Friday, June 24, 2016

Bread and Circuses: action Trek vs. mental Trek

“You can’t make a cerebral Star Trek in 2016. It just wouldn’t work in today’s marketplace. You can hide things in there – Star Trek Into Darkness has crazy, really demanding questions and themes, but you have to hide it under the guise of wham-bam explosions and planets blowing up. It’s very, very tricky. The question that our movie poses is “Does the Federation mean anything?” And in a world where everybody’s trying to kill one another all of the time, that’s an important thing. Is working together important? Should we all go our separate ways? Does being united against something mean anything?
With the new movie coming next month, and a new TV series further down the pike, it seems like a good time to talk about what, exactly, should we expect from Star Trek in the future. The issue that Chris Pine brings up is a dichotomy that the franchise has had to contend with from Day One, fifty years ago.

When Gene Roddenberry wrote the first Trek pilot, "The Cage," it was in the spirit of traditional science fiction: a story with Big Ideas that says something about who we are and who we aspire to be, but the world wasn't ready for it yet. At least, NBC wasn't. Though they liked the premise, they considered the execution too cerebral, too progressive. They were willing to give Roddenberry another chance, though, and it was good for us that they did. The result was an unprecedented second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," which retained the same basic premise but had a greater emphasis on action. Star Trek was sold as a series, and the rest is history.

Even the first two movies followed this pattern. The Motion Picture was a thoughtful, character-driven piece that got a lukewarm reception, but The Wrath of Khan was a plot-driven adventure with ships fighting in space and a villain to struggle against, that became a modern classic.

The Voyage Home emphasized the familiar characters and their
relationships in a movie with a message...
When Pine says "a cerebral Star Trek... wouldn't work in today's marketplace," I believe he's talking about the movies and not television, so let's go in that direction, because what's behind that statement lies a fundamental question: what do we expect from our movies?

Dramatic, intelligent films like Spotlight may win Oscars, but it's the Jurassic World-type movies that dominate the box office. This is not news. Once upon a time, the disparity was not so pronounced, but the market, as Pine acknowledged, has changed. Intelligent movies, however, will still get made, because there will always be an audience hungry for such material - and yes, it is entirely possible to enjoy both kinds of movies. No one's disputing that. One likes to think if the Spotlights of the world had wider distribution and better marketing, they would each make $100 million also - quality should be all that matters in the end - but it's no longer that simple, if indeed it ever was.

As for Trek specifically, it's a bit different. A movie like The Voyage Home, a character-driven message piece with no villains, was a huge money maker, but as time goes by, it has come to look more and more like an outlier. All of the other Trek films following Khan have assumed the action-with-a-villain model, to varying degrees of success. Therefore, in a sense, what Pine says is nothing new. Despite the popularity of Voyage, Paramount has shown no interest in capitalizing on its storytelling model.

And yet, in recent years, cinematic sci-fi has taken a turn towards more Big Idea-type material, from Interstellar and The Martian and Inception to Ex Machina and Her and District 9. If movies like these can capture the hearts and minds of critics and audiences, shouldn't a Trek movie done in this fashion do well also?

...but most Trek movies, such as First Contact, tend to lean
more towards the action end of the spectrum.
I say it can. Trek, more than any other multimedia franchise, has had a profound impact on not just our culture, but the way we've shaped our technology, the way we view scientific achievement and politics and religion and a host of other things. Trek has always striven to make us think as well as to entertain us, and if any franchise can make a "cerebral" film work, it's this one. I would go so far as to say it might even be their responsibility to make one eventually, though that might require a bigger shift in the zeitgeist.

Whether or not it'll actually happen, though, is a question only the powers that be at Paramount can answer. I'll say this much: studios are risk-averse. If Paramount was to make a "cerebral" Trek movie, they would need a good reason to do so, one that would mean money in the bank for them.

The influence of a powerful director could be one reason. Say what you will about JJ Abrams, but he was brought on board because he had a proven track record as a genre writer-director, and it was believed he could turn the fortunes of a franchise in a downward spiral around. He did - but he doesn't make heady genre films. Not many do, at least not those that a studio would see as a proven money maker.

If Trekkies want innovation and Big Ideas, I suspect we'll have to look to the forthcoming series instead. Trek is rooted in television, after all, and most of its best moments have come through the shows. Perhaps that's as it should be.

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