The internet exploded upon the full reveal of the live-action Sonic the Hedgehog trailer with most of its ire directed at the design of titular CG hero.
While there was a lot of hyperbole, the consensus was that the “live-action” Sonic was creepy looking in their attempts to make him “realistic” (and I share in that observation). The negative reactions were accompanied by many fan renditions that looked better than the official design and the overwhelming backlash resulted in the first-time director announcing on Twitter that they would go back and adjust his look.
Now ignoring for the moment the ramifications that come from redoing things so close to release (which happens more than audiences realise by the way, thanks to test screening and the like), the most important thing to take away from that particular outrage is that people weren’t reacting to Sonic’s “accuracy” but rather his “appeal” (or lack thereof).
Sonic has always been a cute, cartoon mascot for Sega and once upon a time that longevity and iconic appeal came from that iconic and appealing design. When you look at how much more appealing the Pokemon look in the Detective Pikachu movie, much of that comes from maintaining their adorable cartoon appeal. The “accuracy” is simply a by-product of that.
Often in the adaptation process, filmmakers forgot how important that appeal is usually forsaking it for “realism” instead of making things “convincing” (this is a problem that seems to plague a lot of productions over at Paramount Pictures just coincidentally).
I worked 12 years as a graphic and multimedia designer but regardless of the speciality, designers utilise a set of visual language that is based off of an audiences’ preconceived notions and expectations. Depending on the needs of the project, designers will either lean into them or challenge and subvert them. Those preconceived notions can be as simple as blue means cold, red means hot. It allows for quick and accessible shorthand to convey an idea.
When it comes to adaptations, one of those many preconceived notions is the familiarity of a design. How much of it survives can often depend on the physics of the real world but also the vision of the creative people involved as well as other factors.
We’ve seen good and bad examples of this over the decades and I want to go through a few of them here, focusing on adaptations, briefly analysing what worked, what didn’t, and why.
*wistful sigh* I was there on the forums around 2006 in the lead up to the very first live-action Transformers directed by Michael Bay and from the moment I saw those designs I knew I hated them.
Of course back then I, like so many others, lamented how much they strayed from the original designs, blah blah but even today, being much more capable at analysing the media I consume, the designs bother me not only because they’re ugly but because of the lies we were told defending them.
They follow the “more detail = more realistic” approach to design, which is understandable during the growing trend of HD resolutions and IMAX but what we ended up with was visual noise coalescing in a silhouette that was meant to invoke “alien”. The multitude of parts was also meant to make the transformations more realistic but that ignores the fact that a) that was false and b) go one gave a fuck.
And when you combine these noisy forms to Michael Bay’s frenetic action style, it all just ends up looking like a nonsensical mess of shapes and colours. You don’t have characters to latch onto you have ambiguous beasts acting like forces of nature. Neither memorable nor iconic.
For me the most egregious of these designs were that for Optimus Prime because it was riddled with choices justified by lies.
I could (eventually) get over the fact that Optimus wasn’t the traditional flat-nose truck and instead the larger Peterbilt for the sake of mass (ignoring that the other Transformers shifted mass all the time to suit the scene but whatever) but the flames always stood out as a poor choice. These were justified by claiming they were necessary in order to give Optimus his iconic red and blue look but looking at the distribution of the colours on his robot form that is pretty unsatisfactory.
Blown completely out of the water and shown to be a fat lie, the Transformers Prime version of Optimus also went with a Peterbilt and went proper red and blue sans flames (admittedly it’s only a cartoon but when the “Bayformers” aren’t based in reality in the first place the comparison still stands).
The idea behind making his face-plate removable so you can see his lips was not only stupid but it underestimated the audience’s intelligence. The filmmakers claimed they needed to make him relatable to the audience whenever his talked, completely ignoring that in the same bloody movie Bumblebee was able to emote WITHOUT A MOUTH through use of body language as well as his radio!
We all knew it but it would be 10 years before all the filmmakers realised/admitted it was all a farce when at the last minute (let’s be honest, it was after the disappointment of the last Bay-directed movie) they decided to make more “geewun” looking designs in Bumblebee balancing convincing level of detail with iconic features and lines.
I can concede that the Bayformers version of Optimus Prime was an “interesting” robot design but there was nothing heroic looking about this supposedly heroic character, especially when you compare it to the Prime version or the “is it or isn’t it a reboot” Bumblebee versions (which is why it slowly changed in movies 4 and 5).
When it comes to a creator’s vision, Micheal Bay films were never about respecting the source material but instead forcing a message that fans needed to grow up and play with real cars instead of toy cars. That’s why they strayed so far from the iconic looks into nonsensical, pro-military, toxic-masculine garbage. It’s just sad that it took a decade for anyone involved with the productions to do something about it and when audiences were already exhausted by the property.
Marvel Cinematic Universe
Superheroes have seen many interpretations and adaptations from book to screen over the last century. Many have been literal and direct and others have been as far away from their source material as they can be.
In the last decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a better strike rate than most other attempts at bringing superheroes to the screen. And with heaps to work with from the history of Marvel Comics, the MCU is a mostly a distillation of what works best as well as trying out a few new updates that are appropriate to the changing times.
Now there’s a lot to sift through from the 11 years and 22 films so I’m just going to touch on the basics on just a few highlights…
For the longest time, Iron Man mostly retained his Golden Age look in the comics of a predominately flexible, skintight looking armour. It took ages before the design would evolve into something more mechanical. One of the renowned Marvel artists responsible for that mechanical aesthetic, Adi Granov, was actually asked by director Jon Favreau to create concept art for Tony Stark’s big screen debut.
