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06 December, 2009

“… To Boldly Go Where Some Have Gone Before …”: Rebooting the Trek, Forty-five Years Later

Trekkers are a curious breed. We have a fanatical devotion to a television series that ended its network run long before many of us were born. We spend our time pouring over blueprints and technical manuals for ships and devices that don’t exist; we translate works of literature such as the Bible and Shakespeare’s Hamlet into a fictional, alien language; and we ceaselessly discuss and debate arcane points of the history of the future… a future that exists only as part of one of the most lucrative franchises ever to spring from Hollywood.

In 1964, roughly around the time a baby Unimonster made his debut, a network executive named Gene Roddenberry was pitching an idea for a new hour-long Sci-Fi series, in his words a, “Wagon Train to the Stars …” concept. NBC liked the idea, and ordered that a pilot episode be shot. That first episode, “The Cage,” starred Jeffery Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike, of the United Earth Ship Enterprise. M. Leigh Hudec, aka Majel Barrett, the future Mrs. Roddenberry, was cast as his female First Officer, nameless save for Pike’s nickname for her, “Number One.” His Science Officer, played by Leonard Nimoy, was an alien named Spock, a native of the planet Vulcan. The network rejected that version of the show, but, in a highly unusual move, asked Roddenberry to recast many of the roles and shoot another pilot. This time, a young Canadian actor named William Shatner played a new Captain, named James Tiberius Kirk. Shatner, who had learned his craft in Toronto theaters, was a relative unknown to American audiences, as was Nimoy, whose character of Spock was the only one to survive from the first pilot. Promoted to First Officer, the pilot began with a, no pun intended, fascinating interplay between he and Kirk, an interplay that would set the tone for the pair’s friendship that would become the driving theme of the Original Series.

The network purchased that second pilot, entitled “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and slated Star Trek on the fall, 1966 schedule. The regular cast would include Shatner, Nimoy, DeForest Kelley as the irascible Chief Surgeon Leonard “Bones” McCoy, James Doohan as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, Nichelle Nichols as the communications officer, Lt. Uhura, and George Takei as the helmsman, Lt. Sulu. On September 8th, 1966, NBC aired Star Trek's premiere episode, “The Man Trap.” For the next two-and-a-half years, fans of the series fought an almost constant war with the network to keep it on the schedule. NBC, dismayed by lower than expected ratings and the relatively high production costs per episode, shuffled it from time slot to time slot, and finally decided to cancel the series at the end of the second season.

However, the show’s fans banded together to mount an unprecedented letter-writing campaign to save Star Trek, one that actually succeeded. The show was back… at least, for another season.

However, NBC had washed its hands of the series, burying it in a metaphorical dead zone of a time slot—Friday nights at 10pm. Despite its devoted core of supporters, the show couldn’t be rescued a second time. As the third season ended, with the episode “Turnabout Intruder,” Star Trek ended its network run after seventy-nine broadcast episodes. Though most observers would write “the end” to the series at this point, a dedicated group of fans, led by a California housewife named Bjo Trimble, refused to let the show die a quiet death. A series of novelizations of the broadcast episodes fed the appetites of the show’s fandom, now referred to disparagingly as “Trekkies,” until the fall of 1973. CBS and Filmation teamed to resurrect the franchise, albeit in animated form, for the network’s Saturday morning children’s line-up. The original cast returned to voice the characters, and the series enjoyed very good production values and excellent writing. In general, the Animated Series was on a creative par with the Original Series, with several episodes, most notably “Yesteryear,” equal to the best of the live-action scripts.
The Animated Series lasted an even shorter time than the original version had, just 22 episodes, but it would leave a lasting impression on both fandom, and the franchise. Five years later, elements common to the Original Series episode “The Doomsday Machine” as well as one of the animated episodes, “One of Our Planets is Missing,” would be combined with the plot of the Original Series episode “The Changeling” to create the script for the big-screen relaunch of the franchise, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.

