Saturday, March 10, 2018

Is Star Trek Dead?

Is Star Trek Dead?

A season of Discovery is in the books. Three post-TNG movies are in the can. For me, it's time to ask - is this all that there is? Is there nothing more? Is Star Trek dead?

 "The Ritual involved opening and staring into the eyes of the dying individual, then bellowing loudly at the sky. The latter served as a warning to the dead (presumably in Sto-vo-kor): "Beware, a Klingon warrior is about to [come]."

What is Star Trek?

In order to rule on the question, one must define terms. "Star Trek" is a franchise of television shows and movies that:
  1. Exist in a shared, self-referential universe in which humanity has surmounted its global problems and struck out into the galaxy, using various future technologies such as warp drive, transporters, replicators, shields, and phasers.
  2. Tell stories of a science fictional or allegorical nature, utilizing conjectural but still realistic science.
  3. Tell stories of humanity's encounters with strange new worlds and civilizations.
  4. Tell stories of humanity creating a federation with other like-minded intelligent species in the galaxy.

By these definitions, everything prior to the 2009 Abrams movie counts as "Star Trek." Of course, each of these various iterations varies in quality to a pretty significant degree. Starting with "Star Trek 2009," I would argue that Star Trek ceased to exist as a current entertainment franchise. No new iterations on the big or small screen could consistently hit those marks. But although I could spend a lot of time listing the sins of these new iterations, I want to look a bit further back - to where I think things started to go wrong.

Enterprise: Looking Backward, not Forward

I like Enterprise. I think the characters are a bit bland, and there were instances in which liberties were taken with continuity that I didn't like all that much (e.g. the Ferengi showing up, the Borg showing up). But it still told some good sci-fi stories; the Xindi arc, though maligned, asked interesting ethical questions in an extended manner; and eventually the show hit a pretty consistent clip of story quality in Season 4. 

But Enterprise was the beginning of the end. Why? Because it looked backward.

Everyone complains about Hollywood and television these days just recycling ideas. Every movie is a sequel or a reboot. Everything is adapted from a comic book or a novel. Nothing is new, and nothing surprises.

Enterprise is a part of this trend in entertainment. While I'm sure the creators fully intended to tell vital and interesting stories, the very act of looking backward constrained them rather severely. It also set a precedent - no longer would Star Trek break new ground in storytelling, as the TNG-DS9-VOY era did. Instead, it would fill in continuity gaps.

Enterprise ended up being what I think could be fairly termed a "soft reboot." There was a lot of noise about how it would be "Sexier" and more "daring." In truth, it was not terribly daring at all. It settled into a quite conventional, and rather boring for the first two seasons, Trek series. It petered out and left the franchise effectively dead, awaiting a "hard reboot," which came in 2009 courtesy Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof.

Star Trek 2009

What did they choose to do? Could they have possibly gone forward? I think not, from a Hollywood perspective. Hollywood operates as an investment business. They only commit money to projects they think will make a return on investment. What are the most bankable returns? Things people already know. What do people know most about Star Trek? Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and "Beam Me Up, Scotty." So that's what a movie must be. In order to make a return on investment, those characters must be featured. But since the actors are too old, they must be recast. And since the franchise is so long-running, onerous continuity must be jettisoned. Reboot!

But here's the thing: once you reboot, you've broken what "Star Trek is." Look at point #1: a shared, self-referential universe. Star Trek thrives upon being one massive story. When you start watching one show, you begin to notice lots of little references here and there. You don't need to know what they refer to, but you might be curious. If you do a little research, your appreciation of the franchise grows, because you see that there is a relationship between this story and what goes before or comes afterward.

Now, I am not against reboots per se. James Bond has been effectively rebooted several times over. Ditto Batman and Superman. Those franchises have been around as long or longer than Trek, and latter day reboots have not only maintained quality, but in some cases drastically improved upon it.

But those franchises were not such that a reboot could be fatal to them. They do not rely on a shared universe with a rich continuity. Star Trek does (For the record, Game of Thrones also strikes me this way).

I do not think, I should say, that to enjoy Star Trek you must be familiar with 700 hours of televised history. Far from it. Star Trek should be accessible in the first hour you watch. And I would argue, for the most part, it was through TOS-TNG-DS9-VOY.

It was ENT where this started to fail. By looking backward, you shoe-horned stories in to existing continuity in a way in which knowledge of the prior shows is relied upon - some times for story information, some times for viewer interest. Many ENT stories traded upon a viewer's prior interest. This can be alienating to new viewers, and set up many bad habits for the creators of the show.

But there is being a slave to continuity and filling in "gaps," which is kind of boring, and there is divesting yourself from it altogether.

