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Monday, November 17, 2008

Reboot my heart, please. Or... PARALYZED BY TREK-FEAR!!!

The ultimate post to a blog is, in my mind, "what some nerd thinks about Star Trek." Homer Simpson said it best - this is what the Internet was made for.

So let's cut right to it. Star Trek, according to some people who don't know a whole lot, is "in trouble." It needs a "reboot." This is Hollywood-ese for "reboots are hot right now, so what intellectual property do we have that can get on that gravy train?" (See James Bond, Batman, Superman, Get Smart, Dukes of Hazzard, Charlie's Angels... the list goes on...)

Trek is the newest property to rate the treatment. Apparently, millions of fans between ages 25 and 85 with shitloads of disposable income is not satisfying to CBS/Paramount. Also, happily for them, Gene Roddenberry is dead and the dynamic duo of Berman/Braga have been (rightfully) thoroughly discredited by Enterprise and Nemesis. So the handoff has been arranged to JJ Abrams, he of Alias, which word has it is a good television show. Is it Star Trek good? Well, I don't know, I've only seen a minute or two of it.

What I do know is what Trek is about and why it is good. Star Trek is the crystallization of an idea, a vision of the future. The idea is that mankind can learn, and when we do, we will progressively work our way out of the mire of violence, irrationality and fear that pervades all of human history thus far. We will lay aside our arms and our prejudices and work towards our betterment, both individually and collectively. We will graduate from our tumultuous childhood as a race and take our place as a self actualized adult species, among the stars.

This idea, and its dramatization, is very appealing to nerds and intellectuals. But it doesn't have enough tits or fistfights for Hollywood executives. So first, they tried Enterprise, a series which promised less of the talky high-minded blather of "classic" Trek like TOS and TNG, and more rough and tumble action, plus lotion-smearing nudity. It went over like a lead balloon. For some reason, intellectuals never warmed to Trek minus 20 IQ points, while people who enjoyed tits, ass and violence found better sources for their daily fix. Whodathunk?

The series went off the air after 4 seasons (the last of which had improved considerably, by actually respecting continuity and by doing things like [gasp!] introducing big ideas and developing characters.). Industry bigwigs fretted. Had Trek lost its mojo? Clearly, the once-dependable nerd segment had abandoned it. I mean, churn out any old chum and they'll buy it, right?

So it came time to "reboot." But when you reboot a franchise, why try out new ideas when old ones are so much easier and cheaper to exploit? Let's just redo the same story with the same characters, and let the performances of previous actors and the efforst of previous writers bedamned!

OK. OK. Calm down. Vitriol rising. The rational part of me tries to remind itself that it is OK to reinterpret great stories. Superman has been in comics and movies for 70 years. Batman nearly as long. Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, there's a reason these stories can persist for so long and through so many iterations. But the fanboy in me retorts: Trek, as a drama, is BUILT upon continuity and consistency. It rewards the nerdy obsessive by referencing its past. Its "world" lends credence to the animating vision of Trek - this is a real place, with real cultures, which could really happen.

So any judgment I make of a new movie which recapitulates territory already tread upon is going to be colored by this. I want it to FIT with the superstructure of all the things I love in Trek. I don't want it to contradict the thing I've devoted countless hours to enjoying, pondering, rewatching. It's a high standard, to be sure - one of the reasons it's so much easier to move forward in the Trek timeline, and so perilous to go backwards and do "prequels" (I think George Lucas has discovered this as well...).

OK. On to the trailer.

We start out in Iowa. Or something kind of like Iowa, because there's lots of desert-ey gorges and stuff. But clearly, the cherry red Corvette (WHAAAA???!?!?) which speeds through the frame is escaping a... hay farm... of some sort. Hulking silhouettes in the distance tell us that this is THE FUTURE.

I will say, it's a neat look. I like stuff that's futur-ey. I hope they establish that the car is a collectible and has had an engine swap out. Cars running on petroleum in the 23rd century strain my credulity and offend my progressive sensibilities.

Then a hoverbike gives chase. It's marked "POLICE" and is driven by someone who looks like this:
Umm... yeah. Since it still walks like a human, I'm holding out hope that it is a human underneath this stuff. Because if it isn't, we've committed continuity boo boo number one - there are no sentient androids in the Trek universe yet. (Don't get me started on Nemesis...)

