How to fix Star Trek’s biggest problems

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the direction the latest Star Trek film, Into Darkness took the franchise. I won’t rehash my opinions here so, in summary: “big explosions plus weak characters and story” is not what I watch Star Trek for. I watch and enjoy good Trek because it’s about ideas, the human condition… and it’s about hope.

I’m also very aware that criticism is easy, and creating is hard. I admire the effort that went into the new film, and I can see it was considerable – I just don’t admire the results. But I also think that Star Trek as a franchise has some big problems. Many of the die-hard fans are unhappy and disliked the film. It appears that Into Darkness didn’t bring many new fans to the series, unlike the preceding film. And Star Trek’s respectable but not amazing box office may indicate that the public isn’t buying into the new direction.

So, in the spirit of optimism and in a (very small) attempt to suggest a new course for the franchise, here are my ideas on how to fix Trek’s biggest problems.

Tease the past, don’t revisit it

Enough with Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise. Yes, I’m serious… it’s over. Stop it. If you continue to retell episodes of a nearly 50 year old TV show people will (perhaps rightly) view it as a rehash and many will reject it wholesale. Let’s be honest… do we really NEED more stories with these characters? We have had three live-action seasons, one animated season, nine movies, hundreds of novels… to quote a very popular song,  “Let it go.”

Now, I’m not saying that the right person can’t do an AMAZING new story with these characters… I’m questioning if there’s a good reason to do so creatively. And perception is a big issue, too. If you run Star Trek, you want to increase your audience with every new outing… that’s capitalism. More customers = more money. You can’t keep selling the same product to the same customers, and that’s the risk if you stay with the classic crew.

Keep the core of what makes Trek good and leap forward, with a new cast and crew. Have sly references to the past, but don’t wallow in it. Basically, do the same thing the new Doctor Who has done – tip your hat at what has come before, but don’t be limited by it. Another good example of this idea, applied, was Sci-Fi channel’s Battlestar Galactica remake. They used concepts and the basic premise from the original but didn’t rehash what had gone before. Instead they created new characters, new situations, and went to places the original never dared go.

Too bad we couldn’t get the guy behind the new Galactica to consider coming back to Trek…

Have real alien aliens

I’m tired of seeing aliens who have ridges on their foreheads and body paint. As much as I dislike the movie Avatar, what that did was tell us a story about an alien world where the environment was ACTUALLY ALIEN. Yes, a huge amount of CGI would be needed, but if you are going to make Trek new again, then you need to move away from the look and limitations of a TV show makeup budget. Have alien cultures, alien bodies, and alien minds. Create new cool races that captures the viewers imagination. Don’t just add piercings and think it’s “edgy.”

Bring back the moral issues, but with subtlety

Good Trek always provoked viewers, making them consider the right or wrong about particular issues. Religion, class structures, terrorism, genocide, what it meant to be human… Have moral issues be part of the fabric of Trek, just don’t be heavy handed about it. Viewers don’t want to be preached to, and if you do that you’ll turn off viewers. It’s a fine balance, and one that Trek hasn’t always made… But it’s still worth striving for.

Kill the prime directive 

Imagine a Star Trek universe where crews actively interfered with other cultures, trying to enforce their worldview on alien worlds. Again, sounds like the original Star Trek, right? Well, the idea of the Prime Directive (invented in the original series, but beat to death in subsequent shows) kills that opportunity for drama and prevents good stories from being told. Kirk ignored it, and the creators of new Star Trek should ignore it to.

You can even have stories about how the Federation USED to have the Prime Directive, and then Something Happened to make them abandon it. An “interventionist” Starfleet? Like I said, it opens up opportunities for some interesting stories.

Be bold (and be on cable)

Have gay characters on the show, portray evil in stark terms, show non-traditional families – Star Trek can and should explore more of that “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” It’s easy to be risk-averse, but that way results in weak characters and melodrama. Sometimes, telling a good story means some risk-taking.

