Friday 29 September 2017

A Modest Proposal: The Star Trek Multiverse

I watched every new beginning for Star Trek since "Encounter at Farpoint" first aired on BBC2. I was a wee 6-year-old then, but I still remember running across the room, my arms looped in a childish facsimile of the starship Enterprise, in time with the opening theme (must've driven my family mad). Then I watched "Emissary" on Sky One as a somewhat cynical 9-year-old, who initially lamented about a Star Trek that didn't have a spaceship to go off and Explore Strange New Worlds, before being taken in by the station's distinct appeal. I was an 11-year-old bona-fide Trekkie when me & my family got together to watch "Caretaker" when it aired here: Star Trek was arguably at its peak media saturation, with three distinct crews across film and television. Between then and the return of Trek to television in "Broken Bow," I collected the Star Trek Fact Files, amassed a collection of Star Trek games, was fluent in technobabble, fought ruthlessly in The Eternal War, and was in the final four of a quiz at Glasgow's Contagion Star Trek convention one year.

And every single time, for every single new beginning, fellow Trekkies asked: has Star Trek lost its way? First TNG dared to be Star Trek without the original ship & crew; then DS9 dared to eschew the very concept of a Wagon Train to the Stars. At least those were bold new directions, though: for Voyager, the question was whether Trek was succumbing to rehashing TNG, and Enterprise was literally a backwards step in time - both were also criticised for catering to the lowest common denominator. The less said about the new films - and I've said far too much as it is - the better.

So we come to Star Trek Discovery. Much like the new films, it's a reboot that's desperately pretending it isn't a reboot, but a perfectly faithful & compatible continuation of the Prime Timeline. Thing is, there's an incredibly easy way to reconcile Discovery with the Prime Timeline - you just have to change what you mean by that phrase.

It's curious how difficult it is to reboot Star Trek - and it wasn't for want of trying.


On the left: Kang, Koloth, & Kor.
On the right: Kang, Koloth, & Kor.

The first time, Gene Roddenberry himself made the attempt. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was, in many ways, as much a reboot of the original series as it was an explicit sequel, intentionally so - the new Klingon makeup, costume, and visual design was initially intended to replace the 1960s interpretation:

Gene Roddenberry tried to explain the differences between The Motion Picture's Klingons and the original ones by saying that the original show had simply never had the budget and makeup technology to envision the species as it should have been seen, so the apparently new Klingons were just Klingons as they were always intended to have been. (Cinefantastique, Vol. 37, No. 2, p. 40) 

From that perspective, the Klingons from "Errand of Mercy" to "The Savage Curtain" were always meant to have the knobbly foreheads, warrior armour, and pronounced teeth as depicted in the film - this seemed to be cemented with DS9's "Blood Oath," where Kang, Koloth, and Kor (pictured above) were depicted in the new Klingon fashion. If the Klingons could be so markedly different as a result of technological considerations, then it suggests other elements may have been intended as revisions of TOS elements too.

Consider: Starfleet in TOS was full of vibrant, distinctive colours, very unlike what you see in most science fiction. This is for two reasons: the more obvious one is that it wanted to capitalise on the boom in colour televisions, but the more interesting one to me is that it was a particularly stylistic choice.

There is a word for the Star Trek style, and that is “Minimalism” — which I mean as a technical term, the designation of a certain style. Minimalism brings with it a complex of values that are also notable in the original Star Trek. There is no doubt that budget constraints shaped the style, but ultimately the Minimalist look has nothing to do with budgeting. The look of Star Trek is Minimalist through and through, even including the somewhat elaborate bridge set (with the “con”), where Captain Kirk issues commands and supervises the starship. Successor shows and movies, by contrast, could hardly be less Minimalist in their art direction, style, and lighting. Advances in special effects after 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Star Wars movies were considerable by the time of The Next Generation,2 though not yet at the stage where “lighting a scene becomes a matter of painting pixels,” as Stephen Prince puts it (“True Lies” 32). Science fiction on television had to look good, had to be as perfect in terms of surface appearances as possible. By contrast, the predecessor series, Star Trek, was establishing conventions, not trying to catch up with them: important conventions of the genre start there. There was no “anxiety of influence” to overcome, and therefore a definite lack of inhibition, a kind of energy that cannot be duplicated under more regular circumstances. Improvisation is part of the original show, and with it the failings and advantages that improvisation yields. Many of the effects and settings were in fact improvised — improvised in the literal sense of that word, made up quickly under pressure with few resources. There is something about such circumstances that can stimulate creative work, as so many inexpensive but brilliant movies in film history also testify. In the case of Star Trek, later series are more polished but less energized.
 - Minimalist Magic: The Star Trek Look, Mervyn Nicholson
Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and by extension the rest of the film franchise, has thus abandoned the Minimalism of the original series, and favoured the sleek, polished, realistic tone of contemporaneous science fiction films:

