Written on 2009-05-10.
With the release of Star Trek XI, I can't help but reflect on the fact that it's so trendy lately to reboot fiction franchises. Comic book reboot films are all the rage and the reimagination of Battlestar Galactica has successfully forged a brand new generation of science fiction, one which as of Star Trek XI (see my review here), the Star Trek franchise boldly joins the ranks of. This new generation of science fiction is characterized by a dark and gritty aesthetic, focused much more strongly on visual realism as well as usually intricate plot arcs and complicated continuity. We live in the digital age now and people can be much more legitimately expected to watch old material to catch up before watching the next big summer blockbuster. Filmmakers are taking advantage of being able to tell longer and more intricate stories and the age of the reset button episode is behind us.
But something is not right here. Today, we value complicated continuity and reboots at the same time. We consider intricate, long running stories to be the apex of storytelling but we also consider them to be baggage; a liability as well. This love-hate relationship with continuity characterizes Star Trek XI perfectly. The film marvelously respected continuity by integrating a realistic, relevant, and natural continuation of the 24th century into its altered 23rd century story, rather than just doing a BSG style reboot, something every Star Trek fan no doubt appreciates. But at the same time, like somebody suffering from bipolar disorder, the film's entire premise seems to be geared toward shedding over 700 episodes and ten films worth of continuity as if it were some sort of hinderance to good storytelling.
Indeed, Star Trek XI's plot seems to simultaneously devalue as well as draw on continuity at every turn like an old man regretful of his ill spent youth but still unable to resist getting lost in nostalgia, unable to reconcile these two conflicting emotions. For every scene that there is an anachronism or a continuity error inserted deliberately ostensibly to improve the aesthetic, there is another with a delightfully witty and accurate reference to previous material. The climax of absurdity with this trend is the fact that the film's plot doesn't give us an answer one way or another as to whether or not the events of the film supersede the previous universe or exist apart from it. In other words, there's not enough evidence in the film to conclude that the old timeline is dead and gone, but there's also not enough evidence to conclude that the new timeline is a completely independent universe like in Ent: In a Mirror, Darkly where both universes can continue to exist.
Obviously, as a devoted fan to Star Trek, it's incomprehensibly offensive to be faced with the possibility that forty years of great and continuously consistent storytelling on Star Trek has been flushed down the toilet for a fun action romp. It's offensive because it is decidedly not necessary. Think back to the release of Star Trek VIII: First Contact or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Both films received immense critical acclaim, as did Star Trek XI. But unlike Star Trek XI, those two films absolutely reveled in continuity. But at the same time, anybody could watch them without being forced to watch several seasons of Star Trek first. They were enjoyable films and did well in the box office. Even with ordinary people who had never seen Star Trek.
Yet despite this fact, the producers of Star Trek XI as well as the mass media seemed to have forgotten all that and were convinced this time around that Star Trek could never be successful again until continuity was crumpled up and thrown away. Thus with so many people convinced of this, we were delivered a very well executed bad idea. Star Trek XI is a great movie with an exceptionally bad premise. In fact, Star Trek XI is ironically remarkably similar in almost every respect to its predecessor, Star Trek X: Nemesis, a film which did poorly in the box office and received poor critical acclaim. Both films are about a deranged Romulan villain bent on destroying planets. Both films are high budget with a great deal of focus on action. Both films feature a sleek and ultramodern series of sets. Both films deal centrally with time-tested, beloved characters. Both films pay a price with a deep and powerful loss to the characters. (The death of Data and the destruction of Vulcan.)
In so many respects, Star Trek X and Star Trek XI are the same film. The only difference? How it was marketed. Without a doubt, the incredible hype and viral marketing of the eleventh Star Trek film cultivated its success in popular culture and its critical acclaim. Had the same level of enthusiasm been cultivated by a similar marketing campaign for a TNG film or a film with new and fresh characters with a similar plot, pacing, and budget, it's well within the realm of possibilities that this level of success and critical acclaim could have been applied to a new story that didn't hinge on potentially violating forty years of continuity. Instead, the producers and writers chose the lazy approach of just doing what the comic book movies do. I fear for the future of the Star Trek franchise because the average lifespan of a comic book movie franchise is only three films, with the second being the best. Clearly, this is not a wise move if the intent is to ensure Star Trek's long term health.
There's more to Star Trek's comic book reboot that is inadvisable than the average lifespan of a comic book reboot though. The potentially larger issue is the concept of boldly going backwards; another aspect of the lazy writing. When Star Trek Enterprise was first aired, there were some concerns among fans that a prequel was the wrong direction to go in for all the reasons the Star Wars prequels were poorly received. True to this concern, Enterprise did indeed disappoint fans. So much so that Star Trek was canceled for the first time in nearly two decades and remained off the air for the longest stretch of time since TOS' cancellation. When it came back with Star Trek XI, the mistake was repeated. Another prequel. This time it may have been a critical success, but once the glitz of the summer blockbuster limelight wears off, what will remain?
For Star Trek to have a long and prosperous future, it needs to stop being lost in nostalgia and move forward, not backward. We need Star Trek The Next-Next generation. Do for the TNG/DS9/Voy century what was done for the TOS century. Move ahead another 100 years into the 25th century. Tell a different story; one about Federation politics. Make the main character the President of the Federation. Sure, it may not be boldly going out into exploring space, but much like trying to explore our own planet today, by the 25th century what will be left of the galaxy to explore? The real drama is in exploring what it is like to live in a vast inter-stellar nation formed on the final frontier when there's no frontier left to explore. When warp drive is fast enough to take you anywhere in the galaxy, but not necessarily fast enough to take you to the next galaxy. That's just one of any number of premises more vital and most certainly more original than Star Trek XI's so called revitalization.
But we got what we got. What's done is done. We're still not ready to look forward just quite yet. That's for tomorrow's Star Trek. And at the end of the day, has Star Trek XI really violated continuity? As I said, we don't know. In fact, there is some circumstantial evidence to suggest that it hasn't been violated. For one, every time time travel has been used in the way that it is used in Star Trek XI, there has always been some sort of intervention from the future to correct the error. Specifically, why didn't Captain Braxton from the Federation Timeship Relativity come to fix Kirk's childhood? Why didn't Daniels from the Temporal Cold War on Enterprise intervene on the behalf of the Temporal Accord? The point is on Star Trek, the future has always looked after its past and the timeline has been essentially rendered indestructible as a consequence. Thus, the only conclusion is that unbeknownst to Old Spock and Nero, they were transported not only to another time, but another universe; a parallel universe. Like the mirror universe, but even more similar to the primary one. This would also account for some of the other less significant continuity errors of the film as well.
In fact, in a comic published leading up the release of the film, after Spock disappears, people from the original timeline are depicted as mourning his loss. The fact that they're all still around to mourn the loss of Spock also implies that their timeline continued to exist unharmed. However, this comic isn't exactly canon. Of course, we can't really know what is and isn't canon because there's not enough evidence to support either conclusion. All that we do have is Robert Orci's statement assuring us that both universes continue to exist, but whether or not that is just lip service to concerned fans we can't quite know. In the mean time, anybody that values Star Trek's rich history will be hoping that Star Trek's current foray into the third generation of science fiction remains restricted to the safe confines of an alternate universe so that the new generation can thrive without being at the expense of what came before. And perhaps one day if we're really lucky, Star Trek will stop resorting to prequels and reboots and tell original stories again, rather than being lost in nostalgia. Either way, let's all hope whatever the producers decide that Star Trek continues to live long and prosper.