May 27, 2009

Star Trek

Renewing an old series is one of the most difficult challenges for a screenwriter. The audience is familiar with all of the previous stories and the series’ complete iconography. So the bar is very high. Plus, the reason you are renewing series is because the mythology has been told to death. So coming up with a new story that both pleases and surprises the die-hards is extremely difficult.

Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman chose to go with an origin story, which seems so obvious I wondered why the Star Trek powers hadn’t done this a long time ago. Oftentimes the origin of a superhero or superhero team is the most fun part, not only because we get to see how this special magic first came into being but also because the story is, literally, original. Every other story after the origin is essentially the same tale but with a different opponent.

But origin stories are also a lot more difficult than they appear, as the writers of Watchmen discovered. Audiences love seeing the formation of the original team, but if you take too long doing it you kill narrative drive. And once you kill it it’s real hard to get it back.

Star Trek’s writers solved the problem of renewing this ancient (by Hollywood’s standards) series, and executing a good origin story, by grabbing some of the best techniques of science fiction, myth and drama. Science fiction often piggy-backs on the myth form. That’s why so many science fiction stories use Greek and Roman names, stories and history. Myth is the best genre for telling a story that covers a great deal of space and time, and science fiction is the futuristic form that typically covers huge amounts of space and time.

Like all genres, myth has certain unique story beats that must be present if you want to execute the genre properly. For example, many myth stories begin with the birth of the hero, followed immediately by the death of the father. Sure enough that beat happens in the opening scene of Star Trek. And its followed by every other major beat in the myth form.

The writers keep the story from being a predictable myth-repeat by adding some of the key beats of the science fiction form, especially the elements of time travel. Due to Gene Roddenberry’s original premise of “Wagon Train in space,” Star Trek has always emphasized the spatial aspects of science fiction, as the Enterprise visits one new world after another. As the show’s tag line states, “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

But this Star Trek is directed by J. J. Abrams, co-creator of Lost, whose brilliant fifth season has used the element of time travel better than it’s ever been done before. In many ways, time travel is the key to rejuvenating the Star Trek franchise and making the origin story work. Time travel allows the writers to emphasize character change in a very plot-heavy genre – of many of the major characters – by jamming the characters’ beginning and ending selves close together in time. It also lets the writers keep the narrative drive going fast and furious from the very opening on. Instead of spending the abnormally long time collecting allies that origin stories usually require, the Star Trek writers can sprinkle the introduction of the various team members throughout the story.

The final genre the authors of Star Trek used was drama. Mixing in drama elements is the main way you transcend any genre, because you are essentially taking a mythic hero and adding psychological depth and individuality. This is the main technique writer Tony Gilroy used in writing the Bourne films, and what Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and
Paul Haggis did when called on to rejuvenate and rewrite the origin story for James Bond in Casino Royale. In Star Trek the writers not only highlighted the moral and psychological needs of main characters Kirk and Spock, they also made the brilliant dramatic move of turning Kirk and Spock into lead opponents for a good part of the story.

Most of us writers never get the opportunity to rejuvenate a classic like Star Trek. But we can take on the challenge of telling a science fiction story so it has tremendous emotional impact on the audience. The choices the writers made in the new and improved Star Trek can teach us a lot about why science fiction has become one of the most popular genres in mainstream Hollywood film.