Star Trek: Raiders of the Lost Arcs

I’m a Star Trek fan from way back.  I enjoyed “Star Trek:  Beyond.”  Why am I not more enthusiastic?

Star Trek Beyond posterStar Trek:  The Original Series (“TOS”) was almost purely episodic.  Each week, another new world or new civilization, a unique problem, a nonrepeating set of guest stars.  Each episode stood pretty much alone.  You could miss one and not be at a loss when you saw the next one, because nothing had changed.  The original “setup” was restored at the end of every show.

This wasn’t unique to Trek; it was the norm on television back in the 1960s.  “Situation comedies” were defined by a permanent “situation” that formed the basis of each week’s program.  Dramatic shows like “Bonanza” or “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” used the same method.  No matter what happened in the course of one episode, things were back to normal by the opening of the next.  The reductio ad absurdum is “Gilligan’s Island.”  There was a melancholy certainty that no matter how hopeful things seemed, they were never getting off that island.

Of course this was never entirely true.  One of the Cartwright sons on “Bonanza” was Cartwritten out of the script and disappeared.  Chekhov joined the Enterprise crew in the second season of Star Trek and stayed on thereafter.  But mostly, the “initial conditions” for each episode remained the same.

What we did not see was long-running plot arcs or character development.  Each plot had to wrap up neatly in a single episode.  Characters and relationships were static.

It’s instructive to look back and realize how much this has changed.  TV series these days are expected to have long-term plot arcs, often spanning a season or more.  A series like “Chuck” might change the plot premise significantly from one season to the next.  And viewers today are addicted to mini-series (maxi-series?) with extremely long and complex plots, as in “Game of Thrones.”

 

As the Star Trek movies came out, it presently began to seem that we were essentially seeing series episodes, but stretched out to two hours rather than one.  It left a vague feeling of being cheated.

In a typical two-hour movie, there’s time for more leisurely plot development, and one expects things to happen.  Sure, there are long-running series like the James Bond movies that cycle back to the same scenario just as the old TV series did.  But that isn’t true of most movies.  Even sequels frequently find themselves starting at a new point in narrative or character development—which was a challenge for moviemakers who merely wanted to reprise the success of the original film.

If we pass in merciful silence over Star Trek I (“The Motion Picture”), the striking thing is that the next three movies did have a continuing plot arc.  I’ve heard that they were plotted as a coherent trilogy by Harve Bennett, and that does seem to be borne out by the movies themselves.

While Star Trek II, III, and IV represented remarkably different types of films, there was a continuous thread of action.  The Enterprise crew created the Genesis planet in II, returned to that planet and saw its collapse in III, and made their own return to Earth in IV.  With side trips, of course.

And there were character changes.  One of the things that makes Star Trek II the best of the Trek films is the impact of Spock’s death, around which the entire story is carefully constructed.  Of course fans were pretty sure even then that his death wouldn’t be permanent.  But the characters didn’t know that, and we got to see how this loss affected them.  And Kirk’s son David Marcus did die for good in III—though this new character’s death didn’t have the impact of Spock’s.

Star Trek V and VI, however, were unconnected stories riffing on the same traditional characters, and momentous as the writers tried to make them, there was a distinct sense of “back to the old grind.”  VII was somewhat unique, as the intersection of the TOS crowd with “The Next Generation” (TNG) characters.  But the following movies, VIII through X, were very like individual episodes of the TNG series.

The three films beginning with the 2009 reboot also strike me as standalone episodes.  The occasional attempt to tie them back to other storylines, as with the appearance of Khan and Carol Marcus in “Into Darkness,” is offset by the disconnection from all earlier stories stemming from the timeline change in the 2009 movie.

So this year’s Star Trek entry strikes me as okay, but it lacks the cumulative force of a long-term plotline—unless perhaps you take a strong interest in the desultory Spock-Uhura romance, which so far hasn’t gripped me.

By contrast, series that do have long-term plotlines and character developments, as in Star Wars and Harry Potter, can build up quite a head of steam—and corresponding viewer loyalty—through the accumulating drama of an extended story.

 

The fact that we now expect long-form plot arcs makes for an interesting countercurrent to some of the standard assumptions about today’s audience.

It sometimes seems that we have all been seized by a collective attention deficit disorder.  Writers are warned to “hook” their readers, not in the first page or even paragraph, but in the first sentence.  Communication packets have been reduced to 140 characters.  It’s easy to bemoan how rushed we all are, and how short our attention spans.

But at the same time, modern viewers take in stride a series of six or seven movies.  Harry Potter brought a generation of viewers through eight lengthy parts without blunting their appetite for more Potteriana.  TV series routinely carry on long-drawn-out developments.  Novel readers happily consume endless serials like the Honor Harrington tales, or the fourteen massive volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.  By today’s standards, the 1800-page Lord of the Rings, touted as a huge work in the 1960s, seems positively concise.

