Monday, November 17, 2008

To Boldly Go Where No Pop Culture Storytelling Phenomenon Has Gone Before

First of all, the new Star Trek trailer: watch it here.

Ross Douthat has alreacy voiced some basic concerns here, and they are concerns that every geek ought to take seriously--just what kind of "reboot" is this? Is it a mere prequel? Is it a re-imagination of the whole premise of the series? Something in between? Something more? The leaks thusfar have been in some ways promising, but in other ways sobering, suggesting that what J.J. Abrams is bringing to the franchise is a lot of up-to-date Star Wars-style punching, with a bildungsroman pasted on top, and not much more. Well, as someone who has stood in line for opening night for more than a few Star Trek films, all I can say for sure is that we'll see.

I have a deeper concern though, which I think the trailer begs to be answered, and which I don't even know if I can frame as a question properly. But let me try anyway.

Just about every other pop culture property that Hollywood film studios or cable television networks have appropriated for the sake of creating new entertainments over the past century did not start out tied to a visualization associated with particular actors. James Bond was a series of books, Batman was a comic book, and so forth. Through all the films since, obviously certain cinematic conventions and expectations formed, but still, the fact remains that those conventions and expectations were not foundational. Daniel Craig may be measured against Sean Connery in the eyes of critics and movie-goers, but nobody really believes that Sean Connery was, in some literal sense, the "original" Bond. The same goes for Christian Bale (or Michael Keaton, or Adam West)--there's a Batman that can be gone back to, by screenwriters, by producers, by viewers, which is not Christian Bale or any of the rest.

Can that really be possible with Star Trek? Of course there was Gene Roddenberry there at the beginning, and dozens of other writers and technicians creating that series. But, as anyone who has been alive at any point since 1966 knows, William Shatner is James Tiberius Kirk. And Leonard Nimoy is Spock, and Deforest Kelley is Dr. McCoy, and so forth. They inhabited those roles, defined those roles, through not just the original series but also the cartoon series and the movies and all the novelizations and all the fiction (and all the fan fiction) which followed: millions and millions of words and images, all of which take that hair, that accent, that glance, that diction, all the composite elements of an actor's recorded performance, as a given in one's imagination of, and identification with, a character. Can you really get away from that?

Perhaps one could point to some successful movies that have been made of television shows where the main character was deeply identified with the person to who played him or her: Mel Gibson playing Maverick, for instance, or Nicole Kidman playing Samantha from Bewitched. But neither of those stories were treated--either in their original incarnations, or in their remakes, or by their fans in either case--with anywhere near the seriousness with which Star Trek has been (I would argue deservedly) been taken. Well, how about Battlestar Galactica, then? As Ross observed, making somewhat the same point I am making here, BG "was never a pop culture phenomenon along the lines of Trek" (and I would add it was never as character-centric as the original Trek was, besides the obvious point that it didn't last nearly as long). So the question, for me at least, remains unresolved.

We still don't know, I suppose, whether or not a successful re-imagining, in a visual medium, of a story-telling tradition that has so powerfully and for so long existed in our imagination in its own pre-existing visual medium, is at all possible. All this won't stop me from pre-ordering tickets, of course. I mean, watching the movie is the only way to find out.

9 comments:

Matt said...

I'm just hoping they'll work in some of the slash fiction aspect while young kirk and spock are at the Starfleet academy.

John Hamer said...

Hmmmm. Actually, I'm not too worried about having new actors play these roles. The roles have been bigger than the actors for a long time — as evidenced by the way the Star Trek personnas dominated the careers of the individual, original actors all these years. Once an actor inhabits a role, it's always hard to substitute a different actor, regardless of whether the character existed prior to the actor's portrayal. I do think it's a tough thing to get right regardless. But surprisingly from the first glimpses, I think Zachary Quinto seems even more like Spock than Leonard Nimoy --- especially old Nimoy.

Russell Arben Fox said...

The roles have been bigger than the actors for a long time — as evidenced by the way the Star Trek personnas dominated the careers of the individual, original actors all these years.

That's an interesting point, John, but I'm not sure if it leads to the conclusion you think it does. If the roles have been bigger than the actors, then why this constant identification of the actors with the roles, even as we talk about them being recast. You do it, saying that "Zachary Quinto seems even more like Spock than Leonard Nimoy"; others have been going on about how, based on the trailers and the footage seen thusfar, Karl Urban has "nailed" McCoy...but, of course, the basis for saying so is that Urban seems to be doing a brillian DeForest Kelley! I think the more likely way of putting it is that the roles took over the persona of the actors who played them. There's a precedent for this: Ian Fleming actually inserted a Scottish background into the history of James Bond in the last few stories, because he was so persuaded by Sean Connery's Bond!

Anyway, as I said, we'll just have to wait and see. Maybe Abrams and these new actors will find a way to seamlessly pry the characters away from their actor-bound images, by borrowing some stuff but bringing in their own contributions along the way. Or maybe it'll fall flat. Only one way to know for sure...

Rob said...

I'll go, but I won't stand in a midnight line for it.

And I don't know if I share your misgivings about the project. Star Trek is fundamentally a TeeVee show, that is to say, fantasy, fiction, a framework of lies which hopefully contains a human truth or two, without which the story is not interesting.

If all it gives us is a fun ride, then I think that's OK, since I believe that Star Trek depicts a moral universe which is simply impossible, and to a certain extent far too American for non-Western civilizations to connect with.

I disagree that Battlestar Galactica was not a pop cultural phenomenon; I think it might have been a staying power as large or larger than Star Trek, had ABC given it more than one television season and not interfered with the writing. Maybe. Gene Roddenberry was a greater television producer than Glen A. Larson.

