Nostalgia seems to be a double edged sword right now in Hollywood. What on the surface appears to be a comforting guaranteed winner in terms of audience satisfaction and cinematic box office is becoming something of a poisoned creative chalice.
The lacklustre critical (if not box-office) responses to pictures such as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom or Ocean’s Eight, sequels to long-standing, well-regarded franchises; or Lucasfilm’s decision to put a hold on more A Star Wars Story anthology movies after the tepid box office (by Star Wars terms) of Solo, seemingly putting immediately paid to rumoured Boba Fett & Obi-Wan Kenobi-centric films. There is a nostalgia blowback in progress, the ripple effect of which we are only beginning to understand. Is this a ripple effect that, like the Nexus in Generations, threatens to engulf the future of the Star Trek franchise?
In a year soaked with controversy when it comes to working practices in American television, Star Trek has unfortunately not escaped the taint of disappointing choices. Star Trek: Discovery showrunners Gretchen Berg & Aaron Harberts were dismissed from the series due to reputed abusive behaviour toward their staff, a move which coincided with their temporary replacement Alex Kurtzman inking a massive deal with CBS Television Studios to produce movie and TV projects under his production banner, Secret Hideout, which includes taking over showrunning duties for the remainder of Discovery’s Season 2 (currently filming) and developing brand new Star Trek projects for CBS All Access’ pay-per-view service. Kurtzman has been involved with Discovery since the beginning, since Bryan Fuller’s brief establishment of Trek’s long-awaited return to TV, so his appointment as the new man in charge makes, on paper, a world of sense.
Interest has nonetheless turned towards what ‘new’ Star Trek projects Kurtzman might oversee, with fans enormously curious about reports that Kurtzman may be working with Sir Patrick Stewart on bringing back The Next Generation’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard to front one of these forthcoming series. This follows in the wake of Stewart, in recent months, making noises that he would be interested in reprising the role of Picard, which he last played in 2003’s underwhelming Next Generation cinematic send off Star Trek: Nemesis. While at this stage largely industry and tabloid rumour, one that almost seems too good to be true for many Trek fans, it nonetheless opens up a big topic for debate.
If Kurtzman really is thinking of reviving the character of Picard, and bringing Stewart back into the fold, is Trek looking back as a means of moving forward?
The evolution of Star Trek over the last decade is an interesting one to stop for a moment and consider. Roughly ten years ago, J.J. Abrams was deep into producing his Star Trek reboot, the ultimate engagement of nostalgia in reviving the characters of Captain Kirk & Commander Spock & crew, and deploying all kinds of timey wimey narrative skullduggery to ‘reboot’ The Original Series characters from the 1960’s with younger, sexier actors and a slick, modern, action adventure feel.
This came after the slow, steady decline of the Paramount/Viacom, post-Gene Roddenberry-era guided by producer Rick Berman alongside key Trek figureheads such as Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor & Brannon Braga; 2001’s prequel series Enterprise, while a solid fixture detailing the 22nd century beginnings of the franchise one hundred years before Kirk’s era, never truly got off the starting grid, and by the time some modern innovation was injected into the storytelling, it was too late – the viewers were off watching Lost or Battlestar Galactica or half a dozen new HBO cable shows as the birth of prestige TV truly began. By 2005, Trek was dead in the water.
Nostalgia revived the franchise’s flagging fortunes cinematically, tapping back into the lightness and colour of the 1960’s series, but arguably Enterprise itself was an exercise in nostalgia. While it cleaved much more to The Next Generation-era in terms of storytelling, by looking back at the franchise’s history and telling the origin story, for want of a better term, of Starfleet and the Enterprise, it sought to fill gaps and expand out references the 1980’s/1990’s Trek eras had dropped into the three sequel series to The Original Series and beyond.
Enterprise held to the precepts of Star Trek, exploring new worlds and encountering new life forms, but it was all within the box of sketching out details we half knew, or exploring historical aspects we had guessed at – encountering the Klingons or Romulans for the first time, the ‘special relationship’ with the Vulcans (who were definitely the British in that scenario!) etc… and when pushing for ratings, it built episodes around the Borg or entire arcs around links to films such as The Wrath of Khan – tapping into nostalgia as recent as merely a decade or so beforehand. Enterprise, as a result, never truly broke out and became the same innovative, new Trek of the like we saw in, particularly, Deep Space Nine.
Arguably, you could accuse last year’s Discovery of being similarly consumed with nostalgia in trying to revive Trek’s TV formula. Fuller’s mooted original plan for the new show on CBS was to develop an ‘anthology’ series which each season would focus on a different area of the Star Trek timeline, including post-Nemesis in the 24th century, but for whatever reason Discovery soon became more of a traditional Trek series with merely a modern, storytelling spin. It also became a series of two halves in its first season – the Fuller originated Klingon narrative, with Starfleet embroiled in a gloomy war they may not win, a war established canonically as having happened a decade before The Original Series began, against a fractured Klingon Empire being consumed by an ISIS-esque group of militant fanatics who want to destroy the Federation – almost worshipping martyred leader T’Kuvma.
Once Fuller was gone, the second half of the season changed tack entirely to place the Discovery inside the Mirror Universe, another nostalgia holdover from The Original Series (and Deep Space Nine), moving away from efforts to copy Game of Thrones (just in space) and become much more of a dark, pulpy reflection of the rise of fascist, far-right American politics. It was, for the most part, very entertaining. It wasn’t, however, a Star Trek free of the nostalgic grip of trying to recapture past glories.
Many indeed have questioned whether Discovery is true Star Trek, in the same way they have been for a decade regarding the Abrams 2009 reboot and both its sequels to date. What constitutes Star Trek is a debate that can be applied to almost every major long-running franchise with a dedicated fandom, one that has been running over the last twenty years in everything from Doctor Who, James Bond, The X-Files and recently, in perhaps its ugliest fashion, Star Wars.
