Friday, June 26, 2015

Michael Gummelt compels us to ask: What is Star Trek?

Is Star Trek old and in need of re-engineering, or does it need to be abandoned to the museum of 20th Century science fiction?

I was getting caught up on HBO’s The Newsroom last night, and in episode 5 of Season 3, there was a Star Trek reference that peeked my interest. Trek references in pop culture are telling signs of the status of the franchise. If Trek is on the cover of Time magazine (1995) or getting full page coverage in The New York Times (2009), then it is probably a good year to be a Trek fan. But this reference put me in a particularly morose mood about the state of Trek. It was not a negative reference. The problem was the type of person the reference associated with Star Trek, and not because the character was a stereotypical nerd like on Big Bang Theory. It wasn’t like that at all.

For those of you who do not know The Newsroom or Aaron Sorkin, this is a show (and a show runner) that glamorizes the past over the future. The show’s hero Will McAvoy played by Jeff Daniels is constantly equated to the 17th Century anti-hero Don Quixote (just as The West Wing’s hero Jed Bartlet was a throw-back to JFK).   The central conflict of the episode with the Trek reference is whether the newsroom can adapt to a new millennial corporate overseer who wants to replace their Edward R. Murrow business model with an Internet-driven/TMZ/citizen-journalist style of news. Just one of the questionable things they are being asked to broadcast is an on-air debate between a rape victim and her accused rapist. The show’s heroes can’t adapt, as evidenced by the crusty old president of the news division, Charlie Skinner played by Sam Waterson, suffering a heart attack in this episode. A young reporter, Jim Harper played by John Gallagher Jr., is just as old-school idealistic as the other heroes of the show (and Sorkin), as evidenced by the fact that he broke up with his girlfriend who left the newsroom to write gossipy click-driven Internet columns, as opposed to the ‘real journalism’ he thinks he does. Sorkin has said in the commentary that Jim is a younger version of Charlie, the embodiment of the old ways of journalism instilled in a young man just starting out.   

Jim is the character referred to in this episode as someone who watches Star Trek. He takes umbrage at the fact that someone confused the Star Trek episode he was watching with Star Wars. There is a scene where we actually see him watching a classic Star Trek episode on his iPad. To my ears this brief, insignificant reference, screamed this (probably unintended) message: the guy who says ‘piss off 2015, I prefer my media like it was 1955’ is the Star Trek fan.  

Am I overreaching? No. Consider the summersaults Hollywood types are doing right now to update Star Trek for modern sensibilities. The Bad Robot reboot is one example. But those who want to produce a new TV series, who will have to film dozens of hours of TV, have a higher hurdle to make their show relatable to modern audiences, of which the most important demographic will be millennials.

Enter Michael Gummelt, apparently in talks with Paramount/CBS, who said to about a potential series: “[Star Trek] needs to be reinvented for a new generation. Not a reboot, that’s already being done in the movies. What I want for this series is for it to be the future – a Star Trek TV series that feels modern and feels futuristic relative to our current times.”

Futuristic relative to our current times. There’s the rub. This is the real reason Trek canon gets a bad wrap by current Hollywood people involved with Trek. It’s not that writers and producers feel constrained by fictional facts, decades old lines of dialogue, Trek history. They desire to be free of the old Trek aesthetic, the look, feel and sensibility of TOS and TNG-era Trek. They want a Star Trek that seems futuristic to people in this decade, not the 60s or the 80s.                        

Classic Star Trek was standard science fiction of that era (written by some well-know 60s science fiction writers), but as TV, Roddenberry knew that the setting, the characters, and how they interact had to be visually familiar and relatable to his audience. His solution was to make the Enterprise look, feel and sound like a WWII battleship in outer space. There was the bridge, complete with pinging sounds; tight crew quarters; a sickbay; a rec. room, etc. The viewer tuning in could make the necessary suspension of disbelief—Oh I see, it’s the Navy is space—and then enjoy the story. 

