Welcome to the Dark Universe

“Uuuuuhhhhhnnnnn….!!”  — the Mummy (before its morning coffee)

Are/were you a big fan of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, etc.? In case you hadn’t heard, they’re making a comeback!

Universal Pictures had decades of success with its popular movies about these characters and others, beginning (I believe) with 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera and into the 1930s, 1940s, & 1950s. Of course, there were plenty of sequels, “foreign” versions, and the most popular characters got remakes in subsequent decades. I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan — I tended to prefer the giant and/or alien creature type of “monster” — but I think I did watch a few of the 1960s and 1970s remakes as a kid.

Classic Universal Monsters

I enjoyed the Mummy movies of recent years with Brendan Fraser, but I wasn’t sure if I was ready for the new Mummy reboot with Tom Cruise. (Fortunately, he isn’t playing the titular character.) Making the mummy female is an interesting twist, though, and now that I’ve seen the trailers, I’ll probably watch the movie at some point. What is more interesting to me, however, is that this movie (debuting in a couple weeks) is set to kick off a revival of the Universal Monsters, and they will all be part of a shared film universe — a “Dark Universe”. (Not to be confused with DC’s “Justice League Dark” nor with the space show at the Hayden Planetarium.) As Deadline‘s Mike Fleming noted,

“[T]his will be the first time that the studio has formalized an approach to these classic characters in a cohesive, connected way rather than as a series of stand-alone projects by disparate filmmaking teams.”

The concept for this shared universe appears to have taken form around 2012/2013. It wasn’t until July 2014, though, that Universal announced they had signed Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan to spearhead development of the classic movie monsters within a single, interconnected world. They will also, “work closely with production, marketing, promotions and consumer product to support the revival, [as well as] reevaluate projects which have preexisting attachments, and bring it under one cohesive strategy.”

In addition to Kurtzman and Morgan, they have been soliciting scripts and working with what has been called a “brain trust” of talented writers, including Noah Hawley, Aaron Guzikowski, Ed Solomon, Dan Mazeau, Jay Basu, David Koepp, and Christopher McQuarrie. There will also be a musical theme for the franchise composed by genre-favorite Danny Elfman, which will debut with The Mummy.

“When I got the opportunity to compose a theme for the Dark Universe logo,” said Elfman, “of course I jumped at it. What could be more fun than connecting to this world that has always been so deeply imbedded in my psyche? I tried to find something that was new but still had some connections with the past — the origins — at least in a subtle way.”

Many horror fans have been waiting a long time for something like this. The newly-dubbed “Dark Universe” will combine horror with other genres, though action-adventure seems to be predominant. For horror fans concerned about this decision, Kurtzman assures:

“I promise you there will be horror in these movies. It is our life goal to make a horror movie. The tricky part is actually how you combine horror with either adventure or suspense or action and be true to all the genres together.” (Screencrush)

The films will be modern-day reimaginings of the old stories & creatures, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there were prologue scenes of earlier eras. There will, however, be touches of the Victorian Era, because the link that connects the films will be a secret, multi-national organization called “Prodigium”, which is housed in a Victorian-looking HQ. According to this site, Prodigium “recognize, examine, contain, and destroy evil.”

“Prodigium protects the public from knowledge of the evil that exists just beyond the thin membrane of civilized society… and will go to any length to contain it.”

As I mentioned, Tom Cruise stars in The Mummy as adventurer Nick Morton. Rising star Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: The Secret Service, Star Trek Beyond) is Ahmanet / The Mummy, and Russell Crowe plays Dr. Henry Jekyll, the director of Prodigium, so he’ll probably show up in other DU movies, as well. Other big stars who have already signed on for upcoming films include Johnny Depp, who will play Dr. Jack Griffin / The Invisible Man, and Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s monster. It is not yet known when Bardem will first show up, since a Frankenstein movie is not yet scheduled.

