Trek stars would also be expensive to hire for full acting roles in a major motion picture.

Animation in some form allows the possibility for a story involving major characters from the various Trek crews and eras. The strongest Trek assets in the marketplace are still Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the original crew, and the TNG crew. With lamentable exceptions, the actors who created these characters can do voices for their animated versions, thus adding the needed link to the live-action shows and films. Some Trek fans discuss digital reproductions of these characters from old films and TV, but it may be some time before this technology is truly convincing, if it ever is. But used in an animation environment and with a consistent and striking style, it seems possible.

A mixed-cast story, probably convened by the most popular Trek character not to have appeared in a feature film---namely Q---could work nicely in this format. It's probably too late to create such a film in time for the 40th anniversary of Star Trek, but it would be a fitting and exciting way to celebrate it.

This concept would also work for a live action film, of course. In any case, some form of digital storytelling is likely to be in Star Trek's future. If Paramount or some other corporate entity doesn't do it, the fans will. Fans are doing it already, and of what little I've seen, the fan films employing CGI and related imagery placing familiar characters in new situations are more interesting and exciting than the fan-made live-action attempts.

UPDATE: Star Trek chief Rick Berman is now on record disputing interpretations of earlier statements to the effect that his prequel proposal for the next movie was nixed. So, should we say Never Mind? Or This Post is no longer operative? Not exactly---we'll wait and see. Berman also suggested that if approved, this feature could be the most elaborate and expensive Trek film yet. Now speculation centers on when it might be set. Before Enterprise? Between Enterprise and the original series 23rd century? If I had to guess, I'd say the second.


Visceral said...

Animation is a great idea. LucasFilm had great success last year with the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated series, which won awards and has been renewed for a second run leading up to Revenge of the Sith this May. Whether Enterprise gets renewed or not, I think Paramount should definitely look into doing an animated show, preferably involving the iconic characters from TOS/TNG, as you said.

Anonymous said...

It is ironic that the future of Trek seems to lie in its past. This, in fact, was the tag-line for the second webisode released by Cow Creek films, and this is certainly a metaphor for what they are doing. Trek fans are asserting themselves and asserting their ownership of the franchise by redirecting it back toward the vision of the future that they believe Roddenberry created. So there is an interesting question here. Does this appropriation of Trek by its own fans represent mere nostalgia, looking backward at the "good old days," or is it a way of redirecting and reasserting the fans' collective vision of the future?

I suspect that both elements are in play here. Trek, at this juncture, is both nostalgic and forward-looking. It is facing a future of historical re-adjustment, because, obviously, the Augment war led by Khan did not take place in the 1990s, and we are rapidly accelerating toward one of the dates given for the third world war.

Star Trek, unlike something like Star Wars, since it posits itself in our history (and like Heinlein has outlined, at least in part, a "future history" of the near future), the viewer is forced to make the choice, "Is this our future history?" or "Is this merely metaphor, an alternative universe?" In the original Trek, the first choice was implied. We were living in continuity with the Star Trek universe. However, as time marches on, we are forced more and more to choose the second.

This juxtaposition, in part, is what has created the crisis for Star Trek. The Trek universe has become schitzophrenic.