When TNG came around 20 years later, that TV audience did not have the same cultural reference points as a generation before—we did not come of age close to WWII and Korea or having seen a lot of WWII movies. So the Enterprise-D resembles a plush, leather-interior luxury cruise liner, more Love Boat than the Battle of Midway. The bridge, it has been said by the show’s own writers, looked like the lobby of a chincy hotel; sprawling crew quarters; a lounge (ten-forward); state-of-the-art entertainment (holodecks); children romping down the corridors—a cruise ship in space. Voyager, TNG’s sister show, was virtually identical in sensibility.      

In these shows, the way the characters interact is deeply 20th Century. They communicate using glorified radios. Decisions are made from a central authority, distributed down a clear chain of command. They hang out socially in rec. rooms and lounges (bars, when they are in alien environments). There are more robots and devices that want to be human than there are humans who want to be more technological. Nobody ever Tweets, or even emails. I don’t expect Twitter to still be a functional company in the 23rd or 24th Centuries. But you have to admit that characters on even TNG-era Star Trek do not interface with technology as much as the average person does in a coffee shop or elementary school in 2015.        

The change to Trek lore that potential future Trek writers and producers are calling for is not about technology per se, faster warp drives and sleeker communicators (there is not more archaic-sounding term than ‘communicator’ is there?). No, the so-called necessary change is about the interface between people and technology. It’s about a millennial seeing a star ship on TV they’d want to hang out on, instead of one modeled on a naval battleship, an ‘iBridge’ grafted onto a naval battleship, or a cruise ship.   

This is why Michael Gummelt says that the future trek series he envisions is “set sometime in the future, distant enough that it doesn’t really matter which universe it takes place in. It’s universe-agnostic.”

These are the words of someone who wants to tell a Star Trek story on a completely blank canvas. He wants to eject the archetypes of characters that would be familiar to those of us who grew up in the 1980s, or who saw many WWII movies, or, in the case of Kirk’s archetype, read stories about 18th Century naval captains (Horatio Hornblower, as a character born in 1776, as a piece of fiction born in 1937). All of that, and necessarily all of Trek canon, needs to be relegated to the dust bin of pop culture history. In exchange for… what exactly? Maybe it will be great, modern science fiction. But will it be Star Trek? If so, what threads of Star Trek DNA will it shed and what will it retain? On The Newsroom, the heroes have to ask what exactly can be considered news in 2015? For us Trekkies, what is Star Trek in 2015?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Notes on Past and Future X-Files

The mid-Season Six two parter Two Fathers/One Son all but ended the six year central mystery of the show involving the alien conspiracy plotline. Despite the fact that the series finale was titled The Truth at the end of Season Nine, the whole truth was basically told in these two episodes (more on Season Nine later).

I am going to try to summarize what we learned in just these two episodes in as few words as possible:

In 1947 an alien ship crashed in Roswell—the first time the U.S. government became aware of the aliens. They salvaged an alien fetus.  A group within the State Department formed to address this problem, and they spent twenty-five years collecting information on the alien’s plans. Bill Mulder and C.G.B. Spender (Smoking Man) were part of this group. By 1973, the group had learned that the aliens intended to colonize the Earth and by infecting humanity with a virus that would transform the species into a slave race (they learned only at the very end that people would become not slaves but host bodies for gestating aliens). The only true survivors would be those immune to the virus—alien-human hybrid clones.  

The group realized—or were told—that the aliens needed their help to create the hybrids. The group voted on the following course of action: each member will give the aliens a family member, who will be one part lab rat, and one part collateral. The family member will be used as test subjects to create an alien-human hybrid, which will allow the family and the member of the secret group to be injected with the hybrid genes, thus ensuring their survival. The fact that the family members will still be alive, with the hope of being rejoined with their family after colonization in a presumably non-slave status, is the motivation for the members of the group to continue working on the project. What the group would get in return is the alien fetus, and the alien Colonist’s support in creating an alien-human hybrid that would allow themselves, their family, and perhaps countless others to survive colonization.

