Friday, May 29, 2009

Star Trek - Reboot Culture at Its Finest:

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently read a book about the "Remix" culture sweeping our society today, but there's yet another aspect of our modern society - the "Reboot" culture. Today I went to watch the new Star Trek film, and was profoundly reminded of the potency of this approach to storytelling.

First and foremost, I should say that the film is great. I won't get into specific plot elements, and in fact I won't even really review the film - there are many great reviews (such as those by science fiction authors Robert J. Sawyer, Orson Scott Card, and Paul Levinson), so I won't actually review the film. The sole thing you need to know about the film to follow the rest of this post is this:

The storyline continuity of the Star Trek universe is no longer continuous.

That is, the film makes fundamental changes to the history of the Star Trek, which means that any future films do not have to conform to the storyline that is familiar from the original Star Trek series, or any of the subsequent series.

This sort of approach to fiction is called a "reboot," based on the idea that the storyline is starting over. Fans of science fiction and comic books will be well aware of this idea, which is probably most clearly illustrated in the mid-80's Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline from DC comics. In Crisis (as it is often abbreviated), DC comics essentially took a set of convoluted (and often contadictory) storylines and brought them together, literally rewrote the history of their universe, resulting in a final product that took material from their entire history and spat out, when all was said and done, a new storyline that was the result of combining and streamlining all of this material (much of which was contradictory) into one single continuity.

Reboots (and their close cousin, the remake) are common now, especially in the science fiction genre. Smallville is essentially a reboot of the Superman mythology (in fact, each incarnation of Superman on television has been a reboot, as is the more recent Superman film). The Batman franchise was rebooted by Tim Burton in the Michael Keaton version, then rebooted again in with Batman Begins starring Christian Bale. The Terminator franchise is about time travel, and each film (and the recent television show) has caused a reboot (which, in part, seems as if it may be part of the new film - John Connor's realization that the future he's experiencing isn't quite what he expected). Transformers has been rebooted numerous times - in comics, in subsequent television shows after the original, and in the recent film. The upcoming G.I. Joe film looks like it'll reboot that franchise, as well.

These reboots are essentially "remixes" or "mash-ups" of elements inherent in the original material, which yields something substantially different as an output. The difference between these and the remix culture spoken of by Lawrence Lessig is that these reboots are performed by the company that own the rights to the original material.

I personally have very mixed feelings about reboots, but thinking about them as remixes gives a different perspective. I used to find them annoying (and still do, as in the case of trying to keep up with what's going on in the Terminator television storyline), but now I do see the way in which they add value. For the franchises that have a long history, this gives them an ability to streamline the continuity to produce new content that makes sense, making it accessible to an entirely new generation.

The problem, of course, is that the remakes are never the same as the original ... something which attracts some fans, but will distance others. It is certainly the prerogative of the intellectual property owner (corporations in most of these cases) to change the nature of their intellectual property. 

In the case of the Star Trek film, though, I think more people will be attracted than distanced.

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