Star Trek XI - Boldly Starting Over?
A critical preview of the upcoming movie
On April 21, 2006, Paramount announced that J.J. Abrams, creator of the hit TV series "Lost", would produce the eleventh Star Trek feature film. The name of the movie has been confirmed to be just "Star Trek". J.J. Abrams will also direct the film. The original North American release date was moved from December 2008 to May 2009, mainly to avoid direct competition with other prospective blockbusters to be shown around Christmas.
At this time, little is known about the movie's premise. "Star Trek XI" revolves around the character of Spock. The old Spock, played once again by Leonard Nimoy, attempts to stop a time-traveling Romulan villain named Nero from altering history. In the course of the movie we will see the TOS Enterprise crew as well as Christopher Pike, all naturally played by young actors. The familiar locations include the original USS Enterprise as well as Starfleet Academy. In spite of all rumors, William Shatner will definitely not be in the movie, not even for a cameo.
Although the principal shooting was finished in March 2008, few pictures of the shooting locations have leaked so far, owing to a strict nondisclosure policy. In January 2008 a trailer shown in the theaters in conjunction with the J.J. Abrams movie "Cloverfield" revealed that the familiar USS Enterprise from The Original Series (TOS) has been redesigned for the movie, and that apparently the complete assembly of the ship takes place on Earth's surface.
Despite or just because of the secrecy, "Star Trek XI" has probably stirred up more interest among fans and the general public alike than any other Trek feature film in the past two decades. Fans almost unanimously praise or at least approve of the underlying idea of "going back to the roots" or "re-imagining the premise" on message boards and in blogs. Many avid fans are concerned that the movie may not be respectful to TOS, however.
They are skeptical because J.J. Abrams and his co-workers frequently emphasize how the new movie is being made for a broad audience, rather than primarily for the fans.
J.J. Abrams: "The audience weíre making this movie for is people who love movies, not people who love Star Trek movies... Iím not saying weíre not honoring whatís come before, [but] if we made this movie for them alone, we would be limiting our audience like crazy." (source: trekmovie.com)
In the media "Star Trek XI" is repeatedly referred to as a "reboot" of the franchise, insinuating that the continuity may be renounced as radically as in the new "Battlestar Galactica" series. This is why members of the production staff avoid such a classification, although they occasionally term it a "re-invigoration" or "re-vitalization".
Roberto Orci: "In some senses it is a prequel, but the word I would use, which is how Damon [Lindelof] describes it, is a re-invigoration or re-vitalization." (source: trekmovie.com)
J.J. Abrams as well as Roberto Orci, the resident Trekkie among his staff, repeatedly confirm that they would respect the established continuity despite their novel approach:
J.J. Abrams: "['Star Trek'] is being true to the vision of our abilities and of what Roddenberry started. So itís this very interesting hybrid of honoring its origins and also being something completely brand new." (source: trekmovie.com)
J.J. Abrams: "I feel like this is so unlike what you expect, so unlike the 'Star Trek' youíve seen. At the same time, itís being true to whatís come before, honoring it, I can say the effects for 'Star Trek' have never, ever been done like this... I can only tell you the idea of the universe of 'Star Trek' has never been given this kind of treatment." (source: trekmovie.com)
Roberto Orci: "We are ready to engage any fans...lovingly...over the plot of 'Star Trek'." (source: trekmovie.com)
It is certainly too early to judge the movie at a time when we have nothing more but a coarse plot outline and some leaked photos. But perhaps it is just the right time for my two cents on the premise of "Star Trek XI", on what I expect from it and on the current hype about it. I do not intend to update this essay every time new facts about the movie become available, so I attempt to limit it to some basic considerations that will prospectively retain their validity.
Note Please note that while I usually like to discuss with readers, this essay is just for the record. I certainly respect fans who like to see Trek re-imagined. However, I will most likely not react to criticism. We need to wait for the movie to be released to further discuss it and to find out whether my concerns were justified.
Remake, Reboot, Re-Imagination, Re-Invigoration?
Most of the statements about this Star Trek being like nothing before yet respecting continuity sound like what we were told before any recent Trek movie or the series Enterprise so far. Only that this time there is a real reason to believe that things are going to be different.
Many terms have been used by the production staff as well as by the fans to categorize "Star Trek XI", and the mere problem of defining what everyone means has entailed lengthy debates in various forums.
Is the new movie a remake of TOS? Not really, because a remake implies that it tells essentially the same story as a previous movie. Peter Jackson's 2005 version of "King Kong" is a remake of the classic film of 1933, it even relies on largely the same setting and the same characters, unlike the previous remake of 1976. "Star Trek XI", in contrast, is conceived to be rather a prequel than anything that would overlap with TOS story-wise. Also, one new movie could hardly be a remake but rather an adaptation of a 79-episode TV series.
