Reflections on Star Trek, 50 Years Later

star-trek-premiere-ad-1966There are people who can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on December 7, 1941, or November 22, 1963, or January 28, 1986, or September 11, 2001.

Me? I can tell you exactly what I was doing on September 8, 1966. I was watching Star Trek, and I would go on watching it for the next fifty years.

I had just turned nine years old, and I was already a stone science fiction fan. The thing was, science fiction was very much a niche interest at the time. In the rural community where I lived, it was considered children’s entertainment—for children who weren’t very old or very bright.

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My Proposal for a New Star Trek Series

As long as I am obsessing on Star Trek (“When are you ever not obsessing on Star Trek, Mark?”), I might as well bring up the new series, which is scheduled to premiere in just six months. As I write this, little is known about the new series, not even the era in which it is set. (For the non-Trekkers, Star Trek comes with three different eras: the 22nd century, 23rd century, and 24th century.) Now seems like a good time, before CBS gives out any information about the nature of the new series, to lay out my idea for what the new series should be.

I hasten to point out that I am not making a prediction. I have no idea what the actual new series is going to be. I just want to lay out my own idea—what I would do if, for some crazy reason, CBS handed the project over to me and told me I could do whatever I wanted. Here it is:

The 2009 Star Trek film established that a supernova in the 24th century destroyed the Romulan home world. My series would use that as its point of departure. Set in a post-Voyager 24th century, it would examine the consequences of the destruction of Romulus. I envision the Romulan Empire collapsing into chaos, creating both a military and humanitarian crisis. The rump Imperial government, now all but ineffective, requests assistance from the Federation. The series would be about Starfleet moving into the Empire to deal with the aftermath of the collapse.

The Romulans have always been depicted as xenophobic and unwilling to permit alien ships anywhere near their space. So I imagine Romulan space is not well mapped by Starfleet. There would be strange surprises. I imagine there would be Romulan fleet admirals who still command their own fleets. These admirals might set themselves up as warlord-rulers of sectors of Romulan space. Some would be loyal to the central government and welcome Starfleet assistance, others not so much. There would be political intrigue among these warlords. There would be planets inhabited by races not known to the Federation who were involuntary subjects of the Empire. Some of them may want to join the Federation. Some might be hostile both to the central government and to the Federation. Some might just want to be left alone. Some might be out for revenge.

And there could be the usual Star Trek-style strange phenomena, spatial anomalies, wormholes, life forms that live in deep space—again, perhaps already known to the Romulans, perhaps not, but certainly not known to Starfleet. And there could be my favorite idea: mad Romulan scientists working on isolated research stations who have discovered amazing new technologies but now no longer are supported (or controlled by) the Romulan government. Perhaps the warlords would fight over them. Perhaps one of these scientists might become the most powerful warlord….

The series would trace the adventures of one or more Starfleet crews as they do disaster relief in the Romulan Empire and deal with challenges like these. A series based on this premise could go on for years, and could include the “strange new worlds” aspect of Star Trek, along with a liberal dose of the Deep Space Nine-style political and diplomatic intrigue.

That’s a Star Trek series I could get excited about. Whether I can get excited about the forthcoming series…well, time will tell.

Thoughts on the New New Star Trek Film

You probably already know that there’s a new Star Trek film, Star Trek Beyond, coming out this week. This film, the third in the series of films that has variously been called the Abramsverse, or nuTrek, or The-Star-Trek-films-without-colons, but what we are now supposed to call the Kelvin Timeline, appears to have had a rocky development, and an oddly low-key marketing campaign, which made some (including me) wonder if the studio was disappointed in the film. But the buzz is picking up as we approach opening day, and the early reviews are encouraging, so maybe we won’t be disappointed this time.

