I meant to post this earlier when the Star Trek Beyond trailer dropped, but holiday obligations meant I needed to stew with the implications for days.
And alas, amid the season where I should be counting blessings and giving thanks, I have some geek-related dread.
(I should note, that I am counting blessings and giving thanks as one might expect. Nothing Trek-related could be that impactful unless I was somehow involved in the creation of Trek and felt I had just created a re-hash of Star Trek V).
My geek-related dread, entirely of my own making, is from watching the aforementioned Star Trek Beyond trailer and –upon finding its contents lacking a certain Star Trek spirit I am accustomed to– trying to figure out solid reason why it is so lacking.
My geek-fuelled research has led to a conclusion of storytelling doom which I feel compelled to share with like-minded fans. So if you’re ready for some gloomy predictions, read on.
First, some context on fandom. Star Trek fans are fans for many reasons, but many definable reasons deal with Star Trek’s recurring overall positive vision of the future (see Trekkies, Trek Nation, etc.). Amid the moral dilemmas and external threats, Star Trek has historically shown us a world where a better world is possible. Even amid the their –and in many parts because of their flaws– Star Trek heroes are those who are trying to do the right thing, both by living to a high set of standards and trying to protect others. Heck, even morally ambiguous characters such as ever-duplicitous Garak has a code of sorts and loves his homeworld of Cardassia. Same goes for Quark. But overall, we’re with the humans of Starfleet. And we enjoy being able to see the nobler parts of ourselves in these characters.
Those reasons have not been large and in charge for the reboot movies. In place of these moments of human-sized heroism have been some of the other reasons we like Star Trek: cool starships, cool tech, cool aliens, and, um — how is this different from any other sci-fi franchise again?
Star Trek does not have to be one thing. Indeed, over the course of multiple TV series and over 600(!) TV episodes –to say nothing of the movies– it has been many things. But there’s a reason we Star Trek fans keep coming back to the table and it’s not because we get a completely different dish each time. You can have action in Trek and reflection in Trek, but the reboot movies seem to be a whole different mixture. I can only speak for myself, but I’m sure I’m not alone when I want the Star Trek movies to be epic in the same vein of Lord of the Rings movies: where great deeds are done and perhaps massive battles fought, but there are small, human moments. Instead, we get this:
I want to make it clear that I don’t have a problem with Star Trek Beyond per se. I will most likely try and see it in the theater and enjoy it for what it seems to be: Star Trek in full action mode covered in a summer blockbuster sauce.
The question is when are we going to get some non sauce-drenched Trek? There’s still hope that this 2017 TV series will give us something more akin to the best of what we’ve seen in the past half century, but we also thought that would be the case for Star Trek Reboot, the Third. Gone would be the awkward reboot mechanics. Gone would be raiding the old well in the form of Khan and other ill-advised fan service. Now we would have an original story that would surely have action set pieces befitting a movie budget, but perhaps some nice philosophical ideas. I mean, even Star Trek V mused about the nature of God for crying out loud.
Barring some new reveals in subsequent trailers, Star Trek Reboot appears to be all action all the time. So I asked, “Why?”
There’s plenty of smart people working on Reboot Trek. From interviews, they know much of the thoughtfulness and positivity of classic Trek. Isn’t it one of the defining aspects of Trek? Isn’t that part of what separates Trek from generic Sci Fi?
The Trek we love is good business, right?
No, the Trek we love is not supported by those box office numbers.
Come with me to Box Office Mojo and take a look at this chart of franchises:
It ranks as #16 in terms of overall take for all the movies. I guess that isn’t bad, but look at where it lies in terms of average take per movie. It’s past number 50! You can do some adjustments for inflations and it still doesn’t look good. It’s got longevity, but not vitality.
Now look at the most recent entries:
If I’m a studio bean counter, I don’t care if this is Star Wars, Star Trek, or ALF. Them’s good-looking star bucks. Whatever we’re doing, who cares what the “fans” say? Looks like we have some new fans. Plenty of ’em, in fact.
The first reboot showed that this approach –which ardent Trekkers felt was a bit Star Warsian– worked. The second film proved –again, as far as bean-counters are concerned– that they’re growing a nice, juicy global market for this kind of sci-fi franchise. Now they’re bringing in Justin Lin, who has shown a penchant for delivering very profitable global action films, which is totally what Star Trek is, right?
Because look at that first chart again. As a Studio, do I really want a franchise that does worse than the Santa Clause movies? Screw that.
We fans often view our beloved franchises as modern folk tales: creative wells from which new stories can spring and old favorites can be shared again and again. But the people who actually own the intellectual property (IP) see it differently: Star Trek is a brand that has international recognition and that allows them to better make money in the international marketplace than creating something that doesn’t seem to work. We can all quibble about what didn’t work, but I would suggest Paramount sees a strategy to make the Star Trek franchise profitable and few things in the universe can alter the course of a Studio towards perceived profit.
If Paramount had been punished at the box office in their approach to Star Trek, as DC has been with films like the recent Green Lantern, they might work on adjustments. But they haven’t. Star Trek Reboot 1 = successful film. Star Trek Reboot 2 = successful global film. Money is being made. There is not a problem.
Remember, in their world, the Transformers movies are absolutely awesome. Look at how good they are:
So this is why I feel dread. What I define as that particular Star Trek flavor of sci-fi has not been in the forefront of the reboot movies — and what I am finding from the cold equations discussed above is that perhaps they never will be again.
As someone very interested in how the global marketplace evolves and how storytelling evolves to compete in it, I understand. As a fan, it makes me feel sad.
I’m completely up for enjoying Enterprises being destroyed, Klingons being bedazzled, and derring-do done with motorcycle stunts — if they’re destroyed well, bedazzled well, and derring-well-done, that is. But it also means separating the name “Star Trek” from the expectations that have grown around that name.
That’s not exactly my way of living long and prospering.
Update: Due to the follow-up blog posts about Star Trek’s future and fandom, I have titled this series “Crisis of Infinite Star Treks.” You’re welcome, pop culture mavens.