Now that Disney is in charge of the franchise, it’s unlikely to have escaped your notice that Star Wars is suddenly very much in the news. Whether it’s the nerdiest White House statement in history or now-debunked rumors of Zack Snyder making an additional movie outside of the already-announced new Star Wars trilogy, it seems that everyone is thinking about lightsabers, Jedi Knights and how fast they could make the Kessel Run these days. ABC entertainment president Paul Lee even managed to drop a geek bomb during last week’s Television Critics Association press tour — the possibility that his network was considering bringing the much-mooted, much-delayed Star Wars live-action television series to the screen. “We’re going to look at [the live-action series],” he told Entertainment Weekly, “We’re going to look at all of them, and see what’s right. We weren’t able to discuss this with them until [the acquisition] closed and it just closed. It’s definitely going to be part of the conversation.”
As soon as the news made it online, it spread far and wide, bringing excitement to the Star Wars faithful who have been teased with the possibility of the show for years. First mentioned as far back as 2005, involved parties have been slowly dropping hints about it ever since, whether it’s George Lucas casually mentioning that it has “nothing to do” with the movies or his likening it to a 1940s film noir instead of the 1930s pulp inspiration behind the original movies. For years, news has ver-r-r-y slowly leaked out about the subject matter (“Think about bounty hunter, that’s all I can tell you,” producer Rick McCallum teased in 2006) and potential title (Star Wars: Underworld), with each drip adding to the fervor that this show would magically remove the bad taste that the Prequel Trilogy had left in hardcore fans’ mouths by being the “dark” and “adult” Star Wars that they’d hoped for since The Empire Strikes Back.
Meanwhile, in a different part of the galaxy, another well-established science fiction fandom is finding itself in a similar frenzy by the measured release of new images, interviews and miscellaneous facts from this summer’s much anticiapted Star Trek Into Darkness. The second installment of J.J. Abrams’ reboot to the Trek franchise and do-over of the original series’ history has been four years in the making, and fans are being promised a “dark” second chapter that will deliver a spectacle that is worth the wait. “It’s certainly a bigger movie [than the first] because the first one was kind of the origin story which is great because it’s so easy,” Abrams has said about the sequel, “You just introduce people and yet now they know each other so it has to go deeper.” Executive Producer Bryan Burk agrees: “It’s not a sequel just for the sake of doing a sequel,” he told IGN last week. “We really decided that if we are going to do it, how do we make it different and really step up our game. It’s part of the evolution of the title. The film is not a dark film per se. It’s not post-apocalyptic dark — it’s still within the realm of what Roddenberry had wanted, which is this positive view of the future. However the stakes are significantly greater, and personal. The characters — particularly Kirk — are going to a much darker place emotionally. I feel like the experience the audience has going through it will be a much deeper emotional experience. And on top of that the spectacle will be significantly bigger than the last film.”
So Star Trek is getting bigger and deeper and more spectacular, and Star Wars is getting smaller and delving into stories that have nothing to do with the movies. Exciting, right? Everything old is new again! But doesn’t that mean that we’ve got the two franchises mixed up?
I don’t mean the two franchises have literally switched media. While most people still consider it a first and foremost a TV show, Star Trek has been a movie franchise since the 1979 snoozefest Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the movie series Star Wars debuted a television incarnation a year before that. For younger audiences, it’s possible that they’ve only known Trek as a movie franchise and Wars as a TV show (Enterprise, the most recent TV Trek, went off the air in 2005, after all, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars has been running continuously on Cartoon Network since 2008), so complaining about the particular platform for these stories feels somewhat outdated. Instead, what feels odd about the current directions of Star Wars and Star Trek is that both seem to be ignoring their traditional narrative strengths in favor of the shock of the new.
Take Star Trek Into Darkness, for example: in the original series, Kirk, Spock and the others rarely if ever went to “a much darker place emotionally” or any place, emotionally, really (unless, of course, some outside influence that modified their behavior was involved). Trek was a series in which the crew of the Starship Enterprise acted as the steady voice of authority that ventured into volatile situations and saved the day on a regular basis. The original Star Trek was, essentially, the science-fiction version of Law & Order — stories happened for the most part around the central characters but not to the characters; they had quirks and catchphrases, but they didn’t have their own story arcs or even backstories beyond unclear references and barely explained names tossed into dialogue. While the original Trek would happily offer great stakes, it almost always stayed away from truly personal stakes, in order to leave its characters in the same shape as they were for next week’s episode.