Apparently Kirk is a juvenile delinquent. Well, that sort of contradicts TOS, which makes Kirk out to be "a walking encyclopedia," but I can take it. That was in the academy, whereas this may be earlier. We then get a voiceover, apparently delivered by Captain Pike, telling Kirk that he is a drifter with a destiny, to join the few, the proud, the Starfleet. Visually, we are treated to Kirk on his motorcycle (with wheels, apparently only the cops get hoverbikes) driving out into the wilderness, where a STARSHIP is being constructed.


OK. As much as I have issues with some of the alterations to the Enterprise's design, I will admit readily that this image is quite cool. There has been a raging geek debate as to whether a starship could be constructed on Earth, but I point to the dedication plaque in TOS, which states that the Enterprise was built in San Fran. So as long as this as San Fran, we're cool, right? (Grrr... anticipating being let down...)

Another potential continuity problem I have is the implied Pike/Kirk relationship. At no point in Pike's two episodes in TOS Trek was any such relationship suggested. Pike is not Kirk's mentor, that's that. MAAAAYBE he could be construed as Spock's mentor. And MAAAYBE this voice over is actually directed towards Spock. But those are some pretty big maybes.


Speaking of Spock, we then shift to Vulcan. Frankly, I have little to no problem with any of this footage. Sarek looks great, Amanda looks good (and decidedly non-Winona Ryder-esque), the sets look great, there's really just nothing in the trailer to make the Trekkie in me worry about Vulcan as a whole. There's no mention of logic or lack of emotion, but there's nothing which specifically contradicts it, either.

Okay, er, maybe there's that. But look carefully. CLEARLY, this is some sort of backwards anti-matter universe. So there's no inherent contradiction. Ha ha. Seriously, Spock is half human and has impulse control problems, and not just during Pon Farr if you know what I mean (I hear the Vulcan High Command has developed a soothing cream for delaying impulses in that area...).

After Vulcan, we shift in the trailer to what I will refer to as the "impossibly quick-cut action movie montage." Let's look at some vital bits.


Here in some sort of hangar, presumably on Earth, is a big bunch of people in red shirts, and a guy with a clipboard. They are apparently going to board some sort of personnel carrier with NCC 1701 indicia on the side. Who are these people? Why are they here? Hmm. Maybe this is supposed to be the Enterprise's first flight, and this is the initial crew. The fact that they're all in red either indicates that they are all engineering or security personnel, or that they're all going to eat it very soon, much to their chagrin I'm sure. But then, maybe they don't know the whole "Red Shirt" thing yet.


Well. They must not die yet, because here, presumably on the personnel carrier, are Kirk, McCoy, and some of said Red Shirts. McCoy at least is in civilian gear. Why is he boarding the Enterprise? Wasn't Dr. Boyce the ship's doctor before McCoy in Trek canon? Are they sneaking on? Are they prisoners? Are Kirk and McCoy friends with a relationship preexisting their time on the ship?

And now, it is time to gripe about canon:

Here we have Kirk, in non-captain gear, sharing the frame with Sulu on the right and Chekov on the left. How do I know it is non-captain gear?

Well, for one, here's a shot of Captain Pike and black-duds-Kirk together. If Pike is the captain, Kirk is not, eh? Sure, maybe it's an undershirt which the colored uni goes over, but still.

Then:

Here is Kirk as he says "buckle up!"

Yep, we had better buckle up if this montage of images is any indication. All reports have indicated that this movie will be (groan) a time-travel story. This conceit allows Old Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to be in the same flick as Young Spock (Sylar) and Young Kirk.

So somehow, this plot must take us from a time when Kirk is a Corvette-driving tot, a disaffected punk not in Starfleet as yet (see io9.com's spoilers to this effect), Pike is captain and Kirk is not, to a time in which Kirk is captain and Chekov is the navigator, and still be coherent?

There are two options. Either the above is somehow true (well, maybe not the coherent part), or they have tossed canon out the window. Young Kirk cannot be on the bridge with Chekov, who came aboard the Enterprise at least halfway into its first year of Kirk's five-year mission.

Various minor-spoiler-laden previews have indicated that "Nero" changes the timeline, such that various aspects of Kirk's life, including his bookishness, are eliminated, and that certain characters work to set the timeline straight. But I don't want to strain my brain any further trying to make the images cohere into a workable story with time travel (ugh). Instead, let's assume that canon has been dumped by Abrams and Co. The question becomes: should we care?