We have seen some incredibly bold storytelling on shows like True Detective and Breaking Bad – Do some of that. Break new ground and expand the universe of Star Trek in new ways. Example: Discuss how the economy works in the future. Is it a true utopia or is there an underclass we have never seen before? Shake up expectations and conventions.

Telling quality stories in bold new ways will bring new viewers to Trek. That probably means that any new Star Trek should be on cable. You don’t have to have monster ratings to be a successful cable show, and you are able to have more creative freedom, the type of freedom that makes for great drama and exciting television.

Stop trying to be sexy

Stop having women be sex objects – have them be smart beautiful women. They don’t have to be in charge of the ship, they just have to be good well-rounded characters. As progressive Trek has been over the years, so many of the female characters were thin and mainly there for set decorating. Change that, and stop trying to titilate the audience. Just tell good stories, and let the characters play their part.

Hire futurists and technologists

Reimagine the future of Star Trek. Look at where technology trends are going and extrapolate them. Wearable computers, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, robotics… Don’t be limited by the past (somewhat archaic) views of the future that has come in previous Trek. Show us a really cool new future.

Hire SF and fantasy writers

The original Star Trek series hired a LOT of SF and fantasy writers. It should do that again. Imagine a Neil Gaimen or Neal Stephenson writing scripts for a new Trek series. Or someone like Stephen King. Heck, just hire John Scalzi or a half-season run.

No offense to the current writers of Trek, but I think that Trek needs some new ideas, and SF authors are chock full of them.

Bring back wonder and hope

Finally, Star Trek needs to make us widen our eyes in wonder. Show us amazing things, truly alien worlds and new civilizations. The success of Avatar shows just how big a movie can be if it presents such a world to viewers. Don’t just showcase huge vistas of destruction – present us with beauty and awe. Make us want to GO THERE – which is what makes Star Trek so important. It has inspired generations of viewers to become scientists, engineers and astronauts… Because Trek showed a future where we didn’t destroy ourselves, where we reached out and started exploring the dark unknown.

Trek should continue to inspire the next generation. And it can do it by seeking out new frontiers, tell new stories… and boldly go where Trek has never gone before.

That way lies the future.

Is Star Trek 3… even going to happen?

I was chatting with a friend the other day and we started talking about the next Star Trek movie. “Well, they HAVE to release a Star Trek movie in 2016, it’s the 50th anniversary!” my friend said, as if it was a fait de complete.

Do they? Will they? The more I think about it the more I’m thinking it’s not going to happen. We’ll see another Star Trek movie… but in my opinion, it’ll be a while.

Why? I’ll explain:

The director problem

The only real news that has come out about the potential Trek sequel has been that new writers were hired to work with Bob Orci. That’s it. As many of you know, JJ Abrams is no longer attached to the move (though his Bad Robot company is producing it) and they have yet to sign a director to replace him and make the film. Paramount was apparently very close to signing Joe Cornish to direct, but he backed out of the project for unspecified reasons. If Paramount is serious about getting a Trek movie out in 2016, they need to sign up a director very soon. Every month that passes without an announcement makes that 2016 date less and less likely.

The conventional wisdom has shifted

A few years ago, a big-budget summer blockbuster came out that was critically acclaimed and made over $200 million dollars. And yet, six months after it came out pundits online and off were talking about how bad and wrong-headed the movie was. That film was Superman Returns, and it took over six years for another Superman film to be made and released.

In my opinion, the same thing is happening with Star Trek Into Darkness – it got great reviews, made over $200 million dollars in the US… and people are now talking about how bad a movie it was. And it’s not just on fan sites – Hollywood sites such as Variety and Deadline Hollywood Daily has had articles and comments that belittle and slam the film. So I think the conventional wisdom is now that it wasn’t a good movie, and that it underperformed because of it. Does Paramount think this as well?

The box office was good, not great

I’ve gotten some harsh criticism of previous statements I’ve made that STID underperformed, and that I was plain wrong and a “hater.” Well I guess that makes Brad Grey, the CEO of Paramount a “hater” too, because in an earnings call about the studio’s performance he said exactly that. “We expected profits to be higher.”

