Wednesday 4 November 2015

Now, what I want to see in the new Star Trek

This week, CBS announced that plans were in place for a new Star Trek TV series, set to be available for streaming from early 2017. This will be some months after the thirteenth Trek movie, Star Trek Beyond, hits the screens, itself timed to mark the franchise's fiftieth anniversary. Naturally, every geeky outlet on the net has begun setting out what the new series should feature; that is, those that aren't already dismissing it as utter crap. Alex Kurtzman is set to be the exec. producer, having already co-written and produced the 2009 and 2013 movies. This could go either way, really, but I note that Kurtzman has a strong track record with television. In his favour: Star Trek 2009, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (hey, I liked it), Now You See Me, Alias, Locke & Key, Limitless. Against him: Star Trek Into Darkness, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Cowboys and Aliens, The Island. Let's give him some leeway and see what he comes up with, alongside co-exec Heather Kadin. Certainly, it looks like the times he's had more creative control have generally produced better results, and we still don't know anything about producers, directors, and crucially, writers at this stage.

Without further ado, here's my penny's worth on hopes for the new series:

Keep moving forward

As yet, there's no word as to when this series will be set, or whether it will take place in the primary universe of the original franchise or the parallel universe of the new films. Frankly, I'm not too bothered which version of Trek history it takes place in. It could even take place before the split (i.e Enterprise onwards - maybe we'll finally get to see the Romulan War) or so far into the future that it's irrelevant which continuity we're seeing. What matters more is that we have new, original material, that fits with the Star Trek aesthetic and spirit, but doesn't shamelessly copy it.

When The Next Generation arrived, it stumbled early on by trying to recapture some of the camp glitz of the original series, but once it established it's own identity, it became quite its own animal, and a huge success to boot. The movies that have had the best reception have been the ones that were, tonally, very different to what came beforehand. The Wrath of Khan mined the original for inspiration but added new dynamics and a Hornblower aesthetic. First Contact took the optimistic and controlled TNG crew and put them through the wringer in a dark adventure against their greatest foes (and still ended on a hopeful note). The 2009 movie chucked everything away that had been holding the franchise back, taking favourite elements and characters and revamping them in a modern, flashy, action movie. The perennially popular Star Trek IV: The One With the Whales was perhaps the least Trekky of the lot, ditching outer space adventure for fish-out-of-water comedy, and still managed to be both a financial hit and a fan-pleasing sequel.

Conversely, Voyager and Enterprise, for all their charms, never caught the public imagination because they were riffing on story styles already mined by TNG. By the time Enterprise was cancelled, last minute attempts to revamp the show were too little and too late. Star Trek had become a genre into itself, and an out-of-date one at that. It drastically needed a reboot (and I say that as someone who genuinely loves Enterprise). Star Trek Into Darkness, although a commercial hit, was a lowest common denominator movie, slavishly reproducing the look and bombast of its predecessor without adding anything new, while providing echoes of classic scenes that meant little to casual viewers and infuriated fans.

The lesson being: don't be afraid to try something new. Be Star Trek, but not the Star Trek we've seen before.


Star Trek has an embarrassingly poor record at depicting alternative sexualities and lifestyles. There have been a handful of attempts to explore homosexuality and its social issues through alien allegories, all of which fell flat, largely due to never going nearly far enough. We've never had an openly gay character on any of the series. A couple of characters have been suggested as being closeted, but to play or write a closeted character misses the point. Gay characters should simply exist in Star Trek's future, as part of that world, not as a source of social drama or conflict. The same goes for people from other marginalised groups. The transgender, agender, polyamorous - the human cast should be as varied, if not more varied, than the alien races we meet. Trek has made a good effort to depict an egalitarian future for women and different races, but it needs to go further. We've had occasional steps forward with disabled characters - TNG had a blind character from the start - but again, it could go further.

That's not to say that these differences can't be the source of conflict, but that should come from outside. Star Trek, at its best, has been political, using science fiction to explore contemporary issues. Sure, it was often ham-fisted, but subtlety isn't always the most important thing. Have a gay character as part of the crew, then have him face homophobia on some backwards planet. Or transphobia, or victimisation of the disabled. "Can you believe it," they might say, "they used to think like this on Earth!" Humanity is vast, complicated and multifaceted. Let's explore it.

New aliens, old aliens

One thing that the more recent version of Trek have relied upon is previously established alien races, be they the widely recognisable Klingons and Vulcans, or obscure fan-pleasers like the Tholians or the Gorn. Now, I like this as much as the next fan, but we're supposed to be exploring strange new worlds. That's not to say we should completely forget the existing cultures; they still exist in this universe, after all. Just don't focus on them. I'd love to see a couple of Andorians, wriggling their antennae in the background, but we need to lay off the old faces sometimes. This will be the seventh Star Trek TV series (including the animation). There have been thirty seasons of Trek already. Of these, sixteen had a regular Vulcan main character, and eighteen have had a Klingon in the main cast. We've done these guys to death. Give us some new blood. Take us to an unexplored region of the galaxy, or another galaxy altogether. I'm not saying I won't smile like a prat if we meet the Talosians again, but let's keep that as a very rare treat. New life, new civilisations. And take advantage of the make-up, puppetry and CGI techniques we have now. These aliens could look like anything.

Embrace the format

This isn't a one-off movie; this is television, and television has changed. Even 22-episode ongoing series have long, complex stories running on, although they do still spread them out with filler episodes. However, more and more TV series are going down the Netflix route: self-contained stories told over ten episodes or so, with a strong central storyline that doesn't keep you coming week after week so much as demand you swallow the whole thing in one go. Look at Sense8 or Daredevil. Explore the universe with a new set of characters, and let us explore how it effects them. Let them grow, let them change. Alternatively, look at the sprawling epics like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Huge casts, whose stories are told over years. Can you imagine a cross between Deep Space Nine and Game of Thrones, with alien political machinations and warfare told against astonishing vistas and hundreds of extras building a coherent world? Or send out a ship, have the crew beam down to a new planet that we've never imagined before and stay there for a full season, truly exploring and impacting upon it. Maybe the budget won't stretch to these fevered imaginings, but the storytelling techniques still hold. It could be majestic.

Failing all that...

... let's have Archer in space.

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