Treknobabble #56: It’s Not a Small World After All

Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.

Star Trek is not an international phenomenon. It is not as popular as I have been led to believe. I suppose there are isolated pockets of Star Trek fans around the world with concentrations in America, the UK, and Germany. All the Star Trek Internet traffic is probably being generated by every Trekkie out there since all Trekkies are assumedly tech-savvy. So there are no backwards tribes on some Pacific island secretly worshipping Captain Picard’s bald pate. What I’m trying to say is that the apparent popularity of Star Trek is being generated by a vocal few.

My newfound skepticism has arisen from the recent publicity tour undertaken by J.J. Abrams and friends. There was a report on his visit to Korea. He apparently went to Tokyo as well as part of a brief Asian tour, but I haven’t found any information about that visit. Late last year, there was a European tour, but I haven’t found much information about that tour either. I suppose international film promotional tours don’t get much mainstream press, so I should be grateful for the few news reports that I have seen unlike the considerable coverage that is paid in America to Star Trek news at comic book conventions like the recent Wondercon 09.

Before I talk about Star Trek’s lack of international popularity, I wanted to comment on what was said in Korea. J.J. Abrams, Chris Pine (Kirk), and Zoe Saldana (Uhura) were in Seoul, South Korea of all places recently to promote Star Trek. I wonder if the marketing department thought that bringing John Cho (Sulu) would be too obvious a ploy, or maybe John Cho was busy.

A major Korean newspaper reported that the film would be called Star Trek: The Beginning in Korea. I guess calling the movie “Star Trek Begins” would have been too obvious. Now that I think about it, I wonder if Chris Nolan named his sequel The Dark Knight in order to broaden the film’s audience beyond the Batman comic book audience. Ha ha. Yeah, I know there’s a The Dark Knight comic, too, but I’m guessing the general populace was not aware that Batman was also known as The Dark Knight. Why wasn’t the movie called “Batman: The Dark Knight”? The sequel to this latest Star Trek movie will definitely be called “The Final Frontier” even though “The Final Frontier” was the sub-title of Star Trek V, not to mention the name of a popular Star Trek novel.

After Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) came out, its popularity seemed to me to result in other franchises and merchandise adopting “The Next Generation” phrase. I think Star Trek got that sub-title from someplace else, but I’m not sure. Maybe Bonanza: The Next Generation started the trend? I checked and found out that Bonanza: The Next Generation came out a year after TNG; however, I did find something thing came out two years earlier than TNG. Peyton Place: The Next Generation. I kid you not.

In Korea, J.J. Abrams apparently said the following: “… I saw so much potential and possibility that the original had failed to realize due to technological constraints …” From this, I take it that Abrams means that Star Trek needs CGI in order to visually show the future in all its awesome spectacle, and awesome spectacle is what the mainstream audience wants.

Some Trekkies are complaining about the updated look of everything. To celebrate an anniversary of the Original Series, there was an episode of Deep Space Nine (DS9) called “Trials and Tribble-ations” in which they took an episode of the Original Series and integrated a new plot with the DS9 characters. Through the use of CGI and recreations of costumes and set pieces and the gamut of 60’s production techniques, they were able to create an episode that felt like it was created in the 60’s. I’m sure Trekkies would have been ecstatic if J.J. Abrams had taken this approach. I’m almost as sure that the rest of humanity would have stayed away in droves come May.

According to Chris Pine, the mandate “was to create our own (role) and not worry too much about obeying the laws of the original Star Trek world.” This was in explaining that he was not doing an impersonation of William Shatner as Kirk. When I had heard this sort of explanation while he was making the movie, it made sense to me, because seeing someone impersonate William Shatner’s mannerisms would inevitably result in laughs. Upon reflection, I’m wondering why we don’t laugh when actors in biopics imitate real people. I know it makes sense for actors to create their own interpretations of fictional characters, but wouldn’t it have been unique if J.J. Abrams had actually tried to recreate the fictional Star Trek as we saw it portrayed by the original actors? I’m not sure if you understand what I’m saying. I’m saying that Spock is a great character, but it’s Leonard Nimoy’s Spock that is iconic and worthy of imitation.

