Thursday, September 3, 2009


Of all the holies in the geek realm, Star Trek was a major pillar of geek culture. Before George Lucas combined the works of Frank Herbert, J.R.R. Tokein and Akira Kurosawa to create Star Wars, geeks pored over the original Trek episodes with the fine tooth combs of their intellect, piecing together the facts and events to create a history and time line, a canon that was adhered to strictly. Books and fanfic expanded on the original, three-year run, conventions were created and attended. The minutiae of the Trek universe were obsessively cataloged and dwelled upon by fans the world over. You weren't any kind of a Trek fan if you didn't know that Zefram Cochrane of Alpha Centauri was the inventor of warp drive, that Kirk was from Iowa, that Scotty was an "old Aberdeen pub crawler," that Mark Lenard, who'd played Spock's father Saarek in the second season episode "Journey to Babel," had also played the Romulan commander in the first season episode "Balance of Terror." It was this familiarity that became the foundations of early geek subculture.

But that familiarity is completely gone now.
They've turned Trek into something sexy, edgy, flawed and totally unfamiliar, using the brand name to make it something marketable to a new generation. The movie relies on the fact that geeks the world over have made these characters pop culture icons, yet does everything it can to change them from what the geeks know and love. While this isn't the first time in the Trek universe that this has happened, it's a definitive event. The geeks can't blame J.J. Abrams for the breaking of the trust, but they can blame him for making it impossible to go back.

In an article in Wired magazine, Ron Moore, ex-Next Generation writer and creator of the successful Battlestar Galactica reboot, cries about how limited the writers were by the Trek canon. He claims that the canon limited the creativity potential of the franchise. Maybe this is why the move away from the canon began with the post-Rodenberry movies. In Star Trek: First Contact, the writers (Ron Moore among them) decided that Zefram Cochrane, a character introduced in the TOS episode "Metamorphosis" as a native of Alpha Centauri who had invented warp drive, was now from Earth. In one of many instances of time travel in the Trek universe, First Contact finds the crew going back to a crudely written, post-apocalyptic Earth where Cochrane ends up being some backwoods genius, peicing together the first warp drive from spare ICBM parts in a Montana nuke silo. In the post-Rodenberry Trek movie Generations, they even deviated from TNG canon, contradicting the episode "Relics," (written by Moore) where Scotty believes Jim Kirk to still be alive, yet in Generations, he witnesses what he thinks to be the death of Kirk while aboard the Enterprise-B. And of course there is the television show Enterprise, which changes the role of the Vulcans from equal partners in the Federation to omnipotent, technically superior patriarchs, treating the Terrans like dimwitted monkeys being led around on a leash. Which contradicted Spock's alien-but-equal role in the original series.

In those instances, the writers at least tried to keep the writing tight. They still managed to tell a good story. In the new Star Trek film, there are gaping holes in logic that you could fly a Constitution-class sized starship through. The flimsy explanation as to how we get into this new, alternate Trek reality rates as one of the worst excuses for science fiction in recent memory. Something right out of a Sci-Fi Channel original movie. We get no data as to why this supernova was such a threat to the universe, why only Romulus was obliterated (despite Remus's close proximity), how Spock had gotten involved with the Vulcan Science Academy on this project, how they'd come up with the red matter. How did some backwoods Romulan miner become a Khan-level threat? How did his ridiculously designed, incredibly huge mining vessel become the ultimate superweapon? Was he pulling all those missles from a magical tree he keeps in the cargo hold? Did the ship run on his hate? 

And then there's the fact that in addition to Scotty's magical transporter forumula, Spock Prime ALSO knows how to use the gravity of a star to go back in time, which the crew did regularly, both on the TOS and one of the movies. With this knowledge, he could have easily gone back and at least warned the Romulans to evacuate their planet before its destruction. Or at least Nero's wife and kid so that he didn't go all psycho. Why bother with all the nonsense in the film when they could have just slingshotted the Enterprise and taken care of the problem at its source?

