Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Meyer

The life of a title

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Track listing for Kanye West's Waves

So I haven’t heard all of Kanye West’s new album yet—I’m waiting until I can actually download it for real—but I’m excited about what looks to be a major statement from the artist responsible for some of my favorite music of the last decade. Predictably, it was also the target of countless barbs in the weeks leading up to its release, mostly because of what have been portrayed as its constant title changes: it was originally announced as So Help Me God, changed to Swish, made a brief stopover at Waves, and finally settled on The Life of Pablo. And this was all spun as yet another token of West’s flakiness, even from media outlets that have otherwise been staunch advocates of his work. (A typical headline on The A.V. Club was “Today in god, we’re tired: Kanye West announces album title (again).” This was followed a few days later by the site’s rave review of the same album, which traces a familiar pattern of writers snarking at West’s foibles for months, only to fall all over themselves in the rush to declare the result a masterpiece. The only comparable figure who inspires the same disparity in his treatment during the buildup and the reception is Tom Cruise, who, like Kanye, is a born producer who happens to occupy the body of a star.) And there’s a constant temptation for those who cover this kind of thing for a living to draw conclusions from the one scrap of visible information they have, as if the changes in the title were symptoms of some deeper confusion.

Really, though, the shifting title is less a reflection of West’s weirdness, of which we have plenty of evidence elsewhere, than of his stubborn insistence on publicizing even those aspects of the creative process that most others would prefer to keep private. Title changes are a part of any artist’s life, and it’s rare for any work of art to go from conception to completion without a few such transformations along the way: Hemingway famously wrote up fifty potential titles for his Spanish Civil War novel, notably The Undiscovered Country, before finally deciding on For Whom the Bell Tolls. As long as we’re committed to the idea that everything needs a title, we’ll always struggle to find one that adequately represents the work—or at least catalyzes our thoughts about it—while keeping one eye on the market. Each of my novels was originally written and sold with a different title than the one that ended up on its cover, and I’m mostly happy with how it all turned out. (Although I’ll admit that I still think that The Scythian was a better title for the book that wound up being released as Eternal Empire.) And I’m currently going through the same thing again, in full knowledge that whatever title I choose for my next project will probably change before I’m done. I don’t take the task any less seriously, and if anything, I draw comfort from the knowledge that the result will reflect a lot of thought and consideration, and that a title change isn’t necessarily a sign that the process is going wrong. Usually, in fact, it’s the opposite.

Track listing for Kanye West's The Life of Pablo

The difference between a novel and an album by a massive pop star, of course, is that the latter is essentially being developed in plain sight, and any title change is bound to be reported as news. There’s also a tendency, inherited from movie coverage, to see it as evidence of a troubled production. When The Hobbit: There and Back Again was retitled The Battle of the Five Armies, it was framed, credibly enough, as a more accurate reflection of the movie itself, which spins about ten pages of Tolkien into an hour of battle, but it was also perceived as a defensive move in response to the relatively disappointing reception of The Desolation of Smaug. In many cases, nobody wins: All You Need Is Kill was retitled Edge of Tomorrow for its theatrical release and Live Die Repeat on video, a series of equivocations that only detracted from what tuned out to be a superbly confident and focused movie—which is all the evidence we need that title trouble doesn’t have much correlation, if any, with the quality of the finished product. And occasionally, a studio will force a title change that the artist refuses to acknowledge: Paul Thomas Anderson consistently refers to his first movie as Sydney, rather than Hard Eight, and you can hear a touch of resignation in director Nicholas Meyer’s voice whenever he talks about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. (In fact, Meyer’s initial pitch for the title was The Undiscovered Country, which, unlike Hemingway, he eventually got to use.)