In all of those cases, the issues with nostalgia are not identical; Doctor Who arguably has tried to push itself forward with an American showrunning style since Russell T. Davies relaunched it in 2005, while Bond completely reinvented itself with Casino Royale in 2006 as a stripped back, hard edged modern take on Ian Fleming’s source material, a style which has marked the Daniel Craig era coming to a close next year. Star Wars if anything has straddled both issues; fans have been outrageously entitled concerning Rian Johnson’s attempts to try new things with the franchise in The Last Jedi, yet when Kathleen Kennedy and her team gave fans a pure shot of ‘classic’ Star Wars in Solo, bringing back perhaps the saga’s biggest fan favourite character… nobody showed up to see it.
The simple fact is that nobody knows quite what these fandoms want, especially not the fandoms themselves. They both want to embrace and simultaneously want to reject the embrace of comforting nostalgia.
This brings us back to Jean-Luc Picard. He’s a character beloved in the world of Star Trek, played by a now-legendary classical British actor who has made his mark on popular culture also thanks to the X-Men franchise, but he is not as renowned a character outside of Star Trek as Kirk is. The Next Generation, similarly, lacks quite the cultural cache of The Original Series and though far more popular and widely known than perhaps DS9, Voyager or Enterprise, you suspect after maybe Picard & Data, your average viewer might struggle to name another member of the principal cast of characters. The point being that Picard, in terms of widening the net for Star Trek as it forges ahead into a new decade and as part of a new era of television, may be structurally reliant on of precisely the kind of nostalgia that other franchises are struggling with. You also wonder quite what they could do with Picard now that doesn’t avoid the elephant in the room: age.
In the final episode of The Next Generation, All Good Things, we see what ultimately ends up an alternate future where an ailing, aged Picard is suffering from an incurable neurological disease which can bring on, amongst other things, a detachment from reality. The semi-canon precursor comic series to the 2009 Star Trek movie, Countdown, establishes that Picard post-Nemesis ended up becoming Federation Ambassador to Vulcan (which makes sense given his close friendship with Sarek and later Spock) but still suffers from that same condition.
In other words, Picard has been established in older age to not just no longer be Captain of the Enterprise, but be a grand statesman suffering from the ravages of age. Patrick Stewart next month will be 78 years old and while very much still capable and working as an actor, and would no doubt be able to rediscover Picard as a character with ease, can you really imagine a Star Trek series in the modern era of television positioned around an almost 80-year old actor and a character who hasn’t been on screen in 15 years, and on TV in almost 25 years?
Discovery, if we’re being brutally honest, is coasting on a wave of nostalgia for The Original Series era brought about by the Abrams-led revival. It may not be set in that alternate, ‘Kelvin’ timeline, but stylistically it absolutely takes a cue from those big-budget, fast-moving, narrative-led movies. Discovery is not your Dad’s Star Trek, as The Next Generation was not his Dad’s Star Trek. Picard and Stewart exist in a different era, much like Harrison Ford’s Han Solo did.
Granted, Ford acquitted himself far better in The Force Awakens than I think many people expected him to, but you sense Ford understood the capacity for nostalgia only stretches so far and almost certainly asked for his return to be a one-time, solo (sorry) thing. He doesn’t seem to quite believe the same about Indiana Jones but that’s a different story – like Bond, the character of Indy will almost certainly be timeless and could, one day, be reinvented by a new actor as Sean Connery’s Bond was, and indeed like Kirk and Spock have been. Does that work for Picard? Maybe. Maybe not. While millions of Star Trek fans would be happy to see the actor and character again, does an aged Picard reappearing really move the franchise boldly forward?
Try as they might, some of these aforementioned franchises really have attempted to reinvent themselves. Bond tried for a couple of Craig movies before steadily, with Skyfall, it began bowing to fan pressure amongst those who wanted the ‘fun’ back in the franchise. Star Wars pushed the boundaries with The Last Jedi in terms of theme, subtext and conceptual ideas, and Johnson’s upcoming trilogy divested of the Skywalker saga could really go where no Wars has gone before. The X-Files came back, on the wave of a nostalgic revival trend in US television, and did try to tap into the current political and social zeitgeist to reinvigorate its paranoid mirror to the dark side of modern society, but it was only partially successful and viewers started abandoning the recent Season 11 in much the same way they had done almost two decades earlier with the 9th.
Star Trek, honestly, hasn’t really tried to reinvent itself yet. It has rebooted and engaged with the cult kitsch of its own history to broadly tell a fun series of vibrant action movies, and with Discovery it has, like Enterprise, worked to sketch in some gaps in the all-consuming series continuity of Trek’s alternate ‘future history’ – and with the arrival of the Christopher Pike-era U.S.S Enterprise in that show’s upcoming second season, it only seems to be edging deeper down the road of tapping into the past. 1992’s Deep Space Nine was really the last series to go where no Trek had gone before, delivering a premise and a series of narratives which pushed Star Trek into areas it hadn’t before explored – none of it load bearing a weight of nostalgic reverie.
It would be great then to see Kurtzman, his production house and CBS to really push Star Trek back toward the original mission statement: new worlds, new civilisations, and new ideas. Star Trek in the last decade has been fun, frothy and exciting, if occasionally disposable, and Discovery serves as one of the strongest first seasons of any Trek series to date, but if the thirst for nostalgia in fandom really is waning in some quarters, CBS have the chance to move the franchise back toward innovative, uncharted waters as we approach the 2020’s.
That being said, I wouldn’t say no to a Picard cameo here and there. Make it so…