In a somewhat odd move, the next DU film on the docket is Bride of Frankenstein, directed by Academy Award® winner Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) and currently scheduled for a Feb. 2019 release. Creature from the Black Lagoon (2019?), Invisible Man (2020?), Van Helsing, and Wolf Man are in development. I am assuming that a Frankenstein movie is also planned, and possibly Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, though the last one wasn’t originally a Universal property. The noticeable absence is that of Dracula. Apparently, there was talk of Dracula Untold (2014) being linked into the DU via reshoots and an ending scene that hinted at a shared universe. However, according to the new Wikipedia article,

“In December 2016, Kurtzman confirmed in an interview with Collider that Dracula Untold would not be part of the universe’s continuity canon. Featurette videos released by Universal Pictures for The Mummy have however confirmed the existence of vampires, alluding to Count Dracula.”

What about crossovers, you may ask? After all, there were a few such instances in the old films where two or three of the “monsters” fought and/or teamed up. Of course, those usually involved comedy duo Abbott & Costello…. Well, the focus for now is on standalone installments. But, as Kurtzman explained:

“[W]e have a *lot* of ideas…. We’re not necessarily going to do ‘The Avengers.’ There might be reasons for this character and that character to come together, because the story tells us that’s what the story wants. The story is what drives the choice. And if down the line, there’s a big reason to bring them together, then great. But I promise, we’re not starting there.”

That’s what we know, for now. There have been many takes on these characters over the past near-century, with Dracula and Frankenstein getting perhaps the most attention — one or more new productions for each every decade. So, maybe some people are tired of them. As for me, I don’t watch many of them, so I guess I’m ready for something new, and this shared universe may be what it takes to get me interested again. I was never big into the horror genre — one, I don’t scare easily, and two, I get impatient with the suspense aspect. (Hurry up, already! <<fast-forward>>) So, I suppose the action-adventure flavor will help keep the attention of people like me. I have mixed feelings about having such big stars involved, but I suppose that will help draw the crowds, which is where the big money comes from, which in turn leads to more movies. I can live with that. Besides, that’s a pretty talented bunch they’ve got, so far, which is very encouraging.

What do you think? Excited? Couldn’t care less? Let us know below if you have any thoughts on Universal’s “Dark Universe” news….


Multiphasic Trek Update, part 2: TV Trekkin’ for a New Generation

“Some of Star Trek’s best moments haven’t been about battles and conflict, but about exploring and understanding other people. That’s not to say you can’t have some ship battles some times, but a new series that focuses on that optimism of science and exploration, seeking out bold [sic] new worlds and civilizations would be a fitting love letter to Star Trek’s legacy more than an action-focused series.”  — James Whitbrook, io9

Continuing from last week and back to the small screen…

1504752101872018469Ever since “Enterprise” (and maybe before), Star Trek fans have been hoping, wishing, and praying for a new Star Trek series to be produced by a major network. (Probably by CBS, which has TV rights to the property.) In March of this year, rumors and reports of movement on such a project started to appear again. Now, in case you somehow haven’t heard, a new show has finally been approved by the powers-that-be and scheduled to debut in January 2017. Following that premiere, which will broadcast on the CBS Network, all first-run episodes will be exclusively available in the U.S. on CBS All Access, a digital subscription video-on-demand and live streaming service. (This has caused a bit of a stir among the fans.)

Unfortunately, we have practically no details, even on what direction they may go with it, so there is plenty of speculation and wishing. Well,… we do know a little. The show will be executive-produced by Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek (2009), “Hawaii Five-O”) and, according to the network,

“[It] will introduce new characters seeking imaginative new worlds and new civilizations, while exploring the dramatic contemporary themes that have been a signature of the franchise since its inception in 1966.”

As Germain Lussier pointed out at io9,

“[I]ntroducing new characters doesn’t mean that old characters can’t show up. And the fact the news said this show was ‘not related to the upcoming feature film Star Trek Beyond‘ that doesn’t necessarily mean it couldn’t be set in the same alternate universe that J.J. Abrams created.”

If I had my druthers, I’d prefer it stay out of the “JJ Trek” alternate universe/timeline. But, if they go that route, it should stay in the same era as the movies. To jump ahead in time — say, a TNG-like reboot — seems premature, as it would just skip past a lot of history that is still unfolding on the big screen. We are just getting (sort of) used to this timeline, as it is. Don’t overwhelm us with a future era, too.

