Weekly Trek – December 26-31, 2016

At long last we have reached the end of 2016 and with it the end of the 50th Anniversary Year of Star Trek.  I have talked about a lot of specific aspects of the franchise over the course of this year, but as we come to a close, I wanted to take a look at the state of Star Trek at the half century mark.

In many ways, 2016 was something of a mixed bag for Star Trek.  Yes, we got a new movie, Star Trek Beyond, and a new television series, Star Trek: Discovery, is in the works.  However, despite Beyond’s generally good reviews (I felt the film was a lot of fun, as I talked about in THIS POST.), the film only made $343 million worldwide against a $185 million budget.  That’s the least of the new films by far.  By way of comparison, Beyond made $159 million over its entire domestic run in theaters (91 days).  Rogue One: A Star Wars Story almost made that in its first weekend of release and passed that number on its fifth day. 

Before Beyond’s release, Paramount was already talking about plans for a fourth film, Patrick McKay and John D. Payne had been selected to write the script.  That talk has dropped to almost nothing since the Summer.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t get another movie, but I imagine that the studio is going to think long and hard before greenlighting one with the budget of Star Trek Beyond

While nothing has been said officially, on December 6th, Simon Pegg, who cowrote Beyond as well as playing Montgomery Scott in the new films, tweeted a picture of himself and cowriter Doug Jung sitting at laptops working on…something.  Could it be the next film?  If so, what happened to McKay and Payne? 

On the television front, I was skeptical about CBS’s announcement of a new Star Trek series because it was only going to be available on the CBS All Access streaming service.  I love Trek, but I wasn’t sure that I was willing to pay $5/month for a service that had absolutely nothing else of interest to me.  Granted, if I only subscribed for the months the show aired and then cancelled, I would probably be paying less than the cost of a DVD set.  Still it was the principle of thing.

In any case, my reluctance to subscribe vanished once Bryan Fuller was announced as showrunner.  I thought he was a fantastic choice, as I expressed HERE, due to his experience and great love of Trek.  However, in October, we learned that Fuller was stepping away (See HERE).  Officially, it was because he was too busy with other projects, but Discovery would still be using his plans and his scripts for the first couple of episodes.  In December, Fuller stated that he was not involved in the show at all anymore.  Rumors abound that he was butting heads with CBS.   

Even before this, though, things did not seem to be going smoothly for the new series.  Despite an announced January 2017 premiere, no real news about the show, including anything about casting, had been released with only a few months to go.  Then in September, we learned that the premiered had been delayed until May. 

With that news, Fuller leaving the following month, and the disappointing performance of Star Trek Beyond, I honestly started to wonder if the show would premiere at all.  Finally at the end of November, though, things were officially moving forward again with the announcement that Michelle Yeoh, Anthony Rapp, and Doug Jones had been cast in the new series as Starfleet Officers (See HERE).  On December 12th, we learned that three actors had been cast as Klingons (Article HERE).  And then on December 15th, news broke that Sonequa Martin-Green, who currently plays Sasha Williams on The Walking Dead, had been cast as the lead in Discovery (Story HERE). 

Star Trek: Discovery seems to be back on track, which is good news for it.  Hopefully once it premieres in May 2017, it will prove to be good news for fans and the franchise as a whole.  Movies are great, but Star Trek really thrives on the kinds of stories that can only told television away from the big budget action expectations of the films.  Discovery is the best hope for Star Trek to bring in the next generation of fans.

But is that hope really any hope at all?  Not to get too maudlin here, but is Star Trek just too…quaint for this day and age?  Are its notions of people getting along and trying to better themselves and humanity hopelessly naïve.  Fifty years ago when the original Star Trek premiered, we had tensions with the Russians abroad while at home women and minorities struggling for their rights in society.  Now it’s 2016 and we are dealing with the same things.  We haven’t advanced at all in half a century, yet a mere three hundred years from now, we’re supposed to have grown beyond many of our current issues?  I know Star Trek bills itself as science fiction, but that’s pure fantasy! 

Perhaps that’s why we need Star Trek just as much as ever, though.  The series has always given us things to aspire to.  Scientists and engineers have looked at Star Trek for inspiration.  The folks at Motorola that developed early cell phones have been quite upfront about the influence of Star Trek on their thinking.  And, as the Building Star Trek documentary that aired on the Smithsonian Channel earlier this year clearly showed, that influence continues today.  We may not be far away from a universal translator, and strides are being made toward tricorders and even tractor beams.  I also don’t believe that anyone is going to be truly satisfied with virtual reality until we manage to create the equivalent of a holodeck.

Compared to changing human nature, the science seems easy.  Human beings with all of their fears and prejudices are much harder to change.  I’m not convinced that we can change anyone else, certainly not unless they want to.  Growing up, though, I saw Star Trek as a world in which I wanted to live and its characters, particularly the crew of the Enterprise-D on Star Trek: The Next Generation, as people I wanted to emulate.  As silly as it sounds, I wanted to be in Starfleet, and I fantasized about the Enterprise showing up in the 20th century and whisking me off into the future (They needed me for reasons I cannot remember at the point). 

Yes, I get that Star Trek is an entertainment franchise.  CBS/Paramount isn’t looking to change the world.  They just want to make some money off of this property.  And there’s even a great deal of debate in the fan community and even among those who worked on the various series about whether or not Gene Roddenberry did more harm than good by pushing Trek toward the utopian vision of humanity presented in TNG.  For a lot of us, though, including me, the utopian vision is what appeals to us.

If we’re going to get to anything approaching Star Trek, we have to work for it.  Every.  Single.  Day.  It means not automatically rejecting a scientific discovery because it goes against something I already believe.  It’s not assuming that another person is bad because they live their life differently than I do.  It’s realizing that the only way life on this planet gets any better is if we all work together to improve it.  Even in Star Trek, the Vulcans didn’t swoop in to save the Earth.  They only made contact once they saw that someone had been able to do the work necessary to reach out into the stars.

Thank you for joining me this year for these Weekly Treks as we celebrated the franchise’s 50th anniversary, and I hope some of them have been interesting and/or entertaining.  Star Trek continues to be nearly unique in its presentation of a future where things are actually pretty good for humanity and the world hasn’t descended into one variety or another of dystopian hell-scape.  There’s a decent chance that I’m going to still be around fifty years from now, and I sincerely hope Star Trek will still be viable as it hits the century mark.  Even then, I’m sure Star Trek’s vision of a brighter future, will still sorely needed.

- Alan Decker

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