21 July 2010

Star Trek: May the Future Not Recycle the Past

Either J.J. Abrams or Weyoun
Ever since the announcement came that J.J. Abrams's feature film would be set during the early days of Kirk and Spock, fans have been all a-tingle with musings about potential big screen stories.  Now that Star Trek has established a new continuity, Trekkers have been poring over the previous 43 years worth of episodes and movies to see what elements were still in play prior to the change in timeline (such as the return of the Voyager 6 probe to Earth) that might be re-imagined.  The one thing nearly everyone has insisted should be the topic of the next feature film is Khan.  I've considered this as much as the next geek, and now I'm going to explain why it's a bad idea.

Like most (if not all) of the best science-fiction, Star Trek is at its best when it is an allegory for the issues before our society.  It was no coincidence that the original series appeared in the final three years of the 1960s, with the Civil Rights movement and Viet Nam dominating America's attention.  And the reason that the series has endured all these years and continued to find a new audience isn't that Khan, or the Gorn or the Doomsday Machine were all cool (though they were and are).  It's because the stories that those talented writers came up with explored some very serious issues in a way that gave some perspective and reassurance to an anxious audience.  Those issues have evolved, but the stories were told in such a fashion that the metaphors remain relevant.  Star Trek storytelling should not be about Star Trek; it should be about our world, using Star Trek.

The Re-Imagined Doomsday Machine
The remastered original series episodes are sufficient for getting a more up-to-date look at that era.  I've seen the hokey Doomsday Machine, and I've seen the truly menacing Doomsday Machine.  If they want to recycle it for a feature film, I'm open to the idea but they better come up with a really solid story to justify showing me something I've already seen.  The same goes for any other element already established in the Trek canon.

It's a big galaxy; there's plenty of opportunity for entirely new stories with new characters.  That's the thing I appreciated most about the original series when I rewatched it on DVD a couple of years ago: aside from the Romulans, Klingons and Harry Mudd, there were no repeat visits by species or characters.  (Yes, we saw two green skinned chicks, but only one was actually an Orion; the other was a human appearing as an Orion.)  Each time out, we saw something new in the fictitious galaxy, and each time it represented something different about ourselves.  Gene Roddenberry's made-up world evolved concurrently with his vision of humanity's potential.

By the end of The Next Generation, I felt like there was nothing left to explore because we were seeing familiar faces on a semi-regular basis.  It worked on Deep Space Nine to have recurring characters because of the nature of the show.  But among my long list of complaints about Voyager is that it took them two seasons to traverse Kazon space and then five seasons to get through Borg territory.  I realize the Borg had a pretty good grip on things, but the fact that an episode exclusively dealing with them would be followed by an episode dealing with a society that didn't seem to be under any duress living within Borg territory dispelled the whole thing for me.  Either they're absolute conquerors or they aren't, and Voyager made clear that they're not.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that repetition of species and characters is something that I think contributed greatly to the decline in fan interest.  Maybe it's because we didn't feel like we were seeing anything new, maybe it's because the writers became complacent or lazy or developed tunnel vision for the Star Trek elements and forgot to look outside to the world in which they lived for inspiration.  I don't know; I wasn't in the writers's room.  I just know that when I contrast the original series with its spin-offs, I see a much clearer sense of exploration--of the fictitious as well as the issues of our world--in the original.  If they are serious about reinvigorating the franchise, they have to resurrect that energy, and they can't do it by recycling things we've already seen.

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