Can Black Mirror or Quentin Tarantino save Star Trek from itself?
WARNING: THIS STORY CONTAINS EXTREMELY MINOR FIRST-FIVE-MINUTES SPOILERS FOR A NEW BLACK MIRROR EPISODE EVERYONE SHOULD WATCH.
Robert Daly dreams in digital nostalgia, like so many lonely men his age. By day, he’s the Chief Technology Officer of Callister, Inc, a tech-entertainment purveyor providing their subscribers with a multiplayer cosmos full of things to trade and kill. That CTO gig sounds important, but Robert’s the Wozniak, a funkless coder backgrounding his Jobs-ian partner’s entrepreneurial flash. As played by the great Jesse Plemons, Robert looks like the comic-strip model of the bespectacled nerd: Picture Steve Ditko’s Peter Parker, except balder and older and richer and sadder.
By night, though, in his own private cinematic universe, Robert’s the commander of a starship, exploring same-y new worlds, boldly going where he thinks all men used to get to go. His female subordinates want him; his male subordinates want to be him; his hair is perfect. He bases this virtual world on a TV show from his youth called Space Fleet. “It was visionary,” is how Robert explains the show. “Netflix has it these days.”
In our own what-I-have-to-call reality, Netflix has reruns of an actual franchise about a space fleet: The six Star Trek TV shows (don’t forget the cartoon!) that ran sporadically from 1966 through 2005. Netflix also has Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s anthology series, which returns Dec. 29 just in time to make you feel bad about all the trendy new tech you bought yourself for Christmas. Robert’s the apparent protagonist of this season’s standout episode, “U.S.S. Callister,” which begins as a spot-on Trek parody, capturing the phaser-precise rhythms of the 50-year-old original series.
It gets so much darker than that, though, and more thrilling: Here’s a rebooted space opera dissecting rebooted space operas. At the risk of saying too much, Robert meets a new colleague, Nanette (Cristin Milioti), who becomes part of his beautiful dark twisted fantasy. Plemons and Milioti are both great in complicated roles, him nerdy but authoritative, her cheerful then terrified. This is a long episode, running over an hour. It’s the best episode of Black Mirror this season. It’s also the best Star Trek episode of the millennium.
It should’ve had more competition this year. Star Trek was back on TV twice in 2017. There is the official franchise extension, Discovery, halfway through a season of glitching on CBS All-Access. And there’s Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, an homage to ’90s Trek, on Fox. Discovery has a great cast, a big effects budget, and no obvious soul. MacFarlane isn’t trying to compete with scale and can only use off-brand Safeway Select generic lingo – “Planetary Union,” “Plasma Torpedoes” – but it’s origins are rooted in Trek history. MacFarlane himself stars as Captain Ed Mercer, and he’s surrounded himself with veteran Trek writers and actors. Like so many labors of nostalgia, these are reboots without much clarity, substituting new special effects and dudely vulgarity for new ideas.
I’ve watched all of Discovery and a bit of Orville. Neither is terrible. Neither has much spark. Discovery came on strong in its opening act with a two-part action epic that featured a hand-to-hand spacefight, a ship-to-ship spacefight, a Klingon-to-Human knife fight, and a muddled-but-intriguing act of mutiny. The big story of this nine-episode “chapter” was The Starfleet-Klingon War. So the only proper way to enjoy Chapter One of Discovery was to drink every time someone mentioned the Klingons and then fall asleep whenever the show actually cut to the Klingons, rendered here as a race of Evil Talking Killers speechifying their way through episode-midpoint victories into episode-climax defeats.
Discovery was born of confusing chaos, reflecting a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Co-creator Bryan Fuller departed the series, replaced in day-to-day operations by Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts. Co-creator Alex Kurtzman has a key role, too. Making things more confusing, the beginning of Discovery was supposed to be chaotic: The proper pilot was episode 3, the central What Makes This Different idea of the show rolled out in episode 4, a key character didn’t appear until episode 5. “I would give anything for a second, a millisecond of peace” said focal character Michael Burnham (Sonequa-Martin Green) in the penultimate episode of Chatper One. “But until the war is over, none of us can have it.”
Constructing a Star Trek show around a serialized war arc was the hottest idea Deep Space Nine had 20 years ago, was an endlessly fruitful foundation for the rebooted Battlestar Galactica 10 years ago. Discovery‘s war ran over the whole show like a locomotive, justifying any narrative shorthand and cutting off character development at the knees. There is a long-running idea about Star Trek that the franchise needs more action, an instinct that led to Wrath of Khan and the phaser rifle in the Next Generation movies and three movies of Chris Pine performing extreme sports acrobatics. Discovery has a lot of action, but what it radiates most of all is a weirdly forced toughness, like a newly hired executive vice president quoting Sun Tzu on a conference call. “When I took command of this ship, you were a crew of polite scientists,” says Discovery‘s captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs). “Now you’re fierce warriors, all.”
