Saturday, 18 June 2016

Destroying the Enterprise

What do 1984, 1994 and 2016 have in common?

Each of those years marks the destruction (apparent in Beyond I might add) of the USS Enterprise and the beginning of the speculation over the design of the next starship to carry the hallowed name.

But after so many years and a near obliteration in the previous two reboot movies, is this the one explosion too far? Is this a trope that needs to be nipped in the bud right away? Could the fourth reboot manage to avoid what has become a cliche for the Star Trek franchise?

My easy answer would be "Yes" but let's spin back all those years and look at the history of poor old Enterprise. Admittedly she's not had as much bad luck as the seemingly immortal Voyager but track back to The Search for Spock and it really was the Big Thing, the crowd-puller, the draw to the film that it would be the starship's final voyage (and Spock was back but we worked that out from the title). While Harve Bennett wanted the destruction of the Enterprise kept under wraps it was included in the movie's trailer leaving nothing to the imagination. Yep, there's the saucer exploding and the voiceover announcing it's the last voyage of the Starship Enterprise. Well played, slow clap.

While the third Star Trek flick might not be quite up there with The Wrath of Khan, the violent end of the USS Enterprise is a seminal moment. It was sacrificed to "turn death into a fighting chance to live" and went out with some style and a whole crew of Klingons but more importantly it was the ship that had carried Kirk and crew through the five year mission, it was the ship that had become an icon. It was instantly recognisable across the world and even had a space shuttle named after it. Not bad for a lump of wood and metal originally put together in a warehouse huh?

So the movie version was a totally new model but it was still the NCC-1701 USS Enterprise, the first, the original and the one without the additional letter on the registry so you can understand how significant its demise was to a generation of fans. How would the crew get around now? Were they really going to be stuck on a Bird of Prey for the remainder of their careers? Doubtful and The Voyage Home confirmed that in its closing minutes with the unveiling of the absolutely identical Enterprise-A although we'd have to wait until The Final Frontier to get a better look. Her arrival in fact paved the way as to how future Enterprise's would be identified (A, B, C not 1, 2, 3 as was nearly the case) just ahead of a certain series that launched in September 1987.

So we skip forward three movies and 80 years of the timeline to Star Trek Generations. Again classed as one of the weaker motion pictures, Generations has many notable moments one of which has to be the battle with the Duras sisters which leads to the end of the star drive section of the Galaxy Class ship and the crash landing of its saucer section. The Enterprise-D might have survived seven seasons of the TV series and several close calls (Cause and Effect, Timescape, All Good Things...) but it just didn't resonate anywhere near as much as the end of the Constitution Class original in Star Trek III. For one it went out with a bit of a whimper being taken down by a rusty old Bird of Prey and then the saucer crash did look a little too fake even given that we all know this is fiction. 

While instantly as recognisable the design was derivative of the original which still held up as a true legend of stage and screen. Oddly though the D had been on screen a considerable amount longer than its hallowed predecessor clocking 178 episodes and a movie to NCC-1701's 79 episodes, three movies and an unaired pilot but the way in which her end was handled didn't pull at the heart strings as much. The demise of the original has a much more emotional climax as it burns up in the atmosphere while all hell breaks loose on the crashdive of the Enterprise-D saucer.

I suppose the other factor here was that while the Enterprise-D was great for TV it wasn't as practical for movies and had to go for the series to take the leap to the larger screen. Maybe for me that's part of the reason that it's not as big a moment in the history of Star Trek. The ship was disposable, while its loss was mourned in the closing scene of the film, Riker is fairly flippant in noting that there are plenty of letters in the alphabet. Perhaps it became a product of the era in which the show was created; disposable and easily replaced, maybe not as revered as the first Starship Enterprise

Destruction of a starship has always worked more effectively when we've not seen it coming. Take for instance the shock Breen attack on the Defiant in The Changing Face of Evil or the "other" Voyager self-destructing in Deadlock. They work well as part of a plot and not to be essential to create the plot and that could be a downfall for Beyond if it's relying on that element of the film to put bums on seats; Come see the Enterprise destroyed...again. Perhaps the biggest issue I have with either of those is that Deep Space Nine just got given a replacement and Voyager hit the reset button.

