Last week it was announced that Roberto Orci (co-writer on the first two new Star Trek movies, a couple of Michael Bay’s Transformers films, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but also the co-creator of Fringe so he’s not all bad) would no longer make his directorial debut with The Second Star Trek III. Needless to say, this is a major problem as Paramount tries to rush the film to be ready for the 50 year anniversary of The Original Series (official release date July 8, 2016). However, unlike the loss of Edgar Wright on Ant-Man, the departure of Orci as screenwriter (they allgedly tossed his entire script) and director is possibly the best thing to happen to this franchise. Despite the good casting and decent effects, the two latest Star Trek movies have never really catapulted the series into the first rank franchise it should be.
Despite the obvious love J.J. Abrams, et al., have for elements of the original series (mostly in the form of reference porn), the new Star Trek franchise has always felt a little lacking in prominence. Maybe it’s because, with every other movie franchise pushing very hard for the interconnected universe, there’s been very little rumblings about Star Trek taking that route. This is particularly remarkable because Trek is quite possibly the only non-children’s franchise to have had successful footholds in both film and television, and it has done both multiple times. (And say/complain what you will about everything needing an expanded universe, it’s certainly a way to keep people who follow movie news interested in what’s happening next, even years before footage becomes available.) Maybe it’s how the two most recent Star Trek movies felt so insular, particularly with both films’ climaxes taking place on Earth. Maybe it’s because the two movies felt like J.J. Abrams’ demo reel for Star Wars sequels.
And maybe it’s because the series always seemed to lack a guiding force, a voice, … yes, a captain. Star Trek was itself one of the biggest cultural trendsetters of all time. The Next Generation brought gravitas, respectability, and questions of morality and ethics to television sci-fi/action. (As well as gave us The Q Collective, a much more interesting Starfleet foil than The Borg.) The ensemble-based Deep Space Nine did long-running character and story arcs back in the mid-1990’s when this was mostly uncommon for action shows. And Voyager … had its moments.
But regardless of what one considers their favorite series and even with the advancements made by the spin-offs, it’s The Original Series that will forever stick in people’s minds. Despite the 1960’s cheesiness, no other crew has infiltrated the zeitgeist quite like Kirk and his gang. (What other reboot went out of its way to keep at least one remnant of the original timeline alive?) For better or worse, every action and science fiction show on television today (as well as most movies in this genre) owes a debt of gratitude to the NCC-1701-A. And for this film series to be anything more than a second-tier franchise, it needs to remember that. It needs someone who respects Star Trek for what it was and what it could be. (Maybe George Lucas, who has already shown a penchant for writing about space diplomacy while using low-budget television blocking.)
For all their faults (and good points), the J.J. Abrams-directed films actually established a decent way for this franchise to continue and grow. While the original Star Trek lived in a galaxy of pure idealism, where mankind had become its best – beyond war, beyond want, beyond prejudice – both modern films have still shown mankind willing to give into its baser impulses of fear and hostility. Although I personally doubt that space travel will remove from us that which makes us most human, there’s still something admirable about trying to become the peoples Gene Roddenberry envisioned half a century ago. To best honor what came before, the next films could be about Starfleet becoming that which it represented all those years ago with the Enterprise as a microcosm of that growth.
Recently, Deadline released a list of the five directors being looked at to take control of the Enterprise.
If you haven’t read the article, here’s the list (in alphabetical order):
- Daniel Espinosa
- Duncan Jones
- Justin Lin (WINNER!)
- Morten Tyldum
- Rupert Wyatt
Of the five directors, two stand out – even more so than the oft rumored/wished for Edgar Wright – as the ones who can best bring the stuff that made Star Trek so special into the 21st century: Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) and Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code). Not only have both shown themselves as particularly effective at using special effects to tell character-driven stories, but each of them have been proven adept at highlighting two of Star Trek‘s strongest points, neither of which has been present in the latest incarnations.
One of the most valuable aspects of Star Trek was its look at society and societies. The original series is still renowned for using science fiction to look at social issues of 1960s America. While the later series mostly abandoned real-world social commentary, they still regularly explored ideas of what makes up a civilization. Countless episodes of The Next Generation, et al., were about the crew meeting new lifeforms and learning about their cultures and customs. Recurring species, such as Vulcan and Ferengi, ended up with incredibly rich histories and hierarchies that viewers knew as well as Starfleet’s. In the new movies, the most we got in that respect was briefly seeing The Planet of the Chalky People at the start of Into Darkness.
With Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt embraced showing a new and different society. After Caesar enters the primate shelter, the film does a quality job of establishing the different primate species and their hierarchy. Even before the apes got the Evolutionary Brain Juice, Wyatt acknowledged them as living and thinking individuals whose system was every bit as valid as humans’. This idea of introducing us to a new group of sentient creatures and treating them with respect is a classic element of Star Trek that needs to be brought back if we’re following the gang on their five year mission.
The other angle is technology. Star Trek has always been interested in man’s relationship to technology. This can be best seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which is arguably Star Trek at its Rodenberriest. The film is partially a love letter to the Enterprise and the way in which it functions. It’s a lot more scientific than future installments, using the expanded budget and running time to show the dangers of a warp drive malfunction (they almost get pulled into a wormhole) or the horrors of a transporter mishap. The “villain,” a term to be used loosely, is the Voyager spacecraft turned into the destructive force V’ger, which has returned to Earth seeking a meaning to its existence (i.e. find its Creator) after fulfilling its purpose to “learn all that is learnable.” This interrelationship of technology and humanity has continued across the years, with such instances as the highly acclaimed TNG episode Measure of a Man, which was about trying to prove or disprove the android Data’s sentience.
Before (disappointingly) taking on Warcraft, Duncan Jones was at the top of many lists of the best of the new breed science fiction directors – filmmakers who, despite the growing ease of special effects, would primarily use the genre framework to explore questions of humanity. His two first films – Moon and Source Code – offered unique and visually impressive takes on traditional sci-fi tropes (e.g. cloning, the isolation of space, time travel, alternate universes). While he never really managed a large ensemble, as Star Trek requires, he certainly appreciated the science aspect of science fiction, which is often absent when most filmmakers focus on space action. Plus his two films also feature the wry sense of humor that the Abrams movies has mostly lacked but has always been a key component of Star Trek.
Disappointingly, the studio chose Justin Lin – the man behind The Fast and the Furious 3, 4, 5, and 6. To be fair, I don’t dislike Lin as a filmmaker overall. His Fast films showed him as someone genuinely decent at action shlock – non-cynical, non-broody, non-pretentious. The films know that they are lowest common denominator pablum and have no shame about it, a welcome rarity these days. But action schlock is action shlock, and action shlock should not be Star Trek. His choice might indicate that the next film would be more of Abrams’ worst impulses and lack the subtlety and dedication to history that this property warrants. Then again, he did direct three episodes of Community so maybe he does have some latent geek sensibility after all. Or maybe we’ll get high speed runabout races and Warp NOS. Regardless, this is a franchise that should not be permanently mothballed, especially when you can jump 100 years into the future with a whole new cast and rules and still be genuinely Star Trek. What’s crucial now is finding people who remember why this is so.