But if the finished product is worthwhile, all is forgiven, or forgotten. If I can return for the second time in two days to editor Ralph Rosenblum’s memoir When the Shooting Stops, even as obvious a title as Annie Hall went through its share of incarnations:

[Co-writer Marshall] Brickman came up to the cutting room, and he and Woody [Allen] engaged in one of their title sessions, Marshall spewing forth proposals—Rollercoaster Named Desire, Me and My Goy, It Had to be Jew—with manic glee. This seemed to have little impact on Woody, though, for he remained committed to Anhedonia until the very end. “He first sprung it on me at an early title session,” remembers Brickman. “Arthur Krim, who was the head of United Artists then, walked over to the window and threatened to jump…”

Woody, meanwhile, was adjusting his own thinking, and during the last five screenings, he had me try out a different title each night in my rough-cut speech. The first night it was Anhedonia, and a hundred faces looked at me blankly. The second night it was Anxiety, which roused a few chuckles from devoted Allen fans. Then Anhedonia again. Then Annie and Alvy. And finally Annie Hall, which, thanks to a final burst of good sense, held. It’s hard now to suppose it could ever have been called anything else.

He’s right. And I suspect that we’ll feel the same way about The Life of Pablo before we know it—which won’t stop it from happening again.

Revenge of the list

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Note: A few minor spoilers follow for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

When I try to explain my mixed feelings about the new Star Wars movie, I find myself turning, heretically, to a story about the franchise’s greatest rival. Nicholas Meyer was, in many ways, the J.J. Abrams of his day: a hugely talented, relatively young outsider who was brought in to correct the course of a series that had lost its sense of purpose. He wasn’t a Star Trek fan, but he was able to find elements—like its echoes of the Horatio Hornblower novels—that he could highlight and enlarge. When he signed on to write and direct the first sequel, however, five separate scripts had already been written, and he had to prepare a workable screenplay in twelve days. His response to the challenge resulted in one of my favorite Hollywood anecdotes ever, as Meyer recounts it in his memoir The View From the Bridge:

“Well, here’s my other idea,” I told them, taking a deep breath and producing a yellow legal pad from under my chair. “Why don’t we make a list of everything we like in these five drafts? Could be a plot, a subplot, a sequence, a scene, a character, a line even…And then I will write a new script and cobble together all the things we choose…”

We then made the list. It included…Khan (from the “Space Seed” episode…); the Genesis Project (creating planetary life); Kirk meeting his son; Lieutenant Saavik (Spock’s beautiful Vulan protégée); the death of Spock; and the simulator sequence…All these materials were culled higgledy-piggledy from the five different drafts that I never—to the best of my recollection—consulted again.

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I never tire of retelling this story, both as an illustration of the power of lists as a creative tool and as a reminder of how surprising, organic narratives can emerge from the most artificial of beginnings. And it’s as true today as it ever was. In the excellent bonus features for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie says that they began writing the movie with a list of action set pieces, and that important emotional beats—including Ilsa Faust’s motivations and the entire character of Attlee—emerged when they put those scenes in a certain order. Matthew Weiner and his core writing staff assembled a list of possible themes and ideas to revisit when it came time to plot out the final season of Mad Men. In the last few months alone, we’ve seen The Peanuts Movie, of which I wrote: “[It] sometimes plays as if it had been written according to the model that Nicholas Meyer used when cracking The Wrath of Khan…The result is an anthology, gracefully assembled, of the best moments from the strip and specials.” And now, of course, we have Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which struck me when I first saw it as a kind of greatest hits collection from the original trilogy, only to have this confirmed by the same Wired interview with J.J. Abrams that I discussed yesterday: “When we began working on this film, Larry [Kasdan] and I started by making a list of things that we knew held interest for us, the things we wanted to see, the things we felt were important.”

Nicholas Meyer and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Yet the fact remains that The Wrath of Khan comes off as a seamless burst of pure story, while The Force Awakens, for all its considerable merits, still feels like a list. (The best thing that could be said for it, and this shouldn’t be lightly disregarded, is that it’s the right list. ) When you look at the list that Meyer put together for Star Trek, with the notable exception of Khan himself, you see that it consists of ideas that audiences hadn’t seen before. The Force Awakens, by contrast, is a list of things that are familiar, and once we’ve seen a couple of moments or images that remind us of the original movies, we naturally start a mental checklist as we keep an eye out for more. Sometimes, the way it quotes its predecessors is delightful; at other times, as when it gears up for yet another aerial assault on an impregnable planetary superweapon, it’s less than wonderful. As the Resistance prepared for the attack on Starkiller Base, I felt a slight sinking feeling: two out of the first three Star Wars movies ended in exactly the same way, perhaps as a nod to The Dam Busters, and I hoped that Abrams was about to spring some kind of novel twist or variation on that theme. Obviously, he doesn’t, to the extent that he includes a story point—a small group on the ground fighting to deactivate the shield generator—lifted straight from Return of the Jedi. It isn’t hard to imagine a version of this sort of climax that would have given us something new: I’d love to see a full-on Saving Private Ryan sequence showing an infantry assault on the base, or even a naval battle. And if we didn’t get it here, it’s because Abrams and the rest were sticking closely to their list.

