Monday, October 5, 2009

Beware Hawaiian-Shirted Saviors

There are a lot of folks who feel that the Walt Disney Company has lost its way over the last couple of decades; that it has reached a point of creative stagnation. The Pixar merger was seen as a positive development, therefore, especially because it resulted in John Lasseter's installation as head of Walt Disney Imagineering. Lasseter is seen by many as a Hawaiian-shirted Great White Hope, the very person to spark a new creative renaissance, especially at parks like EPCOT, and I sure hope he is. I have my reservations, though, and not just because he's the guy responsible for this:

It's because I've been burned before. I've seen men who were supposed to be transformative creative forces turn out to be pantsless emperors. Exhibit A, of course is this guy:

No, not John Salley, the other one. Yes, the Great Flanneled One himself, George Lucas. Remember the months leading up to the release of Star Wars Episode I, when Lucas was being hailed as the greatest storyteller of our time and people were openly speculating that The Phantom Menace might end up as the greatest film of all time? How'd that work out? Allow me to refresh your memory:

Yes, by the time the Star Wars prequel trilogy was over, the guy who everyone once thought was a modern-day Shakespeare was widely believed to be clinically insane. It was like someone gave millions of dollars to one of those crazy street people who’s always having angry conversations with invisible beings and told them to make three movies about whatever they wanted. Scarier still, as we examined Lucas’ earlier work it dawned on us that he had always been this way, and we just never realized it before.

George Lucas, though, isn’t the only creator of a modern mythology who turned out to be missing several key brain lobes. There’s also this guy:

Yes, good ol’ Gene Roddenberry, creator of one of my favorite things in the whole world, Star Trek. Now to be fair, Star Trek was a great idea and Roddenberry was a very smart man, if not entirely scrupulous. He angered composer Alexander Courage by going behind his back and writing a set of truly awful lyrics to the Star Trek theme music, thereby entitling himself to one-half of Courage’s royalties. And he never bothered to mention the sizable creative contributions to Star Trek by folks like Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana. These things didn’t mean he was crazy, however, just that he could be a jerk sometimes.

The craziness started creeping in by the mid-1970s, when Star Trek found a larger audience in syndication and conventions were drawing thousands of excited fans to whom Roddenberry was a hero, a prophet, a visionary. They didn't just want to hear him talk about the making of Star Trek, they wanted to hear him expound on his philosophies about life, the future, and the human condition. That kind of adoration tends to swell a person's head, and by 1975 it was clear that Gene had completely lost his marbles. Paramount Pictures was interested in making a Star Trek movie, and Roddenberry submitted a script called "The God Thing." In it, the Enterprise meets God, who turns out to be a malfunctioning spaceship, and Captain Kirk has a fistfight with Jesus. Paramount rejected it, and Roddenberry accused them of being afraid to tell a story that tackled such “big” ideas.

Of course, Paramount finally did release a Star Trek film in 1979, a film that utilized another one of Roddenberry’s pet story concepts: the modified NASA probe returning to Earth in search of its “god”. Many fans thought of it as a direct rip-off of the second-season episode “The Changeling” in which a flying Folgers coffee can threatens to destroy Earth until Kirk talks it into committing suicide, but those fans were not well-informed. Star Trek:The Motion Picture was actually based on a story treatment by Alan Dean Foster entitled “In Thy Image” which bore more than a passing resemblance to a story called “Robot’s Return” that Gene Roddenberry had written for his never-produced TV series Genesis II, and it was “Robot’s Return” that was a rip-off of “The Changeling”. Star Trek:The Motion Picture, therefore, was a copy of a copy of a copy (bonus fact: the Paramount executive who greenlighted Roddenberry and Foster’s story as the basis for a Star Trek movie was none other than Michael Eisner)

Although the movie didn’t do as well at the box office as everyone hoped, Paramount decided to move ahead with a second film. Gene Roddenberry was ready, and submitted a story wherein the Enterprise travels back in time to 1963 and Spock shoots JFK to preserve the timeline. In case you’re keeping track, by this point alleged visionary Gene Roddenberry had been given three chances to pitch a Star Trek movie to the studio, and two of them involved members of the Enterprise crew injuring or killing beloved historical figures. Fearful that if they let him keep trying Roddenberry would eventually turn in a script where Scotty beats Abraham Lincoln to death with a baseball bat, Paramount decided to take a chance on a new creative team.

Roddenberry was not done with Star Trek, however. In 1986 he was tapped to develop a new television series. The result was Star Trek: The Next Generation, and although Gene once again secured the “Created By” credit, in truth he enlisted the help of David Gerrold and D.C. Fontana, used many of their ideas, and then had his lawyer screw them out of the Co-Creator credits they deserved. By the time TNG hit its stride with audiences Roddenberry was very ill, and other people had taken over the day-to-day running of the show. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to the Rick Berman-produced shows that continued on after his death was the idea that Star Trek’s humans were so “advanced” that they would have no interpersonal conflict. In the words of Ronald D. Moore, a writer on TNG and DS9 who would go on to create the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, “This began to hamstring the series and led to many, many problems. To put it bluntly, this wasn't a very good idea.

Someone who was primarily interested in telling good stories would never hamstring his characters that way, but by this time Roddenberry’s main priority was in communicating his vision of the future, a vision that twenty years worth of cheering convention crowds had convinced him was genuinely important, instead of what it was, which was just some guy’s opinion. Some people think Gene saved Star Trek from obsolescence when he reimagined it for a new generation in 1986, but I think that Michael Piller and his talented team of writers saved Star Trek from Gene Roddenberry in 1989.

So, what was the point of that long, unfocused ramble? This: I hope that John Lasseter is what some people think he is, a creative it-getter with a clue who can get things done. But sometimes people who look like visionary creative it-getters turn out to be completely insane.

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