That’s an important distinction, especially when dealing with disappointed Trekkies. Star Trek has always had a problem reaching mass audiences. It’s oftentimes too subtle, allegorical and metaphorical for the general audience. This is likely why Star Wars has had far greater success with moviegoers. Star Wars is simple. These are the good guys, and these are the bad guys. All the work is done for you in Star Wars. You could literally watch any Star Wars movie (The Luke Skywalker ones) on mute and know exactly who everyone is.
Star Trek is more about challenging the viewer with moral and ethical dilemmas. These dilemmas typically revolve whether or not not to obey the Prime Directive, whether the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or whether meaningless traditions should be strictly adhered to. Moral ambiguity is a noble pursuit, and it’s sorely lacking in Hollywood, but the average moviegoing Joe who sees five movies in theaters a year simply doesn’t have a palate that can appreciate something that subtle. It would be like reading Atlas Shrugged as a children’s bedtime story.
The Star Trek nerds who disparage these new Star Trek movies are living in a dream world if they think Hollywood would ever release a movie that is exclusively for the nerds. Even if Hollywood did do that, would the masses really be able to appreciate it?
In Star Trek the audience is shown — sometimes too much — how the engines work. So much time is dedicated to explaining things scientifically. This clearly defines the parameters of the universe. This means less Deux Ex Machina (in theory) and more cleverly devised solutions.
I actually consider the 2009 Star Trek movie to be a perfect film. In my other articles I’m always prattling on about character arcs, and motivations and some have called me too critical. But Star Trek did it so well that it makes me wonder why other screenwriters don’t do it more often.
Star Trek is the story of James Tiberius Kirk. He is the protagonist and his motivation is that he wants to command a star ship to honor his father’s legacy. Kirk’s arc takes him from misguided youth to commanding the flagship of the Federation: The USS Enterprise. Sure, that’s a little unrealistic, but at least he had an arc.
Another success of Star Trek is the fact that our villain’s motivations are clear. Nero lost his home planet of Romulus when the Federation failed to help him, and so he wants to destroy every planet in the Federation. Simple motivations. Everybody knows exactly what’s going on. I say this in part to commend the film, but also to stress how often this seemingly simple formula is messed up.
Protagonist we like + intimidating villain + all characters have clear motivations = engaged audience.
Another reason I commend Star Trek is that for years fans of the Star Trek television canon had to endure terrible theatrical releases. The plots were so dense that for me to try to explain them here would be a useless gesture. From 1994-2002, Paramount released four feature films that attempted to take the cerebral and slow-paced cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation and present them to a general audience. What could go wrong ? (spoiler alert: everything!).
The Trek nerds weren’t happy because Paramount was attempting to make action movies with a cast that was not at all suited for action. The plots were littered with holes. I’m thinking of Star Trek: Generations where a “temporal nexus” is introduced. This is a place where the laws of time and space do not apply. Are you kidding me? A franchise that is known for using logic all of a sudden has a magical realm where anything can happen? The entire movie is centered around this nexus, and this ruined the movie for Star Trek nerds. Star Trek fans love to analyze the technical details of the Star Trek universe. In Star Trek the laws of science reign king. This allows fans to really immerse themselves in the world of Trek because they can understand how everything works.
General audiences couldn’t enjoy Generations because the characters and story aren’t told in a compelling enough way. There’s way too much plot and too much of what my uncle would call “mumbo jumbo” to follow any character’s story arc. Generations has to introduce a general audience to both Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, set up the villain AND set up the entire concept of the Federation AND introduce the nexus (I don’t even think most Star Trek fans understand it). Imagine being a general audience member in 1994. You figure you’ll give Star Trek a shot, after all it looks cool and so many people are talking about it. But remember that the average moviegoer needs really obvious motivations and a clear protagonist.
Generations awkwardly balances Picard, Kirk and Riker as the film’s protagonists. If that wasn’t bad enough, the movie’s villain has a bafflingly unclear motivation. Dr. Soran is obsessed with entering the nexus, and so he somehow rationalizes that he has to launch a missile to bring the nexus closer to him, instead of using his knowledge of where the nexus is going to intersect with it. “But we need an explosion for the trailer!” Are you now seeing the problem with trying to adapt Star Trek to mainstream audiences? If you apply “action movie logic” to a series where logic reigns supreme, it just looks goofy.
At one point Captain Picard, the most clear-minded and logical captain in the history of Star Trek, makes what is probably the stupidest decision I’ve ever seen in a movie. Picard has failed in stopping Soran from launching his missile and in the ensuing battle, Picard enters the nexus. Once inside the nexus, Picard can travel anywhere he wants at anytime in history. Surely Picard will travel back in time to when Soran was aboard the Enterprise, unarmed, and arrest him. NOPE! Picard wants to go back to right before Soran launched the missile so that he can once again fight Soran one on one. “But we need a climax where the good guy fights the bad guy!” Ughhhhhh!
If that wasn’t stupid enough, Picard finds Captain James Tiberius Kirk inside the nexus. What a tremendous opportunity for these two iconic Star Trek captains to combine their intellects. They’ll probably both end up on the Enterprise and combine their skills for an incredible space battle that we will all tell our children about right? NOPE! These two middle-aged men, whose strength was always in their cunning and their intellect, travel to a remote desert planet to punch the bad guy in the face.
But don’t take my word for it. Leonard Nimoy, the man who had been playing Spock for nearly 30 years and who directed two Star Trek films, refused to both direct and appear as Spock in Star Trek: Generations.
Nimoy did agree to appear in Star Trek (2009). Nimoy understood great film making, and he trusted J.J. Abrams‘ vision of a Star Trek movie that the masses could enjoy. Abrams understands that you can’t have both a complex science fiction for movie for nerds and an action film for the masses.
Compromises had to be made and Abrams consciously and perfectly executed a movie for the masses, albeit while letting go of some of what makes Star Trek unique. It doesn’t matter that Deux Ex Machinas get the gang out of trouble, or that dumb luck saves Kirk’s life on multiple occasions. We are emotionally invested in Kirk because he is our protagonist. The entire movie has followed his story, and so even though the climax might look cliché on paper, it’s a satisfying climax nonetheless because of the emotional stakes. The end result was not only a summer blockbuster, but a 95 percent critic score on Rotten Tomatoes and an Academy Award. That almost never happens!
Thanks for sticking around to read my nerdy spiel on Star Trek, and why making it palatable to the masses doesn’t mean sacrificing quality. This week we compared Generations with Star Trek. Join us next week when I’ll compare Star Trek‘s sequel Star Trek: Into Darkness with what many consider to be the greatest Star Trek film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. ~ Yanis Khamsi