Producing Various and Sundry Writing

Star Trek’s Mission Log: 58 Years & Counting

The beginning of the end of Star Trek: Discovery‘s five-year mission streams this Thursday, April 4th. Originally, this fifth season of Discovery was apparently not intended to be the final one, which has caused all kinds of rampant speculation online. However, Trek overall, is not only not going anywhere, the powers that be want to maintain what isn’t just a franchise, but a veritable Intellectual Property (IP) empire.

In a longform cover story for Variety, Adam B. Vary explores just about every nook and cranny of the current Star Trek universe, which naturally means delving into the past… and a lot of looking to that undiscovered country that is The Future. For those who have followed a lot of NuTrek developments, there’s many bits and pieces reported that may not be surprises. But seeing all those bits and pieces woven into one article gives you a better look at the tapestry the creative folk are still feverishly weaving. In fact, there’s a central problem the keepers of Trek are trying to solve: how to engage a new generation of viewers at a critical enough mass.

When one thinks about the cultural impact that Star Trek holds, it’s hard to imagine there isn’t sufficient monetization of audience ardor, but when one of the Trek shepherds quips that they don’t have a Marvel or Star Wars audience, one realizes that’s a whole different tax bracket of quatloos.

And then there’s the question: how long should Star Trek’s “ongoing mission” be anyway?

In part, the hopes and desires of millions of fans won’t amount to a hill of beans to bean counters who want IP cash cows for eternity. We know that’s the way corporate winds have been blowing since before a movie about the board game Battleship was greenlit. They want nostalgia about pre-existing tales to do much of marketing’s heavy lifting (i.e., the “built-in audience”). That makes sense until you realize how many quatloos have habitually been made by people coming up with new stories that aren’t remakes. Sure, said new stories often appropriate and mash-up old influences (think of the original Star Wars which takes inspiration from Kurosawa films, space opera serials, and arguably Dune among others). There’s also a limit to how much existing properties work, sorry fans of The Phantom, The Shadow, or the Barsoom series. But I also know quoting William Goldman’s Hollywood maxim that “nobody knows anything” to the Hollywood powers that be won’t quell their need for a repeatable formula. And hey, sometimes you want cinematic comfort food (I’m pretty sure that’s why there are 147,000 Hallmark Christmas movies). I had an anthro prof who, in the midst of discussing understanding cultural differences and ethnocentrism and the longing for one’s own culture, summed it up as “Sometimes, you just really want a MacDonald’s hamburger.”

Growing up. I devoured a whole lot of science fiction, often in novel and short story form. And as with many a sci-fi fan of yore (and even now), I found sci-fi on television and film pale in comparison to the ideas and execution of the genre’s written stories. Just think of the original short story “Arena” compared to the Star Trek episode “Arena.” From the various tactics the protagonist employs to defeat his opponent to the twist at the end, it’s arguably more complex and satisfying. So when I’d chat with other science fiction fans, including sci-fi snooty-bags who dismissed Star Trek, I got where they were coming from. “Star Trek is like hamburgers for me,” I’d say. “I’m not saying it’s filet mignon, but I enjoy a good burger.”

Now, having spent the time I have in the kitchens of filmmaking, I understand how hard it is to take some of the most lofty, intricate, and compelling ideas of literary works to the screen. The Star Trek episode “Arena” is a product of its time and isn’t a faithful reproduction of everything in the short story, but it fits action, ingenuity, and Kirk’s underlying humanity in a digestible package. In fact, as I went through all my rankings of all the Star Trek series, I was astounded by how many episodes by how many different series had aged still well: they were telling great science fiction stories they worked for the medium that still play well despite having 20+ episodes per season. In other words, even classic Star Trek was charged with churning out hamburgers and they made some damn fine burgers. In fact, what is DS9’s “In the Pale Moonlight” but arrives in weekly TV show burger form but leaves you with a filet mignon feeling? There’s a reason I like the burger format. There’s a reason I like how Star Trek makes its burgers.

As I read through Vary’s article, I consider how much some fans like the familiarity of Star Trek hamburgers. In fact, that comfortable familiarity the audience savors may be found in a lot of the franchises that the companies want to live forever. That’s why attempts to keep Star Wars, Trek, or Gate going can work: we, the audience, often like what we get.

I saw the latest Ghostbusters film with the Lad this past week and he wondered if it was going to be the last film. It might be for some of the original ghostbusting roster, but I know it won’t be the last if the studio powers that be can help it: there’s a reason the next generation of Ghostbusters is quite young (also, Paul Rudd does not age, but that’s a mystery for another time… possibly a future Ghostbusters movie). Both of us enjoyed the film. We’ll happily go see another. We won’t be broken up if there isn’t another one, but the Ghostbuster cosplayers I know from cons in the Before Times? Give them their Slimer-burgers(tm)!

And yes, I know there’s also plenty of fans who evidently hate all the new stuff from their respective fandoms. In the Trek franchise, you’ll note them as the folks who use “NuTrek” as an epithet. To belabor the metaphor: they have very particular ideas on what makes hamburgers the burgers they love. Granted, when they say that only true burgers come from the Burgeroyne region of France, I roll my eyes. However, one of the best arguments I’ve heard put forth from some old school fans is that they want to see “this generation’s Star Trek” in the same way that the 1977 Star Wars was, in some ways, “that generation’s Flash Gordon.” I recently caught another video with Mythbuster Adam Savage (yes, I’m still going back to those videos) where he mentions how “hungry” Star Wars comes across in ’77. They’re trying to tell the story with a certain amount of reckless abandon. That hunger, that urge to “leave it all on the table,” is something I point to with Babylon 5, one of the reasons I think that series still has a lot to offer some 30 years later.

I get that argument. I like that go-for-broke flavor too. So while I continue to seek out the strange new flavor combinations that I found in Farscape or the new space opera life and the new narrative spiciness of The Expanse, I will go with the Star Trek hamburgers. In this, I differ from other fans in that I find reasons to step into the chain restaurant. Just make ’em good burgers, okay?

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