Sunday, December 10, 2017
THOUGHT BALLOONS: Musings on a Tarantino Star Trek
So, word had come from Deadline that Paramount is fast-tracking a Star Trek feature film to be helmed by super-star director Quentin Tarantino, based on an idea he pitched to the studio and its current Trekfather, J. J. Abrams. And no sooner did we learn that than Sir Patrick Stewart chimed in to say that, if asked, he's for totes on board.
So, am I similarly stoked for an R-rated Star Trek? If written and directed by Tarantino, I say,"Yes, please." And would I be up for one more voyage by Captain Jean-Luc Picard? Awwww, HELL YEAH!
But the question remains, what should the story be? And how should it be handled? And how should things look?
Well, a follow-up report says a writers-room has been assembled consisting of Mark L. Smith (THE REVENANT), Lindsay Beer (the upcoming BARBIE movie and 2020's GODZILLA vs. KONG), Drew Pearce (IRON MAN 3, the RUNAWAYS tv series, and the upcoming SHERLOCK HOLMES 3), and Megan Amram (PARKS AND RECREATION and THE GOOD PLACE tv series). Given that these four are said to have met with Tarantino "for hours," whichever one gets the gig almost certainly knows exactly where the movie is going to go. So, what I say here won't make one whit of difference. Still, as a STAR TREK fan from my latchkey days of rushing home after school to watch Kirk & Co. on cable tv — or what it 1977 constituted the sum entirety of Central Maine cable, getting Channels 38 and 56 out of Boston — I have a few key, non-negotiables concerning what the next STAR TREK movie should. So, listen up, Quentin!
First off, I've been saying since VOYAGER that the next Star Trek series should lay off the bridge crew. Granted, I was mad in love with Kate Mulgrew's hot mama power bun, but there's just no tension in a show that focuses on characters you know can never be in any real danger, because they all have multi-year contracts and union lawyers. Worse, the casting call for the bridge crew has become, over time, little more than a series of cliched check boxes. Sometimes the qualities are mixed and matched, but generally we get:
• Strong and charismatic captain who is tough, but fair: √
• Hyper-intelligent, emotionless officer adept at techno-babble: √
• Slightly roguish horn-dog bad boy with a checkered past: √
• Doctor with poor people skills or other personal trauma: √
• Female eye candy: √
• Character who is an alien and/or fish-out-of-water type: √
• The Eager young ensign/ingenue: √
And so, almost any new Trek story that focuses on the bridge crew is like, "Oh, Jesus, these people again?!"
But what I have wanted for years — what it seems we almost got with STAR TREK DISCOVERY if online speculation about Bryan Fuller's original vision is to be believed — and what I think Tarantino would be particularly good at depicting, is a Star Trek that focuses instead on the folks down in engineering, or working security, or fire and rescue details, plus the triage nurses and the various junior science grunts. Or, hell, the guys who sweep the fucking deck floors and clean blood stains off the bulkheads after an epic battle. Those are the people we've never seen on a Star Trek series, or in a Star Trek movie. But we know they're there. We've seen them running around in the background since Day 1 with Number 1. And I want to know what's going on with those people while the bridge officers are making all their life-and-death decisions, because those are the people destined to live and die as a result.
What I want is what I've often called "The Red-Shirt Show." I want to see the lives of those people who live in constant fear of their name being the next one called to be part of an away team, and those left behind who agonize each time over whether their friends and lovers will come back, or else end up all gross and corpsified, lost forever laying on an alien landscape below. If you don't like The Red Shirt Show, call it, "Star Trek Below Decks," or, "The Enlisted Man's Star Trek."
Yes, what I want is the nuts and cogs of a workaday crew, who, even before the drama begins, are already near to blows over whose Silver Surfer is the one, true Silver Surfer — Kirby or Moebius. Okay, maybe not that exactly, but you get the idea. I want Tarantino and his writers to focus on the people who sleep three to a bunk and do the real work turning the wrenches that make a star ship go — who do the striving, the crying, the laughing, the dying, who live hard and play hard, who feel everything deeply and fall in love fast, because they never know if the next day could be their last.
THAT is who I want to star in Tarantino's Trek.
