Sunday, August 19, 2012

Star Trek Reboot: Romulans, Klingons, and Opportunities for Franchise Management

    In 2009 JJ Abrams’s successfully rebooted the Star Trek franchise.  Though controversial, (I personally have few qualms about the reboot) it presents a rare opportunity to correct a long-standing problem with the Star Trek franchise.  This is a rare, and golden opportunity for franchise management that requires little effort and has significant benefits.  Since the original series there has been confusingly similar design aesthetics, and antagonist characteristics of two of the franchises mainstay villain star ships – The Romulans and the Klingons.  One of the goals of the 2009 reboot was to resuscitate Star Trek by attracting a new fan base while not alienating older fans of the franchise.  Correcting this franchise problem, that stems from an accumulation of production problems over the decades, would help solidify the fan base of the rebooted franchise by making two of the only readily identifiable villains vastly more unique and interesting.  Differentiating the two and untangling their confusing similarities will allow for more compelling story options and avoid premature stagnation for this new incarnation of the Star Trek franchise.

    There are two aspects of the Star Trek franchise that make redesigning the Romulan and Klingon aesthetics a valuable and worthwhile undertaking.  The first aspect is that unlike most sci-fi franchises the setting, the Starship of Enterprise, is almost as much of a character as the human characters.  One of the defining characteristics of Star Trek is the generous amount of time spent getting to know the Enterprise.  By the end of the original series, The Next Generation, and Star Trek: Enterprise we know how the Enterprise works, its history, and the legacy of the name.  The Enterprise is a character.  The same can also be said for Deep Space Nine.  This is why the destructions of the Enterprises in Star Trek III, and Star Trek Generations are intended to be fairly dramatic - they are character deaths.  Villains in Star Trek present a compelling threat to both the human characters and the Enterprise.  This makes a villain’s starship almost as important as the villain’s person.

    The second aspect of the Star Trek franchise that makes redesigning the Romulan and Klingons a worthwhile endeavor is that there is an unusual dearth of well-known villains.   Star Trek has been around since the 1960s and its universe has been as deeply explored as its science.  However, the reboot is meant to make the franchise, which includes the universe, accessible to the uninitiated and replenish its fan base.  Unfortunately for Star Trek, there are only, at most, four franchise villains the uninitiated will recognize: Klingons, Kahn, the Borg, and the Romulans.  Only, the Klingons, Romulans, and Borg provide specific threats to both the crew characters through their persons and the Enterprise with their particular vessels.  However, there is a major problem here that encourages quick stagnation of villains, Romulan and Klingon starships are confusingly similar, and a Borg appearance in these films is doubtful.  That leaves the Enterprise with few well established and distinguishable villains for future films.  Klingon and Romulan vessels must be rethought to provide the Enterprise with the unique and identifiable threats that match the personalities of the only generally known and usable enemy races of the Star Trek franchise.

    Klingon and Romulan persons are easily distinguishable on screen.  The Romulans are evil Vulcans, very human in appearance, thick eyebrows, pointy ears, generally light skinned, human sized statures, with bowl haircuts.  Their personality, culture and architecture, like many Star Trek races, are analogous to one or more civilizations, societies, cultures, etc. in actual Earth history.  The Romulan Empire is an obvious analogy to the Roman Empire.  The two home worlds of the Romulan Empire share the names of the mythical founders of Rome, Romulans and Remus, their symbol is a raptor, their ruling body is a Roman style senate, their architecture is portrayed with Greco-Roman columns, in the original series they even dressed like Romans.  In The Next Generation the Romulans were given characteristics of the Soviet Union.  They were secretive, were engaged in some sort of cold war with the Federation, conducted complex espionage missions and spy games, and their threats usually involved complicated and intricate plots.  The Klingons are large in stature, dark-skinned, possess forehead ridges, some sort of facial hair, and long curly dark hair.  The Klingon’s civilization analogies are a general blend of Central Asian, nomadic, and “barbarian”, cultures with a tinge of Bushido.  They most closely resemble the Mongol Empire.  They are a warrior culture that values honor, thirsts for glory in combat, and are ruled by council of lords from feudal houses that are ruled by a chancellor.  These descriptions portray two very unique villains that should pose very identifiable and unique threats to the Enterprise and her crew.  This however, is not the case.

