Star Trek into (Fandom’s) Darkness
If Trek was once a foundation for the idea of taking fans seriously, then today it might simply be a sad commentary on fandom’s token function within the industry, another form of “crowdsourcing,” a destructive marriage based on the contradictory feelings of mutual dependence and contempt. Last week, a photo was released to promote Star Trek into Darkness (2013). The image was less notable than its caption, revealing the villain’s name (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) as “John Harrison.” After years of speculation ranging from the relatively obscure Gary Mitchell to the iconic Khan, the news was pretty unremarkable—both the name and the rather anti-climatic way it was announced.
It was also clearly a ruse—maybe not inaccurate per se, but some kind of misdirection. “John Harrison” reminds me of something Roland Barthes once said: “Partially true . . . and therefore totally false.” The name was planted to generate more publicity (read: free fan labor)—another Lost-esque mystery for fans to dissect across the internet. Within minutes, the speculation began: maybe Cumberbatch’s character assumes multiple identities throughout the narrative, and something as mundane as “John Harrison” was surely not the name he really goes by. The most dedicated even speculated that it was a reference to “Harrison,” a character from the Trek episode (“Space Seed”) where Khan was first introduced.
The rather “unremarkable” caption thus served its purpose. Trek filmmakers are more interested in selling a mystery than in selling a film. In this regard, they’ve taken the old truism—that the movie’s never as good as the trailer—to a new level. By now, it’s a familiar pattern (Dark Knight Rises, Prometheus), a whole lot of smoke and mirrors designed to hide the fact that—at its core—Into Darkness will undoubtedly be a pretty straight-forward genre film. It’s not enough to craft an intelligent (to say nothing of original) story that goes beyond one-dimensional revenge narratives.
But then something else telling happened—in the caption’s wake, director JJ Abrams came out of his shell to throw Trek fandom under the bus (he can do better). JJ responded to a reasonable question from an Ain’t It Cool reporter about the Enterprise’s newfound ability to be submerged under water with a derisive, “enjoy your reruns!” Earlier, in an MTV News interview, JJ was asked about the speculation around Harrison from “Space Seed,” prompting Abrams to giggle awkwardly and derisively call the journalist a “geek.” The comeback was not only condescending, but also disingenuous. Having spent so much time crafting the mystery, the director knew exactly what he was doing when the photo was released. JJ went further still, saying that he not only cared little about Star Trek fans, but that he didn’t particularly care about fans of his first Trek either. The interview ended with him rambling in generalities about how great Cumberbatch is. Somewhere in there, JJ lost track of what he wanted to say, and to whom.
If it wasn’t obvious by now, the new Trek filmmakers are interested in branding, not Trek, especially since remaking older properties seems to be a specialty. Not for nothing have they acquired the nickname, “The Hack Pack”: a generation obsessed being affiliated with high-profile blockbusters, but generally little interest in creating one of their own. Why try to create your own Star Wars when Star Trek (same thing) is just sitting there, collecting dust? What established properties with proven fanbases can be taken and remolded in another pre-packaged, pre-sold transmedia blockbuster? And, of course, the investment is in the latter, not the former, which is largely a means to an end. Thus, the investment in creating a generic sci-fi blockbuster for “everyone” risks forgetting the audience (or even good old fashioned product differentiation).
The narrative seems to be that Trek fans aren’t enough to sustain a Trek movie. A rather strange but persistent myth is that JJ and co. somehow made Star Trek more “fun,” or accessible, but there’s not a lot of evidence to support this. For one, the look and sensibility of most old properties are inaccessible to a modern audience, so the idea of “updating” a property such as Trek doesn’t require scraping and starting over. More quantifiably, with obscene IMAX prices and general ticket inflation, the 2009 version didn’t really make more money than the franchise was pulling in during the height of its theatrical popularity in the 1980s. And audiences were sustaining not only the features but several TV spin-offs, such as The Next Generation. But more important is that the open contempt for fans becomes counter-productive. Non-Trek fans might “like” the newest Trek if they take the time to see it, but these generic spectacles could just as quickly get lost in the crowded summer marketplace shuffle.