Tuesday, December 19, 2006

TrekCheck: A New Animated Series--I Don't Think So

There's some buzz about a project that seems one step away from getting the green light at CBS for a new Star Trek series, sort of. As described by its producers, I think it would be a big mistake that could haunt the saga for years to come.

There are several good ideas involved. First, it's animated, which I suggested back when Enterprise went off the air might be a good approach. Second, it takes the Star Trek universe farther into the future rather than back to its seen and unseen past. It's also being suggested as a kind of web series, which has possibilities. But that's where the good ideas end, from my perspective, and I think from that of the whole Star Trek enterprise.

One of the producers, David Rossi, has been widely quoted, starting at the Trek Movie Report. His description of the 26th century Trek universe, and his reasons for how that universe is constructed, are the major problems. Rossi and company want to create a 26th century in which the Federation is fractured in the aftermath of galactic war, apparently (but not really) begun by the Romulans, leaving Andoria destroyed, the Klingon Empire occupied and Vulcan no longer a Federation world. The series follows the captain of the 26th century Enterprise, as he tries to return to Star Trek's mission of exploration.

Rossi's reason for creating this premise is that "couching big social issues in allegories so they are more palatable is kind of passé now. Today shows deal with these issues head on, so we decided to make the entire show an allegory. The premise is an allegory for the post-9/11 world we live in. A world of uncertainty and fear."

First of all, Rossi doesn't seem to understand what allegory is, even in the looser sense in which it means a kind of metaphor or symbolic representation. The idea he attacks--"couching big social issues in allegories"--is precisely one of the chief characteristics of Star Trek, and of science fiction as it has been practiced since H.G. Wells. The idea that "today shows deal with these issues head on" and then to say that "the premise is an allegory" is a basic contradiction.

What Rossi likely means by dealing "with these issues head on" is that he is taking the pieces of the known Star Trek universe and using them to make a war movie--an essentially contemporary war movie set in the future, which mirrors his conception of the "post-9/11 world" of "uncertainty and fear." It's hard to conceive of a less imaginative premise, or one that is less in the spirit of Star Trek.

First of all, it is based on the flimsiest of cliches. Parroting the idea that the world changed forever with 9/11 does not make it so, and there is abundant evidence that this is simply platitude, cant, political hogwash, naive history, clueless geopolitical observation, and way too easy. Sure, it makes for the kind of easily understood "concept" that communicates in five minute pitch sessions. And the idea of warfare, terrorism, torture and intrigue certainly makes for easy filmmaking, at least conceptually. The drama is built-in. The action is guaranteed, like a video game, like, well, a cartoon.

"A world of uncertainty and fear" may describe today, but it also describes the 1960s and every decade since, not to mention the 1860s, 1606, etc. It also doesn't fully describe any of these times, including today. It's not a reality, it's a hook.

Not only does this vision set Star Trek back a couple of centuries in perception of the world and the future, it is singularly unimaginative. It certainly saves on the wear and tear of trying to imagine an actual Star Trek future a century and a half or so after the 24th century Gene Roddenberry and his initial TNG group invented. There was real thought behind that, not only in terms of technologies but also in terms of "people" (meaning humans and other similar sentient beings) and societies. This was real science fiction--not a complete transplant of somebody's very limited idea of an early 21st century reality, with cooler weapons and adversaries distinguished by bumpy or non-bumpy foreheads.

In terms of its relation to the world and the future, Star Trek began as an alternative to the limited Us vs. Them, Social Darwinist view, in which a cycle of violence and vengeance is fated. In creative terms, it began as an alternative to the simplistic shoot 'em up school of drama, in which all the easy emotional buttons are pushed.

Star Trek's human adventure was about the struggle to fulfill the human potential, and to explore the mysteries of the universe and our place in it. It was about self-knowledge that helps us to reach for that potential. Granted that in the world of television and entertainment, and given schedules and so on, that ideal was not always realized on the screen. But it was often enough, or clearly enough, that Star Trek became identified with it.

Each story was an inquiry into a piece of that complex puzzle, as the crew perhaps learned something about humanity in contrast to new life and new civilizations they encountered, or through science fiction situations that worked on several levels. Meanwhile, the series explored the characters and evolving relationships of the crew and other familiar figures, to shed more light on the Star Trek enterprise of exploring ourselves and modeling a better future, complete with its difficulties and complexities.

