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Monday, October 09, 2006

Star Trek Turns 40

A few weeks ago, Star Trek celebrated its 40th Anniversary with a whimper, not a bang, although the surprise release of the long-overdue Star Trek Remastered was welcome news. Good thing that Star Trek Legacy is coming out soon, and it's actually looking quite promising if the recent CGW feature article is any indication. The designers continue to say all the right things, the screencaps look great, and grouping all five Star Trek incarnations with a D.C. Fontana-penned (writer of the famed TOS episode "Journey to Babel," as well as the Bridge Commander storyline) story could turn out pretty well. I've officially upgraded my status from "guardedly optimistic" to "cautiously hopeful." Although I'm on record as thinking that a new Star Trek single player RPG or adventure game should be made ASAP, when you throw in the possibility of getting to command your own crew in Star Trek Online, things just might be looking up in the world of Star Trek computer games. Although I'm worried that Legacy might not run on my little Inspiron, I'm a lot more excited about Legacy than I am about Star Trek XI. In fact, I think that the best Star Trek for the forseeable future is in all likelihood going to exist in computer game form. Why, you ask?

Since Enterprise was canceled and Nemesis failed at the box office, there's been all kinds of stories about what Star Trek needs in order to come back. This ignores a simple point: People won't spend time or pay money to watch awful stuff, even if it says Star Trek in the title. A prequel show actually could have been great, but Enterprise-as-aired was just a terrible show: The writing was horrible, none of the characters were memorable, the acting was wooden, and the series didn't just flaunt the established continuity, it barfed all over it. It wasn't until the fourth season that the show started to tell the kinds of respectful and interesting stories that the fans had been expecting, but by then nobody cared. I personally gave up on the show halfway through the second season. Now that I've seen some of the fourth season shows in syndication, I think that the show would still be on the air if it had started telling those stories right off the bat. Quality fourth season episodes nothwithstanding, Enterprise was sufficiently horrible that a "retcon" is in order, and I hope that future Trek producers will decide to ignore that it was ever produced (just like what happened to the Star Trek Animated Series).

The immediate cause of Nemesis failing was that it came out the week before The Two Towers. But the real reason was that like most films in the Internet era, the shooting script had leaked several months beforehand and it was pretty obvious that this movie was just a lame TNG version of The Wrath of Khan, so many fans choose to save their money and stay home. One of the problems that I had with it (besides the gaping plot holes and logic errors) was that the death of Data was was quite contrived and unnecessary from a dramatic standpoint. Mainly, though, my biggest problem with Nemesis was that it was the fourth TNG movie but still had the same friggin' plot as the first three: overblown villian vs. Our Heroes. Bah. This is Star Trek, not James Bond. The critics reached similar conclusions and really pounded Nemesis, which, combined with the LOTR thing, is probably why most casual Star Trek fans stayed home. I'm a big TNG fan so I went to see it anyway, despite my misgivings, largely because I'd seen every ST movie in a theater and didn't want to break the streak.

I read most of the reviews of the movie, and it was pretty obvious that (repetitive plotline aside) the critics had also gotten just as tired of the whole Star Trek concept; I remember one reviewer called Star Trek's characteristic optimism "grating" and others called the notion of space travel "silly". This is an important point that is utterly lost on many Star Trek fans : A society that doesn't find the idea of people exploring space to be inherently awesome will not find a show about people exploring space remotely interesting. Surprisingly, many modern Star Trek fans have forgotten this and couldn't care less about the real-world exploration of space; they care more about the character interaction and philosophy and so forth [Don't believe me? Head over to a Star Trek forum and you'll see a disturbingly high number of "the space program is a waste of money" posts. The irony is lost on them....]. It was the Apollo landings and the development of the Shuttle (and all of the hopes that went with it) that fueled the 1970s popularity of Star Trek (and, for that matter, Star Wars and Close Encounters). I think that it is telling that at the height of it's popularity (circa 1986 to 1992-ish) the Shuttles were flying regularly, we were on our way to the Moon and Mars, and Space Station Freedom was going to be finished by 1997. There was a lot more general excitement about our future in space. I think it's safe to conclude that if Star Trek is ever going to be as popular as it was even fifteen years ago, then society is going to have to be reprimed to acknowledge that human space development really is exciting and important. To that end, the best possible thing for Star Trek fans to do to "save" the show is to simply start doing their part by a) actually paying attention to what NASA and ESA and Energia and NewSpace companies are doing here in real life and b) writing letters supporting space exploration to Congress and newspapers, instead of starting useless "save-our-show" letter writing campaigns. Besides this obvious and important point, what other lessons can we learn from recent Star Trek?

