First up, a confession: I’m pretty much a flat-out, die-hard Star Trek lover. No, I don’t call myself a Trekkie or Trekker (any more than I call myself a ‘Warser’ or a ‘Blakie’), but along with shows like Dr Who, Thunderbirds and possibly Space 1999, Star Trek (the original series – STTOS, henceforth) was an immensely important formative influence on me personally and (though I hesitate to type it) artistically – arguably as important as the ‘Big One’ for many of my kind and generation, Star Wars: A New Hope. I love that series. And while I don’t mind Next Generation (though I came to it much later), and enjoyed Deep Space 9 and Voyager, it’s STTOS that stands head and shoulders (hell, many body lengths) above all else.
Second, regardless of what follows, remember this: I fully expect Star Trek Beyond (STB) to be a critical (excluding me and others of a similar perspective) and financial failure. Why? Well, it’s flawed in lots of ways, but mostly because it’s the most ‘Star Trek’ of the current Star Trek films (known at the ‘Kelvin’ timeline amongst fans – a reference to the ship that is destroyed in the opening of the first film, resulting in a change to the STTOS timeline), and a necessary return to the tenets that made STTOS different (not better) to Star Wars (SW), especially if the films and new series are to distinguish themselves from the tidal wave of SW movies and shows that are surging toward our shore.
Let’s get STB out of the way first of all. Three years into their five year mission, Kirk is experiencing career crippling ennui. Bored with diplomatic missions and general exploration, and unbeknownst to his close friends, Spock and McCoy, Kirk has requested a transfer to the massive Yorktown space station. While there on furlough, the Enterprise is tasked with a rescue mission through an impenetrable asteroid belt. Naturally enough, adventure and danger ensues.
And that’s all you’ll get from me re: story and plot. You don’t need anymore. This isn’t a review, as such, of STB. But if that very brief synopsis makes it sound like you’re in for a 2 hour-plus Kirk-fest, fear not, for STB is the closest this series has come to a true ensemble piece. This might have something to do with the fact that the main writer on this one was Simon “Montgomery Scott” Pegg, arguably the biggest and most knowledgeable STTOS cast member. He must have been well aware of how the core fans felt after the debacle that was Star Trek After Darkness (I shiver at the memory, desecrating such an important STTOS touchstone as Wrath of Khan). And respond to that he did!
All the characters get their ‘moment in the sun’ (with the possible exception of Sulu – though he, as you might already know, does have a very important scene in terms of the ST mythology), doing something crucial that forwards the story or informs the themes. This isn’t your typical Kirk/Spock/Bones nexus. Scotty steps up big time (helps to be the person writing the screenplay, I guess), as does Chekhov. Even the previously and woefully underutilised Uhura (underutilised her entire existence) has an important thematic moment, beyond being ‘Spock’s girlfriend’ (given Saldana’s outstanding chops, I’ll never understand her character’s narrative relegation in the films to date).
But what STB does so very well is the same thing that will probably put off your SW fan or watcher of general science-fiction/super hero fare: a return to Roddenberry’s STTOS vision, a vision of moral and intellectual enquiry. In the best sense of the notion, STB is a big budget episode of STTOS. And ST always worked best as a series. The movies are fine. Some are great. But its the ongoing exploration of the universe(s), and the concepts and dilemmas the various crews confront, that is the beating heart of ST. And Pegg (with fellow writer, Doug Jung) nails it! STB asks (yes, at times a little creakily) big moral questions, and for once it’s consistent across all the story lines, giving this movie the most unified feeling since Star Trek The Wrath of Khan (there, I said it!).
But this post isn’t specifically about STB, but how STB points the way forward for the franchise, across both film and TV, and in particular with regards to the recently named new series, Star Trek Discovery (STD…err, did no one think about that title?). What differentiates ST from SW goes back to the original catgeory nomenclature. Normally such nonsense is the stuff of marketing and merchandising, however, in both their cases it’s a wholly appropriate definition and differentiation: ST was (arguably), and should be, ‘science fiction’; whereas SW was always ‘science fantasy’ or ‘space opera’, unrestrained by expectations of ‘real world’ concepts, and free to be big and flashy.
‘Fiction’ vs ‘Fantasy’, that’s the key. At it best, ST is a reflection of us, in the here and now. It’s a ‘fictionalisation’ of our world. SW is fantasy. It operates within its own world, and thus its own worldview. If it passes comment on real world matters (e.g. the Ewoks were the Vietnamese resistance to Imperial America), it’s ancillary to its primary role: to entertain with a fast, fun story, and flashy special effects. Effects, of course, were never ST’s strength. Big ‘set pieces’ only emerged in the Abrams’ films (including STB – the Enterprise battle, while a little long, is very impressive), and while the effects from STTNG onwards were decent and hold up pretty well (and really, STTOS is quite acceptable…okay, so the ‘space dog’ – or Alfa 177 canine – was never acceptable!).
‘So what?’ you might ask. Well, in an age of multi hundred-million dollar budget films, and even multi-million dollar TV episodes, that makes it challenging to pull in the general public. Without that sized audience it makes it tough to generate big box office dollars, or viewing audiences (though the new series will be subscription only, so that might help), which means the ‘money people’ – the enormous corporations that fund these things – are hesitant to fund them to the same degree next time if they’re getting a declining return on their investment. This means the budgets drop, the quality can drop, the audience will drop, and the budget for the next one will drop. In publishing it’s called the ‘spiral of death’: your first book doesn’t get much attention, therefore doesn’t do so well, so your publisher prints less copies of your second book, therefore it gets even less attention and does worse than your first book, so they don’t even offer you a contract for a third book.
But could they not make more ST films? Well, yes. Remember there was almost 10 years between STTOS and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (which only came about because of the success of SW), and there was a 7 year break between Star Trek Nemesis and Star Trek (2009), with no guarantee of any more ST at all during the in-between! STB made $60M-ish on its opening weekend. To give you an idea how that compares, The Secret Life of Pets (nope, never heard of it either) achieved the 34th biggest weekend opening with just over $100M! Almost twice that of a big-gish budget, franchise film with 50 years of history! That is exactly the challenge ST faces moving into the future, in a film and television industry that is changing faster than anyone can keep up. Returning to its more cerebral roots might only exacerbate the situation.
But if not there, then where? Compete with SW every couple of years – hell, possibly every year given SW‘s slate of releases! Seems…illogical. The budgets aren’t big enough, and the further the films move away from core ST ideas the further you distance the core ST audience, and small or not, that audience has kept it going for 50 years now. So what then? If STB is a timely reminder of what ST should be, then exactly what is that, and what form should it take?
Perhaps STD (God! They need to add another initial to that. New Discovery, perhaps?) is the treasure chest to which STB provides the key. Perhaps a return to television, where ST was always at its strongest is the best, most logical way forward. Not just due to the nature of ST storytelling, but the strength of the dramatic series at the moment. Some of the best writers, directors and actors are eschewing film altogether, and focusing on television due to the quality that’s being produced at the moment. And there seems no end to the audience’s appetite for more content. Not only can STB benefit from this move toward serialised entertainment (and that’s definitely what STB will be, according to show-runner, Bryan Fuller), but it can be true to itself, to an exploration of ideas, and not have to even worry about the latest SW film.
Let SW have its rightful place, I say. ST can return to the home where it was always most welcome. Where it can explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.