Perhaps there is an argument for a "reboot" which not only starts things over with better special effects, but also changes story elements and character biographies. Superman no longer is a reporten in the 1930's, right? James Bond uses a cellphone. Okay, fine.

On the other hand, this is THE FUTURE. There is no need to update it in any appreciable way. Sure, our technology can catch up with things and make the tricorder seem too big for its britches as a prop. But no twist of logic can make it necessary to make sure that all the principal actors of the series magically appear at the same time, regardless of relative differences in character age, except one: Hollywood dipshits looked at the project and said "Well, we'd better get all the characters the nerds love onto the screen, or no one will like it."

Except they are wrong. We Trek Nerds love consistency and continuity. They are our reward for watching every series and movie five times or more. They make the world seem more realistic - especially nice when it is a world we so desperately wish were real. It is not a detriment to have characters appear at different times in the narrative - it is a strength. Real military organizations have a real turnover of people. Pike was captain before Kirk. Kirk took over, after having had a full career on his own beforehand. Spock started with Pike as science officer, then was promoted to first officer by Kirk. Kirk brought his own choice of Chief Medical Officer on board, replacing Boyce. This is a rich, complex, and REALISTIC narrative. It cheapens and, dare I say, shits upon it to have all of the above characters (sans Boyce) on the ship at once. Not only that, the prospect of it really pisses me off.

Would you think it was cool if Simon and Schuster released a new "Complete Shakespeare" in which Romeo and Juliet survive at the end, or where King Lear and Lady MacBeth get together for tea? Oh, come on, you idiot purists, these ideas would be FUN!

No. Trek exists as a work of art, created by its writers, editors, and its actors. It should be respected just like Shakespeare or David Mamet or (just to twist the retcon knife a little) Star Wars. We don't have to eat shit and call it ice cream when you take the characters we love and "remix" them. Retconning fucking sucks, and that's that.

So I will go on record hoping that there is some explanation for all of this that somehow: ties it all together in a neat, continuity-preserving bow; and doesn't fall apart under the weight of its own complex absurdity.

I'll tell you, my hopes are not very high. Sigh.

Now that we're on the topic of movies which retcon and suck, let's talk briefly about Nemesis. Nemesis committed two or three unpardonable sins - both as a movie in general and as a Trek movie in particular. Retconning was out of control here. The Romulans suddenly had a myterious conterpart race, the Remans, who ran things behind the scenes and look like Orcs, ostensibly for some reason beyond being obvious bad guys. Then, you have B4, the mysterious android that Noonien Soong built before Lore and Data, although TNG specifically states that this is not the case. Then, you have the credulity straining Clone plot, in which a bald Picard (though he clearly had hair in his academy appearances in TNG) is somehow DNA-sampled without his knowledge a long time ago and hears nothing of it for years and years, and then somehow GIVES A SHIT when he shows up to BE THE VILLIAN, OOOH SCARY. Plus, he's in charge of everything for some reason, despite the Romulans being a fiercely xenophobic and racist/supremacist society.

In a word, well, two words, it SUCKED ASS. It took a formerly interesting and nuanced society within Trek and reduced it to a one-note, silly caricature, with an unbelievable leader who wasn't even a member of the race.

Here's Shinzon:
Ooh, scary, right? He's DRESSED IN BLACK, the universal symbol for "hey everyone, this is the BAD GUY."

Here's Shinzon's ship:
What's a villain without a gigantic, overcompensating and completely unrealistic BAD GUY SHIP? I mean, Darth Vader had one. Let precedent bedamned. Let logic bedamned! Who cares if it makes no sense that this SECRET SOCIETY WHICH RUNS THINGS BEHIND THE SCENES for some reaosn also has mega-gigantor ships which can kill us all?

OK, let's compara and contrast. Here's "Nero," the time travelling Romulan bad guy par excellence:
Ooh, scary, right? He's DRESSED IN BLACK, the universal symbol for "hey everyone, this is the BAD GUY." Plus, he has a big, pointy, scary stick.

Here's his ship:
OOH, scary and, well, completely out of fucking whack compared to anything in Romulan history,

Starting to see the resemblance?