In the years since the cancellation of the series in 1969, the popularity of the series had spread via syndication. Almost from the time NBC pulled the plug on the show, it was running daily on stations around the country, including the Unimonster’s hometown. A new generation of fans fell in love with Roddenberry’s vision of the future, and an entire industry grew to feed the hunger of those fans for anything relating to their beloved Trek. Blueprints of the Starship Enterprise were a prized acquisition for the ten-year-old Unimonster, as was the Star Fleet Technical Manual. Both consumed much of my annual income of $52, and I gladly forked it over. Items such as the AMT/Ertl models of the U.S.S. Enterprise (complete with decals for every starship!), the shuttlecraft Galileo, the Klingon and Romulan warships, even life-sized replicas of the Phaser, Communicator, and Tricorder were huge with me.

However, the crown jewels of my personal collection were the Mego action figures of the crew of the Enterprise. I had them all—Kirk, Spock, Scotty, even the Klingon and Romulan figures. More importantly, I had the Enterprise Bridge playset, complete with Captain’s Chair and working Transporter. Nothing captured my childhood attention as thoroughly as Trek did, not even my beloved monsters.

So I eagerly welcomed the premiere of the return of my favorite show… this time, to the big screen. The 13th of December, 1979, was my little sister’s eighth birthday, and I, being the loving big brother that I was, promised I’d take her to the movies in celebration. Little did she know that the Friday prior to her birthday was the date of the STAR TREK opening. Thus it was that she found herself sitting, with her big brother, amidst an eager crowd of his fellow Trekkers as the curtain rose on the rebirth of the franchise. There’s no doubt she failed to appreciate the significance of her birthday present that year, but that December in 1979 cemented Star Trek’s place in pop culture. Though that first effort was less than impressive, story-wise (it was initially intended to be a new television series, titled Star Trek II…), more movies followed, and new landmarks in the franchise’s existence were reached. In 1982, Ricardo Montalban reprised his role as Khan Noonian Singh from the Original Series episode “Space Seed,” in the best of the Trek films, Nicholas Meyer’s STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN. In a seminal moment for the series, Spock dies saving the Enterprise from Khan’s dying act of vengeance. Two years later, Kirk & Co. rescue Spock, reanimated by the energies of the Genesis Planet, but at the cost of both Kirk’s son and the Enterprise herself. Though not as well done as the previous outing, STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK marked Nimoy’s debut as a director on the series, and he did well enough to earn the big chair for the next film as well.
STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME did something that the previous three films had completely failed to do: Recapture the light-hearted humor and fun of the Original Series. 1986 marked the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut, and the movie’s release was accompanied by a spirit of celebration that electrified fandom. The movie itself helped with this, as it was easily the most successful of the films to date. The humor that was so much a part of many of the series’ best episodes returned full-force, and Trekkers, weary of the bleak tone set by the previous films, loved it.

In 1987, Star Trek returned to the small screen, with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Billed as closer to Roddenberry’s original vision than what the movies had become, fans of the Original Series at first hated the new concept. Derided as a “… kinder, gentler …” Trek, TNG seemed to want to eliminate all conflict from the galaxy. The Captain was French, the Bridge crew included a psychologist, and the helmsman was a Klingon. It was Star Trek—as envisioned by Mr. Rogers. Replacing Shatner’s Kirk in the center seat was Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, a cultured, urbane Frenchman played by British actor Patrick Stewart. Stewart—in his late 50’s, thin, balding—made a singularly unimpressive choice for a starship captain, at least at first glance. However, he did have one advantage over Shatner that wasn’t readily apparent to Trekkers—he could act. Though the debate would never be settled, as it came down to a matter of personal preference, Stewart was able to win over most in the Trek community.

According to the new creative direction, the old, established races with whom the Federation had battled were no longer important. The Klingons were allies, and the Romulans were isolated behind the neutral zone. The new threat was the Ferengi, a race of uber-capitalists interested only in the acquisition of wealth—a rather blatant political commentary on the excesses of the late ‘80’s.