Yes, I think so. After all, think back to your favorite cop show — does it focus on the beat officers out on the street, or the top administrators back at the station? Generally, when the top dogs appear at all, it's to distribute the orders of the day and to remind the badges to, "Be careful out there."
And what of your favorite war movie? The really good ones are all about the soldiers on the front lines. When the brass at HQ appear, it's most often in minor roles to set things in motion, to decide, as it were, that we must save Private Ryan. Then, our attention is riveted to the poor schmucks tasked with executing those orders, and doing the actual saving, for better or for worse, at the expense of great danger and likely death to themselves. And, as a rule, they're not too keen on those giving the orders, safely detached from danger, even when they do commit to doing their ultimate duty.
And that is a movie at which I am certain Tarentino would excel. Moreover, I am confident that his Star Trek would be more than just INGLORIOUS BASTERDS IN SPACE. Although I'd surely pay to see that movie, too.
So, we're back to our original question: What should a Tarantino Star Trek be about?
Well, my original idea, why back when, was born not so much out of VOYAGER, but the "Trials and Tribble-ations" episode of DEEP SPACE NINE. After seeing what was even then technologically possible, I began to imagine a new show set aboard the Enterprise during the final two years of its initial five-year mission under James Tiberius Kirk. But Kirk and the other major players would be only background characters this time around, as a voice on an intercom, or CGI'd into scenes when needed. But otherwise we'd concentrate the plots on what was going on with the minor characters from TOS, to see what was going on with them while the bridge crew was doing its thing. If you're familiar with the play and movie ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, think that, only more like LIEUTENANTS LESLEY AND KYLE ARE DEAD. And, of course, I wanted it to look, sound, and be lighted exactly like TOS — as meticulously so as the fan production STAR TREK CONTINUES.
That won't necessarily work for a Tarantino movie, though. I mention it only in that I must insist on one thing — if the movie is to star, feature, or even so much as cameo Patrick Stewart, the settings MUST look like the world we saw in THE NEXT GENERATION, with only slight updates to account for the passage of 25 years since Picard hung up his pips.
And that demand could kill my enjoyment of a Tarantino Trek right off the bat. You see, there is a reason why DISCOVERY looks more like the Trek of the Abrams movies than TOS, even though it is said to be set 10 years before Kirk got his command. It's because, on a corporate level, Paramount and CBS are different entities, and, over time, the copyrights and trademarks of the various Trek properties have been divvied up between the two. Yes, DISCOVERY is dark and kewl and yippie-with-the-lens-flares because modern creative types now think that's how the 23rd century should look. But it's also because it has to look that way. As I understand it — and I see no reason why the internet would lie to me about this — Paramount can't make a movie that looks like classic Trek, because that imagery is owned by CBS. So, making a movie that looks like TOS, or even TNG, will involve lawyers. Lots of lawyers. Expensive lawyers. I think it was William Shakespeare who said, "First thing we do, let's toss all the lawyers out the airlock."
Still, if it can be worked out, I see no reason why a Tarantino Trek should no look like a slightly updated TNG, instead of that goofy Cinderalla slipper we saw Pine and Quinto driving around. And why shouldn't it. Who's to say the 23rd (or by now, early 24th) century should look as we might imagine it in 2017. Why not retro-futuristic, as it was imagined in 1987, or 1966? Who's to say what the design ethic of 2417 might be? I mean, who in the Victorian Era could have had an earthly clue that post-modernism pop art would come along and people would think they looked just divine in polyester plaid pants? So, maybe the future looks the way it does in classic Trek because that's the way the people of the future want it to look? You don't know! And I'd suggest that a movie that looks more like a 1987-imagined future than a 2017-imagined future would actually look more like the probable, actual future, because it doesn't look just exactly like every sci-fi movie and tv show of the last 12 years. It'd be somehow familiar, yet weirdly incongruous to what we'd expect. Yessiree, all aboard the U.S.S. Uncanny Valley, and away we go, Wagon Training it to the stars!
So, anyway, with the look of the movie settled — in my mind at least, Tarantino will never read this and will do as he pleases, regardless — we still have to answer the original question: What should the damn story be about?!