At Wondercon 09, Pine added that besides the humor that Shatner brought to Kirk, there was a twinkle in Shatner’s eye that would have been impossible to imitate. I think this was an astute observation, but beyond that, I find that Shatner’s portrayal of Kirk was not a one-note performance. Throughout all his appearances, Kirk has displayed all the moods of human nature.

Zoe Saldana brought up the “masculine” setting which I assume is in reference to the rest of the main cast being male. I’m sure if Ronald D. Moore had not already done so with his reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, we would have had an Asian woman playing Sulu. This would have reinforced the idea that this new Star Trek is an alternate timeline.

(Okay, I admit that was a considerable side-track, but I had to put that in the main text because Film Junk doesn’t have side-bars for posts.)

Back to the issue at hand, Paramount’s effort with this Asian promotional tour is unprecedented and most assuredly required for Star Trek’s success. With the exception of Germany, Star Trek has never done well in non-English markets. Star Trek Nemesis only made about half a million dollars in Japan on 26 screens and most likely less than that amount in Korea. Given the Star Trek movie’s sub-title in Korea, it should be no surprise that Paramount looked at the success of the Batman franchise reboot with Batman Begins that earned a respectable combined total of about 19 million dollars in Korea and Japan. J.J. Abrams’ MI: III made a whopping 82 million dollars in Korea and Japan. That’s more than the domestic take for Star Trek Nemesis! That huge amount is attributed to Tom Cruise’s star power. Imagine if Abrams had been able to get Tom Cruise as was rumored to play Captain Christopher Pike in the new Star Trek movie.

To be honest, I suspected that Star Trek’s popularity was not as universal as publicized even before the new movie’s Asian promotional tour. Sure we saw some international Trekkies in “Trekkies 2,” and there was Jeff Greenwald’s “Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth” published in 1998. And searching on the Internet will lead you to Star Trek club sites from various places in the world. Given Star Trek’s multi-racial casts, you would expect a world-wide following. But culture is much more than just skin color. The exploratory nature of Star Trek suits the American sensibility of taming the Wild West. In every culture, you’re bound to find someone who thinks differently than everyone else. And these are the non-American Trekkies. (I’m generalizing.)

Greenwald is a travel writer who had the ingenious idea of finding Trekkies around the world. Just drop into a city and start asking around. I’d love to do that. I wonder if Film Junk has enough of a budget to send me around the world. With the help of the Internet, I think he did manage to find a Trekkie everywhere he went, so in that sense, I guess Star Trek has extended its reach everywhere. There were two chapters I found of particular interest: a visit to India, and a visit to Tibet to meet with the Dalai Lama.

An East Indian architect made the following comment in Jeff Greenwald’s book that seems so obvious: “It’s simple: Star Trek succeeds in societies that have already achieved basic levels of satisfaction. Where the food’s on the table. Where clothes are in the cupboard, and the car’s outside. Then, they’re willing to watch the next step. Star Trek is certainly the next step. But Indian viewers are more concerned with social issues. Our next step is getting food on the table.”

Greenwald also makes the valid observation that Indians already have their own Hindu mythology that provides the same inspiration that Star Trek mythology provides for Americans. The Mahabharata and Ramayana portray moralistic, ideal worlds with heroes in fantastic situations.

The Original Series was first televised in India in 1984! It has been rerun ever since. And only the first season of The Next Generation has ever been aired. (I don’t know if this has changed in the decade since Future Perfect was published.) So maybe basing the new movie on the Original Series was a good idea. East Indians hold movies in higher esteem than television according to one Indian Trekkie computer systems engineer. Science fiction media had not fared well in India although at the time Future Perfect was being written, Independence Day was breaking records at the box-office in India. So maybe this is another good reason why Star Trek is returning as a movie and not a television series.

