Archive for the “Star Trek” Category

samuel-p-cogleyThird in a series by John Gorenfeld and Patrick Runkle. Previously: Abraham Lincoln in Space; Captain Kirk vs. canon.

Hey, that’s the Book!…I don’t want any more cracks about The Book.

— Gangster guy in “A Piece of the Action”

In the beginning Star Trek was a lusty and pagan religion of sun gods and virgins sacrificed to the river. But decades later it was as if it had become a cathedral of rigid rules and Worship Words, only to be spoken by a shrinking priesthood of Klingon speakers, who elevated such trifles as Alan Ruck’s five-minute role in “Star Trek: Generations” to the status of holy writ and demanded that all Star Trek obey the book of TV show continuity that they called “canon,” treating bad Enterprise scripts like a copy of Chicago Mobs of the Twenties left on an impressionable planet.

Where did it come from–this sense among Trek fans of “how does this fit in”? That what matters isn’t the story you’re watching, but the rest of the stories, on “Deep Space 9″ and “Enterprise” and “Voyager,” and whether they will be disobeyed by this one?

Cataloguing the details of Trek had been a fan fascination since the original show. Fans like Franz Joseph, the draftsman behind the Technical Manual (1975), had followed the urge to write Trek Bibles of their own. But there hadn’t been the strong demand, in those days, that an “official” Star Trek canon be followed in return by the franchise. Not until the 1990s–when Star Trek became a company show. Fans obsessing about canon now don’t realize they’ve been played by the marketing strategies of a huge conglomerate.

We’ll look at how this happened. But first, this is sort of amazing:

“My Wife Got the Whole Planet in the Divorce.”

In 1987, almost two decades after the cancellation of Star Trek, the first episode of The Next Generation aired. Was it an extension of the original story of Kirk and Spock, or a show all its own? Believe it or not, judges have answered the question in California’s court system.

While Deep Space 9 fans were being blown away in the 1990s by the Enemy Mine-esque Jem’Hadar foes, a similarly pitched battle was being waged in the courts. Just as bitter as the clash between Re-Animator‘s Jeffrey Combs and Rene Auberjonois, it was a war for the soul of the galaxy. It was Roddenberry vs. Roddenberry.

In one corner was series creator Gene Roddenberry’s first wife, Eileen. In 1969, the old Shatner show had ended with an episode about a spurned woman hijacking Captain Kirk’s identity, and the Roddenberry marriage had ended with Gene marrying Nurse Chapel actress Majel Barrett, days after the divorce. In the divorce agreement, Eileen had been awarded a 15 percent “profit participation” stake in the original series (which, it turns out, was unprofitable until 1984.)

But now that the show had blossomed into a movie franchise and second TV series, she claimed to be entitled to proceeds from all of the above. Standing in her way was Barrett, the executor of Gene’s estate and voice of the ship’s computer. Eileen argued that the phrase “Star Trek” in the divorce papers should have covered everything, not just the original show (which had so far brought her a remarkable $13.8 million.)

The first judge, Macklin Fleming, came to the interesting conclusion that The Next Generation and DS9 were “continuations,” because they were on TV and took place in the same timeline as the original series, but that the movies and 1973-1974 cartoon series weren’t. They had appeared in other formats and couldn’t have been anticipated at the time of the original divorce agreement, the argument went.

Then a higher court stiffed Eileen, who could only have left wishing she had hired Samuel T. Cogley (above) to handle her appeal. The new decision cited “the uniqueness of Star Trek’s resurgence,” an anomaly “unprecedented” in entertainment history. The new TV properties had come into existence as separate entities not foreseen in the divorce agreement, said the justice.

The fight over Gene’s legacy spoke to the identity crisis that had been taking center stage in the Star Trek world during the last decade of Roddenberry’s life. The question was: with the original Golden Age sci-fi writers of Trek out of the picture, and Gene Roddenberry stripped of control of his own movie series since 1982, but taking a powerful role in the creation of The Next Generation, who was at the creative center of Star Trek?

“Tonight … the 24th Century!”

Before The Next Generation, Star Trek was blissfully free of what fans now call “canon.” It hit movie screens without caring about official answers to questions like: How long after the TV show is this taking place? Why does everything look different between the first and second movies? Why is it you can order another starship to lower its defenses by inputting a zip code?