The Galactica reboot was a complete reboot, carrying over only a few elements and producing an entirely different and arguably incoherent mythos. (There wasn't much to the 1978 show's mythos, anyway, except recycled pop Mormonism). Mostly I'm upset with NBC for the scheduling of the rebooted show.

Point is, it survived its re-imagining and actually converted fans of the old series by being a vehicle of interesting storytelling. This Trek movie could repudiate almost everything except the core characterizations of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, without losing my interest.

Old Trek's appeal was in part based on the human truths in its framework. If Trek gives us more than a bildungsroman, it will be a bonus.

John Hamer said...

Actually, I don't think "Spock-like" is necessarily the same thing in my mind as a Nimoy impression. Actually, I hope that the new actors aren't going to be doing anything like impressions of the original actors. Shatner is already a caricature and the last thing we need to see is a caricature of a caricature. Likewise Koenig.

Camassia said...

I expect that roles can be successfully played by multiple actors the more archetypal they are. For instance, I didn't even notice the change of actors playing Dumbledore until it was pointed out, because so far he's simply been the stock Wise Elder. (Of course, the facial hair also helps!) The original Trek is actually most suited to this because the characters were fairly broadly drawn. I have a harder time imagining a recasting The Next Generation.

mbfox said...

This is my first time, I believe, to make a comment on your blog Russ. I did not know that another Star Trek movie was coming out until I was reading your blog. I watched the trailers and I'm very excited about it. Maybe I'll even go to the midnight showing. I think that it's cool that they are going back and doing beginning Kirk, Spock, McCoy stuff. Whether the characters or the actors are bigger I don't know. But the characters are larger than life. It seems to me that they are trying to pull a "Batman Begins" or "Casino Royal" or in other words, a mainly character developing movie with the plot being second. Hey, the idea worked for me in both these movies, so I don't see why it won't work for me when it comes to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy (unless of course the actors really suck, which I doubt will be the case).

wayne.madsen said...

I agree with the notion that the characters exist in a direct link to the actor's portrayal of the character -- why else have these actors never been able to get beyond those specific roles? However, despite the entrenchment of the character/actor relationship in the public's eye, I am much more concerned about the inability of this 'reboot' to maintain the function of Star Trek in popular fiction.

In my mind, within fiction there is a place for hard science fiction and soft science fiction. Fan bases have evolved around the distinction between hard sci-fi and fantasy based sci-fi. These communities may not be mutually exclusive, I feel like the attitudes presented in Star Trek avoided loose sci-fi, unlike the Star Wars counterpart.

When you remove one of the primary catalysts for hard sci-fi (Star Trek) and place it within the soft sci-fi realm (Star Wars), I feel like you are treating hard sci-fi as the bastard child of the entertainment industry. I'm sure the younger and money-wielding generation are more than happy to support fantasy fiction, as they have in the past ten years, but how has our culture diminished by extracting the 'nerdiness' into the 'geeks' realm? Perhaps I feel like we are absolving ourselves from a certain genre and laying it to rest.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Wow, some old comments here to catch up on.

Rob,

I disagree that Battlestar Galactica was not a pop cultural phenomenon; I think it might have been a staying power as large or larger than Star Trek, had ABC given it more than one television season and not interfered with the writing.

I'm afraid to say that I think you're completely out to lunch here, Rob. I admit my memories of the original BG series are none too good, but if there had been any kind of compelling sci-fi storytelling there, I think I would have remembered it. Instead, I just remember vague, unaccountable space battles and some wandering into mysticism (didn't they meet some angels eventually, or something?). I just can't believe that there was a pop culture storytelling phenomenon there that was squelched by a blinkered television studio.

Camassia,

The original Trek is actually most suited to this because the characters were fairly broadly drawn. I have a harder time imagining a recasting The Next Generation.

This is true--several people have commented upon the use Roddenberry and others made of the Big Three is sketching out archetypical storytelling tropes. (Which makes me think of the recurrence of "trio" storytelling all throughout pop culture: Harry, Ron and Hermione, etc.) TNG moved away from those archetypes, and created more complicated, multifaceted characters...though I would argue it did so in service of creating a style of storytelling that was only superficially science fiction; mostly just generic soap opera/adventure/domestic drama-type stuff.

Baden,

Thanks for stopping by!

But the characters are larger than life. It seems to me that they are trying to pull a "Batman Begins" or "Casino Royal" or in other words, a mainly character developing movie with the plot being second.

I suspect you're right: the goal of the reboot will be to establish new faces on the characters, and the plot by which they accomplish that feat--if they can--will be secondary.

Wayne,

Fan bases have evolved around the distinction between hard sci-fi and fantasy based sci-fi. These communities may not be mutually exclusive, I feel like the attitudes presented in Star Trek avoided loose sci-fi, unlike the Star Wars counterpart. When you remove one of the primary catalysts for hard sci-fi (Star Trek) and place it within the soft sci-fi realm (Star Wars), I feel like you are treating hard sci-fi as the bastard child of the entertainment industry.

Very well put. But of course, there's a reason for why hard sci-fi doesn't get the entertainment industry respect that soft sci-fi does: soft sci-fi (exemplified by the kind of "space opera"/Star Wars stuff you mention) has a better box office track record, which is perhaps understandable since it is less intellectual, less tied to big themes (or at least less obligated to spell out those themes at length), and thus leaves more room for filming giant space battles. Which are, of course, really cool! But they aren't necessarily sci-fi (I recognize that Star Trek: The Motion Picture really dragged, but I also respect it, as a serios attempt to import the hard sci-fi sensibility of much Star Trek to the big screen.)