Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Hope for the Future in the Penny Press?
You've no doubt already seen the issue: Entertainment Weekly's cover-story about the new Star Trek movie coming out this spring ... the new director is interviewed, the cast and crew are interviewed, Leonard Nimoy is interviewed, and EW drops various hints about whether or not the new movie is a warp-fueled piece of tribble-crap. The magazine seems prepared to like the movie. Star Trek fans should be prepared to hate it.
A Hollywood contact sends along a small, rough clip, something for which she could certainly lose her job, but she knows I'm one of the biggest fans of the original Star Trek alive, so her heart was in the right place. No way to know if this clip will even be in the finished movie (judging by its content, I'm guessing it will), but even its brief duration glaringly demonstrates two things:
1. The performance given by general-casting nobody Chris Pine as James T. Kirk is amazing, as daring a re-invention of the character made famous (or infamous) by William Shatner as Zachary Quinto's embodiment of Spock is a slavish imitation of Nimoy. Pine's comment in EW - that he went to boarding school, lives in the Valley, and is basically a preppy douchebag ("I wouldn't follow me into battle," he says), is undercut by the fairly adoring comments of his cast-mates and blown out of the water by his performance.
2. This movie is so far outside of the precious continuity rabid Star Trek fans so treasure that even a Medusan navigator couldn't find the way back to the old Paramount 'bible' for the movies. Even the little snippet I saw gigantically contradicted some pretty big items in that continuity; if this movie is a hit, about half the episodes of the original series will be violently undermined.
If the movie is a hit ... that's the big question. Can a Star Trek movie be a hit if it pisses off the majority of Star Trek fans? Aren't Star Trek fans the audience for such movies? Director J. J. Abrams says he's making a movie not for fans of Star Trek but for fans of movies, and although virtually all his quotes on the subject sound encouraging (especially his mention of wanting to "make optimism cool again"), I have to question the wisdom of the studio letting him do whatever the Hell he wants to Star Trek's past in order to try to give it a future. What about those of us who've watched and loved the show from the beginning? Who've maybe loved the way its lore grew more and more complex with each new set of hands, like a weird, ever-expanding tapestry? The two episodes of the original series most badly violated by this new movie (invalidated by it, really: if the movie 'really' happened, they couldn't have, and vice versa) are two of the best episodes ... was it really impossible to make a new Star Trek movie without effectively telling Star Trek fans those episodes weren't good enough to stand unaltered?
In the world of Star Trek, no detail is "real" unless it's been filmed. No amount of fiction, fan fiction, or speculation outweighs something done for the TV screen, and movies tend to outweigh even that (the exception being Star Trek V, which fans tend to hate and ostracize from the 'canon,' even though it wasn't all that bad a movie). Looked at only from that perspective, there are things we don't 'know': the precise details of how Kirk took command of the U.S.S. Enterprise, the precise details of his first meetings with his legendary crew: Spock, Scotty, McCoy, Chekhov, Sulu, and Uhura, etc. It was an obvious and excellent idea for Abrams to center his movie on that early period (somebody has been insisting that this was the way to go for about, oh, twenty years ... sigh ... studios never listen ...) - after all, this is the essential myth that started it all, the first and best crew of the Enterprise (not to mention the template for all later crews of all the various Trek incarnations). The story of how it all began has enormous potential.
And Star Trek fans have to be prepared to make sacrifices. The last two movies tanked at the box office, and the last TV incarnation was cancelled - the first series to suffer such a fate since the original back in the 60s. If the franchise is ever going to be popular again, it seems obvious some things will need to change. For instance, fans might have to swallow some retro-fitting of character timelines. In current Trek continuity, that legendary crew don't share much of a common past before the Enterprise. We get the sense that Kirk and McCoy are old friends, but McCoy doesn't seem to know much about the ways of Starfleet Academy and certainly doesn't seem to have known Kirk there. Both Scotty and McCoy seem older than Kirk, and Scotty has served on a wide variety of vessels. Spock served with Captain Pike on board the Enterprise for a decade, for Pete's sake, and given the previous billets for Spock, Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty (nothing for sure about Uhura), the most likely inference is that Chekhov and Sulu were still midshipmen at the Academy when the others were out and about serving in the Fleet.
The plot scenario this naturally suggests - a brash young Captain Kirk taking command of the Enterprise from burned-out Captain Pike and 'inheriting' a crew of old comrades already in place (taking with him his best friend Gary Mitchell and calling McCoy as soon as Enterprise's old surgeon Dr. Boyce retires) - has been written up memorably in the endless volumes of Trek fiction (anybody care to name the book?), and it has lots of dramatic potential. Problem is, all that potential is fairly subtle - the resultant movie could be made to be extremely good (Mister Roberts, anyone?), but hoo-boy, it's not the movie J. J. Abrams has made, and if Star Trek fans can't accept that and embrace it anyway, how on Earth can the movie succeed?