Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

Classifying the “Star Trek” Movies by Their “Save the Cat!” Genre Categories

Star Trek turned fifty this year (something older than me, mercifully), but you needn’t be a fan to appreciate some of the lessons writers of fiction can take from its successes and failures during its five-decade voyage.  I mean, I probably wouldn’t myself qualify as a “Trekkie”—I simply don’t get caught up in the minutiae.  What I’ve always responded to in Trek is its thoughtful storytelling and philosophical profundity.  “Even the original series, for all its chintziness,” someone told me when I was thirteen, “it was still the thinking man’s show.”

I recall watching The Original Series in syndication, and being swept away by the classic time-travel episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”; finally I understood that Trek was about ideas, and those could be just as thrilling—more so, in fact—than set pieces.  Anyone who was around for it certainly remembers the excitement when The Next Generation premiered, unknowingly kicking off perhaps the first major-media “shared fictional universe” two decades before Marvel got there.  I watched the pilot with my father—which was a big deal, since television wasn’t his thing (the nightly news excepting)—and I haven’t forgotten his lovely, two-word appraisal of the first episode when it was over:  “It’s kind,” he said, with no further elaboration.

It took some years to fully appreciate that assessment.  Having grown up on the adventures of James T. Kirk, the original captain’s renegade spirit and cowboy diplomacy appealed to my juvenile worldview; Picard, on the other hand, seemed like a high-school principal in comparison.  But over time, I came to identify with Picard’s genteel, introspective mindset, and every line he uttered—even the technobabble—sounded like poetry from the mouth of Patrick Stewart, who endowed his performance with such dignity and conviction.  For me, the best part of Star Trek was getting Picard’s closing takeaway on the issue du jour.

The franchise continued to grow as I did, and my wife, whom I started dating at nineteen, was as much a fan as I was, it turned out, and we looked forward every few years to the next feature film, until the series finally, against all expectation, sputtered out with Nemesis (2002) and Enterprise (2001–2005).  Among other reasons for that, Trek had been eclipsed by a new sci-fi franchise—The Matrix—that spoke to the ethos of our new Digital Age.  Perhaps more than any other genre, science fiction needs to reflect its times, and times change; finality is something to be accepted—embraced, even—not feared.  The Enterprise, thusly, had been decommissioned.

 

FUTURE IN THE PAST

So it is with no small degree of irony, then, that a series that was about looking ahead and exploring new frontiers has been given a nostalgic retrofit by Hollywood.  And while it was a special thrill to see Nimoy reprise his signature role in Star Trek (2009), and the movie itself couldn’t be more entertaining, it lacks the existential heft that makes the franchise so intellectually nourishing; as my mentor David Freeman once put it:  It’s all frosting, no cake.  In some respects, the new movies owe more to Star Wars (another aging franchise filmmaker J. J. Abrams has revived—somebody please stop him) than Star Trek:  They put a premium on spectacle over intellectualism, forsaking the insight into human nature that was the hallmark—the point, even—of the series in favor of CGI-conjured whiz-bang action; in other words:  set pieces.  Sure, the papier-mâché landscapes of TOS and TNG’s alien worlds didn’t have any palpable weight to them, but the stories they serviced typically did.

As such, this year’s Star Trek Beyond is the first Trek feature in thirty years I’ve missed seeing in theaters, although the oversight was entirely intentional.  I heard the filmmakers, including producer Abrams and screenwriter/co-star Simon Pegg, on the promotional circuit earlier this summer insisting that “we need Star Trek now more than ever.”  I couldn’t disagree more:  The continuation of Star Trek is, to borrow the phrasing of Watchmen scribe Alan Moore, yet one more instance of “the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”  It is a Space Age relic, with no sociocultural significance here in the twenty-first century, hence the reason, I suspect, I wasn’t the only one who sat out this year’s offering.  We the audience decide what we need, not corporations, and it is the duty of filmmakers and artists to respond to that very cultural feedback.  The zeitgeist isn’t something that can be engineered by cynical studio execs through marketing campaigns.  Hell, there is perhaps no greater testament to that than the belated success of Star Trek:  The Original Series itself in the 1970s, which transcended the impatient ratings demands of network television that led to its premature cancellation to become one of the definitive sci-fi sagas of the late twentieth century.

The new movie’s title is one I find personally ironic, because there is no Star Trek beyond this for me, including the upcoming TV series, Star Trek:  DiscoveryWith the underwhelming performance of Beyond (despite generally good reviews), the franchise now finds itself commercially vulnerable, if not imperiled, only a few short years after “rebooting”:  Consider that it took nearly four decades for the “Rodenberry timeline” (meaning TOS through the TNG feature films) to run out of steam, but the reboot managed the same in a mere seven years, making Star Trek’s irrelevance in this new millennium mathematically quantifiable.  Having already revamped the series so recently, I’ve no doubt panicked arguments are underway about the creative direction to take from here so Hollywood might save this dying cash cow yet.  But I say—to echo Kirk’s sentiments about the extinction-threatened Klingon race in The Undiscovered Country—let it die.

Hollywood, to be sure, won’t learn any lessons from Trek’s rise and fall—from its creative prosperity and decline.   Studio executives, in my experience, have no shortage of opinions—which they assert with complete confidence in their own perceived authority on matters of storytelling—but pitifully little, if any, command of craft (thumbing through Save the Cat! once does not an expert make).  But you and I know that mastering the discipline takes years of dedicated practice, and any work of fiction that has spawned countless iterations over half a century merits closer study.

 

LESSONS FROM TREK IN STRUCTURE AND GENRE

I’ve illustrated on this blog how narratives in the Western tradition adhere a mythic structure known as Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey”—also referred to as the “monomyth” or Aristotelian arc—in which a protagonist finds his status quo upended, then must embark on an adventure to restore it, which entails a series of prescribed stages (or “beats” in screenwriting parlance) that form the same underlying foundation of all stories, across all eras, regardless of tone or theme or genre:

In his Save the Cat! books, late screenwriter Blake Snyder demonstrated that the monomyth serves as the macrostructural framework for what he identified as ten distinct “genres”—story models that have nothing to do with generic labels like “science fiction” and “horror” and “comedy”—each defined by its own set of time-honored narrative conventions:  Monster in the House concerns itself with overcoming a monster (Alien; Jaws); Golden Fleece is about attaining a defined prize (Raiders of the Lost Ark; Ocean’s Eleven); Buddy Love dramatizes the complications that conspire to keep lovers apart (Titanic; When Harry Met Sally…); etc.

The monomyth (or “beat sheet,” as Snyder rechristened it) provides the architectural blueprint for an emotionally resonant narrative; the genre categories themselves supply the essential ingredients each particular story model is required to incorporate (three apiece) in order to deliver upon audience expectations, which is why it is not only crucial to outline your plot on a beat sheet as you develop it, but to research cinematic and literary antecedents in your story’s particular genre to study how those requirements have been previously fulfilled.