This was meant to sound like an empowering Crispin’s Day, and it sounded to me like war-hawk propaganda. This might be the point. Star Trek has always found room for polite scientists and fierce warriors – not to mention fierce scientists like McCoy and polite warriors like Odo. The show badly wants to turn that spectrum into an arc, to say: “Here is a Starfleet that is full of polite scientists, and they must become fierce warriors, so that after the war they will be heroic adventurers.” Mostly, though, all this talk about the higher ideals of Starfleet feels like a justification for a very CBS-y take on modern warfare, merging an acceptable level of violence with an acceptable level of moral justification. This is the neck-snappiest and F-bombiest Star Trek ever, but like a lot of CBS’ procedurals, the mature content is just coating over old-fashioned, plastic morality plays. This is not a show that’s particularly interested in exploring its own complexity: The horrid penultimate episode of Chapter One required Burnham to beg a living planet for help, and her whole plea was, paraphrasing here, “Help Us, Because Klingons.”
The cast of Discovery is good, but struggling with material that takes them all over the map. Burnham was introduced as three flavors of chosen one, murdered parents and fan service distant dad, and murdered mentor; rarely has one genre hero had so many Uncle Bens. Lorca will show flashes of real darkness, and then he’ll declare his dedication to Starfleet’s highest and least warlike ideals. Anthony Rapp’s scholarly Stamets has become a figuratively different character since he was introduced, transformed via spore drive from a stern cerebralist to a cheerful braniac radiating pure chill.
Then there’s Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), who might literally not be himself. To the extent that there is any excitement around Discovery, it comes from the Fan Theory sub-basement. Is Tyler really Tyler? Will Lorca eventually turn out as bad as the much cooler version of this show would’ve already revealed him to be? The finale threw out the possibility of parallel universes, featured Lorca talking about how everything they’d done in these boring nine episodes was about to open up “a whole new chapter for Discovery” with adventures “far beyond our preconceptions of time and space.” This is how every Trek movie of the modern age has ended, too: Kirk and Co. about to finally set off on cool adventures in a new corner of space. “The good stuff is really about to start” is a storytelling method old as Scheherazade, but there’s something desperate and Ponzi-Schemey about how often neo-Trek goes to that well. “The good stuff is coming, as soon as we finish off Khan and the Klingons!” It feels like nobody’s enjoying themselves with this new Star Trek: Not the creators who have to cycle through big action setpieces, not the actors like Simon Pegg or Anthony Rapp who have to voice meta-textual lines of dialogue about how Starfleet has gotten less adventurous and more violent, not the audience watching waiting for something that feels new, not the characters who have to justify every action by declaring “Trillions of lives are at stake!”
So, while you’re theorizing about alternate universes and waiting for that next chapter, here’s a show built around fuzzy battlefield tactics: The show’s writers are obsessed with transporter technology, built two Klingon showdowns around the notion that Klingons don’t seem to notice when an attacking Starfleet ship is using transporter technology to beam over explosives or officers. It’s no surprise that the standout episode of Discovery so far – the one that only mentioned Klingons like four times – was also the most playful, the least war-focused, the most character-centric. “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” was a time travel episode, the crew dying over and over while they tried to save themselves. It had a daffy dark humor – Lorca died a dozen times in montage – and let the Discovery people talk about themselves, not some weird higher ideals that keep getting in the way of their humanity.
Could Discovery just become that? An episodic adventure about people on a bridge, enacting gradual personal arcs while exploring some new conceptual parameters each week? That’s what The Orville wants to be. MacFarlane’s Mercer is surrounded by familiar archetypes – Penny Johnson Jerald’s Doctor, Scott Grimes’ wisecracking helmsman, the robot guy, the tough Chief of Security. Every episode feels so much like a middling hour of late-’90s Trek that the show earns points for sheer aesthetic precision. Characters even learn lessons about, like, leadership, just like Wesley Crusher always did.
