Establishing the Geek CredShawn Drotar

Posted on May 11th, 2009 in Opinion by Shawn Drotar

The Internet is abuzz over Star Trek, the shiny new model of a more than 40-year-old sci-fi warhorse. Television maestro J.J. Abrams’ effort took in $76.5 million in its first weekend; not so big a deal for a summer popcorn flick, but this one came with more baggage than Britney Spears.

I liked it. It wasn’t Citizen Kane, of course, but it was bold, gutsy and fun. My first writing gig was for the Star Trek Official Fan Club magazine when I was 17 (gotta start somewhere!), so clearly, my geekery is dyed-in-the-wool. And I still liked it. A lot.

Establishing a parallel/secondary/whatever universe is fine with me. But quite frankly, so is a flat-out reboot, and I’ll tell you why: Star Trek, as it was, is dead and gone. It had a 40-year run, which is amazing in Hollywood, but former Trek writer/producer and new Battlestar Galactica creator Ron Moore had it absolutely right: Trek choked to death on its own continuity.

Not that continuity isn’t fun - we geeks like our hobbies meticulous, after all - but let’s face it, a lot of that “continuity” was really retconned to fit, and the original 1960s Star Trek didn’t really even bother with it. Sure, fans filled in the gaps over the years, but watch the episodes in the order they originally aired and it’s very clear that they were more worried about telling a good story than putting together a giant puzzle. As they should have been; it’s the main reason the franchise still exists in any way at all.

When the technobabble of The Next Generation took over, I felt it often sucked the beating heart out of the franchise and traded it for a preachy, schoolmarm approach to storytelling. That’s fine, and it’s clearly what Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wanted to do in the 80s. And it was extremely popular. But the 60s Trek was a rollicking western in space, with a little morality play sprinkled in (”Wagon Train to the stars” was how Roddenberry pitched it to NBC in 1964). Next Gen did that in reverse. It worked, but the atrocious Voyager was a disaster, and while Deep Space Nine was brave and flat-out spectacular by the end, it didn’t resonate with audiences; neither did the almost-afterthought Enterprise.

The movies (both Original and Next Gen) petered out, with consistently lower performances as the golden goose slowly strangled. The bar of entry became too high for someone to join in who wasn’t versed in the copious Trek lore to begin with, as last week’s Saturday Night Live deftly noted in the clip below.


Abrams’ Star Trek removes those impediments. Sure, it’s more action-oriented than any other Trek, but one has to realize that they’re not only trying to make it accessible again, but they’re trying to remove a culture-wide stigma attached to it. Amazingly, given the box office, they may have done exactly that. The more thoughtful stuff can come later; Step One is getting everybody - not just long-standing Trek fans, who are getting older and decreasing - to love Kirk, Spock and the crew. Without that, it has no chance of survival.

This movie was an all-or-nothing bet on a craps table: snake-eyes and Star Trek disappears for at least 20 years and maybe forever. Now, however it’s back in play like it’s never been, and that’s very exciting.

Theatre companies re-do Shakespeare all the time; giving his plays contemporary settings, sometimes even updating the iambic pentameter into modern English. But Hamlet is still Hamlet; it’s the spirit of the thing that matters.

On Friday, I saw Jim Kirk’s confident swagger, Spock’s sub-surface emotional struggles overcome, Leonard McCoy’s irascible-but-sensible heart, Montgomery Scott’s buoyant can-do spirit, Pavel Chekov’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and a fully-realized Hikaru Sulu and Nyota Uhura finally appearing as three-dimensional human beings and skilled professionals (anyone remember Uhura clumsily reading Klingon from a dusty hardbound book in The Undiscovered Country? Ugh.). These archetypal characters still resonate at the center of Abrams’ Star Trek.

No, they didn’t look the same, or sound the same, or have the same backstories that were cobbled together from various sources over four decades, but the characters were instantly recognizable - and likable. What they did and how they did it was different, but who they are hadn’t changed much from 43 years ago; a tribute to the enduring characters that Roddenberry and Co. created. They still hold up quite nicely today.

While the movie isn’t flawless (and what Trek ever has been?), it’s big-time entertainment with heart. Abrams, in my mind, has pulled off what I’d previously thought would be impossible; he’s made Trek matter to almost everyone again, without really changing what made it special at its core. The devil’s in the details, and that’s why Abrams and Co. set them aside; putting them away but not destroying them - the “original” universe’s continuity is still there, forever untouched. But in the process, Abrams cleared the slate, and now anything can happen.

Anything can happen. A million worlds, a million stories, all on the table to pick and choose from. That was the point of creating Star Trek in the first place. To go back to Shakespeare (and an Original Series episode), a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

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There’s an officially licensed Star Trek game for the iPhone and iPod. Available here for $2.99, it’s essentially a fun cousin toGalaga with the starship Enterprise. There - I talked about gaming today. Kinda.

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