The term "reboot" has been coined for new versions of whole series or franchises. "Reboot" is the most controversial word among the ones that I frequently read. Fundamentally, rebooting simply denotes that you find something wrong with your computer's performance, so you hit Ctrl+Alt+Delete and ideally you can continue just where you have left. So a reboot may mean as little as stabilizing your system, just getting rid of some overhead. At least, this is one possible interpretation. Lately, however, "reboot" has become customary to denote a TV or movie franchise that has been totally redefined in the same fashion as the new Battlestar Galactica series. Producer Ron D. Moore has kept only the very basic setting of the series from 1978 and has permitted radical alterations like gender-switching of characters. The continuity with the old BSG is totally lost, the two series couldn't even take place in the same universe. If "reboot" implies that the changes are as extreme as in BSG, then by all means the upcoming Star Trek movie will not be a reboot.
"Re-imagination" is not a very meaningful word but may be something for fans to settle on whenever they disagree about the nature of "Star Trek XI". While it sounds much like a "soft" version of "reboot", "re-imagination" still insinuates that something is being changed, about the fictional history, as well as about the look and feel of the movie or series. The overall continuity may be preserved, but this is not a necessity. Basically every movie with a new lead actor of the James Bond series was a re-imagination, irrespective of how we explain the identity transfer from one person to another in an in-universe view. "Casino Royale" could even be classified as a reboot for several reasons. The main difference between a reboot and the somewhat blurry re-imagination seems to be that the latter may preserve some of the continuity, while the former deliberately and systematically destroys it.
What does Damon Lindelof's "re-invigoration" tell us? Nothing really, except that it anticipates his work to be successful. There are just so many ways to re-invigorate a franchise by involving new characters, new locations, new authors or new ways of storytelling. Re-invigoration does not really require what some fans are afraid of, that an established continuity is thrown overboard. Especially in the Star Trek Universe there are plenty of possibilities to move to another place in the galaxy, or another time, as it has been done many times before. In this respect "Star Trek XI" would not be the first time for the franchise to be renewed.
Has Star Trek been re-imagined or even rebooted before?
Strictly speaking, the first feature film "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (TMP) and the series Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) were conceived by Gene Roddenberry to be re-imaginations of his original concept. The whole look of Star Trek was revised for TMP, including the addition of ridges to the Klingon foreheads under the assumption that they always looked so. TNG carried over the concept to the 24th century and once again came with a new look and a new setting. Still, for practically all changes there are good in-universe explanations. Star Trek's continuity was never disrupted, also thanks to the stringent concept of canonicity.
Unlike it was the case with Battlestar Galactica, a series that aired for just one season almost 30 years ago (no one really takes into account the mediocre second series of 1980), the assets of Star Trek are inviolable. Spock as a woman or an Enterprise with three nacelles are out of the question. So if "Star Trek XI" is not a reboot and the producers keep reaffirming that they respect the original, what are the continuity concerns?
As outlined in my article on The Realism of (Science) Fiction, continuity takes place on different levels. There is more to it than just literally adhering to what has been said or written before. Most importantly everything has to remain overall plausible. There are numerous continuity problems and errors in Star Trek that are exhaustively discussed in the Investigations section of EAS. Very often we can explain them away, sometimes we have to ignore single lines or visuals. But there is a limit to it, especially if problems of the same kind accumulate. Star Trek Enterprise was close to reaching a point where the series as a whole was not credible as taking place in an earlier century any longer, as its fictional technology was reaching the sophistication level of the TNG era and beyond.
Two particular examples of continuity that is taken too literally can be found in Enterprise. In ENT: "Acquisition" and "Regeneration" we can see the Ferengi and the Borg, respectively, both roughly 200 years before the established first contact. While we may explain away even these blatant and deliberate offenses, the writers obviously thought that they could preserve continuity or at least pacify the nerds by not once mentioning "Ferengi" and "Borg" in the respective episodes. This is an awkward misconception of true continuity.
What can we expect from the new movie? I think that Roberto Orci will pay attention that no line in "Star Trek XI" is in contradiction to something that has been stated otherwise - unless it is inevitable to tell the story. In other words, the practice will probably the same as in all new Trek movies before and perhaps even more careful. He will hopefully avoid the mistakes made in Enterprise.
