In the beginning, there was a swell of strings and a wide open galaxy.
It was into this aesthetic that Star Trek brought its crew and its story; the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations.
Though creator Gene Roddenberry’s early pitches for Star Trek were that of a space Western, he allegedly told friends privately that he wanted the story to be closer to Gulliver’s Travels. Specifically, he wanted the stories to operate on two different levels: An action-packed adventure story, and a morality play. Their mission was to boldly go—with purpose and altruism.
In 1966 this was fairly radical. In 2017, it’s an anomaly.
It’s in this way that Star Trek uniquely bridges and predicts the flow of sci-fi over the latter half of the 20th century. Of course it would; it was a major reason why the genre got the kick in the pants to the mainstream it did. The genre owes a lot of where it ended up—mainstream, blockbuster, high-budget, you name it—to a scrappy little production that saw the boundaries of the style to be uniquely suited to their ideals of inclusion and hope. They built out the model for carrying a cult show into an extremely profitable movie franchise, and moved fluidly between these two tentpoles all the time.
But no franchise existing for 51 years (and counting) could hold completely steadfast in its ideals. Which is to say that for all its hope and glimmer, Star Trek, in the modern space, has almost fully transitioned from science fiction to “action adventure (in space).” As a result, it not only looks less like science fiction, it also looks a lot less like Star Trek.
And yet with more installments promised, questions remain: Are the core ideas in Star Trek best served by action, in a cinematic form, or by the modern (or even just the modern J.J. Abrams) interpretations of what a blockbuster effects-driven film needs to be?
Or—between all the facelifts, reboots, spin offs, rebuilds, and new generations—has the core of the franchise shifted?
Roddenberry reportedly didn’t want The Motion Picture to look like they were just “cashing in” on Star Trek’s popularity. Though Star Wars had given the genre a boost only two years prior, Roddenberry had always seen Star Trek as a more “serious endeavour” compared to the Buck Rogers fluff of George Lucas’ blockbuster. And so, pointedly, he pushed The Motion Picture to be more sophisticated and complex, choosing conversation over conflict, and letting people know in the press kits that there “is no comparison.”
The result is somewhat inconsistent with the feel of the Star Trek universe: Our beloved crew, devoid of the personalities that won over fans on TV ten years prior, were only characters now in that you already knew them. In The Motion Picture, the bridge of the Enterprise shares as much camaraderie as a group of strangers.
But in a unique way, this would be some of the hardest sci-fi of the entire franchise. Hard science fiction, which was enjoying a moment at the time, heavily emphasized scientific plausibility and deeply characterized protagonists. The 1960s had ushered in The New Wave of science fiction, seen as a second revolution of the genre akin to the French New Wave. These stories were psychological, experimental, and deeply interested in what makes us human.
The Motion Picture’s antagonist, so to speak, is Voyager 6 (calling itself V’Ger), a fictional iteration of the NASA satellite program given a major mission instructive: Learn as much about the universe as you can, and bring it back to us. After falling into the hands of an alien race, its code is adapted and it erroneously starts devouring all it comes in contact with in order to learn more.
These ideas were malleable, but also required depth: With science fiction there’s never been one parameter that neatly boxes it in, as a classification. The most conservative definition categorized a type of fiction that based itself in real or imagined future scientific advancements, but truthfully, science fiction—at its best, most wondrous and full—has always grown beyond that definition. Though, exactly in what way depended on who you asked.
Isaac Asimov himself saw the potential as “the branch of literature which deals with the response of human beings to changes in the level of science and technology.” John W. Campbell Jr. argued that while it necessitated some bit of scientific methodology in a fictional form, the genre would also explore “what the results look like when applied not only to machines, but to human society as well.” Kim Stanley Robinson thought of the genre as “an historical literature… In every sf narrative, there is an explicit or implicit fictional history that connects the period depicted to our present moment, or to some moment in our past.”
The differences were not usually unbreachable or wholly different; a matter of where you put the accent of the work. Indeed whatever consensus can be found falls somewhere past the categorization of a story that asks “What if?” and involves some sort of social commentary, reflection, or understanding. It demanded that stories not just have some sort of technological advancement, but that the development challenged (or even outright changed) what we hold dear about humanity as a concept. Beyond those deep themes, the multiverse is your oyster.
Which is what The Motion Picture seems most interested in peering into. Director Robert Wise’s vision seems close to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its long, meticulous shots of spaceships doing their thing and coursing through infinite space. (The two share actual DNA in the form of Douglas Trumbull, who did special effects for both.) But neither its story, its visuals, or its messages seem to come close to the brilliance of Kubrick’s space saga. There’s a reverence there, for space and its adventurers, but it doesn’t seem to manage to bring anything to the table; devoid of either revelry or revelation, it’s got little insight on the human condition.