The East Indian engineer also seemed to think that there was a generation-gap with kids only then beginning to appreciate science fiction. Now it seems that there is a young generation of East Indians ready to appreciate a big-budget Original Series Star Trek film, so the timing seems right. Maybe someone at Paramount did their research before green lighting the new Star Trek movie or maybe it’s coincidence, but everything about the new movie is pointing to it being a block-buster in India!

Greenwald’s interview with the Dalai Lama came about because of a photograph showing Data with a bunch of visiting monks to the TNG set. The Dalai Lama was not in the photograph. Two of the American monks were big fans of Star Trek. I have no idea how the two monks convinced about twenty of their Tibetan brethren to visit the TNG set. Maybe they were all fans of Star Trek. Anyway, Greenwald managed to get an interview with the Dalai Lama, and asked him directly if he had seen Star Trek. The Dalai Lama replied that he had watched some episodes of the Original Series! But he was not a Trekkie. He referred to Spock as “the man with the big ears.” I can just imagine the Dalai Lama adjusting the rabbit ear antennae on his 13″ black and white television while in his ashram high in the clouds of the Himalayas. And all of a sudden tuning into an episode and getting a first glimpse of Star Trek. He probably giggled.

When I visited the UK in 1990, I went to the Forbidden Planet science fiction store in London looking for Star Trek merchandise. They only had post cards. I think Star Trek would catch on shortly afterwards with a Star Trek pub and a Star Trek UK Fan Club. I always thought the UK Fan Club was better than the one in the States because they issued audio CDs with actor interviews.

At the height of Star Trek’s popularity in 1993, Canada got its own Official Star Trek Fan Club and magazine. It only lasted a year and a half with six issues of the magazine. They re-launched the Fan Club without publicity in the spring of 1995 with a differently titled magazine. I’m not sure if that magazine lasted more than an issue. The fan members of the original incarnation were not informed of the re-launch and previously paid, unfulfilled memberships were not extended to include the new magazine. Yes, I was one of the fleeced.

Canada no longer has any large convention devoted to Star Trek. I think the only reasonably large Star Trek convention around nowadays is the one held once a year in Las Vegas that attracts a few thousand people. It’s a good thing that Abrams isn’t pandering to Trekkies because there doesn’t seem to be that many devotees.

In order for Star Trek’s idealized future to become reality, we need to get everyone in the same mindset. I have always imagined that one step in getting everyone on this planet to love one another is to get everyone to love Star Trek. On the other hand, in Star Trek’s timeline, one of the prerequisites for the planet coming together was the occurrence of World War III. Here’s hoping that’s one aspect of Star Trek’s future that doesn’t come to pass.

Note: I always love to read Treknobabble reader comments, but in this case, I would especially love to hear from international fans who could corroborate or dispute anything that I’ve written in this Treknobabble.

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  • Star Trek is only known to people generally aware of american pop-culture here.

    I think Next Gen wasn’t as much Wild West, as it was enlightened colonization. Sort of like what europeans wish they could do, if they had the chance to colonize earth again (I’m guessing… maybe hoping). At least that’s what appeals to me about it.

    Have there ever been another american TV show with a european lead character? One that didn’t rely on it for marketing or gimmicks I mean.

  • ProjectGenesis

    Great stuff as always, Reed. Sorry I have no ‘international slant’ as I am just a mild-mannered mid-Westerner. Coincidently, I also went to the Forbidden Planet shop in London when I visited a few years ago but was looking for a first edition of my favorite novel, “Stars My Destination” by Alfred Bester (then known as Tiger Tiger Burning Bright) and not Star Trek stuff. Hilarious about the Canadian Star Trek Fan, how/when were you informed that they re-launched? Last question: Will Treknobabble be retired officially once the new movie comes out?

  • Henrik, you raised a very interesting question. I cannot think of another American TV show with a European lead character. Not even for marketing or as a gimmick. I hope someone responds with an answer.

