ReelThoughts: October 19, 2008

"Trek Re-Imagined"

Commentary by James Berardinelli

I had intended to wait to write this until it became relevant - something that happened as a result of Entertainment Weekly's cover story last week.

(Side note: Has anyone noticed a marked decrease in the quality of EW articles over the past few years? Granted, this has never been a hard-hitting magazine, but the ratio of fluff-to-information seems to have escalated recently. It has become a rarity that any article offers much in the way of insight or substantive value. I read EW because my wife subscribes to it but, if she cancels the subscription - something she's thinking about doing - I won't miss it. Right now, it's in the "bathroom reading" category, which is just a step above tabloids. On occasions when one of those ends up in my house, it lines the cats' litter box unread.)

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you know that Star Trek is preparing for a big-time comeback. Originally, this was supposed to happen in December. Paramount, however, wanting to milk every last cent out of a franchise that was once a cash cow, pushed it back to May 2009. For those who want Trek to succeed, it's not a bad move. This gives Paramount five additional months to build the hype and, as we have seen in recent years, the biggest money makers seem to be released in either May or July (unless some guy named Jackson is involved).

It wasn't that long ago that I identified myself as a Trekker. (Actually, it was a long time ago - roughly 20 years ago - but somehow wit doesn't seem that long ago.) Between 1979, when I started watching the TV episodes regularly in re-runs, and 1991, when the original crew signed off at the end of Star Trek VI, my affection for this sometimes-smart, sometimes-cheesy franchise was undimmed. My bookshelves were lined with Star Trek novels and non-fiction books. I had every episode of the original series on VHS (most copies of on-air broadcasts). I had attended a few conventions (although not in costume… I have never liked dressing up, even on Halloween).

Looking back on Star Trek's best years, there's an irony that the franchise was at its strongest when no new episodes were being made. Ultimately, the program fell victim to an abundance of riches. Fans were at their most passionate during the '70s and early '80s. Looking back on it, it's almost hard to conceive how much excitement there was in the run-up to the Christmas 1979 release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture - and this was long before the Internet. Everything was word-of-mouth. In its own way, it was as much of an "event" as the release of The Phantom Menace (at least within fandom) and, to a degree, as disappointing.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which was originally considered as a potential made-for-TV movie (and had a miniscule budget just north of $10 million), saved Star Trek. Its domestic gross was more than five times its cost, creating a nice profit. By 1986 and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the series was doing the unthinkable: bridging a gap to mainstream audiences. For the one and only time, a Star Trek movie broke the $100 million mark. This triggered the development of the Star Trek: The Next Generation series, which returned Star Trek to television on a weekly basis. It was soon followed by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise. I think it was Voyager that did it for me. It was too much. Whatever had been special about Star Trek was gone. I'm not the only one who felt that way. Enterprise died an ignominious death because its ratings were poor.

It's easy to make an argument that fandom was in far worse shape in 2004 than it was in 1969, when NBC axed the first series. The difference, however, was that in 1969, fans were energized. It took them 10 years, but they brought back Star Trek. The same energy was not evident when Enterprise ended. In fact, many of those fans who had stumped for the show's return during the '70s were glad to see it go away. This wasn't Star Trek any more. It was something else.

The movies were in no better shape. Generations, the seventh feature film, was a "cross-over," featuring The Next Generation crew alongside Shatner, Doohan, and Koenig. As missed opportunities go, this was a big one. Star Trek: First Contact, the first all-TNG feature, injected a temporary breath of fresh air into the motion picture franchise, but Insurrection provoked indifference and Nemesis, released in 2002, was greeted with antipathy. Star Trek was dead. Or so it seemed.

In the '70s, it took a decade to resurrect Star Trek. In the '00s, the time frame has been reduced to seven years. One of the noteworthy things about New Trek is that it has gone back to basics, at least insofar as the characters are concerned. The iconic trio of Kirk, Spock, and Bones are back, albeit portrayed by different actors. And herein lies the movie's greatest potential for success or failure.

Re-creating an icon is no easy business, and actors Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and Karl Urban (plus Simon Pegg, John Cho, Zoe Saldana, and Anton Yelchin) will have to walk a fine line. Pine and Urban will be competing with the ghosts of William Shatner and the late DeForest Kelley. Quinto will have an even more difficult time, since Leonard Nimoy will be in the movie. Can Pine reform the character in his own image while still showing echoes of the man Shatner shepherded through 40 years? That's no easy question, and in its resolution lies the answer to the question of whether Star Trek can again be relevant.

How to judge Star Trek's success next year? Obviously, Paramount's nirvana would be for the fans to love the film and mainstream audiences to embrace it. But what happens if the movie, helmed by non-Trekker J.J. Abrams, is so focused on achieving widespread acceptance that it alienates Star Trek's core fans? A $200 million box office bonanza might blind Paramount, but this would be a sad thing indeed. Without fan passion fueling its ascension, Star Trek would be a soulless movie.

At this point, I can say no more. I have not seen the movie. Perhaps it will be the Valentine fans crave and the medicine Paramount's sickly 2009 roster needs. Perhaps not. Time will tell. If it lives up to all the weighty expectations, Star Trek will be born afresh in this new century, much as happened with another dinosaur sci-fi series, Doctor Who (which is more popular now than in its original incarnation). If not, it truly will be dead. Resurrecting Star Trek is a gamble and, in the short span of seven months, we'll know whether Paramount's cards will turn up a 21 or whether too many hits will result in the hand going bust.


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