It’s not hard to see Roddenberry and his ideals as directly at odds with the promise of an action franchise. The genre’s fluidity often makes for potent insights, but puts it at odds with a more rigid genre like action.
For whatever other trappings and meldings of the grouping is true, action calls for (at least) two sides, drawn from ideologically opposing arguments, coming to blows. The ideas that drive them to battle need not be simple, but often call for some flattening of principles as they turn to violence.
This is not to be disparaging or to hold up one genre over the other has having objectively more lofty goals. It’s merely to say that where science fiction has its more malleable trappings, action more forcefully demands certain things from its participants. Science fiction, at its best, hoped ideas would be robust, possibly even without answers or revelations at all.
Which is sort of how The Motion Picture resolves. V’Ger needs “a human quality” in order to evolve, Kirk notes, “our capacity to leap beyond logic.” Ultimately the day is saved when a captain becomes one with the machine, becoming a new lifeform and (seemingly) disappearing from our dimension.
Star Trek wouldn’t stay this way, though. The Motion Picture—which received just average reviews on the whole, even if it remains the highest-grossing film of the franchise, adjusted for inflation—would be taken out of the hands of Roddenberry for its second installment. And that second installment would become a massive success.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is a tonal break from its predecessor (as well as an actual break, behind the scenes), opening almost immediately with a (test) space conflict that Roddenberry strove to surpass. It’s clear that Star Trek was no longer seeking to be classified as hard sci-fi, although it would continue to ostensibly be attempting morality themes.
Picking up with Khan, a formidable (if one-time) villain from the Original Series, declaring war on the Enterprise as revenge for marooning him and his crew of genetically engineered superhumans on what turned out to be a barren planet. His vendetta turns into a quest to take the terraforming device, Genesis, out of the hands of the Starfleet, and leads to Spock sacrificing himself to save the Enterprise, challenging Kirk’s “no such thing as a no-win scenario” philosophy.
That Genesis, the scientific MacGuffin that allowed life to be created from space rocks, was just being created provided the opportunity for the braintrust to discuss the implications of such a powerful and awesome tool.
That the Genesis project ultimately fueled Star Trek III: The Search for Spock as well as Wrath of Khan (not to mention the fourth installment, The Voyage Home, as fallout for the events of the previous two films) meant the writers could return to namechecking these same concepts and themes of the power to create life and death. But despite that narrative shorthand, there was very little that delved too deeply into the implications of the actual technology. Sure, Kirk lost his best friend, his son, and his ship over it, but that was more for the power behind Genesis that enemies like Khan and the Klingons would kill for. What that meant for humanity’s soul is less clear.
And that trend more or less continues throughout the series: Earth needs a whale to communicate with an alien whose signal is messing up the ecosystem so Kirk and the crew time travel to 1986 to fetch some whales to communicate, since mankind had driven whales to extinction centuries ago, resulting in a often goofy, time-travel adventure to (then) present day. A rogue Vulcan needs a spaceship so he can travel to what he believes to be where ultimate knowledge and “God” lives, so he takes the Enterprise hostage, and, despite breaking with the irreligious series, has very little to say about the implications of the power. Intergalactic peace sits within arms reach, but Kirk’s stigma against the Klingons (along with some nefarious shenanigans) threatens to put the whole negotiation into peril.
Each of these films touch on powerful themes—aging, friendship, death, environmentalism, spiritual meaning—but ultimately not to much end. These themes are not picked apart or reflected back to modern times beyond invoking concepts like Eden, and implying that they have persisted centuries in the future.
Perhaps the most overtly political (after the whacky “Save the Whales!” credo of Star Trek IV) is the sixth installment, The Undiscovered Country, which features the negotiations to bring the Klingons into the federation. The negotiations are jeopardized when it seems Kirk has ordered a hit on the Klingon chancellor as part of his own bigotry. Ultimately it’s revealed to be a plot put in motion by Valeris, a Vulcan protege of Spock’s who represents a contingent who stand to “lose from peace.”
The venom with which Valeris spits out these lines is as palpable as a Vulcan’s emotion can be. And yet, mere minutes after her vile plot is found out, the plot shifts to the Enterprise engaging in space warfare and dramatically firing on the Bird of Prey, stopping intergalactic war in the process. What exactly “everyone who stands to lose from peace” will lose, remains unclear.
