Ah, Star Trek. One of our all-time favorite franchises, Star Trek has given us a mind-boggling number of TV shows and quite a few movies to nerd out to and enjoy. The show used the setup of a varied group of humans and non-humans having to work together as they discovered outer space as an apt metaphor for the human condition. Add in some brilliant details and bits of real science, and no wonder the thing has been a hit for over half a century.
But somewhere along the way, Trek lost its groove. We started seeing villains we had seen once — or twice — before, giving a distasteful new meaning to the word memorable. Science and real-world logic were increasingly absent, being replaced in favor of action and violence. A show that had mastered the niche of slow and deliberate was suddenly starting to feel like every other sci-fi flick out there. And with the news that action impresario Justin Lin (Fast & Furious) would be directing 2016’s Star Trek Beyond, it brought the new reality of our beloved series into sudden, sharp contrast.
Beyond is sure to be a blockbuster hit, as what we’ve seen in the lead up shows a strong continuation of JJ Abrams’s sleek adventure aesthetic. But many of us Trekkies feel nostalgic for a more whimsical, rational time in the series’ evolution. And so with that, we wanted to concoct a list of a few things we think would help Kirk and Company make a resounding return to form.
So, sit back, relax, pour yourself a nice frosty Romulan ale, and enjoy our take on How To Make Star Trek Awesome Again.
Emphasize the Science
As we all know, Star Trek has always hinged itself on science. It is a fictional and futuristic universe that the characters operate in, but there were always details that came out in conversations and in technology that we could relate to. And accordingly, creator Gene Roddenberry and his show runners felt the show’s success rested greatly on its believability and its adherence to scientific truth.
Turbolifts took an understandably long time to get from one part of an enormous ship to another. In fact, entire scenes were shot while characters waited for their turbolift to drop them off at their requested stop. It wasn’t fantastically instant — it was realistically slow, and we could even hear the noises as the lift had to change from a vertical shaft to a horizontal one. It was realism like this that helped make the series incredibly special. And while JJ Abrams’s two Star Trek films were good, competently made sci-fi flicks, they noticeably lacked this component.
Action: Less is More
Star Trek has never moved so breathlessly as it did in the recent reboots, and it looks like the next film will only bring more of the same in this respect. What Star Trek (2009) and Into Darkness (2013) gave us was slick action fare, characters running around on impossibly sleek ships and performing gravity-defying feats. JJ Abrams is a great director who excels at delivering sweeping stories that are huge in scope with plenty of action.
But when it came down to it, Star Trek never really was about the action, and this left many fans feeling conflicted about Abrams’s efforts. Part of what had sucked in more than a couple of generations into the franchise was its methodical, dialogue-driven nature. We had time to learn about characters and their motivations, and time still to understand missions, reversals, and enemy proposals. Abrams gave us plenty of action, but not much in the way of character-building or any time to rest or reflect. And Abrams’s Trek successor, Justin Lin — whose last directorial outing was 2013’s maniacal Fast & Furious 6 — will likely only crank things up to hyper-speed.
Forge a New Legacy
After the 2009 reboot reintroduced us to the series and brought new generations of fans into the fold, 2013’s Into Darkness was, despite being gorgeous and well-acted, something of a warmed-over homage to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Roddenberry was always interested in bringing humanity deeper into the future, sending man on missions to explore our nearly unlimited potential. Past iterations of the franchise have had the crew working on an alien space station, manning the Starship Enterprise, or being lost in space. As well, characters we know all too well include Captain Kirk, Spock, Captain Picard, Khan, and others. It is becoming increasingly clearer with every new outing that it is time for a fresh slate, a bevy of new characters from different backgrounds, and new territories and story arcs for them to move through.
No More Lens Flares
The king of shaking super-powerful lights directly at the camera to create a sharp, otherworldly effect, JJ Abrams has been known to go overboard with lens flares. While it looks great used a couple of times, increasing the scope and texture of what we are watching, at the end of the day using it as a crutch just looks kind of lazy. And worse than that, it can be actually annoying, blinding us from scenes that would have been better without the look.
Lens flares are just one of the cheap tricks Abrams used in his two takes on the series to give that universe a spacey feel. And while we can’t really tell the guy how to make a movie — after all, he did save Star Wars — it would have been nice if he had kept the cinematography a tad more subdued. Throwing too much onto the screen, and doing too many quick edits, doesn’t give the viewer much time to think or even focus on what’s going on.
Now, the speed of the original Star Trek series and films may at this point be a little passé, but it’s important to note that it was this slow-moving, methodical, flatly shot format that was the context for the franchise’s enormous popularity.
Star Trek always emphasized the importance of teamwork. The crew of the Enterprise were often forced to brainstorm and combine talents when confronted by an imposing enemy. And at other times, characters would share their special knowledge or abilities with the group at a time that called for it. The unity of the crew made them incredibly versatile and capable as decision-makers and peacekeepers.