Those ten genre categories are one of the most essential tools in a storyteller’s repertoire (genre, along with structure, characterization, and postnarrativity, is one of the four pillars of narrative); most unsuccessful stories either fail to meet their conventional criteria, or make the fatal mistake of mixing elements from different genres (like Winter’s Tale, which starts as Buddy Love and then switches halfway through to Superhero).  To be clear:  A story cannot serve two masters—it cannot be faithful to the conventions of more than one narrative model at a time.  However, a new installment in an ongoing series presents an opportunity to use familiar concepts and characters in an altogether new genre, and switching story models is exactly what some multipart movie series—including Star Wars, Mad Max, The Hunger Games, and Rambo—have done to combat creative stagnation.  Rather than “blowing up the balloon”—i.e., doing the same shit you did last time, just on a bigger scale—“which sequels get into trouble doing,” to quote Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, Star Trek would routinely shift genres, which surely accounts, at least in part, for why it was able to thrive creatively for so long:  Though the characters and aesthetics were consistent and familiar from film to film, the structure and conventions of each individual narrative weren’t necessarily the same each time out.  That allowed for the series to periodically reinvent itself—to remain vibrant, even unpredictable.

Of the ten different genre classifications, Star Trek has utilized—in what must surely be a record for a long-running series—half a dozen across thirteen feature films.  What’s more, the series’ creative highs and lows are, for the most part, directly attributable to the particular genre that was chosen for any given installment, and whether or not its corresponding conventions were complied with.  Let’s review and classify each film:

 

Star Trek:  The Motion Picture (1979)

Genre:  Golden Fleece (“Epic Fleece”)

Conventions:  Road, Team, Prize

Image by © Steve Schapiro/Corbis

The crew of the USS Enterprise (Team) reunites and sets out to intercept a destructive extraterrestrial energy cloud (Road) before it reaches Earth and annihilates the planet (Prize).  Textbook Golden Fleece, which makes sense for a series predicted on the tropes of adventure and exploration.  This episode is certainly slowly paced, as it’s been thoroughly criticized for, but also reaches heights of space-operatic grandeur never quite achieved by Trek before or since.

 

Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan (1982)

Genre:  Superhero (“Fantasy Superhero”)

Conventions:  Special Power, Nemesis, Curse

Star Trek has often been compared to Star Wars, but this is perhaps the only way in which they are even remotely similar:  Both film franchises debuted as Golden Fleece before switching to Superhero for superior second installments.  James Kirk is recast as a Superhero here; note the way he is introduced against dramatic backlighting, his approaching silhouette regarded with awe by slack-jawed spectators.  Kirk is a legend—a man who routinely cheats death (Special Power), the only cadet in the history of Starfleet to have triumphed over the unbeatable Kobayashi Maru training exercise.  He doesn’t believe in a no-win situation, a foolhardy outlook (Curse) that will be shattered by the climactic death of his friend and first officer, Spock.

Unhappily squandering his superheroic talents in an administrative job at the start of the story, Kirk is drawn back into galactic combat by a vengeful antagonist from the TV series, Khan Noonien Singh (Nemesis), who blames the captain for the death of his wife.  It is often argued the franchise’s villainy peaked with Khan, and perhaps the producers realized—if even unconsciously—that he would indeed be a hard act to follow, so they returned to the Golden Fleece paradigm next, rather than pursuing the Superhero model which would have required them to devise a new and worthy Nemesis with each installment, à la Batman and Bond, a feat that can be an insurmountable creative challenge for an ongoing series like this.

 

Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock (1984)

Genre:  Golden Fleece (“Epic Fleece”)

Conventions:  Road, Team, Prize

The film’s subtitle tips its hat, genre-wise:  Kirk and crew (Team) go rogue, stealing the Enterprise in order to travel to the Genesis planet (Road) and recover the reanimated body of their fallen comrade, Spock, so they might bring him to Vulcan and restore his living spirit (Prize), which has been housed in McCoy (and is consequently destabilizing the doctor’s health).

 

Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home (1986)

Genre:  Golden Fleece (“Epic Fleece”)

Conventions:  Road, Team, Prize

This time, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, et al. (Team), must travel back in time to San Francisco circa 1986 (Road) to retrieve a pair of humpback whales (Prize), the only lifeform capable of communicating with an alien probe that speaks in whale song, its unanswered transmissions—on account of the species’ extinction by the twenty-third century—throwing the planet into cataclysmic upheaval.  Aside from being the most commercially accessible of the Trek films to date—tremendous situational humor was mined from the story’s fish-out-of-water premise, performed to perfection by a cast that had been honing its one-of-a-kind chemistry for two decades—The Voyage Home succeeds in accomplishing something almost no other movie in the franchise has managed:  giving all seven crewmembers, and not just the core triumvirate, something genuinely meaningful to do, plot-wise.

 

Star Trek V:  The Final Frontier (1989)

Lots to unpack here.  This was the first box-office disappointment of the series, and it’s not too hard, upon analysis, to understand why:  Though not without its charms, The Final Frontier is structurally problematic.  The Enterprise crew (Team) find their shore leave suddenly canceled when they are ordered by Starfleet to effect a hostage rescue (Prize) on an alien planet (Road).  So, from the (overlong) setup, we seem to be dealing with a Golden Fleece.

But not so fast.  Upon reaching the hostages (at the first act break), Kirk learns it was all a ruse by Spock’s estranged half-brother, Sybok, to hijack the Enterprise so he might use it to reach a mythical planet at the center of the galaxy (called Sha Ka Ree) where he believes God resides; the hostages themselves are pretty much sidelined for the rest of the movie, which rules out Golden Fleece in favor of… what?  Well, one could almost argue at this point the film is Dude with a Problem, with the ambushed crew (Innocent Hero) held hostage aboard their own ship (Sudden Event) as Sybok takes it on what is surely a suicide mission through an impenetrable cosmic barrier (Life-or-Death Battle).  Except… after the Enterprise is commandeered, there isn’t much “life-or-death” about any of what transpires; on the contrary, as a villain, Sybok exhibits pacifistic tendencies:  He repeatedly goes out of his way not to inflict violence!  Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are merely consigned to the brig—and given ample opportunity to get voluntarily on board with Sybok’s plan—while the Enterprise travels to Sha Ka Ree.  Contrast that with the escalating test-of-survival complications of other outer-space DWAPs, like The Martian and Gravity, and it becomes clear Final Frontier doesn’t fit the bill.

So that brings us back to the question of whether this is a Golden Fleece about an odyssey to find God.  There are several problems with this.  First, the “antagonist” (though Sybok is hardly much of one) drives the entire plot while the heroes mostly just spin their wheels either in captivity or under his hypnotic spell.  Second, the Enterprise seems to reach its destination pretty quickly (it’s hardly a Road of Trials) and they penetrate the supposedly impregnable energy barrier without much difficulty, save a little signature camera shaking.  Upon reaching the fabled planet on the other side, Kirk and crew then peacefully accompany Sybok to the surface—‘cause why not?—where they encounter “God,” immediately expose the spurious deity as a fraud, and rather easily defeat him.  Grafted onto all of this, I should mention, is a subplot about a Klingon warship pursuing the Enterprise for sport, but it has no relevance to the main plotline other than to add conflict at the climax.  Because the movie lacks a clear through-line—a proactive goal with mounting causal obstacles—the writers kept throwing new out-of-nowhere forces of antagonism at the heroes, but none of it adds up to a plot with any suspense or meaning.

