The last coupla days there's been people getting all excited about the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer. I have been reminding folks just how over the moon so many of us went in regards to the Phantom Menace trailer, and that so far I don't see any evidence that the new film won't just be another middle of the road, movie by committee Hollywood CGI action/adventure flick. Hearing the sounds of TIE fighters and the John Williams score might stir something in the core of me, but if I'm being honest when I look at the trailer I don't see any evidence that this film isn't simply another Hollywood cash-in using an old property to make easy money. But hey, I could be wrong, and I hope that I am.
I've been thinking a lot about what it would take to make a good sequel to such a beloved series, and my mind wandered over to Star Trek. Nicholas Meyer is not a household name, but when he took the reins of the Star Trek franchise after 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it was make or break time. Trek hit the big screen after a combination of fan effort and desire to cash in on Star Wars, but the first film in the series left a lot to be desired. It was like an extended episode of the original series, but superlong and paced slower than a three toed sloth.
The next film in the series, The Wrath of Khan, on the other hand, is often considered the best Trek ever. It was directed by Nicholas Meyer, who also went on to write the fourth Trek movie and and direct the sixth one, widely considered to be the other highlights in the series. There is no way that this is coincidental. The great film podcast The Projection Booth did an episode on Khan, where I discovered that Meyer and writer Harve Bennett were not all that familiar with Trek before taking on the project. That ended up being a benefit, since they brought fresh eyes to the material. The first film was much more the creation of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the original Trek series.
The parallels to Star Wars are pretty obvious here. The original films were beloved, but when original creator Lucas helmed the prequels later, the results were not good. JJ Abrams, like Meyer, is now tasked with taking things in another direction. In Khan Meyer shook up the staid, placid nature of Roddenberry's approach right from the get-go with the drama of the Kobayashi Maru simulation, which the viewer knows isn't real the first time they see it. Most of the film is a kind of battle of wills between Kirk and Khan, with older-style Trek plots centered around encountering new planets absent. It ends, of course, with the emotional punch of Spock dying in an act of supreme self sacrifice. I remember seeing it for the first time as a wee lad and being shocked and deeply affected by it, and those scenes still pack a punch for me. It is extremely gutsy to kill off one of your most beloved characters. The film also exposes Kirk's vulnerability, making him a much more human character. I doubt any of this would have happened had Meyer just tried to copy what worked best in the original series.
Star Trek IV and VI also benefit from daring choices that deviate from the original Trek template. Star Trek IV is a time travel movie that mostly takes place in contemporary San Francisco. VI is more a kind of murder mystery/political thriller taking place in the Trek universe. Hollywood these days is nothing if not risk averse, and Star Wars is a much bigger property than Trek ever was. I wonder how much freedom that JJ Abrams has had to send Star Wars on a different trajectory. Nicholas Meyer ought to be an inspiration in how to take a great cultural institution and improve upon it by not simply doing everything by the numbers or the way it's always been done.