What I am worried about is the visual continuity. We already know from the trailer that the Enterprise will not be the same iconic ship that we know from TOS. We have been told that the interior, including the bridge, will only look similar to its appearance in TOS. Regarding the uniforms and the props, it has been reported that they would be "almost the same" as in TOS. But almost the same may not be enough. Owing to the accumulation of redesigns, not to mention the new faces of the characters, the movie will be visually very different, although it is probably set just before the departure for the five-year mission in 2264. I would have easily agreed with a movie taking place at the Academy some fifteen years earlier, showing just Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty, knowing that the rest is too young to have been on the Academy at the same time. But the way it is, the new movie enters a visual competition with TOS. We may overlook the new faces in "Star Trek XI" because it is not possible otherwise (unless we resurrect the crew digitally, which would be horrible). But if the props and sets are just as dissimilar as the ship's exterior, I anticipate that not just the nerds like myself will have a massive problem accepting the movie as the direct precursor to TOS. If not "Star Trek XI", the second movie to be produced by Abrams that has been more or less greenlit by Paramount may directly challenge TOS.
Is it necessary to suddenly redesign something that no one has dared to touch in over 40 years? Is it allowed at all? The Titanic sank in 1912, and no one among the audience of James Cameron's movie could possibly remember seeing the real ship. "Titanic" was anything but a documentary, still Cameron reconstructed the ship as accurately as technically and economically possible, he didn't attempt to make it in any way look "cooler". In many respects the TOS Enterprise is just as "real", and it is at least as familiar to the people in the theater as the Titanic. Still, it was deemed necessary to give the starship an overhaul that goes well beyond adding a fair amount of details and texture that are necessary to show the ship on the big screen.
This redesign is a first time in Star Trek. Ironically, although they were meant as re-imaginations, neither the first feature film "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" nor Star Trek: The Next Generation denied the existence of TOS the very way it always looked. The Enterprise bridge was partially reconstructed for TNG: "Relics", without any concessions to the sophisticated techniques of the early 1990s. DS9: "Trials and Tribble-ations" went as far as exactly rebuilding the ship miniature and part of its interior sets; it even kept the blatantly primitive interface of TOS tricorders. In ENT: "In a Mirror, Darkly" a CGI version of the TOS Enterprise appeared along with recreated interiors. Another authentic CGI replica of the ship was created for TOS Remastered. By changing the appearance of the ship and likely some more iconic designs of TOS, "Star Trek XI" breaks with a long-standing tradition in Star Trek, that nothing of importance is ever visually retconned.
On a still different note, the movie includes various TOS-related characters such as Captain Pike and Spock's and Kirk's parents as well as events like Kirk's Kobayashi Maru test. I wouldn't be surprised if Kirk were a member of Red Squad on the Academy, if he were hanging around in the 602 Club, and if he were dating a granddaughter of Jonathan Archer. I like references like these as long as they are applied carefully. But overall, they often don't contribute much to continuity. On the contrary, excessive namedropping and cross-referencing may be detrimental to continuity. It may appear contrived if everyone is meeting everyone else all the time, and it makes the Star Trek Universe smaller than it should be.
We know little about the premise so far. "Star Trek XI" will be a prequel, showing the characters we know from TOS at some time or at various times before the Enterprise's five-year-mission, played by accordingly young actors. Aside from the continuity concerns this is definitely a fertile ground, as everyone of the targeted audience is to some degree familiar with the characters and with the ship. Yet, it is not really satisfactory to see the Enterprise go where it has gone before. It is not the innovative premise that most fans would have hoped for, especially since Star Trek Enterprise, canceled after just four seasons, already was a prequel to TOS. I remember several polls on message boards and on websites including the poll on EAS that clearly indicated what direction the fans did not wish the eleventh movie to take. In the wake of Enterprise's demise a TOS prequel or any scenario set some time prior to the TOS movies was consistently among the least favorite premises. They routinely scored only a few percent depending on the number of choices. Obviously most fans have changed their minds, convinced that J.J. Abrams would turn the movie into something special.
The principal villain of the movie will be a Romulan with a bald head and with a human name. His goal is to destroy or weaken the Federation in order to strengthen the Romulan Empire. Does this sound familiar? "Star Trek Nemesis" already had Shinzon with a remarkably similar origin, look and motivation. And "Nemesis" was not well-received at all, not by the fans, much less by many movie critics who felt compelled to declare the death of the franchise when the movie failed. I am convinced that "Star Trek XI" will outperform "Nemesis" in almost every respect. The latter failed because of a sketchy script, poor execution and unmotivated actors. I don't think this will happen again. But is it necessary to carry over the motive of the villain to the new movie? Why does almost every Trek movie need a villain anyway, while the five TV series did a great job portraying the shades of gray in every character, including the enemies? And, on a side note, why does apparently any Romulan in the movie have to be bald as well, as reported in June 2008?
