Saturday, March 12, 2005

Star Trek Goes To Eleven

Erik Jendresen is a screenwriter whose most notable credit may be working on HBO's "Band of Brothers." Now, according to SyFy Portal, he's been tapped to write the eleventh Star Trek film, set after the events of "Enterprise" but well before the birth of James T. Kirk. It will feature an entirely new crew and (again) promises a fresh take on the almost-40-year-old series. Not surprisingly, Jendresen says he's going back to basics:

"In the original series, there were big ideas, and they were delivered each week with a lot of verve," Jendresen said. "The crew in particular, lead [sic] by a commanding officer who had a certain sense of timeless style, boldness and vision. He had a pioneering spirit, the spirit of all great explorers, that was captured by the original series."

After the original series went off the air in the 1960s, Jendresen said a lot of that was lost, with a few exceptions. And now that four decades have passed, he said it's time to find it again.

"'Star Trek,' the original series, borrowed in an often elegant way from classic mythology and great ancient storytelling," he said. "There's something kind of epic -- almost mythic about the prequel (movie)."

As I've noted elsewhere, it's not so much a question of whether Star Trek would come back, but how and when. While Jendresen seems to be saying the right things, the sentiments aren't unfamiliar. Every new Trek series promised a new crew going "back to the basics" by ditching accumulated baggage. "The Next Generation" got rid of the original series' aging cast; "Deep Space Nine" got rid of the starship; "Voyager" got rid of the Federation; and "Enterprise" got rid of two centuries' worth of technology and politics.

Setting Star Trek XI in a time between Archer and Kirk probably also means a new Enterprise, or at least an upgraded NX-01. While this will give Jendresen and the producers a freer hand, this means yet another setting to compare with the more familiar Kirk and Picard eras. It's not necessarily a problem for Trekkies, either. Even the more casual fans have certain expectations in mind when they hear "Star Trek," and they may require more convincing that the new elements can be put on the same plane as the icons.

Were I in charge of the next Star Trek permutation, I would first consider recasting the original series (maybe George Clooney as Kirk, Hugo Weaving as Spock, and Gary Sinise as McCoy). Failing that, I would go back only a few decades before Kirk's adventures and use the original Enterprise NCC-1701 under the command of either Christopher Pike (from the pilot "The Cage" and the two-parter "The Menagerie") or Robert April, the man who Trek lore says was the ship's first captain.

Any of these would take advantage of Trek's most recognizable icon, the original Enterprise. That in turn would allow the producers to recreate the first show's 40-year-old art direction and make it believable to modern audiences. ("Deep Space Nine" revisited this era once, and "Enterprise" will in an upcoming pair of episodes.) Such retro appeal would reinforce Star Trek's swashbuckling style, especially in light of today's more realistic takes such as "Firefly" and the new "Battlestar Galactica."

(Not that I don't like "Firefly" or "Galactica" -- far from it. "Galactica" has been particularly good the past few weeks, and was very good last night. Still, both it and "Firefly" have markedly different tones from any Star Trek show.)

All things being equal, recasting the original roles might also work best dramatically. The first series distilled its viewpoints into three characters: Spock's logic, McCoy's emotions, and Kirk's harmonization of the two. Later shows used a larger regular cast with characters who arguably became more complex, but perhaps less distinct. You knew what Geordi La Forge's capabilities were, but was his outlook really so different from those of Will Riker, Harry Kim, or Julian Bashir? Eventually even the Next Generation movies narrowed their gaze to Picard and Data, with maybe a little Riker or Worf thrown in. Such an arrangement not only fits the economy of film, it works better for the kinds of morality plays the series started out telling.

However, Star Trek's socially-aware spirit has been hard to sustain. Part of this is Trek's entrenchment in a corporate structure which undoubtedly encourages it to play safer. Going along with that has been a shift in focus towards exploring the intricacies of the Trek universe. ("Deep Space Nine" did this best, albeit over multiple seasons; and "Enterprise" was starting to adopt "DS9"'s approach.) Revisiting Kirk's crew would help return that focus to Trek's humanist message quickly and efficiently. Besides, any new cast will be compared to the five previous ones; so why not go whole hog and compare apples to apples?

Still, there is tremendous resistance to recasting Kirk, Spock, et al., and I don't expect to see George Clooney in command gold anytime soon. (Clooney might actually make a better Christopher Pike....) On the other hand, I don't see Star Trek reaching a mass audience again without returning to the original series' setting.

I always root for Star Trek in whatever form it takes, so I'm eager to see whether this movie can get off the ground. The series' tradition of progressive optimism is needed today just as much as it was in the '60s. Here's hoping that film #11 lives up to its heritage.


Captain Qwert Jr said...

Warner Bros. can't recreate the magic of Termite Terrace, Marvel cannot rebuild the House of Ideas, and Roddenberry himself could not reproduce the appeal of TOS.
It's not the backstory that burdens it (if anything, backstory adds flavor, can't help it if too many writers don't know how to use it)
It's all the tons and tons tired story-telling conventions they have weighed down the series. Going back in time, won't make them fresh again, as ENT has taught us.

Tom Bondurant said...

As much as I want to agree with you, I just think that rescuscitating Trek will have to depend on some kind of restart. There have been four series following the original, with each being compared to the previous one and each being accused of ripping off stories from the previous one. By now that's inevitable, so to me appropriating the original series' setting at least acknowledges that it's been done before.

A couple of thoughts have guided this whole hornet's nest of thoughts for me. First, Deep Space Nine was far and away the best Star Trek show in terms of characterization and dramatic possibilities. However, its backstory was (at least to me) too complicated for a newcomer, and it didn't have the same spirit of exploration that characterized the other shows.

Second, Galaxy Quest was very successful at distilling the most recognizable Trek elements into an entertaining story. However, it was about as far away from Deep Space Nine as one could get. Somewhere in the middle lies the solution -- but I still say it needs those trappings that Galaxy Quest exploited.

I agree with you on the comparisons, by the way. Nothing will exactly match TOS's appeal, but I'd like to hope Trek XI could come close.