A reasonable comment made by Marc Evans, the President of the Paramount Motion Picture Group, has sparked a little bit of debate in Star Trek land…
Evans said “I often think about the areas of the Star Trek universe that haven’t been taken advantage of, like… I’ll be ridiculous with you, but what would Star Trek: Zero Dark Thirty look like? Where is the SEAL Team Six of the Star Trek universe? That fascinates me.”
A few fans and one or two websites have, for want of a better term, had a ‘go’ at Marc, with some comments suggesting that Paramount doesn’t seem to have much of a clue about what Star Trek is, if they want to go and make a war movie in that universe.
That’s an interesting reflection. It’s true that Star Trek has often pushed the “war is bad” message, and it’s true that exploration has been at the heart of Star Trek for a long time, not land or space battles – but when Gene created Star Trek, was his focus only on the exploration of imaginary strange new worlds?
I don’t think so.
With both the original series and the next generation, Gene really wanted to explore the human condition, and comment on the sometimes insane things we do to each other as human beings – and war was most certainly something he wanted us to have a conversation about. At that time, it was the Vietnam and Korean wars.
Gene believed human beings had the ability to rise above their differences and overcome adversity, to unite as one for the betterment of each other, the planet, and – if we were ever to meet other intelligent beings – the betterment of the galaxy.
Gene knew that it would take human beings a while to get there, so he set his show in the future and gave us something to aspire to.
Gene was also a writer, and knew that conflict was at the heart of drama – so he made the conflict external, and postulated an almost utopic Federation that was at times besieged by external (and internal) enemies.
Gene wanted to reflect us, and our world, and the issues we were struggling with, back at us through allegory – all while showing a united Earth and a united Federation that had overcome some pretty bad stuff to become a shining light in the galaxy.
Sometimes, he wrote a good old fashioned war story to achieve that.
It’s really important to note that some of the most emotionally intense and thought provoking movies have been war films: Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan… and the list goes on. Armed conflict served as the backdrop, while the writers and directors of those films sought to show us the horror and tragedy of war, and the people who rose above and sank beneath those pressures.
Interestingly, some of the most thought provoking episodes of Star Trek have had war or combat as their backdrop. One entire series, Deep Space 9, had a devastating, galaxy changing war as a major arc that kicked off in season two with the introduction of the Dominion, and escalated through seasons three, four, five, six and seven!
Gene and those who succeeded him, didn’t shy away from war as a tool to tell a good story and impart a message or two.
Here’s a list of only a few episodes from each live action series of Star Trek that had war as an obvious or subtle focus:
The Original Series
“A Taste of Armageddon”, “A Private Little War”, “Balance of Terror”.
The Next Generation
“Yesterday’s Enterprise”, “The Best of Both Worlds”, “Chain of Command”.
Deep Space Nine
“The Way of the Warrior”, “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost”, “In the Pale Moonlight”, “The Siege of AR-558”, “What You Leave Behind”.
“Scorpion”, “Year of Hell”.
“Demons” and “Terra Prime”.
I don’t believe a possible new direction for the Star Trek films that might have war as their backdrop would diminish Gene’s legacy, so long as those films kept Gene’s vision and rationale at the heart of their stories – and aimed to challenge and educate an audience. A new direction for the films might actually save Star Trek, and like a Trojan horse attract more fans to Trek on television, exposing them to that wonderful vision of a more enlightened humanity.
The multifaceted and sometimes philosophical Star Trek that we all know and love works best on television. It’s wonderful to watch at the cinema, but it works best in the more intimate environment of our lounge rooms, telling a story that can unfold over a number of weeks if need be, while inviting us to become involved in the lives of its characters.
Does that style of story telling translate well to science fiction blockbusters?
Did Star Trek almost die because it couldn’t reach a bigger audience? Probably.
When we look at the Trek films critically, the original series films did better than the next gen films. Those that did really well (The Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home) were accessible to a mainstream audience.
The second Star Trek feature film had minimal technobabble, and there wasn’t any need for an audience to be versed in the history of Star Trek. The only real technobabble in Trek II was Carol Marcus’s very simple explanation of the Genesis torpedo, and the Voyage Home had minor technobabble in it to briefly explain the time travel element. In both films, the scientific talk wasn’t superfluous and it always pushed the story forward.
A number of the other Trek films are great movies – Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Insurrection – but only if you’re a Trekker. The Search for Spock works if you’re invested in Spock. Undiscovered Country works if you’re invested in the relationship between the Klingon Empire, the United Federation of Planets, and the Enterprise crew. The next gen movies are their own worst enemy. They work if you don’t mind a lot of technobbable: “Captain! The flux-flow capacitor is interfering with the bipolar-moxi-flip ray gamma-pulse excavator… I need to realign the ODN network but I can only do it with a multi-pulsing vibrational hypermodule…” Who wants to pay money to listen to words that are essentially nonsense, when we all know that in the 12 minutes it took the character to say all that, the ship should have blown up. Shouldn’t the guy have just fixed the damn ship if it really was a crisis?