"Star Trek XI" will also be a time travel story, a type of premise that many if not most fans think has been overdone. Moreover, it is the fourth time travel in eleven Trek movies. We don't know how exactly Spock will chase Nero (or vice versa) forth and back through time. The time travel may be just a plot vehicle to revisit the TOS crew on the original Enterprise. But then again, the danger is that the fragile concept of time travel may be dumbed down in a similar fashion as in Enterprise's "Temporal Cold War", where nothing was even supposed to make much sense.
It is also quite possible that we will see a parallel timeline, comparable to the Mirror Universe. I somehow doubt that many fans would want to see something like that. It would also be in contrast to the announcement that we would see the TOS crew, and not some Mirror Universe versions, whose actions and thoughts have no bearing on our universe. It would be good for continuity if the movie messed up the timeline to tell a (dark) story that is not possible in our universe, only to revert it to exactly the TOS universe that we all know and love. But then it would likely become an awfully pointless action flick.
Purportedly J.J. Abrams does not like when fans refer to his film as "Star Trek XI" instead of the official title "Star Trek" (source: trekmovie.com). I don't contest that it is his movie and that he has the right to name it as he likes. It may also be a common practice that the remakes of a movie are given the same name as the original (although "Star Trek" is not a remake, technically).
Fans, on the other hand, customarily do not even refer to The Original Series as simply "Star Trek", in order to tell it apart from the franchise of the same name. It would be still easy for me personally to distinguish "Star Trek" (the new movie), Star Trek TOS (The Original Series), Star Trek TAS (The Animated Series) and Star Trek (the franchise). But it would still cause a great deal of confusion among the readers.
Also, has Abrams heard of search engines yet? If you type "Star Trek" you will get all kinds of random mentions of Star Trek, often hopelessly outdated. If you type something that Abrams doesn't like, you will ironically find all the latest news about his movie. Instead of complaining about fans who prefer "Star Trek XI" over his official name "Star Trek" for very good reasons, J.J. Abrams should have chosen an unequivocal title in the first place, and one that does not entitle his creation to exclusivity.
I do not conceal that I feel let down now that I know that the Enterprise and many other things have likely been redesigned to an extent that the dissimilarity is undeniable. I have spent hundreds of hours to spot tiny visual differences, to explain them away as design variants or to simply declare them small enough to be ignored. It was fun as long as the overall consistency held the universe together, from the earliest days of TOS to the last episodes of Enterprise. People will ask me why the "Star Trek XI" Enterprise looks so much different. Or worse, they will insist on their convoluted explanations of frequent total redesigns of the ship being included at EAS. I may decide that "Star Trek XI" no longer belongs to the same universe as the rest of Star Trek, in which case I will refuse any attempts to get anything rationalized. I still hope that this won't be necessary though.
Regarding the future of the franchise, in my impression Star Trek is about to be made less elitist and more run-of-the-mill. This doesn't have to be a bad thing. I have always hoped for Star Trek to become more generally accepted, and I may have been ready for some concessions (like a new kind of storylines, a new setting for a series, perhaps even a cooler design and "darker stories") if this gets more people interested. But it comes at a time when movie remakes or revivals are considered extremely fashionable - because really new ideas don't exist or are rejected by the studios as I believe. Star Trek, although the changes may be comparably subtle, makes no exception. And suddenly it is deemed to be ready for a mass market that the classic Star Trek was never really given a chance to enter since the end of TNG. There is a reason why I begin to call all this "classic", even including Star Trek Enterprise. It is sad that the subliminal and sometimes explicit impression is created by the production crew that the old Trek was crap and urgently needed an update to become more appealing or even more serious.
I concede that "Nemesis" was a crappier movie the more I think about it and that "Star Trek XI" can only be better. Yet, it had the characters in it I have come to love (counting the ship as a character too), and hence it has my loyalty. And so I simply don't feel like jumping on the bandwagon when someone makes the film that I never wanted to see. I don't like most of the few things I have learned about it so far. I don't like the premise, I don't like namedropping as surrogate continuity, and I don't like that each and everything will look different than we know it always looked. And although I trust in their abilities, I have never asked for young actors to re-enact TOS, taking the places of my childhood heroes that are either retired or dead. As much as I appreciate seeing Leonard Nimoy for probably one last time, his appearance will only sadly remind me of what will never come back. In other words, I may be too old for a new Trek.
Though I have never seen any episode of "Lost", I am confident that J.J. Abrams is a capable producer and director and that he will get his version of Star Trek right. I am convinced that I will spend two enjoyable hours in the theater in spite of everything. Unlike most people who are going to see it, I am only worried about what I will make of it afterwards.
In any case I wish J.J. Abrams and everyone involved all the best. I will recommend everyone with a remote interest in Star Trek to see the movie. No matter how exactly it turns out, its success is vital for the future of Star Trek, and failure is not an option.