JJ Abrams: The New Roddenberry or The New Meyer?

[Trek XI Report Editorial]

Variety first announced Star Trek XI with this sentence "J.J. Abrams is becoming the next Gene Roddenberry.", referring to the late creator of Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as producer and co-writer of the first Trek feature film Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the recently reported debate, Free Enterprise producers (and big time Trekkies) Rob Burnett and Mark Altman agreed on one thing: Paramount did the right thing by bringing in a new team headed by JJ Abrams. Burnett went on to say that Abrams and his team "bring Star Trek creative blood not seen since Nicholas Meyer". Meyer is the writer and/or director of the Trek classics Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

So which is he...the new Roddenberry or the new Meyer?

Lessons from the first two Trek films
The first two Trek films are a series of contrasts. The films look totally different and feel totally different. Probably the greatest difference is how 'Star Trek' they are. Even the characters themselves seem to be from two different universes. Gene Roddenberry's Kirk in the first film seems stiff and aloof, whereas Meyer's Kirk is an engaging warrior (see photo above). Josh Tyler from CinamaBlend has recently posted a Trek XI preview based on the the lessons he has learned from 'one of the men behind ST:II' (he wont say which one):
What I can say about our conversations is that I've learned something important about Star Trek from him. Here it is: Star Trek works brilliantly when it's not trying to be Star Trek, and fails miserably when focused on being whatever it is that makes it itself.
This notion of over-introspection is right on the money and it is pretty clear what film he is talking about. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was so lovingly adoring of the Enterprise and her crew that it forgot to make an interesting dramatic movie. Roddenberry's story aspired to many lofty ideals, but in the end failed to capture the 'fun factor' that made the Original Series such a classic. The sad fact of the matter was that Roddenberry just didnt have the right approach to make Star Trek a film franchise...and it cost Paramount quite a lot of money to find out. Many thought Trek might be dead or irrelevent, but Nick Meyer was coming to prove them wrong.

Which one seems more fun?

Bringing in some fresh blood
Following ST: TMP Paramount bought out the remaining rights to the Trek franchise still retained by Roddenberry. They then brought in a new team with director Nicholas Meyer and writer/producer Harve Bennet to make a lower budget sequel. These two changed everything from the look of the ship and the uniforms down to the tone of the narrative. CinemaBlend's Josh Tyler describes their approach thusly: "they just wanted to make a great movie and they had a ready made universe of characters and places to make it happen with". Meyer even opened the film with 'In the 23rd century' abandoning the Trek convention of 'stardate'. Something that many Trekkies struggle with is the notion that Trek movies are best when they appeal to a wider audience. A Trek film, especially today, cannot be an exercise in continuity-laden Trekie navel gazing. As Josh puts it, "The franchise needs to shake free all the baggage that comes with being a Star Trek movie, and simply focus on being a great science fiction movie".
Meyer went on to write the 4th film in the franchise (still the biggest earner) and was called on yet again for the successful Star Trek VI. It is noteworthy that Star Trek V, which seemingly killed the franchise again, was the first film Roddenberry was involved in since the first film.

Can Abrams save Trek like Meyer did?

Doing another ST:II isn't easy
The notion of bringing back the magic of Star Trek II is not a new concept, in fact the impact of that film hovers over the film franchise and all films since are compared to it. What would be a mistake is to attempt to 'copy' Star Trek II. This was most recently attempted by the 10th film in the franchise, Star Trek: Nemesis. That film shared many plot elements with ST: II from the obsessed villain to the sacrifice of a beloved cast member. There were even attempts at broadening the appeal with hackneyed 'action sequences' (like the much derided dune buggy chase scene). But in the end Nemesis still couldn't break its shackles of being a film that could only appeal to the loyal base. It never really tried to be just a great drama or even just great scifi and ended up just being too much of a 'Trek film'. Nemesis co-star (and well regarded TV director) LeVar Burton summed it up best when he said "it sucked". JJ Abrams has stated he didn't even see the film, but will now to see where they went wrong.

