Monday, February 07, 2005

TrekCheck/ After "Enterprise": Speculations of the Week

In his generous and evocative comments prompted by the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise, former Star Trek writer and current producer of the Sci-Fi Channel hit Battlestar Galactica, Ronald D. Moore said a couple of things that seemed significant to me.

The first comes as a result of claimed inside knowledge. "Star Trek isn't dead and it isn't dying." "...I know first hand that Viacom considers 'the Franchise' to be one of their crown jewels and I've personally heard them refer to the 'next fifty years of Star Trek' as a corporate priority."

Moore then refers to Star Trek now entering "an interregnum, a pause in the treadmill of overlapping productions that have become the norm for the series that was once considered 'too cerebral for television.'"

These quotes come from Moore's Galactica blog, and can be found here. Battlestar Galactica Blog

So according to Moore, Viacom (now the parent of Paramount) is committed to Star Trek's future, and is planning for it. But while others refer to a "pause" (as he also does) or a rest or hiatus, Moore is unique in using the word "interregnum." It's an unusual word, which means "the interval of time between the end of a sovereign's reign and the accession of a successor."

It could simply be a metaphor for the time between "Enterprise" and the next series or other Star Trek manifestation. Or it could he be suggesting a change in leadership? As he writes so eloquently, the creative staff that has built the Star Trek universe for decades will soon disband, taking with them great talent, dedication and institutional memory. But could there be more changes in the offing? Does Moore know something else from his Viacom sources?

Leaving aside such parsing, and consideration of interpersonal politics among current and former Star Trek producers and writers (especially since the relationships of Moore, Brannon Braga and Rick Berman reportedly have a complex and not always serene history), the cancellation of Enterprise does lead to questions about the future of the current Star Trek leadership. More about that in a moment.

Implicit in my speculations is my sense that the next new Star Trek story will appear as a feature film, not a television series.

A New Launch?

If Viacom values "the franchise" so highly, and Paramount's new chief is known for risk-taking and working with high profile movie stars, then another possible future for Star Trek emerges. It would involve treating Star Trek as others are treating Batman and Superman: they use the basic character and key elements of the story, but develop new concepts and stories not bound by what's been established in previous movies or television shows.

Instead, they combine the "brand" with other attractions: the latest in special effects, for instance, plus either a well-known actor in a different kind of role (the strategy in the last series of Batman films), or introducing an unknown to become identified with the role (Christopher Reeve in the latest Superman series of films.) Now a new Batman film is forthcoming, with Superman in the wings, with no direct relationship to the previous film series.

This kind of a "relaunch" or reintroduction almost inevitably means a big budget Event movie, with high production values and stars, even bankable stars, if not as heroes then as antagonists. It would probably mean a major "A" list director, probably associated with blockbuster science fiction or fantasy. There are probably a few who would love to make a Star Trek film, if they had the freedom and the budget.

Speculating on how that strategy would be applied to Star Trek suggests many fascinating questions, including some troubling ones. Would Viacom dare to tempt fan wrath by straying too far from established Trek lore? Would Paramount attempt to re-imagine Star Trek with the classic characters of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, played by different, younger actors? This has been suggested in the past, but has always seemed to me unlikely, especially while the original series actors are alive and working.

It could be argued that Battlestar Galactica itself proves it might work, but the cast of the old TV show never achieved the iconic status of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. Though Batman was successfully transferred from a TV series to the big screen without Adam West, he hadn't actually created the character. I can think of one disastrous attempt: the controversy over not only bypassing Clayton Moore for a new Lone Ranger movie in the 1970s but banning him from personal appearances as the Lone Ranger, essentially sunk that movie even before it was made.

More recently the Lost in Space feature had well-known stars replacing familiar actors, but it didn't do well. But in that case, the character of the concept was changed as well as the actors. Even though it was a decent film in its own right, it apparently didn't attract fans of the comic and campy series, yet the series reputation may have kept ordinary science fiction fans away.

In any case, the only story idea for the next Star Trek movie that we know anything about, involves no previous established characters, and Rick Berman has more than hinted that it's being talked about as a big budget feature. Though some Trek observers believe Berman is being strung along, and that Paramount has no intentions of making this movie, at least with him as producer, it is intriguing to consider the possibility of a Star Trek feature with major stars playing new characters. In fact that's probably the only kind that could attract a major director. But if they are all new characters in an era not portrayed before, and especially if Berman and other current or past Star Trek people aren't involved, how will it be Star Trek?