But this kind of respectful homage is utterly alien to the spirit of the original movies themselves, which were eager to show us things that we had never imagined. The opening scenes on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, for instance, immediately expand the possibilities of that universe: not only does the ice planet give us a gloriously different backdrop, but the battle with the Imperial Walkers feels like a deliberate inversion of the dogfights that ended the first movie. The entire film, in fact, plays like a deliciously inverted list: it takes the things that audiences loved about Star Wars and then turns them all by a hundred and eighty degrees. The Force Awakens lacks that kind of basic invention, as much I liked so much of it. (Among other things, it makes it unnecessary to watch the prequels ever again. If Disney follows through with its plans of releasing a movie of comparable quality every year, Episode I, II, and III will start to take on the status of The Sting II or Grease 2: we’ll have trouble remembering that they even exist.) It’s possible that, like the first season of Fargo, the new movie’s energies were devoted mostly to establishing its bona fides, and that the next batch of sequels will be more willing to go into unexpected directions. Still, the fact remains that while Abrams and Kasdan made a great list, they failed to add anything new to it—which raises the troubling implication that the galaxy of Star Wars, after six films, isn’t as vast or rich with potential as we always thought it was. I hope that isn’t the case. But now that Abrams and his collaborators have gotten that list out of their system, the next thing they need to do is throw it into the nearest trash compactor.

The peanut gallery

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Snoopy Come Home

I first heard about The Peanuts Movie on October 9, 2012, when The A.V. Club reported that it was under development at Fox. At the time, my wife and I were expecting our first child, and it wouldn’t have been long afterward that I looked at the projected release date, did the math, and wondered if this might be the first movie I’d take my daughter to see in the theater. Three years later, that’s exactly how it worked out. I took Beatrix to a noon matinee last Thursday, and although I chose two seats in the back in case I had to beat a hasty retreat, she did great. At times, she got a little squirmy, and I ended up delivering a whispered plot commentary into her ear for much of the movie. She spent most of the last half on my lap. But aside from one moment when she wanted to get up from her seat to dance with the characters onscreen, she was perfect—laughing at all the right moments, even clapping at the end. (In retrospect, the choice of material couldn’t have been better: she complained that the Ice Age short that played before the feature was “too loud,” and I have a feeling that she would have reacted much the same way to anything but the sedate style that The Peanuts Movie captures so beautifully.) Best of all, when it was over and I asked what her favorite part was, she said: “When Charlie Brown was sad.” To which I could only think to myself: “That’s my girl!”

When The Peanuts Movie was first announced, many observers—including me—expressed reservations over whether it would be able to capture the feel of the strip and the original animated specials, and worried in particular that it would degenerate into a series of pop culture references. These concerns, while justified, conveniently ignored the fact that Charles Schulz himself was hardly averse to a trendy gag or two: Lucy once gave Schroeder a pair of Elton John glasses, and the Peanuts special that I watched the most growing up was It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown. More to the point, the strip itself seems so timeless precisely because it reflected its own time so acutely. Its shift in tone from the fifties to the sixties feels like an expression of deeper cultural anxieties, and it was touched by current events to an extent that can be hard to appreciate now. (Snoopy’s dogfights with the Red Baron, which took place exclusively from 1965 to 1972, coincide to an eerie extent with American involvement in Vietnam.) The Peanuts Movie makes the smart, conservative choice by avoiding contemporary references as much as possible: like the first season of Fargo, its primary order of business is to establish its bona fides to anxious fans. But I’d like to think that the inevitable sequels will be a bit more adventurous, just as the later features that Schulz himself wrote began to venture into weirder, more idiosyncratic territory.