Critics and fans alike hold Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan up as the gold standard for Trek films, and for good reason. Not only was it accessible to a mainstream audience, it was just a really good action movie. It was two submarine captain’s hammering it out. It had great performances (William Shatner’s best ever), a beautiful soundtrack, incredible special effects, and a simple but meaningful story. You didn’t have to love Star Trek to enjoy it.
Plus, it was raw and it was honest. It didn’t try to hide the fact that every main actor in the cast was in their mid to late 40’s or 50’s.
It didn’t do a Star Trek V: The Final Frontier or a Star Trek: Nemesis, and show us two aged men acting like they were suffering from the most extreme midlife crises ever by scaling a mountain like a twenty-something, or screaming around a desert in a souped up dune buggy laughing like a teenager.
The Wrath of Khan reflected on age with grace, and that was beautiful, and it showed how when we hit our 40’s or our 50’s (or older) we have a little something called wisdom born from hard won experience that we can use to make things better. It also showed us something vitally important – you don’t lose your worth with age. Stuff changes, but stuff always changes, and it all depends on how we roll with it.
Star Trek works on film, but it doesn’t get to do a lot of the stuff we love it for – because modern audiences aren’t going to fork out the price of admission just to be philosophised at.
So despite the fact Star Trek movies are all, without exception, beautiful to look at on the big screen, they are rarely able to attract a new audience, and without a new audience and a good return on investment, why make sequels?
Star Trek, the Star Trek we have come to know, deserves more than two hours every few years to tell a story. TNG, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise had between 22 and 24 hours every year to explore the future, and these days shows get between 10 and 13 hours a year to tell a story, which is still a pretty decent amount of time to go deep on complex issues and concepts.
So, as we look to Star Trek Beyond and the lack of hoopla surrounding it, is it time we took a new look at how we present Star Trek to the world on the big screen? Is it time we decided to take a bit of a risk?
Blockbusters need spectacle, and lots of phasers firing all over of the place alongside heaps of explosions is pretty cool spectacle – and despite all of that mayhem, a movie like that can still deliver a message without devolving into a Transformers sized pile of crap.
There’s room in the Star Trek universe for a few really big, really wonderful, really meaningful set piece action movies, with new characters doing exciting things – without them being trapped in a space ship… because Star Trek is so much more than that.
In 49 years we have barely scratched the surface of Star Trek, and that’s a little sad. We’ve barely looked at the other areas of that universe that we know exist, because they have been hinted at – mercenaries, Section 31, an entire corps of diplomats, the government of the Federation, Starfleet Marines… there’s so much in that universe that is every shade of black and white and grey which would make for fantastic viewing.
If Paramount were going to reinvent the film franchise, the first film would have to be Earth-centric, to give the audience something to relate to and invest in right off the mark. Earth has been threatened so often it’s almost trite to do that, but a good writer can find a way to create compelling characters that will make the tired old “Earth is under threat again” feel fresh. It would be exciting, and pulse-pounding, to watch a team of Starfleet Marines running through the streets of San Francisco, trying to reach the Federation President, or whomever, while Defiant class starships sail through the skies overhead strafing at enemy drop ships.
Through all of that tense action, we could explore the impact on the marines, the impact on the starship captains who are forced to shoot ships down over populated areas, and the impact on Federation citizens.
There is so much happening in our world right now that is frightening and confusing and overwhelming, and story-telling (film, television and novels) can be cathartic. Good stories, that are thoughtful and challenging can help all of us process difficult issues.
We all hate terrorism and what it’s doing to our world, and we’re all deeply moved by the shocking tragedies that have occurred over the years, including the most recent tragedy in Paris. These are issues worth exploring as we all try to hold our heads up high and not demonise the many for the actions of a tiny few.
Star Trek has an important voice in all of that, like it had an important voice in the Vietnam and Korean wars.
Shouldn’t it be saying something about these things?
I’d love to watch Star Trek: Seal Team Six. I think it would work as a film and it would walk all over most sci-fi action movies, because Star Trek has something most of them don’t… a “lived in” universe that has a rich history that can’t help but translate to a viewing audience subliminally, without the need for any of them to know the difference between a tricorder and a PADD. And, Star Trek has something to say that comes with the weight of almost 50 years of commenting on the issues confronting our world.
With incredible independent productions like Star Trek: Renegades and a new official television show in the works, we can have the best of both worlds (pun intended) – thought-provoking Star Trek on television, and spectacle with meaning in a new action/drama film series that doesn’t have to be about a bunch of guys in spandex on a space ship.
So, is Marc Evans foolish for throwing around Star Trek: Seal Team Six?
I don’t believe so.
I’d watch that movie.
If you’d like to check out what a couple of other Star Trek sites are saying about Marc’s statement, check the links below.