Monday, September 16, 2013

What Is Out There In The Black Void Beyond?: Four Movies (And One TOS Episode) I'd Recommend They Watch Before Making Another Star Trek Movie

"Do you remember when we used to be explorers?" - Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, Insurrection
This past week saw the release of Star Trek[:] Into Darkness on DVD/Blu-Ray, which gave us all an opportunity to reflect on the visceral hatred that movie set off among Trekkies and critics alike.  Seriously, it's gotten pretty ugly.  Like, Prequel Trilogy ugly.  So ugly that the attendees of a recent Star Trek Convention in Los Angeles voted Into Darkness as "the worst Star Trek movie ever."  I've  expressed my own issues with the film's bogus marketing tactics (which I believe amounted to a cynical manipulation of "spoiler" etiquette), while others have brutally taken down the film's narrative shortcomings.

Yet, with a third movie a foregone conclusion for the "nuStar Trek" series (as it's come to be known), I don't want to dwell on the past.  For despite all the topical political analogies that have been the franchise's bread and butter since the beginning, the singular defining feature of Star Trek has always been an unabashed optimism about the future.  The Enterprise of the 1960s had a multi-racial cast during a time when the nation was tearing itself apart over racial tensions.  The human race in the Original Series (TOS) had moved beyond national boundaries and economic class divisions.  They'd put humanity's petty squabbles aside to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations.  The mission statement of the franchise was captured perfectly in the opening narration of TOS, but I have to admit that I love this one sentence summation from the pilot episode even better:
What is out there in the black void beyond?
How do you recapture that spirit of exploration, that optimism for the future from the cynical, gritty, action-oriented "nuStar Trek" universe they've created?  I can't tell you how, but I can recommend a handful of movies (and one TOS episode) that I hope the writers and director watch before they start banging out the plot for Star Trek Course Correction (which I think would make a great title).

1. Star Trek: The Motion Picture

What?:  Yeah, I know.  I know. I -- ... yeah, I kn-- ...alright, shut up!  I know it's slow as hell (critics took to calling it "The Motionless Picture" when it was released), there's barely a story there, and it has a horribly anti-climatic "twist ending" that would be called one of the lamest twists ever if the movie came out today.  I get that.  And to all that deserved criticism I say, first off, the film has its defenders (just a proud few, but they're out there).  Second, it's a mistake to think that the Star Trek franchise begins and ends with Wrath of Khan.  Even if that's the high water mark, it's just one piece of a much larger picture.  

Back in the late 1970s, when they decided against all odds to resurrect a low-rated sci-fi series from the 1960s, this is the story they thought worthy to usher the franchise onto the big screen:  A space cloud the size of our solar system heading towards Earth, destroying everything in its path; and a refurbished, malfunctioning Enterprise with a patchwork crew.  Moving at a snail's pace with barely a single action beat, the crew discovers that the space cloud is really a giant, living machine that calls itself V'Ger.  Eventually, it's revealed that (twist!) the living machine space cloud is really the NASA probe Voyager 6 that stumbled on a planet of living machines (Borg, anyone?).  These living machines merged with the probe to form a new artificial intelligence, which traveled back to Earth seeking its creator.  That is, V'Ger was looking for its God.  The Enterprise was no match for V'Ger, so instead of fighting the space cloud, they attempt direct communication.  This leads to V'Ger merging with a member of the crew (the newly introduced character William Decker) and forming a new kind of life that sets off to explore new dimensions of existence.  No explosions, no collapsing buildings.  Just high concepts and metaphysics.  (Okay, fine, it's a poor man's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  You can't say it wasn't ambitious.)

Why?:  Look, you have to walk before you can run. Don't come sauntering into the place thinking that you can reboot Wrath of Khan.  Start slow. Real slow.  If nothing else, I hope the writers watch this movie and decide to try a happy medium between the glacial pace of The Motionless Picture and the hyperactive, sugar-high editing style of the first two "nuStar Trek" films.  

Also, I hope they can pull the tongue out of their cheek a little bit.  It's okay to drop a few knowing references to TOS, but don't turn the script into a goddamn MadLibs of meta-references.  There's more than a few times that the first two new films sound like they ran the old TOS scripts through a shredder and reassembled them into a script at random.  By comparison, consider how The Motion Picture introduced new cast member William Decker--the son of a Starfleet commodore featured in a single, obscure episode of TOS called "Doomsday Machine".  It was a perfect, subtle tie-in to the past that die-hard fans of TOS would recognize without being sledgehammer-to-the-head obvious.  

Moreover, that connection led to a beautiful bit of poetry that's easy to miss -- "Doomsday Machine" also featured an out-of-control machine that laid everything in its path to waste.  Williams Decker's father Commodore Matt Decker became obsessed with destroying the machine, to the point of running a suicide mission that took his life (in vain, as it turned out).  Matt's son William faced a very similar threat, and he also gave up his life to stop the planet-destroying machine.  The difference, however, is that while Matt died trying to blow the machine to bits, William bonded with the machine, which had taken the form of his alien lover.  (Yes, yes, it's the old "ask the computer to define love and watch it blow up" trick.  It's a classic sci-fi trope for a reason.)  The point is that there was a poetry to The Motion Picture, and if there's anything "nuStar Trek" needs, it's a few less explosions and a lot more poetry.