  • It's about exploration, stupid. It's right up there in the opening credits, the most famous split infinitive in history and the phrase which really ought to be the NASA motto: "To boldly go where no man has gone before." Even TNG did very little boldly going. If you're on a starship exploring, then you should actually go find exciting stuff at frequent intervals. The last two movies have featured diplomatic negotiation as key plot points. Y-a-w-n. It can be done, and done well: Exhibit A is Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, any episode of which features more adventure and fun than any Star Trek produced in the 21st century. If you aren't floored by the innate coolness of what you're seeing you're not going to want to come back.
  • Continuity is not a problem. People stopped watching Enterprise in large part because it flat-out barfed on the established continuity. We're not talking about little dippy Nitpicker errors, either. I couldn't care less if in one episode the Enterprise can only go at warp 4.9 and in the next one, it's charging at warp 5.5. Bah. That's small-time. We're talking about big, gaping, monstrous problems: Emotional lying kung-fu Vulcans, a "primitive" starship that looks just like a TNG starship, first contact with the Klingons not causing a war, a heretofore unmentioned Xindi attack, and TNG stuff like holodecks, Borg, and photon torpedoes popping up in Season One. Would it really have been that hard to take a few minutes and look this stuff up in the Star Trek Encyclopedia? I didn't think so. Would the stories on Enterprise have suffered any from doing so? Well, they couldn't have gotten any worse, that's for sure.
  • Villians are overrated. Yes, The Wrath of Khan is everyone's favorite ST movie (except mine! I'm partial to The Motion Picture), and it happens to involve a larger-than-life villian with a powerful device that could be used as a weapon. Unfortunately, it has established a pattern that has proven almost impossible to escape. This plot device of a scenery-chewing villian who gets a Big Gun and threatens universal peace has now been the key story point of 8 of the 10 Star Trek movies, and it's completely worn out it's welcome. I think that it's quite telling that the absolute, hands down most popular ST movie is The Voyage Home, which made a tremendous amount of money and was a resounding popular and critical success (launching TNG in the process)--all without a scenery chewing villian.
  • It's gotta be fun. Star Trek at its best has a certain joie de vivre: it should be an optimistic, hopeful, and interesting adventure. Seeing the Enterprise in the first movie? Fun. The battle in the Mutara Nebula? Fun. The Voyage Home? Fun. Worf bounding through infinite parallel universes? Fun. Sisko and company visiting the original ship? Fun. Voyager almost getting home? Not fun. Overblown villian threating Earth with a particle-of-the week gun killing Data for no reason? Not fun. Watching Captain Archer meander his way through a tepid, poorly written, ill-conceived episode? Not, by any definition, fun.
  • You have to see the Enterprise. The Enterprise got really short shrift in the last four movies. All we got to see of the cool new ship was the bridge and a few lame rooms (the ship's library? who wants to see that, and why would you need one aboard a starship, anyway--don't they have Google Book Search in the future?). It wasn't any different or cooler than the things you ever saw on the series.
  • It's gotta be cool. The interior design of the ship in the Enterprise show was lousy, too: cramped, dank, and decidedly non-futuristic. I wouldn't want to be on that ship unless I had a big flashlight. Here in real life, the International Space Station has been designed to be open and airy to improve morale and prevent cluaustrophobia. The new ship has to be clean, bright and futuristic-looking if you want your audience to believe that you're in the future. This is one of the big problems with Battlestar Galactica: Everything on that show, even the big ship that can go faster-than-light, looks exactly like present-day stuff, which, frankly, is pretty distracting.
  • Quit reversing the polarity already. From about the 6th season of TNG on, the answer to nearly every problem has been reversing the polarity on some kind of subatomic particle. They never did that on the old series and things worked out fine. They tried really hard not to do this on Enterprise, but they just couldn't help themselves. Plus, it really wouldn't hurt to talk to a real scientist or engineer occasionally. Enterprise had some aneyurism-inducing scientific blunders.
  • Grit hurts your teeth. Ever since the success of Battlestar Galactica, I've heard a lot about how ST needs to be "gritty". They tried to make Enterprise gritty, and it was just annoying. Sweaty folks yelling at each other is not the only ingredient behind successful entertainment.
  • No Time for Time Travel. Ahh, the most overused plot device in Star Trek. Unfortunately, this one has some pedigree, because the old guys did it on the Original Series and again in The Voyage Home, with great success. Unfortunately, since that point time travel has been a major part of two more ST movies and countless episodes, and a ludicrous "Temporal Cold War" that culminated in goofy space Nazis was a big part of Enterprise. A completely mediocre Voyager episode-which I never saw, because I quit watching Voyager early on due to excessive lameness--even suggested that Starfleet would be flying "timeships" through the timeline by the 29th century. Enough already. Again, I point to the opening credits: "Space, the final frontier...." If we wanted to watch a show about time travel we'd watch Dr. Who.

In general, my overarching conclusion is that the "problem" with Star Trek stems more from a general lack of creativity and attention to detail, coupled with a society that does not currently value the adventure and breathtaking promise of space, and not from any inherent flaw with the concept or the established continuity.

So, having already said too much, what do I think about the eleventh movie? I think that a Battlestar Galactica-style reboot is a perfectly awful idea no matter how you look at it. The new BSG works well because the old BSG show had certain flaws, a small audience, and was only aired for one season, so there was nowhere to go but up. Star Trek, which has a rich 40-year history and has inspired billions of people, is another story. There's simply no reason why a movie that builds on all previous Star Trek which has come before can't be a huge commercial success; cherry-picking a few elements and disregarding the rest wouldn't really be Star Trek any longer. I'm also not a big fan of going back to the TOS era with new actors, especially with the TNG folks still around wanting to do more. Recasting the TOS actors was tried after Star Trek V and bombed horribly; the idea was a complete non-starter with the fans, so they made the successful Star Trek VI instead. On the other hand, the fan-produced New Voyages series is surprisingly good. Although I'm skeptical, I am forced to admit that a new TOS story with skilled younger actors in the Kirk, Spock, and McCoy roles (especially if Shatner and Nimoy appeared in a framing story), which didn't barf on the established canon, might work in principle if handled respectfully with the greatest of care. But since one the most credible rumors of the moment has Ben Affleck playing a young Captain Kirk, I feel safe concluding that for years to come, the best and most entertaining Star Trek is going to be played on PCs around the world. Star Trek was actually the basis of the first real computer game ever made; it is only fitting that computer games like Star Trek Legacy and Star Trek Online are carrying the torch of modern Trek.

Be sure to also read BNGPossum's earlier take on his favorite Star Trek computer games.

1 comment:

  1. Another top post... Really impressive. Again.

    ReplyDelete