Thursday, November 1, 2007

Damn it Jim - I'm a Doctor



You probably already know what eventually happened to STAR TREK; how NEMESIS (the most recent theatrical film in the franchise) underperformed both fiscally and artistically. How ENTERPRISE…TREK’s most recent television incarnation…failed to keep the attention of fans or find new viewers - and was jettisoned four years into its projected seven year run.

This conjunction of unfortunate events left The Powers That Be in a quandary. Clearly, STAR TREK had the potential to continue generating a great deal of revenue for all involved. And, just as clearly, the current style & vibe of STAR TREK were not being embraced by the masses.

What to do? What to do?

One proposal came from (then) TREK overlord Rick Berman & a production team which included Jordan Kerner and Kerry McCluggage. They considered a STAR TREK variant that was part re-launch, part prequel, and maintained established franchise continuity while exploring a period of TREK lore that had previously been spoken of only in broad strokes.
The result was a project tentatively titled STAR TREK: THE BEGINNING. I’m assuming this name would’ve changed…it’s a crappy title. Scripter Erik Jendersen (HBO’s BAND OF BROTHERS) was brought in to develop the concept, which resulted in a first draft screenplay that ran 121 pages long.

This project was ultimately scuttled; word is it was ditched due to a dramatic regime change at Paramount.

JJ Abrams was subsequently brought in to re-launch STAR TREK in an entirely different fashion, and THE BEGINNING slipped quietly into history…forgotten by most, and understood by precious few.

Let’s change that.

What follows is a detailed write-up about the screenplay for Erik Jendersen’s STAR TREK: THE BEGINNING.

THIS IS NOT THE UPCOMING JJ ABRAMS PROJECT!!!

THIS IS ABOUT AN ABORTED PROJECT THAT IMMEDIATELY(?) PRECEEDED THE JJ ABRAMS REBOOT, AND IS COMPLETELY UNRELATED (TO THE BEST OF ANYONE’S KLNOWLEDGE) TO ABRAMS’ UPCOMING STAR TREK FILM!!!

This is, simply, a geeky exploration of STAR TREK history; a (hopefully interesting) insight to a TREK that might have been…not dissimilar to an article I posted earlier this year about Harve Bennett’s defunct STAR TREK: THE ACADEMY YEARS screenplay.

And, even though this project has been canned and will almost certainly never be made, please know that...

THERE BE HEAVY SPOILERS HERE!!!

With this in mind, let’s get started…

First off, I'd like to offer a huge, heartfelt, hug of a thanks to Nasty Nick for making this article possible. Deeply appreciated.