Some fan comments I have read think CBS should do something totally new, while others want to go back to basics, with a starship — possibly, even preferably, named “Enterprise” — on a mission of exploration and diplomacy. I haven’t decided, myself. The above network quote implies there will be some exploration, but it doesn’t say anything about focusing on a ship or a familiar “mission” of any length. There will definitely need to be something familiar to help anchor the new show in the ST universe the fans know and love. But, most people don’t want to just see the same ol’ thing, so there will need to be some exciting new elements to expand the horizons, so to speak, for writers and fans alike. Boldly going, and all that.

In my opinion, it is extremely doubtful that the new show will have characters from the earlier shows as regulars, or at least not portrayed by the same actors, with one possible exception. As you may or may not know, for years Michael Dorn has been talking up his idea of a show starring his Worf character. I think he pitched it as “Captain Worf” commanding a ship, but other possibilities are an Ambassador Worf or Klingon Chancellor Worf. As much as I like the character, I’m not sure how well a series centered on him would work. (Might make a cool movie now & again, though.) Come to think of it, there is another character that might return, either as a regular or recurring guest, in a new series. As long as it occurs within a few decades — 100 years at most — of “Star Trek: Voyager”, then an aging Tuvok could show up.

Another idea that has been around for quite awhile is a “Starfleet Academy” series. Personally, I think it might work as a mini-series or series of movies, but I don’t think a full series would work well. Even though cadets serve some time on a ship before graduating, I’m pretty sure most fans would prefer a focus on competent, fully-trained officers on important missions, not partially-trained cadets on training exercises, going to class, and taking exams. (See how well a ship full of cadets turned out in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?) But, I could be wrong.

star trek federation logoOf course, the pitch by J. Michael Straczynski (“Babylon 5”) and Bryce Zabel (“Dark Skies”) to reboot TOS with recast Kirk/Spock/McCoy was dropped when Paramount decided to do so on the big screen. Another concept that has been getting a lot of attention is “Star Trek: Federation”. This was originally developed as a treatment a decade ago by Bryan Singer (X-Men), Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), Rob Burnett (Free Enterprise), and novelist Geoffrey Thorne (Star Trek: Titan #4: Sword of Damocles). The premise was set far (how far?) into the future of the original shows, when the United Federation of Planets has become “fat n’ happy” and no longer boldly going. A new enemy called “The Scourge” threatens the Federation, which has to rely on an aging Starfleet and few experienced officers. A new, very advanced Enterprise is commissioned and young Lt. Alexander Kirk becomes a key player in the mission to save the Federation. I like this idea, but last I read, Burnett was insisting that he, at least, hadn’t been contacted about resurrecting it.

There have been a couple of even older ideas suggested as possibilities, too. Gene Roddenberry’s original idea for a Star Trek movie in the early-70s was called “The God Thing”. If it sounds kinda familiar, it eventually morphed into Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Another early-70s cinematic concept was developed by a couple British guys, Chris Bryant & Allan Scott, called “Planet of the Titans”. According to Tom Baker at Whatculture, the premise was to have “the [old] crew investigate the home world of the mythical Titans, travel through time via a black hole and teach early man how to make fire.” Production was well underway in the UK, with Phillip Kaufmann set to direct, but the project was aborted when Shatner and Nimoy refused to relocate.

I have come up with a few ideas of my own for the upcoming series (though others may have had them, too, I suppose), spanning different eras, which I will briefly explain:

1) While not reaching back as far as “Enterprise” did, I thought it might be fun to explore the original NCC-1701’s early years. As most fans know, prior to Kirk the ship was commanded by Capt. Christopher Pike from 2251-2262. That’s two 5-year missions, and then some. Plenty of time for several seasons worth of adventure. A major downside, I suppose, would be the need to re-cast Spock again, since he was established to be Science Officer under Pike by 2254. Alternatively, a prequel could be set a few years earlier (2245-2250) with the Enterprise’s maiden voyage/mission under Capt. Robert April. Or, possibly push it back even earlier to April’s command of the USS Tiberius.