Back in The Search for Spock it really was the end of an era. The ship had been part of the franchise since 1964 - thirty years - while the "D" had only really been around from 1987 to 1994. Not even a decade. The arrival of the Sovereign Class "E" in First Contact was a breath of fresh air. It was meatier, a true  starship devoid of families and more suited to the movie era of The Next Generation crew. But I digress.

Jump forward again to the 2009 movie and the Enterprise has become such a disposable commodity that in both that movie and Into Darkness we see it virtually ripped apart back to its bare bones (more so in the 2013 sequel) and now in Beyond we have already been alerted very openly to the notion that this movie will contain very little screen time for the rebooted flagship which seems to end its days very early on in the proceedings. Is this the step too far? Did we really need to have another movie event where the ship is placed in such severe danger?

I can only hope that there's no reset button looming before the closing credits. I might be totally wrong of course and the end of the starship plays but a tiny part in the larger picture hence we've seen quite a bit of its demise in the trailers and if it is being played down completely then I have to admire that choice and potentially to focus more on the characters than big space battle effects.  It seems now that the expectation is that the Enterprise will be placed in a mega-dangerous situation regularly and I'm not sure if that's good storytelling at all. We know that the final frontier is going to be a mysterious place and perhaps Starfleet isn't prepared for everything but somehow the USS Enterprise managed to survive 79 episodes and numerous opponents.

For note it's now been confirmed that the "swept" design of the Enterprise seen fleetingly in the trailer and also in the HP advert are changes to the ship we've seen in the two previous films rather than hints of an end-of-movie replacement. In fact Popular Mechanics has published this amazing cutaway of the Enterprise, the Franklin and the one man Swarm ships which confirmed this. What we now also know is that the Franklin is a Warp Four starship placing it somewhere before the Archer Warp Five Enterprise. It even has (SPOILER) handy motorcycle storage.

Back to the thread here after that indulgent aside...

Trouble is we may then view the successor of the JJ-prise in the same light; a fad, something to get us through a couple of films before it is once more rebooted. Star Trek has always been more than this to me. It's about the characters and the obliteration of the Enterprise should never be a necessity to tell a good story. People were genuinely surprised and disappointed that this plot device was being rolled out again and that there wasn't something new and exciting to be done. OK placing the characters on the antiquated Franklin might be a nod to the NX class and a bygone era of the Federation but is this all the writers could come up with?

Viewing the starship in these terms really does reflect the time in which it was created. In the 1960's it was built to last, to be there for many years and even within the films the original USS Enterprise lives a long and glorious life including an extensive refit. None of its successors manage anything like that, lasting episodes, a movie, a few in-universe years but nothing more. The more recent the ship and the more easily and readily replaceable much like the portable tech of the day - iPods, laptops etc etc are just the same. A shame but a product of the times. 

Maybe another way of looking at the destruction of the Enterprise is that it moves the franchise forward to a new phase. In the case of the original its end in The Search for Spock preceded the arrival of the Enterprise-D and that things had to move on and fans needed to accept a new ship/crew. When the "D" was retired it marked the move from TV to cinema for The Next Generation and was a key change in the tone of their adventures (think about that families and exploration versus the more militaristic style of the "E") and could the end of the reboot Enterprise signal a dynamic change in the reboot universe and an "end" to the JJ influence? Is it a symbol that we will be heading into adventures more befitting the Star Trek ethos than in 2009 and 2013?

Whether she survives another film or not, the legacy of the USS Enterprise cannot be ignored nor will it be. That very longevity I speak of has even permeated the real world with the original model still very much in existence and being restored at the Smithsonian Museum in the US. Just proves you can't keep a good starship down and you don't always need another letter of the alphabet to do it.

What's your take on the demise of the Enterprise? Necessity? Gimmick?

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