The same way it took an emo Romulan’s attack from the future to turn Captain Kirk into the guy from Just My Luck, it was Gene Roddenberry’s push to launch his own, utopian recreation of Star Trek, after years of complaining about the militarism in the movies, that led to the rupture from which canon first emerged. Given Roddenberry’s lack of input into most of the movies, his duties as Executive Producer seem to have amounted to accepting money to leave the other producers alone. But with TNG, Gene was finally able to restore Trek to what he wanted.

Here he consciously chose to expand the universe and intertwine events so they made internal sense–in theory, anyway. The old Star Trek had teased us with its refusal to obey space and time as we know it. The Stardates in Kirk’s Captain’s Log were seemingly random numbers, scattering the episodes across the future. Or so it was until TNG’s proclamation that these events had occurred 78 years before the arrival of Captain Picard, and that the Enterprise was now the predecessor to an Enterprise-D, and that an oiled-up Takei running around with a sword was a premonition, from the computer files, of the hijinks in “The Naked Now” (hard to blame Eileen Roddenberry, after watching said episode, for thinking she deserved some cash.)

The divide created by The Next Generation left two camps creating Trek under the Paramount umbrella. One faction was led by Harve Bennett, the steward of the film series. Off the high of IV, the comedy one about the whales, he was prepping The Final Frontier, to be directed by Shatner himself. His rival in the fight for Trek was Roddenberry himself. Meanwhile, Gene’s old TOS cohorts, brought back to write the first season of TNG were, according to biographer Joel Engel, fighting some of Gene’s more challenging proposed ideas, including giant genitalia between the legs of the money-grubbing Ferengi race–an allegory, perhaps, for Hollywood producers he hated.

It’s often forgotten how rocky the transition was for TNG–from a cheesy upstart competing with “Small Wonder” to a hugely successful third-season weekly event. But this was all aided, arguably, by one event: the dismal failure of The Final Frontier.

Word at the time was that Gene hated V, even in its early conception stages. Conventional wisdom has it that the movie’s box office failure is Shatner’s fault, for coming up with its Enterprise-seeks-God plot. That doesn’t really wash, considering how close the story was to ideas Gene had pushed over the years, including his original proposal, “The God Thing,” for what became 1979’s The Motion Picture. (Just like inV, The God Thing finds James T. Kirk meeting God only to discover He is a bunch of bullshit.)

A more likely factor in Roddenberry’s disgust with V was that the new movie doesn’t bother to acknowledge his Next Generation. The new show, in which Roddenberry had invested his utopian hopes, was being shot on some of the same sets. And yet Star Trek V stubbornly behaves as if, instead of handing over the legacy to a new crew, Shatner will be climbing on-screen mountains, and Uhura stripping, for many more movies to come. No wonder Gene pronounced V, and Mr. Spock’s secret half-brother, “apocryphal,” implying the existence of a canon by designating what’s left out of it.

The next film, Nick Meyer’s Undiscovered Country, wasn’t just an obvious attempt to clean up the mess of The Final Frontier, but a bridge to the new property–and the first Star Trek designed to promote another Star Trek. It set up a world in which the hated Klingons could become our friends in a kinder, gentler Starfleet that employed psychologists on the bridge and had signed a peace treaty on the planet Khitomer. Given that the Wrath of Khan‘s brilliant rebooter Meyer always seemed to care more about Sherlock Holmes than Star Trek, it’s hard to imagine that he was the one who thought it was a good idea for the movie to hit the TNG buttons so hard, including a cameo by Michael Dorn as the grandfather of the Klingon crewman Worf…

(Edited to remove a mistaken Usenet reference.)

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(Previously in the series: Abraham Lincoln in space)

It’s a big universe out there, why go back to the TOS [Kirk and Spock] crew? Why not the time period between the Enterprise [Scott Bakula] time period and the [Shatner] time period?

A movie trilogy about the Federation/Romulan War could work. Also, how about explore the politics of the Alpha and Beta quadrants post DS9 [Deep Space 9] and Voyager?

[…T]he Cardassians were blasted almost to extinction, how are they faring? Did another group, like the Borg, pop up to cause trouble knowing that all the major powers in Alpha and Beta quadrants are recovering from a rather nasty war? Is the Borg still around or did Janeway actually wipe them out? I know the books have explored this, but in Trek, only movies and tv episodes are canon.

