Sunday, February 11, 2018

From the Writers Studio: The Roddenberry Philosophy, Ensemble Scripting, Abram's Revisionism, and Star Trek Discovery

Like many, many millions of other people my age, and I guess even younger, I have been a life long fan of Star Trek. I am by no means a total fan boy, geek, or purist, and it’s not that I’m not a fan of other Science-Fiction outings, in fact, quite the opposite. I have been enamored by many franchises, films and books in various Science-Fictions genre and particularly of Space Opera. But for me, Star Trek is probably THE starting point for any comprehensive media entity worth its salt. Six multi-season television series (with a total of almost 750 aired episodes), not counting the animated series, thirteen feature films, toys, books, and enough geek references to shake a stick at in popular culture.

I will confess that I watched from the very beginning, and the Original Series is still a vague memory of my earliest childhood along with Felix the Cat, Gigantor, and a number of other shows that I saw, (gasp!) in black and white. But, to be honest it wasn’t until the mid-seventies, when Star Trek: TOS was first re-broadcast in syndication that I truly started to understand the importance of the series to science-fiction specifically and to popular culture in general.  

There were of course clear antecedents to Star Trek: The Original Series, most notably the 1956 feature film “Forbidden Planet”, which stared Leslie Nielson as Commander John J. Adams of the Starship C-57D, en route to Altair IV to discover the fate of an earlier earth expedition led by Doctor Edward Morbius, played by Walter Pidgeon. Rather than build this universe from the more fantasy and action elements of popular Pre-World War II science-fiction radio plays such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, the producers, director, and screenwriter, instead attempted to present a situation that seemed for the most part based in the real world.

In structure the Cyril Hume re-write of Irving Block and Allen Adler’s 1952 script, “Fatal Planet”, is essentially a re-rendering of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, and for this alone Forbidden Planet has received many accolades and credit for successfully grafting science-fiction film into a more literary framework.

Still, by the mid-late nineteen sixties there was still no “serious” televised “Space Opera” series on air, at least not yet. Most science fiction film and television writers of the time were well-versed in the dominant action format of westerns, and their science-fiction was derived from the installation focused pulp magazines of the 1950’s and novels by much earlier authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs.

In this, Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was no different. He knew that structurally, what the networks wanted was a “monster of the week” premise, or in the western sense “villain of the week", series. Network executives at the time did not see the appeal of a fully episodic series, or even the extended ensemble cast, and they wanted fans of a show to be able to jump into a series at any time without needing to know very much at all about the character back-stories and having to understand the complexities of situations that had gone before. Obviously, in retrospect this sounds exceedingly silly to us now, as consuming episodic series, well, literally serially, or as it’s called, by “binge watching”, is currently the most desirable trait a network could want for a property, any property, that they deem worth of distributing and presenting. That, and the merchandising of course.

But Star Trek, as it came to be, would encompass so much more. Through the episodes it presented a clear philosophy, and it definitely had a vision of the future, our future. That vision was unlike the epic good vs. evil duality of Star Wars, or that of a cautionary dystopia like Blade Runner, and it is best described as an utopian logical positivist-futurist vision of humankind’s destiny.

Politically, as a secular skeptic with a contrarian nature based in non-emotional reality, I’ve always had a great problem with utopias in general, as well as messianic tendencies, or any philosophy presented as “the great fix” to the worlds problems. But I must admit that I always gave Star Trek the pass here. Why? You may ask. Because Star Trek had the greatest fictional “cheat” you could possible have. In the Star Trek mythos the earth had been destroyed by a series of wars that included a conflict born out of experimentation with Eugenics and a global nuclear war that had killed off a huge portion of humanity. This was followed by the arrival of an advanced alien race, the Vulcans, who slowly guided our culture and technology into what would become Star-fleet and the Federation of Planets.

