"Same old shit, different DNA"
Thanks to GetKristiLove and her news on yet another Star Trek movie, as related during a radio interview with William Shatner. I've now achieved this soundbite to express my resistance to the craze for expanding universes and next generations that feed the cult demand for Star Wars, Star Trek and other entertainment phenomena.
This is an easier charge to level at Star Wars fans these days. Among the events my son Patrick and I attended at Star Wars Celebration IV was a panel discussion with various people from Dark Horse Comics. The questions came from several angles, yes, but most seemed focussed on learning how this expanded universe framework, which they simply call EU, was going to fill out. The audience seemed anxious to know that the integrity of the EU would be maintained, and how; what threats to that integrity might arise (in the form of a friendly competitor, Del Rey), and how any potential breaks were being avoided.
This, I thought, was both sad and fascinating. Sad, because some of these people were so invested in these storylines that they needed this information, badly it seemed. Fascinating, because what passed for common knowledge among them about this EU was hardly trivial. And who am I to judge this, anyway, at a convention of people who have traveled and plunked down real money to live this fantasy for a few days? I should shut up.
Then again, we also went to a trivia contest sponsored by the owners of Wookiepedia, a fan site Patrick helps moderate. At that event my skepticism seemed confirmed. The questions the panel assembled weren't just trivial in the sense of minute details most people probably miss. It seemed a meaningless exercise in knowing every little thing, whether the detail had some larger resonance or not. It's one thing to know that the identifier THX 1138, where it occurs in Star Wars, is actually a reference to another Lucas film. Easter eggs like that are fun. It's another to know, for example, how many races were known to coexist in star system U before the Battle of V, or which of four W-race generals fought in battle X, or was a member of guild Y, or had a third apostrophe in his name, the pronunciation of which would force a human tongue into an overhand knot.
The questions at hand all seemed to underscore the triviality of the stories themselves. Possibly because I didn't know the answer to a single one of them, but also because the questions didn't seem to be about anything other than how well one had committed all that content to memory. You might argue that knowing batting averages or starting lineups comes to the same thing; without expanding on that issue here, I'd disagree.
For the original Star Trek, the idea of a 'space opera' inspired episodes full of mythological reference, controversial historical events, the demise of great people, gods, and pretenders, even parables of otherwise hard-to-discuss current events. Star Wars also taps deeply into historical and mythological references, now documented in a History Channel special. But because Star Wars was epic in form where Star Trek was episodic, these representations mostly come in the form of visual cues and key points in the whole story. In Star Trek, the representations was the story. In Star Wars, the journey builds and establishes character; in Star Trek, the journey reveals and confirms it.
But at some point, the visionary energy in each has played out. The originators, Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas, have died or moved on in some other sense. What's left is the unrelenting demand fans often try to fill themselves, and the inertia of commercial success. And, it seems to me, those same people think the space opera/space epic themes have run out their course. Time to fill in all the details and prove the continuities of those universes. Ugh.
So, toward the end of Star Wars III, Revenge of the Sith, for example, there's a long stretch that depicts battle on several planets. Once the eyes adjust to the shock of color, texture and overly-rapid animation of these sequences, the pattern of a common rendering mill emerges. The simulated terrain maps, the computed textures used as skins, even the choice of camera perspective, art direction better suited for a video game than a wide-screen film, it all betrays aa sense of iterated data. The look is different, but the foundations...somehow they are all one thing. These guys have garden hoses coming out of their heads, those guys have party sparklers for chin hairs, and them guys are just seriously hairy. But in all cases, every clone gets Order 66, and every Jedi Knight get it in the shorts. Same old shit, different DNA, scene after scene. The epic's gravity is lost by iterating through an array of carefully designed data points, and letting the rendering software do its work.
The Star Trek movies, while not originally intended to build an epic, continuous universe, have nonetheless gotten away from the grand manners of the original to fill in various timelines and introduce new races to add variety. Every Federation meeting has some new critters planted in the galleys, every series brings in a new antagonizing species, and all that. That seems to be enough to keep fans busy trying to make back stories for each of them. Feh.
Shatner's take, in the interview linked to above, suits me well. When he says "it's been 40 years!" of Star Trek, he's not swelling with pride. And as essential as he is to that franchise's identity -- and wants to be part of it still -- he's an actor. He'd like people to know he's been doing other things -- books, albums, television -- and that maybe we should all like to try something different too.
So at the point where only the changes in these new stories seem to be the surface details themselves, I'm out. I'm hoping some other creative mind is ready to come in and wipe all this derivative nonsense up with something new and daring. I'm also hoping people leave likely successors to the cult phenomenon, such as Harry Potter, well enough alone after once it declares itself ended. Please, I'm beggin' ya. Enjoy it for what it is, treasure it, and move on.