WHAT KIND OF STORY IS THIS?
To put a pretty fine point on it, this is very much a classic War story set in the STAR TREK Universe. This is a sprawling tale…its structure evoking countless World War II films in particular.
THE BEGINNING takes traditional war genre structures/clich├ęs and applies them to STAR TREK; a formula we’ve never seen before. For example, there are (literally) love letters written between characters…read in voice over…as one character heads off to battle, and the other sits at home worrying and waiting. THE BEGINNING is about a group of folks newly graduated from the United Earth Stellar Navy who are forced to go their separate ways in a time of great upheaval. Some head into war, some find other purposes, while all hell is breaking loose around them.
In structure, the story very much resembles STARSHIP TROOPERS mixed with the madness surrounding Pearl Harbor. As a whole, the script is extremely military in nature. How extreme? In one sequence…during a crisis…an Admiral orders two guards to stand down from their positions. The first guard receives a set of instructions from the Admiral, ending with “I’m ordering you to leave your post.” The first guard scurries off. The Admiral gives the second guard his orders, but the guard doesn’t budge. The Admiral then remembers to tell him “I’m ordering you to leave your post” – only then will the guard stand down.TELL US MORE ABOUT THE SETTING…TREK’S GETTING KINDA CONFUSING!
It begins on Earth during August-September 2159 (this would place it between ENTERPRISE and ORIGINAL SERIES continuity).
The human race has a lot going on: the United Earth Stellar Navy (UESN) is a military attempting to find its place in the changing political landscape, and hone its interaction with a recently formed Coalition of Planets. Earth is changing…politics are changing. Extraterrestrials are becoming accepted and common members of our society, but this is also altering the way humans think, and the way things are done.
There’s talk of UESN merging with Starfleet, which would essentially militarize the exploration-based Starfleet. “Peace is too important to be left to politicians” intones one Commodore.
The NX-Omega is ready to fly – the first Warp 8 capable ship ever built (Warp 8 was the maximum warp stated for THE ORIGINAL SERIES Enterprise).
And…oh, yeah! There’s that mammoth Romulan attack fleet approaching Earth using a trajectory which conceals it behind Earth’s moon.
SO, THIS IS THE ONE WITH NO ESTABLISHED CHARACTERS IN IT… RIGHT?
Sort of.
There’s one character we’ve seen before in TREK - it’s Andorian Commander Shran. He’s the blue dude with antennae played by Jeffrey Combs in ENTERPRISE.
Another character we’ve heard about (but never seen) also appears. Skon. Who is Skon? There’s a line in STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK in which Vulcan High Priestess refers to Sarek (Spock’s dad) as “Sarek, child of Skon…” Skon appears here as a Vulcan Ambassador to Earth. I.e. Spock’s grandfather is a principal character in THE BEGINNING.
The NX-02 (Columbia) – also seen in ENTERPRISE - appears twice in the script. It’s in an orbital shipyard and gets blasted pretty thoroughly.
References are made to Archer & Enterprise being at Risa (TREK’s “pleasure planet”). Figures; they’re as ineffectual as always.
Denobluans ( Dr. Flox’s species from ENTERPRISE) are seen, but don’t play a critical role.
MACO (Military Assault Command Operations –
the supertroopers introduced in ENTERPRISE) are present, and do play a role.
Tellarites (
the pig guys) appear.
There are several allusions to the future TREK
universe, which are mentioned below.OK…THEN…WHO ARE THE MAIN CHARACTERS?
This is principally the story of Tiberius Chase. He’s the UESN’s best pilot but can’t get into Starfleet because of his family’s bad rep. He has the heart of a warrior and the soul of a poet. He’s extremely talented and highly ambitious, but he’s being held back in life because of his family name. The Chase clan, it seems, is associated with a para-military militia here on Earth who fear for the purity of the human race…they feel our gene pool will be contaminated because too many alien species are coming to Earth.
I.e. they are Terran isolationists, who’ve fashioned a cult-like community in the Muhlig-Hoffman Mountains in Antarctica. They found a place once used by Nazis who escaped to the remote locale after World War II. There is Nazi tech around them – like prototype aircraft shaped like saucers. Tiberius left this funky bunch…his urge to see what’s out there…to grow and expand…was too strong to resist. Despite this defiance, many around him still will not trust him. They’re all about embracing new life and new civilizations, but aren’t sure what he’s about.
Tiberius is in love with Penelope Gardner, an Admiral’s daughter. Penelope is “a school teacher from Iowa”. For those who don’t remember, James Tiberius Kirk is from Iowa. There’s a lot we can infer from the above few paragraphs. My conjecture is that these are Jim Kirk’s ancestors, and that the “Kirk” family name may have been adopted to escape the shadow of the Chase legacy. Could be wrong about this, though.
Tiberius rides a Harley Davidson Aero-Bike.
Other characters include (but are not limited to) Lieutenant Jaxx. Skal – the Vulcan who designed the NX-Omega’s warp engine. Admiral Gardner (Penelope’s dad – who struggles valiantly to marshal Earth’s defenses against the Romulans). Ensign Ogg (Maori from New Zealand), Otto (Tiberius’ father).OKAY, SO WHAT’S THIS THING ABOUT IN BROADSTROKES??
Tiberius has graduated UESN academy but his efforts to get into prestigious Starfleet are being stonewalled. He occupies his time by courting (and banging) Penelope (the Admiral’s daughter) while the NX-Omega Warp Tests are being conducted at the Saturn Flight Range (Chase was expected to fly the mission, but got canned from that as well). He’s a little lost, and finds himself increasingly lacking in purpose: he’s deeply devoted to a system which does not view him with affection.
While hanging out one morning with Penelope, Tiberius can’t peel his eyes from the sky. There’s something different about the sky this day…he’s not sure what it is. Then he sees the tiny speck of light, an odd star in a clear morning sky. But the star unleashes beams of death towards Earth: Romulans are attacking us, wrecking full-scale devastation in very short order!
But this isn’t even the PRIMARY attack force, which (we learn via Vulcan intelligence) is a little over two weeks away. At this point, segments of the movie are identified by superimposed titles (i.e. “D-Day Minus 3”, “D-Day Minus 2”, etc.)
Attacks on Honolulu, Beijing, Moscow, Athens, Cairo, London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Lisbon Power Station are either referenced or seen. A mammoth, ongoing space battle between Earth forces (UESN and Starfleet), factions who rush to Earth’s defense (Tellarites, Andorians under Commander Shran, Vulcans) ensues. The line against the Romulans is being held, but barely. Think TREK space conflict on the scale of a George Lucas film (the opening of EPISODE III comes to mind).
UESN and Starfleet facilities swing into action globally. We see Subterranean Facilities (SUBFACs) in Victoria, Paris, and China assembling munitions, churning out fighter craft, processing war supplies, etc. – action is set in several of these facilities.
What do these damn Romulans want? Our surrender. Why? Seems those green blooded bastards have been engaging in ethnic cleansing across the galaxy – they want to ride the universe of their wussy Vulcan offshoots once and for all. They’ve been moderately successful thus far, but Earth won’t surrender its Vulcan population (a defiance for which the Romulans were thoroughly unprepared, hence the need for the second wave of ships). Earth’s response to the Romulan demand for surrender? “Nuts”.
But…the truth of the matter is…we’re slowly, and certainly, losing & don’t stand a chance when the other Romulans get here. Reinforcements won’t reach us quickly enough. And Tiberius Chase doesn’t like to lose…
He hatches a plan…a foolhardy, dangerous plan no one will listen to: he wants to fly to the heart of the Romulan Star Empire and wreck havoc there before the primary Romulan attack fleet arrives “offshore Earth”. He wants to fragment the Romulans’ war making capability from within.
The higher-ups will not listen to him & summarily dismiss him. But a few folks are willing to embrace his glorious madness.
Chase and his bizarre, make-shift crew (including Skal – the Vulcan Warp Engine designer mentioned above) acquire a nuke from the Antarctica isolationists, then hijack a small ship called the U.S.S. Spartan - forcibly staffing it with hostages taken at its Saturn Drydock anchorage. Some of these hostages are confined to quarters, as they’re unwilling to participate in such a direct violation of orders. Others begin to understand that even a desperate, crazy, final hope for victory is better than no hope at all – and become willing crew members (and accomplices).
The brave little Spartan and her misfit crew leave our solar system with its nuclear bomb on a lonely trek to Romulus – where danger, uncertainty, and probable defeat await.
WOW! WHAT THE HELL? THAT SOUNDS REALLY DIFFERENT THAN OTHER TREKs WE’VE GOTTEN!

