Monday, June 30, 2008

Does anyone really care about Star Trek anymore?

I realize it was most likely a rhetorical question, but my answer is still a qualified "yes". Those qualifications are: I used to love Star Trek and still have an inordinate fondness for the franchise, and would dearly love to see a new, well-done and cool iteration of the series. Stranger things have happened. If you went back in time ten years and told me that a revamped and recharged Dr. Who would be not merely popular, but extraordinarily successful, I would have thought you were nuts. But, importantly, the Powers That Be at the BBC let Who lay fallow for fifteen years - a steady trickle of fans-only ancillary product and one regrettable American TV movie notwithstanding. By the time Who came back a few years ago, there was enough water under the bridge that the general public could come to it fresh, but not enough time had passed that the hardcore fans had begun to, well, die off.

Contrariwise, there was a new Trek series on the air every year from 1987 to 2005, and half-a-dozen movies in theaters as well. In the years 1994-95 alone, Next Generation ended, Deep Space Nine continued, Voyager began and Generations saw theatrical release. That's an incredible amount of material in a relatively short amount of time: say what you will about George Lucas, but there is something to be said for keeping a tight control on the reins of your fictional universe. The general malaise which met the release of Enterprise signified more than merely dissatisfaction with the show itself (although that was a part of it), but a marked decline in the franchise's general appeal. The fanbase had dwindled, the writing and production had grown stale to a general audience, the well had gone dry. I watched consistently for most of the 90s but my attention wandered after Deep Space Nine ended: Voyager just wasn't anywhere near as good, a few standout episodes aside. I stopped watching at some point. I didn't bother with the last couple Next Generation films, and I don't think I ever saw a whole episode of Enterprise. (Although I have heard a few good things about the series in the ensuing years, by people who said that towards the end they gave up on trying to follow the Next Generation formula and just went crazy.)

So if you're working on Star Trek, your challenge is two-pronged: one, you have to win back old-school fans like me who may have strayed from the franchise, and are at the very least skeptical about any new material. But two, and more importantly, you have to be able to wipe the slate clean for the casual viewer. If you're going to sink $75-100 million on a Star Trek film you have to make it palatable to the general public who will decide whether or not the movie opens with a triumphant $50-60 million weekend or a Fanboy-FUBU $20 million.

My first bit of advice? Well, it's a bit moot now, but it bears repeating: whatever you do, don't reboot. It's one thing to reboot Batman. People are used to seeing different actors as Batman - just as they're used to seeing different people as Superman, James Bond and - presumably one day - Spider-Man. These characters all originated in other media besides film, so there is no one actor who carries a monopoly on how Bruce Wayne could or should act or look. But Captain Kirk? One of the most iconic characters in television history, and - for better or for worse - absolutely, inextricably identified with the performance of William Shatner. Shatner doesn't get a lot of credit for being a good actor - he's not, really - but in Captain Kirk he found a character that matched his temperament and performance instincts so well that the idea of Shatner playing another character besides Kirk - to say nothing of another actor ever trying to play Kirk - seems like simple folly. Leonard Nimoy was a much better actor than Shatner, and therefore it's probably a more significant shame that he became as typecasted as he did, but the same concept applies.

The original Trek remains eternally popular, and even managed to emerge from the Trek-overload of the 1990s relatively unscathed. (To that end Paramount's decision, whether intentional or incidental, to keep the "Next Gen" and "Classic" brands separate and distinct probably saved the long-term viability of the franchise. Conversely, Lucas' insistence on marketing all of Star Wars under a singular banner might have precipitated significant fandom erosion, considering the toxic reaction to the prequel trilogy in fan circles and the common belief that the later films negatively impacted perception of the earlier films.) Kirk and Spock still retain significant cultural cache. Even people who know nothing about science fiction have seen the original Star Trek. Going back to Kirk and Spock seems problematic at best. It's not like Battlestar: Galactica, where few know and fewer care whoever the fuck played Starbuck back in 1979. People still remember the original Star Trek.

But at root, the problem is even simpler than that: going back to the beginning just seems half-assed. It doesn't even look like a total stem-to-stern revamp, like the aforementioned Galactica: based on what little we've seen and heard, its Kirk and Spock on the Enterprise. How much future does a franchise legitimately have if it spends all of its time retelling old stories? Admittedly, I may be entirely mistaken: maybe the world desperately needs a new interpretation of Kirk and Spock, and the movie will make a hojillion dollars. (It'll probably make a lot of money anyway, if advance buzz is any indication.) But speaking from the privileged position of a fan, I can honestly say I'm not really interested in seeing it done again when it was done well the first time. Show me something new. That's exactly what they did with Next Generation back in 1987, and - at least for a while - it worked like gangbusters. The success of the original-cast films throughout the 80s prompted the invention of a new series going off in new directions, and those new directions were interesting enough to propel almost twenty years worth of material. Hopefully that kind of a leap forward is a possibility in addition to the film's soft reboot, because I think there's still a lot of potential in the world of Star Trek . . . but I'm skeptical about how much of that potential can be fulfilled by rehashing old ideas.

Tomorrow (or the day after): why Next Generation failed.

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