Saturday, December 26, 2015

What Is Star Trek?

In the run-up to the Star Wars premiere, we whose hearts belong to that other sci-fi franchise with "Star" in the name got a treat: the first trailer for July's Star Trek Beyond.

Perhaps you think Star Trek fans rejoiced at the new trailer the way Star Wars fans did at the first trailer for The Force Awakens

Don't be a fool. Star Trek fans reacted to this trailer the way they have reacted to every new Star Trek thing since at least 1987: well thought-out critiques angry temper tantrums. A common fan accusation in the wake of the Star Trek Beyond trailer is that this new film is not "real" Star Trek. But if you ask individual fans what constitutes "real" Star Trek you'll get different answers, all of which boil down to "whatever version of Star Trek I, personally, grew up with."

So how can you tell what constitutes "real" Star Trek? Well, since the new films are a reboot of the original 1960s TV series, let's start with the founding document of that series: the pitch Gene Roddenberry wrote in the spring of 1964 to sell Star Trek to TV executives. At its inception, what was the essence of Star Trek? Roddenberry explained:

STAR TREK is . . .
A one-hour dramatic television series.
Action - Adventure - Science Fiction.
The first such concept with strong central lead characters plus other continuing regulars.

After a list of story possibilities and an explanation of the mathematical probability of the number of Earthlike planets our galaxy may contain, the pitch continues:

STAR TREK is a "Wagon Train" concept--built around characters who travel to worlds "similar" to our own, and meet the action-adventure-drama which becomes our stories . . .
The time is "Somewhere in the future". It could be 1995 or maybe even 2995. In other words, close enough to our own time for our continuing characters to be fully identifiable as people like us, but far enough into the future for galaxy travel to be thoroughly established (happily eliminating the need to encumber our stories with tiresome scientific explanation).
There's nothing here that precludes this new movie from being accepted as Star Trek. It's action-adventure-science fiction. It has strong central lead characters (Kirk, Spock) and other continuing regulars (Uhura, Scotty, McCoy, etc.) who travel to worlds similar to our own and meet with action, adventure, and drama. So far, so good. 

"But wait!" you say. "Isn't a real Star Trek story supposed to contain some kind of moral or message?" Right you are, imaginary person I conjured up for the sake of this article! And Star Trek Beyond is totally going to have that! Director Justin Lin spoke in an interview about how the Federation's expansionist philosophy will be questioned and weighed against the philosophy of the movie's principal antagonist. And Simon Pegg clarified what he meant when he said the studio wanted a story that was "less Star Trek-y" than the first draft that Bob Orci was to direct.

The problem, I think, is how that message or moral is conveyed. In the revised Writers and Directors' Guide for Season Two of the Original Series, Gene Roddenberry had this bit of instruction for how this should be handled:

Yes, we want you to have something to say, but say it entertainingly as you do on any other show. We don't need essays, however brilliant.

The Writers and Directors Guide also contained this important directive:

Build your episode on an action-adventure framework. We must reach out, hold and entertain a mass audience of some 20.,000,000 people or we simply don't stay on the air.

And if you watch the Original Series, that's exactly what it did. Yes, many of the stories had a message of some kind, but it was usually delivered by Captain Kirk after he'd spent the entire episode running, jumping, and punching out the aliens of the week. When modern movie studios spend over $100 million on a summer blockbuster, they expect an even higher action quotient. Star Trek was always intended to be mass market entertainment and has always made certain compromises as a result, as Gene Roddenberry once explained in a letter to Isaac Asimov.

"But, but" you sputter, "the new trailer has this in it":

"Do you see that? Do you? Huh? Captain Kirk on a motorcycle! That's too stupid to be Star Trek!"

Sure. Captain Kirk on a motorcycle seems a mite ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as Mr. Spock having a jam session with space hippies:

When fans complain that Star Trek Beyond (or the other J.J. Abrams Trek films) aren't "real" Star Trek or "their" Star Trek, what a lot of them are saying is that it's nothing like The Next Generation. And that's true. The Next Generation was a completely different animal. I love TNG to death, but probably the signature scene of the show was this:

Seriously. Almost every episode had a scene with the characters sitting around the conference table watching a Space PowerPoint presentation or debating the Prime Directive or whatever. And you just can't get away with that in the 21st century, any more that you could get away with having Captain Kirk fight a stuntman in a fakey-looking lizard costume or have Uhura whimper "Captain, I'm frightened," when faced with a tough situation.

Other than Gene Roddenberry's increasing loopy ideas about the future (by the mid-1980s, poor Gene was totally coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs) a big reason why TNG had more staff meetings than phaser battles was because it was too expensive to do it the other way around. In an era of digital technology and $100 million budgets, that's no longer the case.

Star Trek has always been a product of its time. In the 1960s, this meant lots of miniskirts and sexism. In the 1990s, it was aliens with fake rubber foreheads and too much technobabble. And in the 2010s, it's explosions, gunfights, and lots of yelling.

Maybe it's not what you grew up with. Maybe you don't like it.

But that doesn't mean it's not Star Trek.


  1. Interesting read, however I don't agree with your central point that at this point in time, that's what Star Trek needs to be like to be successful, that it can't be like Next Generation. Look at Interstellar and The Martian. Both more intellectual Sci-fi, though not without action, with similar budgets to Into Darkness. Both made more money. There's plenty of market for this sort of film and with one film a year it's not exactly being saturated. Star Trek has in the past always been inspiring. There's plenty of average quality generic action films out there which make a bit of money. Star Trek should be aiming to be more. To inspire.

    1. I dearly hope that Paramount (and CBS, too) sees the success of things like The Martian and Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos and gives us more reality-based Star Trek as a result. I can't tell you how annoyed I get when the Enterprise falls from Lunar orbit to Earth in like 10 minutes in Star Trek Into Darkness. I want to see a Star Trek where things in space are bound by Newtonian physics, where starships have circuit breakers so that consoles don't blow up in people's faces, where the aliens we meet aren't humanoid and don't speak English, where magic sensors can't read the DNA of the lifeforms on an approaching spaceship (which is not only stupidly unrealistic but also robs many an episode of drama and mystery).

      I agree that the last few Star Trek films weren't great in the inspiring-people-to-be-astronauts category, and like you I also hope this is something Star Trek gets back to in the future.


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