I have the answer, and it's one that will knock you out of your chair. Tarantino's Trek should star Patrick Stewart, but should be about him in only the most nominal sense. The real point of the movie should be:
The redemption of Wesley Crusher, in the eyes of the fans.
Yes, pity poor Wil Wheaton — a fine actor and finer human being, saddled with playing a character nobody liked, one who even he came to loath, and yet powerless as a teen to do anything but what the writers and directors asked of him — to be a walking, talking dues ex machina, solving every problem with a glace at a computer screen and a roll of the eyes as he intoned, "Ah, silly adults."
Yeah, to paraphrase Wil Wheaton's very moving story of his first meeting with William Shatner — "Wesley FUCKING Crusher."
So, how do he fix that?
Here's my pitch:
We open with the Federation about to experience the greatest day of peace it has ever known, as the Klingons, the Romulans, and the Caradasians, are all about to formally join their little tea party. Yes, it's a big deal. Imagine if we were to sew three new stars onto Old Glory because China, Russia, and a unified Korea all up and decided to join the union. Far fetched? Maybe. But just as we might if faced with an extra-terrestrial threat, the Federation and all of its former adversaries, having joined together out of necessity to finally and forevermore defeat the Borg, have agreed that a continued partnership is to the mutual benefit — or, as the Ferengi might put it, mutual profit — of all.
Naturally, there would be a shit-ton of dignitaries on hand for such an auspicious occasion. Actually, this is the future, so, it'd be a metric shit-ton, but you get the idea. This allows us to start out with a bit of fan service before be get down to the main action, kind of applauding all that is Trek by giving cameos here to actors (and maybe as extras, to former behind-the-scenes folk) from TNG, DS9, and VOY. We could maybe even fit in a few from TOS, ENT, and DIS, playing descendants of their original characters, invited to be on hand as representatives of their celebrated fore-bearers. I imagine the opening address delivered by a Starfleet played by Laurel Goodwin, as the granddaughter of Yoeman J.M. Colt. And, you know what, let's just go ahead and make TAS canon, too, by including Mr. Three-Armed HorseHead in the crowd.
So, we have Picard and maybe a few others aboard a star ship being ferried from the big ceremony back to Earth — no longer referred to as Sector 001 as that honor now goes Bajor, being more centrally located in the newly expanded Federation. And, hey, let's throw the studio a bone for working out the legalities of the movie's look and call this ship the U.S.S. Paramount. Now, there may be a few other familiar faces aboard the Paramount with Picard, but there also are more folk we know on a trio of smaller ships saving time and fuel by drafting in the wake of the Paramount's warp signature. Not all are headed for Earth, of course, but they'll hitch a ride for as far as they can.
Anyway, as it turns out, not all of our old heroes are so lauded by the Federation that they scored an invite to the big shindig. No, down in the lower decks of the Paramount, we find Wesley Crusher, laboring away at some astro-physics station or other as just another non-nondescript non-comm Chief.
Poor Wesley, his life had not gone at all as he imagined it. Consider: Once upon a time as a boy trekker, he was on the fastest of fast tracks towards a captain's chair. Though wet as a whelp and barely into his teems, having yet to so much as set foot on the campus of Star Trek Academy, he was nonetheless navigating a star ship — and not just any star ship, mind, you, but the class of the fleet — as an actual acting ensign. But then things started to go south. Though he impressed silly adults, among his peers he was less revered, causing him to do stupid things like a attempt a dangerous Kolvoord Starburst maneuver in an attempt to fit in. And though he wandered space unlocking the secrets of the universe alongside The Traveler, he could never seem to advance in any subsequent career.
In some ways, that was his own fault. Wesley Crusher is a bit like like Albert Brooks' character in BROADCAST NEWS — on paper, the surest bet to rule the world, but in practice, a little too smug and self-satisfied, perhaps, to ever win the support of those around him. Kids got an I.Q. through the roof, but his Q-Factor is in the cellar. And as SURVIVOR has shown us all too well, Darwin was wrong. The strong do not always survive, because the game of life is not about being able to outplay, outwit, and outlast. Not on your own at least. And so it's not always the weak at the end of the fleeing herd who fall to the predator. Not in a any species with opposable thumbs and a sufficiently-sized cerebellum, anyway. Sometimes the weak survive by teaming up to sacrifice the strong. It does no good to have your tribe in the palm of your hand intellectually if your tribe is not also in your back pocket, socially. And so Wesley, poor Wesley, has found himself dismissed, passed over, and shunted aside time and time again.