On that last point, the movie is also thematically unfocused.  The plot is, ostensibly, about a literal search for God, but none of the characters are in the throes of any kind of spiritual crisis at the outset of the story—the events of the plot don’t correspond with a transformational arc on the part of any of the heroes.  Sybok possesses the not-adequately-explained power to relieve people of their innermost psychic wounds, but, to reiterate, none of the crewmembers find themselves in a state of emotional anguish when they are reintroduced to us, so it doesn’t resonate in any meaningful way.  There’s some talk at the beginning and end of the movie about Kirk’s prophecy that he’ll “die alone,” but that has nothing to do with the quest for God nor the ability to alleviate unconfronted trauma.  (Grappling with issues of mortality during the crusade for a “cosmic solution” to such an existential malady was handled with far more resonance and complexity in Star Trek Generations, which we’ll discuss in a minute.)  Other recurring philosophical motifs include the notion that “life is but a dream,” and that Starfleet officers, unlike “normal” people, don’t have families, and there seems to be an animus on the part of the filmmakers to expose televangelists as bullshit artists, but again:  It’s all paid lip service; none of it is handled with any depth, because none of those thematics are explored through dramatization—they’re just conversations that happen over the course of a scattershot plot that doesn’t offer them any structural framework in which to cultivate and evolve.  As such, The Final Frontier defies genre classification; it’s a very sloppy piece of storytelling that coasts—and barely, at that—on the polished interplay between Kirk, McCoy, and Spock (the last of whom, in a tribute to Nimoy’s singular talents, manages to convey true pathos in otherwise silly outing).

There are those that might exploit this as an opportunity to argue that—see?—not all movies fit within Blake Snyder’s ten genre categories, after all, but I would counter by suggesting that all creatively effective ones do.  One last note:  The Final Frontier was rushed into production during the 1988 Writers Guild strike, which may have very well contributed to the script problems that sadly plague the finished film.

 

Star Trek VI:  The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Genre:  Whydunit (“Fantasy Whydunit”)

Conventions:  Detective, Secret, Dark Turn

And now for something completely different:  a locked-room murder mystery set aboard the Enterprise.  In order to exonerate Kirk and McCoy, Mr. Spock (Detective) must discover the identity of the Klingon chancellor’s assassin (Secret), an investigation that exposes both a conspiracy between Federation and Klingon officials alike to undermine the fragile peace negotiations underway as well as a traitor among the ranks of the Enterprise crew (Dark Turn).  In contrast with The Final Frontier, note the thematic unification of this movie:  Every character is wrestling with the fear of change the future threatens—the “undiscovered country”—be it death, retirement, cultural assimilation, or aging into obsolescence.  The anxiety from that uncertainty is reflected in—exacerbated by, even—the ticking-clock mystery of who killed the chancellor.  This is my favorite of the original crew’s adventures, and what a high note to go out on.

 

Star Trek Generations (1994)

Genre:  Golden Fleece (“Epic Fleece”)

Conventions:  Road, Team, Prize

Here’s a movie that had the unique challenge of being both a sequel to The Next Generation TV series and the six features that came before it—as well as having to stand on its own two legs—and boy did it rise to the occasion.  With millions of lives at stake, Picard and Kirk (Team) must prevent a mad scientist from destroying a star (Prize), a mission that takes them into an extradimensional realm (Road) in which both death and time are rendered moot.

Most critics dismissed this effort as a mere “two-hour installment of The Next Generation”—and it does in many ways reflect the pacing and particular storytelling approach of the series (which was still in production as filming on Generations commenced)—but there’s some remarkable screenwriting at work here that, in my view, went unappreciated, especially given all this movie had to do as a franchise turning point.  First off, the conceit of a “temporal nexus”—an elysian dreamland where one’s past, present, and idealized future can be visited and revisited at will—was a brilliant sci-fi whatsit to bridge the eighty-year gap between the two generations without resorting to conventional time travel (which had been done so often before).  Furthermore, far from a mere plot device, the Nexus directly reflects and challenges the emotional issues of both the heroes (Picard is dealing with the recent tragic death of his nephew, the family’s last male heir; Kirk is feeling used up and useless in retirement) and the villain (Malcolm McDowell’s Dr. Soran is grieving the inconsolable loss of his family, killed off-screen by the Borg).  Also, unlike The Final Frontier, issues of mortality and legacy are explored—are dramatized—with real nuance here.  (See how the guiding principles of structure and genre bring out the full potential of a story, rather than restricting it as some would insist?)  And how Dr. Soran isn’t regarded as one of the great Trek antagonists alongside Khan I’ll never know:  Soran is a man who rejects the truth of his existence—his mortality—in favor of the “new truth” presented by the Nexus; surely the screenwriters had Søren Kierkegaard’s concept of “Truth as Subjectivity” in mind when they named him?  For its narrative ambition, philosophical weight, and long-awaited team-up of Shatner and Stewart (who exhibited great chemistry), this is my personal favorite of any of the Trek feature films, be it TOS, TNG, or the Abrams reboots.

 

Star Trek:  First Contact (1996)

Genre:  Golden Fleece (“Epic Fleece”)

Conventions:  Road, Team, Prize

When the Borg alter history by going back in time and assimilating Earth, Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-E (Team) follow them to the year 2063 (Road), where they attempt to stop them before they can enslave humanity and prevent first contact with the Vulcans (Prize).

This is generally considered to be the best of the Next Gen cinematic outings; however, given my contrarian proclivities, I am going to argue that just as the last entry is underrated, First Contact is overrated.  It is, to be sure, not without merit, with a typically commanding performance from Stewart, fully realized Borg effects (what a difference a movie-sized budget makes), and thrilling sequences aboard the Borged-out corridors of the Enterprise that rival Alien for toe-curling suspense.  It just seems apparent to me, upon recently reviewing it, that there is a Superhero movie here struggling to emerge from the constraints of First Contact’s Golden Fleece plot.

According to Wikipedia, during the development process, producer Rick Berman envisioned a time-travel story, whereas screenwriters Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore wanted to revisit the Borg; they ultimately combined both ideas, which I think was a mistake:  Picard’s unique history with the Borg is forced to compete for screen time with the motions of a standard-issue time-travel plot (something that had been so deftly eschewed in Generations) when it could have served as the basis for TNG’s very own Wrath of Khan.

Try this on for size:  When a new Borg threat emerges (in the twenty-fourth century—forget the time-travel plotline), Picard is ordered by Starfleet to intervene specifically on account of his telepathic link to the Collective (Special Power), with no regard for the PTSD that still plagues him from his assimilation six years earlier.  As such, Picard’s obsessive need for vengeance (Curse) jeopardizes the mission—and the welfare of millions—and puts him on a collision course with the Borg Queen (Nemesis), who still hopes to reintegrate the captain into the Collective.

To be fair, there are echoes of what I suggest above in the finished film; I simply rearranged the components and liberated them from the Golden Fleece time-travel plot that kept them from reaching their full potential.  They didn’t need the time-travel plotline, and by placing too much at stake—both the enslavement of humanity and first contact (what screenwriters call heaping bananas on bananas)—they muddled what should have been a clearer through-line.  As it stands, First Contact is a perfectly entertaining Star Trek adventure (certainly heaps better than Final Frontier, the last movie in this series to bungle its narrative model), but it could’ve been one of the all-time greats had the producers chosen their genre more judiciously—and consciously.  Yet one more reason to practice—and master—these tools.