– “Star Trek” fan comment found on Fark.com, April 2009

Feeding Vaal

The above plea suggests how far the obsession with Star Trek “canon” had gone by the time J.J. Abrams came along to rescue Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. The Federation’s most awesome had been buried since about 1994 under a heap of spin-offs and not-so-legendary characters, who wore Coast Guard-like uniforms while frowning over the wars that would break out mid-series whenever it turned out that their Rick Berman-produced show hadn’t started with a good enough concept.

This is the baggage of the starship Enterprise, a rising pile of Dominion Wars and retcon CGI Gorn Warriors and the guy from “Quantum Leap.” And important Federation historical milestones of the 24th century hinging on Jeri Ryan and her catsuit, with room carved out for a distant post-Patrick Stewart future that has the dramatic power of waiting for the heat death of the universe.

By May, 2009, canon had become so sacred to a segment of the fan base that when this vocal element realized Abrams planned to overwrite it like an erased hard drive, they were so incensed that you’d think the “Lost” director had set out across the jungles of Gamma Trianguli VI to blow up their lizard idol (above). Caught up in the mania, even the Associated Press was reporting on opening day that anticipation among Trek fans boiled down to

one word — a word that contains much of the passion behind Gene Roddenberry’s imagined world of the 23rd (and, later, 24th) century.

Canon.

Really, AP?

Before I continue, I just want to say that my co-writer and I are the kind of Trek nerds who welled up with emotion Friday seeing J.J. Abrams’s deft re-imagining of the series, after crossing the Canadian border to do so. We may hide our Star Trek III Burger King glasses when guests come over, but we are not haters.

Anyway, if you can just head down this path with us into the jungles of Gamma Trianguli VI…

Gene Roddenberry’s Canon-Free Zone


The strongest argument for “canon” is that it was a concept consistently dictated by the late Mr. Roddenberry, the series creator. But go back to 1979 and that proposition gets hazy.

What would you say if a Trek reboot came along in which Kirk has a wife named Lori Ciana…looks at things through a dead-serious New Age perspective…and has a mind implant that shows him visions of galactic crises?

Let’s say this reboot was hyped as taking place in a more mature, “realistic” future than previous Trek. With apologies to Patrick Stewart in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, this re-imagining would ask, what if you had a ship like the U.S.S. Enterprise IN THE REAL WORLD?…Forget that Trouble With Tribbles shit, this is what the future is really going to be like.

In this new Trek, after 200 years of social change, 23rd century human beings won’t be regular folks as we know them but “New Humans”…a more evolved race who don’t go in for 20th century customs like first names, or monogamy. This is a reboot so different in tone that it actually calls out the original Trek as just a kid’s show in comparison, like the original BSG with the robot dog.

Who would be so crass as to dump on Gene Roddenberry’s Trek canon like that?

Well, so check this out…

Back in the 1970s, Trek seemed to belong to everybody. The Trekker subculture that had lobbied since the 1969 cancelation for a return of the series had kept the flame going with publications like The Best of Trek, which you could pick up at Waldenbooks. BOT was illustrated by fans’ “Live Long & Prosper” needlepoints and sketches of Kirk with idealized hippie lovers of his, the two of them staring meaningfully out there into the rim of space.

In those pages the closest thing to “canon” was found in a regular column, “Star Trek Mysteries–Solved,” offering Trek apologetics. Author Leslie Thompson explained away the inconsistencies between episodes. For example, if Starfleet officer Gary Mitchell has become a godlike being, why can’t he get Captain Kirk’s name right when he erects a tombstone for him? It says JAMES R. KIRK on it, and I think Thompson suggests that it could just have been an inside joke of theirs from the Academy.

Then, in 1979, the first Trek movie arrived, and so did a novel of the film, written by Roddenberry. Strikingly, the book ignored everything that had ever happened in the show.

Roddenberry’s novel of TMP begins with the conceit of a foreword by Admiral James T. Kirk. (Excerpted here.) We’re not past the first paragraph before Kirk is explaining how he was named for his mother’s “first love instructor,” also named James. (Damn it, Abrams, how could you have betrayed Roddenberry’s vision by leaving this out of the Kelvin sequence?) It’s the first of several references to the 23rd century’s daring new heterosexual swinger mores. Not your father’s Star Trek, indeed!

