Essays, Movies, Television

Quentin Tarantino’s STAR TREK makes no sense to me – this can only be a good thing

Let’s be honest, nobody expected this, did they? Though specific confirmation hasn’t exactly taken place, it’s looking more and more likely the rumour that Quentin Tarantino met with Paramount and series producer JJ Abrams to pitch a Star Trek movie is true, and that said movie could well be his tenth picture after filming his 1969 Manson era drama. Not only that, Paramount reputedly have assembled a working writers room to flesh out Tarantino’s idea into a script, and have signed off on his insistence the picture be R-rated.

Just let this all digest for a moment… that’s an R-rated Star Trek movie directed by Quentin Tarantino.

It really does sound like the stuff crystal meth dreams are made of, don’t you think? That level of fantasy casting when it comes to cast and crew for your favourite property. Usually when rumours like this float up to the surface, they’re quickly disposed of as lunacy or the workings of a website or tabloid, a perfect example of Trump-ist ‘fake news’. This one, bizarrely, seems to be true, at the very least the notion that Tarantino pitched Paramount a Star Trek movie idea which they absolutely loved. Star Trek IV: Effing and Jeffing? Well, this is now part of the reactionary state of worry within much of the fandom.

Star Trek as a franchise is in a fascinating position right now, a position unlike anything we’ve seen since the curtain came down on its most successful period, roughly 1987 through to around 2001. While the initial 1960’s TV series struck a chord in popular culture which reverberated into the following two decades and beyond, establishing conditions which would lead to the popular original series crew getting a series of cinematic adventures primarily during the 1980’s, it was The Next Generation era which cemented Trek’s science-fiction dominance on TV; two spin-offs followed, while the movies continued alongside in the same continuity. The human adventure looked like it would never end.

Then came a confluence of circumstances. 9/11 changed not just America, but television and cinema as a whole. 2001 saw the arrival of Trek’s riskiest venture yet, prequel series Enterprise which served not just to ditch the Star Trek prefix in an attempt to capture a fresher audience, but set itself two centuries earlier than the three series which had been such successes on television. Enterprise may not have ended up as radical as people may have expected at the time, partly being sank by its own limited level of storytelling vision over the first two seasons in which creators Rick Berman & Brannon Braga believed they could simply port the same model of stories into a different world and setting, but make no mistake: Enterprise was, and still is, a huge gamble.

The easiest thing that Berman & Braga could have done would be to move the franchise narratively forward, enter the 25th century with a new ship and crew, and sail on as before. The writers have discussed previously how they believed such a move would have been detrimental to Star Trek as a whole, that it would have led to stale storytelling that simply regurgitated what came before. The jury remains out among fans as to whether that’s true, many hoping one day we *will* get that future-set Trek series (Bryan Fuller flirted with the idea before Discovery came along in the form we know it now), but the decision to take the Trek story back to before the Federation, a hundred years before Kirk & Spock, and explore the foundations of Starfleet and the very mission of human exploration, was brave.

2001 and the events in New York helped put paid to the vision around Enterprise. By its third season, the show evolved (with a new show runner) to serve as a reflection of America’s tragic wounding, telling an allegorical story in which Captain Archer and the crew of the Enterprise became the intrepid human heroes fighting back against an inexplicable alien threat; the prefix was even brought back, as if to underscore the point. We needed Star Trek. But this wasn’t the 90’s anymore, Trek couldn’t tell the same WW2-reflective stories of distant galactic war as we saw in Deep Space Nine. The war had come home, had arrived on the doorstep, and Star Trek needed to evolve in order to embrace that and help America’s attempt to find peace, reflect and repair.

For whatever reason, Star Trek failed to be that guiding light and Enterprise faded away, long before it could achieve its original mission statement and just at the point it was beginning to discover its own identity. I discussed when considering Discovery recently the ‘dark ages’ of Star Trek which followed Enterprise’s cancellation, but the JJ Abrams-led revival served as another bold step into a frontier Star Trek fans had not expected, or previously experienced. Abrams’ revival films, which played not just with style and format but also the very continuity which Trek adherents obsess over perhaps more than any other cultural fandom, continue to split people down the middle almost a decade on. Some feel they’re modern Trek. Others feel they’re not Trek at all.

Regardless of where you sit on this dividing line, the simple fact is that Abrams did precisely what Berman & Braga tried to do with Enterprise, and what Fuller & now Alex Kurtzman & team are attempting to (with varying levels of success) with Discovery: challenge your pre-conceived perceptions of what Star Trek is.