I'd guess that Paramount wouldn't proceed without somebody associated with past Trek, unless they plan to wait ten years, but it's still worth asking the question. On the Special Edition DVD of the last original cast feature, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, William Shatner mentions that Gene Roddenberry died shortly before this film was released, and boldly says that for all intents and purposes, Star Trek died with him.

Though it's an exaggeration, there is some profound truth in that. From his own ideas and interests, and his uncanny ability to inspire and then guide the ideas of others, Gene Roddenberry provided the original, continuing and evolving vision of Star Trek. For awhile, others carried that vision forward and added their own. But while it is probably true as Brent Spiner said recently, that Rick Berman was a scrupulous caretaker of that vision as he understood it, Berman has said on several occasions that it wasn't his vision.

I don't know Rick Berman and have only spoken to him once briefly, so I don't pretend to analyze his point of view or evaluate his passion. As a writer and a producer, he added creatively to the Star Trek vision (I'm thinking particularly of "Star Trek: First Contact.") He guided Star Trek through most of its life. But he didn't appear to be as interested in science fiction as Roddenberry was, especially as a way of telling stories to illuminate contemporary issues of importance. It is inevitably a different thing to develop and express a vision, than it is to conform to someone else's. Perhaps it's time to re-discover the sources of the Roddenberry vision.

It Came From Inner Space

The original series was a product of the 1950s and 1960s. It came from Roddenberry's own life and experiences, and the experiences of his generation, particularly in World War II. Its roots were in classic science fiction from H.G. Wells through Olaf Stapledon to his contemporaries like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. As a television show it owed more to The Twilight Zone than Wagon Train (as in "Wagon Train to the Stars.")

It seems to me the Roddenberry's vision was a strong presence through Star Trek: The Next Generation, but began waning after that. The experiences of writers and producers after Roddenberry were of their own time, and Star Trek as television and film had to exist and find ways to tell stories in new media environments. I don't for a moment discount the difficulties.

But I do think that looking back at the essentials of the original series, The Next Generation and the feature films, it is possible to learn the soul of Roddenberry's vision, and to take it forward. It may also take more insight into the experiences of Roddenberry's lifetime, as well as the importance of his science fiction sources, and the issues they were addressing.

Others suggest that those with the future of Star Trek in their hands should look around at other science fiction shows and movies. Certainly there are lessons in technique and budget and so on, but I would hate to see Star Trek become too generic, especially since I don't much care for much of what passes as science fiction on TV and in film. Much of it seems to me to simply be action adventure with more futuristic weaponry and faster camera cuts. The essence of Star Trek was in how humans can change, not how their technology allows them to kill more distant beings more efficiently, or how today's technology allows directors to better manipulate the glandular pulsing of the audience. If new Star Trek follows some fashionable and commercial course, empty of its key ideas, people will be pining for the good old days when Rick Berman was at least trying to preserve a Star Trek integrity.

Roddenberry's essential question, made most explicit in the character of Data was: what does it mean to be human? Not only as individuals, but as societies, and in relationships of all kind: to each other, to "alien" and other life, and to the universe. In the context of the 1960s particularly, it was a question that came naturally, as it should today.

It did not mean either some magical transformation into perfection,or that human behavior is necessarily fixed in some deterministically repeating pattern forever: patterns which happen to be the easiest to dramatize, since they are usually overtly violent and very familiar, not only from life but from past drama.

This was the challenge of Roddenberry's science fiction. It is why, contrary to Moore and others, the appearance of the Counsellor in The Next Generation wasn't some eighties therapy fad, but represented a real step forward, a necessary path to a survivable future. It formalized and socialized the self-scrutiny that was always central to Star Trek drama. (For Star Trek was always drama, story, that used the medium to best advantage, to entertain audiences partly by entertaining ideas.)

Which leads at long last to a second point Ron Moore made, that the future of Star Trek for the moment lies with its fans. He refers to the fans' creativity, and I couldn't agree more: anyone who is going to determine Star Trek's future should be looking at the stories and films being created by Star Trek fans. (The official Star Trek novels are another important source, as the Reeves-Stevens alone have more than proved with their stellar contribution to this season's Enterprise.) And for however long the pause lasts after Enterprise, Star Trek fans should seek their entertainment from each other, as well as from the old stories.

But they also should examine what binds Star Trek fans to Star Trek's most enduring representatives, the original cast members like Nichele Nichols, George Takei and Walter Koenig, as well as those they revere for their creative contributions to the Star Trek vision, like Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner, and then those that followed them, from the Next Generation cast to Enterprise. Listen to most of them and you hear how central are the ideas and ideals of Star Trek.