To my mind, this says something favorable about today’s readers and viewers.  We’re fond of the sound bite and tweet, yes—but we also seem willing to tackle much longer stories than in the olden days.  There may be hope for coherence and continuity yet.

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9 thoughts on “Star Trek: Raiders of the Lost Arcs

  1. I’ve also noticed a lot of writers developing their first book in such a way to leave an opening for a sequel and even prequels. Personally I love ‘series’ books. I buy everyone of Eric Flint’s 1632 series, especially the Grantville Gazettes which give insight to development of science and technology and its adaptation to 17th century life.

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  2. Interesting thoughts… Though I’m not sure I’d call LOTRs “concise” at 1800 pages ( 😉 ), My own WIP is a 5-novel Sci Fi story. I’m an amateur, so trying to construct one novel at a time — let alone, how it is the lead in to the series — is a massive challenge. I look at LOTRs, Atlas Shrugged, Moby Dick, etc., and I have to conclude their authors were truly geniuses to keep all the characters and plot lines straight as they wrote…and before the aid of PCs no less. So, yes, I think you are spot on that the Star Trek has (almost) always had an episodic feel to it (for better and worse).

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  3. I just saw Star Trek Beyond this weekend finally. While it was fun, it wasn’t nearly as good as the first two. It was no X-men: Apocalypse, for instance. I thought it was overly simplistic. The bad guy was bland, the plot was straightforward. Other than eye-candy, it didn’t have a lot of appeal for me. Jayla was a big disappointment, too. She was generic and flat. After seeing Ghostbusters the same week, I was hoping for another strong female lead, which she wasn’t.

    When everyone got stranded on the planet, I thought it was going to be an homage to those character episodes where people get separated into small groups (eg TNG’s Disaster, SGA’s Quarantine), and there’s a lot of characterization and interpersonal drama. Nope. Missed opportunities abound.

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  4. Ironically, I believe Captain Kirk himself says something like “things are starting to feel a bit…episodic” at the beginning of the film. Personally, while I enjoy the long arcs, I also don’t mind movies being more standalone. There is an additional appeal for the episodic movie format in the form of box office risk.

    It’s all well and good to demand a long-running story arc from films, but the issue with such a series is that a grandiose story arc can easily be shut down right away if the first film doesn’t earn suitable money. That may yet happen with Star Trek Beyond, as the film currently appears to be headed for box office bomb territory ($211,372,742 – only $116,255,008 of which the studio will actually see – worldwide gross vs. a $185 million budget means the film has yet to so much as break even), but strong critical praise may counteract that. We also saw this effect with the Amazing Spider-Man films. While both of them were financial successes, the second one wasn’t successful ENOUGH, crushing Sony’s plans for a Sinister Six movie and a third ASM film. The same thing happened with the disastrous Fant4stic.

    While a one-shot that bombs is no different financially from the first in a planned series that bombs, it hurts a lot more for the fans who actually ENJOYED said bomb (my own position on John Carter of Mars, though at least Andrew Stanton was wise enough not to go for a cliffhanger ending) and for the studio (in terms of PR), since they will have announced these plans in advance, and will now become the object of mockery.

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    • lol . . . I’d forgotten Kirk said that at the beginning. Hung a lampshade on it!

      Yes — it’s one thing to leave an opening for a sequel (which can then develop further), and another to depend wholly on the possibility of a sequel. It’s a risk. “John Carter” (which, personally, I liked) is an interesting example: as you say, it isn’t a cliffhanger, but there are some pretty major threads left hanging, such as the real background of the Therns’ still-unfoiled schemes.

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      • While we’re at it, I should probably add that I really liked Star Trek Beyond. While it didn’t form part of a larger arc, I thought it was a nice 50th anniversary celebration of Trek itself, full of nods to pretty much all the series.

        The Franklin has an NX number as well as an NCC number and Edison served in MACO and mentions having fought the Xindi at one point (Enterprise), the Commodore Kirk talks to about a possible promotion is named Paris (and could well be the grandmother of Voyager’s Tom Paris, who is supposed to be the son of an admiral); Kirk’s shirt gets ripped yet again, and Chekov claims “X was really invented in Russia” (TOS, two of about a million references); the Yorktown as a space station is ring-based, and is near a treacherous nebule similar to the Badlands (DS9), and finally, defeating the technologically advanced alien ship(s) requires hacking into their hive mind (TNG, The Best of Both Worlds) and the Enterprise has a detachable saucer section (again, TNG)

        Overall, while it’s not the best of the Star Trek films, I’d still say Beyond is FAR from the worst. I’ll take it over Star Trek V or Star trek Insurrection any day of the week.

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