Monday, November 23, 2009

Damn It J.J. Abrams!

So the wife and I watched the latest Start Trek movie (titled Start Trek) this Sunday and I have to say it was pretty darn good. Good enough that it put me in danger of becoming a “Trekkie.”

Goddamn it.

Both the wife and myself were impressed enough that we wanted to watch the original Star Trek series afterwards, starring Shatner, Nimoy, etc. And thanks to streaming Netflix we were able to do just that, changing a lazy afternoon into an eight hour “Star Trek Sunday.”

Now just for the record, I would like to point out that I have never been a fan of Trek. Oh, sure, if you asked me which was my favorite “edition” I would tell you the original series, hands down, but it’s not because Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner aren’t fine actors (they are, especially on-stage), or because that “Number One” guy with the beard was the cheesiest actor/character to hit television in the 90s, or even because Shatner was such a pimp. The simple fact of the matter is I grew out of Star Trek pretty early on…Star Trek IV (in 1986) being the last film I actually saw in the theater.

Fact of the matter is, I had stopped watching the re-runs of the classic series even before THAT, and as a kid given a choice between watching Shatner & Co. or watching an episode of The Cosby Show, I would have chosen the latter every single time.

Like Nascar, MTV’s The Real World, and E! Entertainment television, I simply never understood the appeal of Star Trek. I mean, I had a couple or three friends who were Trek-Heads in high school, but I shuddered every time they’d voice some “Live Long and Prosper” Spock-ism. Hell, even in college I knew a girl or two that absolutely adored the Trek and its Next Generation madness. It just wasn’t my preferred form of escapism.

And maybe THAT’s what I should say. I understand that people get their fantasy “rocks off” in many different flavors. I just don’t personally empathize with the love of Star Trek. And there is a GREAT love for that particular intellectual property…I ain’t blind to it.

It may be that I’m just not a humongous science fiction fan. This is one conclusion I’ve started coming to recently. Yes, I love watching a good lightsaber fight on the screen. Yes, I AM a huge (post-mortem) Firefly fan. Yes, I have read (and re-read) the science fiction works of John Steakly, J.M. Stirling, as well as Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat.

But with all of these works, it ain’t the “scifi” element that draws me to them. I am NOT a technology buff in any sense of the phrase. I don’t give a shit about space ships and the stars don’t “beckon to me.” I like the New Agey tale of redemption, the Western, the military fiction. The planetary romance is an ADVENTURE novel, and I like adventure…I don’t care about the neat doo-dads or the intricacies of plasma fusion reactors or faster-than-light theories.

Recently reading Asimov’s Foundation series, I am interested in the intrigues and the fictional historical development…not the fact that someone is a psychic mutant or that characters have access to personal force fields. Hell, I didn’t buy my first cell phone till last December (when we were selling our house and my wife was out of town on business a lot I had to be able to field calls from agents all times of day). And even now, I generally only use it for playing Tetris while standing in line.

No, I’m not big into science fiction…especially not stuff that involves human interactions with alien intelligences. That right there might be my biggest turn-off about every version of Star Trek after the original series. Originally, Spock (a character I never particularly liked or thought was “uber-cool”) was the only alien on the vessel…and he was half-human! The Next Generation and later series were filled with these crazy alien races that I found neither particularly interesting nor believable…their personalities were still “human” just given to certain extremes (i.e. caricature) coupled with some silly biological differences and/or “alien customs.” Real human culture has plenty of differences without the need to create a gazillion humanoid “alien life forms.”

In fact, most of the sci-fi series I’ve SKIPPED over the years have been heavy on “alien” cast members. All the various Star Treks, of course, but also Farscape, Lexx, Babylon 5, etc.. Give me Firefly (with 0 alien races), or Aliens and Starship Troopers (where the only aliens are monstrous creatures with an appetite for human death). Even District Nine was (I found) a more believable take on human interaction with an alien species. And while I never actually saw Alien Nation (I read the comic book) that, too, seemed the more likely outcome of a human-alien meeting (i.e. fear and prejudice being the general outcome).