If we take the "Klingons were always meant to look like they did from TMP onward" explanation, then we can retroactively presume that the Minimalist look of Starfleet, the Enterprise, the alien words and civilisations, and so forth, were always meant to be more detailed and "futuristic" than was depicted in the original series. Thus, the TNG period - which takes place a century later - can fit with the TMP aesthetic more neatly, with the differences explainable through the passing of time.

Unfortunately, Star Trek wouldn't always stick to that explanation. Sometimes it was "there are different species of Klingon" - an idea promoted by Roddenberry himself, and one that I've always quite liked. It seemed strange that the Federation was so full of variety and species, where the Klingon Empire was so monolithic: having distinct varieties of Klingon appealed to me. That theory was undermined somewhat by "Blood Oath," but there was little to directly contradict it outside that episode (and Kor and Kang's cameos in DS9's Voyager's "Flashback"). And so, TOS became somewhat distinct and disconnected from the post-TMP Star Trek universe, almost an experiment, an alternate reality in itself.

Then "Relics" came along, and everything went to Gre'thor.

Nuts and Gum, Together At Last

When Scotty visits the holodeck recreation of the U.S.S. Enterprise (N.C.C. 1701, no bloody A, B, C, or D) in Season 6's "Relics," we see a direct juxtaposition of the TOS aesthetic with the modern post-TMP aesthetic. The bridge of the original Enterprise is depicted exactly as it was in TOS, in an episode of TNG - thus directly connecting the two in a concrete way not even the inclusion of McCoy in "Farpoint" or the presence of the classic Matt Jeffries Enterprise on the Wall of Starships did.

This was exacerbated nthfold with DS9's "Trials and Tribble-ations," where the crew of post-TMP Deep Space Nine spend almost the entire episode in the time period depicted in TOS - where not only is everything replicated to an absurdly faithful degree, but the stylistic elements are explicitly commented on - including the Klingon Forehead Problem, which wouldn't have an in-Universe explanation until the next millennium.

Bashir: "Those are Klingons?"
Waitress: "All right. You boys have had enough."
Odo: "Mister Worf?"
Worf: "They are Klingons, and it is a long story."
O'Brien: "What happened? Some kind of genetic engineering?"
Bashir: "A viral mutation?"
Worf: "We do not discuss it with outsiders."

It's difficult to appreciate what a mess this makes of continuity now, considering the idea of all Trek being connected as part of the same basic universe and timeline seems like it's been there forever. Yet taking these 744 episodes spread across 5 distinct series and 10 films, with all those distinct art styles which fundamentally affect the storytelling and self-contained levels of "realism," and saying they all take place in the same universe is arguably attempting the impossible. It would be like expecting Arex from The Animated Series to turn up in an episode of TNG as an animated character, a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It's somewhat amazing that it persisted for so long despite itself.

This is what made the new films, and now Discovery, so frustrating: it was further compounding vastly different art styles - different ways of telling a story in a medium - and trying to say they're part of the same thing. But how can you? You're both compromising the realism of TMP+, and the Minimalist style of TOS - undermining both in the process for no good reason. Similarly, it is ludicrous to say the new Trek film series is meant to be simply an "alternate reality" which diverged when Nero altered the timeline when the "point of divergence" was already vastly different from TOS - and, indeed, the same can be said for Discovery.