And, so, at this point, he's like, "Fuck it. Fuck these fucking fuckers." He's gone John Galt. He has his own objectivist moral code learned from The Traveler, but he has essentially given up on trying to convince others to see the world as he does.
Now, it's important to realize that, despite perhaps a scruffy beard, Wesley has not let himself go. He still has his self-respect. He has not given up on himself. He's just given up on society. He'll do his menial job, and do it better than it could be done by anyone else, but otherwise, he's done playing the game. When it comes to employing his full talents, Wesley Crusher is on strike.
Well, Picard, being aboard the Paramount and knowing Crusher is serving there as a chief, goes below decks to pay his old pal a visit. And, this, as we might expect, causes Crusher's cohorts to like him less than ever before After all, to them, Picard is not the legendary captain whose exploits are such that he now has battle maneuvers, star ships, and even whole planets named after him. To them, Jean-Luc Picard he is the spectre of death, and the friend of their enemy, Master-Chief Wesley "Creephole" Crusher, is even more their enemy than ever before.
After all, keep in mind, these enlisted crewmen and fresh-faced ensigns are, for the most part, too young to have been impressed with Picard's many accomplishments as anything other than a few lines in a classroom text. And yet, he has touched all of their lives. But not as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, hero of the Federation. No, to them he is one thing and one thing alone — he is Locutus of Borg.
Imagine if you will if Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway, D-Day, and the Battle of the Bulge all happened on the same day, and that the U.S. got its ass handed to it in all four conflicts. THAT is the Battle of Wolf 359. And as a consequence, every sentient being in the Federation — or every one serving aboard a star ship, at least — is likely to have been scarred by its aftermath. If they did not personally lose a parent, favorite aunt or uncle, or older sibling in the battle, then most likely their best friend, lover, or spouse did. And to them, Picard is the one person solely responsible for all that pain and suffering.
So, they start to needle Wesley about his visitor, and Wesley, partly stung by once again being made the social pariah, and partly in defense of Picard, relates how they should respect the famous captain, as he came to do, even though Picard had once ordered Wesley's very own father, Jack Crusher, to his death.
At this the others are, like, "Whoa! th-FUCK?!?"
And at this point they start picking at that scab, wearing Wesley down, cajoling him and, by turns, slowly convincing him, that together, they can undo all the bad done by Picard as Locutus. With Wesley's help, they can slingshot around the nearest star and travel back in time to join the battle of Wolf 359. There, armed with knowledge of the recent victory over the Borg and the resulting advances in technology, the U.S.S. Paramount can turn the tide of the historic battle and save all, or at least most, of the Federation personnel who died during that epic first confrontation. Sure, that will mean wiping themselves from existence, but, in theory at least, it will then result in better lives for all, lived in a new timeline alongside loved ones previously lost.
Of course, Wesley doesn't fully buy in to the idea that he should make Picard suffer for having killed Jack Crusher, at least that's what he tells himself. Still he's always wondered how his life might have turned out differently if he'd had a father, one who was by all accounts a charismatic man's man, to help shepherd him through an awkward adolescence. Presumably, he would've been that much better equipped to lead, motivate, and, to a certain degree — because, pejorative definitions aside, that's what true leadership entails — manipulate the lesser intellects who've forever beat him down. Yes, he can finally be the hero of his own story. Or, at the very least, live in a world where he has friends and common cadets are less mean to him. So, Wesley thinks, if that one change would make his own life that much happier, can he really deny a presumably better life to his peers? And maybe, just maybe, they will, in the resulting new universe, retain some quantum-level memory or what happened, and so harbor a subconscious predisposition to like and admire Wesley when they meet again for the first time. But at the very least, Wesley is certain he can rig up some way of taking evidence of the current timeline with him into the new one, such that when he starts over as an acting ensign late to the party at Wolf 359, he can go on from there to avoid all of the subsequent mistakes and pratfalls he made, assuring himself of a better life, lived to its full potential.