Star Trek is storytelling, it is an embodied vision of an exciting future, but a future we would like to live in, and a future we wish were here right now. Some Star Trek fans do more than yearn for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, or the ethics of the Prime Directive. They try to express them in their lives. Between here and that future, are many stories still to be told.

It's not going to be easy to attract new audiences while satisfying Star Trek fans who parse each story for textual references like Biblical scholars, sometimes forgetting that there were stories outside Trek, from The Heart of Darkness to Captain Video, that partly inspired original series episodes.

It's also true that some fans of this era see something else in Star Trek that would appall Roddenberry (so it isn't surprising that these days, rants demeaning Roddenberry appear with predictable frequency on Star Trek fan sites.) The vision needs revived and re-energized and expanded, but at the heart of the enterprise there must be a real vision, and an understanding of what makes Star Trek Star Trek. In other words, the soul of Star Trek.



Aaron said...

Excellent post. I imagine I'm one of those fans for whom trying something new might draw a fare amount of ire, but I think I'm willing to give it a shot. I'd post my ideas, but i've already done it HERE! I think whatever happens, teasing out the essence of Roddenberry's initial vision is crucial to making Star Trek work, again. I think the rest is up for grabs. Again, nice thoughts. I'll be sure to check back in the future.

Anonymous said...

That was eloquent and inspiring. I believe that you've hit the nail on the head with this entry.

ENTERPRISE garnered a lot of new viewers, they expressed dismay that there were so many detractors of ENT, they couldn't get why there was any controversy at all.

STAR TREK is important, as commercial television goes. It managed to assist in ushering in the era that we currently live in. I believe that it helped to accelerate our collective quest for our higher selves. STAR TREK had a mission. Roddenberry had a mission. Rick Berman had an obligation to the studio suits, perhaps he misunderstood their wishes. Additionally, I find it ironic that Brannon Braga had a writing credit for MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE (lol)

Have you ever had a favorite band that really seemed to define the time period that you listened to them in? Did that band cease to be vital at some point in it's existence? ENTERPRISE is to STAR TREK what CODA was to Led Zeppelin. No, that's being too kind.

At any rate, I do believe that STAR TREK will return better than ever. What that will mean exactly, I don't know. I loved everything about the original series, and with the right direction, many of the stylistic elements could be redone quite satisfactorally.

This hiatus, this interegnum as it's been called, is a good thing. Watching ENTERPRISE was like watching a loved one whither away on life support while incompetent doctors wring their hands unable to succesfully diagnose the patient. When STAR TREK returns, scores of fans faces will light up the way Spock's did when Kirk walked in the room after he thought he was dead.

A short respite in suspended animation is in order while the bad elements are excised from the franchise, whatever those elements may be.

Not only do I believe that STAR TREK lives, I believe that STAR TREK is eternal and it's soul is the very soul of collective humanity and all the good that it can aspire to.

Short of declaring STAR TREK a religion, I will say that it is one of the best examples of enlightening entertainment that satisfied the requirements of the commercial market while also satisfying the geeks, nerds, misfits, trekkies, trekkers, hardcore sci-fi fans, casual sci-fi fans, et al. The message of STAR TREK is too vital to simply vanish. It will be better than ever and true to form when it returns, I think Paramount saw the reaction to the episodes of ENTERPRISE's final season. I believe that ENT went from the ridiculous to the sublime in four seasons.

-Deslok2 from TrekWeb

Anonymous said...

Galactica - like Lost in Space - hasn't grabbed some of its hard core audience. The original BG was a family western in space - a sort of Bonanza gone to the stars. When Ron Moore announced that we should be "grateful" for his new sexed-up, FX-ridden show, I knew I wouldn't be watching. It's not a show I can watch with a pre-teen, so it's not BG.

Paramount would do well to learn from that lesson. Star Trek is not just something you can sex up - look at Voyager and Enterprise for proof of that. When Star Trek returns to its roots - an action/drama that celebrates human exploration of humanity as well as space - then it will be successful again.

David H said...

I enjoyed your post, very well stated. I guess what puzzles me, is about what other people have said about Enterprise. I must be an oddity, because I totally enjoy Enterprise, from the storylines to the special effects, and most of all the talented actors. I am sad to see it go, just because UPN wants to change its viewership. Let another network take over the reigns, as I think the ratings were not accurate. I agree on the point that the sexual overtones were not necessary, but it seems that is what the target audience wants to see on TV and in films, whether it has anything to do with the story or not. I think Enterprise needs another chance, on a network who cares about what people want to watch, not how many millions the network can make.