In time, the series would evolve, finding its metaphorical testicles as the Ferengi were relegated to a comic relief status in favor of new threats and new dangers, such as the Borg, an enemy that would become the franchise’s arch-villains, crossing over to every subsequent series. Landmark episodes such as “The Inner Light,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Best of Both Worlds,” and “Chain of Command” set a standard as not only excellent episodes of Star Trek, but excellent stories in general. By the fourth season, fans had come to accept the series as a worthy follow-up to the original, and the franchise’s overall success had engendered plans for another Trek series.
More movies had followed STAR TREK IV, of course. Shatner himself was the next to take the director’s chair, with 1989’s STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER. Easily the worst Trek film of all, Trekkers heartily ridiculed this film, from the preposterous premise to the glaring technical mistakes to the quite frankly insane mischaracterizations. The opinion of Trek fandom was virtually unanimous—instead of sending the Enterprise in search of God, it should’ve been sent after competent direction. That mistake was corrected when it was announced that the director of STAR TREK II, Nicholas Meyer, would helm the next film. STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY marked the end of the original cast’s run, though individual members of that cast would continue to appear across the franchise. It also cemented in the minds of Trekkers the notion of the “odd-Movie” curse. Since STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, each odd-number film in the series had been panned by critics and criticized by the fans, while the even-numbered films were much better in terms of both quality and reviews. STAR TREK VI did nothing to dispel these notions, as it was far better than the previous film.

January 1993 saw the debut of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, a second concurrent Trek franchise. If the original Trek had been envisioned as a “Wagon Train to the Stars,” then DS9 was “Gunsmoke in the Stars”—with Avery Brooks’ Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko as Marshal Dillon, and the abandoned Cardassian ore processing facility now known as Deep Space 9 as Dodge City. Instead of traveling to new planets and meeting new races each week, they would remain in place, while those new races and adventures would come to them. Though Trek purists—the Unimonster among them—at first hated the concept of DS9, the series’ producers, just as had happened with TNG, moved the show in a direction that was closer to what the Trekkers expected. New plotlines—involving a growing militant movement that had evolved from the Bajoran resistance to the Cardassian occupation, known as the Maquis, took the series from the mediocrity of its first two seasons to show promise of better things to come. Then, two additions, first of Michael Dorn’s character Worf from TNG, after its seven-year run had ended, and then what the series needed most of all—mobility. The Starship Defiant, an experimental warship designed to counter the Borg threat, was permanently assigned to the station, with Sisko as its captain. Gradually, more and more of the episodes were set away from DS9, and the …Trek part of Star Trek reentered the series.

One area of improvement that was consistent from TNG to DS9 was writing, particularly in the area of story arcs that would be revisited from time to time, creating a connection and a sense of continuity between series. Beginning with the Klingon invasion of Cardassia in season 4, and transitioning into the beginning of the Dominion War by the end of the fifth season, DS9 exemplified some of the best Trek ever, as the vast scope of the conflict played out over the remainder of the series’ run. Prior to this, combat in space, at least in the Trek universe, was ship-to-ship, small-scale action. The single fleet engagement, against the Borg at Wolf 359, occurred off-screen, seen only in it’s aftermath, or in flashback. Now, entire fleets did battle—Federation, Klingon, Romulan, Cardassian, and Jem’Hadar—and nothing and no one was considered sacred. Deep Space 9 was captured and retaken, the Defiant was destroyed, even Sisko died at the end.

1994 witnessed the handing off of the torch, as the crew of The Next Generation took over the feature film series, with STAR TREK: GENERATIONS. Though better than most critics—and most Trekkers—give it credit for, the “Odd-Movie” curse reared its head once more, and many fans came away less than satisfied. Two momentous events make the film notable in the franchise’s history, however: The destruction of the Enterprise-D, and the death of Capt. James T. Kirk. Of course, the fact that Kirk ‘died’ twice in the film, each in spectacular, dramatic fashion, was not lost on those Trekkers who weren’t die-hard Shatnerphiles. Still, his final exit from the Trek stage was handled as well as was possible, considering the attendant melodrama and hype.

