[12 August 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The hot rumor this week, blazing across the Internet at a slightly ironic warp speed, is the talk that none other than Tom Cruise will make a cameo appearance in writer/director J.J. Abrams 2008 Star Trek overhaul. Buzz has it that Scientology’s slightly askew spokesmodel and former A-list superstar will play Christopher Pike from the classic series in this new tween generation take on the material. For those unfamiliar with the original, and therefore best Trek, Pike succeeded Robert April and preceded James T. Kirk as Captain of the Starship Enterprise. Without getting into the mandatory mythology, this troubled character was crucial to setting up the dynamic that would guide the entire Star Trek series, an aesthetic that would focus more on the human element of the narrative than the extraterrestrial spectacle.
Of course, the rumor mill ran into a wall by Friday, the sizzle slowing to a simmer as denials and refutations flew. Yet the excitement that said announcement generated, both pro and con, should be a good sign for the fledgling filmmaker. With positive vibes still surrounding his viral marketing campaign for the giant monster movie codenamed Cloverfield, and the remaining juice generated by Lost, he appears poised to finally fulfill all his geek promise. Taking on Trek is just his latest smooth move. Generating interest in this dying product seems next to impossible, given the last two decades of sub-space overkill. Yet, floating around names like Cruise and Matt Damon (who has consistently denied interest in playing the young Kirk) has spiked some curiosity. And one should never underestimate the power in Trekker nation. They are a defiantly devoted lot.
Yet the entire situation seems shaky at best. Though adding performance power in the name of known actors seems like a sensible way to approach any revamp, the notion that pure celebrity power alone will save Star Trek seems shortsighted at best. Besides, whenever a new person steps in to ‘blow up’ a stagnant situation - film series, TV show – the desire to insert some new life into a franchise fading and losing its life support has its own unique perils. Granted, doing things the old way has resulted in the current situational stasis. More people would rather see George Lucas continue his overwrought Star Wars than experience another go round with Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Carefully considered change is one thing, but transformation merely for transformation’s sake can be just as deadly. So Abrams is either jumpstarting Trek for the next few years, or killing it off in one fell swoop.
For many, Star Trek remains the gold standard of serious science fiction. With its noble intentions and scholarly scripts (at least, initially) the original series stands as a benchmark of broadcast excellence. Though it died a death too soon for some, the ‘60s celebration of all things futuristic and fair marked a moment when television understood the intelligence of its audience. Cancellation confirmed everyone’s worst fears, and it took nearly a decade before Hollywood recognized the show’s big screen potential. For the uninitiated, Trek was not a confirmed classic from the get go. It received rotten ratings, wandered around syndication, and even tried to revive its fortunes via a beloved Saturday morning cartoon attempt. When Star Wars splashed onto the public consciousness, a young nation hungry for more extraterrestrial adventures leapt onto the Enterprise express. By the time The Motion Picture arrived in theaters, colleges had revived the fantasists’ fortunes, an afternoon with Kirk, Spock and the crew as much a part of the university experience as getting drunk and using your laundry money to buy pizza.
Yet the first film in the eventual franchise proved Trek’s tentative cinematic status. With a general consensus at the time that the film fulfilled the TV show’s financially flummoxed ambitions, current members of Roddenberry nation now feel this first voyage across the landscape was weak at best. Aside from the whole ‘bald headed alien’ element and metal machine mind meld facets, the cast seemed tentative about restarting their space cadet careers almost a decade after being dropped. It explains Leonard Nimoy’s desire to have his character killed off in the mandatory sequel, Wrath of Khan. Of course, the massive moneymaker inspired the actor to return for the rest of the run, getting extra perks like directing opportunities and creative choices. It was something the other big star – William Shatner – would demand as well. By the time the Next Generation crew were ready to take over, the original series seemed spent.
But that was the great thing about Trek. It could reinvent itself, and did, three more times, hoping that each new version of the standard sci-fi formula would yield a wealth of box office possibilities. But a funny thing happened on the way to this bankable idea – the public started backtracking. As Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise failed to become full blown phenomenon (while, granted, maintaining and in many cases expanding the franchise’s name recognition and fanbase) Captain Picard and his merry menagerie of intriguing characters became the only viable option. As their efforts became more and more meaningless (there really hasn’t been a good Trek flick since First Contact, way back in ’96), the keepers of the glorious dweeb flame appeared lost for inspiration. In fact, as the Internet burbled with self-created content and far more fascinating fan fiction, whatever new course the creators set for the show, it was hard to match the continuous fascination of the devoted.