It is.

One of the most interesting elements of THE BEGINNING is how it knowledgeably and consistently embraces the tenets and principles of STAR TREK, but tells its story in a decidedly Un-STAR TREK way. This is a formula I’ve championed for quite a while – whenever people say TREK is “tired” and should be allowed to “rest”. My contention is that there’s nothing wrong with the TREK franchise in essence…and there’s still plenty of juice to be found in it. The problems its currently experiencing lie in the way TREK was telling its stories, and in the stories it was telling. It has lost the edge and vibrancy which drew audiences towards mythos to begin with.

Jendersen addresses these issues from its opening sequence: it’s comfortably TREK, but clearly told through very different eyes – through which see the TREK universe in a decidedly different style.

Is THE BEGINNING perfect? No – not by a long shot. There is a TOP GUN vibe running through portions of the script (Academy graduation material & how space fighter combat is conducted) which could’ve worked…but would probably register as a little too jarring in the final product. The young heroes call each other “bro” on several occasions – I get the modern
informality they’re going for here, but…you know…

The last quarter of the script (the anti-alien anarchist having a nuclear weapon that Chase drags off to Romulus) seemed a little too convenient & over-the-top…but there’s a funky, Verhoeven quality to it that, if directed right, could’ve been rather amusing (deliberately).
Finally, I don’t know if Chases’ desperate plan actually makes a whole lot of sense.
Obviously, it would’ve been feasible to address all of these issues in future drafts (again, this was the first & only draft written).BUT…WOULD IT HAVE WORKED?

It’s hard to know when such a radical reboot is in play. Whether or not they liked the story’s rough-and-tumble, balls-to-the-wall, semi-retro vibe…I think fans would’ve appreciated the heart of this story, as it picks up on one subtlety that often defines the most successful TREK stories:
TREK is, essentially, a duality…a contradiction. One on hand, it’s about heroes bringing values and their definition of “civilization” to societies and worlds who do not yet think like we do. Which is, at its core, a bit imperialistic. On the other hand, our heroes often achieve their objectives…even their survival…by bucking the same standards they attempt to spread, and by doing things their own way. It’s not that the system is “bad”, necessarily…it’s just not always the best means to an end.

This conflict is very much at the core of THE BEGINNING, evidenced by one single comment by Chase in a message to Penelope:

”…I will still, and forever, wonder how one can go boldly and follow at the same time?”

Jendersen’s script understood the heartbeat of STAR TREK, which is more than can be said for much of the TREK we’d seen in the years before it.

THE BEGINNING doesn’t exactly end. It partially resolves, but also promises TO BE CONTINUED. Where Jendersen’s macro story would’ve headed is unknown at the moment – although I’m told the tentative arc called for three films.

Given Berman’s track record throughout the franchise, especially towards the end of his tenure, it seems dubious that the right style would’ve been brought to THE BEGINNING…the right sense of wonder, abandon, or roughness. Berman’s work was too homogenized to make room for such profound changes in artistic approach.

None the less, Jendersen’s script is an imperfect-but-hugely tantalizing glimpse into a STAR TREK that might have been. And, some may argue, a tasty sampling of what it should become.

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