In jettisoning continuity, the Abrams movies promised to tell fresh, exciting new stories that could be accessible to new audiences. But were they? ST2009 traded on a nearly incomprehensible revenge plot focused on the destruction via red matter of the Romulan homeworld in the post-TNG Prime universe, with a red matter timeline alteration that resets character histories. Any non-Trekkie's eyes just glaze over about halfway through that sentence. "Into Darkness" rehashed the Khan arc from "Space Seed" and "TWOK," relying on viewer familiarity with those stories to paper over gaping holes in its own story logic. It tried to make us care about Kirk and Spock to the same degree as we did in TWOK by repeating their story with a few inversions and more explosions and fisticuffs. "Beyond" was the closest this new movie series came to telling an original story, but it then felt it necessary to shoehorn itself into Enterprise continuity, using that to provide major character motivation for the villain.

Reboots can be good or bad. Good reboots (e.g. Bond, Dark Knight) utilize a keen understanding of what makes their classic characters work to tell new stories with them, stories more relevant to modern audiences who might find the older tales hackneyed or campy. Bad reboots utilize references to past continuity, and re-tell existing stories, in order to satisfy fans of a franchise, but fail to innovate or break new ground with them.

Now ask yourself: Which one of these is the Abrams franchise?

But also, by divesting a franchise from its continuity, you really expose yourself and your storytelling, and leave it open to a lot of criticism. Does this new thing you've created justify its existence? Does it work on its own, without any reference to the prior work?

To do that, a Trek reboot divested of continuity would have to really nail everything on my list above of "What Star Trek Is," while shedding the "shared, self-referential universe" from part one.

And so the Abrams franchise really set itself up for an impossible task. It chose to both break with continuity and repeat characters and villains. You can't rely on the shared universe to maintain viewer interest (something that got us through a few pretty lousy seasons of TNG-DS9-VOY), but you also can't really justify any storytelling mistakes you make, because you're breaking no new ground. The stories simply don't need to exist. The originals are on Blu-Ray, just waiting for you to enjoy them better, benefiting from all of the strengths of a shared universe and long-standing continuity.

I think Good Star Trek is hard to do. Having a universe of continuity does present challenges, but also many rewards. I think moving forward in the timeline helps to ameliorate some of these difficulties, while going backward or "rebooting" exacerbates them.

And Then Discovery...

Which brings us to Discovery. Is Discovery a reboot? I would argue yes. It yet again looks backward, and attempts to trade on our love of existing characters (Sarek, Harry Mudd, Christopher Pike), and engage in more "gap filling" storytelling. It is as if the same calculation was made - we cannot bank on an investment return unless we repeat something the audience already knows.

OK, fine. But maybe we can nail the other aspects of the Trek formula? Let's tell science fiction or allegorical stories utilizing conjectural but realistic science! No: let's tell a serialized action story, because that's what is making money on TV these days (e.g. Game of Thrones, Westworld). And in order to amp up interest, we'll include something Star Trek has never had - a mushroom drive. Well, it turns out there was a good reason no other Trek show had a mushroom drive (or red matter). Let's explore strange new worlds and new civilizations! No: let's reboot the Klingons and make them scarier. Let's go back to the Mirror Universe. the fans like that, right? Let's tell stories about the Federation! No: there's no time between all the explosions and Klingon nipples to get into boring CSPAN-In-Space stuff.

On a fundamental level, Discovery suffers from all the same flaws as the Abrams franchise. It just suffers them in a sort of slow motion. It takes fifteen hours instead of six, and breaks just as much new ground.

It's dead, Jim...

So I'm going to say yes, Star Trek, as defined above, is dead.

Could it not be resurrected?

I think it's becoming more and more difficult. The "Reboot Genie" is out of the bottle, and there have now been three consecutive backward-looking reboots of varying degrees, all unsuccessful.

Discovery could somehow turn itself around and tell really solid science fiction stories. But will it?

The creators of Discovery have given no indication that they will, are interested in doing so, or are capable of it. They have shown a propensity for very fast-paced action storytelling that pays only the barest lip service to science fiction ideas and strange new worlds and civilizations. They have shown themselves capable of creating some pretty decent characters, but that's not enough. Hawaii Five Oh has some decent characters. Do I want to watch it?

I frankly don't see how "Star Trek" moves forward from this. How could it return to the continuity we actually love? We've spent almost two decades away from it now, and every iteration of "Star Trek" since the Enterprise series finale has made concerted efforts to change or usurp it.

Now, I know there is a market for "Real Star Trek." I am part of it. I think Kevin is. I see a lot of people online making complaints about post-Abrams Trek that I fundamentally agree with. But does the company exist with the will to please those fans?

I think Netflix would do it. Maybe Amazon. Hulu? None of the existing media conglomerates, and especially not CBS/Paramount, have shown any willingness to invest money in such a project without a "guaranteed return."

So this is where we're stuck. Reboot after reboot, gap-filling, and complete divestment from continuity.

Viva Blu-Ray!

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