Discovery looks great. It takes obvious cues from Mass Effect and Battlestar Galactica, and it looks like - gasp - a thoughtful science fiction series. But this obsession with Star Trek's past - and, specifically, the past's past - has led to ludicrous situations like expecting viewers to believe the 24th-Century-esque U.S.S. Shenzou is meant to be a few years older than the Matt Jeffries Enterprise, and Ensign Daft Punk's headgear presumably meant to be old hat compared to Uhura's earpiece. But this is the problem when you put two different styles together - one suffers in comparison. And if your aim is to be realistic & "futuristic," then a Minimalist aesthetic is always going to suffer.

Nonetheless, there's another issue here beyond the continuity. Since 2002's  Star Trek Nemesis, every new Star Trek production has been set before the time of TOS - Enterprise, the three alternate-universe films, and now this series. We haven't gone beyond 2379 in the Prime Universe, yet we keep returning to the 23rd Century. If we're going to go back to Star Trek, surely leaping forward a couple of decades - centuries, even - would eliminate these problems entirely? Then you can have the familiar crutches if you need them, the change in art direction makes sense, and you can make bold and daring changes without stomping all over what came before.

The cynic in me suggests that this is all intentional. This isn't meant to be an addition to the Star Trek mythology in any meaningful way - it's Star Trek: Member Berries. It's for the people who remember bits and pieces of the series, but don't remember why those moments stuck out. It's for the people who think of Kirk as a reckless, arrogant, narcissistic intergalactic philanderer because of pop cultural osmosis.

In some senses, it’s the idea of a thing rather than the thing itself that matters. The animated series, the initial motion pictures, TNG (and its films) and subsequent series, and now the new reboots have all reworked ST:TOS. To varying extents what they’ve been reworking is not the text, but the reception thereof. Even the animated series has a lot of fan-service call-backs: Mudd and tribbles and Spock’s sad childhood on Vulcan. The original run of Star Trek films’ most dramatic moments (Kirk screaming at the death of his friend, Kirk disobeying orders to save him, etc.), which only have meaning because they’re great upheavals in Kirk’s life, have since come to define that character. (This mechanism is also at work on other characters in Star Trek films and reboots.) Misreading Kirk as generally brash makes these departures from his normal behaviour less important, and thus bleeds the drama clean out of Kirk’s reactions in, for example, The Wrath of Khan. Because Kirk was insubordinate at one of the most extreme points in his life and/or under the narrative constraints of the films (which are entirely different from those of TOS), he’s become a character who is read as insubordinate.
 - Kirk Drift, Erin Horáková

Combine this with the deeply cynical circumstances around Star Trek: Discovery's very existence, and it starts to get rather depressing:

The goal was never to make Star Trek and make a pile of money from it – it was to build up the paper tiger just enough to boost CBS’ overall bottom line. If anybody was wondering exactly how Star Trek was going to make CBS money even though it was put behind the paywall of a service that relatively nobody uses, this was how. They can expect to push company revenues up by about 10% to 12% a year, and they paid basically nothing to do it.
If you look at the price versus selection ratio, CBS All Access pricing is pretty poor, but CBS basically doesn’t care. It’s being run to break even, not make a profit. The profit comes in negotiating better prices for the rest of their catalog through other services. That’s the profit center in all this, and that’s why they needed something like Star Trek: Discovery in their stable. It didn’t have to be Trek specifically, just something big. Like the next Baywatch, or a TV series based on Fast and Furious, just anything to get people to sign up. It just happened to be Star Trek.
While we’re on it, there are a lot of rumors flying around about how Discovery is greenlit for Season 2, that they’re prepping for Season 3 already, that it’s planned to run for several seasons, and all sorts of other claims. Unfortunately none of those rumors are currently true. In a Hollywood Reporter article on September 26, Star Trek: Discovery producer Alex Kurtzman tells his interviewer that while they’re planning Season 2 now, there is currently no agreement to proceed.
The money quote here from Kurtzman is as follows:
We have a larger picture for season two — if we’re lucky to get a season two order.
It was never about the Star Trek fans, nor even about the money they could make directly from them (which is fairly insignificant, see our previous article), just the foot traffic they represented. CBS needed to identify a really strong property that they had the rights to that would generate a subscriber spike. Star Trek was it.  CBS head exec Les Moonves has said, 
I think Star Trek is the type of show that could bolster CBS All Access and put it on perhaps the same footing as Netflix or Amazon…[Star Trek’s fans] are some of the most passionate fans in the world, and we can see millions of them joining All Access.
They did not get millions, of course, but the language here is clear. Moonves is a businessman, and a shrewd one, and figured out how to play both Netflix and the fans themselves to improve his bottom line. It simply does not matter that millions of Trek fans are not flocking to the CBS All Access platform. They only needed some, and they don’t even need them all at once. The job is effectively done. Mission accomplished.
That’s why there’s no particular pressure to commence with a Season 2 of Discovery, and as mentioned above, Season 2 currently does not have a green light. CBS will be quite happily tooling up their replay sales over the next two years just based on what they already have. Even if they do greenlight the next season, Kurtzman is on record as saying that we won’t see any of it until at very least the first quarter of 2019, and probably not till the second quarter, assuming it happens at all. The longer we wait to hear, of course, the worse the odds. These things have a certain momentum, and if they wait too long, the moment will be lost, and they’ll move on to the next shiny object.
We're living the Age of Franchises, where characters, worlds, and stories, have become highly profitable properties. The profit comes not from well-crafted creations, but products that executives hope might fool just enough people into checking them out. Star Trek has been a franchise for a long time, but I'd like to think even the most cynical cash-ins were at least intended to have some sort of longevity from the beginning - and it's only in the past few years that the productive and creative fan film scene has been utterly hobbled by the new proprietors.

