When I was asked to read the script he’d gotten for the controversial fan-film “Star Trek: Axanar” and write up my thoughts regarding the script, I was more than happy to oblige. I’d already expressed my doubts over the “professional” nature of the project’s production plan. Taking a look at the script and seeing how if it worked based on what I’ve learned about writing, directing, and producing, was definitely of interest.
Besides, I just really wanted to know if the script was any damn good.
Before I answer that, let’s talk about the Gold Standard for Greatness of Trek movie storytelling: “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” As contentious as every other issue between Trek fans is, the top-tier status accorded TWOK is probably the only single thing everyone can agree on. (That and “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” scant uniforms on men look terrible is no doubt the second.)
Written by Nicholas Meyer, TWOK’s characterization, drama, and sheer excitement still thrill 35 years later. TWOK succeeded in rejuvenating the Star Trek franchise, not only creating the corporate will for additional movies (“Star Trek: Beyond,” the latest, comes out this summer), but for four highly successful (and profitable) television series. Rightly so, it’s earned Meyer a place as a writer on the latest series, along side Bryan Fuller, another highly regarded Trek and television writer.
Ranking gets contentious, though, when matters move on to the second-, third- or fourth-rated Trek films. I’ve spent far too many precious and fleeting moments of my life gladly and gloriously arguing the merits of “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” “Star Trek: First Contact” or “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’s” place on the ranked list. How far toward the bottom should “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” go, really? Is “Star Trek: Generations” that bad? Should you even include Next Generation movies on the list — or for that matter, J.J. Abram’s films?
Robert Wise’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”: masterpiece or mess? Every Trek fan has had this conversation at least once.
Which brings us back to “Star Trek: (now just) Axanar,” which bills itself as either a fan-film or an independent, professional-grade Star Trek feature. It’s also currently engaged in a legal battle with CBS Corp. and Paramount Pictures over intellectual property rights and infringement. In talking about the film they wish to create, the filmmakers behind “Axanar” have stated that their project will, when finished, earn a rightful place up there with those top-level Trek features mentioned above. Having now read the “Axanar” movie script, not only is “Wrath of Khan’s” place secure, so are the rest of those top-ranked Trek films, the middlin’ ones, and quite a few of the bottom-ranked Star Trek movies as well.
The script provided to me is undated and unattributed. However, this was most likely a “locked” script because the word “omitted” appears twice. “Locked” typically means that only minor changes to scenes will be made going forward. Production is imminent. Occasionally scenes are dropped from locked scripts, with “omitted” added to note this, and the version I read had at least one such reference. You typically don’t find the word “omitted” in a draft script.
A Reddit post dated Feb. 29 describes a script with similarities to this one. That version dates back five years. The version I’ve reviewed doesn’t contain the “Vulcan Scene” released in 2015. Nor does it contain any of the secondary characters — the captains and admirals — from the “Prelude to Axanar” short film. Recent comments from Mike Baldwin, Axanar’s spokesman, indicate scripts were circulated to talent agencies in and around 2015. I can’t tell if this is one of those copies.
With the provenance of the script out of the way, let me also share something else up front: The “Axanar” movie script isn’t terrible. It’s just not great. It’s pretty average. And on the low side of average at that. Lots of average movie scripts get made into movies. Average movies. Sometimes poor movies. Rarely does the quality rise above that.
Average scripts make for average movies. “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” And there’s a lot that ain’t on this page: Characterization, good dialogue, a sense of adventure. Fun. The spaceship battles aren’t bad, though.
What follows is a summary of the plot. If you don’t want to be spoiled, if you still think there’s a chance this movie is going to get made, I suggest you skip this next part.
“Axanar,” the movie, is about the impending final battle in the Federation’s “Four Years War” against the Klingons, the militant and expansionist race that has frequently upended peace in the galaxy. It focuses on Capt. Kelvar Garth of the planet Izar, a character introduced in the original “Star Trek” series, and met here much earlier in his career. The plot sends Garth and his crew of the starship Ares all over the galaxy to …
• First retrieve stolen plans for the Klingon’s super-ship, the D-7 battle cruiser, set to turn the tables of the Four Years War in favor of a Klingon victory. The Klingons, led by ongoing antagonist Kharn, arrive first and kill the spy. Then they set a trap for Garth, who after beaming down to the rendezvous point, is not only able to find the stolen plans hidden inside a Klingon translation of Shakespeare’s plays with great ease, but also is able to disable Kharn’s orbiting ship.
Garth only gives up the plans to save his landing party’s lives — and to secretly place his comely, shape-shifting, female intelligence officer amongst the Klingon crew. Then …
• Garth is off to Earth, to Starfleet headquarters, to be put in charge of the battle fleet tasked with defeating the Klingons in the Axanar system. The Federation has baited a trap and lured the Klingons into to battle to destroy their D-7 battlecruiser using the equally powerful Constitution-class starships, of which the USS Enterprise is the most famous. While on Earth, Garth has just enough time to have drinks with his old captain, “Star Trek: The Animated Series’” Robert April, first commander of the soon-to-be finished Enterprise and a character tasked by plot with telling Garth (and us) that Garth cares too much about his crew, a fact which might ruin his the final battle with the Klingons.
That done, the plot now demands that …
• Garth and the Ares head off to single-handedly destroy those aforementioned D-7 battlecruisers in their construction dock. This is a secret and totally unauthorized mission — Garth is leading that battle-fleet after all — and only exists thanks to the plans and locations sent along by Garth’s comely, shape-shifting, female intelligence officer (who now looks Klingon), who also managed to create a special warp signature to allow the Ares to penetrate Klingon space and attack those docks.
