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Why 'Star Trek' Fans Are Wrong and Roberto Orci Is Right (Opinion)

Paramount's sequel has been dismissed by purists as crass, corny and catering to the lowest common denominator. But are the new films a lot closer to the original sci-fi series than most fans are willing to admit?

Roberto Orci - H 2013
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Roberto Orci

Star Trek Into Darkness screenwriter Roberto Orci earned some bad press last week over a series of profanity-laced comments leveled at Star Trek fans on the site TrekMovie.com. The site ran an article calling the franchise "broken" and noted that many fans despise the sequel, which Orci co-wrote with Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof.

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In one of the more startling exchanges, after a commenter suggests that the Indiana Jones series has more social commentary than Into Darkness did, Orci replied, "You lose credibility big time when you don't honestly engage with the F--KING WRITER OF THE MOVIE ASKING YOU AN HONEST QUESTION. You prove the cliche of shitty fans. And rude in the process. So, as Simon Pegg would say: F--K OFF!"

Obviously, Orci's comments went overboard. But I'd argue that the first half of Star Trek Into Darkness was not just good but great (one of the best first halves of any Star Trek film), and that the second half had several flaws, and the film would have been better served if Orci and his fellow writers had continued with their own original ideas for the story (Khan becoming Kirk's ally was brilliant) instead of trying to mirror Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. So yes, the film had some problems, and fans aren't being unreasonable to complain about those things.

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However, the truth is that the fans' primary complaints about the film -- including the premise of the article that set Orci off -- are based upon what is frankly a long-lived myth among Star Trek fans.

The original series was not just a character study in service to high-minded intellectual and philosophical storytelling. It was a space Western that took every opportunity insert a fistfight, a spaceship battle, a corny joke or a half-naked woman for Kirk to kiss. It did all of that with fun, well-defined character relationships and, frequently, a thoughtful theme relevant to society. But it was also very often kind of silly, and it consistently offered action-driven shoot-'em-up stories and creature-feature tales.

Fans tend to view the original series through lenses colored by the subsequent film series and the later TV programs, especially Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the films had a higher quality of writing and attention to character arcs. Likewise, the later TV shows were much more in line with creator Gene Roddenberry's intentions to create a smarter sort of sci-fi show that touched on moral issues and social themes every week. But the original series was quite different from these later incarnations and was forced to forgo many of Roddenberry's preferences and ideas in favor of studio demands for an action-adventure Western in space.

Fans are perceiving the original series not purely on its own merits, but instead within the context of everything else that came after it -- so it's a big mistake to use it as a yardstick to judge what Star Trek is or isn't.

We already have 10 Star Trek movies that focused more on the idealized conception of the original series. Those films featured more mature, experienced versions of the crew, and they faced their adventures in a more mature, experienced manner. The films reflected more of Roddenberry's original hopes for what the series could have been, and they helped popularize the franchise so that Star Trek: The Next Generation could flourish and fully realize Roddenberry's intentions. The previous films, in other words, all moved beyond the original series.

But that isn't the intent of the J.J. Abrams films. These films are a different kind of Star Trek -- they are big-screen versions of the original series, the pure space Western action-adventure that we haven't yet seen on the big screen because all the other films have moved so far away from that. Abrams' movies aren't trying to use the original series as a point of departure -- they are using it as their primary template.

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Which is not to say the two newest films don't include the level of moral consideration and social themes that did show up frequently in the original series. Both of Abrams' movies had plenty of social commentary and moral themes woven into the storytelling. The newest film in particular was quite socially relevant to our times. The character relationships were all consistent and enjoyed some ups and downs, too. In fact, the latest film was more consistent and reflective of the characterizations and had more social/moral considerations than many of the original series episodes.

Star Trek (2009) was awesome, regardless of any nitpicks a hardcore Trekker could offer. (Transporting onto a ship moving at warp speed? Scotty just made spaceships obsolete! And if Kirk could disable the Romulan drill with a handheld weapon, why couldn't the Vulcans have sent a ship or missile to shoot the drill? But we digress.) As noted earlier, the first half of Star Trek Into Darkness was even more awesome. The big finale with Spock chasing Khan through the city was exciting. And regardless of my own complaints about the flawed second hour, even that part is still better than four or five other films in the franchise.

In other words, just like in the original series, the new movies had flaws and sometimes put action ahead of drama, but they never lost the focus of their desire to entertain us. The main fan complaints therefore do seem rather hyperbolic, and Orci was right in defending the film -- which doesn't mean he should have gone on a profane rant against fans in their own forums, but, on the other hand, would fans rather the writer just ignored them and not engage them at all? I doubt it. And it sounds like Orci regrets how he expressed himself and has already apologized on Twitter.

We got six films with the original cast, and then four more films with the Next Generation cast. They all completely avoided retro sensibilities and looked quite different from the original series in style, tone, pacing and approach. It's fine for the new films to reflect the original series in a more direct, albeit reimagined, way and show us what the original series might have looked like if it were made today, with modern budgets and dazzling visual effects.

In other words, the franchise isn't broken, folks. It's just gone back to its true roots.

Twitter: @markhughesfilms