    It’s interesting that the European nature of Patrick Stewart’s birth is one aspect that endears the Capt. Picard character to you. I’ve probably said this before, but your defense of TNG delights me to no end, because I would have suspected your skeptical nature to pick apart TNG’s inherent silliness. Troi’s telepathic ability and non-related cleavage display being two examples.

    Project Genesis, I have not read the classic “The Stars My Destination” and I really should. Did you get your first edition?

    I found issue one of the relaunch magazine for the Official Fan Club of Canada in a used bookstore. Actually, for all I know, the Official Fan Club of Canada might be in existence today as a secretive, cult organization. If anyone knows anything about it, please comment.

    I’ve been thinking that I’m bound to repeat myself in these Treknobabbles, but so far I think I’ve managed to come up with something fresh with each post. I think there can still be posts written to highlight the other series like TNG which I’ve given short shrift to. (Sorry again, Henrik.:-))

    I think Sean’s intent was to have Treknobabble for people to comment on the upcoming film so I’m not sure if he would be interested in keeping a general Star Trek column as a part of Film Junk after the film’s release even though I am sure there will be sequels. I did post some of my older Treknobabbles over at Trek Space, but the Trekkies there didn’t show much interest in my Treknobabbles. So I’m not sure about the future of Treknobabble.

    I’m guessing there are maybe 20 or so regular readers of Treknobabble, so I’m writing Treknobabble as a way to keep my brain active more than anything else.

  • A way you could garner more interest, might be to pursue comments or interviews from former cast members? Their look on Star Trek 20-30-40 years later and what not.

    One might think that it’s hard to get in contact with actors for interviews, but I’m a journalist myself and I just sling out emails and get lucky about 2/3 of the time, and that is with current actors. So just go at it Reed!

    PS. I enjoyed this article a lot, the best one in some time, funny that Dalai Lama has seen Trek :-)

    PPS. Once a sequel to Star Trek is announced, you could start a “Treknobabble: The Next Generation” collumn as a followup? ;-)

  • I will not defend Next Gen outside of Jean-Luc Picard. The rest of the characters are borderline intolerable-to-downright-infuriating.

    Picard and Q is good, and some of the Guinan stuff is good (Time’s Arrow I liked). But it’s all Picard, he exploded in my brain as a 14year old boy, sceptical of all things american.

  • rus in chicago

    Reed, did you even watch the The Dark Knight? The title is intricately tied to the entire story and is only uttered at the very end as Batman races off into the night – and becomes the DARK KNIGHT! Batman (dark knight) Harvey Dent (white knight), get it?! The whole Dark Knight soliloquy is some of the best writing and this build-up and layering is another reason its the best screenplay of last year. Man, turn in your film geek card, really.

  • For what it’s worth, I don’t even like most of Star Trek(DS9 seemed to be the most intelligent and decent to watch), but I enjoy your columns.

  • Aw, rus in chicago, did you just ruin The Dark Knight for me? Ha ha. So he’s not Batman anymore? His new name is The Dark Knight? :-)

    Seriously, the Batman comics are way better than the movies. Ha ha. From what I’ve heard and seen about The Dark Knight, the comics have already done that story to death.

    Yeah, I haven’t seen The Dark Knight, yet. I’m still waiting for a used copy to drop to 5 bucks. And I refuse to download it. And I refuse to buy a bootleg copy. And I refuse to borrow it from a friend. Where do I get a film geek card? :-)

    Thx for your comment, chris. I loved DS9 because it was so unpredictable and wacky. After its first year, anyway.

    I really appreciate non-Trekkies reading Treknobabble. For you guys, it must be like going to church because you like gospel music. Ha ha. Stupid analogy.

  • rus in chicago

    dude, trust me The Dark Knight is worth purchasing at regular price. $5 bargain bin?! What are you going to wait and see it in 2015?! Talk to Jay and Greg about the film, and get a crow bar to open your wallet and live a little!