Not that I’m entirely cynical about humanity. But I think that many, many people are very challenged by things outside their normal familiar comfort zone. These people don’t like, or are afraid to try new foods, new cultures, new languages…they don’t travel very far from their home regions. And if you FORCE them to experience the strange and new (by simply moving someone of a different race/culture/ethnicity next door, let alone dropping an alien mothership into the neighborhood) they get all bent out of shape.

And anyway, I believe alien intelligences will be truly alien…there will be no meeting of the minds even to agree that “we should start a war with each other over territory in space.” I think aliens are more likely to be totally incomprehensible to the human intellect. But that’s just me.

And so we come back to the new Star Trek. It was very enjoyable in a non-Star Trek kind of way. Part of this was certainly the updated pacing of the film. Part of it was also the fun of watching new, young actors give fairly good portrayals of the classic characters.

But for me, I simply enjoyed the tone and gravity the film maker brought to it. The aliens of the film were few and far between (similar to the original series, actually). There were no klingons or farrengi or androids on deck, and the more alien rubber masks that appeared on screen had no lines. Yes, there were plenty of Romulans and Vulcans, but these characters are simply what I consider to be “alternative human species” in the same galaxy with their same petty human flaws (rage, jealousy, prejudice, vengefulness). It wasn’t some “borg” seeking to “assimilate/exterminate organic life” simply because…um, it’s a scifi blockbuster.

Another thing that made the film feel more serious, less whimsical was the way the Federation was treated: much more military and much less “military lite” (to coin a phrase from the Mekton Zeta RPG) than prior Star Trek entries. Even watching the old classic series, I see that they had military codes, court martials, and “dress” uniforms for certain occasions (in the Next Generation series I only ever remember seeing characters wear the same damn spandex jumpsuits). Anyway, the film still had no saluting and a surprising lack of military discipline (making a suspended cadet the #1 officer on a Federation warship? What the F?), but still felt like there was SOME protocol being followed…protocol that sometimes requires military personnel to make tough, non-heroic decisions because the discipline is needed to ensure the overall design continues to function.

Anyway…I enjoyed it. My wife enjoyed it (she also says ‘I always liked Star Trek,’ but this is the first time I’ve heard this in the almost twelve years I’ve known her, so I’m not sure how much she likes it). I was SURPRISED by how much I actually liked it…enough that it made me consider picking up a Star Trek RPG, if there is such a thing in print. I know I’ve seen them in the past, but much like the show/films themselves, I’ve always skipped ‘em when I was at the game shop. Now…well. I’m not about to purchase a pair of Spock ears, but I’ve got a lot more open to the idea of exploring the Federation universe!


  1. The wife and I liked the film quite a bit as well. I grew up on The Next Generation, but now my tastes do gravitate more towards old Trek. (Hmm...much like AD&D 2nd and 1st editions, respectively)

    The last Trek RPG I knew to be in print was Prime Directive, which was produced by some company I'd never heard of but was one of those "Powered by GURPS" things. The local used bookstore has several Trek RPGs that have been out of print for perhaps a decade or so. (They created separate ones for TNG and Deep Space 9)

  2. There have actually been 6 licensed Star Trek RPGs: Star Trek - Adventure Gaming in the Final Frontier(Heritage Models, 1978); Star Trek The Role Playing Game (FASA, 1982); Enterprise - Role Play Game in Star Trek (Japanese, Tsukuda, 1983); various versions and systems for Prime Directive (1993 - present, ADB); Star Trek Rolepaying Game (Last Unicorn, 1998); Star Trek Roleplaying Game (Decipher, 2002). The FASA and Decipher versions are out of print, but relatively easy and cheap to find through eBay, though I prefer the Last Unicorn version or the zillions of homebrews for virtually every popular system out there (link to my Star Trek RPG blog). Well, except B/X, of course!

  3. You -might- like CJ Cherryh's sci-fi books. They're very psychological, her aliens are few, and always...alien. They have concepts and drives that aren't possible with humanity. The Chanur series has the most aliens (only one human, actually) including methane breathers (whose communications are represented with gridded messages that can be read l-r, r-l, up-down, down-up, and possibly diagonally .. all of which are equally valid). Most of her work is set in the human-dominated Alliance-Union-Merchanters universe, at various points in time.

  4. Wow, you guys are full of good info! I appreciate it. I'm not sure which system I'll be cruising for...probably need to do a bit more research.