Trek was at it’s peak in 1994-95, with one series just ending it’s seven-year run, a second well underway, the film franchise going strong, and a third series, Star Trek: Voyager, just beginning. As was becoming the norm for Star Trek series, the initial response from fans was not overwhelmingly positive. The premise was closer in spirit to what Trekkers wanted from the franchise however, with the starship Voyager, commanded by Capt. Kathryn Janeway (played by Kate Mulgrew, after Genevieve Bujold backed out), pursues a Maquis vessel into the Badlands, and both ships disappear, only to find they’ve been transported to the Delta Quadrant, 75,000 light-years from home. Both ships are damaged during the event and suffer casualties, including the medical staff of Voyager. The two crews band together to return to the Alpha Quadrant—a journey that will take decades to complete.

By November of 1996, the two Trek series were both doing well, and fans were looking forward to the upcoming release of the next Trek feature, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT. This would be an “Even” movie, and hopes were high for it. DS9 primed the fans for a month-long Trek celebration by revisiting one of the most popular episodes of the preceding 30 years, the 1967 episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” In “Trials and Tribble-lations,” computerized imaging and editing was used to blend the Defiant, along with the DS9 crew, into the Original Series episode. The plot concerned Arne Darvin (Charlie Brill), who had been exposed as a Klingon agent in the original episode, hijacking the Defiant to return to the past and complete his mission. While the story was well-written, humorous and full of in-jokes designed to thrill devoted Trekkers (such as Worf’s discomfort when asked about the “odd” appearance of the Klingons in this era…), what really excited Trekkers such as the Unimonster were the CGI models of the Enterprise, Deep Space Station K-7, and the Klingon cruiser. The combination of old and new worked perfectly, and the episode rapidly became one of DS9’s most popular.

But the big event that November was STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT. Directed by Jonathan “Cmdr. Riker” Frakes, FIRST CONTACT introduced a new starship Enterprise—a big, beefy, beautiful ship that looked bred for combat—and that’s what it would find, within minutes of it’s introduction, as the Borg once more began an assault on Earth. This was, at least in this Trekker’s opinion, the best movie since THE WRATH OF KHAN. Fans and critics alike were pleased with the film, and with it the TNG crew took the reins of the franchise firmly in hand.
As DS9 neared the end of it’s run, rumors ran high among Trekkers as to what would replace it, or even if it would be replaced. Paramount’s decision to launch it’s own broadcast network, UPN, and to headline it with Star Trek: Voyager was not a good one for the franchise. Though DS9’s ratings on Fox were never great, they were far better than Voyager could manage on UPN. Star Trek, in whatever incarnation, had always been an expensive series to produce, and low ratings did not sit easily with those in charge of the pursestrings. More than once, Voyager’s cancellation looked to be probable, though following the DS9 finale in June of 1999 the likelihood of that diminished.

Six months before the DS9 crew bid farewell with the two-part episode “What You Leave Behind,” the TNG crew was back in theaters with their third feature film, STAR TREK: INSURRECTION. Easily the most disappointing of the TNG films, INSURRECTION might have made a decent broadcast episode; as a major feature film, it was completely lacking. The script, by Trek veteran Michael Piller, is bland and derivative, and the direction, once more by Jonathan Frakes, does nothing to counter the episodic feel of the movie.

The lackluster reception the film received from the fan base did not help convince the powers that be that there was a demand for yet another entry in the Trek franchise, but the strengthening of Voyager’s numbers, now that they were the only Trek in town, did much to show there was yet life left in the franchise. As Voyager began it’s final season in the fall of 2000, plans were already underway to replace it. Rumors abounded regarding the shape of the new series, including one that suggested it would be set at Starfleet Academy. As Voyager’s journey back to the Alpha Quadrant reached a successful conclusion, in “Endgame,” special promos informed Trekkers that the next series would take the franchise back into its own prehistory, back before there was a Janeway, before Sisko or Picard, Kirk or Spock, even before the Federation. Back to when there was just... Enterprise.