And let's not forget all the wonderful coincidences that occur throughout the movie. Jim Kirk just happens to get ejected onto the same iceworld that Spock Prime was transported to. After outrunning impossibly huge ice monsters (did they get that big off of eating ice?), he conveniently runs into Spock Prime and they conveniently run into Scotty who is conveniently located within safe walking distance of Spock's cave. Add a convenient formula for transporting humans onto a starship traveling faster-than-light (but omitting the aforementioned slingshot time travel formula) and you're left with a pile of unbelievable bullshit that I wouldn't feed to a Denebian slime devil. To me these stupidities were an insult to the whole science fiction genre and to the Star Trek universe in particular.

So here's my point (finally)--if you're going to employ creativity to come up with a new timeline for the Trek universe, why not just employ that creativity in staying within the boundaries of the original canon? If you're going to go through all the trouble of getting yourself out of all that hard work fitting your ideas into a bigger framework, at least give us something that's worthy of what Trek HAS done right over the years. Make it smart. Make it something we can believe in. Don't feed us the fruits of your laziness. These writers have got dream jobs with the entire Trek universe in their control to do with as they please. I think they owed it to the legacy, the fans and the Great Bird to act like the heroes in the original series and DO A GOOD JOB. They didn't with this film, and I think in time this will become obvious the more people watch it.
The only ones who were doing it right were those dudes with their New Voyages ( series. Aided by such Trek greats as writer DC Fontana, Walter Koenig, George Takei and Gene Rodenberry Jr, this is where the Trek universe should have gone. Those unpaid writers and artists had no problem working within the framework of the original canon. In fact they built upon the original canon with a passion and love for the original show that the writers of TNG and this stupid movie could not muster. Why Paramount didn't just hand the New Voyages crew the keys to the franchise and go low budget is anyone's guess. Despite the rubber-suited aliens, cheap sets, Shatner's overacting and the sometimes-shitty scripts, Star Trek TOS raised the bar for science fiction. It's a fact that Rodenberry tried hard to get good scripts on the show, that his goal was to bring good sci-fi adventure onto the small screen. Besides the Twilight Zone, there are few shows that have had as large an impact on the sci-fi genre. It bred a movement that created a market for Star Wars and all that came after it. 

This new Star Trek movie lowers the bar that TOS raised. With it's massive popularity, it lowers expectations of what high quality sci-fi should look like. And it makes it cool to be a Trekkie if you aren't a Trek geek. The '09 Trek has successfully completed the job that the Sci-Fi Channel set out to do years ago-dumb down the genre so it's more marketable. Less talented writers can't demand the big pay that talented writers can. They lower the bar without being told to and they don't make the audience think (which is dangerous to consumer culture). They don't challenge their perspective of the universe (also dangerous to consumer culture). They don't bring in any new ideas to those minds in the seats. All these new writers have done is produce yet another tale of vengeance and firepower, of crystal clear good versus obvious evil. They've given us the same thing that's already been done a hundred times, only with different names and better special effects. Forget all those high-minded ideals from the sixties about conquering our savage nature that Gene Rodenberry tried to express. They're not relevant anymore. We're at war again, and this time nobody's listening to the hippies.  

But in the end, it doesn't matter what I think. Spock himself oversees the entire proceedings, the passing of the torch. On a Saturday Night Live sketch he called anyone who doesn't like the film a "dickhead." He's supposed to represent the universe that is lost in this film, the timeline that millions of people all over the world incorporated into their lives. At the finale of the reboot (and in real life), Spock writes his home universe off like it was a dream he had, and we're supposed to as well. We're supposed to accept this new, less logical universe for some reason no one ever explains.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Counting Down to Watchmen

In just a few days, Watchmen will be released to the general public. Here's another cherished geek codeword going out to the masses. Even with all the hype, I still find myself explaining the plot to the norms. It's not easy to sum it up in even a couple of sentences, so it makes sense that this movie will be a difficult fit for the non-initiated. Zack Snyder has to be self-medicating himself like Rush Limbaugh right about now.

Wired magazine insists that it's a good thing that the movie will be different from the famous graphic novel, but all evidence indicates that they're counting on a lot of us old skool geeks to expect adherence to the holy manuscript as much as possible. When you're banking on support from the people who made it popular while aiming for the norms who have no clue, it's a potential recipe for disaster. Again, I imagine Zack Snyder awake at night, bathed in a cold sweat.