The Complete Peanuts (1969-1970)

That’s hard, of course, when a movie is being conceived in the absence of its creator’s uniquely personal vision. The Peanuts Movie sometimes plays as if it had been written according to the model that Nicholas Meyer used when cracking The Wrath of Khan: “Let’s make a list of things we like.” (It doesn’t go quite as far as the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which adapts the original strips almost word by word, but it quotes from its sources to just the right extent.) The result is an anthology, gracefully assembled, of the best moments from the strip and specials, particularly A Charlie Brown Christmas, but it lacks the prickly specificity that characterized Schulz at his best. Yet I don’t want to undervalue its real achievements. Visually and tonally, it pulls off the immensely difficult technical trick of translating the strip’s spirit into a modern idiom, and the constraints that this imposed result in one of the prettiest, most graphically inventive animated movies I’ve seen in a long time. It never feels rushed or frantic, and its use of child actors, with their slight flatness of affect, is still appealing. Best of all, it respects the strip’s air of sadness—although there’s nothing like “It Changes” from Snoopy Come Home, which might be the bleakest sequence in any children’s movie. And while its happy ending might seem out of tune with Schulz’s underlying pessimism, it’s not so different from the conclusion that he might have given us if ill health and other distractions hadn’t intervened. This is a man, after all, who shied away from easy satisfactions in the strip, but who also wrote the script for It’s Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown.

And I’d like to think that it will play the same incalculable role in my daughter’s inner life that it did in mine. I’ve written at length about the strip before, but it wasn’t until I saw Snoopy at his typewriter on the big screen that I realized—or remembered—how struck I was by that image as a child, and how the impulse it awakened is responsible for where I am today. (One of my first attempts at writing consisted of a careful transcript of one of Snoopy’s stories, which I can still write from memory: “It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed. Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon!” At which point Snoopy smugly notes: “This twist in plot will baffle my readers.”) I would have loved this movie as a kid, and scenes like the one in which Snoopy, in his imagination, sneaks back across the front lines after his plane is downed are as much fun to dream about as always. Afterward, my daughter seemed most interested in imagining herself as the little red-haired girl, but if she’s anything like her father, she’ll come to recognize herself more in Charlie Brown and Snoopy, which represent the two halves of their creator’s personality: the neurotic and the fantasist, the solitary introvert and the imaginative writer for whom everything is possible. The Peanuts Movie may not ignite those feelings on its own, but as a gateway toward the rest of the Schulz canon, it’s close to perfection. As I once wrote about The Complete Peanuts collections, which I said would be among the first books my children would ever read: “I can’t imagine giving them a greater gift.”

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November 16, 2015 at 9:35 am

How the Vulcan got his ears

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Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

When the writer and director Nicholas Meyer was first approached about the possibility of working on the sequel to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, his initial response was: “Star Trek? Is that the one with the guy with the pointy ears?” Meyer, who tells this story in his engaging memoir The View from the Bridge, went on to cleverly stage the opening scene of Wrath of Khan—which is probably the one movie, aside from Vertigo, that I’ve discussed more often on this blog than any other—so that those ears are literally the first thing we see, in a shot of a viewscreen taken from over Spock’s shoulder. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken at length about how Meyer’s detachment from the source material resulted in by far the best movie in the franchise, and one of the most entertaining movies I’ve ever seen: because he wasn’t beholden to the original series, he was free to stock it with things he liked, from the Horatio Hornblower novels to A Tale of Two Cities. But it’s revealing that he latched onto those ears first. As the reaction to Leonard Nimoy’s death last week amply proved, Spock was the keystone and entry point to that entire universe, and our love for him and what he represented had as much to do with his ears as with what was going on in the brain between them.

