Thursday, January 1, 2009

Star Trek , Canon, and the Myth of Mass Appeal

Happy new year, though--as with many things in life--my first post of 2009 looks a lot like the last ones of 2008. Namely, my fascination with the evolution of franchise box office numbers continues. On the other hand, this first post of the new year clearly implies a shift in attention from one franchise to another.

With the Bond franchise momentarily dwindling into the background for the next year or so (although I will probably blog at some point in the new year about what the next film should do), I've begun turning my attention to the franchise installment I'm most excited about for 2009--Star Trek, which is due in the beginning of May. I have blogged about the film before, and many more of my posts in the new year will undoubtedly focus on this film.

I've spent the winter break reading autobiographies from Nimoy and Shatner, and so that (plus the media blitz surrounding the new film) has got me looking ahead. Here's a glimpse at the other Trek films, ranked 1-10, and adjusted for box-office inflation. Again, as with Bond, I used box office numbers and ticket inflation numbers from Box Office Mojo to deduce the adjusted totals and rankings.

Not really any big surprises here, though I was not expecting the first two TNG films to have each out-grossed the last two TOS films. On the other hand, it is amazing to me that for all the grief it takes, the first one--Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)--remains by far the box office champ. This is, mind you, a movie that Paramount hated so much it pretty much fired everybody involved behind the camera and started from scratch. This is a movie so hated that even no less a legend than director Robert Wise was not invited back. He and fellow legend Gene Roddenberry were essentially shelved for an unknown TV producer (Harve Bennett) and a largely untested writer-director (Nicholas Meyer)-both smart moves, though. Pretty harsh response to a film that grossed, in today's dollars, $231 Million!

But, of course, that's the rub. $231 Million really isn't that much money relative to other blockbusters and blockbuster franchises, especially as the highest-grossing entry. Let me put that in perspective--take this past year's box office champs. TMP's total would do no better than #4 on the list, behind The Dark Knight, Iron Man, and Indiana Jones--each of which made considerably more. TMP would finish barely ahead of Hancock!

The great "cross-over" hit, Voyage Home, meanwhile, made the equivalent of $209 million, which would only place it seventh in 2008 alone. That one didn't make much more than Wrath of Khan ($190m), which isn't considered a cross-over hit.

I only point this out not to disrespect my beloved franchise, but because there appears to be a myth evolving around the newest entry that there is this large, mainstream, audience "out there" to be grabbed--much larger than the core of Trekkies--and that said audience must be appealed to in order for the franchise to be revived. But, as the numbers show, it was never a matter of reaching a huge mainstream audience, but in consistently satisfying the existing die-hards.

As should be apparent by now, I am a little ambivalent about the new film. While I am excited about any attempt to revive the franchise (and I believe the TNG films were a dead-end--those characters were far more interesting when spread across an entire season of tv, and there was never an attempt to tell a larger story across several films, ala the TOS films), I am concerned about the fact that the new filmmakers haven't yet made a decent feature-length film (most notably, MI:III was a mess, and I was a fan of that franchise, too). And, yes, I am concerned about "canon"--the faithful adherence to the narratives and events that came before in other ST films and television episodes.

I swear I was never a fan of canon before this newest Star Trek film began building buzz. I've watched the original episodes once, maybe twice incidentally, never read a single fictional book about ST's world, and hardly followed any of the other series, though as a kid I did watch TNG a lot during its initial run. My devotion to ST stems from the single fact that I love the TOS films, but I have always embraced II through VI as much as its own (Harve Bennett/Nic Meyer-influenced) internalized diegetic world, than as a part of a larger multi-media story.

But there was something about the newest Trek film that suddenly concerns me regarding canon. Its less to do with whether a line in the new film, or a plot development, completely contradicts some obscure line from a 60s TOS broadcast (as is the case, for example, with the fact that Kirk only once very briefly met Pike, the Enterprise's first captain, and yet the two now have a detailed relationship in the film). Its not about nitpicking details. Its more about knowing and respecting your audience, and how those details may or may not speak to a careful, healthy, attention to a new thoughtful script in the here and now.

To be honest, the first full theatrical trailer is basically one big "FU" to the die-hards (which is not the same thing as saying it will be a bad movie, mind you--it may well be). In the first minute, the trailer goes out of its way to show its audience several blatant violations of canon. That's not a smart way to sell a movie--and, check the records, it was never "cross-over" fans that made the films a reliable franchise (even the success of I and IV were not that much more than the others, relatively-speaking). So throwing the fans under the bus--as the director has done during preview screenings--in favor of some mythical larger audience seems misguided, at best.

A better approach for the trailer would have been to start before the flashbacks (as the actual film does) and then work its way back to the big pay-off--a new version of the old crew. And a better approach for the franchise would be to re-build the shaky connection with its once faithful cult following (whom abandoned Nemesis), and then try to build from there. The assumption seems to be that the die-hards will show up no matter what (and I am sure most will), but that last TNG film is a reminder that nothing's a given.

Let me rephrase, I do not care about how faithful the new film is to the old stories in and of itself. One of my all-time favorite Bond films (Casino Royale) completely contradicts the basic premises of the earlier films. And my favorite TV show still on (Battlestar Galactica) took the story of the old version that I used to watch as a child, and started over entirely . . . for the better. I have no problem with significant change.

But I do care about the perception that the new filmmakers are, or are not, being very thorough or thoughtful in their own storytelling. And the "we will cover it all up with time travel" trick (gag), is not a sufficiently interesting nor creative measure. To me, it would be much more of a challenge for the new film to make a good faith effort to adhere to the existing lore of Kirk, Spock, etc.'s upbringing, than (as it appears to the die-hard Trekkie outsider) to just throw in a convenient deux ex machina that allows the filmmakers to create their own story from scratch. There is a fine line between creativity and laziness, and the latter rarely produces a memorable story.

Again, I obviously haven't seen the film, and I am excited to do so. Its entirely possible that the new film will have an internal narrative logic that not only makes sense, but more importantly, produces a Enterprise crew worth following further.

But I cannot emphasize enough that a successful new film has to go through the fans. The fans brought the franchise in the 1970s back from the dead, and it was the fans and their repeat business that sustained the franchise through nine films and several television series, long after the novelty of Trek had worn off.

There were only two times, prior to this newest one, that a Trek film was tinkered with to attract so-called "mass appeal"--the awkward humor of Final Frontier and the heightened emphasis on action in Nemesis. Those were the two lowest-grossing films in the franchise--how ironic (and not a coincidence). The humor in Voyage Home was more about taking a break from the darkness of the deadly serious previous two installments, than about finding a new audience--which was just a happy by-product of the shift in tone.

I wish the new film the best. It hasn't gotten off to a good start for me, but there's no point in rooting against my own self-interests. Yet there's still something to be said about the old (albeit sexist) truism--"dance with the girl who brought you."