 

Star Trek:  Insurrection (1998)

Genre:  Institutionalized (“Military Institution”)

Conventions:  Group, Choice, Sacrifice

When the Federation he is sworn to serve (Group) plots the forced relocation of a small population of peaceful settlers living on a fountain-of-youth planet—an act Picard finds morally objectionable but is nonetheless required as a Starfleet officer to comply with (Choice)—he risks his career (Sacrifice) by defying orders to defend the unarmed inhabitants from the tyranny of his own people.

As previously stated, the series has always been about adventure and exploration, but given that its very premise rests on a military framework, it’s remarkable it took nine big-screen voyages to finally give Trek the Institutionalized treatment; up till now, the Federation was pretty much depicted as a noble and functional governing body.  Institutionalized stories are typically about characters with equal and incompatible loyalties to two different organizations/establishments/ideologies; they must choose one over the other.  At the beginning of Insurrection, Picard laments that his function as an intergalactic diplomat—a de facto politician and agent of Starfleet—has superseded his original (and preferred) role as explorer, and the story forces him to make the ultimate choice between the irreconcilable institutions of his duty and his conscience.  Kirk and Picard, for all their dispositional differences, were both reliably morally upstanding heroes, and Insurrection was an overdue reminder that doing the right thing comes at a cost, and that principles require sacrifice if they are to have any meaning.

That said, critics managed to dismiss this one as too “lightweight,” and indeed its “low”-stakes plot is even acknowledged by the characters themselves:  “It’s only six hundred people,” the corrupt admiral points out in defense of his actions, to which Picard replies, “How many people does it take before it becomes wrong?”  Critics missed the point, and would probably welcome, in our current blockbuster climate, a franchise offering like Insurrection today—one in which the Fate of the Galaxy doesn’t need to be at stake so long as we’re invested in the plight of the characters.  As such, this is my favorite of the purely TNG feature films.

 

Star Trek:  Nemesis (2002)

Genre:  Superhero (“Fantasy Superhero”)

Conventions:  Special Power, Nemesis, Curse

The Enterprise is dispatched to Romulus to assess an overture of peace from its new praetor, Shinzon, who is revealed to be a clone of Picard—one whose life depends on a DNA transfusion from the captain himself.  In addition to this, there is some de rigueur business about Shinzon’s secret plot to eradicate all life on earth… blah, blah, blah.

Oh, boy—where to start?  In what was clearly a case of Khan envy, TNG attempted to have its own definitive Superhero story.  The problem was, they’d already had the perfect opportunity for that—First Contact—and blew it on a more whimsical Golden Fleece plotline.  So they created a Nemesis here that could compete with Khan—a younger, diabolical version of Picard—but it doesn’t work for several reasons.  One:  Picard has no history with Shinzon, as he did with the Borg, and as Kirk did with Khan, so there’s no backstory to play with (not that that’s a prerequisite in Superhero stories, but it historically makes for more compelling conflict).  Second, Picard is not in crisis when we meet him at the beginning of this movie, unlike where he was in First Contact (which opens with one of his PTSD-induced fever dreams); he therefore has no character arc to speak of.  For that matter, Picard isn’t even established as much of a Superhero here!  For all their effort to create a memorable Nemesis (hence the movie’s subtitle), the screenwriters at no point established a Special Power or Curse for Picard as they had in First Contact (his telepathic link to the Collective and his desire for vengeance), and as they had for Kirk in The Wrath of Khan.  What Nemesis has instead is a villain who drives the overcomplicated plot entirely (a mistake made in Final Frontier, as well), with a protagonist who simply reacts to each new act of villainy without any personal/emotional stake in the story.

As it stands, Nemesis is a perfect example of how genre is defined by conventions, and a storyteller defies or ignores those expectations at his peril (something I criticized Twilight for doing).  This is a Superhero story—I guess (it surely doesn’t fit any other known narrative model)—but a very unsuccessful one, at that, as two out of the genre’s three narrative requirements are not met.  Of the initial ten features, I rank this one a distant tenth—even behind Final Frontier, because it was the first (and only) Trek feature to be an utterly joyless experience.  This movie’s creative and box-office failure put the kibosh, sadly, on any further TNG adventures.  What an ignoble end to what had been an otherwise exemplary franchise.

 

Star Trek (2009)

Genre:  Buddy Love (“Professional Love”)

Conventions:  Incomplete Hero, Counterpart, Complication

In J. J. Abrams’ prequel-cum-reboot, two young Starfleet officers—a brash, self-confident hothead by the name of James Kirk (Incomplete Hero) and a logical, emotionless social outcast known only as Spock (Counterpart)—find themselves locked in a power struggle for control of the Enterprise when her captain is taken prisoner by a vengeful Romulan who plans to destroy the Federation’s base of operations:  Earth (Complication).

Reframing Star Trek as Buddy Love was definitely taking the franchise where it hadn’t gone before!  It makes sense, since the essence—the heart—of classic Trek was always in the dichotomy between the opposing viewpoints of Kirk and Spock (with McCoy rounding out the triumvirate as the voice of reason willing to call both of them out on their bullshit).  But… the ideological differences between the captain and his first officer were always previously made to serve more than just as instruments of suspense and emotional resonance, crucial as those are, but as a means of exploring the philosophical concerns of the story.  Except there’s none of the latter to be found here.  Whereas The Motion Picture was more preoccupied with being deep than interesting, this movie is ultimately more interesting than deep.  But it is interesting—and wholly entertaining.  It’s just a shame it had to take the franchise backwards instead of advancing it, but such is the nostalgic state of our culture at present with an emotionally traumatized Gen X at the helm.

 

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Genre:  Superhero (“Fantasy Superhero”)

Conventions:  Special Power, Nemesis, Curse

As noted earlier, Khan casts a long shadow over this franchise, with TNG reaching for such epic cinematic heights only to plunge to its death, and then Abrams took his own shot at it—with controversial results.  Since taking command of the Enterprise, Kirk has proven himself to be the most innovative, most proactively daring captain in Starfleet (Special Power), with a willingness to do what needs to be done—rules and regulations be damned (Curse).  As such, when the Starfleet brass are assassinated in a terrorist attack on their headquarters, the recently demoted Kirk is hand-selected by the lone surviving admiral to find the man responsible and kill him—a fiend who turns out to be the genetically engineered superhuman Khan (Nemesis).  However, when Kirk tables his need for vengeance and opts instead to arrest Khan, he learns it was the admiral himself who awakened Khan from stasis, and sent the reliably impetuous Kirk to clean up his mess.  Complications ensue, and Kirk finally earns his captainship—the one taken from him via demotion—by sacrificing his life for his crew, with Spock, in a reversal of their roles in Wrath of Khan, pursuing Khan in an action-packed climax that culminates in the villain’s capture, where the regenerative properties of Khan’s blood are harvested to resurrect Kirk.  (If all that sounds a little convoluted, blame the screenwriters, not me; I had no trouble summarizing the previous entries in a single logline apiece.)