Arguably something was lost somewhere in the jump from television to movies. It is not in the nature of the contained, two-hour format to give an ensemble a chance to truly meditate on deeper themes, and certainly not if producers are hoping to invoke more action-driven plots. Where the Original Series could ask questions for 45-minutes, punctuating here and there with a good brawl, and then move on due to its episodic nature, the movies had to have a point; something to justify their existence. And what Star Trek had to do to justify its existence had shifted in the decades since they first set out on their five-year mission.
Ultimately the first Motion Picture would prove to be a black sheep of the franchise, not operating outside the sacred canon, but hardly integral (and arguably redundant) to the Original Series films that follow.
By this point the Star Trek franchise had carried itself into the 1990s. And whereas the Original Series had been a brick in the wall of the 1960s sci-fi, building a new revolution within the genre, Star Trek the movie had been an overt departure from sci-fi themes of the time. It almost entirely sidestepped the cyberpunk of the 1980s, whose lack of optimism was directly at odds with Star Trek’s universe.
But they had managed to do something else entirely, becoming a cultural touchstone and institution. Sure, they were no longer toying with the limits of what was possible in science fiction, but they were still around. You could catch them at the box office or on television with Star Trek: The Next Generation, which ran from 1987 through 1994.
Star Trek had managed to do something that was fairly unique, successfully bridging from a cult television show to a major motion picture franchise. Whatever you thought of the quality, the concept of Star Trek remained profitable; Undiscovered Country was one of the big successes of 1991, and continued the franchise’s streak of opening in first place at the box office. By the seventh film, it would do something even more ballsy, featuring Captains Kirk and Jean Luc Picard in the same movie.
Though the modern franchises have perfected the monetization and expansion of their respective universes, Star Trek laid the track. It moved from a show to a cinematic franchise, running concurrently with a different iteration of the show, which ultimately led to more movies, and more spinoffs.
In many ways the dramatic swings in tone between movies would paint a wider landscape in tone and adventure to match the series. But it also shifted over time: Space battles grew more commonplace, humanity less and less central to the plot. TNG films, the seventh through tenth installments released between the mid ‘90s and the early 2000s, fared a bit better, but even they were far more interested in action conflict than the show was. The access to higher budgets created the opportunity for films created with entirely CGI effects, opening up new worlds and bigger battle opportunities. By the time TNG was ready to cap its run at the box office in 2002 with Star Trek: Nemesis, the movies had found a groove where plots naturally lead into big action set-pieces, but rarely did they take the time to dig deep into their underlying philosophies. Starfleet as a concept moved from exploratory to military, pushing Star Trek into more militarized sci-fi.
It’s no surprise that by the time Abrams and his Star Trek showed up in 2009, the series was primed to land where it did. The cinematic universe had increasingly pushed for more clear cut morality, allowing the crew of the Enterprise to have no choice but to fight for their ideals. It had successfully reinvented (or cross-pollinated) itself as a cinematic universe, but it had sacrificed a part of itself to make the jump.
The modern films, originally helmed by J.J. “Guy you bring in for a clean reboot” Abrams, are seemingly chemically engineered to deliver the perfect cocktail of satisfactory nostalgia and new glitz and glamour. They were built to be appealing to everyone: Accessible to new audiences (“You’re captain now,” as opposed to the more customary “You have the bridge”), while still dropping plenty of easter eggs for long-time Trekkies. Arguably most brilliantly, it wrote itself into existence, providing a narrative explanation and cause for what could otherwise come off as canonical fan fiction on Abrams’ part. The (now) three movies are all sleek; cool; and, perhaps most importantly, ready to take the action backbone of the Original Series and dial it up to 11.
From the very start, the Abrams’ films were designed to be a modern blockbuster incarnation. Star Trek (2009) almost immediately launches audiences into a dramatic space battle with high stakes and big explosions. It was a far cry from Roddenberry and his distaste for space battles, and it would only continue to grow.
As the rebooted series marched on, the Star Trek franchise fell more and more in line with the trends of the modern action blockbuster than a modern science fiction franchise. It compartmentalizes its emotional beats, doing a lot of telling rather than showing. We know that Kirk and Spock are best friends because they have a long-standing reputation as best friends, and also we have seen Spock mourn Kirk’s death (even when he would rather choose not to) in Star Trek Into Darkness. But we don’t actually see their friendship rooted in much on screen. As far as the movies have established, they are slightly-more-than chummy work associates, who have established a firm connection out of their initial dislike of each other.
But because of their decades long, canonical friendship, Star Trek can get away with skimping on details and wedging this friendship into the heart of the narrative. It’s similar to Star Wars: The Force Awakens or Captain America: Civil War: We may know that within the cinematic universe there are more firm connections than Poe and Finn or Cap and Ironman, but because their duality and attachment has been built out in the comics, the movie expects us to understand that their conflict would be the most narratively compelling.
