Treknobabble #47: Don’t Go Changing On Me

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

A new year will be shortly upon us. Some see this as a chance to change or to correct some perceived deficiency. But to some, change is not permitted. There exists a tribe of Trekkies who highly value Star Trek canon. I am not a member of that tribe. And I don’t know why I’m not, because I think I should be. Maybe I should first explain what is meant by Star Trek canon.

Star Trek takes place in a fictional universe; however, the established rules of that universe should be followed consistently from adventure to adventure, and the events that happen are taken as real in that universe. Even for non-science fiction stories, the audience can only follow a plot so long as everything that is seen is internally consistent within the story. And if a story depends on or is a continuation of past events, audiences expect the details to be the way they were established in history.

Even when only the Original Series existed, Trekkies began trying to make sense of stardates that were originally just made up numbers. When the creators saw that the fans were paying attention to even the smallest details, they made an effort to make sure everything had an explanation even though an explanation wasn’t necessary for the stories being told. As each new Star Trek series was created, the task of maintaining the Star Trek canon became more difficult since the writers had to make sure that they didn’t do anything that contradicted what had been established in a previous Star Trek episode of any previous series.

When Star Trek novels came out, a problem became evident. Star Trek novelists loved filling in the details of minor characters or passed over plot points, and adding elements not shown in episodes. Especially after the Original Series ended, fans wanted to know what happened to the crew in subsequent missions and even after the five-year mission. Because the television or movie writers wanted the freedom to extrapolate on past televised episodes, they felt the need to ignore what any Star Trek novelist had written. Officially, Star Trek canon is only based on what happens in the television episodes and movies. Because Gene Roddenberry didn’t exert creative control on the Star Trek animated series, he even felt the need to ignore the animated television series.

Since Star Trek was originally created in the 1960s, it did describe one event in future time that has already passed. Khan Noonien Singh was supposed to have come to prominence in the 1990s and initiate a conflict between genetically modified humans and the rest of humanity. Since people like to think the Star Trek future is our future, then how does one explain the fact that none of us who lived through the ’90s have never heard of Khan? Ironically, a series of Star Trek novels by Greg Cox ingeniously comes up with an explanation.

When Star Trek: The Motion Picture was made and there was ample money to spend, the Klingons ended up getting a makeover with ridges on the head. All of a sudden, Trekkies concerned with canon had an intriguing conundrum in trying to explain the difference between these new Klingons and the smooth headed Klingons in the Original Series. Some conjectured that the bumpy headed Klingons were the warrior class and the smooth headed were the diplomatic class, but why haven’t we seen the diplomatic class anymore? Some thought that the Klingons had genetically modified themselves to be fiercer. The creators thought that it was something not worth having to explain. When Deep Space Nine with Worf revisited the Original Series’ episode The Trouble with Tribbles which featured smooth headed Klingons, the difference was hard to ignore. So the creators had Worf make the amusing remark to his crewmates that the difference is not openly discussed outside the Klingon Empire.

In Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, Klingons had pink blood; however, the Next Generation chose to continue to use red as the color of Klingon blood. If Spock is shown bleeding in the new film, his blood should be green because Vulcans have copper based blood. I suppose moviegoers unfamiliar with Vulcan physiology would accept the fact that pointy-eared aliens have green blood.

When the prequel Star Trek television series Enterprise was airing episodes, the creators of that show received flak whenever they showed something that didn’t quite jibe with what was established later. A co-worker remarked to me that the show had misnamed a Klingon ship. Actually, the confusion between Klingon and Romulan technology can be blamed on various incidents. In the Original Series, Romulans were seen using Klingon ships only because there was no money to build separate ships. To explain this, I think there was a line added to a script where Spock mentioned that Klingons and Romulans were sharing technology. Confounding the situation was that in The Search for Spock, Romulans were initially the villains, but then in rewrites, the Klingons became the villains, but no one realized that the ship was still referred to as a Bird of Prey which was Romulan terminology. So the Klingons ended up having their own Bird of Prey.

As I mentioned earlier, I should be bothered by all the inconsistencies. Why? Because I’m anal. I’m very detail-oriented. I try to alphabetize everything I collect. I group things in categories. I hang all my shirts and coats so that the open sides are all facing in the same direction. I like definitive answers with little room for interpretation. So why am I so lenient when it comes to Star Trek? I like to think that I know that Star Trek is “only a television show,” so there’s no use in getting upset about something that doesn’t really matter.

Last month, I was seated at a dinner table with seven other people at a Chinese banquet. These banquets have several courses and last for several hours. It was only after three hours that I discovered there was another Trekkie at the table! When a cousin dropped by the table and started talking to me about the just released Star Trek movie trailer, he maintained his cover even though he listened to our conversation. Only later did his wife offhandedly mention that he was a Trekkie. His favorite Star Trek series is Deep Space Nine (DS9). I had only read about Niners on the Internet. I love DS9 as well, so we started gabbing about specific episodes. My brother laughed at us, because we were behaving like geeks and leaving the rest of the table dumbfounded with nothing to add to our conversation.

So when we started talking about the Star Trek movie trailer, he opined that the movie would not be true to Star Trek canon. For this reason, he would not go see the movie! I found this really strange because he wasn’t a big fan of the Original Series, so his knowledge of Star Trek canon couldn’t be expansive. He was a lapsed Trekkie. He didn’t currently visit any Star Trek sites on a regular basis. I doubt that my brother will bother checking out the new Star Trek movie. He did go see the Lost in Space movie at a theater. My sister-in-law at the table wasn’t even aware there was a new Star Trek movie coming out. I would have no allies at the table to convince the Trekkie that his stance was questionable.