Sure he's contemplating the creation of a Kolvoord Starburst on a cosmic scale, but, it can't be denied, had that maneuver worked, it would have been truly spectacular.
But there is this, also: Because of his time with The Traveler, Wesley Crusher has a pretty good feel for the ley lines of the universe. The timeline can and has been changed many times. It is, in truth, the nature of time to be malleable. Moreover, while he does not know the exact details, he has a sense that something changed when the U.S.S. Kelvin was destroyed, back before he, or even his father, was born. The universe as it is, is not as it was. And because changes to the timeline ripple out in all directions from a big event, like ripples in a pond after a stone is plopped into it, it could well be that by changing the outcome of Wolf 359, Wesley and his new compatriots might actually in some way fix that anomaly too, bringing about a lasting peace with the Federation adversaries earlier than it came along otherwise. It this way, in a physical way for himself — and in a meta-textual way for many fans — Wesley could, he decides, actually fix everything wrong with the Star Trek universe.
But maybe Geordi is also aboard the Paramount, and as the crew begins to implement engine modifications ordered by Wesley, the former chief engineer senses something. Somehow, the ship just doesn't feel right. So, he goes down to engineering and discovers what's going on. Tere is a confrontation, and Gordi is killed. Wesley didn't mean for it to happen, of course, but there it is. And when Wesley intones a frustrated, "Fuck!" under his breath, you know he's crossed over to the dark side. That's it. He's committed himself. From here on in, he can stop at nothing to see this thing through to whatever end it takes. Rebooting the timeline is now not just about pleasing his peers, or redeeming himself, it's the only way to bring his former friend and mentor back to life.
And it gets worse. As the Paramount drops out of warp to begin its slingshot maneuver, the smaller ships trailing it also drop into normal space-time. The Paramount has not answered hails. Perhaps it has experienced a mechanical problem of some sort? But the crew on the other vessels quickly suss out what is going down aboard the Paramount and move to end the mutiny. A space battle ensues. Faces new and familiar engage the Paramount, beam over as boarding parties, and, when all else fails, even go at the big ship with shuttlecraft trying to ram its nacelles. And, for a moment, as we draw near intermission of what is likely going to be at least a 3.5-hour movie, we begin to think the title of this flick ought to be STAR TREK: EVERYBODY DIES.
And in the middle, as Picard and Crusher pursue their mutually-exclusive objectives with an increasingly Kahn-like level of determination, we have Benjamin Sisko. What is he to do? He gets what Picard is trying to accomplish, and yet, he can also see Wesley Crusher's point of view, and he does so desperately long to live in a world where his wife was never taken from him.
And there is this as well: Naturally, the mutineers, and by degrees Crusher himself, see Picard and Locutus as one and the same. Picard only teams with the Borg to fight the Federation, they believe, because a part of this famous fleet officer is still Borg. The bio-engineering that turned Picard into Locutus could be buried, but never really completely excised. And here's the thing — Picard himself cannot be entirely sure they are wrong. Even Deanna Troi admits that Picard was never really the same after he was briefly made a Borg, that a part of the evil that is Locutus was and will always be a part of him, if not as a genuine subroutine running at the base of his brain, then at least as the unspeakable physical and emotional trauma from which he can never fully escape.
Thus, as the Battle of Wolf 359 unfolds, we have Picard on the one side, committing unspeakable acts for the greater good, all while fending off extreme PTSD and self-doubt, while on the other we have Wesley Crusher, equally committed to his own course of action, but nonetheless a conflicted bundle of motivations and desires, who keeps seeing images of the Traveler coming to him like Hamlet's father in the night, pointing and giving ominous looks, but never really saying what it wants Wesley to do, leaving him to fumble along, never really certain himself that what he is doing is right. And, in the end, we also have a generational conflict, one analogous of the passive-aggressive circling of Gen Xers around their Baby Boomer parents, as we pit Picard and Wesley against the closest hing either has ever known, to a father, or a son.
This, I think, can make for the foundation for a pretty phenomenal Star Trek movie — one which pits Patrick Stewart in a role not unlike the one he played in LOGAN, as an old-man trying to do one last thing right in order to preserve and protect all the good he did in life, against Wil Wheaton as a character not unlike Django or Lt. Aldo Raine, a deeply-scarred person willing to do whatever it takes to correct a grave injustice, thereby atoning for everything he did wrong in this world in hopes of assuring himself a better existance in the next.