The idea of movies that don’t put their leads through some kind of emotional reckoning seems unthinkable these days, of course. Whereas the original Trek could happily have the crew of the Starship Enterprise saving an alien world because it was their jobs, audiences these days demand a personal stake from their epic adventures, something that will “matter” to the hero beyond everyday failure if things don’t quite work out as planned. Therefore, we get Abrams’ first Trek, which saw the destruction of Spock’s homeworld (Now he’s out for revenge!) which happened at the hands of the man who killed Kirk’s father (Now he’s out for revenge, too!). If the stakes are somehow going to be raised in Into Darkness as claimed, it’s hard to imagine how. Is Benedict Cumberbatch going to be revealed to be the man who killed everyone else in Kirk’s family while gleefully telling Spock that he was the bully that pantsed him in Vulcan high school? With each successive adventure being this emotionally draining, perhaps it’s a good thing that we have to wait four years between Treks these days; otherwise, it might be too overwhelming for the viewer to go on.
If Trek is a workplace drama that has been transformed into an epic emotional journey, a weekly television series of Star Wars could be just the opposite. After all, the six movies that comprise the heart of Star Wars — the only “official” canon for both creator George Lucas and Lucasfilm, despite the amazing amount of books, comics and other material that has been spun off from the movies — make up a single character arc for Anakin Skywalker, from child to hero to monster before ultimately finding redemption. While it’s true that the focus shifts somewhat within those six movies (The Phantom Menace “feels” more like a story about Ewan McGregor’s Obi Wan Kenobi, for example, and the original trilogy could be argued to be about Luke Skywalker as much as his father), there is a clear arc to the six movies as a whole, which demonstrates that, despite the special effects, alien costumes and occasionally laughable dialogue, Star Wars is a character piece about the rise, fall and redemption of one particular character.
For the proposed new series to move away from that character and that (massive, Joseph Campbell-level epic, mythical) character arc, then, and offer up an entirely different story with entirely different characters set in the same fictional universe seems a risky proposition at best. It makes an assumption that Star Wars is as much about the accoutrement as the characters or concept — that making mention of lightsabers, Jawas or Coruscant will be enough to replace what fans really responded to about the series in the first place. Consider, after all, that a series about the “scum and villainy” of the Star Wars worlds doesn’t just excise the familiar characters from the show, but also the central conflict of Star Wars. Is the name-dropping of Tatooine or IG-88 enough to connect a show about amoral bounty hunters in space with a series of movies about heroes fighting against galactic fascists? By setting the series outside of not only the Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader arc but also further from the moral simplicity of the Rebellion versus the Empire, aren’t the creators removing the main conceit from the series at the same time that they’re also replacing movie-scale story with episodic television-size micro-plotting and the faces that the audience know so well? At that point, what is really going to be left, outside of lightsabers and other Easter Eggs, to make this “Star Wars” at all other than its creators telling us it is?
I suspect that Star Trek and Star Wars have fallen victim to the tension between a need for reinvention and a desire to please their hardcore audiences. Both seem to be attempting makeovers to their basic DNA to draw in new viewers, remaking the scale and scope of their stories for today’s audiences and hoping that that novelty can be balanced by enough familiarity to the originals to keep the long-term fans happy. But the results threaten to be neither fish nor fowl: a Star Trek that sounds too emotional and too personal for the once-professional Starfleet and a Star Wars that abandons its generational and moral focus for a series of stories about some guys just trying to make a living. The makeovers appear to take what was unique and interesting about the originals and dial that down in the hope of broadening their appeal, drawing from each other for inspiration and creating something that feels as if it’s the wrong direction for both.
Instead of genericizing Star Trek and Star Wars in this way, why can’t creators take both even further in their original directions? Explore the idea of the outrageous situations in Star Trek literally being “all in a day’s work” on the crews of the various Starships, and what that means for the people who work on there. Take the generational epic of Star Wars another stage further and explore whether Luke Skywalker, having risen to the hero role that his father did, then undergoes the same kind of fall, and whether all Skywalkers have to endure the same challenge. Or, to draw distinctions between the two franchises, underscore the self-made/science aspect of Trek and the magical aspect of Star Wars‘ Jedi Knights.
Rather than pushing the two franchises towards a homogeneous sci-fi picture show, those responsible for both Trek and Star Wars could choose to push at the edges of their genre. After all, science fiction, and specifically at least one of these two franchises, was always supposed to be about seeking out new frontiers, and going where no-one has gone before.