2. Galaxy Quest

What?: In reporting on the L.A. Star Trek Convention where Into Darkness took a drubbing, the Guardian called it "insult to injury" that Into Darkness was even voted worse than Galaxy Quest -- a "non-canon" spoof that doubles also as a deeply loving tribute to the franchise.  The writer of that article couldn't be more wrong.  Galaxy Quest is truly among the best Star Trek movies ever made. 

The movie tells the story of a cast of actors whose career began and ended with a Star Trek analog called Galaxy Quest who suddenly find themselves recruited by an alien race to save them from a superior military force.  The friendly aliens had seen the old Galaxy Quest TV show and, having no concept of fiction (or "lying", as they call it), believe they are watching "historical documents."  The actors are forced to live up to their reputation, overcoming their petty squabbles and saving the aliens from extinction.  Aside from creating the most believable representation of an alien race I've ever seen (outside of a Kubrick or Soderbergh film), Galaxy Quest is impressive for capturing not only the charm of TOS but also the often strained relationship between the actors (as well as their wonderfully weird fans).

Why?:  Whoever is writing the next movie would do well to take notes on how to introduce a large cast, explain their backstory, and make us care about who they are and where they're going in under 100 minutes.  The first 30 minutes of Galaxy Quest tells us everything we need to know.  The world is built, the character arcs are established and the inter-personal conflicts are in place.  After that, it barely matters what the "threat" is because we're fully invested in the characters.  As it happens, the "stakes" in this movie are relatively low.  Sure, a race is threatened with extinction, but all we see of this race is a single spaceship with a small crew.  There are maybe a few dozen lives at risk by the time we enter the story, but a large body count doesn't make a story engaging.  Compelling characters do.

Finally, Galaxy Quest captures the wonder of space exploration.  There's a scene early on when Tim Allen's Capt. Jason Nesmith realizes for the first time that he's not on a set ... that he's actually deep in outer space on a spaceship. He's standing on a platform, and the ceiling overhead opens up and he sees the galaxy overhead.  The moment isn't played for laughs.  To the contrary, it's downright majestic because space is majestic when you stop to look at it.  It's the spark of wonder that deep space exploration should inspire; and yet it seems entirely absent from the "nuStar Trek" universe so far.  How can you make a Star Trek movie without an ounce of wonder??

3. Primer

What?:  Turning from the wonders of space to the most grounded, low-budget sci-fi film of the last decade, Primer is an intimate drama about two engineers who accidentally invent a time machine.  Shot on a $7000 budget, the movie centers on the two engineers' attempt to use the machine for their own financial and personal benefit while avoiding a temporal paradox.  Humans being humans, however, their best laid plans get away from them, resulting in a convoluted jumble of a plot (which requires multiple graphs to untangle) and a deeply ambiguous ending.  What the film lacks in production values, special effects, and established actors, it more than makes up in sheer complexity with multiple overlapping timelines and time-loop-created clones constantly rewriting the past.  ( helpfully links to three graphs that might help you understand what the hell you just watched.)

Why?:  This film is clearly the farthest removed from Star Trek in terms of style, but oddly enough, Primer get something right that J.J. Abrams completely overlooked in the first two films.  That is, the role of technology in Star Trek.  From warp drives to transporters to holodecks, technological advancements have always been central to the franchise.  Beyond the stage props and technobabble, though, Star Trek was constantly exploring how technology impacts our lives, especially when new advancements in technology intermingle with human frailties.  Whether we're talking time travel, artificial intelligence, or even creating life out of nothing, the new technology is always a springboard to a deeper exploration of larger themes.  Primer gets this concept spot-on.

By contrast, "nuStar Trek" has treated technology as nothing but a means to fill plot holes.  Need to get nuKirk and nuScotty off of a barren rock while the Enterprise is light years away?  You're in luck!  Scotty invented some kind of doohickey that does just that! Oh no, nuKirk is dead ... but don't worry!  We just discovered that nuKhan has Magic Cure-All Blood!  In short order, "nuStar Trek" has negated both the need to travel by starship as well as death itself!!!  If you want to introduce something this universe-shattering, fine.  But maybe also consider spending a little time exploring the impact these incredible new technologies will have on the human race.  (Indeed, Abrams's approach may be better suited for Star Wars, where technology truly is an afterthought.  In fact, some have pointed out that Into Darkness feels like a Star Wars movie.)

4. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

What?: Okay, this one's going to hurt.  The "nuStar Trek" cast and crew need to sit down and watch this movie from front to back.  Then they need to sit down in a dark, quiet room and say to themselves over and over again like a mantra,
The most devoted Star Trek fans out there liked this movie better than the one we just made. 
Personally, I love the hell out of this movie.  It captures all the worst, cheesiest aspects of TOS without apology and it's directed by William Shatner.  Now come on, you honestly think that if a movie came out today under the banner "Directed By William Shatner", you wouldn't be dying with anticipation to see what he made?  Pull your twelve-year-old self out of moth balls, tell your cynical adult self to take the night off, and wrap your head around this mind-blowing synopsis:  "A past-retirement starship crew flies to a planet of dirt farmers and cat-strippers to find Spock's half-brother,  who's leading a brainwashed cult to the center of the galaxy to meet God himself ... directed by William F'ing Shatner. (Oh, and Capt. Kirk climbs a mountain without a harness and sings campfire songs with Spock and Bones over s'mores.)"  Come on!

Dear God, Why?: Once the sugar-high of that amazing synopsis wears off, I have to tell you that, yes, Shatner actually got a lot more right in that movie than J.J. Abrams did.  First, it's all about the characters.  The movie is bookended by Kirk, Spock and McCoy sitting around a fire, sharing their thoughts on life and gazing up at the stars above.  That, in a nutshell, is the very core of Star Trek's heart and soul.  Second, and most importantly, they nailed that sense of wonder, that exploring the stars isn't just about space battles and blowing shit up.  Surely there's more to the galaxy than whether or not some lunatic is going to blow up Earth just because he can.

Consider this: We've seen two "nuStar Trek" movies that center around a raging sociopath determined to kill as many people as possible.  Why, you ask?  F*ck 'em, that's why.  When you boil it down,  the climax of both movies revolve around some crazy person attacking Earth for no good reason, and the solution is to kill that person before he kills us. Sybok, on the other hand?  He's on a mission to meet God at the center of the Universe.  Sure, he brainwashes his followers, hijacks the Enterprise and threatens everyone's lives in fulfilling his mad dream.  But the man had a vision, and vision is something sorely lacking from "nuStar Trek."

5. TOS Pilot Episode - "Where No Man Has Gone Before"

What?: Gene Roddenberry originally summed up his original pitch for Star Trek in a single phrase: "Wagon Trail to the stars."  Wagon Trail was a Western TV-show that ran from 1957-62 that told the story of American explorers heading west from Missouri to California.  Star Trek as originally conceived was about exploring the unknown, just as humans have since time immemorial.  The starships, the transporters, the phasers and photon torpedoes ... all merely the window dressing to something elemental to the human spirit.  While the original pilot that Roddenberry filmed for NBC, "The Cage", was considered too cerebral for a prime time television show, Roddenberry's next attempt, "Where No Man Has Gone Before", struck the right balance of "high concept" storytelling and man-on-man brawling.  

The plot is quite simple.  Following a distress signal into a barrier at the edge of the galaxy, the Enterprise passes through a cosmic storm that causes a crew member named Gary Mitchell to develop increased intelligence and telekinetic powers that ultimately threaten the well-being of the entire ship.  Concerned that Mitchell might continue evolving into an unstoppable force that might threaten the entire galaxy, Capt. Kirk struggles over what to do about his old friend who's turning into a monster before his eyes.  The logic-driven Spock insists that they have to either maroon or kill Mitchell while they still can.  Kirk resists the idea at first, but in a life-or-death struggle with an increasingly sociopathic Mitchell, Kirk is forced to kill a close friend and crewmember right as Mitchell's humanity attempts to reassert itself.

Why?: "Where No Man Has Gone Before" is a rollicking, action-packed, ultimately heartbreaking tale that is set in motion by a technological wonder (the magic barrier at the edge of the galaxy that turns people into gods) and ends with relatable characters making hard choices with real consequenes.  It's everything that makes Star Trek worth saving over and over again.  In fact, it's a damn shame that they didn't reboot this story rather than Wrath of Khan (as many on the internet were speculating they might when the first trailer came out).  Here is Star Trek as its most primordial, it's most unrefined. (Hell, Bones doesn't even appear in this episode.)  Yet, it has so much to say about what might be out there, what makes us human, and where the inner self and outer space collide.

As I was putting this list together, one thing jumped out at me: all three entries on this list from the Star Trek franchise are centered on humanity's confrontation with the divine.  In Final Frontier, the crew attempts to find God at the center of the galaxy. In "Where No Man Has Gone Before", the crew faces the threat of a human attaining god-like powers.  In The Motion Picture, humans are presumed to be God by a living machine.

Roddenberry had a deep fascination with the topic and it fits in perfectly with the themes of Star Trek. Humanity's exploration of the stars is more than an action-adventure thrill ride.  It's a journey out into "the black void beyond" to find meaning, to find purpose, to find ourselves. It's science-fiction to be sure, rife with "technobabble".  But it's also a human story, arguably the human story.  The last words to appear on screen at the end of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock were "And the Human Adventure Continues."  Whoever is working on the next Star Trek movie ought to ask themselves -- are they telling a story about the Human Adventure?  Or another story about a sociopath trying to blow up Earth for the hell of it?  If it's the latter, that's fine, tell your story. Just don't call it Star Trek.  If it's the former, well, there's a rich universe of material to draw from.

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