And all of that information makes it into Garth’s hands through a timely visit by Sarek, father of Spock and aide to Soval, who got the comely, shape-shifting, female intelligence officer (who now looks Klingon) information through an Orion pirate. After easily launching his sneak attack on the D-7 production facility, Garth further proves his mettle by destroying the only surviving D-7, luring it into the clouds of a nearby gas giant, and with a perfect shot, destroy its engines, sending it falling to its destruction, crushed in the depths of the Jovian’s oppressive gravity well.
With that success, Garth …
• Warps back to the Axanar system, where he first briefs the assembled land legendary captains from early Star Trek cannon, including “Rabau” believed to be Robau from 2009’s “Star Trek,” as well as Christopher Pike, from the original series, on the plan for the coming battle, then tells them to go forth and execute. Which they do. Pretty much without a hitch, save for a minor moment of tension when a valued captain of another ship would be destroyed by the Klingons but for the timely intervention of the aforementioned Capt. April at the helm of USS Enterprise.
With the battle won, Kharn decides a truce is a better than more war. Garth watches as peace is declared, as young cadets Kirk and Mitchell drop in for an appearance, and as the comely, shape-shifting, female intelligence officer pops back up to either start or continue a romance. (She still looks like a Klingon.) Fade out.
On to my critique.
Screenplays have a structure to them: A path of rising action, escalating stakes, seeming hopeless situations the hero can’t overcome, and a final resolution where, most likely, victory is achieved by the hero against the odds. There are variations on this, modifications, but overall, this structure endures to give screenplays a narrative direction that ultimately makes for an entertaining movie no matter the genre. Done right, the audience doesn’t even notice the structure.
Part of doing that right is creating a main character that “drives” the story. The events that happen are outcomes of the needs and desires of that main character and not from the requirements of a plot. It’s where the expression “character driven” comes from. Creating good characters, motivating them to act with the human desires, strengths, and weakness all people have, is what writers do.
The better they do this, the more “organic” the story feels. The better the ride. Done right, it just works.
Garth is not a compelling main character. He has no flaws, no problems, no need. Yes, at one point we’re told he can’t balance his love of his crew with the realities of what a mission requires, but this never plays in the story. Garth goes where the plot requires him to go, executes a perfect plan in response, succeeds, then moves on to the next need of the script.
He has no need. He never suffers a cost. He never has to change. The Garth we meet on Page 1 of the script is the same we say good-bye to at the end of it. Emotionally, that’s pretty boring.
To use our Gold Standard, in TWOK, everything flows from Kirk. The entire story is about Kirk getting over the ennui that’s oppressing him. Bones telling him to get back out into space, to journey again with his family — the cast of the original series — on the training mission of the Enterprise, is to help him find himself again.
When Chekov and his ex Carol Marcus are in danger, Kirk chooses to move the story forward and investigate. When that investigation leads to the danger and damaging of his ship — a mistake that Kirk makes — it imperils and jeopardizes not only his life, but that of his chosen family and the son he never knew he had. Plus, there’s that whole Genesis Device, now in the hands of a madman who is in every sense Kirk’s equal, perhaps even his superior.
Kirk is challenged to overcome Khan time and again. He pays the price for that too — Spock — but emerges out the other side with a sense of life again. He’s changed for the better.
In “Axanar,” Garth barely suffers a scratch.
Consider this: If you were to strip out everything Trek out of a Trek movie, would that movie still work on its own merits? In TWOK, it would. Set “Wrath of Khan” in the age of sailing and it works. Set it during World War II, and it still is captivating story.
Take everything Trek out of “Axanar” — take the Federation, take the races, take the characters from canon, and remove or rename them — and there’s nothing left. No memorable dialogue. No memorable characters. No memorable interactions.
Well, there are spaceship battles. I’m a sucker for spaceship battles. (The movie “Skyline” eked out a personal score of 2 out of 10 because the visually interesting ship and alien encounters were not only fun and well realized, but the battles were fought in my neighborhood.) “Axanar,” too, merits a higher mark than otherwise because of the quality of the CGI battles in their short. With 30 to 40 percent of “Axanar” being ship battles, those battles need to be good. Take those out and you are left with a script that’s mostly just people sitting in chairs talking.
Which is probably why Axanar might just have been able to pull this off with their modest budget. Assuming the CGI was being done for way below market rates, shooting interiors on a soundstage is vey easy. A good crew can pound those out without much difficultly. Mostly the same for the planet-side exteriors in the script. Nothing crazy here. All doable on the crowdfunding they’d managed to raise.
That’s the irony here. While not particularly compelling, the script was shootable with the dollars they had on hand. Leaving aside copyright concerns, the fact is that “Axanar” had the resources they needed to make this movie happen. We’d be evaluating a finished movie and not promises attached to a completed script, one that pales beside not only the giants in the genre, but the average and everyday productions available for digital download, as well.
“Axanar” is not a great script. With hollow characters, uninspired dialogue and weak plotting, I just don’t see how it would have made the great movie the filmmakers claim it would be.
Well, except for the space battles. Those I bet would have been good.
But space battles alone are not a movie.
A former therapist and social worker, Jody Wheeler is a writer-producer based in Los Angeles. He’s chief executive and creative partner at Cthulhu Crush Productions, where its latest release, the horror-thriller “WTF!” is due out this summer. His film credits can be found on his IMDb page.