There’s a relaxed silliness to The Orville that wins me over sometimes, but there’s something off in the execution, and keep trying to figure out what. The simplest explanation is that Trek itself trended mediocre in the later Voyager/Enterprise days, and so picking up where the franchise left off (with longtime Trek steersman Brannon Braga in the writers’ room) has just exported all those problems forward to our own time. This was also the surprising-to-nobody problem with the rebooted X-Files – and the MacFarlane factor doesn’t really help. The Family Guy creator’s work has always radiated a weird combination of teen-friendly vulgarity and old-fashioned TV concepts. (See: Bob Hope’s and Bing Crosby’s Road to… pictures reimagined with a foul-mouthed baby and a drunk dog.) So The Orville is a weird work of bro-ish nostalgia, not helped much by MacFarlane’s decision to cast himself as the lovable, nerdy, unprepared-yet-totally-prepared hero. With The Orville, MacFarlane’s taken decades-old ideas about Star Trek, added in jokes about day-drinking, and given himself the starring role. In his own private cinematic universe, he’s the commander of a starship: Sound familiar?
Both shows miss something essential about Star Trek. They focus on the furniture: The uniforms, the aliens, the stuff you can make GIFs out of. Some of the finest hours of Trek, from Kirk through Janeway, are stage-y talk operas about smart people on a bridge set. Discovery and The Orville both set up deflector shields to avoid this basic reality: The former with a lot of glimmering special effects and self-important this is serious! action, the latter with a forced casualness and not-unoccasional dick jokes to satisfy MacFarlane’s base. Both of these reboot strategies are familiar. The new Disney period of Star Wars has modeled a high-octane action structure that plays all the hits (Death Star, red lightsaber, X-Wings) louder, faster, and more intense. And in the wake of 21 Jump Street, bigscreen dross like Chips and Baywatch has reconfigured nostalgia as an act of practiced self-loathing – adding dumb R-rated stuff (“THIS IS BAYWATCH, YOU P—Y!”) on top of stuff that used to be dumb in a family-friendly way, thus creating a sandwich of dumbness that’s fun for nobody.
But viewed from a half-century away, Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek has less in common with the action fantasy of Star Wars than the fun-house ideology of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. And with this new season, Black Mirror reconfirms its status as the heir to both Roddenberry and Serling, merging dreamy futurism and paranoid panic. Even at its worst, the show always feels locked into our current state of confusion, with our focus split across digital realities. Science fiction is supposed to look at the present and find the future, but Discovery and The Orville and so much of our modern reboot sci-fi is rooted in the past, old concepts rehashed for legacy-rock karaoke. Say, did you hear that this Star Wars is going to be darker than the last one? Oh look, they destroyed the Enterprise and built the Enterprise-A!
By taking an analytical step back, “U.S.S. Callister” doesn’t just take an incisive jab at Star Trek – although if that was its only achievement, it would still be important, in this year with two different wannabe Treks that seem to think the problem with Star Trek is that it wasn’t expensive enough and/or dick joke-y enough. As written by Brooker and his co-writer William Bridges, “Callister” also pushes the genre forward, imagining a version of Star Trek radiating with all the boldest and most difficult topics of our own day. You watch this episode and wonder: Was the Enterprise always a toxic workplace? Robert talks about the ideals of Space Fleet the way tech companies talk about mission statements and politicians talk about the American Way, but those ideals are a cover, and an excuse for his own indulgent narcissism. (It makes you think about all the fans of superhero movies who scream bloody Twitter at critics, perhaps missing the central point of the superhero genre that being mean to people is wrong.)
Both Discovery and The Orville yearn for a utopian society beyond those issues, and there is some honor in that yearning. The cast of Discovery is casually diverse, and The Orville has given its whole ensemble A-plot episodes. This is nominally part of Trek tradition – everyone gets along! – but it’s easy to overstate Roddenberry’s utopian ideology. Roddenberry himself was a difficult man, and so there’s something endlessly clever in the basic DNA of “U.S.S. Callister.” Plemons’ lonely nerd has built himself a version of a childhood fantasy, just like MacFarlane and J.J. Abrams and you when play Star Wars: Battlefield II with all the Hero Characters available.
“It was visionary,” is how Robert Daly describes Space Fleet – and sure, it was, but it was also a thing made long ago, in an era when only certain types of people (who look like Robert Daly) got to make things. And maybe it’s time to rethink all our most beloved legacies, to set the self-destruct sequence and build a new kind of starship. As a forward-looking enterprise, Star Trek has a tradition of progress, and sometimes progress requires a break from tradition, sometimes you have to honor a legacy by purposefully defying it. Damn it, “U.S.S. Callister” is exciting, smart and fun and scary, boldly going wherever it wants to. Shouldn’t Star Trek aspire to that?