But, as a hardcore Trek fan, it is my duty to look ahead and start worrying about the next Trek film, which is yet untitled, but everyone is calling Star Trek 4, although we all know there already was a Star Trek IV, and this next outing is really Star Trek 14. But anyway, the suits at Paramount are already planning this film, even before this week’s release of Star Trek Beyond, suggesting they are expecting Beyond to do well. We also learned that Chris Hemsworth, who is today best known for playing Thor in the Marvel movies, is being brought back to reprise his role as George Kirk, James Kirk’s father, in this newest Trek.

Film critic Devin Faraci at Birth. Movies. Death. has written a provocative piece about this news, and I want to piggyback on his ideas a bit. Devin notes that the attack on USS Kelvin and George Kirk’s sacrificing his life was the best moment we’ve seen in the Kelvin Timeline so far, which is absolutely right. He goes on to conclude that Hemsworth’s return to Trek can only mean that Star Trek 4 is going to be a time travel story.

I think that’s probably right, although I would add a few caveats. It doesn’t have to be a time travel story. Kirk’s father could appear in a holodeck simulation, a la “These Are the Voyages…”, the series finale to Star Trek: Enterprise. He could be seen in an old recording, a la Jack Crusher in “Family.” He could be a shapeshifter messing with Kirk’s head, or a vision as in “Journey’s End.” He could be Mirror George Kirk. I mean, really. This is Star Trek we’re talking about.

Still, the cynic in me says that no one is being that creative, and tends to agree with Devin that this will be a time travel story, where Kirk and possibly others will travel back in time to the destruction of Kelvin. Devin has something really smart to say about that:

Imagine if the crew of the Enterprise learns they are not only in an alternate timeline, but they’re in the bad timeline. What if the crew has to go back in time and save the Kelvin, in the process erasing themselves (and this whole alternate universe series of films) from existence? What if Kirk, who still has daddy issues in Beyond, gets to meet his dad, prove to his dad he’s great and then, as he’s fading out of existence Back to the Future style, his dad tells Alt Kirk that he’s going to raise his son (our Kirk) to be as good as this man from the future? Get weird, get scifi, revisit the moral quandary at the heart of City on the Edge of Forever, the best episode of Trek ever.

I’d be okay with that. I’d be okay with the series writing itself away. I would not be okay with just some bullshit time travel junk that doesn’t have any impact.

Exactly right, Devin. It has already been noted by many fans that in every other Trek story about alternate timelines, when our heroes discover one, they dedicate themselves to righting the wrong and restoring the “proper” timeline. But in the 2009 Star Trek, our heroes figure out they are in an alternate timeline and, well, shrug it off and move on. Devin is overlooking the additional fact that in this alternate Kelvin Timeline, billions of Vulcans died as the result of one madman messing with the timeline. If that isn’t an incentive to try to fix things, I don’t know what it. Especially for Spock, right?

I think Devin’s story would do a lot to redeem the other Kelvin Timeline films. It would turn the set of four into one long story arc, something close to an eight-hour “what if” Trek episode. It would also have the real world effect of “wiping out” the Kelvin Timeline, and would be taken as some as effectively an apology for ever starting it. I’d be okay with that, too.

The cast of the Kelvin Timeline films are aging (as are we all.) They were younger than their Original Series counterparts in 2009. Today, just three movies in, they’re roughly the same age as the original cast. At a rate of just one movie every 3-4 years, it’s not going to take long before Chris Pine will need granny glasses to read A Tale of Two Cities. This new cast is the best thing the Kelvin Timeline films have going, but they won’t be around forever. Devin’s story would allow them to retire from the roles with dignity.

P.S.: Mentioning that the cast “won’t be around forever” requires that I acknowledge the untimely passing of Anton Yelchin. I am more than twice Anton’s age. For people of my age, the death of someone as young and full of life as Anton was is just a tragedy beyond words. We can only guess at what great performances we have all been deprived of by losing him so soon. Rest in peace, Anton.

The End of Hidden Frontier

If you are a committed Star Trek fan, you probably know that there are a number of Star Trek fan productions out there on the internet, in which fans create their own episodes for the enjoyment of other fans. This has been going on for about 15 years, and the productions have been getting bigger and more sophisticated and, yes, it must be confessed, more professional. And you probably also have heard that last week CBS and Paramount issued guidelines spelling out what is and is not acceptable in a Star Trek fan production.