This brings us circuitously back to the point: Quentin Tarantino. Honestly, at this stage, it doesn’t even matter if he ends up directing a Star Trek movie. It’s that the possibility even exists. Remember, fans have been here before – not Trek fans, rather fans from an entirely different yet equally passionate and devoted fandom: James Bond. After the car crash that was Die Another Day, a film which almost sounded the death knell of the world’s longest running cinematic franchise, Tarantino went on record about how he wanted to adapt Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, ‘Casino Royale’; indeed he even bid against EON & the Broccoli estate for the film rights in the early 2000’s, intending to develop a very different picture than the one eventually made by Martin Campbell in 2006.

In Tarantino’s ‘Casino Royale’, a film bear in mind that already existed in the minds of many as a bizarre, trippy 1967 monstrosity, Bond would still have been played by Pierce Brosnan but all the colourful, overblown theatrics of Die Another Day would have been stripped back to tell a harder, rougher, tougher picture which would have been set in the 1960’s. Much as Campbell’s eventual Casino Royale was a tremendous movie which introduced Daniel Craig with a flourish, many lament the fact we never got to see Tarantino’s no-doubt unique take on a franchise which for decades encapsulated the very idea of sticking to formula and not thinking outside the box. Even Craig’s celebrated run, which has pushed Bond closer to Fleming’s original intention than anything in fifty years, doesn’t go too far off the deep end in challenging what we imagine a Bond film to be.

Now apply this to Star Trek. This is a franchise which began, in cinematic terms, in very erratic style. The urbane malaise of Robert Wise’s The Motion Picture, though thought of in much better terms with distance these days, was quickly replaced with the down to earth cultural adventure of Nicholas Meyer’s The Wrath of Khan. Leonard Nimoy’s two subsequent films added extra heart and comedy, William Shatner’s solo outing The Final Frontier remains a flawed curiosity, before Meyer re-introduced a level of allegorical political uncertainty with The Undiscovered Country. All six of the original series films, with the original Kirk & crew, had a different texture. They remain one of the oddest collection of continuing franchise films in cinema.

Can you say that about The Next Generation era? Not really. Generations and First Contact are very different in texture and tone, but you can still feel the pull of the same producers and creatives in the background; oddly enough Jonathan Frakes’ two efforts behind the camera feel very similar to Nimoy’s own injections of warmth and humour – perhaps as a consequence of key actors in the ensemble moving up into the director’s chair. Regardless, none of The Next Generation films pushed the Trek franchise cinematically, some feeling like soulless re-treads (Nemesis) or TV episodes on a big budget (Insurrection). Abrams’ films brought back the budget and scope, edging Trek back into the pantheon of epic modern blockbuster, but imagine what Tarantino could do with that template.

The fact there is even a conversation about Tarantino directing a Star Trek movie, whether it becomes reality or not, is a remarkable thing. Twenty years ago, as Insurrection moved into production and on TV Deep Space Nine entered its seventh and final season, the concept would have been laughable – Trek was in its golden years, entrenched in a series of offices with producers and creatives who had worked on the series for a decade. Ten years ago, Trek almost felt like a relic of the past, a charming example of how TV and cinema had moved on from a gentler and more hopeful vision of a future Americans in particular felt, in the age of terrorism, was a distant fantasy.

Star Trek, today, lies on a cusp of an entirely new era. Discovery is doing good business on CBS All Access and half a season in feels like it’s beginning to find its feet with a crew and storytelling style which has embraced a level of modern ambiguity, artistry and serialisation in even more of a sophisticated way than Deep Space Nine, a show ahead of its time, managed to do. Star Trek Beyond, released last year to coincide with fifty years of Star Trek, didn’t blow the box office away but it restored a level of faith in the fandom after the deeply divisive Star Trek Into Darkness, which tried to run with the same Enterprise ideas of modern terrorist allegory while simultaneously ‘remaking’ in places The Wrath of Khan. Beyond felt the most like an 80’s Trek movie since that decade, riven with the heart and influence of a 60’s Trek episode.

Should Tarantino end up making the fourth Star Trek movie in the Abrams continuity—aka the Kelvin timeline—it is going to likely be the most radical approach to Trek we have ever seen. R-rated will mean increased violence and almost certainly profanity, two of QT’s stocks in trade, but it could also mean a level of non-linear or format breaking storytelling Trek has always been terrified to embrace, even when it has played with timelines or rebooted certain characters. It’s far too early to even speculate what Tarantino might do—though some outlets have been trying, inevitably—but the conversation even existing, beyond more than a joke or seeming tabloid fodder, speaks to how the auteur and the cinematic franchise are growing ever closer to become one-entity.

Given recent, persistent rumours that Christopher Nolan may also direct the next James Bond movie, imagine a world where in the same year or close to each other, we had a Nolan Bond and a Tarantino Trek released in cinemas. Who could have imagined such ingrained, familiar franchises would have been brave enough to challenge fans and their own preconceptions of what they could be in a new age and for new audiences?

We could truly be boldly going where no audience has gone before. Even if it never happens, be excited we’re even talking about it.

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