Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Young Minds, Fresh Ideas

So I saw the second teaser trailer for the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie and -- predictably, I know -- I wasn't much impressed. I'll grant that I liked seeing the old uniforms again, including the skirts for women. I also rather liked the "retro-future" look of the Enterprise's interiors. Other than that, though, I didn't see much that gave me hope that this would be even a passably good SF film, never mind a passably good Star Trek film. That's a shame, because it's been a very long time since we had a passably good Star Trek film and I could go for one right about now.

I actually believe that Star Trek is probably due for a reboot. From what I've seen, though, the upcoming movie doesn't look to be that reboot. Granted, I hold to the heretical belief that a reboot should simply be about paring down a concept to its essentials and starting over. I don't see it as an opportunity to indulge in change for change's sake. The key to a successful reboot, in my opinion, is understanding what it is that makes the thing you're working with so compelling and then running with that -- in new directions if need be, certainly, but also in the same direction as the original if the original direction was in fact a good one.

I think one of the reasons why they have been so few truly successful reboots is that what people forget is that the target audience for any reboot is not, despite wishes to the contrary, some vast, untapped pool of consumers who aren't already familiar with the originals and are just dying to become fans of your new, totally cool, and unspeakably awesome reimagining of a classic. No, your target audience is fans of the original who acknowledge that the old girl could do with a little dressing up. Now, maybe this is the ultimate problem of why reboots almost invariably stink. When you're creating something that's got to appeal to the jaded tastes of the hardcore, who will hate almost any changes you make anyway, you've already conceded defeat. Of course, one might also argue -- not necessarily contradictorily, I might add -- that trying to reach out to that mythical "untapped" consumer is a powerful temptation that all too often leads to a willingness to tinker with core concepts that are the key to the long-term appeal of the thing you're rebooting.

It's a difficult position to be in and I certainly don't envy anyone put in the position of having to make a reboot. But my question is this: why reboot at all? If you have a good idea or a good story, why not just let it be what it is without attaching it to an existing one? I don't actually believe there is nothing new under the sun. Rumors to the contrary notwithstanding, I don't hate every bit of creativity shown since 1983. There have been many, many really great and original ideas over the course of my life and the best of them stand out because they're not just riffing off existing material. They're genuinely original. We need more of that, not less.

Personally, if I were going to do a Star Trek reboot, I wouldn't even use Star Trek. I think the core concepts of the original series are solid even 40 years later. However, so much cruft has accreted to those core concepts over the years that it's hard to dispense with them without doing violence to the Gestalt. So, rather than hamhandedly screwing it up, I'd just do my own Star Trek-like thing and there'd be no worries about canon. I could "update" anything I wished and have the creative freedom necessary to do whatever I felt the story I wanted to tell required. Granted, this approach doesn't give me immediate name recognition or access to an existing fanbase, but neither does it wed me to all the lunacy associated with such things. More to the point, if an idea is good -- genuinely good -- I firmly believe it can stand on its own merits; it doesn't need to be thinly tied to an existing franchise.

I realize I'm crazy in taking the whole "fresh ideas" approach literally. I'd never be able to get a job in Hollywood thinking like this. Or the RPG industry, come to think of it.

27 comments:

  1. It was justifiably derided, but Voyager had potential as a conceptual reboot; take the by then cosy world of Trek and invert it by chucking these people into a strange and uncharted bit of space with no way home.

    Then they promptly did nothing interesting with the concept and made it TNG with a different cast.

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  2. James what do you think of the newBattlestar Galatica? In my mind it is the gold standard for reboots.

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  3. I have very mixed feelings about the new BSG. In its first two seasons, I thought it was brilliant and readily forgave the fact that it passed itself off as having much of anything to do with the original, because it was just so good. Season 3 was a disappointment to me, overall, and what I have seen of Season 4 makes me grateful it's being wrapped up before it becomes something I actively dislike rather than something I see as flawed but good.

    I do think, though, that BSG is a perfect example of something that could just as easily have been something else. The original series had a great core concept, but very, very poor execution. I don't see a lot there worth salvaging, so why not just create a new series on a similar premise?

