Thursday, April 30, 2009

Muppet Babies, Barry Allen, and Ultimate Spock's Brain: The New Star Trek Movie

I've been putting this one off for awhile, because I know I'm going to come off as a cranky old curmudgeon. But time is pressing, the release is almost upon us, and I've got to get this off my chest:

I'm not terribly enthusiastic about the new Star Trek movie.

Which is pretty stunning, if you know me. I've been deep into Trek as long as I can remember. As a youth I had the stardates for every episode memorized (caveat: there were a lot fewer episodes back then, and I've long since lost that capability...). I was first in line in my town to see Star Trek The Motion Picture and ST2 and ST3 and...I own the freakin' Klingon Hamlet, for heaven's sake!!

And yet, despite the cool looking visuals and killer buzz, J.J. Abrams film pretty much has me going "Meh." Out of all my geek friends, I'm the only one who's not ultra-jazzed about it.

Why? I've crystallized a few thoughts, in no particular order.


For decades now, whenever a new Trek movie is in the offing, there were reports that Paramount was fast-tracking a "Star Trek: Academy" movie, with new actors playing younger versions of of stalwart crew. I don't know how much of that was ever true, ever got close to actual production. But it was out there every time, so often and so debated that the concept feels incredibly dated now, even though they've never done the concept--it has a very "been there done that" feel to me.

The thing is, though, the concept was never even worthwhile in the first place. Never mind the continuity problems (because that worked out so well for Young Sherlock Holmes, didn't it?). How much value is there in seeing our heroes before they were any good at their jobs? Hey, let's do an X-Files movie starring teen Mulder and Sculley!! Before they were experienced or competent or had even met (oops, there I go again)! Hey, for Season 8 of 24, let's instead go back in time and do the adventures of Jack Bauer as a young rookie agent!

Maybe I am just being curmudgeonly. But seriously, whose favorite version of the Muppets is Muppet Babies?


Star Trek III, while generally an entertaining film, was a disastrous creative step for the franchise.

In the Wrath of Khan, the story of our characters progressed. Heroes died, new characters joined the family. Star Trek was a living, breathing organism that could evolve, grow, change.

And then Star Trek III came along and said, "Nope, we can't have that. All that crap about aging gracefully? Never happened!"

Don't get me wrong...I'm not sad they brought Spock back to life. I love the guy, and they set it up well enough. But look at it this way: if, after giving a character the absolutely PERFECT death, they can't keep him dead, then you know our characters are immortal, and you know the status quo is never going to change. It was Flash:Rebirth 25 years early.

And the new characters? Carol Marcus was written out--and suddenly all of the big discoveries behind Genesis were David's. David was killed off. And Saavik was neutered, the part given to a (sorry) lackluster actor and all the things about the character that were appealing in ST II were absent from ST III...Saavik was just a generic Vulcan. That's it, clean slate. All new characters promptly and summarily removed. Back to the Big 7, and no more distractions from the never-changing status quo, thank you. It's the template for Brand New Day.

Yes, I know you can't blame the script writers for various casting difficulties. But from this point on, no change was allowed. New characters were immediately written out or killed off or revealed to be the traitor (really? The new person on the bridge is the traitor? Never saw that one coming...). The crew would be the original crew, period, that's it. Perpetual stasis. The franchise became almost reactionary in its resistance to change. And once that became rigid doctrine, this kind of parody came into vogue...and was sadly all too true:

And despite the television successes of the sequel series, that's where the film franchise is today. We've got a ridiculously rich tapestry of 600+ episodes with a vast panorama of characters, time periods, and cultures that have been introduced since TOS was put out to pasture. And I'll grant you, some are more successful than others, some less. But despite everything to choose from, Abrams and company go zooming straight for the "young Kirk and company" idea to relaunch the franchise. It's like someone going into Baskin-Robbins and not bothering to look at any of the flavors, but just going straight for the chocolate--every time. Yeah, maybe the chocolate is good, but every single time?

Maybe that's what the public wants (although Star Trek: First Contact outdrew the later original crew films, so I don't think the numbers dissect quite as neatly as a lot of people think). That's obviously what the studio wants. But me? I like to sample other flavors, too. But, sadly, I'm betting we'll never get Entertainment Weekly sidebars asking us to re-cast TNG or DS9 for a 20 years we'll be asking, "Who can we get to portray Chris Pines' role?" And I'll still be asking, "Again with the Klingons?"