Next Kirk tells us about a Federation divided between the “New Humans,” who are “willing to submerge their own identities into the groups to which they belong” –uh, in other words, everyone is joining ’70s cults–and the last of the “primitives,” like himself, who still indulge ancient Earthling customs, such as taking the last name of your father, in this case George Kirk, the guy with a soft spot for the dude who taught his wife some new things.

I’ll spare you a review of Chapter 1’s discussion of the “Mind Control Riots,” which forced the Federation to become very hush-hush about installing cyborg equipment in Captain Kirk’s head, and just focus on Roddenberry’s explicit declaration, in the foreword, that the TV show–from the perspective of the Star Trek universe–is not what really happened…

I quote from Kirk, who is depicted in the novel as “amused,” in this chilly new way of his, when he watches episodes of the original series…

our five-year mission was so well documented, due to an ill-conceived notion by Starfleet that the return of the U.S.S. Enterprise merited public notice. Unfortunately, Starfleet’s enthusiasm affected even those who chronicled our adventures, and we were all painted somewhat larger than life, especially myself.

Eventually, I found that I had been fictionalized into some sort of “modern Ulysses” and it has been painful to see my command decisions of those years so widely applauded, whereas the plain facts are that ninety-four of our crew met violent deaths during those years-and many of them would still be alive if I had acted either more quickly or more wisely. Nor have I been as foolishly courageous as depicted. I have never happily invited injury; I have disliked in the extreme every duty circumstance which has required me to risk my life. But there appears to be something in the nature of depicters of popular events which leads them into the habit of exaggeration. As a result, I became determined that if I ever again found myself involved in an affair attracting public attention, I would insist that some way be found to tell the story more accurately.

…get that? That’s James T. Kirk, and he’s personally telling you the Star Trek original series isn’t canon. Think about that for a second, did that just blow your mind?

The Mystery Box vs. Jolene Blalock

From the first episode, part of the genius of Trek was the effortless confidence with which it brought TV audiences into a coherent future world with its own rules, as if the show had been going on forever and you had tuned in after 10 years.

But it’s our position that fans have worked against their own interests by mistaking the show’s loose ends, the little details that gave Trek that sense of huge possibility, for strands that are best neatly tied up. What crisis, exactly, led Jeffrey Hunter’s Captain Pike to that castle under the killing moon of Rigel, crossing swords with that barbarian? We can only imagine. How did they invent the transporter? Well, are we that better off for having found out in a canceled TV series with a theme song by Diane Warren?

Before the timely arrival of Mr. Abrams, fans demanded–and won, in the case of the unloved “Enterprise”–a weaker version of Star Trek that gave them what they might have been happier being denied. “Enterprise” gave us one answer after another to questions that shouldn’t have been answered. This fan hunger for side tangents: It’s as if Trek is an alternate universe under construction, and when every t has been crossed, and every reference explained, they will be able to escape into it.

The problem, of course, is that when you start explaining all the mysteries, your formerly dangerous and exciting universe can feel  chintzy, real fast. It used to be kind of cool in Star Trek II when Ricardo Montalban talks about being a prince on Earth 200 years ago, with power over millions, and leaves it at that. It is not really as cool that Memory Alpha, the Wikipedia site for Star Trek fans, now insists (against my efforts to delete it) that Khan is part of a group of “augments,” whatever that is…

Oh, OK: It’s retcon slang invented on Enterprise, perhaps by Dr. Giggles scribe and Enterprise head writer Manny Coto, now marring Star Trek forever. So the Botany Bay thugs are “augments“? That’s about as menacing as a Windows Vista patch.

Last month’s Wired has an Abrams essay on his belief in the “Mystery Box,” the story power of the unexplained. Leaving the Trek world wide open and dangerous, instead of caught up in all this stuff, really was the way to go.

* * *

In the next installment, co-writer and TNG scholar Patrick Runkle will look at how the rupture between Roddenberry and the Star Trek V team, in the late 1980s, led to the rise of canon. Hope you will join us.

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Joss Whedon’s Star Trek

“Oh, Uhura, thanks to your lingerie kung-fu, we’ve managed to defeat the villains!”
“Yes, and you are so beautiful that Nero has decided to become a good guy in hopes of wooing you.”
“Boo-hoo, it’s so hard being a perky ingenue, no-one understands me!”

