Just Let It Die, Already!

Put Star Trek Out of Its Misery So Roddenberry Can Stop Spinning

by Kai MacTane

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Whenever you think Hollywood’s finally learning a few things about how to deal with major fannish franchises, they find a way to make it clear that any appearance of cluefulness on their part is just a coincidence. So the fact that Paramount plans to continue with the overmilked, overfarmed and just plain worn-out Star Trek franchise isn’t that much of a surprise. But the sheer magnitude of their latest Trek-related boneheadness is still enough to raise an eyebrow.

As renowned Trek fan site TrekToday.com reports, they’ve assigned Lost and Alias creator J.J. Abrams to direct the next Trek movie, already scheduled for release in 2008. Abrams’ previous sci-fi credentials don’t inspire much confidence: he was a co-writer of the screenplay for Armageddon, which was so painfully inaccurate that even the non-genre “Goofs” writeup at IMDb mentions “numerous errors” in the physics and astronomy. (Dr. Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy page simply can’t do justice to the full awfulness, but it’s worth a (spoiler-filled) read.)

To make matters worse, this is an odd-numbered Trek movie (number 11, for those that have lost count). Piling that on top of the apathy many fans are already feeling after Insurrection, Nemesis, and Enterprise seems like a sure-fire recipe for a lackluster, “make sure to miss this one!” movie at best. (Or, at worst... well we’ve already seen the worst, haven’t we? Even MST3K refused to take on Star Trek V: The Search for God. But it stands as an enduring monument to just how wretched Trek can be in the wrong hands.)

Screen capture of Variety's web page, claiming "Trekkies have a new leader"
Screen capture of Variety magazine’s web site on Saturday, April 22nd, 2006. Click for larger version in new window.

As an aside: Variety magazine, which originally reported this decision by Paramount, has found another way of showing how completely they don’t understand Star Trek or its fans: They reported Abrams’ assignment with the headline “Trekkies have a new leader”. As if a studio appointment somehow gave Abrams even the slightest bit of credibility in Trek fandom. Before Abrams came along, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga weren’t Trekkies’ “leaders”. Despite being fairly well respected, Leonard Nimoy wasn’t the “leader” when he was directing The Voyage Home. The only person who could ever have been accorded that title was Gene Roddenberry, and he never seemed to want such a mantle.

But it seems Paramount is concerned that there might be a possibility that this movie could accidentally turn into a success somehow, and they have to take heroic measures to keep that from happening. And so, as TrekToday reports, “the new film will be a prequel to the original Star Trek series, featuring younger versions of characters like James T. Kirk and Spock. The movie will chronicle events such as their first meeting at Starfleet Academy and their first mission into outer space.”

Curiously, it turns out that it would be canonically possible to do a story about Kirk and Spock meeting at Starfleet Academy: according to the biographies on Paramount’s official site, their times there overlapped by three years, Spock having been one year ahead of Kirk. But it would not be possible to add any of the other original series bridge crew members to such a story without violating canon: Scotty had already graduated five years before Spock arrived, and Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov all arrived after Kirk’s graduation.

Dr. McCoy, in particular, never attended Starfleet Academy at all, having been educated at Ole Miss and an unspecified medical school. But leaving him out is fatal; the most interesting bridge crew dynamic has always been the tension between Spock’s logic and McCoy’s emotionalism. Look at the classic image of Spock and McCoy as the captain’s two advisors: each one standing to one side of Kirk’s chair, Spock advising the logical course of action while McCoy evaluates its emotional impact. It’s an archetypal pattern that can be traced right back to The Chariot card in the Major Arcana of the Tarot, and probably much further. Ditching that dynamic means losing one of the core pieces of Trek iconography that people respond to on a gut level.

Or, in one-syllable words that anyone besides a Paramount exec could understand: You just don’t want to break up this team, man!

Then there are all the other things you lose by having to scrap the rest of the crew. No rants from Scotty about what the engines can or can’t take. None of Uhura’s singing or speaking Swahili. None of Chekov’s little comments about how the Russians invented everything; none of Sulu’s green thumb or love for Dumas. A Kirk-Spock solo adventure will be missing most of the character traits we’ve come to know and expect out of a Trek story.

But Paramount — or J.J. Abrams — could easily get around this problem, simply by deciding to ignore canon. It’s not like the word “canon” really means much at all in the Trek universe any more. Since Rick Berman and Brannon Braga decided continuity was just a minor inconvenience, there’d be nothing to stop Paramount and Abrams from just going ahead and throwing the entire original series bridge crew together. (Heck, with a little artistic handwaving and fifteen seconds of technobabble, they could even work in cameos by stars from the other Trek series. Why not have Kira, Seven of Nine, and T’Pol stop in for a little fan service?)

But really, it doesn’t matter how many or how few of the crew they bring back. Whether it’s one, two, or all of them, merely by trying this stunt, Paramount has ensured that it’ll be a massive disaster. Because these are some of the most recognizable characters in the history of science fiction, and it will be incredibly difficult to find young actors who can portray an 18-year-old Kirk and a 20-year-old Spock in a way that we’ll be able to believe.

Ewan MacGregor is a pretty good actor. He was just barely able to make his portrayal of young Obi-Wan Kenobi square with what we’d previously seen in Sir Alec Guinness’ rendition of the part. But Guinness had maybe an hour of screen time in A New Hope, probably less. We’d just started getting to know Ben when he sacrificed himself to let the others escape the First Death Star. In contrast, we’ve seen dozens of hours of footage of Kirk and Spock, under practically every condition imaginable.

“When the need arises — and it does — you must be able to shoot your own dog.”
— Robert A. Heinlein

By trying to give us a retrospective storyline, Paramount is simply showing that it has completely run out of ideas about what to do with Star Trek. We’ve seen this trick in other franchises before: Young Sherlock Holmes, Young Indiana Jones, even Muppet Babies. There’s nothing new or original about the idea of “Young Kirk and Spock at Starfleet Academy”.

Even worse, it’s filling a “demand” that simply doesn’t exist. Back in 1968, the fans’ unprecedented letter-writing campaign was all that kept Star Trek on the air for a third season. But in the past few years, we’ve finally reached the equally unprecedented situation of Trek fans leading the charge to take Trek off the air, so it has some time to recover. When even the fans don’t want to see any more Trek, it’s time to realize that there is no audience for this movie.

Since Enterprise first went on the air, and Nemesis tanked shortly thereafter, we’ve watched the entire franchise sliding inexorably into a creative coma. (Indeed, some of us would say the decline started long before that.) Rather than prolonging the death-watch, it’s up to Trek fans to do right by our series, and help put it out of its misery. Paramount won’t do it on their own; they have too much money at stake, and far too little clue.

It’s up to us. Skip this movie. We already know it’s going to suck; we might as well make sure it loses money, too. That’s the only thing that will make Paramount let the franchise rest for a while, like it so desperately needs.

Kai MacTane is the Freak Nation’s webmaster. He’s been watching Star Trek since he was three years old, but gave up on the franchise somewhere around the “Neelix’s Lungs” episode of Voyager. Of all the original series plotlines to do a stupid rewrite of, why pick “Spock’s Brain”?!? Dear Goddess, why?!? Won’t someone think of the children?