2) As long as we’re considering the mid-23rd century, a show about Kirk’s years as Ens./Lt. aboard the USS Republic (mid-2250s), or later as Lt. aboard the USS Farragut (late-2250s) could be fun. The latter assignment may have been brief, though, since the slaughter at Tycho IV happened shortly after he joined, and he left to teach at the Academy shortly after that. Another option would be to focus on Kirk in the years between Academy instructor and Enterprise Captain (beg. 2265). This would cover the early- to mid-2260s, and we know that at some point he commanded another ship during that period, but we don’t know its name or how long the assignment lasted. Again, there is the issue of re-casting another Kirk.

3) Moving forward a few decades, a series about Jean-Luc Picard’s years as Ens./Lt. aboard the USS Reliant, or later as Lt. Com./Commander of the USS Stargazer (2333-2355), or later still as Captain of whatever ship he presumably commanded prior to 1701-D (2364), could be quite enjoyable. We don’t have a Picard on the big screen these days, so there might be less hesitation to re-cast for TV.

4) Another concept set concurrent with TNG would involve the USS Excalibur-A under the command of Captain Mackenzie Calhoun (fr. Peter David’s “New Frontier” books), or maybe a later Excalibur, carrying on the legacy of that ship & crew. One problem I see there is that Calhoun and the Excalibur were tied into several events from the TNG TV series and books, so it might not be easy to do some stories during that period, which would require appearances by TNG characters from that time. That’s why I thought having a later Excalibur and crew might work better. A second problem, however, is that CBS probably would not want to pay David (and maybe Pocket Books) for the rights to use any of the characters or concepts created for the “New Frontier” novels.

5) The new series could be essentially a sequel to Star Trek: Nemesis, continuing a few years after the events of that film, either with Picard accepting a new position and turning over the Enterprise-E to a new Captain OR maybe even later with an Enterprise-F — whether the Star Trek Online version or something else.

USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-J

USS Enterprise, NCC-1701-J

6) Moving forward another decade or so, the new show could follow the crew of the USS Titan sometime after Riker & Troi die, retire, or take new assignments.

7) Finally, perhaps my favorite (of my own ideas) would be to jump ahead to the 26th century and be set on a ship like the Enterprise-J that was seen briefly in ENT: “Azati Prime”. (Note, it would not need to be involved in any Temporal Cold War with Sphere Builders, which many fans got tired of or disliked from the beginning.) According to Memory Alpha:

“An official class name for this type of ship has not been confirmed, although Doug Drexler approves of ‘Universe-class.’ He also estimates the length of the vessel as being about two miles. Drexler saw the Enterprise-J ‘as a multi-generational vessel, that had large parks, entertainment zones, and entire universities on board. The ship is so large that turbolifts would be replaced with site to site transporters. [It] had one deflector, recognizably descended from the NX. I opted for spindly nacelle struts because I felt it suggested a technology beyond what we were familiar with. They are beyond transwarp. They can fold space, and they are exploring other galaxies besides the Milky Way.”

This is a freakin’ huge ship, a veritable city in space, with some neat ideas already about technological advances. Plus, the concept is set far enough in the future to have a lot of new planets, races/species, tech, opportunities and threats, yet close enough that many things are still familiar — or, at least, somewhat recognizable. Could be a lot of fun to play around with all of that! Who knows, maybe this is the ship that gets built in “Star Trek: Federation”….

Bottom-line, I hope the writers & producers of the new series learn from the best of the old series and maintain a fine balance of action, adventure, exploration, and thematic drama, with the overall “Trekkiness” of comaraderie and optimism for the future kept intact. (Also, see quote at top of the page.) Whatever Kurtzman & CBS come up with, I’m sure we Trekkies/Trekkers will all be faithfully awaiting the premiere a little over a year from now with a fine mixture of anxiety, exuberance, and child-like glee. I certainly will be!

* All ideas copyright Christopher Harris, 2013-2016.