This is certainly more identifiably Superhero than Nemesis was, but, despite top-notch effects and thrilling action sequences, it isn’t as good as The Wrath of Khan for a number of reasons.  One:  Unlike the classic Shatner/Montalbán movie (which was itself a direct sequel to an episode of the TV series that had aired fifteen years prior), this Kirk and Khan have no shared history together (something that tripped up Nemesis, as well); Khan has no personal beef with the captain, other than as a fly in his ointment.  Khan doesn’t even draw Kirk into the events of the plot—a secondary villain (the admiral) does!  On that same note, this Kirk only has one previous adventure on his résumé, which renders him considerably less impressively “superheroic” than Shatner’s Kirk, who, at the time of Star Trek II, had earned his reputation as a legendary captain from his exploits in the original series, the animated series, and the first feature film.  It made sense to elevate him to Superhero at that point in his storied career; Pine’s still-green Kirk… not so much.  He hadn’t yet attained that degree of goodwill from the audience.

Also:  The Kirk and Khan of Into Darkness are not ideologically opposed the way a good hero and villain should be (like Picard and Soran in Generations); they’re just on opposite ends of the (galactic) law.  Once again, Abrams’ Trek movies fail to be about anything existential or philosophical.  Lastly, in the filmmakers’ attempt to differentiate Into Darkness from Wrath of Khan, Kirk and Khan are robbed of the opportunity to go mano a mano in the last act; I appreciate the subversion of expectations they were attempting, but I don’t know that I found it all that satisfying.

 

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Genre:  Dude with a Problem (“Epic Problem”)

Conventions:  Innocent Hero, Sudden Event, Life-or-Death Battle

When a rescue mission turns into an ambush that destroys the Enterprise and sends her devastated remains hurtling toward an alien world (Sudden Event), her crew (Innocent Hero) are forced to abandon ship, and end up scattered across the planet’s surface, some of them captured, some wounded, and all fighting for survival (Life-or-Death Battle) against a new adversary who wants a cosmic artifact (that had been housed aboard the Enterprise) capable of destroying a Federation Starbase.

Once again, Trek tries a new story model—its sixth (of ten total categories):  Dude with a Problem.  And unlike Final Frontier, the screenwriters clearly understood that the Life-or-Death Battle is the meat and potatoes of this genre—that’s your entire second act—which, in this instance, is driven by a single antagonist searching for a clear and tangible MacGuffin.  As far as storytelling goes, this is a much more successful execution than what Final Frontier managed of a DWAP premise, a genre in which the life-threatening stakes must continue to intensify, whether we’re talking about a thriller (like Speed or Apollo 13) or even a comedic Dude with a Problem (such as Home Alone or Weekend at Bernie’s).  So kudos on that.

But as a Star Trek story, Beyond suffers the same shortcoming as the last two installments:  It isn’t about anything.  Maybe even more so than Abrams’ two entries, this feels like it could be any old outer-space adventure film, and what do we need Star Trek for that when we now have the ever-expanding Star Wars universe?  If you ever needed evidence that Trek is culturally irrelevant, this movie—and its tepid box-office—seal the deal.  Creative as many of its action sequences may very well be, a series of set pieces is all this film amounts to:  It asks no existential questions, provokes no thought or intellectual debate, offers no profound insights into human nature.  There’s no “beyond” in Beyond—what you see is all it is.

Now, the intense nature of DWAP stories (like Die Hard and The Fugitive) often—though not always—make them more about tension than thematics (probably why Final Frontier struggled to make its grand notions about God work in that particular paradigm), and it’s almost as if by taking the franchise in that direction, the current custodians of it have doubled down on their commitment to Big Action over Big Ideas.  If Final Frontier had too many thematic agenda, Beyond has none.  Science fiction resonates when it strikes a balance between exciting, inventive action and contemporary social commentary; Star Trek, alas, has devolved into big-budget cosplay—a Halloween party full of costumed adults engaged in a meaningless mimetic exercise, all but forgotten come the next morning.

 

BEYOND STAR TREK

For fifteen years now, different producers have been trying, mostly without sustained success, to return this franchise to a place of cultural prominence:  Nemesis tacked dark as an ill-conceived “corrective” to Insurrection’s lightheartedness; Enterprise schizophrenically tried for both Roddenberry-esque optimism and ham-fisted War on Terror analogs (the Suliban for the Taliban); J. J. Abrams went back to the well to perform old tricks on a refurbished stage, which seemed to work for about a movie and a half before audiences caught on.  There’s a reason why the series’ heyday can’t be recaptured, and maybe it’s time we faced it:  Star Trek is the sci-fi saga of a bygone century.  Yet we keep taking its epithet as “the final frontier” at face value, endlessly revisiting its fictive universe to seek out old lifeforms and old civilizations in search of an old way of life—the analog age that gave birth both to Trek and to us—that’s gone forever, folks.  So, rather than keeping this aging franchise on life support any longer, perhaps we can take a cue from its pioneering spirit and opt instead to explore new artistic frontiers—to boldly go forward on a quest for undiscovered cultural narratives instead of confining ourselves, holodeck-like, to the nostalgic recapitulation of yesteryear’s fantasies.

16 Comments

  1. Smart analysis – great stuff.

  2. Great look back at the Star Trek franchise, Sean. I watched the syndicated series all through my childhood and then was a big fan of Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. I loved those series but never really got into any of the movies. I think some of that is because the series were able to deal more leisurely with socio-cultural themes, which is what you noted as a strength in the original series. The movies seem to conform to more contemporary action formulas. Granted they only have two hours, but I think they’ve lost the social significance that made the series so memorable. Part of this is just me, I think, and my growing preference for shows such as The Walking Dead and Westworld where there’s a deeper look at what it is to be human. Happy Holidays 🙂

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Diana. The truth is, Star Trek was conceived of as a television series first and foremost, and has always been best suited to that particular format. Which is not to say the movies haven’t achieved greatness, and it was especially fun in the eighties when we had the “legacy” crew doing feature films every few years — the “Big Leagues” — and The Next Generation — the farm team — supplying our weekly televised fix! Out of the original ten movies, eight of them succeeded in being worthy of the “Star Trek” banner (with only Final Frontier and Nemesis completely crapping the bed); not a bad batting average.

      I agree with you, though: The Walking Dead and Westworld are resonating now in ways Star Trek is simply no longer capable of doing, no matter how much they retool it. Trek spoke to the ethos of the JFK/LBJ era — the Space Age and Jim Crow (I don’t think it’s a coincidence of casting that young William Shatner so uncannily resembled John F. Kennedy) — and, in a testament to its versatility, remained relevant through the eighties and nineties (consider that The Undiscovered Country was a metaphor for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism). But with the onset of the Digital Age and the War on Terror (right around the time Trek was floundering on both the big and small screens), we started looking to new fictions to give context to our new (unprecedented) circumstances, and “postnarrative” sci-fi fantasies like Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, and Orphan Black not only reflect the very particular preoccupations and anxieties of our post-9/11 world, but they ask, as you note above, what it means to be human in a digital world. Shows like those — and Walking Dead and Westworld, too (both of which I adore) — are trying to push the cultural conversation forward, just like Star Trek once did. Trek, in its way, was trying to get us to a better, more tolerant future, and despite the recent presidential election and its de facto validation of bigotry and misogyny, there’s no denying we’ve made great social strides in the past fifty years (hell, the past ten years!). So let’s honor Trek‘s progressive agenda by thanking it for its service and putting it up on a high shelf in the closet, where the photo albums go, lest it keep us mired in nostalgia and unable to summon the will to face the unique challenges of our present era, the ones that stand between us and an ever-brighter future. I suspect Gene Roddenberry would agree.