Enterprise was set more than one hundred years prior to our first meeting with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701. Under the command of Capt. Jonathan Archer, played by former Quantum Leap star Scott Bakula, the Starship Enterprise, NX-01, leaves Earth in the year 2151. The first starship capable of traveling at warp 5, it opens up the area of the galaxy that will become the Federation for exploration. Once again, Trekkers demonstrated an unwillingness to accept new concepts in Trek, nor did events unrelated to the Trek universe help create a welcoming environment for the new series. Two weeks prior to the premiere episode, “Broken Bow,” the terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place. Though the national mood would soon turn nostalgic, in search of the emotional equivalent of comfort food, we were still too close to the attacks to want to focus on escapist fare.

Enterprise had difficulty attracting even the long-term Trekkers to it’s audience, primarily due to the difficulty of finding it. Though both UPN and Time-Warner’s WB Network claimed to be viable broadcast networks, their penetration on a national level was never impressive. In fact, for most of Enterprise’s four-year run, the Unimonster was unable to view it. The terminally low ratings the series endured throughout it’s run were less a reflection of the show’s inherent quality, which was easily the equal of Voyager, than of the fact that the fans who would’ve watched the show couldn’t find it.

In December of 2002, the TNG crew made its final film appearance, in STAR TREK: NEMESIS. Planned from the outset as the cast’s swan song, it had the largest budget of any Trek film to date, a reported $60 million, and as it would be the tenth feature—an even numbered film—hopes were that it would end the franchise on a high note. Such was not to be the case.
Whether it was the unfocused direction, the poor writing, or the impression of tiredness that permeated the cast, NEMESIS completely failed to deliver what Trekkers were hoping to see. With a domestic box-office take of only $43 million, NEMESIS didn’t approach being successful, and for the first time since it’s rebirth in 1979, the Trek seemed to be running out of steam—or deuterium, as the case may be. That sad prognosis seemed confirmed by the early departure of Enterprise from the airwaves. In May of 2005, after only four seasons, it ended it’s run with “These are the Voyages…” and for the first time since 1987, the soundstages at Paramount, once dominated by Star Trek, fell quiet.

But two qualities Trekkers have in abundance are patience and loyalty, and none of us believed Trek was gone for good. As rumors of a new Trek movie began filtering out of Hollywood, one phrase kept repeating itself, one phrase calculated to drive old-school Trekkers crazy—“new Kirk, new Spock …” It soon became apparent that the producers intended to take the Trek back to the beginning, and it would not be an overstatement to say that Trekkers were very concerned. The further news that J. J. Abrams was attached to direct did not improve the outlook much; not only did he not have a history with the franchise, he was on record as not even being a fan of the series. This had every indication of being a disaster in the making—it would even be an “odd movie.”

However, despite Abrams lack of Trek credentials and previous lack of knowledge of the show, he went to school on Trekkers and just what it would take to satisfy them. Abrams understood that Trekkers are a hard to please group under the best of circumstances, and two disappointing movies in a row, as well as the failure of Enterprise to capture an audience, had convinced many that the only good Trek was old Trek. Now some newcomer to the franchise was going to “reinvent” the relationship that began it all? Abrams had one shot to get it right, and fortunately for Trekkers everywhere, he nailed it.

First was the incredibly difficult task of casting actors that could take over from icons. Shatner, Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig lived in these roles for more than forty years—no one could simply replace them. The hardest shoes to fill, of course, would be those of the two leads, Shatner and Nimoy.

Whatever his weaknesses as an actor (and there are a plethora of them), it cannot be denied that William Shatner IS James T. Kirk. His mannerisms, the cadence of his speech, even the way he romanced the ladies became fodder for comedians and impressionists who grew up with Kirk on the tube, and ultimately became so ingrained into popular culture that everyone can relate to it. Finding someone able to overcome the burden of playing so well-established a character would not be easy—just ask George Lazenby or Timothy Dalton how comfortable 007’s loafers were.
Abrams found perhaps the perfect actor to take over the role in Chris Pine. The 29-year-old, best known previously for his role as Darwin Tremor in SMOKIN’ ACES (2006), looks like a young Bill Shatner, and more importantly, acts like a young Shatner. He fits the role, and Trekkers can easily see Kirk in his performance.