Hunger, poverty, war, illness, money, and even having a job in the Star Trek future were things of earth’s past (not in space, mind you) as if it was all some kind of altruism-powered Socialist day camp. But, human endeavor of the self-promoting sort still persisted. Apparently, all of the “go-getters” still existed, and they just joined Starfleet, and jockeyed for promotions and got paid in "some" kind of currency. Who knows, maybe all those lower-ranked crewmen and ensigns were just daredevils who liked risking their lives going into combat with Klingons and Romulans for the heck of it. Objectively there is nothing in history that consistently points to being able to rely on humans to sacrifice at such a grand level simply out of principle. This is highly unlikely, and is one of the factors why the series has been generally considered "utopian".

As an aside. I should point out a pet utopian peeve of mine. I mean, come on, we only see one person, ever, Lieutenant Barclay, who is addicted to the holo-deck? Really? It's not an endemic galaxy-wide issue? That is definitely utopian screenwriting.

Of course, there was always some disconnect with real life as the series' continued. This was perhaps best highlighted by former Star Trek: Next Generation / Deep Space Nine Emmy-award nominee writer, and the force behind Battle Star Galactica: Redux, Ron Moore, who stated (and I’m paraphrasing here); that deep down he had a a hard time fully believing the crew of Picard’s Enterprise, because they were just too removed from real world relatable experiences. The bridge was carpeted and looked like a spacious living room, and the uniforms were admittedly, pajama-like. You see, Ron had been on actual naval vessels, and he wanted to see a more nuts and bolts, current world, running ship, which is exactly what he did when he re-conceived Battle Star Galactica.

But what Next Generation and Deep Space Nine did successfully, and to a lesser extent Voyager and Enterprise attempted to do successfully, was to write a series and series episodic scripts that worked as full ensemble pieces.

Enter the downfall of the franchise under Rick Berman and Brannon Braga auspices. With the flaws of Voyager (the inconsistency of Captain Janeway's writing and relying on the mother-daughter relationship of Seven of Nine and Janeway to the exclusion of the larger ensemble) and Enterprise (the almost complete abandonment of the ensemble for a simulation of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate in the form of Archer-T'pol-Tripp) increasingly driving viewer numbers down, and the Next Generation feature films moving from "pretty good" (First Contact) to disastrous (Nemesis), and the box office reflected that as well, Paramount soured to those in control of the franchise, and axes started to fall. I think it was pretty clear to everyone who was paying attention that those who chose to stay true to the vision of Star Trek were all but blacklisted, and this became obvious when we all saw the many failed attempts at series reboots on the internet over the intervening years. Trek writers and actors were essentially left to making fan fiction films. Those who did survive in the industry needed to re-invent themselves, and many did, but this all happened while the big wigs sat behind their desks and attempted to decide just what to do with the franchise.

Clearly, I'm sure they reasoned, there was still a boat-load of cash that could be made here, and so they looked and looked for a savior - a savior they eventually found in the form of director-producer-writer-composer J.J. Abrams, of, well you know, J.J. Abrams fame.

Abrams was going to bring a new feel to the franchise, a new look, and update it for, pun intended, a "next" generation of fans. Now Abrams has gone on record as describing him self as "not being a Star Trek fan", and I believe this is overt in the fact that he opted to introduce an alternate timeline which literally obliterated the reality of all of the past films and series, in his first reboot film, 2009's "Star Trek".

While the new films are all admittedly "fun rides", are well made, and have updated the "look" of Trek in general, they nonetheless fail to rely on the philosophic counterpoint that the earlier series were built upon. While they do attempt to re-create the emotional-logical triumvirate of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy paradigm, they tend to fall short where the Federation versus the rest of the galaxy is concerned, and rely more on a good guy versus bad guy scenario. But hey, it’s back to the westerns, I guess.

2013's "Into Darkness" had a wonderful spark to it, but the writers, led by Simon Pegg, held back, and I suspect that they were afraid to posit more definitive statements about the major themes of the film, imperialism and radicalization, out of a fear of being perceived as "too philosophical" to the new "action-driven" fan base. It was either that, or a lot of film ended up on the cutting room floor that we'll never see.

Speed ahead to 2015.