Bill Mulder was opposed to helping the Colonists. He proposed that the group chose to make a vaccine that will stop colonization. The group compromised with Mulder. They would agree to help the aliens create a hybrid—including giving up their family members (Smoking Man’s wife Cassandra Spender and Mulder’s daughter Samantha)—but stall the project until they could create a vaccine that would save everyone.   

Fox Mulder describes the choice his father and the other’s faced: “stand and fight, or bow to the will of a fearsome enemy. Or to surrender—to yield and collaborate. To save themselves and stay their enemy’s hand. Men who believed that victory was the absence of defeat and survival the ultimate ideology… No matter what the sacrifice.”    
On November 27, 1973, the family members were abducted by the Colonists. From that day on, the group became the Syndicate, and according to Smoking Man, they “no longer cleaved to any government agency.”         

Twenty-five years later, the Syndicate’s doctors succeeded in creating a successful alien-human hybrid: Cassandra Spender. The project is over. Colonization can begin. The Syndicate members—now known as Elders—can be reunited with their families. But a rebel alien force has interceded. They are not going to allow the Colonists to commit genocide just to reclaim the Earth for themselves. The Rebels destroy Cassandra, kill all the members of the Syndicate—except Smokey—and steal the Roswell fetus. According to Krycek: “The Rebels are going to win.”

That is all there is (I don’t think the later season added much to this story—but I have yet to see Season 8 and 9). My first impression, after my recent re-watch, is that this is a great science fiction story. Where else has the tantalizing but threadbare myth of the summer picnicker abducted by UFOs been dramatized to its fullest potential and most logical global conclusion? The perverse but very humane twist of turning the evil government conspirator “black hats” into reasonable human beings who make choices that maybe we all would have made is something the modern blockbuster usually tries and fails at (especially recent Trek films). Suddenly all of Smoking Man’s kills, even of Bill Mulder—the hero’s father—seem understandable, if not almost acceptable. The spinoff that The X-Files most called for was not Millennium or Lone Gunman, but the story of how those men of the post-WWII generation discovered the alien plot, decided to hide it from their own government, then had hubris enough that they thought they could play poker with an interstellar superpower and actually win. Smoking Man: You can't think these choices were made lightly. They were the most painful decisions of our lives. Watching our families' faces…” That would be a great show.

Now, what does this mean for the upcoming new episodes?

First, I find in increasingly unlikely that that the six new episodes will deal exclusively with aliens. But there is the potential that they could dispense with the entire alien storyline by claiming, as Krycek predicted, that the Rebels won. The Colonist aliens don’t have to be punched out by Mulder and Scully like Will Smith in Independence Day. We can just be left to assume that the Rebels punched them out a million light years away. Over and done.

Also, in the 90s the UFO myth had a lot more cultural purchase than it does today. The mystery of it was enticing. We could more easily imagine that maybe that couple was abducted on the deserted road in the middle of the night. Today, when that couple and everyone else has a camera in their pocket, do we think that way anymore? Carl Sagan wrote about the UFO myth being culturally and historically specific to the 20th Century. Fifteen years into the 21st Century, I feel confident we are going to move on to other myths. And this still dovetails nicely with the X-Files mythology because according to the story, the abduction project stopped around 1999, when above episodes aired.

Finally, The X-Files was always ripe with social commentary, and the alien story was only ever a small part of that. (One big piece of commentary I never got until recently: There was a lot of significance in the 1990s in depicting a group of old white men from the post-WWII years making momentous decisions that affected the fate of all humanity, and the rightness or wrongness of their decisions.) I wonder what Chris Carter has in store for us when his new episodes air in 2016. The world is much weirder than some of Mulder’s X-Files, many of which now seem downright old fashioned. Can this show that prized its cultural commentary be updated, or will it play like a vintage throwback to a simpler time?