Leonard Nimoy’s Spock was an equally important role to fill, and while Zachary Quinto, the 32-year-old actor cast as the half Vulcan, half-Human Starfleet officer is not as dead-on as Pine is in the Kirk role, he is acceptable. Quinto, who stars as Sylar on NBC’s Heroes, does capture the young Spock’s emotional turmoil and inner conflict, however—and that does create a believable character, if not one that perfectly mirrors Nimoy’s Spock.

37-year-old Karl Urban, familiar to genre fans from roles in THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, GHOST SHIP, Xena: Warrior Princess, and most famously as Eomer in THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, plays Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the Chief Surgeon of the Enterprise. His performance is the one weak point in the film. DeForest Kelley was the soul of the original crew, the one whose function on Star Trek, in Leonard Nimoy’s words following his death in 1999, “… was to represent humanity, and the role fitted him perfectly.” Urban completely fails to capture this, instead reducing McCoy to the status of comic relief, a caricature of the original McCoy. Humor was part of McCoy’s character, not the sum of it. Apparently, both Abrams and Urban failed to comprehend this.

However, the most inspired casting choice, at least in the Unimonster’s opinion, is the 39-year-old Simon Pegg as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott. Scotty, as played by Jimmy Doohan, is without a doubt my favorite character from the original series, and finding someone who could recapture that had to be a daunting task. Pegg, who is no doubt familiar to regular readers of this column as the star of the best Horror film of the decade, SHAUN OF THE DEAD, does a superb job with the character of Scotty. He doesn’t do it like Doohan did it, but it works perfectly.

The second obstacle to overcome was one that had proven to be significantly more difficult, at least in the previous Trek films—a decent story. Too often in the Trek features, intelligent plotting and dialogue had been sacrificed on the altar of more action and splashy special effects. Ineffective direction, most notably from Shatner, on THE FINAL FRONTIER, and Frakes, on INSURRECTION, only compounded weak storylines. If Abrams was to avoid disappointing Trekkers with his film, the script had to be rock-solid.

Fortunately, the screenwriters were both Trekkers themselves, and were equal to the challenge. Roberto Orci, as described in the bonus feature “To Boldly Go…” on the STAR TREK 2-Disc DVD release, “… lives for Star Trek.” Teamed with long-time friend Alex Kurtzman, whom he introduced to the joys of Trek, he was the voice of the Trek fandom in the planning sessions and story conferences, representing their interests and concerns as the concept moved toward reality.

One of the greatest concerns involved the most basic premise of the film: How do we recreate the original crew and ship in a way that satisfies the die-hard fan, yet still make it fresh and welcoming to people who might never have seen Star Trek before? And once we settle on the method, how do we sell it to the fans in a way that’s both exciting and believable?

The method is nothing new to Trek, dating back to the Original Series episodes “City on the Edge of Forever” and “Mirror, Mirror”—Alternate Timelines and Alternate Realities. From the Narada’s first appearance and the subsequent destruction of the U.S.S. Kelvin prior to the opening credits, the timeline as it has been for the past forty-five years was irrevocably altered. This was a concept that Trekkers would both understand and accept—if it were presented properly. And who better to present it than the only member of that original cast of “The Cage” still active, Leonard Nimoy?

But could they convince him to take on the role that had been such an enormous facet of his career, and his life, one last time? A role with which he had publicly stated he was finished? After meeting with Abrams, and hearing the film’s concept, it was apparent that they could.
Gradually, the pieces did come together. On May 8th, 2009, Trekkers lined up, as they always have, to view the latest Star Trek film. For the first time in more than a decade, Trekkers were treated to a film that gave their franchise its due respect, as well as being a rollicking, fun ride. STAR TREK earned $75 million in it’s opening weekend, on it’s way to more than $257 million total, making it the most successful Trek movie ever.

It also reminded millions of devoted fans why they fell in love with the Trek in the first place. It reawakened the adventure, the excitement, and the hope—the hope that we are destined for greater things, that we can overcome our own propensity for self-destruction. The hope that one day we too might achieve the stars, and, “… boldly go where no one has gone before …”

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