These days, Spock’s ears are so iconic that it can be hard to recognize how odd they once seemed. Spock was one of the few elements to survive from the original series pilot “The Cage,” and even at the time, the network was a little perturbed: it raised concerns over his allegedly satanic appearance, which executives feared “would scare the shit out of every kid in America.” (They would have cared even less for Gene Roddenberry’s earliest conceptions, in which Spock was described as having “a slightly reddish complexion.”) Accordingly, the first round of publicity photos for the show were airbrushed to give him normal ears and eyebrows. In any event, of course, Spock didn’t scare kids, or ordinary viewers—he fascinated them. And those ears were a large part of his appeal. As Meyer intuitively understood, they were a fantastic piece of narrative shorthand, a signal to anyone flipping through channels that something interesting was happening onscreen. Spock’s ears said as much about the show’s world and intentions as Kirk’s opening voiceover, and they did so without a word of dialogue.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Yet they wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if they hadn’t served as the visual introduction to a character who revealed greater depths the moment he began to speak. Spock was ostensibly a creature of pure logic, but he was much more, as Roger Ebert noted in his original review of Wrath of Khan:

The peculiar thing about Spock is that, being half human and half Vulcan and therefore possessing about half the usual quota of human emotions, he consistently, if dispassionately, behaves as if he possessed very heroic human emotions indeed. He makes a choice in Star Trek II that would be made only by a hero, a fool, or a Vulcan.

And while Robert Anton Wilson once claimed, with a straight face, that Spock was an archetypal reincarnation of the Aztec god Mescalito, whose pointed ears also appear on Peter Pan and the Irish leprechaun, his truest predecessor is as close as Victorian London. Meyer—whose breakthrough as a novelist was The Seven Per-Cent Solution—was the first to explicitly make the connection between Spock and Sherlock Holmes, whom Spock obliquely calls “an ancestor of mine” in The Undiscovered Country. Both were perfect reasoning machines, but they used logic to amplify, rather than undercut, their underlying qualities of humanity. “A great heart,” as Watson says, “as well as…a great brain.”

There’s a lesson here for storytellers of all kinds, and like most such examples, it’s easy to explain and all but impossible to replicate. Spock began as a visual conceit that could be grasped at once, deepened over time into a character whose basic qualities were immediately comprehensible and intriguing, and then became much more, aided in no small part by a magnificent performance by Nimoy. The autism advocate Temple Grandin has spoken of how much of herself she saw in Spock, a logical being trying to make his way in a world of more emotional creatures, and there’s no question that many Star Trek fans felt the same way. Spock, at least, carried his difference openly, and those who wear Starfleet pins on their lapels or don pointed ears at conventions are quietly allying themselves with that sense of otherness—which turns, paradoxically, into a sense of identity. “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human,” Kirk says at the end of Wrath of Khan, and what feels like a contradiction gets at something more profound. Humanity, whether in reality or in fiction, is something we have to earn with every choice we make. Spock’s journey as a character was so compelling that it arguably saved Star Trek three times over, and neither the franchise or science fiction as we know it would be the same if we hadn’t heard the story through his ears.

“What are you offering?”

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"What are you offering?"

Note: This post is the fifty-fifth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering the epilogue. You can read the earlier installments here

As I’ve noted before, writing a series of novels is a little like producing a television series: the published result, as Emily Nussbaum says, is the rough draft masquerading as the final product. You want a clear narrative arc that spans multiple installments, but you also don’t want to plan too far in advance, which can lead to boredom and inflexibility. With a television show, you’re juggling multiple factors that are outside any one showrunner’s control: budgets, the availability of cast members, the responses of the audience, the perpetual threat of cancellation. For the most part, a novelist is insulated from such concerns, but you’re also trying to manage your own engagement with the material. A writer who has lost the capacity to surprise himself is unlikely to surprise the reader, which means that any extended project has to strike a balance between the knowns and the unknowns. That’s challenging enough for a single book, but over the course of a series, it feels like a real high-wire act, as the story continues to evolve in unexpected ways while always maintaining that illusion of continuity.

