Sunday, April 23, 2006

The New Team

J.J. Abrams---producer, director, co-writer—will have more power over Star Trek’s future than anyone in its past, perhaps even including its creator, Gene Roddenberry. At least for one movie.

Who is Abrams? At 40 years old (in June), he is currently a very hot commodity. He created two hit TV series, “Lost” and “Alias,” when TV dramas are losing audiences to so-called reality shows. Paramount is apparently pleased with his work on Mission Impossible III, even though the film hasn’t yet been released.

MI3 is his first film as a director. It’s a big budget movie, with a high-powered cast. His past work as a writer for film, however, has not been especially distinguished. On the plus side, he’s been versatile: writing action, drama, comedy and romantic movies. But few of these films were successful, or critical favorites.

He wrote the screenplay for Armageddon (1998), generally considered the lesser of the two asteroid-threatens-earth movies of that year, starring Bruce Willis. He co-wrote a 2001 drama about a psycho killer (Joy Ride), an obscure comedy (Gone Fishin, 1997) for Danny Glover and Joe Pesci, a romantic drama (Forever Young, 1992) for Mel Gibson. Though it was not particularly successful at the box office, his one gem was Regarding Henry in 1991, which featured one of Harrison Ford’s best performances (and just guessing, I’ll bet one of his favorites.)

Abrams also created the TV series about college students, Felicity, that ran 4 years on the WB cable network, and a 2005 pilot for a series about bounty hunters (The Catch) which was not picked up.

His writing partners for Star Trek XI, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who worked with Abrams on MI3, have worked together before. They co-wrote the sequel, The Legend of Zorro (2005), which didn’t measure up critically or at the box office to its predecessor, The Mask of Zorro. They are writing partners on two films slated for release next year, The Transformers: The Movie, and Amazon (Orci is also a producer of this film, to star Scarlett Johansson.) The actual status of these two projects is unknown.

But perhaps most interesting is their early TV work: both wrote for the Kevin Sabo Hercules series, and Orci wrote for its companion series, “Zena, the Warrior Princess.”

All in all, I find more to worry about that to celebrate in the prior work of this team. They certainly are experienced at writing sequels, and working with established characters and fictional worlds. But they’ve never worked with a fictional world as complex, and as dependent on concepts and its internal history, as Star Trek.

If you are concerned about Star Trek continuity, about its history of the future and the key concepts that are crucial to that history, you have to worry about the casual attitude towards history and continuity in the groundbreaking Hercules and Zena series. Their playful use of anachronisms—of very contemporary dialogue and character attitudes in an ancient setting, their casual mixing of periods and places, myth and history in incorporating real historical figures—was a great part of the charm of these shows, and what made them different. But though a vein of knowing humor did work well for the last 3 or 4 TOS cast features, a casual attitude towards Star Trek’s past could play havoc with the Star Trek universe, as created and preserved in 40 years of film, tape and print.

My own perhaps obsessive fear about new Star Trek---that it will use the characters and the Star Trek universe as nothing more than a setting for an action move, a feature film video-game (or video game commercial) —is not exactly assuaged by what I know about this team. Abrams is reputedly a Star Trek fan, but on what level? Treating the Star Trek universe and Trek characters apart from the soul of Star Trek instantly makes it something else. And the revolution becomes an assassination.

Maybe they have the chops to really add to Star Trek not only with good storytelling, with action and adventure, character interplay and development, but by advancing elements of the Star Trek story that articulates its ethos, its view of the future and of the human potential. Or at least, not trashing what Star Trek has come to mean to so many people about a path to a hopeful future. Regarding Henry tells me that’s possible. Armageddon and Zena make me wonder. The idea of Transformers: the Movie makes me cringe.

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