This was the year of Star Trek on the small screen, and it was almost the year when nothing happened with the Star Trek movies. In the midst of last year’s Star Trek Beyond, producer J.J. Abrams announced that Paramount was already working on a follow-up film which would feature Pine’s Captain Kirk…and Chris Hemsworth’s Captain George Kirk, who appeared for one memorable scene 2009, a long-ago era before there were three Thors and two Huntsmans.
Of course, Hemsworth died in his brief Trek appearance, so there was a whiff of desperation to his return – a concession, maybe, that neo-Trek could use some superhero star power. But then Beyond was a box office disappointment, and Abrams’ attention wandered back to the Star franchise he actually loves. And Paramount had several releases that represented potential big franchise plays, Baywatch and Monster Trucks and Transformers: The Last Knight and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back and Ghost in the Shell, surely they couldn’t all be box office disappointments, uh oh!
Maybe we’ll still get the Hemsworth Trek film. And, then again, maybe Paramount is willing to try something completely different. This week, Deadline’s Mike Fleming broke the news that Quentin Tarantino had approached Abrams with some kind of big Star Trek idea, a concept apparently catchy enough to motivate the impending assembly of a writers’ room.
Important not to get too caught up in this possibility, I think. Tarantino has a long history of casually suggesting franchise-y projects – he’ll never not be asked about Kill Bill: Volume 3, though I yearn more for his Pierce Brosnan James Bond movie. And it’s too easy to immediately graft some notion of “Tarantinoesque” content into a Star Trek framework, the stuff of YouTube parodies, like SNL‘s Wes Anderson horror movie. But the filmmaker himself has a great love for genre structure, and it seems more apt to compare any theoretical Tarantinoiac Trek to that time Tarantino directed CSI, an event you either forgot about completely or haven’t stopped thinking about for 12 years.
I love the idea because why not: Star Trek needs something new, and Tarantino counts. My own unhelpful reboot idea is to make a whole movie out of Floria Sigismondi’s Beyond tie-in music video, which featured Rihanna as sparklecore space goddess with a slight Coachella affectation, not exactly rocket science but better than literally anything the movies did with Eric Bana and Benedict Cumberbatch and Idris Elba. If Tarantino does wind up directing a Star Trek movie, he would be the most accomplished filmmaker to take on the franchise since Robert Wise – and unlike Wise, Tarantino is actually a good director.
His most recent feature film was The Hateful Eight, a three-hour Western, roughly two-and-a-half-hours’ of which was set inside a single big room. The film has no real reputation at this point. It was less successful than Django Unchained. But, in fairness, it seemed to make precisely the amount of money a three-hour Western about people talking should make. I loved it in the theater, but it’s on TV a lot, and I’ve seen parts of it a couple dozen times. Something in the film’s rhythm works on television: The chapters, the leisurely pacing, the fact that any scene you turn on feels like a spotlight shining on one corner of a stage.
The 10th or 11th time I watched Hateful Eight, I realized why I enjoyed it so much: It’s the Western version of a bottle episode, trapping a parade of familiar Tarantino regulars enacting familiar frontier archetypes in a single room on a single night. Some of the characters drape themselves in ideals, dreaming of lost Southern causes and heroic dead heroes; Walton Goggins’ racist Chris Mannix feels like a distant ancestor to Robert Daly, another angry young man devoted to a nostalgic vision of the world, wielding ideology like a cudgel, ignorant of all the obvious failings of his own utopia.
I don’t want to go too far down this particular wormhole – we’re slippery-sloping into “Wasn’t Inglourious Basterds an Away Team Episode” and “Wasn’t Kill Bill a Holodeck episode brought to life?” – but the fact that Tarantino’s coming off his most play-like film since Reservoir Dogs makes me wonder if he grooves onto the essential elements of old-school Star Trek in a way that defies the Abrams eras big-space-battle kineticism. Maybe he actually wants to make a movie about a few people on a bridge set having big conversations, which describes maybe half the greatest Star Trek scenes in the franchise’s history. Or maybe he’s come up with a science-fiction concept as twisty as Basterds‘ take on fascism or Hateful Eight‘s nihilistic portrait of all-consuming American racism.
Or maybe he thinks it would be cool if Captain Kirk snaps some necks and drops some f-bombs. That could work, too! It’s all in the execution; Tarantino writes beautiful f-bombs. And “U.S.S. Callister” suggests that the basic familiar format of Star Trek can reap incredible rewards, if it’s approached with clarity, cleverness, genuine wit, a willingness to provoke. Otherwise, fans and creators alike, we’re all just Robert Daly, reanimating old life, propagating old civilizations, boldly going where a whole lot of men went before.