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  4. ...if I were going to do a Star Trek reboot, I wouldn't even use Star Trek. I think the core concepts of the original series are solid even 40 years later. However, so much cruft has accreted to those core concepts over the years that it's hard to dispense with them without doing violence to the Gestalt. So, rather than hamhandedly screwing it up, I'd just do my own Star Trek-like thing and there'd be no worries about canon. I could "update" anything I wished and have the creative freedom necessary to do whatever I felt the story I wanted to tell required.

    Agreed. I think if you are going to call it the same thing, it best to continuously ask yourself: "What would the original creator do if he/she had access to my resources?" But, in the end, I feel most reboots are little more than ego/profit-driven fanfic.

    Calling a 'reboot' something else sacrifices name-recognition, but allows the piece to rise or fall on its own merits. If the new work is thoughtful, most folk will not accuse the piece as being a rip-off. There is a long-honored tradition of co-opting old themes for new art. The Bard was a master of this.

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  5. I offer for your consideration the idea that Stargate: SG-1 was, quite possibly, the reboot of Star Trek that you speak of.

    It had the exploration, the dangerous enemies, and the episodic and thought-provoking stories. It also explored the human condition, much like TNG.

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  6. The only example of a good reboot is the new Batman movies, but that's because the original ones sucked so badly in the first place.

    The thing about Star Trek is that there is a lot of untapped material in the story's of the early days of the Enterprise crew. There were hints in the original show and more in the comics that I always found tantalizing. So there is potential there. Will they capture the profound humanity and sense of wonder of the first show?

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  7. I'm very cranky when it comes to Star Trek. If it doesn't have Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and all the rest of the original crew, then it isn't Star Trek. And I mean the REAL Kirk, Spock, McCoy, etc: Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, etc.

    The Star Trek crew sailed into the sunset and signed-off at the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. There has been no further Star Trek on screen.

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  8. The thing with something like Star Trek... there's so much room to do things within the existing canon without erasing it... so many 'untold stories' that could happen between the stories that have already presented... there's no need to "reboot"... just present a story with the new cast that doesn't wipe out what's already there. Best of both worlds... so even if you don't like the new thing, it doesn't taint what you already like.

    (they could be doing that, for all I know... hope so)

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  9. I've never been a fan of Star Trek, but I always liked DS9 and that is due to it being so different in tone from the cannon. For the rest of the baggage, I could live without it.

    That being said, as someone who never cared about Star Trek the trailer hit the right tone with me. Does that mean this is going to be a good movie? I don't know. J.J. Abrams is more miss than hit with me, but there is something about this trailer that made me want to see this movie.

    I realize I'm crazy in taking the whole "fresh ideas" approach literally. I'd never be able to get a job in Hollywood thinking like this. Or the RPG industry, come to think of it.

    You're thinking got you co-ownership in a game company. :P

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  10. "I offer for your consideration the idea that Stargate: SG-1 was, quite possibly, the reboot of Star Trek that you speak of."

    Quoted For Truth.

    A lot of people like to crap on SG-1, but it ran for 10 seasons (SG-A has been what, 3 seasons?), and it's got two (albeit direct to DVD) movies under its belt. And you're absolutely right - it hits many of the buttons that Star Trek did, but with a very different slant.

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  11. "I actually believe that Star Trek is probably due for a reboot."

    No. No, no, NO!

    If there's one thing I hate about modern pop culture (and modern nerd pop culture especially) it's this "Never let anything alone" mantra.

    Star Trek was a campy, lovable sci-fi show from the 60s. That's it. Enjoy it as such and, for God's sake, LET IT GO. There are plenty of other stories to tell and fantastic universes to invent. Move on. Enough of the brainless, soulless, money-driven auto-cannibalism that is the "reimagining" of "entertainment franchises."

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  12. I agree with those who've said that SG-1 was a good example of how to do Star Trek-but-not. I thought it was a great show that hit all the right notes while still being its own unique thing.

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  13. There are plenty of other stories to tell and fantastic universes to invent. Move on. Enough of the brainless, soulless, money-driven auto-cannibalism that is the "reimagining" of "entertainment franchises."

    I absolutely agree. However, if one accepts the notion that a Star Trek movie/TV series will be made again in the future -- and it will -- then I think some kind of re-imagining makes sense. However, it's a very difficult thing to do well, which is why I prefer, for both practical and philosophical reasons, to go with an entirely new creation.

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  14. Why did I keep substituting the words of "D&D" "3E/4E" in your post at relevant points?