      Happy Holidays to you and yours, as well!

      Sean

  3. Star Wars was meant, from the very beginning, to be an exciting romp. Star Trek, otoh, was intended to be thoughtful and thematic. Admittedly, even the original series didn’t always succeed, but the intent was there.

    In this day and age of the mega-blockbuster, exciting romps are much easier to do than thoughtful and thematic. It’s also easier to add a theme to a romp than a romp to a theme.

    Probably one major reason why Star Wars is doing so much better than Star Trek.

    • Thanks for coming back, Dell Cartoons!

      True: Though I love the cinema of George Lucas, his films don’t tend to have any social underpinnings; he is more of a mythopoeist, taking inspiration from the pop culture of his youth (like Flash Gordon and The Hidden Fortress) and consciously utilizing mythic storytelling motifs (those of Joseph Campbell) to give his movies a timeless, universal appeal. Star Wars isn’t really science fiction; it’s fantasy — it’s Lord of the Rings set in outer space. This is neither a good nor bad thing, merely a reflection of Lucas’ very particular worldview. He has explicitly and repeatedly said that the point of Star Wars is to teach children very basic moral lessons, the kind that have been passed down for thousands of years through our narrative traditions. Star Wars is a hero’s journey, about courage and teamwork and self-sacrifice; its ethos isn’t pinned to any one particular era.

      Star Trek, on the other hand, was consciously designed by Gene Roddenberry to serve as a sci-fi parable — a allegorical morality play that could address the issues of its day, be it racism, civil rights, geopolitics, what have you. (Though, as you noted, it didn’t always succeed, but as I observed in my essay on the career of John Carpenter, oeuvres are evaluated on their totalities rather than any one victory or defeat.) The conversations Trek provoked were important ones, but they tend to date themselves in a way more timeless themes, like those of Star Wars, simply don’t. The current custodians of Star Trek probably recognize this, if even unconsciously, hence the reason they’ve been reconfiguring Trek to operate more like Star Wars for the past six or seven years — they’ve been transforming it into an adventure story that’s heavy on emotion and interpersonal soap opera, but light on social commentary. But what they’re ending up with, unfortunately, is a very generic franchise that’s starting to feel like considerably less than the sum of its parts; the box-office letdown of Beyond would seem to confirm this. The brand itself may still be valuable from a corporate standpoint, but objectively not a cultural one.

      I tell you this much: I will be very curious to see if CBS can make a hit out of Star Trek: Discovery. As I noted in my conversation with Diana above, the franchise worked better as a TV show than as a series of feature films, though even those have been on a downward trajectory since the late nineties, with Voyager failing to live up to (let alone surpass) the creative bar set by Next Gen and DS9, and Enterprise bringing the whole enterprise (no pun intended) to a screeching halt. Once on the cutting edge of both sci-fi storytelling and sociocultural critique, Star Trek has sadly devolved into a nostalgia act that just can’t hit the high notes any longer. If only they’d quit before they’d driven it into the ground.

  4. >we started looking to new fictions to give context to our new (unprecedented) circumstances, and “postnarrative” sci-fi fantasies like Battlestar Galactica, Caprica…

    Galactica is an update of a ’70s TV series. Why could they update Galactica and not Star Trek?

    • There is, of course, always the possibility that someone could make Trek relevant anew for the 21st century… I just haven’t seen it done yet despite several attempts (including Nemesis, Enterprise, and the Abrams timeline). If the forthcoming Star Trek: Discovery manages to restore the franchise’s cultural pertinence, I will both celebrate that accomplishment and study it here on the blog. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it will be a challenge…

      I think part of the reason for that is that Trek, at the height of its popularity, was so of the zeitgeist, so it isn’t simply a matter of producing a commercially successful iteration once again (hard enough unto itself), but of recapturing the one-of-a-kind alchemy that was the Star Trek phenomenon (a nearly impossible feat — so much so that Patrick Stewart only signed on to The Next Generation because he was assured it would fail). Battlestar Galactica, on the other hand, never came close to Trek‘s level of cultural influence: It was mostly just an odd Star Wars cash-in with Mormon undertones that ran for one season, then underwent heavy retooling and limped through half a second season before being canceled outright, remembered in the intervening years only for being an arcane, short-lived pop-culture curio.

      So, when Ronald D. Moore went to update it in 2003, he was working from a piece of source material that had more or less been forgotten, and certainly wasn’t beloved or respected by anyone outside the most devout circles of sci-fi fandom. Rather than having to live up to the earlier show’s reputation, he was laboring under such low expectations that it afforded him the creative license to do something really innovative and unexpected, drawing on what worked about the original series and reshaping it to do what Trek (which he had written for) no longer could: serve as a postnarrative parable for our War on Terror–era geopolitical anxieties.

      So, yes, while BSG stands as proof that “old” concepts can be brought up-to-date to tremendous commercial and creative prosperity, anyone attempting to do so with Trek is saddled with four decades of audience expectation to honor, whereas Moore basically took a forgotten, unrespected intellectual property, stripped it for parts, and rebuilt it from the ground up — and he did it without the pressure of intense anticipation from (and critical scrutiny of) a fickle, opinionated fan base. Had Moore failed, his version of BSG would have most likely just faded into obscurity along with Glen A. Larson’s, and no one’s career, nor the “franchise” itself (such as it was), would have been particularly stained by that. But when something as high-profile as Star Trek flops, it makes it that much harder to sell the next offering, because it taints the brand. And in today’s Hollywood, for better or worse, branding is everything.

      With all that said, I would say that given its creative exhaustion, irrelevance in the Digital Age, and its value as a corporate asset (a function that carries with it incredible pressure to succeed, and invites meddling into the artistic process by know-nothing executives), I am highly skeptical that Trek will ever again reach the level of cultural prominence it enjoyed from the sixties through the nineties. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, I’ll be seeking out and supporting new works of science fiction that challenge my understanding of the world I inhabit, as Trek once did, rather than indulging my longing for days gone by, as Trek does now.

      Thanks, as always, for participating in the conversation, Dell Cartoons!

  5. Cynthia McClendon

    December 31, 2016 at 7:42 am

    I remember my mom and I watching the salt monster episode of the original series in a motel room in Maine during a nasty storm, on a school night.

    I still love the original series (and so do our children). None of the other iterations were as good for me. The one that came closest was Voyager.

    When your effects aren’t that great, you have to rely on good writing and good ensemble acting. I think as effects improved, story suffered.

    I think Star Trek could be successfully continued, but not by having young actors copy older actors’ characters. People are unique individuals. They are not interchangeble. Bring back the original actors where you can and where it makes sense (and stop killing them all off). Bring new characters with the same mission but their own stories, write good, solid scripts for them and turn them loose. You might be surprised.

    • Cynthia,

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting! Much appreciated, my new WordPress friend!

