The Geek Beat: Why the New 'Star Trek' Should Let Go of the Past

The Geek Beat: Why the New 'Star Trek' Should Let Go of the Past

Oct 02, 2014

For a franchise based on the premise of boldly going where no one has gone before, lately it seems as if Star Trek is more than happy to travel familiar roads.

Franchise veteran William Shatner recently revealed that J.J. Abrams had called him to find out if he'd be interested in appearing in the upcoming third installment of the rebooted Star Trek movie, almost certainly reprising his iconic role as Captain James T. Kirk in some form. Given that Leonard Nimoy has managed to reprise his role as Spock in the previous two films despite Zachary Quinto playing the new Spock, anything is possible at this point – but I can't help wondering if maybe the new Star Trek universe would be better off boldly leaving the old one behind.

When the idea of rebooting the Star Trek cinematic universe first began making the rounds prior to the 2009 film, few thought it could be done. The mere notion of recasting some of sci-fi's most iconic characters after 40 years of television, movies, cartoons, novels and comic books featuring the same actors playing the same roles time and time again seemed, well... just shy of impossible.

But that's exactly what Abrams and the Star Trek team managed to do – to the tune of more than $385 million in worldwide ticket sales and overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, general audiences, and most impressively, lifelong Star Trek fans.

Not only did Star Trek effectively reboot the big-screen continuity for the franchise, but it did so without the usual heavy-handed passing of the torch that relies on packing in as many cameos from the original cast as possible and overt “see what we did there?” narrative callbacks. Somehow, Abrams found the balance between honoring a series that is precious to one of the most vocal fan bases in the world of genre fare and starting over with a (relatively) clean slate.

It's the sort of thing that never happens with Hollywood reboots – except in this case, it did.

Instead of filling the film with familiar faces, Abrams relied on just one returning cast member to create a link to the past: Leonard Nimoy. And instead of holding audiences' hands through the transition, Nimoy and the traditional franchise elements took a backseat to the storytelling and development of characters that merely reminded of the past instead of replicating it.

But that wasn't the only gutsy move by Abrams and Star Trek  writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. Rather than pit the new cast of actors against a classic Star Trek villain (to show that they deserve to stand on the level of those who came before them), Star Trek introduced a brand new foe – Eric Bana's revenge-mad Romulan, Nero – and let the cast concentrate on shaping the characters and their relationships to each other outside the shadow of the old and familiar.

In many ways, the success of 2009's Star Trek had more to do with what it was willing to let go of than what it held on to with regard to the franchise. And it was a lesson that seemed forgotten four years later when Star Trek Into Darkness arrived in theaters.

Where the 2009 reboot strove to blaze its own, ambitious trail (and did so in leaps and bounds), Into Darkness took several leaps back, relying less on an innovatove approach to the franchise and more on familiarity with older concepts and characters. Sure, the film made a pile of money (earning more in worldwide ticket sales than its predecessor), but it took a hit from audiences and critics – particularly longtime fans – and by many accounts, has only looked worse over time.

If Star Trek was an example of how thinking outside the box can work for a film, Into Darkness was a good example of why the mere mention of the word “reboot” prompts an eye roll from modern audiences.

When it comes to reboots, the typical Hollywood recipe calls for casting popular actors capable of putting a fresh spin on iconic characters in a relatively well-known story with a few twists here and there to set it apart from the source material. While talented actors cast in reboots have occasionally given us some memorable performances (Christian Bale's Batman, for example), they tend to be a bit limited in what they can do due to the constraints of an iconic character's well-established boundaries.

Don't get me wrong – I'm a big fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, the fantastic actor who (SPOILER ALERT) played Khan (a.k.a. John Harrison) in Into Darkness, taking over the role made famous by Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In the end, the biggest flaw in an otherwise thrilling performance from the Sherlock star was that he was, well... Khan.

No matter how fresh, nuanced, and unique his performance was, the moment he revealed that he was Khan, we knew everything we needed to know about him – and that's a shame.

Without the “Khan” connection, Into Darkness is an original story about a soldier who's lost without a war, but the moment Cumberbatch utters the words “My name is... Khan,” the film becomes just another remake. Where there was once uncertainty in his motives – leaving open the possibility that he might be a complicated antihero of sorts – that one line of dialogue removes all of the gray uncertainty.

It's a shame, really, because Cumberbatch's supersoldier John Harrison could've made for an even more compelling, unpredictable foil for the crew of the starship Enterprise down the road if he wasn't a slave to the legacy of an established, iconic character.

But that wasn't the only old, unfortunate habit that Into Darkness seemed to fall into at times.

Where 2009's Star Trek seemed to actively shy away from heavy-handed references to the previous series, Into Darkness couldn't seem to pack enough Tribbles, Harry Mudd, recycled scenes (Kirk and Spock separated by glass in the moments before one of them dies), recycled dialogue (Khaaaaaaaaaaan!), and even more old Spock into its running time. Even the idea of a narrative callback was taken to the extreme, with Quinto's Spock actually calling up Nimoy's Spock to find out how the original Enterprise crew beat Khan in 1982's Wrath of Khan.

At times, the film seemed so reliant on self-reference that Into Darkness felt like a “greatest hits” album played by a cover band.

And that's why it's understandable to feel a little anxious about the recent news regarding a potential role for Shatner in the third Star Trek movie. After such an auspicious start, it's frustrating to see Star Trek resort to the same old tricks and tropes that have relegated so many other reboots to the realm of forgettable genre fare.

It's not that I have anything against Shatner – or any of the Star Trek veterans, for that matter – it's simply a matter of wanting to believe that the lightning-in-a-bottle brilliance of that 2009 reboot wasn't a fluke. To its credit, Star Trek raised the bar for reboots, so it's disappointing to think that it might rest on its laurels instead of doing the same for sequels.

Because if any franchise is capable of boldly going where no one has gone before, it's Star Trek.

 

Question of the Week: What do you think about William Shatner returning for the next Star Trek movie?


Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, Newsarama, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and his personal blog can be found at  MindPollution.org. You can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.

 

 

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