I don't have a lot of confidence that this animated series as described in this way would be that Star Trek (even with the idea that the series hero is trying to get Starfleet back to exploring. It sounds a little too much like Michael Corleone in Godfather III--"I try to get out but they keep pulling me back in!") It sound like it would hijack Star Trek nomenclature and the Star Trek universe for something very different, and much, much less interesting.

In a sense it is unfair to ask an animated series with six minute episodes (!) to bear this responsibility, but the unfortunate reality is that it would be Star Trek's first foray into the future beyond the established 24th century, and as such would be a precedent. Even the Star Trek novels that go beyond the so-called canon of what's been on screen (ending with Star Trek Nemesis) are regarded as the other novels are--as variations, more or less self-contained, or alternate Trek universes (like the Shatnerverse.) But being the first and only post-Nemesis series on screen, even if animated, and even if on computer screens, sets a more serious precedent for the Star Trek universe.

And in doing so, it would taint that Star Trek universe beyond the 24th century, where no Star Trek has yet gone. It would be a damaging mistake, in my view. Rearranging the known elements of the Star Trek 24th century, especially in this melodramatic fashion, seems like exploitation. The premise lacks the imagination that made Star Trek unique and worth following.

Additional Dialogue...

Finally caught up with Jonathan Frakes' The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines on TV, and enjoyed it. But the commercials really fractured it for me. I look forward to really seeing it, on DVD.

Maybe it shouldn't, but it still amazes me how many Star Trek references fly by in newspapers, on TV (MSNBC news host Keith Olbermann mentions that referees are not "issued phasers") and in movies. A couple that jumped out at me recently: a running gag on the new Dr. Who series, begun the first season when Rose tells someone the Doctor's name is Spock (and I did see this season on DVD and it makes a world of difference; it's certainly made me impatient with the second season on TV, but that comes to DVD next month) with a reference or two the second season, culminating in the latest episode to air in the U.S. (the next to last) in which the Doctor tries to get a kid to do the Vulcan hand sign--without ever identifying it-- then more or less mind melds with him.

The very same night (last Friday) on the CBS series Numb3rs, the Peter MacNichol character, Dr. Larry Fleinhardt, is talking about his imminent assignment aboard the Space Shuttle, when he gets a cell phone call--and his ringtone is very clearly the Star Trek communicator sound. And it's not just the brief version we heard on Boston Legal when William Shatner quickly answers his cell, but a couple of long "rings." And the perfect thing about it: nobody mentions it, though Dr. Larry does seem a bit embarrassed. That's what's especially interesting about these references: they never say they are Star Trek references. It's just assumed that if you're cool enough, you'll know.

Update: Another category of Trek references are in the more "intellectual" publications, and I caught this one in the current New York Review of Books--by Margaret Atwood (a globally famous novelist, author of The Handmaiden's Tale set in the future) about Richard Powers. She suggests that he deserves major literary awards but the award-givers may have "...drawn back, as if they've suddenly felt that they might be giving an award to somebody not quite human—to Mr. Spock of Star Trek, for instance. He's got a Vulcan mind-meld on the critics, all right..."

Coming Soon...

Star Trek's fortieth anniversary year gives way to the 20th anniversary year of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I hope to get an early start later this month by continuing my "Trekalog" series of essays on the ten Star Trek feature films, with the first TNG movie, Generations. Meanwhile, check the Trekalog essays on the first six features (with handy links) below.

Though there's a lot of interest in the original series, likely to continue if the rumored premise of the next Star Trek movie as dealing with its time proves true, and I'll continue to write about it, especially in relation to contemporary issues. But I do expect to emphasize TNG more in the coming year. Though the stars of the original series are known around the world, and many of the Star Trek elements begun in that series are part of world mythology now, I believe writer Jeff Greenwald is right--it is Star Trek: The Next Generation as a whole that is best known and best loved around the world. In my own view, it is the continuation and fruition of Star Trek as it began in the original series. So expect more TNG here, and maybe even in the form of more Trek fiction, in the spirit of Datalove, The Cold and Lily (posted under the nom de net of Morgan Dash.)

So keep on Trekkin'--and happy holidays!

The Trekalog (so far)

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

1 comment:

Swinebread said...

Wasn’t the idea of a fractured/destroyed federation kinda’ used in Andromeda?