As for myself, I've already bought tickets for two showings of the movie, one at the premier Midnight showing on Thursday with the girlfriend and one on the following Sunday with two of my geek brethren. I'll need to see it at least one more time with at least one more group of geek friends, so I'm hoping it doesn't suck. From all indications, the look of the movie will be worth a couple of viewings. I pray that the actors are working at 110%. How Snyder handled the cuts and modifications that the bean counters forced on him remains to be seen, but at this point I'm just ready to see the damn movie and get it over with!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Geek Homogenized

Reading through the pages of magazines like Wired and Geek, it's painfully obvious that my kind have finally become socially accepted. But it was not always thus.

Back in the early 70's, when all we had was The Twilight Zone, Star Trek (TOS), Space: 1999 and Logan's Run, it was a lot tougher. We hung out in small groups of two, three, sometimes five, talking softly in our strange language so the ears of the mindless jocks couldn't hear us, our adrenal glands ever ready to fuel our flight reflex. We hid in the library where we exhcanged issues of books, comics and Starlog magazines, reviewed the history of Middle Earth, memorized Monty Python scripts, debated on the deeper meaning of the previous night's Twilight Zone episode.

Our ways were strange to the lesser children, who were more concerned with celebrities, sports figures and team standings than with the principles of warp drive and phaser banks. Girls weren't interested in our four eyed faces and shapeless, unattractive bodies. They didn't care that we knew the names of the men who'd walked on the moon. They didn't care that Jupiter is a gas giant with no surface or that Captain Kirk's middle name was Tiberius. The alpha males taunted us and ostracized us.

Then the supreme alpha geek George Lucas released Star Wars in 1977. Suddenly, every Jack and Jill in the playground (mostly Jack) considered themselves fans of a sci-fi movie. We'd all been anticipating Star Wars for over a year. We'd seen Ralph McQuarrie's conceptual art for the film in Starlog, had read Lucas's early summary of the film. With all this hard knowledge of the film, we figured our popularity would be on the rise then. We were WRONG! Geek was not yet chic.

Star Wars started a process of geekification of American society. Rod Serling had started it by bringing quality sci-fi themes and concepts into Joe Sixpack's living room each week. Rodenberry succeeded in bringing more concepts and ideas in (trailing behind a parade of T&A) with Star Trek. They gave a vision of a much larger universe, both physically and mentally. Other shows built on these early successes, but nobody did it like Lucas. His little patchwork of a film struck gold with an audience he hadn't even counted on reaching--the kids.

And those kids grew up to become adults, fully versed in the basics of geekdom--the minutiae and philosophy of it. In a way Lucas homogenized the complex vision of his predecessors, but that's probably why SW succeeded. The difficult and deep language of science fiction became acceptable (to a certain extent). Even the most cement-headed kid understood that something as cool as Star Wars had its own vernacular, that there were depths to the experience. You had to pick your depth. The geeks digging at the bottom of the ocean made those wading by the shoreline feel inferior somehow.

But somewhere between 1983 and now, geek became cool. Was it the barrage of science fiction movies that came out after the success of Lucas's franchiese? Was it Bill Gates showing what geek power (mated to Edison-like sliminess) could accomplish? Was it society's ever-growing dependence on technology? Whatever it was, geeks are everywhere now. Look at the attendance figures for ComiCon over the past several years. Just about every aspect of the geek life has been co-opted by TV and Hollywood. Dungeons & Dragons, video games, sci-fi, it's all been excellently trashed, cliched and parodied by cartoons, movies and TV shows. The book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline will soon be a major motion picture.  There are even attractive women out there who consider themselves geeks.

So why am I dismayed that society has opened its arms to the subculture of geek? I could cite the dumbing down of the geek lifestyle (thank you SyFy Channel, Peter Jackson, JJ Abrams and even George Lucas). I could cite magazines like Wired that have gone to the Dark Side, using their geek powers to sell shiny, flashy things and ideas. But I guess I miss those days of yore when knowing the difference between an X-Wing fighter and a Y-wing fighter meant something. All the repression me and my geek friends got for being geeks made it mean that much more.