I was out of comics for a few years when Marvel introduced the Ultimates line. When I got dragged back in, I didn't quite understand the concept--what, you want to clean up all the continuity and make things new-reader friendly, but WITHOUT having a Crisis, while still publishing the original comics you've now declared reader-unfriendly? Seriously, you launch a line whose very existence is a stern critique of your existing output? Doesn't that make things even more confusing? (A clerk at my LCS tried to convince me that Marvel's secret plan was to eventually cancel all of the Marvel-616 titles and make the Ultimates titles their only titles...obviously, that wasn't the case).

While I never read any of the Ultimate books any too regularly, whenever I did I got slapped around with cognitive dissonance. Wait a minute--that's not Doom's origin!! Hold on--Hulk did what?

I'm not a big fan of reboots in general...I'm even less a fan of reboots that try to arbitrarily change things just because. And although I haven't seen it yet and am withholding true judgment until I do, I get the sense that this new movie is "let's reboot just because we want to show all the characters together when they're young and sexy." I mean, sure, on a fan-fic level that could be sorta kinda fun (maybe). But to throw away everything that's been done before--for that?

I also get the sense that if you tried this with other franchises you might get eviscerated by the fans. Hey, let's do a Tolkien reboot so we can work Frodo and Aragorn into The Hobbit!! Hey, let's redo Episode IV so we can show Lando and Mace Windu hanging out at the Cantina! (Dammit, I've just given Lucas another idea, haven't I?) But Star Trek fans mostly seem all right with this. Maybe it's just me.

The other reason is, what the Ultimate Universe became. And again, I was hardly a diligent consumer of that product. But from what little I read, much of the Ultimate marketing strategy became "Let's titillate Marvel fans by dolling out Ultimate versions of their favorites!!" To an outside viewer, the solicits seemed to be a constant parade of "Look, this week we give you Ultimate Vulture! And Ultimate Galactus! And Ultimate Cable and Ultimate Stryfe!" It was same old same old under new make-up. Why go to all the trouble of creating a new universe for your characters when you're going to just re-do the same stories, same villains, just with a "twist?" (Dude, Ultimate Cable is really future Ultimate Wolverine!! Radical!!) It's just a newer version of What If without the Watcher's punchline at the's just re-arranging the chess pieces. Where's the new ideas, the new characters, the new stories?

I'm not saying this to slam the Ultimate books--again, I've read very few of them, and I'm sure many were fine comics. But did the world need an Ultimate version of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends?

And I fear this might become the future of the rebooted franchise. How long until someone starts asking Abrams when we get "his version" of Khan? Or the new "Shore Leave?" Or the "updated to attract modern audiences New Trek Tribbles?

Because I fear that, like the Ultimate books, we're going to end up retreading the same ground. I'm not confident in J.J. Abrams' ability to be a long-term shepherd for the franchise. I've watched Fringe sort of try to not be an X-Files clone while, sadly, telling the same Monster-of-the-Week stories and not doing too much else, story-wise. And now that the publicity mill is already churning about when (not if) his next Trek movie will be, I'm not terribly confident that we're going to get new, unique stories, but instead just re-visitations and re-imaginings of old stories.

Which is a shame, because I think that there's a lot of new stories and new directions to take. That, at it's best, Star Trek was able to reflect and comment on what the tenor of the times was, and there's a lot a new Trek could do to comment on the zeitgeist of the 21st century. But I fear that this reboot will have none of that, and instead we're now on the road to "Ultimate Spock's Brain."

I will keep an open mind. I'll be there opening night, and several more showings, too. And I'm sure the movie will be competent and pretty and fun and exciting, and I'll probably even like it and buy the Ultra-Edition Blu-Ray, and then 6 months later buy the Ultra-Ultra Special 2 Disc Extended Special Version Blu-Ray, because that's the kind of sucker I am.

But for the first time in my life, I'm not really dying with anticipation for the new Star Trek movie.

I hope I'm wrong.

