Nostalgia seems to be a double edged sword right now in Hollywood. What on the surface appears to be a comforting guaranteed winner in terms of audience satisfaction and cinematic box office is becoming something of a poisoned creative chalice. The lacklustre critical (if not box-office) responses to pictures such as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or Ocean’s Eight, sequels to long-standing, well-regarded franchises; or Lucasfilm’s decision to put a hold on more A Star Wars Story anthology movies after the tepid box office (by Star Wars terms) of Solo, seemingly putting immediately paid to rumoured Boba Fett & Obi-Wan Kenobi-centric films. There is a nostalgia blowback in progress, the ripple effect of which we are only beginning to understand.
Is this a ripple effect that, like the Nexus in Generations, threatens to engulf the future of the Star Trek franchise?
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.
With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.
In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.
Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.
As all new Star Trek television series Discovery closes out its opening half-season, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on this momentous point in modern television. That’s a big word – momentous. The return of Star Trek to the small screen, however, surely fits that description. Without the cultural impact of the original 1960’s Star Trek, television would look a great deal different in the modern day. Star Trek stands as, easily, one of the key pop-cultural touchstones of the 20th century and for all its success as a movie franchise across three separate retinue of actors, television remains and always will remain the true home and heart of Star Trek. Any appearance of the franchise on television is a big deal, and Discovery has been many years in the making.
The wilderness years of television Star Trek were long. Following the transition of Star Trek: The Next Generation to the big screen, subsequent series failed to match the commercial success of the first sequel series to Gene Roddenberry’s original. Deep Space Nine and Voyager both had levels of critical or commercial success (less so Voyager) but neither made the same kind of impact on the cultural storytelling landscape, while Enterprise—the first Trek voyage into the 21st century—was hampered out of the gate in attempting to tell a 20th century style of Star Trek in a rapidly changing television and real world political and sociological landscape.
2005 was the darkest year. Enterprise was cancelled in its fourth season, the year ironically it finally began to find its creative feet and place within the Trek universe, and mirrored The Original Series in how it began a long period of the franchise away from television. Not quite as long as the eighteen years between the end of TOS and the launch of TNG, but it took twelve years for Star Trek to make a return with Discovery, a show which had an enormous legacy to live up to in a world where Trek has experienced significant evolutionary growing pains. You only have to consider the polarising fan reaction to Star Trek 2009 and its subsequent J.J. Abrams led sequels, which repurposed Trek as an action adventure science-fiction franchise, to feel that divide.
Or more aptly, perhaps the question should be reversed – what does Star Trek: Discovery need with God? The question has been raised by a recent article which reported how, on set for the brand new CBS All Access (or Netflix if you’re international) show reviving the 50 year franchise on the small screen, Jason Isaacs—playing Discovery’s Captain Lorca—was stopped mid-performance for improving a mention of ‘God’ in his dialogue. God, of course, does not exist in the Star Trek 23rd century.
Except for the fact, y’know, he (or she) kinda does.
Even if the story is tabloid fodder or turns out to be apocryphal, that one of the series writers Kirsten Beyer actually made the effort to correct Isaacs for saying the very natural human phrase “oh my God”, it raises an interesting question as Star Trek makes its long overdue return to television – what place does religion have on a TV series which on the face of it has always shied away from depicting a future where worship is prevalent, but in truth has long had a fascinating, complex relationship with religion and the future?