Why does every movie have to have a BIG VILLAIN? Yes, it worked in Star Trek II. But: That was mother-frakkin KAHN, and he still had a whole cadre of people behind him, and represented a big sci-fi concept, genetic engineering. But after a certain point, it just becomes stupid. Who the heck are these races that they all have one big villain who runs everything, but the threat represented completely dissipates when they are vanquished?

I find it really insulting that writers and directors feel the need to simplify their stories to this degree. The Borg were MUCH SCARIER when they were a monolithic entity with no head, just an unstoppable collective force. Then, thanks to movies, we get the Borg Queen. Then we had the attack of F. Murray Abraham and the Sona, who looked suspiciously like Shinzon and our pal Nero. It's clearly movies that are doing this - we only have 2 hours to tell a story, so we'd better simplify and boil down the conflict as much as possible, yes?

I think it needs to be said: Star Trek works best as a television show. TV allows writers the time to develop stories, races, villains, plots, that don't need to be wrapped up in 2 hours. Even when there are singular villains, TV allows for the complexity of a Gul Dukat, Weyoun or Kai Winn, the slow evolution of a character from whiny dweeb (Wesley) or ethnic stereotype (Worf) into a complex hero with his or her own internal life as a character.

Movies just don't do it. There's too much pressure to be the over the top bad guy, or to develop a heroic character in the most simplistic way possible...

... to overload our senses with stupid action set pieces....
...
...or confound our brains with CGI shots that progressively numb us to reality and make us forget the plot, if any (a la Star Wars Episode 3)...

Ugh.

OK. Summary time.

Best case scenario: all of my fears are unfounded. Abrams and his team craft a story that is not only dramatic and entertaining, but also rings true to the Trek ethos, respects what has come before, and wins legions of new fans to the franchise, allowing it to spread its wings again on television, the medium which can best accommodate its big ideas and scope.

Medium case scenario: It's a dumb, pretty action movie which gains some fans, but turns off others. It is not true to the ethos and simply works to offend the faithful. It may result in more movies or perhaps another Enterprise-level show. This walk through with comments by Abrams seems to confirm this as the most likely, e.g. "This is a treatment of Star Trek with action and comedy and romance and adventure, as opposed to a rather talky geekfest."

Worst case: It's an incomprehensible disaster which turns off both the mouth-breaters and the intellectual Trekkers. CBS/Paramount decides to call the whole thing off and Star Trek ;languishes for decades, giving us nothing new to watch, enjoy, debate, love, or hate.

Which will it be? I don't know. You tell me. Here is an article which does nothing to quell these fears (the linked articles are informative as well. In the meantime, here's another pretty picture.

6 Comments:

Blogger ktp said...

NERRRRRRRRRRRRDDDDDDD! :)

10:01 AM

 
Blogger Foofy Attorney said...

I'm developing a more specific post for my own blog (http://foofy-attorney.blogspot.com)but I want to say that I agree with just about everything you said.

The idea that the maintenance of continuity is our reward for obsessively watching the show. It's the first time the argument for continuity hasn't sounded really whiny.

I will say, even given my love of continuity, there are certainly holes you could drive a starship through throughout the franchise. If you assemble every fragment of every discussion of the founding of the Federation and the early Klingon and Romulan Wars, you'll find a raft of conflicting information. If the movie were being offered as some sort of definitive harmonizing of those threads, I could deal with it, even if it did alter continuity in trivial ways for the sake of the story.

My real concern is that Kirk is supposed to somehow be in his Academy days, but gets to the Enterprise where the entire crew is there waiting for him. First, the Enterprise was not Kirk's first assignment. Does that mean the entire Enterprise crew just hung out in the same posting for 10-15 years with no promotions or anything? That's stupid.

Second, we get shots of Kirk...sigh...driving through Iowa. I know he's FROM Iowa, but TOS makes it quite clear Kirk spent at least some of his formative years on Tarsus IV, with the crazy governor dude.

I'm gonna go into this a little more in my own post, but I have several layers of policy on continuity that color my outlook for the film. Basically, dates formed from a nonsense system even the writers did not intend to be a functional metric for measuring in story time don't get the full protections of continuity. Throw away factoids written to complete a punchline don't have bind every writer in perpetuity. Good writing should always incorporate the facts that have already been created, but small meaningless inconsistencies don't have to always send us into apoplexy. Intentionally fucking with long established character histories is another matter.