    Perhaps the concepts of "reboot", "original" vs. "new concepts" is apropros to RPGs?

    If 1E/2E/3E/4E hadn't kept the name D&D, where would we be now, with the various "reboots" of what people think the "fantasy RPG" should be?

    FWIW, I don't see the new ST as a "reboot" so much as a nice story told using familiar characters and shapes. A lot of mythology is the same way.

    Although the male pig in me will enjoy seeing Uhura do her topless thing... can't help the geek guy in me who had a crush on the original Uhura...

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  15. I may have to accept new Trek branded stuff, but at least I can insist on not having any opinion on it other that it Just Shouldn't Be. :)

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  16. Guess I'm going to play devil's advocate, despite being a great fan of TOS. I don't see any other way that this team could have approached a revival of Star Trek if that's what was in the cards (the accountants at Paramount having said "Make it so."). Despite what many elsewhere have said, there is nothing left to do at this time in the post-TOS universe. The series is so bogged now in its own massive and often self-conflicting mythology that it constrains creativity. And the only way I could see them breaking free and still be somewhat faithful to the original vision would be to tear down that universe and start again (i.e., what if the Federation really fell -- hard?).

    I thought Enterprise, on the surface, was a great idea, but in the end it didn't live up to its promise of everything being new and edgy and final frontier-sy again. Very quickly, it looked and felt just like all the "Berman" series that preceeded it (just like what kelvingreen said above regarding Voyager. When they realized that they weren't even making the fans happy (let alone bringing in a new audience) they resorted first to trying to make it Babylon 5, then to using canon as a gimmick. Clumsily. Once they chose to be a slave to a mythology stretching back hundreds of years into the past and into the future, they were doomed.

    For those reasons, I don't see how one could avoid rebooting for a new film series. Otherwise, they're still stuck with canon, and a good chunk of today's fans will never stand for even the smallest of changes (seriously, they got really worked up over the changed color of a phaser beam in the TOS Remastered series).

    If it has to be done, then I think the approach they're taking is the best one. Take the basic strengths, approach details with a broad brush, and introduce a plot mechanism that allows them to hit a reset button for everything from 2240 AD onward. If they do that and instead concentrate on making the best movie/beginning of a new series that they can, then they'll bring on a new generation of fans and have made the attempt to ask current fans to come along for the ride. I would argue that they should have not even bothered with trying to link the old and new through Spock, but I'll wait and see if it was a good plot device or just fan pandering.

    Oh, and I thought the new trailer looked wonderful. I actually like the new 1701 (and bridge, and uniforms...), and I feel they pushed it, but not too far. It feels to me like 1979 all over again (which, considering TMP, may or may not be a good thing!).

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  17. The last great Star Trek film was Galaxy Quest.

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  18. I too am going to take a fairly unpopular position here... I think that trailer is perfect. I think it is so action-packed because Abrams really thinks he's got a product that he wants the non-trekkies to like too. I think the actual movie will have much of the charm and philosophy of the series. I won't say it'll be the exact same, but I also don't believe that has to be a bad thing. Having been a fan since I was 11 years old and having such harsh opinions about the Berman & Braga-run series, I think this signals a regime change that will make Star Trek into something I can admit to having ever enjoyed again. Certainly I'm as filled with wonder and excitement as I was the first time I saw so many episodes of the original, TNG and (occasionally) DS9.

    Frankly, the split in reactions to me reminds me very much of the intra-D&D schism brought about by the various editions, although (in my opinion) much less grounded in objectively observable issues. Unlike the edition wars (which are valid because for the most part each game has different merits and a different feel in such a way that it is sometimes comparing apples to oranges), this debate strikes me as the fan base simply railing against change for no reason other than that changes have been made.

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  19. ...this debate strikes me as the fan base simply railing against change for no reason other than that changes have been made...

    I'm with you there. No disrespect intended to anyone here or elsewhere; I just think that there is going to be a good chunk of fans for whom this movie is best described as "kobayashi maru"... the no-win situation.

    Once they decided they were going to re-cast the TOS characters, there was no reason to draw a line on re-casting anything else, be it the costumes, the ships, the sets or even the canon history itself. From what I've seen so far, they've drawn the lines as to what they would change as respectfully as possible. And they've done so without compromising their vision, which includes appealing to the masses and creating a new generation of fans.