    The Klingon and Romulan warships that the Enterprise must face are shockingly similar.  Both the Klingons and the Romulans use the Bird of Prey, Warbird designations and raptor themes for their ships.  Both utilize invisibility cloaks, and use similar looking ships.  In the original series they are both portrayed using the exact same ship model (due to budget constraints and the destruction of the Romulan Bird of Prey model, the battle cruiser model had to be reused for the following Romulan episode), and it was the Romulans who first use cloaking technology on a Bird of Prey with raptor decal on the bottom.  In Star Trek III the Klingons show up with a Bird of Prey of their own that cloaks (originally Star Trek III featured a scene where the Klingons are shown stealing the Bird of Prey from the Romulans that did not make it into the movie).  In the Next Generation era the similarities become even more pronounced.  Both races are using large green ships that cloak and fire green lasers.  Romulans use Warbirds, Klingons use the Birds of Prey.   In Star Trek Enterprise the naming further adds to the confusion, with Klingon warships being commonly referred to as Warbirds, Raptors, and Birds of Prey.  The Romulans reappear with their own green Bird of Prey with feather like texturing that cloaks, and fires green lasers.  Star Trek 2009 even contributes to this during the Kobayashi Maru simulation scene.  During the simulation some Klingon warships decloak, are called warbirds, and are the same design of the Klingon battle cruisers used since the original series by both the Romulans and the Klingons.  The Romulans in the newest film are from the future and are using a unique starship design that is not representative of the contemporary Romulan Empire that the characters would encounter in future installments of the rebooted film franchise.

    This may sound like over analysis of minutia, but it does have practical implications for the future of the franchise far beyond continuity nit picking.  The Enterprise has very few distinguishable foes to overcome.  While Romulans and Klingons have very unique and identifiable personalities, in both cases the Enterprise is facing green, bird-themed warships with invisibility cloaks that may possibly both fire green lasers.  This will quickly become boring and stagnate with audiences and Star Trek will just have to be rebooted again in a few years if it runs out of good, unique villains to carry the films.  To avoid this Romulan and Klingon star ships should be redesigned to reflect the personalities and distinct threats posed by the two races.

    The design changes needed to Romulan and Klingon starships to increase potency of the two villains are quite simple and merely involve consolidating traits that are shared by vessels by both races to either one of the other.  This can be done with a few simple suggestions, some of which are colored by my personal preferences.  First and most importantly, consolidate the cloaking technology.   The cloaking device should be given exclusively to the Romulans because it better fits their personality and the threat they present.  The cloak allows the Romulans to be more devious, plotting, and allows for more complexity in their plans.  Second, consolidate the bird themed starships.  I personally, think the bird theme is better suited for the Romulans because of the Romulan Empire’s symbol being a raptor, but it can fit the Klingons just as well.  What is important is that it be consolidated to one or the other, not shared.  Third, consolidate the green coloring.  Again, I lean towards the Romulans because their starships are often sleeker, and should be more elegant than those of the Klingons.  Green is elegant.  Klingon vessels should be more rugged, exhibit scars from battle and extended use.  Klingon ships should be far less elegant and be readily identifiable as made exclusively for battle.  Gray coloration along with wear and tear accentuated with some reds is optimal.  This coloration also has precedence in the older Klingon battle cruiser design used in the original series, the (beautiful) model in Star Trek VI, and in the Kobayashi Maru test sequence in Star Trek: 2009.  The Green coloration appears mostly in the TnG era and in the Star Trek: Enterprise era vessels.  Lastly, lasers.  Let the Romulans shoot green lasers while the Kingons shoot red.  This sounds mundane, but is probably one of the more memorable design choices to the audience during a space battle sequence.  Audiences often cling to simple identifiers like this and there are several examples.  The most notable might be Star Wars – Empire green, Rebels red.  For the Star Trek franchise allowing newer fans to associate Federation with blue, Klingons with red, and Romulans with green requires minimal effort and entails maximum pay off.

    The rebooted Star Trek offers a rare opportunity for franchise management to assuage serious potential problems with minimal yet not unprecedented design changes.   The franchise urgently needs to attract a fresh fan base, and maintain them for the long term.  Refining the Romulan and Klingon designs strengthens already iconic villains, and makes them more capable of carrying their own films.  To maintain new fans the Star Trek franchise must not stagnate and bore the audience with repetitive and confusingly similar villain starships and threats.  Simple design tweaks to consolidate the characteristics of the two most usable villains in Trek can make the difference between a return on investment of just two or three films and an entire, revitalized franchise that will live long and prosper.     

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