      What a wonderful memory of watching “The Man Trap” for the first time! Just this past autumn, I myself wrote about how those old sci-fi/horror stories made their strongest impression when experienced as a kid on a dark and stormy night. As a writer of horror and dark fantasy, I’ve spent my life trying to recapture that very particular sensation.

      I recently watched a DVD featurette in which J. J. Abrams said he felt the original series’ storytelling ambitions exceeded its FX capabilities, hence the reason he gave Trek a big-budget overhaul with the ’09 reboot. What he fails to understand (as does most of Hollywood at present) is that the FX, crude as they may have been, were consciously and distantly secondary to the show’s intellectual and narrative ambitions: It was the very lack of money and resources that compelled Roddenberry and his writers to rely upon and develop Big Ideas over Big Action; the technical limitations they were working under ultimately made Trek what it is (or was, anyway). Special effects are just a tool for telling a story; these days, alas, they are mostly used as a diversion from the lack of story (or at least the lack of a story worth telling).

      To your point about recasting, when I reviewed the pair of Abrams movies — and screened Beyond for the first and what will be the only time — in preparation for this post, I was surprised to find myself distracted by the performances: It was like watching a bunch of bad cocktail-party impressions. And it got me thinking about exactly the issue you raise above: Why is Paramount pouring so much money into trying to replicate the iconic, one-of-a-kind portrayals of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, et al.? Why not just let those be of their time and move on to different corners of what is surely a vast fictive universe rich with story potential? The brand has certainly proven itself versatile enough to be about so much more than Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the Enterprise.

      When Gene Roddenberry took the first step in expanding the franchise with The Next Generation, he (wisely) didn’t stray too far from the formula he’d established in The Original Series. Once that was a success, however, the producers of Trek were emboldened to finally venture away from the bridge of the Enterprise, and the series thusly prospered with spin-offs Deep Space Nine and Voyager. That was the point of Trek, after all: to explore new frontiers and keep moving onward and outward, even — especially — if you are unsure your efforts will yield fruit.

      But when the franchise derailed with Nemesis in 2002, the custodians of Trek got inexplicably gun-shy about moving the grander narrative forward, and have since opted instead to go the prequel route, first with Enterprise (what a dull and uninspired piece of shit that was), then the Abrams reboots, and now with the forthcoming Star Trek: Discovery. If Trek is ever to regain its creative prosperity and cultural relevance — and I remain skeptical of the feasibility of such a resurgence — the producers ought to move the timeline ahead into the twenty-fifth century, and see if they can’t create parallels with the unique environmental, geopolitical, and sociocultural challenges of our current unprecedented era. I fear, however, that Star Trek has become too valuable a corporate commodity, and too entrenched as a cherished pop-cultural institution, to ever be as bold and experimental and intellectually/ideologically challenging as it was in its heyday. But who knows what the future may bring…?

      On that note: Happy New Year, Cynthia! Please drop by again…

      Sean

  6. I would love to see a “five key traits” analysis of some of the main Star Trek characters: Kirk, Spock, Picard, Data, etc.

    Maybe a comparison of TOS characters’ five key traits w/ the five key traits of the same characters in the newest movies? Similar to your analysis of the Joker.

    I always find your essays enjoyable in informative. Thank you for posting them.

    • Thanks, Dell Cartoons! You know, I’ve considered doing that, but lately I’ve been more focused on essays on craft and culture than I have characterization; I haven’t published a character breakdown since I did that follow-up piece on Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder — a year and a half ago! Those character deconstructions are fun and there’s a lot to learn from them — I at one point planned to do one on the Christopher Reeve and Henry Cavill incarnations of Superman — but they can be a lot of work, too. I did several of them initially, when I first launched the blog, because I was still searching for both content and an identity for my website, but moved on to more long-form essays once I realized I had a lot to say about a host of topics!

      That said, I may yet still do a comparative analysis of a character like Kirk — study his traits in TOS, how they may have been altered in the movies (as Rambo’s were in the successive installments), and how he was changed once again when Chris Pine assumed the role. I’ve also been giving very serious consideration to doing the same for Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon — contrasting Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s classic interpretations with Clayne Crawford and Damon Wayans’ newfangled takes (and there are some key differences in the portrayals). That could be fun.

      Thank you for the feedback; it’s nice to hear what readers are responding to! I’ve got a January post scheduled already, but I’ll give some thought to a new character breakdown for later in the winter…

  7. Sorry I’m late to the party, but your insightful analysis has convinced me to do something that no one else has managed to do–I’m actually going to study Save the Cat. I was formerly concerned about too much homogeneity, something I’ve seen a depressing amount of in the cinema, and to a lesser degree, in the bookstore.

    But you made articulate, cogent points about studying each of the story types, enough so that you won at least a potential convert. Thank you so much for sharing this. 🙂

    • First off, Cathleen, it’s never too late to weigh in on any of these posts — that’s why I keep the comments open in perpetuity! I love getting the insights and reactions of other writers, and I’m pleased you took the time to read this (admittedly exhaustive) post and leave a response.

      I worked for many years as a Hollywood screenwriter (I’m still based in Los Angeles, much to my chagrin), developing projects with agents, managers, producers, and creative execs. I’m not flaunting credentials here (because none of the aforementioned, I can assure you, is nearly as glamorous or exciting as it may sound), but I mention it only as preamble to attest that I am well aware of how writing methodologies (particularly Save the Cat!, as I’ve discussed at length) can be abusively misapplied to serve as a cookie-cutter formula for both blockbusters and bestsellers. This does happen, and it’s the reason why “how-to” programs (certainly with respect to screenwriting) have earned such a bad rap.

      But it’s important to keep in mind that the principles of Blake Snyder, Christopher Vogler, Robert McKee, et al., are only tools, not rules. They are techniques for telling an emotionally effective story. They can be used or not used at the storyteller’s discretion, and they can be applied artfully or unartfully, depending on the skill and creativity of the artist wielding them. And yes, there are many cynical (and untalented) studio execs out there who cling to the principles of Save the Cat! and demand they be dogmatically adhered to, but that’s because those who haven’t committed to mastering their craft tend to think one of two things: that “rules” are bullshit and you can do whatever you want (both The Final Frontier and Nemesis disproved that), or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, that “rules” are absolutes that must be observed or else you haven’t told your story properly. Neither, of course, is true. Because these aren’t rules at all — they’re principles. They’re precepts. They’re tools for storytellers, and they’re only has useful as the storyteller is skilled.

      What I love — what I find so helpful — about Save the Cat! are its genre classifications. No one had ever, so far as I know, “cracked the code” as to how many different story models there were until Snyder figured it out. He goes into rudimentary detail about them in his first book, but it’s really the second volume that cracks the whole system open; I recommend studying all three books in the series. His genre categories are an incredibly versatile tool, as I hope this article illustrates.

      There are a lot of gurus out there, and it can be hard to cut through the noise and find the ones who offer practical tools, not academic theory. The three fundamentals of narratology, so far as I’m concerned, are structure, genre, and characterization, which are best learned from Christopher Vogler, Blake Snyder, and David Freeman, respectively. (For more on that subject, see this post.) I consider all of these gentlemen worth studying regardless of one’s level of experience, be it novice, intermediate, or master of the craft.

