J.J. Abrams injects new life into 'Star Trek' franchise
At one time, it seemed “Star Trek” might never end.
Writer and producer Gene Roddenberry’s original Emmy-nominated series about space explorers in the 23rd century ran for three seasons on NBC (1966-69). Its optimistic vision of disparate people working together to advance knowledge, justice and science across the universe and defend the United Federation of Planets became even more popular in reruns in the 1970s.
People so loved the mission of the starship Enterprise — to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations — that a fervent fan base formed, begging for more.
“It was the stories, the characters, the action. Even as a kid, I got the message about humankind learning from their mistakes on Earth and embarking on a goodwill mission to other worlds,” said Todd Higginbotham of Springfield.
“Each story had a moral to it,” said Beth Wesley of Petersburg, a “Star Trek” historian and author. “That’s what Gene Roddenberry was looking for at the time.”
Hollywood reunited the original cast for six feature films, and in 1987 launched the sequel series “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Three more TV series and four “Next Generation” feature films followed.
But once the spinoff series “Enterprise” ended its four-season run in 2005, no fresh “Star Trek” series was on the air for the first time in 18 years. With no more films on the horizon, “Trek’s” 40-year run appeared to have ended.
Even longtime fans such as Cory Pelc of Sherman and Fred Slocombe of Springfield couldn’t get excited about “Trek” anymore.
Slocombe criticized the spinoff TV series as “simple, formulaic, emotional plots ripped from the pages of daytime drama.”
Pelc has a collection of “Trek” memorabilia, but he says the “Voyager” and “Enterprise” versions “were boring to me,” and he “fell away from the series for a while.”
“Star Trek” needed a Mr. Scott-like level of ingenuity to revive itself.
Enter J.J. Abrams, the mastermind behind TV’s “Lost” and “Alias.” The director took on “Star Trek,” casting young actors as Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and other original characters to show the dawn of their outer space careers. The new film opens Thursday.
Count Pelc, a communications student at the University of Illinois at Springfield, among the fans who are excited.
“My goal is to get people who always treated ‘Star Trek’ as a geek thing to give it a try because the filmmakers have said repeatedly that this is not a ‘Star Trek’ movie just for fans of ‘Star Trek,’ but for fans of movies,” he said.
Most central Illinois “Trek” fans who responded to The State Journal-Register’s query about the new film said they cannot wait to see it.
Karen Kleinhans of Pawnee made plans months ago to see “Star Trek” with her friend, Higginbotham.
“As soon as he found a trailer online,” Kleinhans said, “he e-mailed it to me with a note about ‘our plans for May!’”
Many fans expressed optimism that Abrams would revive “Trek.”
“If the new cast does justice to the characters, then future films with this cast would, I think, be highly desirable,” wrote Lonnie Lein of Springfield.
“What I’d really like to see is the new vision of what the new ‘Trek’ would look like given the advancement of movie technology,” wrote James Chapin of Mechanicsburg. “I am glad to see a new take on the franchise.”
Some “Trek” fans still need convincing.
“I’m torn. I’ve enjoyed the five decades of continuity and history of the original series and all the spinoffs,” said Scott McCullar of Sherman. “I am looking forward to the new film, but I hope it doesn’t contradict the flavor and rich history of the original series.”
Thomas B. Knoedler of Springfield says he’s approaching the new film with “renewed hope and weary cynicism.” Too many films he describes as “mindless, escapist drivel” have made him wary of the science fiction film genre.
“I wait for the movie with hope that Roddenberry’s dream will be finally fulfilled and with hope that the directors, producers and writers at Paramount (Pictures) have finally attained the intelligence and wisdom to do true justice to Roddenberry’s dream,” Knoelder wrote.
The moral of the tale
And what is the late Gene Roddenberry’s dream?
When the original series debuted in 1966, the dominant debates in the United States concerned civil rights for all races, and the Cold War issue of whether political ideologies could or should be defended — or extended — by force (namely, Vietnam).
