Destroy All Monsters: FIRST CONTACT Is When STAR TREK Sold Out
Look at them guns! That's Patrick Stewart in 1996's Star Trek: First Contact, a movie which had a lot of actual guns in it, too, arming the crew of the Starship Enterprise with their own skinny version of the pulse rifle from Aliens (with a little headlight!) and sending them on a bug hunt in the bowels of their own ship. But Patrick Stewart with his shirt off, Die Hard style? Sure, that too.
First Contact is also, beyond question, the moment Star Trek gave up and sold out.
With Star Trek Beyond in theatres, I'm thinking a lot about what Star Trek can and can't be on the big screen. In his excellent 12-part revisit of the Trek feature film franchise over on EW, Darren Franich argues that the whole framework of "what is Star Trek" has become so elastic that the entire conversation is moot.
But whether that's true or not, it's pretty clear that the kind of movie Paramount is willing to greenlight at the budget level required to sustain a modern blockbuster is becoming fairly restrictive. A lot has been made of Beyond's seeming like a souped-up episode of the old TV show, and that it is... but it's still an episode of the TV show with a massive CGI battle sequence every seven minutes.
J.J. Abrams' NuTrek Trilogy didn't invent this particularly bro-headed repurposing of the Star Trek cast and world into the well-trod arena of sci-fi popcorn. These films are just following on a heartily unsuccessful Version One of trying to make Star Trek something other than what Star Trek is, for the purposes of selling movie tickets.
And that something is "cool."
Leaving aside the Marge Simpson jokes, Star Trek has never been cool. At its core, Star Trek is about intelligence and ingenuity overcoming obstacles both great and small; and intelligence and ingenuity are not cool, and certainly aren't today, when being an expert in anything important only seems to make other people feel inferior.
It's worth noting that the core ideals of the Star Trek construct have been punished repeatedly for being uncool, since - literally - before the series' beginning. Genesis 1.1 of the Star Trek creation myth tells the story of "The Cage," wherein Gene Roddenberry created a whole pilot episode for the series, with a whole different crew (only Spock, that devil!, turned up in Genesis 1.2), which dealt with the nature of reality and a captain's discontented weariness with space travel (Beyond picked up this thread), and was so incredibly uncool that the network sent it back to the shop to be rebuilt from the ground up.
It's a lesson Star Trek has had to learn again and again. Star Trek: The Motion Picture's beige complacency was renovated to create The Wrath of Khan's hot-blooded Moby Dick story. Star Trek: The Next Generation's conflict-free, let's-negotiate! first season gave way to Captain Picard throwing punches by Season Three. Deep Space Nine wobbled along in its space station-bound format for a couple of years, before giving up, hiring a Klingon, and handing its crew a literal warship, whose design is the most shameless Millennium Falcon rip-off in all of science fiction.
And then in 1996, something in Star Trek's beaten-down little heart just snapped.
I suppose inside every nerd is the secret desire to see oneself as a badass. The difference till 1996 was that every time Star Trek was pushed to militarize, to lean towards action-adventure spectacle, it somehow managed to do it by digging deeper into its core values and recontextualizing those images and stories in a thoughtful way. (Think of The Wrath of Khan, a layered meditation on aging and rejuvenation, set on battling submarines in space.)
Star Trek: First Contact, though - released in the franchise's 30th-anniversary year, and kicking off a slate of like-minded wannabe action blockbusters that has persisted to this day - was something else.
For one thing, it was dumb; the very model of the Hollywood screenwriting trope where a script is just a series of thin excuses upon which to hang action sequences. Notably, in First Contact, the crew of the Enterprise never fails to defeat the movie's villain, the Borg. Never. Not once! The Borg attack Earth; the Enterprise blows them up. They send a smaller ship back in time to attack Earth in the past; the Enterprise follows them back and blows them up, too. Borg on the outside of the ship? Captain Picard and two other guys stop them. (In space suits! With guns!) Data maybe got turned into a Borg? C'mon, how long did you believe that one? (I have a bridge I'm looking to sell, which you might be interested in.)
Another thing: First Contact was cosplay. But a kind of weird reverse cosplay where the nerds dress up as the jocks. When the Borg attack the ship, the first thing Worf and Picard do is run down to the Gun Room - at this point we might notice that the entire visual design of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which proposed that the Enterprise was now a long-term community in space and would therefore be hotel-like in its accommodation of human comfort, is gone, replaced by the interior of a battleship - and get their bitchin' guns. When Picard finally surrenders to the Borg at the end of the film, they rip off his uniform tunic, and - whoa! There's that tank top, and those muscles! Captain Picard was an action hero under all that calm diplomacy, all along!
Except, of course, he wasn't. First Contact - and Patrick Stewart along with it - is just pretending he was. The entire tension of Star Trek selling out can be found in the way the eighth film treats Captain Picard, completing an unintentional arc for the character which takes him from thoughtful explorer, layman Shakespearean scholar and accomplished diplomat to... uh... Rambo. But First Blood-era Rambo, where the PTSD is making him do really disturbing shit.
We can have a debate about which version of Picard you prefer, but it's inarguable that the first version - the television series version - is representative of what Star Trek was once trying to be - intelligent, thought-provoking, hopeful - while the latter is emblematic of what Star Trek has spent the last twenty years trying to be seen as: brawny, exciting, pew-pew-pew.
It's sort of silly, and sort of sad. I've argued before that if something needs to be adapted so far afield of its essential nature that it no longer resembles itself (hey, Man of Steel!), maybe it's time to stop adapting it. Star Trek Into Darkness, that depressing beacon of amoral compromise, made me feel that way; but it also made me realize that Star Trek has been dressing itself up in other movies' clothes for so long that I don't think it actually remembers what it used to look like.
Or: if it's just going to be Star Trek movies cosplaying other franchises forever, how about some better role models? The baseline assumption, since at least The Wrath of Khan, is that Star Trek movies needed to be like Star Wars, a thread which J.J. Abrams took and ran with so far and so hard he actually ended up directing a Star Wars movie.
OK, but what about The Martian? Avatar? Interstellar? Contact? Couldn't Star Trek take a page from those science fiction success stories, and carve itself a niche as the deluxe brand in Star Wars counter-programming, where we still get to go to space, but have ourselves an uplifting story about exploration and human resourcefulness, rather than pew-pew-pew?
One of the reasons the original Star Trek series held its own as science fiction, after all, was that it sought and employed outstanding science fiction writers - Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon - intuiting correctly that the ideas behind its stories were the only things that would carry the day (since spectacle couldn't).
I don't sense that in Star Trek any more, and I haven't for a long time. It's not a destination franchise for today's top talent; they all go make their own movies, their own franchises, while Star Trek gobbles up directors and writers who have made other franchises successfully, and tries to be like those other franchises.
Star Trek Beyond feels like the best-case scenario of that particular approach. It's got a lot of Star Trek in it; maybe in this analogy, it's the one where it feels like Star Trek finally circled all the way around and ended up cosplaying itself. It's fun, but doesn't stay with you; it keeps the franchise afloat, but doesn't offer it any new ideas to build on. Thrusters at stationkeeping. Does anyone remember when we used to go to warp nine into the unknown?
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.