    IOW, they decided that in order to make a successful* film, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one." :)


    * To Be Determined, of course

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  20. Unlike the edition wars (which are valid because for the most part each game has different merits and a different feel in such a way that it is sometimes comparing apples to oranges), this debate strikes me as the fan base simply railing against change for no reason other than that changes have been made.

    I think the parallels to the edition wars are eerily similar, actually. What we have in both cases is a large corporation deciding that, in the interests of making their product more "accessible" -- and profitable -- that changes must be made to time-tested formulae. Some accept these changes as a way of keeping the product "fresh," while others see it as a "betrayal."

    I don't think anyone who sees this new movie as a good thing is a bad or even deluded person. However, I think it's more than a little disingenuous to claim that somehow the D&D edition wars are rational while disliking other visions of Trek is not. The parallels are remarkably similar, regardless of whether one happens to like WotC's 4e or Paramount's.

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  21. The parallels are striking, aren't they? Except in the case of Star Trek, it would be as if WOTC had gone back and decided to re-do D&D in a fashion similar to Troll Lord's C&C or Labyrinth Lord as their solution to 4E. Go back to the basics, try to recapture the old spirit, and update it for today's sensibilities. Although WOTC may think that's exactly what they did, I'd say it's more like they created Voyager following Deep Space Nine.

    Given the marketing power of WOTC being equal in either case, which approach would have been more successful? The 4E we got, or a 4E that was a "reboot" of OD&D? In the case of the latter, you'd still have people screaming about how they were robbed of "their" D&D, in a similar fashion to those who demand that Trek XI pick up from where "Nemesis" left off.

    What's the answer when it's deemed that an old franchise needs new life to continue? Create a new generation, or reboot an old one? And there's always the third choice: let it go and make something wholey new, even at the risk of letting the franchise fade into obscurity (not necessarily death).

    It seems, James, you've been asking yourself and your readers these questions over the past few months. Any conclusions?

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  22. "this debate strikes me as the fan base simply railing against change for no reason other than that changes have been made."

    Believe it or not, people sometimes have different opinions than you without being stupid or deluded.

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  23. Actually nu BSG wasn't the first real BSG foundation taken and done differently.

    Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (Aka: The first part of Robotech) is pretty much BSG with 50 foot tall Aliens replacing the Cylons and the Rag Tag fleet all are in one massive spaceship. One that can turn into a giant robot with a small city in its innards, and a pair of aircraft carriers bolted to the sides as lower arms.

    Cept they retreat from their homeworld only to go back to it.

    Its pretty cool. And franchisey. Its had 2 follow up shows since its first airing in the early 80s. Both pretty much have new casts with only the odd cameo of the older characters (many of which were intentionally given "Missing and you will never hear about them again so shut up already" updates as to their later whereabouts) and vastly different feels while keeping the core concept.

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  24. The only thing that needs "rebooted" in this timeframe is to wipe out Enterprise, which failed totally as a prequel series, IMO. I liked it, sure, but it didn't fit properly in the end.

    Other than that, I'm unconvinced that the new film is even based on a good idea - Kirk etc. at the academy together - but I'd rather see something that dovetails properly than something that just restarts as if nothing else existed.

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  25. what if the Federation really fell -- hard?
    I believe that's the premise of Andromeda, which was originally designed as a Trek series. I haven't seen enough of the series to know how successful an approach it is, however.

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  26. The things that made Star Trek special? Being a low-budget TV show. Hiring actual sci-fi writers. Not having enough canon to write heavily self-referential scripts.

    There are two trekkies inside me.

    One is going to hate this movie. The one little thing that nags at the back of his brain is that this is going to make the story seems so much more narrow compared to my long impression that most of these characters didn’t come together until near the time-frame of the series. Kind of like how I feel about R2-D2 and C-3P0 in the Star Wars prequels. It’s the kind of little picky thing that this one of my two trekkies picks up on.

    The other one is probably going to love the film. We’ll see.

    For me there is a strong parallel for my feelings about Star Trek and D&D. All along. Both drew on pulps for inspiration. Both grew into a franchise that became somewhat incestuous. I can enjoy the latest installments, but the earlier incarnations tend to be more compelling to me.

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  27. I'm willing to be convinced that my initial reaction to it was wrong, but I'm not expecting to be.

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