On Saturday afternoon, Karli and I saw Star Trek: Beyond. The new cast continues to do brilliant imitations of the original characters, the special effects were impeccable*, the villain is suitably villainous, and the day, as always, is saved in an epic fashion. It’s got some issues in terms of exposition, there are a lot of holes in the bad guy’s back story, but generally the movie builds very well on the foundations erected by the first two offerings from the rebooted voyages of the starship Enterprise.
Coincidentally, I’ve also been watching episodes from the original series on Netflix during my stationary bike cardio workouts at the gym. Here's the thing: why do I find myself preferring the old shows?
It’s an unexpected question. In spite of the lasting popularity of the original series, no one denies that it had its problems, and I'd like to think that lessons were learned. (Although you'd never know it from the Qpid episode from The Next Generation.) Star Trek: Beyond would have been a perfectly acceptable original series episode, but that's the problem: acceptable, rather than excellent or challenging or thought-provoking. And there's a very logical explanation for that - no Spock joke intended.
A movie, even one that’s part of a franchise with a 50-year legacy, is unlikely to make the same creative decisions as a series - especially one that’s as episodic as the original Star Trek. Some critics point at the show’s lack of serialization as a flaw, but really, it’s one of the great strengths of the original series.
The stand-alone nature of the episodes allowed for a huge creative variety in stories: the taut, tense conflict of Balance of Terror versus the cheerful comedy of The Trouble with Tribbles; The Doomsday Machine, with its echoes of Moby Dick and references to the Mutually Assured Destruction standoff of the Cold War, or Ricardo Montalban’s suave villainy as Khan in Space Seed. Amok Time, The City on the Edge of Forever, Mirror, Mirror, A Taste of Armageddon - there’s a substantial list of episodes that are considered to be excellent stand-alone examples of science fiction storytelling.
I acknowledge that there's also a substantial list of failures – The Omega Glory, Spock's Brain, The Way to Eden – but even the bad episodes of Star Trek were still attempting to do something original and interesting.
Contemporary movie makers are faced with the challenge of trying to maintain that flavour of creativity and variety without being able to vary too widely from the formula. It’s hard to imagine a two-hour Star Trek movie that would be as deliberately comedic as The Trouble With Tribbles – instead, the movie scripts have to strike a balance, mixing elements of humour, conflict, suspense and romance in an action movie framework.
It's one thing to roll the dice on an unusual idea when you're doing 26 episodes - it's a completely different thing to take a chance when you're releasing one movie every three or four years.
Regardless, if I could send a message to the creative team for the next Star Trek film, I would tell them to do exactly that: to play the long game with the movie franchise and treat it like a really extended version of the series. Take some risks, people! Challenge us, impress us, startle us! Come on - let's boldly go someplace we’ve never gone before.
* Karli might not agree with this statement - she noticed a couple of things that didn’t quite work.