One possible solution, which you see in works in every medium, is to incorporate elements at an early stage that could pay off in a number of ways, depending on the shape the larger narrative ends up taking. My favorite example is from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Leonard Nimoy wanted Spock to die, and his death—unlike its hollow pastiche in Star Trek Into Darkness—was meant to be a permanent one. Fortunately, writer and director Nicholas Meyer was shrewd enough to build in an escape hatch, especially once he noticed that Nimoy seemed to be having a pretty good time on the set. It consisted of a single insert shot of Spock laying his hand on the side of McCoy’s unconscious face, with the enigmatic word: “Remember.” As Meyer explains on his commentary track, at the time, he didn’t know what the moment meant, but he figured that it was ambiguous enough to support whatever interpretation they might need to give it later on. And whether or not you find the resolution satisfying in The Search for Spock, you’ve got to admit that it was a clever way out.

"It was a lock-picking kit..."

The more you’re aware of the serendipitous way in which extended narratives unfold, the more often you notice such touches. Breaking Bad, for instance, feels incredibly cohesive, but it was often written on the fly: big elements of foreshadowing—like the stuffed animal floating in the swimming pool, the tube of ricin concealed behind the electrical outlet, or the huge gun that Walter buys at the beginning of the last season—were introduced before the writers knew how they would pay off. Like Spock’s “Remember,” though, they’re all pieces that could fit a range of potential developments, and when their true meaning is finally revealed, it feels inevitable. (Looking at the list of discarded endings that Vince Gilligan shared with Entertainment Weekly is a reminder of how many different ways the story could have gone.) You see the same process at work even in the composition of a single novel: a writer will sometimes introduce a detail on a hunch that it will play a role later on. But the greater challenge of series fiction, or television, is that it’s impossible to go back and revise the draft to bring everything into line.

City of Exiles is a good case in point. In the epilogue, I wanted to set up the events of the next installment without locking myself down to any one storyline, in case my sense of the narrative evolved; at the time I was writing it, I didn’t really know what Eternal Empire would be about. (In fact, I wasn’t even sure there would be a third installment, although the fact that I left a few big storylines unresolved indicates that I at least had some hopes in that direction.) What I needed, then, were a few pieces of vague information that could function in some way in a sequel. Somewhat to my surprise, this included the return of a supporting character, the lawyer Owen Dancy, whom I’d originally intended to appear just once: it occurred to me later on that it might be useful to let him hang around. When he comes to visit Ilya in prison, I didn’t know what that might mean, but it seemed like a development worth exploring. The same is true of the lock-picking tools that Ilya examines on the very last page, which I knew would come in handy. As I said yesterday, a draft can feel like a message—or an inheritance—from the past to the future. And you try to leave as much useful material as possible for the next version of you who comes along…

Star Trek into detachment

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Star Trek Into Darkness

Note: Spoilers follow for Star Trek Into Darkness.

On Friday, my wife and I went to the movies for the first time in six months, which is the longest I’ve gone without seeing a film in theaters since I was old enough to be watching movies at all. There wasn’t much suspense about what we’d be seeing: ever since my daughter was born in December, I knew that the first movie I’d see on the big screen would be Star Trek Into Darkness. And on balance, I think I made the right choice, even if the film itself ends up feeling like much less than the sum of its parts. It’s a slick, enjoyable blockbuster that does everything it can to give the audience its money’s worth, but it’s also a little hollow, especially because it constantly asks us to compare it to a film that ranks among my ten favorite movies of all time while falling short in every measure. I knew going in that Benedict Cumberbatch was Khan, but I wasn’t prepared for how little the movie would understand his character’s true nature: Khan is a great villain to the extent that he’s obsessed with Kirk, and the duel between these two men ought to be intensely personal. As valiantly as Cumberbatch works in the role, turning him into a terrorist with a vendetta against all of Starfleet robs him of much of his appeal.

