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Time Travel

Come Visit The Future. First Stop: The Past.

December 07, 2008|Geoff Boucher | Boucher is a Times staff writer.

The future looks very familiar. Science fiction, by its nature, is a celebration of the new, but you wouldn't know that by watching Hollywood's space operas. "Star Trek," for instance, is on the way back to theaters next summer in hopes that moviegoers will still want to boldly go where millions and millions have gone before. And it's been more than 30 years since "Star Wars" made film history, but the Force is still very much with us -- whether we like it or not -- with a seventh film in theaters this past summer, one of the year's bestselling video games and a new weekly animated television show (there's also talk of a live-action series in the next year or two).

And that's just the tip of the meteorite.

The "Terminator" and "Robocop" franchises are being revved up now for more mechanical-man mayhem, and classic films such as "Forbidden Planet" and "When Worlds Collide" are in the remake pipeline, while the new take on "The Day the Earth Stood Still," starring Keanu Reeves, opens Dec. 12. Even "Battlestar Galactica," which began as a small-screen "Star Wars" knockoff in the 1970s, has been revived with spectacular results and will break new ground in 2009 with the TV movie "Caprica" on Sci Fi, with a series to follow.

The question, though, is why does Hollywood keep looking to the past? "Science fiction should be about ideas and what it means to be human, it should always be about the new and the challenging," William Shatner said on a recent afternoon as he sipped a Starbucks coffee and watched traffic zoom past his Ventura Boulevard office. So why does Hollywood keep putting its money in the same old Enterprise? " 'Star Trek' connected with so many people for so long, and 'Star Wars' is the same way," he said. "There's a thrill for fans to see the heroes they know."

Shatner won't be one of those heroes in the new "Star Trek" film -- a sour point for the actor who played Capt. James T. Kirk on television and in seven films and had hoped for a cameo -- but Paramount Pictures is absolutely hoping that the new film, directed by J.J. Abrams ("Mission: Impossible III," TV's "Alias" and "Lost") will have the warp power needed for a 21st century "Star Trek" franchise built around young stars such as Chris Pine (Kirk) and Zachary Quinto (Mr. Spock). Those ambitions go a long way to explaining the Hollywood fixation on tried-and-true properties.

It's difficult to find a sci-fi project in recent years that wasn't based on an earlier film or television show, although "Minority Report," "Signs" and "Children of Men" did buck the trend.

Ronald D. Moore, creator of the modern "Battlestar Galactica," said that commercial priorities push risk-adverse studios toward properties with established names, but he said it's wrong to presume that artistic ambition is stifled by remaking the familiar. "Battlestar" is proof of that, certainly. Moore's version premiered as a miniseries in 2003 and took the core concept of the creaky 1970s show -- a ragtag fleet of humans fleeing an implacable foe of their own making, the sentient machines called Cylons -- and added dark layers of complexity with themes of religion, government-sanctioned torture, class struggle, terrorism and bioethics.

"In the same way that Shakespeare's plays can be revisited again and again in new ways and settings, with things like 'Star Trek' or 'Battlestar Galactica' there is enough of the core mythology there that you can change and adapt all the things around it for something very new and worthwhile," Moore said. "New generations can make it their own. Strong new interpretations build on the past, they don't repeat it."

He added that Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek" marked a point where science fiction in Hollywood reached a different level. "There was enough there that it appealed to multiple generations and influenced creators. Some of those creators want to go back and work with these properties they grew up loving."

Perhaps, but returning again and again to the same ground leaves new frontiers unexplored. There's also the risk of franchises becoming calcified, campy or too self-referencing. And there is the simple matter of fatigue, and not just with fans. Roddenberry had no idea he was creating a pop-culture behemoth when he pitched television executives the idea of " 'Wagon Train' to the stars" in 1964, but the colossal impact of "Star Trek" left the creator feeling stifled as well. "I have felt many times trapped by 'Star Trek,' " he once said. "It cost me dearly."

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