CBS announced that they were getting a new series off the ground and rumors started surfacing about the details of the new Star Trek outing. The old school fans were very happy as it seemed that some really great people from Star Trek's past were involved, such as Nicolas Meyer, the director of the best Trek film, "Wrath of Khan"; Gene Roddenberry's son, Eugene; and Bryan Fuller (Star Trek: DS9 and Voyager). Screenwriting legend Akiva Goldsman was to be involved, as well as Alex Kurtzman, of the Michael Bay-J.J. Abram's school, so we also knew that it was going to be in some way styled like the recent feature films.

The new series was Star Trek: Discovery, which debuted on September 19th, 2017 on the CBS All-Access Service, and as of the time of me writing this, the show is about to run the last episode of its first season, and has already been renewed for a second.

I have watched every episode thus far, more than once by the way, so let me first start with something that I find really good about the show.

First and foremost, the show has some really good actors on it. There is not a weak link in the chain. Jason Issacs as Captain Lorca is perfect. Shazad Latif, as Klingon Manchurian candidate Ash Tyler (who we previously saw in John Logan's amazing "Penny Dreadful"), is really solid, Sonequa Martin-Green (of The Walking Dead fame), underplays plays the conflicted title role nicely, Doug Jones (of mutli-sci-fi outing notoriety) as First Officer Saru makes his mark past layers and layers of prosthesis, Anthony Rapp as snarky science officer Paul Stamets is very good, and ginger Mary Wiseman is a revelation as the quirky, Asperger syndrome-challenged Cadet Sylvia Tilly.

But confessing this, it leads me directly to the worst problem with the writing of the show. Which is the fact that there are many, many, other characters, particularly on the bridge of Discovery, who, even though we have seen them in almost every episode through a whole season thus far, we know absolutely nothing about them. In fact, I'm not even fully sure what some of their job functions are. Obviously I could go on-line and copy the names of the seemingly talented actors who play these characters and detail who their characters are, but since it doesn't seem to be very important to the writer's of Discovery, then why should it be important to me? Or you?  

In emotion-filled moments, when characters come together to support one another, these intentionally tertiary characters almost rob scenes of their pathos, simply because no one in the writer's room could be bothered to develop them. As far as I can tell, I am talking about five or six characters whose dialog in general consists of jargon-esque snippets like "Yes Sir, firing photon torpedoes now." They might as well have placed an all robot crew on the bridge.

Undermining the larger ensemble is exactly the problem the franchise has struggled with, and has failed under for many years. I suggest the writers of Discovery take a look at an episode of Next Generation like "Below Decks", which entirely focused on crewmen aboard the Enterprise who we had never even seen before, but explained the universe from another perspective. 

I'm not sure if this route will have some slow pay-off later, or the producers really don't care about the bridge crew, but as I said, I think this is a writing misstep that could be cured with all but a smattering of dialog.

Saying this, the season has been great, especially episode nine, entitled, "Into the Forest I go", which I believe is so undeniably good, that it could almost be enjoyed even by a non-Trek fan. The episode also opens up the rest of the season for (warning: spoiler ahead) the Mirror-Mirror universe arc that will, I assume, complete with the season finale.

My other complaint, which may be minor, but I think I share with a few million others, is the physical re-design of the Klingons. Fans are very fond of the Klingon "look", and much Star Trek lore was spent explaining why the Klingons changed from the Original Series to the other series and films. The refit now seems like change for change sake, but it's also not consistent, as all of the other alien races (Vulcans, Andorians, Tellarites, etc.) are all virtually the same as they were all the way back to 1966.

Regardless, I am eagerly looking forward to the season finale of Discovery (BTW, did no one realize that the acronym for this series is STD?), and I still have hope that the writers will remedy this ensemble problem, ideally, sooner than later. As far as the Klingons go, I guess we'll all just have to learn to live with the new look, as Quentin Tarantino destroys (?) the Abrams franchise in the upcoming fourth "new" feature film.

For me, Star Trek will in some form always persist, and that is because of the philosophy, NOT the phasers and lens flares.

Till next time.

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