Without a great deal of fanfare or expectation, the official first teaser trailer for Star Trek Beyond was uploaded to YouTube yesterday. As expected, reaction to the ninety-second peek indended for the trailer roll in front of The Force Awakens has been decidely mixed. Given the troubled production history that saw changes in the director and writers, studio mandates on the tone and story elements, and an ultimate pushback on the release date, the fact that this movie even made post production constitutes a minor miracle.
I’ve never placed much stock in what teaser trailers tell the audience, especially for a franchise like Star Trek that carries the burden of deep lore guarded by a not-altogether rational fanbase. Modern teasers, I’ve found, serve two purposes. The first is to give a sense of the overall visual style, coupled with a few snippets of dialogue that seemingly tell the viewer only that there will actually be dialogue in the movie. The second is to draw the focused interest of a particular group or groups that studios wants to bring into the fold early, starting a word of mouth and social media buzz leading into the months before the premiere date.
Regarding the Star Trek Beyond trailer, the second purpose is far more essential to its construction than the first. You can make no better comparison than with the advertising for the movie that the Beyond teaser is attached to. While trailers for The Force Awakens relied heavily on nostalgic objects and situations to reassure a devoted fanbase alienated by the style of the Star Wars prequels, Star Trek Beyond‘s first trailer seemed more interested in playing up the intricate action for which Justin Lin-helmed movies have become known. The difference is critical for intent: one designed to draw the inside back into the fold, the other to entice the outside with reassurance that the inside won’t act as impenetrable gatekeepers.
But did I like watching the trailer, other elements aside? Make no mistake – I found it to be very engaging and well made. But did it feel like Star Trek, as opposed to just a generic sci-fi action adventure? That’s a more interesting question.
In all honesty, the trailer reminded me most of what I thought was the one sequence in the tepidly-received Star Trek Into Darkness that actually worked. That would be the opening sequence, where the crew of the Enterprise works to stop a volcano from destroying a pre-industrial civilization on an unnamed planet by casually tearing the Prime Directive to shreds. It was a fun, planetside adventure sequence reminiscent of the locales that made up the lion’s share of action in Original Series (TOS) episodes. Into Darkness then left this tone behind for its Khan/notKhan question and creaky Patriot Act allegory that made up the plot of the movie. Upon leaving the theater, the thought I found myself having was wholly unexpected: why couldn’t the rest of the movie have been more like that opening sequence?
This feeling lies behind the cautious optimism I have for Star Trek Beyond based on the first teaser. On one level, it addresses a fundamental problem that has plagued the Star Trek film franchise since the premiere of The Motion Picture in 1979. The allure of the big screen and an increased special effects budget shifted the action in these films almost entirely to space, whereas on television (especially for TOS) visiting the surfaces of strange new worlds played a more integral part to the storytelling. Indeed, the locales of the Star Trek movie universe have too often played second fiddle to the exciting space battles populating these films since The Wrath of Khan. They become, much like the multiple locales in James Bond films, mere backdrop to a sequence that moves the plot toward the climactic action – which almost always happens in space and involves things blowing up. The two exceptions to this in the Trek movie canon – The Voyage Home and TNG’s Insurrection – prove that action held entirely on one planet can create an engaging narrative and place characters in situations out of their comfort zone that would never manifest while on the Enterprise. It worked brilliantly in The Voyage Home, with our beloved characters as fish out of water in 1980s San Francisco. It didn’t work so well in Insurrection, but that failure lay more in the script and direction than with the concept.
Actually, Insurrection may be a good benchmark for the success of Star Trek Beyond, since the trailer hints at a number of similarities between the plots. If the concept is elevated from Berman/Frakes levels of apathy by the Lin/Pegg collaboration, this movie could very well be the fun, adventure throwback piece that I saw hints of in Abrams’ well received 2009 reboot.
To those that say things like Kirk riding a motorcycle represents an egregious violation of Trek’s philosophical and aesthetic principles, I’ll save addressing this in detail for a future post after the next trailer. Regarding said subject, here is an excerpt from a short essay I wrote after seeing the 2009 film that still seems apropos six years later:
TOS at its best relied very simply on character pieces and good ol’ fashioned space adventure. It’s this combination that has made this original crew so iconic in a way that the cast of no other Sci-Fi show has approached before or since. Week after week was fighting a role call of space amoebas (“The Immunity Syndrome”); omnipotent noncorporeal children (“The Squire of Gothos”); paper-mache rock gods (“The Apple”); vampire clouds (“Obsession”); Jack the Ripper (“Wolf in the Fold”); killer robots (“The Changeling”); giant black cats (“Catspaw”); giant green lizard captains (“Arena”); Ancient Rome….IN THE FUTURE!!! (“Bread and Circuses”); and my personal favorite, disembodied brains with gambling problems (“The Gamesters of Triskellion”).
And these are just a list of the antagonists, leaving out the notorious space hippies from “The Way to Eden” or the transporting-wives-for-miners plot in “Mudd’s Women” that was drawn straight out of a mid-century Western. These weird clichés of science fiction and popular culture are as much part of the Star Trek universe as the Roddenberry vision of a better future. And it has been long past due for a Trek movie featuring TOS characters to embrace this side of the Trek ethos. I’ll take a Harry Mudd-style grifter any day over another protracted battle in space.
So what’s my prediction for the next trailer? Look for a teaser with a more dialogue-heavy segment that constructs an ethos of witty banter to draw similarities to Guardians of the Galaxy. Then look for a full trailer closer to release designed for fans that the studio thinks will have been pushed away by the non-fan orientation of the first two.
Until then, take a deep breath Trek fandom. It’s going to be okay.