And the reason I think Tarantino can pull this off with Oscar-worthy panache is because, despite a sheen of intense violence and salty language, his movies almost always have an underlying theme, one that delves into the deeper mysteries of the human condition. In this case WOLF 359 would ask the eternal questions: Who are we, really — the person we believe ourselves to be, or the impression others have of us? And, in the real world where time is unforgivably linear, how do we forge for ourselves a life worth living once we've done a thing, or things, that close off forever all avenues toward an earlier ambition?
Anyway, that's the Star Trek movie I'm hoping Tarantino will make.
And, as a postscript, here are a few other key deliverables for me:
1. Show us that Data is still alive, somehow. Like, maybe, just before going off to die in STAR TREK: NEMESIS, having calculated the odds of that result, he downloaded his memories into a duplicate body he'd previously created. Or, something. Anyway, if Patrick Stewart is to be seen anywhere in this movie, please undead Data.
2. Give us some damn Andorians and Tellarites. These two races are half of the Federation-founding species. One should hardly be able to pitch a brick onto any bridge without beaming one or the other upside the head. And yet, we've hardly ever seen either. That's probably because they tend to hold the grunt-jobs aboard a star ship, while humans and Vulcans do all the fun science-y stuff. Of course, that probably leaves them predisposed to hating on Picard, making for all the more reason to include them among the focus crew for this movie.
3. Don't let Picard swear. Or any Star Fleet officers, really. The reaction to Tilly dropping an F-bomb on DISCOVERY was almost universally negative. Such a thing seems just so out of place in Star Trek. And yet, graphic language is a hallmark of the Tarantino oeuvre. How to reconcile that? Allow the enlisted crew and non-comms to swear, but take pains to show that Federation officers, having been trained to be more gentile and polite, rarely do so, and will tend to chastise one of their own who resorts to low gutter language. So, let's have that filthy language, but use it where and when appropriate, confined to the characters who would be most likely to talk that way.
4. Don't just make it a psychological thriller. Go ahead and give us some real carnage. I mean, don't just have characters hacking and slashing on each other for that reason alone, but do give us a fight that feels real, and of real consequence. And, please, give Star Trek fans a full-on graphic experience that allows them to see, feel, and just about nearly taste what may be the single-most important space battle of the entire Trek canon, yet one which until now they've only glimpsed in the barest bits and pieces, and make that fight truly worthy of the big screen, in both the human drama, and the grander scale.
5. Try and end with something that changes the dynamic of where we are now, with the Kelvin timeline having erased and replaced what we knew before. That said, it's important, I think, that we don't just end with the timeline rebooted and everybody back from the dead. That would be cheap, and lessen the impact of those deaths to near meaninglessness. Instead, make those deaths permanent, even as a new timeline is created. This is Ragnorak. Or to put it another way, if you are familiar with Alan Moore's "Whatever Happened to the Man of Steel?" this is, "Whatever happened to the Boy Genius, Wesley Crusher?" This movie has to be a real end for the Star Trek franchise, or at least the one we've always known. The movie should end with everything we've seen previously somehow shunted off into its own recursive loop, one that begins with Zefram Cochrane's successful test of the first warp drive, continues through all we know, deviates with the Kelvan Curiosity, and ends with the death of Wesley Crusher, before rebooting back to Cochrane again, over and over for all eternity. But Wesley and his like will boldly go to chart a new undiscovered country, the Traveler (or, perhaps better, Guinan) comes to assure him in the end, as he lies broken, beaten, and about to press the trigger that ends it all. The new universe resulting from Wesley's time-bomb will be one that is fresh, exciting, and utterly unfettered by any snag of previous continuity. It will be a place where our heroes may act different — depending on how the genetic mating markers realign, will likely even look different — but it will be a universe that owes no allegiance to any past decision, or prior mistake. It will be a world in which literally anything is possible, because none of it has ever happened before, even as everything that has come before also goes on, circling in on itself forever and ever in one small eddy of the time stream.
Yup that's the Star Trek movie I want, Quentin. You have your orders.
Now . . . engage.