Hollywood doesn’t spend $230 million dollars and another $90+ in marketing (some rumors are it was over $120 million) to make only $450 million – they do it to make $600+ million. And Paramount only gets a (negotiated) cut of the total ticket sales – the theatres get the rest. Paramount, and every other studio making movies, have seen many sequels making twice what the original made, and I’m pretty sure they were hoping that would be the case for STID. It wasn’t, and they now know that Star Trek is not a guaranteed money maker. That has to be a consideration.

Even with cuts, the budget will still be high

You can’t do a “cheap” Star Trek movie – it’s a summer blockbuster and audiences around the world are expecting spectacle and a big “bang” for their box office dollars. Star Trek Into Darkness brought a LOT of visual effects, and those cost a lot of money. Any Trek film will have to “top” the previous one to attract moviegoers. Is Paramount ready to invest another $200 million in Trek?

Chris Pine isn’t a movie star

Chris Pine has been the lead in three high-profile movies the past two years – the Trek film, This Means War, and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. The two non-Trek movies opened to very soft box-office, and in the case of Jack Ryan film it bombed. As talented as Pine is, he is not capable of “opening” a film on his own, and since Jack Ryan is a Paramount film as well… that has to give the studio heads pause.

The Star Wars problem

Another SF movie franchise is returning, and it’s going to suck a lot of the oxygen and attention away from Star Trek in the next few years. That franchise is, of course, Star Wars, now owned by Disney. Will Paramount want to compete with George Lucas’ juggernaut? Or will the studio table Trek for a while because (in their mind) they can’t compete and are chasing the same audience.

“Risk is our business…” but is it Paramount’s?

I love Trek… but I also want Trek to be good. Paramount (and the other movie studios) is in an interesting place right now… Trek has made them a lot of money over the years, but at the same time the total number of movie tickets sold are declining. 3D and IMAX is no longer attracting many theatregoers, and so the premium tickets aren’t being bought in the same numbers as before. And home video sales have declined significantly over the past seven years.

In this environment, the studios are risk-averse, and making easy decisions on sure things. Is Trek a “sure thing” to Paramount? Or are they looking at other franchises such as G.I.Joe and Transformers as being more secure and “money in the bank”? Only the Paramount board room knows for sure, but there are a lot of signs that Trek is no longer a guaranteed box-office winner. So… we’ll see what happens.

There are, after all, always possibilities…

VIDEO: The Star Trek Smithsonian Exhibit from 1992

In 1992 the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC featured a massive exhibit celebrating Star Trek – it showcased props, costumes and models from the show. I was able to travel to DC to check out the exhibit that year and was totally knocked out by it (though I still don’t like the details/hull lines they painted onto the big Enterprise model).

Through the magic of the Internet, I was able to find video someone took of the exhibit that they uploaded to YouTube. Here’s all 8 parts, set up in a playlist:

In praise of Ernie Anderson

I’ve always been a fan of voice-over people. And I’m not talking about voice over actors… I’m talking about the people who do voice-over narration for TV show promotions and commercials (though some, like Maurice LaMarche, does both). The most mouse voice over person was the late great Don LaFontaine, the man who made “In a World…” a movie trailer cliche. But my all-time favorite VO guy wasn’t LaFontaine… it was Ernie Anderson.

Ernie Anderson is hardly a household name, but I can state with a high degree of certainty that everyone my age has heard him at some point. For almost two decades he was the in-house announcer for ABC, and he did all the promos for their shows. Three’s Company, Happy Days, The Love Boat… Ernie told us what was coming up in every new episode. In addition to that, he did promos for Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it was his voice who told the world about “an all new ship, with an all new captain and crew!”

You would think that would be cool enough, but no… He was also a horror movie host “Ghoulardi” in the 1960s, and he was the father of the great movie director Paul Thomas Anderson.

So, here’s to Ernie Anderson, who died at the age of 73 in 1997. Here’s some of his work:

So, I wrote this article for TrekMovie…

It’s been a very interesting couple of weeks.