Time was, Star Trek was a sprawling, expansive universe with hundreds of novels, games, comics, and other media. Then, about the time CBS broke off from Paramount (& coincidentally when the new films were gearing up) they all dried up - apparently afraid to compete with each other:

"Star Trek's" licensing and merchandising rights are spread over two media conglomerates with competing goals. The rights to the original television series from the 1960s remained with CBS after it split off from Paramount’s corporate parent Viacom in 2006, while the studio retained the rights to the film series. CBS also held onto the ability to create future “Star Trek” TV shows.
Paramount must license the “Star Trek” characters from CBS Consumer Products for film merchandising.
Much to the dismay of Bad Robot, CBS' merchandising arm continued to create memorabilia and products based on the cast of the original 1960s series and market them to Trekkies. The production company did market research and found that there was brand confusion between Abrams' rebooted Enterprise crew and the one starring William Shatner and DeForest Kelley.
TheWrap has learned that Bad Robot asked CBS to stop making products featuring the original cast, but talks broke down over money. The network was making roughly $20 million a year on that merchandise and had no incentive to play nice with its former corporate brother, the individual said. In response, the company scaled back its ambitions to have "Star Trek's" storylines play out with television shows, spin-off films and online components, something Abrams had been eager to accomplish.

It amazes me that there could be "brand confusion" about what is ostensibly meant to be the same bloody brand. In fact, it seems positively counter intuitive: surely when the entire conceit of your shiny new film is about being an Alternate Timeline version of one, you'd want to highlight both - to compare the Old with the New, celebrate the differences, maximising profits both way? Only if you wanted to replace - or reboot, if you will - the original, would you be concerned about "brand confusion." Unless you're motivated by money, of course.

Ferengi Rule of Acquisition 1: Once you have their money, you never give it back.
In some ways, perhaps Star Trek was a bit ahead of the curve: for a brief period in the 1990s, the Star Trek "cinematic universe" was found in theatres, television screens, PCs, novels, comics, and all sorts of platforms, all contemporaneous, and doing pretty well. Characters from TNG, DS9, and Voyager could turn up in film and different TV series, as well as the occasional TOS cameo: Sulu in Voyager, Worf in DS9, the Defiant and the Emergency Medical Hologram in Star Trek: First Contact. Decades later, we have Marvel, DC, and Star Wars characters turning up in different films and TV series, while Star Trek spent most of the 2000s & 2010s stuck in the doldrums.

Yet I'm of the opinion that Star Trek is less suitable for a shared universe, than it is for a shared multiverse.

