<em>Star Trek</em>'s Troubling 50th Anniversary

There was some heartening news over the holidays for those of us who are longtimefans. And there was some alarming news, none of which has been mitigated since.
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There was some heartening news over the holidays for those of us who are longtime Star Trek fans. And there was some alarming news, none of which has been mitigated since.

The next Star Trek film in the rebooted franchise now has a launch date in its 50th anniversary year of 2016. It opens on July 8th, which happens to be my birthday. But there are plenty of signs of disarray, with little evidence that the 50th anniversary of one of the biggest scifi cultural phenomenons of all time has much in the way of celebration in store. This stands in stark contrast to the recent 50th anniversaries of the James Bond and Doctor Who franchises.

Star Trek, the rebooted 2009 movie that presented the original series characters living in a new timeline, provided a great renewal for the franchise.

With Trek reboot director J.J. Abrams off to his first love Star Wars after a promising and exciting first film and a maddening follow-up, and co-writer and producer of the 2009 and 2013 films Roberto Orci in and out of the director's chair, the anniversary film finally has a director. It's Justin Lin, from the Fast and Furious franchise.

But the script that Orci and others developed is apparently out. Leaving, well, we don't know what. Not a good sign for a big film that's supposed to be in theaters in less than 18 months.

And Lin, who deserves credit for developing the Fast and Furious films from mere car chase spectaculars into something approaching coherent mythology -- at least if you squint in a certain way -- has no background in science fiction and no apparent connection with Trek.

What the heck has happened?

For starters, the supposed new "Supreme Court" Abrams assembled to guide Trek intellectually and operationally -- Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindeloff, Bryan Burk, and Abrams himself -- seems to have evaporated into thin air.

Which shouldn't be a surprise. The group was so busy with other, mostly forgettable projects, that they took four years to come up with the sequel to the 2009 smash hit, which was widely applauded (including by me) for making the complex Trek universe accessible to a new audience and exciting and fun in the bargain.

Abrams passed the time after the reboot expanding his TV empire with mostly forgotten new shows and in making making a Spielberg homage film, the pleasant Super 8. Others worked on the, gag, Transformers films, and so on.

When they formally came together for 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness, with a wide-open sheaf of possibilities before them in the new timeline created by the reboot, they delivered instead a fairly insulting remake of perhaps the greatest original Trek film, The Wrath of Khan. (First Contact rivals it from the Next Generation crew.)

The good news was that it brought in a great new actor, Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch -- just nominated for the best actor Oscar for playing code-breaking computer pioneer Alan Turing in The Imitation Game -- as a powerful villain of sorts. The bad news is that the elite white London intellectual was supposed to be genetically engineered South Asian warlord Khan Noonien Singh.

Despite Dark Knight-scale expectations and a commensurately bigger budget, STID did over 10 percent less at the domestic box office than the 2009 reboot, though it did better internationally.

STID had a lot of breathless action, but not much in the way of ideas, which is merely Trek's historical stock-in-trade, aside from a warmed-over plot about false flag terrorist attacks.

Meanwhile, we have in theaters right now a big scifi film -- which had a substantially lower budget than Star Trek Into Darkness -- which does what Star Trek is supposed to do.

That's Interstellar, Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan's first film after his landmark Batman trilogy.

Interstellar delivers what Trek has always aspired to since its beginning nearly a half century ago on television, a scientifically and politically credible view of our speculative future. One with plenty of drama and action and insight into the human condition. In addition to big worldwide box office, notwithstanding a near three-hour running time, Interstellar just scored five Oscar nomination, though not for best picture despite making the American Film Institute's list of best films of the year. The Motion Picture Academy continues its usual prejudice against science fiction. (The comparatively paper-thin Gravity isn't really scifi, with its drama centered on a fictional space shuttle accident, the last shuttle mission having flown a few years ago.)

The best of Star Trek does what Interstellar does: Present humanity in the future responding to great, even terrifying, challenges with intelligence and courage, showing the ability to adapt to the unknown and not only survive but ultimately thrive.

Of course, Star Trek hasn't always been at its best over the course of five live-action television series, an animated series, and a dozen feature films. I've seen them all, not just the films but also every last episode of each series, with the Original Series going three seasons, the Animated Series one season, The Next Generation seven seasons, Deep Space Nine seven seasons, Voyager seven seasons, and Enterprise four seasons.

There's a fair amount of dreck in there, especially in Voyager which I often struggled to get through. Even the much loved Next Generation struggled the first couple of seasons. And the concluding Enterprise, set promisingly in the pioneering days of star travel well before Captain Kirk, often struggled to find its way as the longtime team of TV producers slowly ran out of gas.

But it's a compelling body of work set in a vast fictional universe, one that the new group of writers and producers struggled to grasp after a bravura beginning.

Yet, with a good new cast with intriguing takes on the Original Series characters and strong production elements in place, the promise of the 2009 reboot remains.

This Martin Luther King Day weekend reminds of just one of Trek's many social relevancies in presenting its ultimately optimistic view of our explorational future in space. King encouraged actress Nichelle Nichols to remember that her image as chief communications officer Uhura was always at the center of the things on the Enterprise bridge, even if her character was often not at the center of the action. That paid off later in television's first interracial kiss between Uhura and William Shatner's Captain Kirk.

The reboot took things much further, with scifi star Zoe Saldana (the Avatar films and Guardians of the Galaxy as well) very much in the center of the action as Uhura along with the classic "trinity" of Chris Pine's Kirk, Zachary Quinto's Spock, and Karl Urban's Dr. McCoy. But in the disappointing sequel, Saldana's Uhura was too much Spock's angry girlfriend.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is widely regarded as the most impactful of the original series of movies. Remaking it was a bad idea.

Paramount and the producers have undoubtedly taken note of this and other criticisms of Star Trek Into Darkness. Their challenge now, with time running distressingly rather short, is to try to match the successful 50th anniversaries of Bond and, at least, Doctor Who.

Skyfall, directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes, set a mark that will be very difficult to match.

Skyfall brought the past, present, and future of Bond together in compelling and elegant fashion, delivering crunching action and heartfelt drama in producing one of the biggest films of all time at the global box office.

The Bond folks, like the producers of Doctor Who, the venerable Brit scifi phenomenon about a time-traveling alien, also delivered a series of events throughout their 50th anniversary year to remind of the property's cultural significance.

If anything like that is happening for Star Trek, I'm not aware of it. At this point, I'll just be happy when they announce they have a script for the movie.

I don't know if Paramount has a unique problem managing its movie franchises. The mishandled Jack Ryan franchise, which I wrote about last year, might suggest that it does.

But problems at other studios handling franchises licensed from Marvel Comics -- such as Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men -- suggest that it's not just Paramount.

The Marvel movies that work consistently, including the massive mega-hit The Avengers, which has its follow-up coming in a few months, are the ones controlled and produced by Marvel itself, working with Disney.

Having someone whose focus is on the franchise -- like Marvel Cinematic Universe uber-producer Kevin Feige and Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson -- is the key.

Star Trek doesn't have that. Abrams was presented as someone who might be that person, but that obviously proved not to be the case.

Now those of us who've been Star Trek fans since it first debuted on NBC on September 8th, 1966 -- along with the many more of more recent vintage -- must hope for the best.

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