With the world premiere of Star Trek unspooling tonight in Sydney—and no, the International Date Line does not constitute time travel—I thought I’d finally break my silence about the script, as one of the few people in the galaxy to actually read the screenplay ahead of time.
A word of caution as we begin: breaking my silence doesn’t mean breaking my non-disclosure agreement with IDW, Orci/Kurtzman or Bad Robot, who would all be happy to set their phasers to kill if I genuinely ruined any surprises. So, expect a spoiler-free review below; and if you actually like spoilers, you’ll already be surfing a tsunami of them tomorrow and won’t need any from me. (In fact, thanks to Twitter, you’ll probably even get them during the screening itself).
First, however, some background: Director J.J. Abams, the mastermind behind the franchise’s reboot, is notoriously secretive with the details of his projects, a lesson cannily learned from the successes of Lost and Cloverfield; so even reading the script ahead of time required a perfect storm of opportunity and circumstance.
As the Trek editor for IDW, which routinely publishes comic book prequels for its licensed titles, the “Supreme Court” of J.J.’s creative circle had tapped me to write the four-issue miniseries that would lead into the film, with the comics hitting the stands in 2008. Soon thereafter, though, Paramount execs repositioned Star Trek as a 2009 summer tentpole release, having laid their eyes on the film’s early footage. Meanwhile, I left the Trek captain’s chair to freelance full-time, and the logistical insanity of creating both the film and the prequel simultaneously finally forced J.J.’s team to shift gears and create the comics series in-house. (No cards or flowers for me, please—it’s not the first time that’s happened in Hollywood, and it won’t be the last.)
During the interim between the two, however, I had the chance to drive up to Universal and read the script at the Orci/Kurtzman offices (where, by coincidence, I actually met one of the guys who’d ultimately write the prequel). This by itself took an extraordinary amount of negotiation, including a maze of round-robin phone calls, several rescheduled appointment dates, and finally a comprehensive resume of published works demonstrating my geek cred. When these people said they intended to keep the story under wraps, they weren’t kidding—in fact, even some key people at CBS/Paramount hadn’t read the script yet, and quite possibly still haven’t. (Did it help that I went to the same high school as Trek producer and Lost Abramite Damon Lindelof? Probably not, but you never know.)
I recognize that such secrecy has occasionally frustrated fans—Trek at its most basic might be a mere copyright, but it’s also a global cultural touchstone and the centerpiece of imagination for legions of true believers. When the custodian of that mythology says he’s going to rewrite the testament, but keep its secrets from the congregates, there’s naturally going to be disquiet among the faithful.
At the same time, however, this secrecy has delivered its exact desired effect: Fans have become more abuzz about this film than perhaps any other in Trek history, and unveiling the reworked franchise with one single flourish has proven much more effective than had J.J. piecemealed it out. Or, to put it in my familiar comic book terms: it would have been like reading a scattershot series of panels, released haphazardly, then attempting to gague whether the issue was any good.
So, enough preamble. Having read the script in a single flourish, is it any good?
The answer is: Oh, my, yes. You’re goddamn right it is.
The Supreme Court has powered up all its storytelling weapons and—paraphrasing Nero—fired everything. Action, drama, mythology, philosophy, characterization, romance…literally, all here. Pulse-pounding action sequences, so well choreographed that they actually unfold right on the page. More in-depth characterization than some players receive during entire seasons of Trek. And, most importantly, such elements used not in place of the story, but in direct service to it.
Let’s start with action. As a writer, I use a couple of rules when crafting action scenes: #1: Good action is cool shit happening in interesting places. #2: Everything is more exciting when it’s airborne. And #3: Never pass up the chance to explode a helicopter. The script exploits the first two with consistent and often breathtaking effect; and, while there obviously aren’t any copters in Star Trek, Orci & Kurtzman blow up nearly everything else, again always in service to the story, and not merely CGI showpieces for a picture-frame plot.
The drama? There are a couple of rules when crafting drama as well. #1. Desperate characters struggle against rising stakes; #2: External conflict should be matched by internal conflict; and #3: Get the hell out of the helicopter, douchebag, it’s about to explode.