And Abrams...would it hurt you to have a subtitle for the title? Just calling it Star's kinda arrogant, like only yours counts...


Menshevik said...

A few quick thoughts:
Re. "Muppet Babies" - while I wasn't really into them, I must confess enjoying to seeing such flashbacks on some occasions, but usually they were done in moderation. I'm not that much into Star Trek, so I'll probably won't see this movie until it gets shown on TV. Probably would have preferred if they had done something like this as a flashback sequence within one of the earlier movies, not an entire film.

Re. "Star Trek III" - as a mostly Marvel fan I'd say Spock = Aunt May, not least because Aunt May was returned to the living after her "perfect death" (ASM #400) much more quickly than Barry Allen (who was gone for 24 years which actually allowed a lot of real change and developments with the surviving and new characters).
Otherwise I largely agree. After six Star Trek films I had the rule of thumb "even-numbered good, odd-numbered not so much". ;-)
(BTW, wasn't a Starfleet admiral who had appeared in one or two movies earlier also revealed as a traitor in ST6?)
Re. "Ultimate Spock's Brain" - your LCS clerk was not the only one to think that Marvel planned to turn the Ultimate books into the main titles eventually, and that it did not happen does not necessarily mean that that was not the case. After all, Marvel really DID plan to replace Peter Parker with Ben Reilly in the 616 books and that did not happen. It could well be that the Ultimate books were not selling well enough to allow the plan to be put into operation or that maybe Jemas' departure had something to do with it (IIRC Jemas was quite involved in the launch of the Ultimate line himself, especially Ultimate Spider-Man).
I myself only read Ultimate Spider-Man (and continue to do so) and I enjoy it a lot. I certainly would say that this is a lot better way of going about what is usually given as the reason for OMD/BND, to allow younger readers to experience Spider-Man as older readers enjoyed him when the stories first came out. I've been reading Spider-Man since the 1970s, but I liked and continue like the Ultimate version a lot, of course that was helped by my disenchantment with the 616 Spider-Man at the time of the launch (due to Aunt May's and Norman Osborn's return, MJ being written out, Chapter One etc. I stopped buying the 616 Spider-books for a time). In my own opinion: Yes, the world needed the Ultimate Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (that was a story I hugely enjoyed, and at first I actually did not see it coming), but not Ultimate Cable, Galactus or several others... :-)
Re. your comparisons, in particular Star Wars: That was actually very much how I felt about the additional scene with Jabba in the redone version of "Star Wars" (or as some will call it, "A New Hope") because of the presence of friggin' fan-fave-for-no-good-reason-except-cool-looks Boba Fett.

Siskoid said...

As a fellow Klingon Hamlet owner, I completely understand where you're coming from. I'd call my attitude "cautious". I smile and nod when somebody brings me the most recent review or tidbit about the film. I certainly don't plan on seeing it opening night (I've only done this for First Contact because I scored tickets, and it was a terrible experience filled with morons discussing the script they'd read online with their kid brothers throughout).

I'm fine with the idea of a Battlestar Gallactica style reboot. Not because we get hot and sexy new leads (that's the part that makes me roll my eyes), but because I concede that Trek continuity was way too heavy and intimidating for beginners. However, that's not quite what they're doing. They have an IN-CONTINUITY reason for the reboot. Cue eye roll. Trek is too complicated so here's a really convoluted way to make it simple again. Instead of just remaking it from the ground up. Hey, maybe Archer's adventures can still have happened ;).

So you say Muppet Babies, I'll say Year One, for now. And we'll see.

Anonymous said...

I've known you for over 20 years and I did not know you owned a Klingon Hamlet! I am not surprised, however! ;-)

Like covers of great songs, I enjoy them IF and only IF there IS a new take. So I am willing to give this movie a try.

I am NOT a huge JJ Abrams fan--he's always been hit and miss with me. Tried to like Alias and it felt like a big soap opera to me. Haven't tried Lost. Don't mind Fringe.

I'll try to keep an open mind and I'll see it if you drag us out to it! ;-)

Anonymous said...

PS: You ARE a cranky old man ;-)

-3- said...

One Movie.

That's how long it took him to retread Khan. One frelling movie.
Or one frelled movie, if you prefer.

Tragically good call.