After 10 films and five TV incarnations, the rattling ghost of Star Trek was finally put to bed in 2005 when the woeful TV series Enterprise was cancelled. It was a mercy killing by anyone’s standards. Depending upon your point of view, Enterprise had either been a failed attempt to recapture the universe according to creator Gene Roddenberry, or a means to flog the last few pennies out of a franchise long since sucked dry (it was the latter). But with its retro look, it achieved one significant thing: it made us hunger for the days of polystyrene rocks, vermillion skies and a man called James Tiberius Kirk.
This was clearly the thinking of JJ Abrams, Star Trek 11 writer/director and the creative force behind TV’s Alias, Lost and Fringe (a new X-files-style series). Having also helmed the innovative monster-flick Cloverfield (Godzilla with camcorders), it is fair to say that JJ is an ideas man, something the franchise sorely needs.
The tenth Star Trek feature film, Nemesis, released in 2002, was not only a financial flop, but an exception to the rule that it is only the even-numbered Star Trek films that are any good. It also sounded the death knell for the adventures of the ageing Next Generation crew. The later incarnations were clearly deemed not film-worthy, resulting in space to be filled. But is resurrecting Messrs Kirk, Spock, Scotty et al in shiny new bodies a step forward?
Star Trek has a political structure which would make most Tudor kings weep in frustration. CBS own the rights to the overall series, but the TV shows were made by former sister company Paramount, whereas a separate division, Paramount Movies, are responsible for the films, which, for some reason, CBS have no say in. All of this wrangling means that there is little chance of a new TV show re-appearing soon, despite reported interest from Heroes creator Bryan Fuller.
You can also add to this space cauldron a vast, opinionated fan base, and old cast members afforded the power of deities. Rumours are that shooting the new film would not go ahead until Leonard ‘Spock’ Nimoy signed off on the story, or at least that’s how its makers want it to be seen. Nimoy’s blessing and reappearance as ‘old Spock’ is palliative care for the terminally wounded nostalgia-mongers who will predictably cry, ‘Iconoclast’.
The point is that a lot of boxes have to be ticked before engines hit warp speed. But Star Trek was once bright and daring: it screened TV’s first interracial kiss; it preached equality and tolerance; it even championed the peculiar acting style of William Shatner. However, years of franchising have made it profitable, yet dull. Whether Abrams can breathe new life into an old formula remains to be seen.
Interestingly, the director went for a cast of largely unknowns to narrate the story of how the original crew of the Enterprise came together. It brings to mind smaller screen efforts like TV’s Smallville, where Super-Man goes to college, or (err...) Muppet Babies. Abrams cites further sci-fi royalty as his inspiration for shunning the stars, namely the success of George Lucas’s Star Wars – though, perhaps not wise to mention this around Trekkies.
Lucas is also a reference point for Chris Pine, who takes over the role of Captain Kirk. The actor claims to eschew his predecessor’s mannerisms, delivery and fighting style for more of a Han Solo-type approach, albeit with a background in Iranian kung fu. However, Pine admits that he did make contact with Shatner: ‘I wrote him a letter early on in the process and just introduced myself,’ he explains. ‘I wanted him to know that I was not trying to usurp his status as the original Kirk.’ Shatner did respond, inviting him to lunch, but they’ve yet to go, says Pine (no doubt his predecessor is too busy making reality web series The Shatner Project.) Breaking away from the past is a common theme for the new cast, it seems.
Heroes star (Sylar) Zachary Qinto, who plays Spock, claims to have avoided watching old episodes in preparation for the role; but he did at least get to meet his predecessor. The initial meeting was a largely silent elevator trip, explains Quinto. As they reached their destination and the doors opened, Nimoy turned to him and said: ‘You have no idea what you’re in for.’
These are words that could easily double as the tagline for the film. An ailing franchise, a maverick director, a cast of relative unknowns, the weight of 43 years of mythology: can Star Trek live long and prosper? Certainly, going back to basics was the only way forward, but the outcome is uncertain. Like William Shatner’s agent, we live in hope.
Star Trek 11 is released in cinemas on May 7.