So will Abrams do any better? Initial portent suggest ‘No’. According to Trek lore, his will be the 11th film made from the same source material. That spells doom, at least if you believe in the odd/even theory of series’ aesthetic appeal. You see, the second (Khan), fourth (Voyage Home), sixth (Undiscovered Country), and eighth (First Contact) offerings in the series are considered classics. The tenth film (Nemesis) is also cited as special since it represents the end of Next Generation’s tour of cinematic duty. On the opposite end of the artistic spectrum, we have the first (Motion Picture), the third (Search for Spock) the fifth (Final Frontier), the seventh (Generations) and the ninth (Insurrection) installments. All but Shanter’s subpar effort (#5) are embraced as flawed yet fascinating, but aficionados tend to agree that this collection of films is lacking the true Trek greatness. By coming in on an odd number, grumbles can already be heard. Abrams may be brilliant, but destiny seems ready to undermine his success.
The other major strike he has working against him, aside from the obvious numerology, is the prequel concept. It’s near impossible to point to an example of this motion picture subgenre that actually works. From pointless looks at how Leatherface became a monster (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) to the horrid hack jobs that illustrated how Darth Vader went from retard to robot, going back in an established storyline to explain its origins is asking for trouble. It’s not that the concept is impossible to achieve – The Godfather Part II proved that Vito Corleone’s early years as an immigrant could be as effect as the modern material – but the pitfalls one needs to overcome are quite monumental. First, there is audience expectation. Having grown up with Captain Kirk and his able bodied crew for almost 40 years, individuals familiar with the Star Trek myth will be expecting certain things from this start up. The list of possible character issues and factual stepping stones is far too lengthy to recall here, but let’s just say that if Abrams screws them up, the backlash will be ballistic.
Then there’s the still shimmering cloud of celebrity. Star Trek made its original cast into cultural icons, individuals whose star rose above mere fame into something similar to supernova. If they never worked another day after the cult of personality built around them, our team of terrific actors would remain symbols of a sensational series, and emblems of man’s higher goals when it comes to the cosmos. Naturally, none of this has anything to do with the actual stories told, but when you’re looking for someone to match the mannered machismo of William Shatner, the calm cool of Leonard Nimoy, the irascible cragginess of Bones McCoy, or the velvet foxiness of Nichelle Nichols, there’s a whole pile of perception to deal with. Even if the eventual Kirk is everything a fan could hope for, if he doesn’t match the original in some unexplainable, ephemeral way, the disguise will be destroyed. Fans will crucify the choice, and the ultimate repercussions and criticisms will sink any chance this project has of achieving its rejuvenating goals.
And then there is a bigger question – where does Trek go from here? If Abrams is successful at overcoming all the obstacles and expectations, creating a substantial hit, what does the franchise do then? So they keep making more of these prequel projects, expanding the backstory of the original series in ways the first shows could never have imagined? Will the new movie’s mainstream acceptance jumpstart another TV try, preparing yet another group of actors for the eventual leap to big screen fortunes? Will Abrams walk away, leaving future projects in the hands of others who, like the films before them, end up creating a “love ‘em/loathe ‘em” dichotomy? And will the cast, flush from bringing Trek back from the dead, demand the kind of money that could kill any forward motion picture momentum before its even been built? When viewed in terms of all these tentative variables, it is obvious there’s a lot riding on this revamp.
Interestingly enough, the inclusive of Cruise (real or not) seems to indicate such awareness. The crowds at the recent Comic-Con convention in San Diego were wowed by the Abrams panel, especially when Leonard Nimoy himself appeared to welcome the production’s choice for his character, Spock (Heroes homeboy Zachary Quinto). As the preparations continue and the gossip mill churns out more possible scoops, there will be more debates, more cheers and jeers, second guessing, and slam dunking. The legacy of Star Trek may be built on the backs of its past, but by confronting this reality with a revisionist prequel, the true mantle of the material will be challenged. One hopes it can take the imaginative strain. If not, Abrams will be carrying a rather unfortunate label – the man who finally ended the seemingly infinite voyages of the Enterprise once and for all.