It must be said first, that until now, CBS and Paramount have been very indulgent with the fan productions. It should also be said that a set of guidelines is welcome. It helps clarify expectations, and give the fans guidance. That being said, the guidelines issued are absurdly strict, particularly in limiting fan shows to 15 minutes, which means telling a story that in any way resembles a real Star Trek story is now impossible. Not to mention, if these guidelines are meant to be retroactive, banning the further distribution of pretty much every Star Trek fan production ever made.

I have a stake in this, because I have contributed, in a small way, to one such fan production, Henglaar, MD, from Hidden Frontier Productions. HFP has been making video and audio Star Trek fan shows since 2000, set in the post-Voyager Star Trek universe, with original characters. And they have been pretty darned good, if I do say so myself. Not to mention that HFP quite literally changed my life for the better.

I discovered Hidden Frontier in 2008, ironically, just as the original show was winding down. At that time, a lot of us Star Trek fans were wondering, after the cancellation of Enterprise and the failure of Nemesis, whether Star Trek was played out. HF and its spinoff shows demonstrated conclusively that there was plenty of life left in Star Trek, if you put it in the hands of the right people. I have often said, and will repeat here, that if CBS wants to create a new Star Trek series, they could do worse than just buy up the Hidden Frontier episodes and re-do the series professionally.

When I was younger, I tried writing science fiction professionally, and after several years and exactly one (1) publication credit to show for it, I gave up. That was in 1997. I pursued a new career in politics. I didn’t write a word of fiction for eleven years after that.

When I discovered HF, I was hooked. Bad. Not just as an audience member; I wanted to play, too. It looked like everyone was having so much fun. I binge-watched every episode of Hidden Frontier in July, 2008. Afterward, story ideas began coming to me unbidden. In August, I sat down to write my first piece of HF fan fiction. I wasn’t sure I even remembered how to write fiction. Strangely enough, I discovered not only that I remembered, but in fact my writing was better than ever. My HF fan fiction was some of the best material I ever wrote. It turns out that when you get older, you get smarter. (Who knew?)

My fan fiction got me an invitation to write for Henglaar, MD, an HFP audio show (a medical mystery series set in the Star Trek universe, believe it or not), and that was a huge thrill. I had never written material for other people to perform before, and listening to talented people bringing my words and ideas to life was…an indescribably wonderful experience.

Of course, I still had a career in politics, so I wrote a few episodes, and that was that. Or, it was until November of 2014, when the voters, as the old joke goes, elected me to return to writing science fiction.

And so now I am back to writing, my own original stories now. I have written two novels (one of which has a gay couple as the protagonists–something else I learned from HF, the first Star Trek fan series, and therefore the first Star Trek, to depict ongoing characters in same-sex relationships) and several short stories. I am shopping them around professionally, but what’s different from 20 years ago is that now I will have the option to self-publish in ebook formats, which I will certainly explore.

Unfortunately, HFP has shut down their production in light of the CBS/Paramount guidelines, as they feel they cannot operate within those restrictions. I agree with the decision (I see no other option), but it is regrettable that CBS and Paramount have clamped down so hard. They are within their legal rights to do so, but legal rights and moral rights are different things. One could also argue that enlightened self-interest would and should lead CBS and Paramount to give fans greater flexibility. We can all hope that they will one day see this more clearly. But that day is not this day.

But I have HF to thank for starting me down this path (again!). So, thank you, HFP, and everyone associated with it, including the fans. You have helped me write the next chapter of my life.

UPDATE: A list of Star Trek fan productions and their reactions to the CBS/Paramount guidelines is here. It makes for grim reading.

UPDATE II: The folks at Paramount/CBS have clarified that audio productions are exempt from their guidelines, and Henglaar MD is back in business. So that’s great news. Of course, the rest of what I said above still stands.