Future Trek

The continuity issues from TOS to TMP, Enterprise to TOS, and everything to Discovery, arise in no small part because they're trying to crowbar not just several different sets of story and character, but different artistic sensibilities and interpretations of reality. Hence, the conflict between the Minimalism of TOS with the '70s-'80s hard-edged Futurism of the films, as well as the neo-Futurist styles of the new films and dark tinge of Discovery. In fact, it reminds me of nothing so much as the alternate universes which already exist in Trek.

Consider the - literally - dark realities of "Yesterday's Enterprise," "Parallels," "Year of Hell," "Twilight," and the many forays into the Mirror Universe. They may bear similarities to the established reality - people with the same name as the familiar crew, ships and costumes and props that look like they're supposed to - but they most assuredly are different branches of time. Multiple continuities is old fare for comics: perhaps the best way to take Trek into the future is to acknowledge that.

Treat TOS as its own pocket reality: the past and future there can be distinct according to the art direction and sensibilities of the universe in the same way the Golden Age of Comics can diverge from the Silver Age of Comics. Same for TMP, the "Generations Trilogy" of TNG/DS9/VOY (you can probably fit Enterprise in here more than anywhere else), the new films, and Discovery - effectively five continuities instead of one. Instead of forcing them all into one long continuity, treat them as strands in a great cosmic framework. Star Trek: Timelines has had a lot of fun with this, using the ever-pesky Q as an introduction to a Crisis On Infinite Alpha Quadrants situation: multiple incarnations of characters interact, many different Enterprises encounter one another, across space and time. It's a really interesting setup for what is essentially a freemium mobile game.

Immediately, all the little niggles about canon and continuity and conflict disappear, because each new Trek occupies its own universe, with as many or as few connections as you want. You can say the adventures of the 1701 happened much as they did in TOS, or you can ignore them entirely, and choose to depict the characters and period in a way that's consistent with your new universe. Alternately, if you want to create new adventures in the TOS universe - as seen in Star Trek: New Voyages, Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, Star Trek Continues, and so forth - then all that's needed is to be internally consistent with TOS: Jerry Finnerman lighting, Matt Jefferies art direction, Gerald Fried underscoring, William Ware Theiss costuming. They're good, not because they're fan productions, but because the people making them are being honest with themselves about what they're making.

Instead of imagining a TNG version of TOS (which is really TMP in many ways), imagine a TOS version of TNG: a Minimalist interpretation focused on theatre, colour, and expressionism. There are definitely elements of that in early TNG. Or the Eugenics Wars: forget all that pesky real history we have, & posit that Khan did indeed conquer a third of planet Earth in the 1990s, rather than ham-fistedly attempt to reconcile it with our boring reality. Why not? Works fine in the Marvel films.

Seriously, TRANSFORMERS has a more complex multiverse canon than Star Trek.

Canon is a tool, a handy guide to improve verisimilitude and deepen the connection a work has to its universe: too often, canon has been used as a leash, a restraint on creativity in the form of immutable, incontrivertible commandments. Canon is not a scripture to be worshipped: it is a record to be understood. An understanding and appreciation of canon leads, I think, to better works, whether it adheres to the canon or not - but canon is not a prerequisite either.

This might seem a strange thing for a Trekkie, not to mention Robert E. Howard fan, to say. Understand: there is a vast difference between the canon of a shared fictional universe of many authors, and the canon of an individual creator. The delineation between, for example, all Conan stories written by Robert E. Howard, and those written by other authors, is fairly plain to see. Star Trek, on the other hand, owes as much to the authors of individual episodes as it does to Gene Roddenberry, Bob Justman, Gene L. Coon, D.C. Fontana, Matt Jefferies, or anyone who shaped the universe we all know and love today.

For all the centuries and millennia, sectors and quadrants, galaxies and universes that we know of Star Trek, so much of it remains unexplored. In all the several hundred episodes and films that make up Star Trek canon, we've seen only a glimpse of humanity's adventures in the stars over the course of a few decades: we've experienced only a fraction of the countless strange new worlds and new civilisations in detail. The deep future of Trek is as mysterious as its deep past.

Perhaps then we can get back to the business of what Star Trek is all about.

1 comment:

  1. I remember when we all attended every single one of the Trek Conventions in Scotland. Then in America we took over control of The Enterprise to defeat the Klingons. Granda Keogh.