Friday, May 15, 2009

A Letter to Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Writers of the new 'Star Trek' flick)

In the wake of the new Star Trek film being released into the wild, critical reactions have been stellar, hardcore Trekkie feedback runs the spectrum from 'ecstatic' through 'nit-picked to oblivion.' Although it was inevitable that the new film could not have pleased everyone, it seems all-but-certain that writers behind this incarnation as set to take the reigns for the next feature. As a lifetime devotee, I thought it proper to write a letter to the new Patrons of Star Trek's legacy and while promoting myself as Temporary Ambassador for Trek Fandom give these fellows a little bit of perspective that I feel has been absent in the recent buzz:

Dear Bob and Alex,
I can, on behalf of long-time Star Trek fans everywhere, say you two fulfilled the promise and reignited the dream after all of these years our franchise has been in mothballs. Our immense gratitude will be reflected not only in the enormous box office returns your glorious new film will reap, but also in our collective reawakened imaginations to the possibilities of the characters and universe that Gene Roddenberry built.

This hefty praise should be considered doubly significant because of the overwhelming amount of obstinacy and skepticism accumulated since the “reboot” was announced. And you deserve the lion’s share of this praise, as the film was not written (as so many summer action flicks are) in a committee of banal studio executives and mercenary script hacks, but by guys who have now earned the begrudging respect of the hardest of the hardcore geeks.

But now you have a legacy to uphold, and as I have chosen to speak as ambassador of Trek fandom-at-large, I will humbly outline the hurdles that will face as you take the step of imagining the next step of this bold new journey:

The Return of Science Fiction – There is near universal agreement the film was an astounding success in crafting a great action movie. And Trek would be a non-starter if photon torpedo blasts, phaser fights, and window-shattering explosions were not a part of the experience. But one error that Mr. Abrams made in pitching this film to the press during its production was to intimate a desire to make Star Trek more like Star Wars. For reasons that are patently obvious, you should not make this so (even if they are, in some small sense, true); nor can you hope to bring along the tens of millions of Trek devotees by telling them that you are going to perform the same butchering of our collective childhoods that George Lucas did with his prequels. By the last movie, Lucas defended the direction of his franchise by claiming, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Star Wars movies “are for children.” That admission spoke volumes about his estimation of his audiences’ intelligence. Star Trek is Science Fiction, not Space Opera.

Roddenberry’s legacy lies in creating a framework for storytelling wherein mankind overcomes petty grievances and crippling superstitions to explore the possibilities within and without ourselves. At the core of this legacy are marvelous characters whom you have masterfully translated, appealing to our ability to learn from them our own potential to make the “stuff of dreams” something attainable in our own lifetimes. One of my fears is that concepts like relativity and scale seemed discarded for the convenience of swift narrative transitions. This loyalty to pedantic or esoteric details of the Science Fact in Trek is not arbitrary, it is instead a kind of glue that adheres the extraneous details to the larger plot and helps to fuse them into a future that is recognizable to us; something that could be done more easily with fantasy, but would not be as compelling. Sure there is a healthy dose of fantasy in these tales, and the storytelling wouldn’t be as enthralling without it (to see Spock without the mind meld would make him so much less engaging), but the quest for more iterations of Kirk hanging off of a cliff, more planets obliterated, or increasingly large-scale threats to the universe lead us to the point where the storytelling abandons subtlety and plausibility and flies smack into cliché. We need no better reminder of this than to look at Star Trek V. You have already saved what is essential about the stories we love, now you have the opportunity to salvage the potential The Great Bird of the Galaxy left behind.

23rd Century Ethics – Despite Star Trek’s deep symbolic and aesthetic ties to twentieth century military culture, we love it for the opportunity to imagine what Capt. Pike describes as a “peacekeeping armada” could truly be free of militarism, profiteering, and ‘realpolitik’. Of course, the Enterprise has weapons, but they are never used preemptively. The ethical world in which these characters thrive is one where the Science Officer (!) and the Doctor (!!!) often have the Captain’s ear before he makes the decision to fire weapons. They have inherited the chain of command from Starfleet’s naval legacy, but you find that our heroes will rebuke their orders when circumstances necessitate a change of heart.

Most conspicuously missing was any reference to the paragon of Starfleet’s core philosophy, the Prime Directive. It is another principle that we can look up to as a beacon for optimism, and a notion that is due to be reintroduced in our cultural dialogue; non-interference. Granted, the events that take place in the film do not beg the question of a need for it, so its absence for this go round is not a dire oversight. In fact, they faced the gravest of existential threats: total war. Kudos to you that Spock refrains from assigning any number of rhetorically popular labels for Nero but instead refers to him as a “war criminal” for his vile act of genocide. To hear him utter the word “terrorist” would have done an injustice to Star Trek’s fealty to ideals that seem all-too-lost in our popular culture, like the rule of law or speaking truth to power. Also, creating a Vulcan Diaspora is a poignant and heart-breaking statement about the consequences of violence, vengeance, and bigotry. It will also be a wonderful new element for the Star Trek universe to explore; and with it the opportunity for the characters (and the audience themselves) to ask deeper questions.

Where Do We Go From Here – Of course, Trek is not (and never was) all about heady and discursive moralizing. It is a narrative vehicle for adventure. There is no question you succeed, and excel, at crafting a world in which we can delight in these characters, and take us on a hell of a ride to boot. But as you now are undoubtedly locked into penning the next installment, I see no reason why the next could not be an even greater achievement.

However, I could not end this message without speaking of my biggest disappointment, and one that I predicted nonetheless. In preparing myself for what might become of this film, I anticipated that product placements might appear in this incarnation. I must say that their inclusion caused irreparable damage to the reputation of the film. I am not unaware of the constraints of funding and producing studio flicks, but if I can make an appeal for future Trek: Please leave out the product placements! The handful of millions that Nokia and InBev paid to have their brands awkwardly inserted into the story could be sacrificed next time around by replacing the minutes of shockingly expensive CGI with ten (or even 15) minutes of dramatic interplay between these beloved characters. Part of the genius of making sci-fi on a television budget was leaving some things unseen and letting the audience discover some wild ideas through the brilliant performances of an ensemble cast. I hold dear the idea of a future like Star Trek’s, in which brands, corporations, and other affectations of our primitive age can be scrapped for human endeavors of more altruistic motives.

Now that you have established an “alternative” course that the new Star Trek can now venture out on, you have the freedom to take (or leave behind) anything you desire from the four-decades-worth of rich history. I can honestly say because you don’t have to wedge new stories into an increasingly bloated and stogy canon, you need not fall into the same trap as that OTHER sci-fi franchise; you don’t have to tip-toe around retroactive continuity and risk “jumping the shark” to fit your ideas in. Some fans may have preferred you didn’t take this route, but overall, the potential for great storytelling wins out here. I wish you good luck, and can say I have a great deal of confidence in your station as keepers of the Trek. Now that you two boys just got the keys to the car; please don’t drive it off the cliff.