Let me address the obvious “error” in the upcoming Star Trek movie that apparently violates Star Trek canon. This “error” existed in the early stages of development, because it existed in the very first trailer. Every Trekkie knows that the U.S.S. Enterprise was built in orbit. Yet, the first trailer shows a construction worker not in a space suit and apparently welding something on the Enterprise in construction. And the latest trailer has Kirk on a motorbike looking up at the Enterprise under construction presumably on Earth. I must admit that I couldn’t remember where I got the idea that the Enterprise was built in orbit. I don’t think it was ever mentioned in an episode or movie, and I’m most certain it was never shown. So why do Trekkies think building the Enterprise on Earth violates canon?

I recalled Utopia Planitia on Mars as being a shipyard, which I guessed must have been on the surface of Mars. Mars does have 38% of the gravity on Earth, so this would require less energy to build on the surface of Mars rather than on the surface of the Earth. I’m guessing that if an accident occurs, having the accident on Mars would be less catastrophic. (I wish that particle collider in Europe was on Mars.) I discovered that the USS Enterprise-D, the USS Defiant shown on DS9, and the USS Voyager were built at Utopia Planitia. A book co-written in the ’60s by Gene Roddenberry, The Making of Star Trek, indicates that components were built at the San Francisco Navy Yards and the Enterprise was assembled in space. I had read this book so that’s why I probably thought that the ship was built in space. Since Gene Roddenberry wrote this, that’s why Trekkies consider it to be canon.

Roberto Orci, a co-writer of the new Star Trek film, tried to explain the choice of constructing the Enterprise on Earth as creative license and the precedent set in Star Trek novels, which I remind you are not considered to be canon. He further explained that the idea of building in orbit had to do with “flimsy” objects that could best be constructed in a gravity-less environment. And since the Enterprise generates its own gravity, it made sense that the ship should be constructed where gravity exists. I always thought that the reason for constructing in space was because launching an entire ship into space to escape gravity would cause undue stress on the joints and materials. Isn’t that the reason why we’re building the International Space Station out in space? I suppose the United States doesn’t currently have any rockets that could launch a large space station into orbit. Besides, unlike the USS Voyager, the USS Enterprise was not meant to enter the atmosphere and land on a planet.

There have also been hints that because time travel is involved, the events in the new Star Trek film could be presenting an alternate universe, but a universe and a future that we exist in nonetheless!

I’m prepared to roll with the changes. I figure that my biggest hurdle will be accepting the absence of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as the main characters. To me, Spock and Kirk are like family members. Imagine watching home movies where all of your family members have been replaced with other people! Come May, I hope I feel like I’m watching Star Trek and not The Twilight Zone.

  • Neil M

    I don’t know about everyone else, but my New Years resolution is to party with Reed at some point in my life.

  • Haha, Neil M. I was just at Sean’s place ringing in the New Year, and I was the only one drinking alcohol. We played the Hollywood Squares board-game. Jay won at Cineplexity. I beat Jay at chess 3 times. The first time I beat him I used the 4 move check-mate. And then he beat me twice at arm-wrestling. But Greg then beat Jay twice at arm-wrestling. We usually play RockBand and foosball, but we switched the routine this time. So that’s what it’s like to party with the Film Junk Junkies.

    I don’t blame you if you want to change your New Year’s resolution now. :-)

  • 4 move check mate that’s classic! Did you say pwned?

    I think I may like you the best of all the film junkies, either because we’re both assholes, or because you are the only who gets inebriated. Inebriation is the sugar of life.

  • Bas

    Hey Reed, happy new year! And thanks for the treknobabble. I didn’t like the earth-bits of the trailer, but I loved the rest. In my opinion they can deviate from Star Trek canon to some extent, as long as they do it to make a better movie and not because they don’t know or care.

  • Henrik, I should have yelled “pwned,” but that lingo isn’t second nature to me. Instead I jumped around exclaiming my victory while everyone else stared at me like I was an asshole. The victory was sweet because Jay beats me at every other game. So starting the New Year with a victory over Jay was an auspicious sign for the rest of the year. I thought I would have to resort to a game of chance, but it turns out a game of logic was the way to go.

    For the record, I don’t usually imbibe alcoholic spirits, but scientists say red wine is good for you, so who am I to doubt them?

    Happy New Year to you, Bas! Thx for reading Treknobabble. The few comments these Treknobabbles generate leave me a bit insecure as to how many people actually take the time to read Treknobabble.

    I sort of agree with your opinion about Star Trek canon, but I don’t even care if Abrams and company know or care about Star Trek canon. I’m not even expecting to be intellectually stimulated. I guess it’s sort of bad that I follow Star Trek blindly without questioning the integrity of the franchise. I simply love Star Trek.

  • Man, Cineplexity? Rock Band? Arm Wrestling? I wish I was there. :)

  • Reed, how does it feel to have your article be the last post on film junk in ’08?

  • Bas

    ” The few comments these Treknobabbles generate leave me a bit insecure as to how many people actually take the time to read Treknobabble.”

    I read almost every new article on filmjunk but only reply to a few, so you can be sure that Neil M, Henrik, Drew and myself are not the only ones who have read this :)

  • Drew, I’m not sure if it’s much of a distinction to have the last article on Film Junk in 2008. I am surprised though that Sean didn’t post a new article on the first day of the New Year even though I guess not much happened today in the film world.

    Bas, thx for soothing my fragile ego.

    I’m currently reading a book called The Death of the Grown-Up by Diana West. Even though I’m guilty of perpetuating the problem she expounds upon, I quite agree with her assessment. I’m going to work her thesis into my next Treknobabble, and question what it means to be a Star Trek fan when one maintains the child inside. Perhaps Star Trek fans are making a difference by entering responsible professions, but are they making the decisions that will make the world a better place? And will Star Trek itself remain mired in mediocrity?