I look at it this way. The bridge should not have been touched. It looked fantastic, even in modern filming. The layout and style of the bridge is also an important part of the story on several occasions. Changing it invalidates older stories. On the other end, redesigning the quarters probably would have met with no resistance from me. They clearly looked like slabs of cardboard and might as well have been matte paintings for all the interaction the cast had with them. Making the quarters look better only makes the movie look better without impacting the sum of forty years of story telling.

In other words, if they want to update the oval of gravel and six styrofoam rocks that permeate the Star Trek universe, that's fine. Putting two people on those rocks at the same time when cannon says they never met is another.

In the end, I share your concern. I am not hopeful. Also, even if it were a faithful recreation and completely canonical, fuck it, time travel has been done to death. It's too easy to make it the deus in the machina. Action stories also tend to be light on character development, and the best part of Star Trek, even in the lesser outings, are the ones were we don't engage with the characters and they don't engage with each other.

I'll go see it, don't get me wrong, but afterward, a certain creator of Lost may be getting a punch in the nutsack.

9:54 AM

 
Blogger matthewweflen said...

I agree that inconsistencies don't need to be apologized for. But character development must be respected. That's why the characters are who they are - they've been developed. Your example re: Tarsus IV is a good one. It is true that pre-Academy Kirk outside of the Tarsus example is a big grey area. So they are free to develop in the interstices. I have never been against the "Addition" category of retconning. I like it, as long as it is respectful to existing continuity.

What bugs me is the intimation that somehow the character is not good enough as is, and needs to be "updated" for the "modern" movie audience (as opposed to the TV audience...) This is just so much bullshit. The franchise woud not have made billions of dollars over the past 40 years if this were the case. The other quote that grinds my gears JJ Abrams saying in effect that it will be more action oriented and not a "talky" boring geek-fest.

Why are these two things somehow theoretically mutually exclusive? I'll tell you why - for no fucking reason. It can be action packed and geeky/talky and still make an assload of cash. Fucking pricks.

11:25 AM

 
Blogger Foofy Attorney said...

I agree, my friend. Wrath of Khan was action packed and a really good story about friendship and aging and regret.

If nothing else, Star Trek, when it's good, doesn't talk down to me. It expects, even demands that I keep up with the story and characters. Suggesting it needs to be compressed into an easy to swallow gelcap of a narrative is annoying.

This is why I wanted Joss Whedon on the project. The man is a master of contiguous story telling and just fantastic at emotional arcs that are credible and compelling. He also likes fans as he is a fan. He understand the draw of these kinds of stories.

I read the report of someone who went to a preview in LA, and talked about four of the scenes. My post is being delayed by drafting an analysis of those scenes. Let me warn you. Not encouraging.

6:28 PM

 
Blogger matthewweflen said...

Now that I think about it, (because I haven't given it MUCH thought yet) I think my main problem with the new movie as presented, even more than the canon transgressions, is that it seems to have little to no science fiction ideas in it. It seems about as science fiction-oriented as Star Wars. Yeah, it's in space. Yeah, it's got spaceships which go real fast. Otherwise, though, it's a cowboy story or a naval story or whatever.

Now, certainly, those things were present in the original. Wagon Train and Horatio Hornblower were influences. But they were always animated by a central sci-fi theme - The Cage had its big-headed aliens who seek to control the minds of genetic donors. Where No Man Has Gone Before had its human esper-potential sent out of whack by contact with the galactic barrier. ST:TMP had its species of computers sending our probe back to us in an effort to merge with the creator. ST2:TWOK had genetic engineering and terraforming. ST3:TSFS had terraforming and soul transference. ST4:TVH had time travel, alien intelligence communicating with pre-human life, and environmental catastrophe. And so on.

What does this movie seem to have? Time travel. Been there, done that, is time travel really sci-fi any more? Not if it's just a device to change things. Other than that, it's a story about a rogue cowboy who is given a home with a group of slightly less rogue cowboys. There's a villain in a black hat and a bunch of shooting, plus some whores thrown in for good measure.

It could be a Clint Eastwood movie for all it matters, or an Akira Kurosawa film about ronin.

10:52 PM

 
Blogger Foofy Attorney said...

I would KILL to see Kurosawa make a Star Trek film.

12:31 PM

 

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