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John Scalzi – Boldly (and Badly) Going Where Star Trek Has Gone Before

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The hype around the upcoming Star Trek reboot this May is having a paradoxical effect on me; that is, it’s making me think back almost fondly on the original series, with its plywood sets and velour costumes, and William Shatner’s famously intoned head-swiveling staccato lines. It all seems so innocent, you know? And now look at it: Big and expensive and brilliantly designed to suck Trek fans and everyone else on the planet into the movie theaters.

I’m also reminded that for every Star Trek — that is, every science fiction television show that has successfully made the leap to film — there are a dozen or so Lost in Spaces that have crashed and burned in the transition. But Hollywood doesn’t seem inclined to stop trying (note the upcoming and existentially terrifying Land of the Lost movie starring Will Ferrell). So as a cautionary tale to film executives and potential audiences, allow me to reheat some of scifi’s worst television to silver screen leaps, and what lessons they might offer us.

Lost in Space (1998)
On paper, this one had everything going for it: Oscar-winner William Hurt as the distant patriarch of the Robinson family; cult hero Gary Oldman as the Robinson family frenemy Dr. Smith; hot TV-actor-of-the-moment Matt LeBlanc, and just plain hot Heather Graham; and a spec-fic friendly writer and director team (Akiva Goldsman and Stephen Hopkins, respectively) all doing their part to fluff up a beloved ’60s series. In the real world, William Hurt’s anodyne, mumbly stylings were so wrong for the movie that even he knew it. Oldman’s Smith was creepy, not campy and — for better or worse — signaled the respected actor’s new willingness to descend into occasional hackery. Matt LeBlanc reminded us all why TV loves him, and Goldsman and Hopkins showed us that if they ever watched the pleasant, homely TV series, they didn’t understand what actually made it popular.

Lesson: Don’t just get great talent to turn a TV series into a movie — get the right talent.

X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)
Once upon a time, there was a television series called The X-Files, and audiences loved watching its two principles, Mulder and Scully, lurk about the Canadian woods (which were pretending to be American woods) looking for aliens and demons and satanists and conspiracies. They even made a movie while the TV series still ran, and it was popular too because audiences couldn’t really get enough of it. But then Mulder left and the series got goofy, and the audiences who loved X-Files turned their attention to Buffy and Battlestar Galactica and Lost and Heroes. Some years after the series ended, the X-Files people said, “Look! We made a movie!” and all the audiences who used to love them said, “What? You again? We’re too busy with our new obsessions to be nostalgic for you,” and turned away. And the X-Files people cried in their empty theaters and were sad.

Lesson: Make a movie when your series is hot, or when your audience is nostalgic for it. The time in the middle when they don’t care about it is to be avoided at all costs.

Serenity (2005)
Speaking of fans, I’ve just marked myself for death among the “Browncoats” for suggesting that Serenity, based on the TV series Firefly, might somehow have been a miserable failure. The Browncoats love their favorite series with a passionate fervor that is usually reserved only for religious icons or the Green Bay Packers, and will not brook the idea that the series and the movie based on it were popular flops, even though the show didn’t last a single full season and the movie had a terrible $10 million opening weekend. “Well, Fox didn’t know what to do with the series!” they’ll exclaim. “Universal didn’t market the movie correctly! It did great on DVD!” Yes, yes. I know, Browncoats. Come here, have a hug. Would you like a tissue? No, that’s okay, you can keep it.

Lesson: It’s great to have loud, passionate fans of a series, but they’re only worth $10 million in opening weekend box office. Also, making a movie out of a TV series no one but hardcore fans saw? Not a recipe for popular success.

Have any other lessons from failed TV-series-turned-movies you would like to add? Do you think Star Trek followed these lessons, or is it on its way to becoming a new one? Please, share your wisdom.

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also the editor of METAtropolis, an audiobook anthology on Audible.com. His column appears every Thursday.

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