Tom Clancy’s Star Trek

“Captain the Muslims Klingons are aiming their suspiciously phallic weapons at our ship.”
“Dammit, Spock, if only the Democrats Federation hadn’t forced us to stop monitoring their sub-space communications! We’d have been prepared for this!”

Dan Brown’s Star Trek

“Mr. Spock, I’ve been staring at this holo-image of the Mona Lisa, and I believe it contains valuable clues as to the true parentage of an obscure historical figure. We must abandon our current mission and investigate this matter thorougly!”

J.K. Rowling’s Star Trek

“Captain Kirk, Starfleet Command finds your actions irresponsible, dangerous, and in violation of the Prime Directive. But since you’re so special, here’s a present.”

P.G. Wodehouse’s Star Trek

“This business with Spock and the Ponn Farr, you know. Bally rummy. I was trotting down the deck with Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and everything seemed to be all boomps-a-daisy. As I may have mentioned once or twice before in these memoirs of mine, whenever Spock was around, young Nurse Christine “Biffy” Chapel had a bit of a birds-tweeting around her head expression, but for Spock there was not even a touch of the old hey-nonny-nonny and a hot-cha-cha.”

Geoff Johns’ Star Trek

“Captain Pike, you’re back!”

Roy Thomas’ Star Trek

“Captain Pike, you’re back!”
“And it turns out I’m your long-lost cousin, Jim!”

Fanfic Writer’s Star Trek

Old Spock gazed at Young Spock through rheumy, heavy-lidded eyes. One eyebrow suddenly cocked upward.

“Forgive me, Young Spock,” said Old Spock, “for I know this is a thought most…illogical, but my pursuit of knowledge demands that I must know what it is like…to kiss myself.”

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The Price of the Phoenix, 1977, Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath
I have never actually read a Star Trek novel in my entire life. Truth.

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My good friend John Gorenfeld has agreed to co-write, with Patrick Runkle, a series of posts about Star Trek for the site. Enjoy!–Dorian

Part I in a Series

So there sits semi-retired sad sack James T. Kirk on his 52nd birthday, at the beginning of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the best-loved of the Star Trek movies.

Shatner had not long before been been seen on TV as an alcoholic ex-priest getting sucked out of an airliner by a ghoul. Now he delivers a convincing scene–perhaps drawing on personal emotions–that evokes everything Kirk has given up in his life to become a Starfleet admiral. Reliably on hand to tell Kirk to get back into the game is Dr. McCoy, his straight-talking friend. “This isn’t about age, and you know it,” Bones says. No, it’s that Kirk has let himself get trapped in Starfleet academia–and, although the doctor doesn’t need to say it, regret–“when you want to be out there, hopping galaxies.”

But after a five-year mission to all those planets, there must have been all sorts of regrets going through his mind. Why didn’t writers Nicholas Meyer and Jack Sowards have Kirk turn to the dusky skyline of the 23rd century Fillmore District and say: “Bones…Remember that time we met Abraham Lincoln in space?”

You would think it was a meaningful enough life event. Imagine: First you see the guy who debated Stephen Douglas floating in fucking outer space. Then you invite him on board and he makes an insensitive remark about the ship’s black communications officer, but you’re so impressed with him anyway that you record in your Captain’s Log that “his kindness, his gentle wisdom, his humor…everything about him is so right.” Then you watch him die from a spear through the chest on the planet Excalbia, where a rock monster made you fight history’s greatest villains.

That’s what happened in the 1969 episode “The Savage Curtain,” during the third season of cheap sets and worse scripts. It used to be that a story like that was laughed off, but according to a prevailing school of thought that has developed in the Star Trek world over the last 15 years, “The Savage Curtain” is part of a “canon,” a tapestry of consistent events officially sanctioned by the late series creator Gene Roddenberry, either by his own blessing or through his chosen successors.

This series of pieces will examine the history and development of Trek canon, and argue for the position that canon–a concept which has never before received this much media attention–has been an unnecessary, deleterious, and un-Trek addition to the Trek world. And as many of the ridiculous fan flame wars about J.J. Abrams’s $150 million Trek prequel illustrate, canon’s place in the hearts and minds of fans needs to be seriously re-examined.

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