In doing so, the Star Trek movies remove themselves from the emotional nature sci-fi can imbue its subjects with. Action was always part of the foundation of the Star Trek universe, but in the newer films it follows out of necessity, rather than being guided by the heart of the characters. It dabbles in the grander nature of the technology that has caused the conflict, but rarely allows the narrative time to discuss the implications of it.
Among the many classic episodes that Star Trek draws from is “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” which also features a Starfleet vessel hopping timelines and altering history. But unlike The Next Generation episode from which it’s inspired by, there’s not much thought given to how the timeline shenanigans actually impact the characters. Into Darkness is so interested in flipping Wrath of Khan on its head that it ignores the bigger emotional beats of its science: Khan and his race of genetically engineered humans are being used to create weapons so that an admiral in the Federation can launch a war. It’s a big undercurrent in all the modern films, the Federation’s legacy as a military operation. But Into Darkness ironically prefers the crew of the Enterprise to be fighting, rather than discussing these heady themes.
Star Trek Beyond, the latest cinematic installment, attempts to return to the classic, ideological morality plays, separating the crew into pairs to fight a mutated, vampiric enemy named Krall who sucks the strength of others to keep himself alive.
It’s a core concept of the film and the universe of Star Trek: Bring the crew of the Enterprise together, and once united. there’s nothing they can’t solve. But Beyond is a film fighting so many battles; the previous film precedent of the new films, with the obligatory high-budget CG destruction and action sequence one-upsmanship, not to mention the conventional film pacing and narrative structure. And despite explicitly (and continuously) calling out these ideals and the general arguments of the opposing sides in the script, the thread is easily lost.
For all its high-tech bells and whistles, Star Trek can’t seem to find more than one track for each of its players to occupy at any given time: Bones grumbles, Scotty will wisecrack, Uhura deserves better.
Nowhere is this more clear than the difference in the two Kirks: Shatner’s—for whatever incongruity he had during his span—is puckish by way of immense caring and virtuosity; his desire for adventure matched by both courage and mischievous charisma.
But Chris Pine’s Kirk, now armed with sleeker gadgets and a cooler color scheme, is not quite as impish. He skews more towards spunky, and even that is overwhelmed by his more protective and brave qualities. He is interested in the mission, the crew’s safety, and the big gestures, before he is interested in satisfying his own curiosity–which makes sense, considering he is part of a much more overtly rank-and-file Starfleet. But the alternative is the kind of curiosity that, more than once, got Shatner’s Kirk into (about 40 minutes of) trouble. Both are learning, but Pine-Kirk has something to prove; his bravado has yet to be tempered by age.
Where Star Trek: The Original Series was a Star Trek of ideas, Star Trek: The Rebooted Movie Franchise can’t seem to tap into that same optimism and social commentary. It has become a franchise deeply rooted and reflective of the current creators and their times: acutely interested in high-budget action with some nostalgic plating, and little else.
But they’re playing with different ammo: Fans are no longer surprising studios by showing up to a convention for a show that went off the air in 1969, and writing letters to the White House to rechristen a space shuttle as “Enterprise.” There are different expectations for a blockbuster (hell, there’s a firmer concept of a blockbuster), even those that have a foot in geek culture.
That culture has moved into more popular space, and with that new spotlight comes a new, astonishing amount of money (and expectation for more money).
At what point does something stop being sci-fi, and start just being action adventure with scientific trappings? Can a franchise—like, say, Star Trek—cross between them? Could the core ideas in Star Trek be served by action, in a cinematic form, or by the modern (or even just the modern Abrams’) interpretations of what a blockbuster effects-driven film needs to be?
The truth, to some extent, is that Star Trek will never definitively answer this question. Another key thing that Star Trek helped usher into the world is that there’s no last word in a successful franchise. And it does all this because something like Star Trek existed, and proved studios could have these expectations. There is “canon” and events that transpired, but there’s also reboots and write arounds. A fourth reboot movie is already in the works, and Star Trek: Discovery is already representing the television contingent.
There will be a future for Star Trek, where it keeps reinventing itself and—perhaps—paving the way for new ways of being. The new Star Trek doesn’t necessarily capture the same spirit, but as long as it’s commercially viable we’re not living in Gene Roddenberry’s vision anymore; that future will likely be there no matter how good or bad the last installment was. Whether the franchise can figure out a way to boldly go in both television and cinema, it’s always just a warp drive and a green light away.