For anyone whose first encounter with Star Trek was with seeing one of the Abrams films, they would get quite a different dynamic. Each character is shown with their unique skills and talents to be sure, but there is not so much collaboration between the personalities as there is conflict. Star Trek and Into Darkness both deliver a great deal of drama, most of which emanates from the epic clashing of egos between Kirk and Spock. While a little of this would have been chuckle-worthy and important in illustrating the two characters’ strong-willed ways, the constant arguing left little room for accord, going a long way to muddle the memory of Trek’s historical regard for teamwork.
Nix the Fan Service
Fan service seems to be everywhere these days, and nowhere is it more apparent than in the universe of Star Trek. Why? Well, the answer may lie in the bottom line. It is a phenomenally successful brand, and so to replace the tried-and-true components of the series with a new storyline or new characters would mean taking a big risk, and that could mean lost profits. So, from a business standpoint, Star Trek has played it safe.
But nothing makes a fan’s eyes roll more than hearing tired quotes rolled out for the sake of recognition. It’s like the producers are saying to us, “Hey, remember this? Wasn’t it great when it happened the first time?”
Part of forging an exciting new path is in brewing up fresh wit. It’s not in the saying of the classic lines that we loved; it was that these quotes were sharply written pieces of text that gave us intimate insight into the attitudes and thought processes of what would become our favorite characters. It’s hard to understate the importance of good writing on a show or movie, and bringing in bona fide book writers instead of script writers would help us get back to a point where we can relate to our characters.
Bring Back the Lit
Star Trek has always been irrevocably steeped in a literary universe, with references to Moby Dick and Shakespeare strewn about. This gave the series a distinctly sophisticated edge that melded quite well with the sci-fi universe. And this was no coincidence. Many authors were once staff writers for Trek. Nicholas Meyer, the co-writer of The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) and VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), spent the latter part of the 1970s writing and directing (Academy Award-winning) spinoff tales of Sherlock Holmes. And the fictional detective collided with the show again later on The Next Generation, when Data became enamored with the mythology. Captain Picard often quoted Shakespeare and alluded to other literary icons. Even the original Kirk, as portrayed by William Shatner, seemed like something of a bookworm, especially when juxtaposed with Chris Pine’s ignorance-is-bliss appeal.
If the current handlers of the Star Trek franchise will not do a complete about-face and introduce us to brand new characters and plot lines, at the very least we ask that the current roster is enlivened with greater substance.
Let’s Get Political
One of the things that made the original Trek series so different from other offerings on TV at the time was in how it confronted sociopolitical issues. With a lot of logic and perceptiveness, the show taught us an enormous amount about how we treat each other, and how with a good bit of self-reflection and conscientiousness, we could actually live in a happier and more effective world.
Through the use of dealing with differences of opinion on-board the ship, to how the group had to work together to take on daunting threats, to determining at times democratically where the mission would be heading next, the crew helped us gain more insight into ourselves. And seeing how different alien races lived and worked in different ways, or how apparent enemies were really just out for the same goals as anyone else, taught us the importance of working through our assumptions and moving towards collaboration. Later series would try to replicate the incisiveness of the original, but would not cut muster. And the films followed the same trajectory. Once we arrived at the current fare, it seemed that all of the subtext had left the franchise. And while we love Justin Lin, the Fast & Furious director is not particularly well-known for his careful dissection of social issues, unless it involves Vin Diesel dragging a bank vault down a freeway.
Perhaps it is time that Star Trek resorts to interesting — and otherworldly — measures to keep the buoyancy in the franchise. Maybe it’s time we have a new captain, who is not human but from another race. An alien captain would allow the show to expand its parameters, and it would change the social dynamics in neat ways. Our ideas of leadership would change from whatever preconceived stereotypes we held, as a non-human captain would interact with his or her crew in completely fresh psychological and philosophical dimensions.
Following the thread of new protagonists on board the hero ship, we also thirst for new villains. One of the most underwhelming aspects of the lesser Trek films (and show iterations) has been a lack of diversity amongst the more nefarious contingents. We know Klingons and Borgs well, and it is past time to bring in strange new threats.
And yes, Khan is the greatest Trek villain of all time. No one can take that label away from the guy. From when we first encountered him in the 1967 episode “Space Seed,” to his awesome return in 82’s Wrath of Khan, to a very Cumberbatchian Into Darkness, we’ve gotten our fill of the admittedly great super-villain. The same goes for Q, Soran, Mirror Spock, and General Chang. We love them, but it’s time to forge new paths. Heck, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) didn’t even really feature a solid villain – it was an environmental tale about preserving nature and saving whales – but it was fantastic.
So we don’t need more concrete villainy. In fact, the series would be more exciting to vary the coming tales; making some more classically themed, and allowing others to veer off into more exploratory territory. It doesn’t always need to end with the crew outwitting a superhuman foe. Star Trek and its audience deserve more nuance than that.
Did we forget anything? What are your thoughts?