you sir, are no Khan Noonien Singh

So which is he? A bit of Gene...with a lot more Meyer
In a sense, Abrams is the new Roddenberry because he holds the keys to the entire franchise in his hands. That being said, the 'post-Nemesis era' is very much like the time after ST:TMP. Paramount has again brought Trek back, but with a new creative team. So in that sense he is very much the new Nick Meyer. Perhaps he is a bit of both, but I hope when it comes to his approach to filmmaking he takes a page out of the Meyer playbook. The good news is that JJ Abrams has stated that Star Trek II is his favorite Star Trek movie. He has also made the point that science fiction needs to be a good drama first, something I am sure Nick Meyer would agree with. So JJ, if you haven't done it already, why don't you give Nick a call and chat about Trek.

IMDB listings for:
Star Trek: The Original Series,Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Star Trek: Nemesis

Further reading:
Trek XI 'preview pulp' at Cinema Blend
Nicholas Meyer at IMDB
Papers of Nicholas Meyer at the University of Iowa.
Burnett and Altman's 'Pro and Khan' of Star Trek XI.

posted by Tony P @ 7:14 PM,


At 8:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It wasn't that Star Trek Nemesis actually sucked though certain elements in the film could have have better written but it was the fact that film centered around a war and ultimately a death of a loved character - that wasn't needed to sell it at all. If the audience and fans wanted a reminder of war - all they needed to do was turn on their computer or TV. True...characters and stories in a film are just that but they were a grim reminder of what was happening in the real world and who wanted or need that?
I hope the new film centers on both hope and exploration as the original concept was intended.

At 7:04 AM, Anonymous Keith (Brighton, UK) said...

I agree with this article wholeheartedly. The 'lousy' Trek films had enough budget, great actors and directors (even Shatner's direction wasn't that bad) but really bad stories. It's such a shame that the opportunities of Insurection and Nemesis were squandered by going with the bad stories they had. Let's hope they get it right this time or I'm sure it really will be curtains!

At 7:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It didn't help beeing released in february and just months after StarWars:AOTC.

At 3:35 PM, Blogger Trevok said...

I'm of the opinion JJ Abrams has the potential of becoming as even more of a revolution to trek than N. Meyer. It is what Trek truely needs is a new direction to head in.
I just hope he is given time to add new life to a franchise that has become tired.

At 9:38 PM, Blogger Captain Pike said...

Star Trek became something greater than GR's orginal idea during the run of TOS. Roddenberry's paradigm of Star Trek as seen in ST:TMP was not the Trek I or many fans wanted to see. That said Meyer's was quite a departure too. I'm looking forward to something closer to the spirit of the TOS.

At 5:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nemesis didn't suck because of the story, it kinda sucked because of the director (and I thought this before Sirtis and Burton said it in that video from a convention). The director cut critical character scenes, and just didn't have a lot of heart in it. I enjoyed Nemesis actually, because of the 'newness' of it, it had a different cinematic feel to it, and I agree that the Data storyline was a great idea. And Patrick Stewart is an awesome actor. But Berman/Paramount hired Stuart Baird because they wanted Nemesis to be an action movie. He was an action director. So they got what they wanted--cool action scenes. But you can tell from the special features on the DVD that he's not much for good storytelling. The elements to a good story are all there, if you look you can see that, and that's why I enjoy it (by reading between the lines). But the wrong director can seriously hurt a good story.

Doing Kirk/Spock with different actors is risky. But I've said it before, if JJ can reinvent trek successfully, more power to him. Meyer did it. DS9 did it. And minus the opinions of a few Roddenberry worshippers out there, those are some of the most popular Trek stories.

At 5:56 PM, Blogger Kyle said...

Oh yes, and also, remember that Nemesis was in the theatre at the same time as Lord of the Rings. (wasn't it a week later?) And Maid in Manhattan, which took the remaining demographics.

At 11:43 PM, Anonymous Morgankins said...

hey i liked the dune buggy scene!! i thought the wedding was the worst scene in the movie. the humor was forced, Guinan didn't get enough lines, Wesley was completely cut out, and Alaska looked fake!


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