When I wrote the editorial “Star Trek is Broken” for TrekMovie, I was expressing the opinion that many fans I knew had expressed to me – that Star Trek Into Darkness may have been a good action movie, but it wasn’t Star Trek. It didn’t reflect the core principles that defined the series for almost 50 years – the hopeful premise that the future was going to be one of discovery and promise, where man would explore and evolve.

So I wrote my piece, sent it to the editor I’ve worked with there, and she published it while I was at DragonCon with my family. A couple of days pass, and I check the article out and see that several hundred comments were expressed… not bad. It definitely got the conversation going.

Star Trek Is Broken: an Editorial worthy of discussion.

TrekMovie Surprises the Fandom and States that “Star Trek is Broken”

Then Bob Orci, writer of Star Trek Into Darkness, added his comments. They were… well, let’s just say they were very… emotional.

Roberto Orci Fires Back at ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ Haters: “F*ck Off!”

‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ writer: If you don’t like it, pitch a better movie

Star Trek writer responds to slams, tells sequel critics to #@&! off

He (apparently) took the criticism personally – VERY personally – and suddenly the comments evolved into a “Orci is a jerk/Orci is right” debate. And then more websites started paying attention and covering the story. And many more people started commenting on these (increasing) number of sites. Oh, and did I mention this all happened just before the release of Star Trek Into Darkness on bluray? Bad timing…

Bob Orci Blows Up At Star Trek Fans For Not Adoring Into Darkness

Bob Orci tells Star Trek fans to “F*ck Off”

Star Trek Into Darkness writer, Bob Orci: “If you don’t like it, pitch a better movie”, calls fans shitty and tells them to fuck off.

Robert Orci insults Star Trek fans, chaos ensues

Orci then posted a couple of more comments and apologized… in a way. It was more of a “sorry I lost my cool” apology than anything else, but it seemed sincere. But it was too late, and most people didn’t notice.

If you’re a writer for Star Trek Into Darkness, it’s probably best to stay off a message board discussing how Star Trek Into Darkness sucked. It just won’t end well for anyone

Star Trek Into Darkness screenwriter gets mad and flames Trekkies

Fan Drives ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ Writer Bob Orci To Swearing

While the majority of the coverage was critical and did not cast Orci in a positive light, some people wrote articles defending his response:

Why aren’t filmmakers allowed to respond to online critics?

Why ‘Star Trek’ Fans Are Wrong and Roberto Orci Is Right (Opinion)

The story started to fade away, and then… on 9/11, Orci quit Twitter. And the story came roaring back.

Star Trek writer, 9/11 truther Roberto Orci deletes Twitter account on 9/11

After Tearing Into Fans, ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ Screenwriter Roberto Orci Deletes Twitter Account

‘Star Trek’ Writer Roberto Orci Shuts Down Twitter Account After Lashing Out at Fans

‘Star Trek’ Has Lost Touch With Its Fans and Roberto Orci’s Rant Proves It

Why is everyone so upset about Star Trek Into Darkness?

So, what did I make of all this? Three points:

First: Think before you post, kids. What you put on-line can and will stick around, and may hurt your reputation in ways you can never imagine. Just ask Bob Orci.

Second: If someone posts something derogatory or insulting towards you or your opinion, do what I did: Turn the other cheek. If Orci had responded to my points logically, one by one, instead of saying “there’s a reason I write million dollar movies and you don’t,” we could have had a conversation. Instead, his reaction was insulting and filled with condescension and bluster. How do you react to something like that? You don’t. You walk away, shaking your head. Arguing on the Internet is not a very productive use of anyone’s time.

Third (and this is the ironic part): Because of Orci’s reaction many many more people read my article than would have ever read it otherwise. So for that (indirect) exposure… Thanks, Bob!

Finally, I want to quote my own comment, written to Bob after he apologized (and then said he was done commenting on TrekMovie forever):

To Bob Orci:

Totally appreciate your last couple of comments. We have all had moments we regret later and I have never had any personal issue with you at all even after you made those initial (unfortunate) comments in response to my article.

