Parable of the Violin... and also Star Trek
A stage - empty but for a spotlight and a stradivarius violin: one of the world's finest.
Onto that stage walks Joshua Bell, arguably one of the world's finest violinists. He picks up the instrument, and begins to play...
Over the next five minutes, he draws out a heart-rending lyrical melody, angry and passionate fireworks, perfect chromatic scales that leave other musicians agog. Bell brings the music to a dynamic, tonal, and emotional crescendo. The climax of the music is palpable.
There's a moment of breathless silence. Then, the crowd erupts in applause. "BRAVO," come the shouts.
Bell bows and leaves the stage.
A moment later, a man in a business suit climbs onto the stage from the audience. He picks up the violin and marvels at it. "Wow, this thing is amazing!"
The businessman points to one of his neighbours from the audience: "Briggs! You know music, right? Get up here and play this magical music thingamajig! Make more music. We'll be rich!"
The lackey, Briggs, climbs awkwardly onto the stage and picks up the violin. He scrapes and scratches away. The tone is poor and the rhythm wrong and the notes off-key. Within a few measures, the crowd begins to boo. Quietly at first, then angrily.
The lackey stops playing, sheepishly. The businessman takes the violin from his underling:
"Huh, I guess it's broken now," he says, and tosses it off the stage. It smashes on the aisle below.
This is film and television franchise culture in a nutshell.
We continually talk about how sick we are of sequels, prequels, spinoffs, adaptations, and yes, reboots. I don't think that, artistically, there's an inherent problem with any of these things. The problem is that corporations see franchises as businesses: opportunities to keep on making money without developing new ideas.
I'm writing this because I'm angry about two franchises in particular, Star Trek and the Muppets, and how they're examples of treasured properties being exploited for profit. A franchise, a story world, a set of predefined characters - like the violin, these are merely vessels - they can be played beautifully, or cringingly.
In the glory days of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, a well-written episode of Star Trek could move you to tears, or expose you to socio-political ideas and ethical dilemmas that you hadn't even considered yet. That was one of the goals of Star Trek - not just to entertain, but to intellectually engage. But sadly, there hasn't been any new Trek on television since 2005 when the ill-fated Enterprise was cancelled.
Flash forward to 2009. JJ Abrams is helming a big-screen reboot of Star Trek. Appearing on the Daily Show, Abrams tells Jon Stewart that he never really liked Star Trek; it was "too philosophical".
Stewart's response was catharsis to every Trekkie anywhere:
“I stopped listening to you when you said you didn’t like ‘Star Trek.’ I know what happened because your mouth kept moving after that, so I’m assuming you apologized.”
The jibe was friendly, but what makes it so memorable is how well Stewart called out Abrams' own heresy.
Generally, I like Abrams. I'm not a Lost fan, but I've enjoyed like Cloverfield and Super 8, the latter of which shows a special reverence for childhood adventure films of the late 70's and early 80's. It's that kind of reverence, a certain appreciation for retrofuturism, action, and "heart", that makes JJ Abrams perfect for Star Wars. He's taking up a franchise which has been damaged by some ham-handed, profit-motivated playing, and using his own artistry to breathe new life into it.
Star Wars is a trumpet, and Abrams is an accomplished brass player.
But Star Trek is NOT a trumpet. JJ Abrams, by his own admission, had no business playing that instrument. Yet, while Abrams understands geek culture, and the reverence fans hold for various franchises, he chose to play Star Trek like a trumpet. The movies aren't necessarily bad, but they don't make for good Star Trek.
Abrams, who knows what it's like to be a fan, should have known better.
I won't go into depth here about my many problems with the new Trek films. I will say that, at this point in history, filled with popular awareness and acceptance of feminism, of movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street, we are in desperate need of the optimistic Sci Fi that Trek of TV past provided. We need television that questions our moral standpoint and shows us a better, more inclusive future.
Abrams' Trek, with its predominantly white, male, human, heterosexual cast, and its quite often blatantly misogynistic lens (perhaps in some twisted reverence of 1960's TV Kirk's womanizing antics of old) does not strike the right tone.
Likewise, critics are complaining that the new the muppets TV show format doesn't fit with the tone established by the franchise's best work. I haven't watched the show myself, but many who did found the characters cold and cynical; two qualities that definitely do NOT fit the Muppets. One wonders why ABC didn't seek out Jason Segel, who so successfully reenergized the Muppets for a new generation in the 2011 film. Bill Prady should have stuck to Big Bang Theory.
It's obvious that big content producers see TV and film franchises merely as moneymaking vehicles, rather than pre-built worlds with adoring fans who ought to be honoured. Like the violin in my parable, these franchises are mined out by people who don't truly understand the spirit of the story-world or its characters. Once it's apparent that franchise isn't producing the monetary gains that it did in days past, it's cast aside. The next person who wants to play that violin has to repair the damage.
Wouldn't it be nice if we treated these old, beloved franchises like fine instruments? I say, if we want to have a violin concerto, please, find a violinist.
Tell the trumpet player to stay home.