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Sequels, Reboots, and Other Facsimiles

At some point in between catching up with The Orville, I paused to watch the new Star Trek television series. It occurred to me that while I enjoyed both series, it's fair to say they are simply two branches of the same tree. Namely the great and spreading arbor that is the Star Trek universe. It interested me that although The Orville is clearly meant as a shameless homage (rip-off?) of Star Trek, its use of certain classically Trekian tropes like the legal struggle over personhood and what it means to be human struck a more immediate and familiar tone than anything I've seen in Discovery so far. And yet, I wouldn't say I enjoy The Orville more than Discovery, in fact far from it. Orville is a decent amount of fun, but Discovery feels like the genuine and sincere look at what made Star Trek Star Trek that Enterprise always wanted to be. 

We live in an age of facsimiles. Facsimile food. Facsimile presidents. Facsimile art.

In part, this isn't new. No matter how unique the creative expression, there are always antecedents and inspirations. But that's not really what I feel like the current crop of movies are doing. From reboots, sequels, and reimaginings, the animating urge appears to be casting about for ways to recreate what has come before to see what sticks in the present. You might explain this with a dismissive wave of your hand - familiarity sells - but there's enough quality work going on to make me think about the merits of copies and perhaps the rules of how to produce meaningful duplications.

I think, partly, even a clone has to have a soul. This is part of what I'm enjoying The Orville despite its shaky special effects (which look recycled at a lower resolution from Macfarlane's last space-centric project - Cosmos), uncertain acting, and pointless toilet humor. Lurking below the surface is a faithful recreation of the promise of Star Trek The Next Generation. I know that I'm being manipulated here but increasingly I find I don't care. I like following the adventures of a bunch of well-meaning doofuses running around with an incredibly powerful spaceship - exploring and asking questions. It really hasn't been since Voyager that I've felt a show sought to simply answer some age-old questions without slathering the whole production with death, despair, and puzzle box conundrums. That open-hearted embrace of the unknown and the power of facing tough decisions is what The Orville has already delved into. Sure, "About a Girl," was pretty ham-fisted and tone-deaf - but it was an honest attempt to do what Star Trek used to effortlessly. The thorny questions of "Pria" two episodes later were even more promising. This is show that could go places if it hones in on what sorts of stories it wants to tell. I simply didn't expect to enjoy this show as much as I am.

Which brings us to Discovery. I'm finding I'm enjoying Discovery exactly about as much as I thought I would. In comparison with The Orville, Discovery seems very sure of the type of story it wants to tell. Something suggests every strange dislocation in the early episodes will pay-off in a show more in keeping with the name of its ship, but for the moment, the episodes have been puzzling, thunderous, and concerned with failure more than hope. But, and this is crucial, I don't begrudge the show for that. It's trying things. This feels like a brand new show with out all of the baggage I usually associate with Star Trek. I'm not sure where this is all going but I'm willing to tag along (and pay $6 a month for the privilege, I suppose).

I have a few more thoughts about Blade Runner, a movie I reviewed in my last post. I mention this movie because this is pretty good example of how to do a sequel as opposed to a reboot or reimagining. This is a movie that only exists because of its predecessor. In look, sound, and tone, 2049 owes everything to one of the great cult hits of the last twentieth century. But what's really special about that film is that it doesn't stop at simply summoning up the spirit of a long gone movie. It moves forward. The same themes appear in the movie but they are developed and juxtaposed with other possibilities. A sequel should be another chapter in a book we thought we had finished. That's how Blade Runner feels, like it must be watched to find out the full story of the original.

After a second watch, I do wish Blade Runner 2049 pushed the emotional content of the story more. There's nothing as immediate as Roy Batty's final monologue, and partly by design, everything feels under tight control. There's little of the original's glorious squalor, where here even the San Diego landfill in this movie seems pretty tidy all things considered. Again, I suspect this is part of the theme, that the world of 2049 is a kind of calm before the storm, a society frozen in an uneasy status quo about to explode into violence.


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