I had NO idea my article would provoke such a strong reaction from both “sides.” I had an opinion, I wrote it up, and TrekMovie posted it. I’m glad I did it, though, because I think it started a conversation worth having. I never meant to upset anyone and I tried extra hard to be kind in how I framed my thoughts.

Bob, I’m a fan of a lot of your work and I regret that this is how we got to “engage” each other. I would much rather have had a friendly debate over a couple of beers.

Finally, a message to all the commentators: whether you agree with me or not, I think many of you took things WAY too personally – and some of the comments towards Bob or me were over the top and Not Cool. Be kind, please. I like a lot of things you don’t, and you like a lot of things I don’t. Everyone is different. That’s cool.

Will my editorial make a difference, and will the filmmakers think a little more about putting optimism and exploration back into big-screen Trek? Probably not. But it’s clear that there’s a lot of fans who aren’t happy with the direction Trek is heading towards… and I think my article (and the ensuing comments and coverage) shined a very bright spotlight on that.

Star Trek is broken – here are ideas on how to fix it

Crosspost from (and please check out the… interesting comments to this post there.)

At last month’s official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas, I had the privilege to speak about “Treknology”. The experience was great – I was thrilled at the response of my fellow fans to my presentation. What struck me was the response from Jordan Hoffman’s “One Trek Mind” panel on the best Star Trek movie. The feedback from fans was pretty unanimous – the best film was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the worst… was Star Trek Into Darkness.

Fans were more kind when a similar vote took place at the Seattle Star Trek Convention a few days later, where STID ranked 6th, but even then the fans were very vocal and very critical of the film. The sometimes-rabid criticism, much of which was echoed by some film critics and online commentators, gave me pause… and as I reflected on this reaction I came to a conclusion.

Star Trek is broken.

Star Trek, like all long-running entertainment properties, has had peaks and valleys – Some very high highs… and very low lows. In my opinion, Star Trek is at (yet another) turning point.
Star Trek reestablished itself as a cultural phenomenon with the 2009 reboot, and now the franchise is… not quite working. An noted above, lots of old-school fans are unhappy with the newest film, and after talking to some casual fans I doubt Into Darkness will have the same success in bringing new fans into the fold like the ’09 reboot did.

More than that, Into Darkness had underperformed at the box-office – while it was a moderate success and is in the Top 10 films of the year, it is nowhere near the billion-dollar blockbuster that Paramount had hoped. With many other competing geek-friendly properties on the market, Star Trek just isn’t appealing as it once was, and a lot of people are pointing their attention elsewhere.

What can be done to bring Trek back to the forefront, to once again be the seminal piece of entertainment it was before? Here are my thoughts on some things that could be done.

It’s about the Mission Statement
The best television series’ have a “mission statement” – a phrase that describes what the show’s premise is and what it’s all about. Decades ago, that premise was often expressly stated in the lyrics to the show’s theme song (The Patty Duke Show, Gilligan’s Island, etc.). Even today’s shows have an “elevator speech” description that the producers use to make sure they never lose sight of their premise (Breaking Bad’s is “Mr. Chips turns into Scarface”). Star Trek’s mission statement is clear and obvious, and we see it at the very beginning of every episode of the original series:

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

The best episodes of Star Trek never lost sight of this very simple statement, and still provided excitement as well as provocative ideas. Where was this mission statement inStar Trek Into Darkness? At the end, just like in 2009?s Star Trek. The placement was appropriate in the first film, as it was less about seeing out new life and new civilizations and more about “putting the band together.” That they put it at the end of STID was also correct… because they STILL haven’t done it yet.
When you now have two films that don’t live up to the basic premise of the concept… you have a problem.

It’s about exploration and new ideas
In order to once again “live” that mission statement, Star Trek has to once again be about exploring the unknown, about going beyond what we are comfortable with. About moving forward, finding out what’s “out there.” It could be a Doomsday Machine, or the Horta, or the Guardian of Forever, or Apollo… or something new. Star Trek was a reflection of the “wanderlust” that is a key part of humanity, and how we continually strive to learn, to grow, to understand.
Actor Karl Urban recently stated in an interview that he wanted the third film to be “an original story” and not a rehash of characters or plots from earlier films.