In Roddenberry’s 23rd century vision, a black woman, an Asian man and a man with a Russian surname worked together in outer space. The half-human, half-Vulcan second-in-command Mr. Spock was the child of a mixed marriage.
Although ready to defend the Federation against unfriendly Klingons or Romulans, the Enterprise crew preferred visiting interstellar neighbors in peace. Gaining military control of the universe wasn’t on the agenda.
In short, Earthlings pretty much got along in the “Star Trek” universe.
Area fans also told us “Trek” has inspired optimism that someday, science fiction can become science fact.
Several people said they appreciated how much research went into the scripts to devise futuristic technology that conceivably could happen. Bill Brooks of Springfield, for example, claims a longstanding interest in space exploration, and owns an operator’s manual for NASA’s space shuttle (our first reusable spaceship).
Others note some “Star Trek” gadgets are now real.
“(I) begged my parents for a tricorder communicator, and those little flat discs that Spock and Uhura held containing countless bytes of data,” wrote Corey Kirschner of Chatham. “ … Those communicators were the model for Motorola’s flip phones, and those little discs were the prototype ‘form factor’ for what we knew as three-and-a-half-inch floppy discs.”
So as we wait for commercially and technologically viable voice-activated computer programs for the home computer, some “Trek” fans marvel at what the new film might show that could become real in a few decades.
“The target demographic of today is much too savvy to be fooled by out-of-this-world, made-for-movies technology, but they will dream of the ‘art of the possible’ as I did 40 years ago,” Kirschner said.
‘Get a life!’
All is not peaceful in the “Star Trek” universe, however. And it has nothing to do with troublesome Romulans.
Stardate: -337969.69 (that’s Dec. 20, 1986, for the rest of us). Location: the set of “Saturday Night Live.” The host: William Shatner, the original Capt. James T. Kirk.
Playing himself in a sketch set at a “Star Trek” convention, Shatner addressed an admiring throng: “Get a life, will you people? For crying out loud, it’s just a TV show. … You’ve turned an enjoyable little job that I did as a lark for a few years into a colossal waste of time.”
The world had turned on Trekkies.
“He made us Trekkies mad then. We were making him money,” said Wesley, who admits she was smitten with Capt. Kirk as a girl.
Although Wesley seems unafraid of the word “Trekkie,” it has become an insult among “Trek” fans. Some who believe they have more going on in their lives than a love of “Star Trek” call themselves “Trekkers,” to differentiate themselves from the stereotyped Spock ears-wearing dateless wonders whom Shatner mocked on “SNL.”
Others don’t want to be labeled at all. They just like the show.
“Just to clarify, we are not ‘Trekkies’ or ‘Trekkers,’” Higginbotham said about he and Kleinhans. “I was not adorned in Klingon garb, nor did my friend dress like Counselor Troi.”
‘The fabric of my life’
Wesley may yet get the last laugh. Because of her love of “Star Trek,” she has had opportunities to contribute a chapter to the book “Trek: The Unauthorized Behind-the-Scenes Story of The Next Generation,” by James Van Hise, and interview most of the original cast.
She also once spent a delightful 40 minutes chatting with Gene Roddenberry before the “Trek” creator delivered a lecture to a crowded auditorium.
“He was a wonderful person. I hated it when he died,” Wesley said.
For many other “Star Trek” fans, just being part of Roddenberry’s universe is enough. And with the new film, there is another chapter in the tale.
“‘Star Trek’ has dealt with the same issues we have in real life,” Chapin said. “It would be nice to work just to better ourselves. All illness would be cured, there would be no poverty, no currency, no homelessness and we would work together to help others.”
“I grew up with these people,” Kleinhans said. “I mean, literally, I was a kid in the 60s and watched the show in reruns forever, and then watched all the movies.
“So these characters are part of the fabric of my life.”