Here again, the script utterly nails it—especially #3, in which (once the story goes to warp) characters find themselves in almost constant jeopardy, either through action itself or the tension leading up to it. That alone speaks to the skill behind the script, since it keeps moments stretched drum-tight even when we’re all well aware—because, of course, this is the relaunch of the franchise—that most characters aren’t about to get cut in half by a lightsabre midway through the second reel.
OK, enough with the rules-numbering. Let’s talk about the characterization. Having written and edited licensed Star Trek, I can tell you that it’s really not that difficult to get Kirk’s voice onto the page or make Spock sound like Spock. Even Slash/fanfic’ers can do it; we’ve all seen the episodes and movies dozens of times and know exactly who they are and how they talk. The challenge for this film is to deliver an origin story about how those characters came to be.
On that level, it’s a story that will appeal not just to Trek fans, but universally to any fans of good storytelling, who can connect with individuals and the relationships that develop between them, with their character arcs of growth, failure and sacrifice, and their authentic human experiences even amidst the backdrop of exploding photon torpedoes.
Were there things I didn’t think were perfect? Well, sure. I thought that Nero actually read a little flat on the page—no pun intended—but, having seen even just brief clips of Eric Bana’s performance from the TV spots and trailers, I realize now that he could see in the script what I didn’t. He’s definitely taken the character and punched him through to the stratosphere.
I also thought there was one brief action set-piece that felt a bit too familiar to one from another film of the same genre (again, no spoilers, so I won’t say what); but when you’ve seen as many SF films, episodes, comics, scripts and pitches as I have, sooner or later you’ll find all sorts of moments that can start to seem familiar. It’s the only one I found in the script here, though, and if it’s executed correctly on the screen, it’s going to be a fantastic sequence.
So, all right, it’s a great script. But Star Trek scripts need to be more than great stories; they need to be great Trek, and that means fidelity to all the precise continuity that goes along with it. Talk of reboots and reworkings and reimaginings makes fans afraid that they’re about to rewatch Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. We’ve all seen Greedo shoot first, and in Hollywood the words “trust me” and “fuck off” often sound remarkably identical. When I moderated the Star Trek publishing panel at the San Diego Comic-Con last year, the subject of the film naturally came up, and Wil Wheaton, sitting next to me, put it best: “We are all living in a Post-Phantom Menace World.”
I also have a number of good friends who have written Trek professionally for the screen, and as much as I fully respect them, there’s a sentiment among some that resists not just change, but any change. Those friends might very well disagree with me about this script, but it’s likely that they would have been disappointed no matter what story was made. Hell, some Star Trek fans already have Internet firefights worthy of the Dominion War, and that’s just for stories that didn’t restart the franchise. I couldn’t produce stories that pleased every single one of those fans when I ran the Trek titles at IDW, and Orci/Kurtzman don’t make the mistake of attempting to do that here.
But, just in case you’re concerned that this story marks its new continuity by pissing all over the old one, let me reassure you: That isn’t what happens here. The script doesn’t ignore 40+ years of continuity, it doesn’t replace it and it doesn’t even eulogize it. It constructs a deceptively elegant narrative device to leave in place all that has gone before, while striking off in a bold new direction. It’s a fresh coat of paint on the ship that we’re all already familiar and comfortable with.
There is indeed a moment in the script—I won’t say what it is, even though it’s already been leaked and widely discussed, since I promised no spoilers—that indelibly marks this as a new continuity; it’s sure to be controversial among the fans, but it’s not a cheap stunt or way of dismissing the old stories. It’s the story’s way of cementing a new identity all its own.
It’s also entirely fair to say that Paramount has hoped to refit the franchise for a new generation, acutely aware of the gently aging demographic that has devoted itself up until now; and in that respect it definitely represents a more modern sensibility and departure from the back-to-basics, “Enterprise gets involved in two warring factions on a planet” type of routine story that made Insurrection such an epic fail.
But while teens will most definitely love it, I’ll also say that my dad is 72 years old, wouldn’t know a phaser from a fork in a toaster, and I’m going to make him see it on opening weekend. It’s a story that communicates everything we’ve loved about Trek, to the masses who could never quite fathom why we loved it; it is, in almost every way, the Star Trek movie we’ve been waiting for.