      Thanks for stopping by, Cathleen! Please come back and let me know what you thought of Blake’s books once you’ve had the chance to read them. I am, of course, always happy to discuss and debate the tools further — that’s what this forum is for.

      Sean

  8. Brian J. Wright

    March 20, 2017 at 9:43 am

    I would argue the notion that it took until Insurrection for Trek to start questioning the nobility and functionality of the Federation; whatever was going on on TV, this was one of the things that made Star Trek III one of my favourites, where we see the pillars of the Federation starting to fray. High-ups start expressing doubt about the well-documented mysticism of their own founding members and turn timid about dealing with their own controversy, scared into inaction out of fear of setting bad precedents. They even jail McCoy just for daring to speak about it, which is a totalitarian move that was not the Federation’s style before. Who knew how bad things were falling apart? I don’t think Trek ever seemed more wide-open and full of possibilities.

    I suspect it’s probably true that Trek’s time has passed – god knows my nephews don’t even know what a Klingon is – but it would pain me to think that a show about contacting and working with alien civilizations while using scientific thinking and diplomacy to advance friendly relations in the face of adversity is too old-timey to be relatable. This is not what we’ve been getting with the reboot movies; fun as they are, Trek would have to be re-reinvented a little to get back to that. I’d prefer that it did, even if (maybe especially if) it became more of a niche thing in a wider sci-fi scape instead of this desperately big tentpole-picture deal.

    • Brian,

      Thanks so much for reading this extensive piece and leaving such a detailed comment. I can see you’re a true fan! I’m happy to have someone so well-versed in the franchise, with such clear passion for it, lend his insights.

      There’s no question that Trek had a long established history of corrupt admirals (a trope all the TV shows were guilty of invoking at various points), political dysfunction (certainly Deep Space Nine presented a less unified portrayal — a less idealized vision — of the Federation), and sinister conspiracies within the ranks of Starfleet (The Undiscovered Country pivots on one such instance, though there’s earlier precedent in both TOS and TNG). By focusing only on the movies, I very much simplified the history of what is an expansive mythos.

      Conceptually, Star Trek was a Western — Roddenberry pitched it as “Wagon Train in space” — and Westerns typically feature heroes who are up against both the “bad guys” and the authority figures, so it makes perfect sense to exploit and revisit that trope, and Trek certainly did — well before Insurrection in 1998. (There are many others — perhaps yourself included? — that could speak to such examples with greater encyclopedic authority than myself.) That said, it was arguably the first (and thus far only) feature film in which the central dramatic dilemma hinged on the captain being put in the position of choosing between his duties (as a Starfleet officer) and his principles (informed by his own finely tuned moral compass). That’s the nature of Institutionalized stories, and that’s why, structurally speaking, Insurrection is different than any of the dozen other movies in this series, at least with respect to its treatment of the captain’s relationship to the larger governing body he is sworn to serve.

      I will concede that the argument Insurrection dramatizes, as some have observed it, is perhaps a little too morally neat: Picard is so clearly in the right on this one, and Admiral Dougherty unambiguously in the wrong (hell, even the actor’s widow’s peak and arched eyebrows make him look sinister and untrustworthy). Some of the moral complexity of this scenario that likely would have developed had this same story been produced as an episode of Next Generation, for instance, where Big Ideas had to pull the weight in lieu of Big Budget, got sidelined in favor of a simpler plot that could support an action-packed climactic showdown. As fond as I am of the movie, I think it definitely represents an unfortunate trend (that started in First Contact and continues to this day, alas) whereby the franchise’s intellectual agenda took a backseat to the mandate of big-screen spectacle. Still, at least Insurrection has a thematic underpinning, morally undercooked though it may be, which is more than I can say for the J. J. Abrams trilogy.

      As far as Trek‘s future is concerned, I’ve yet to hear a single explanation for why, after the end of Voyager, the custodians of the franchise insisted on revisiting the series’ past (first with Enterprise, then Abrams’ reboots, and now Discovery) rather than moving down the timeline — like, for instance, to depict the adventures of, say, the Enterprise-H. I mean, Deep Space Nine proved there was room in this vast fictional universe to introduce new characters, to go darker with the material and the morality, and to experiment with the episodic format. So why they slipped back into the comfortable corridors of the Enterprise (on Enterprise) with those mind-numbingly dull characters (Jonathan Archer, et al.), I have no idea. Perhaps after hundreds of hours of Trek programming, Berman and company were simply creatively exhausted, and didn’t know where to steer the ship next…?

      Because it seems there was a perfect opportunity after Voyager ended — what with the dawn of a new millennium and the global sea change represented by the Internet and 9/11 — to re-envision Star Trek from the ground up; that is, put some distance between the next iteration and the Picard era and reinvent the franchise (as TNG had in the eighties, while Kirk and crew continued to thrive in the cinema) with a whole new set of characters and an entire century of unknown backstory to explore. It seems so elementary that that would have been the course to take — The Next Next Generation, for lack of a more elegant title — rather than the prequel route. But I’ve yet to hear anyone explain — Berman or otherwise — why that option wasn’t pursued.

      With full acknowledgement that we don’t yet know how Discovery will turn out, I think what I’ve proposed above would be the only shot one would have at making Trek culturally relevant again. I agree with you: It needs to be taken off the big screen and returned to its TV roots. You’d have to get someone who could capture the pioneering spirit of the series, populate it with brand-new characters as interesting (in their own particular ways) as Kirk and Picard were, and figure out what the 25th-century analogs would be for the social, political, and existential issues we face today: wealth disparity, partisan gridlock, climate change, etc. Then perhaps you’d have a creatively healthy franchise once again.

      But I don’t see Paramount doing that. Because what made Trek so popular, so culturally defining, in the first place was that it was something different — a Space Age parable that spoke to the ethos and preoccupations of its time, and the possibilities of the future still ahead. And as I’ve lamented at length on this blog, Hollywood and Gen X (which controls Hollywood at present) are only concerned with indulging the nostalgic yearnings of the bygone analog age. We had our chance to explore new fictive worlds, and opted instead to revisit the old ones ad infinitum. Far from the sci-fi upstart it was in 1966, Star Trek is a corporate franchise now, and its prime directive, so to speak, it to generate all the money it can by recycling the comforting fantasies of yesteryear to a generation that’s submitted to willing infantilization.

      No, the best sci-fi stories are going to be the ones you don’t see coming. The Martian is a great example of science fiction that puts a premium on teamwork and brainpower as instruments of problem-solving over violence and gunplay; the colossal success of that book and movie proves those aren’t outmoded concepts by any stretch. And though I haven’t seen Arrival, I understand that, too, is thinking-man’s sci-fi — more concerned with communication than combat. It should be encouraging to see that “old” ideas are finding new narrative vehicles all the time.

      And that’s the way it should be: A new generation deserves its own narratives — its own heroes and epics — that are reflective of its times. We were given wonderful cultural gifts by the generation before us, including Star Wars and Star Trek and Ghostbusters, and now it’s time to retire those fairy tales and build new dreams for — no pun intended — the next generation, as was done for us. But I don’t think we have the vision or courage to do that. Which makes me wonder how much we really learned from Star Trek, after all.

      Thank you, Brian, for contributing to this conversation. I hope you’ll do so again.

      Sean

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