And this is a minor problem compared to a larger issue that has me slightly concerned about the future of the franchise: its lack of character. I’m not talking about the members of the crew—who are all nicely drawn, even if the script spends most of its time putting them through manufactured conflicts, and often feels as if it’s checking items off a list—but about the filmmakers themselves. After two movies, the first of which I enjoyed tremendously, I still don’t know how J.J. Abrams and his collaborators feel about Star Trek, except as a delivery system for cool moments and action scenes. Part of this is due to Abrams himself: with four movies as a feature director under his belt, he has yet to reveal himself as anything more than a highly skillful producer and packager of mainstream material, full of good taste and intentions, but fundamentally without personality. There’s a reason why his fondness for lens flares has become a punchline, because it’s the only recognizable stylistic element in all of his work, aside from a tendency to spin an air of mystery around nonexistent surprises. And this is fundamentally out of tune with the spirit of the series itself, which has always been at its best as reflection of the idiosyncratic, prickly individuals who created it.

Nicholas Meyer, Leonard Nimoy, and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I’m aware that it might seem a little strange for me to wish for more of a personal take on the material, since I’ve frequently drawn a sharp contrast between such doomed passion projects as John Carter and the sleek, impersonal machinery of a movie like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. Detachment, I’ve often said, is the key to making good art, and I still believe this. What’s less obvious, and something I’m only starting to figure out now, is that detachment, paradoxically, is useful to the extent that it allows a personal statement to emerge. For evidence, we need only turn to the very film that the Abrams movies revisit so obsessively. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the story behind Wrath of Khan is one of my favorite Hollywood legends: Nicholas Meyer, a novelist and screenwriter with limited prior interest in Star Trek, cobbled together a story from six earlier drafts over the course of one long weekend, and the result was a beautiful, ingenious script with real emotional resonance. (To compare the ending of Wrath of Khan with its homage in Into Darkness is to be reminded of the difference between earned feeling and efficient, facile manipulation.)

And the really strange thing about Meyer’s detachment is that it resulted in a movie that was profoundly, even eccentrically personal. Meyer didn’t care much about Star Trek, so he filled the movie with a list of things he liked: the nautical mood and motifs, the sense of the Enterprise as Horatio Hornblower in space, the references to Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities. In Meyer’s version of Starfleet, characters freely quote Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, and they actually read physical books, which is perfectly in tune with the original series and its successors, which gain much of their charm from how they refract and reinterpret elements of our own culture. The current films, by contrast, seems to take place in a universe devoid of any cultural memory or artifacts of the past, aside from “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. For all the obligatory nods that Abrams and crew make to the history of the franchise, it’s still a work of limited knowledge and curiosity about everything else that matters. And as far as the rest of the world is concerned, it might as well take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2013 at 9:06 am

Lessons from Great TV #3: Star Trek

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I came to Star Trek in a rather roundabout way. I’d watched it casually for years—although until recently, I’d seen more episodes of The Animated Series than of the original show—but it wasn’t until after college, when I saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for the first time, that I fell in love with the franchise. My sense of the show is thus oddly reversed, almost like a mirror universe, shall we say: for me, Star Trek consists of one great movie with several television series hovering unaccountably around it, and it owes as much to Nicholas Meyer as to Gene Roddenberry. Even now, when I’ve started to go back and fill in the gaps in my education, I’ve still only seen maybe a tenth of the material available. And after making an effort recently to watch the most famous episodes of the original series, many of them for the first time, I found most of them sadly dated, with even such justly revered landmarks as “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “Balance of Terror” hard to watch with a straight face.

The one great thing that the series has going for it, and where Roddenberry’s genius—along with his original conception—is most strongly felt, is its cast of characters. Television excels at allowing a large cast to grow together until their collective history becomes almost another presence in itself, and even Wrath of Khan wouldn’t be nearly as effective without that sense of shared experience. You can see it clearly in “Mirror, Mirror,” my favorite episode of the original series, in which Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura find themselves switching places with their counterparts in a much darker universe. Much of the comedy that ensues comes from seeing evil doppelgängers of the characters we know—Sulu is especially priceless—and from the fact that Kirk, far from being confused by the situation, slips into his new role a little too easily. Most deliciously and subtly of all, aside from the goatee, Spock remains more or less the same in both worlds: cool, logical, and willing to listen to reason. And none of this would work if we didn’t know these people so well. That, in any universe, is the secret of television that lasts.

Tomorrow: The pitfalls of the comedy pilot.

Written by nevalalee

July 4, 2012 at 9:50 am

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