“I really think that what we should do from here, in my personal opinion, is strive to be original. Strive to be something different and new. You know, let’s not forget that Star Trek as envisioned was about space exploration. And it would be really wonderful to harness the spirit of that and apply it to the next film, so that we do something different than a revenge-based picture.”

Hear, hear. Another issue that many critics had with STID was that the “fan service” references to The Wrath of Khan were not well done and made the new film look worse in comparison.

It’s about good characters
Making Star Trek once again about exploring the unknown isn’t enough. When you encounter the unknown, when you come across something that no one has ever seen before… how do you react? What do you say or do? That’s about character, who the people you see on the screen really are. The appeal of the best of Trek is when you respond to the characters and understand them – we all know who Kirk Spock and McCoy were on the original series because they were clearly drawn and well written. The outcomes of many episodes were informed by their reactions and decisions, and the best Star Trek – the best FICTION – is about character. Good character (and good acting) can elevate bad material and make it better.

The issue many had with STID was that several of the characters were either not the characters we are used to seeing (from the original series) or thin caricatures (Carol Marcus). You can gloss over that first criticism (it IS a different universe, after all) but the second is more of an issue. Trek without solid characters could end up being… well, a live-action cartoon.

It’s about breaking from the past
Most science fiction on TV before Star Trek was, effectively, children’s programming. Shows like Space Cadet or Lost In Space, where fantastical concepts and action sequences were more important than dramatic storytelling and strong characterization. Star Trek and other shows like it broke from that juvenile cycle and were adult stories targeted at intelligent viewers. Looking atStar Trek Into Darkness, one sees the same storytelling trend that other summer blockbusters are suffering from – an over reliance on action sequences and bombast, where visual effects supplant acting and story. It’s more like Space Cadet on the big screen than Star Trek.

Just as the original series broke from convention to tell adult stories, Star Trek needs to once again break from the past and stop being about the Enterprise and crew. Yes, I know, this might be a scandalous idea to many of you reading this, but think about it: We have had hundreds of episodes and almost a dozen movies about the crew of the Enterprise. We need to look at a new ship, a new crew, and explore new ground. Have a link to the past (maybe a crew member or two), but Star Trek needs to move forward.

And that means saying goodbye to what came before, in a clean break.

It’s about good writing
A lot of critical barbs were aimed at the writers of Star Trek Into Darkness about the script and plot of the film. I won’t join in that chorus, because writing a multi-billion dollar film is something I have never had to do. The pressure must be IMMENSE, and there are many hoops that you have to jump through to produce a script for such a project. That being said, Star Trek at its best has always had top-notch writing, no matter the series.

How can we once again elevate the writing in Star Trek? Simple: Go outside of the Hollywood bubble and hire some science fiction writers. Lots of science fiction writers are also Trek fans, and asking writers like Neil Gaimen or John Scalzi to write new Trek would immediately elevate the profile of Trek with many fans.

Having writers such as these working on a big-budget Hollywood screenplay is not the best idea. You need to let them play in a bigger, more expansive playground. Which is why the final and number one way to fix Star Trek is…

It’s about being on TV
Where is the quality writing coming from right now? No offense to the writers of Hollywood films, but the best writing is on television right now. Shows like Homeland, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and more demonstrate that the golden age of entertainment isn’t in cinemas, it’s on TV. Star Trek started out on TV, and it is the best medium for the property. Even William Shatner recently said that Star Trek is best suited to TV, and he makes the argument better than I could. Here’s the relevant quote:

“When you get into the small screen, you need stories… entertaining, interesting, vital stories that have a philosophy and also have an excitement about them, so that the viewer stays with it, but receives the philosophy as a byproduct. Those were the best of Star Trek, those kinds of stories. And that kind of thing, there is always room for that. That kind of imaginative approach that stirs young people into wanting to be connected with science.”

Right on, Mr. Shatner. Star Trek should be back on TV. Period.

There you have it, some very direct ideas on how to “fix” Star Trek and make it relevant and exciting once more. What say you?