Not only did that first Iron Man film take a third-tier superhero and make him a household name but it also set a tone to work from for a cinematic phenomenon. There are scientists and engineers that claim the technology to make that suit currently exists, albeit not as compact as depicted in the movies. So what we have is a fantastical piece of tech depicted in a grounded and convincing fictional world.
What’s wonderful is that beginning with that design we saw a gradual evolution over the course of 85 suits from bulky and mechanical to sleek and streamlined thanks to even more fantastical science fiction tech…
And by the time we get to Endgame we have a suit that, more than any other armour, invokes his Golden Age design all thanks to smoother lines, rounded edges, and appropriate paint application.
When it comes to female characters, comic books have usually struggled/refused to move past the male gaze (whereas ideal male bodies are actually power fantasies for the guys before anyone wants to try and dispute me on that). When women aren’t wearing too little they looked as though their outfit had been painted on, which is why some characters have a sash around their waist to break up the design.
Black Widow is one of the better known of the painted-on-latex costume looks and many iconic elements of her original design were carried over to her big screen counterpart including the Widow’s Bites wrists weapons, the red logo on her belt buckle, as well the the disc shapes of her belt (which were adapted into something more practical-looking and, just like in the comics, slowly abandoned).
For most people a black body suit is just a black body suit and while that remains consistent for the most part the transition to big screen has benefited from more detail ever since Nat’s debut in Iron Man 2; more lines, more textures, more components and accoutrements. In fact, over the course of the MCU, there’s been a minor evolution in making her outfit more utilitarian, more like a uniform, incorporating squared-off shoulders, armour parts and textures that imply Kevlar, and then just out and out giving Nat what looks like a stab vest by the time we get to Infinity War.
Other female characters, like Scarlet Witch, whose comic book design truly would be silly and sexist in live-action as it amounted to nothing more than a cape and a bathing suit, really did require a complete redesign retaining only her iconic red.
These more stylish designs are about addressing what a young woman in the 21st century would more likely choose to wear as she wields telekinetic powers all while reflecting subtle shades of her Sokovian heritage, which I bloody love. The knee-length coat she wears in Civil War all the way to Endgame is the contemporary version of the cape, taken to it’s fullest degree in the late 90’s/early 2000’s by films like The Matrix.
Iconic elements like Wanda’s headdress are abandoned because they really don’t serve a purpose in the adapted version. And most of us can live with that.
As I said, the MCU is a distillation of what works (or is popular) in the Marvel comics and a re-imagining of what doesn’t work. These changes are made not only because of the more problematic elements of the source material but also because of changing technology, changing fashion, and maybe finding something that looks even better in more detail.
Outside of the MCU, Marvel has been more hit and miss with its adaptations handled by other studios, with many characters undergoing huge redesigns to reflect those decades’ trends or as a victim of prevailing “schools of thought”. For example Blade’s transition to the big screen in 1998 was (fortunately) accompanied by a near-complete redesign from his 1970’s comic book origins featuring what was edgy and fashionable for that decade.
As opposed to… well, hindsight is a bit of a bitch. While I still maintain that I enjoyed the first two X-Men films well enough at the time, I do shake my head at how any of us (and I include myself) thought those black leather outfits were interesting, let alone good.
It was the early 2000’s, we thought they were cool, we thought they were futuristic, we drank the Kool-Aid and agreed with them when they TOLD us brightly-coloured outfits would be silly in a movie about people that could control the elements, move objects with their mind, fire bolts of energy from their eyes, and have frickin’ knives emerge from their fists (and that’s not even acknowledging all the X branding the uniforms have).
It would be another 11 years, 3 years after the first Iron Man movie, until they moved away from the dark, dull, and “edgy”, and the X-men would feature any colour in their uniforms.
Sure, ever since then they’ve stuck to a more “drab” side of the palette but there’s been more of an attempt to be a little outlandish with the designs, being faithful to the comics even if the stories themselves have been a tad “meh”.
The Dark Knight
In all fairness, the recent DC Extended Universe has done a rather admirable job in adapting their iconic characters for the big screen, in outings such as Man of Steel, Wonder Woman, and Shazam!. Yeah, they’re still somewhat desaturated and grimy in some instances but for the most part they do well to visually reflect their comic book origins even if their stories are a bit of a crapshoot.
But let’s rewind to just before the DCEU, back to The Dark Knight trilogy and we have a suit design that is possibly the most underwhelming incarnation of the Caped Crusader… ever.
I must clarify that I still think The Dark Knight is a great film even if I don’t share the same sentiments as many others as to why (I enjoyed Batman Begins but absolutely hated The Dark Knight Rises). However, the design choices in these films have always irked me amongst other things.
But surely there are worse batsuits over the history of the bat-franchise?
Maybe but they are a product of their time, budget, and intentions of the production. I would argue that the 1966 outfit worn by Adam West is a wonderful costume that’s not only a near-literal translation of the comic book but remains iconic to this day (similar to the direct adapting of Superman’s design for Christopher Reeve’s outing as the last son of Krypton).
And as much as the batsuits were derided in the Joel Schumacher directed films of the 90’s, especially for their “bat-nipples”, I would also argue they are about emulating the human form as well as portraying how a gay man (Schumacher) views said forms, male and female.
The suit that’s featured in Batman Begins carries that tradition, started in the 1989 Tim Burton directed feature, with the use of sculpted muscle suits but more in the style of Batman Returns with it’s “high tech” aesthetic. And for the most part it succeeds in delivering on one of its purposes: to scare and intimidate.
It certainly has its issues that can be resolved with a little tweaking but overall it creates an intimidating form and silhouette. However, I feel as though the TDK suit is where the tweaking went overboard.
The reason so many people love these films is also the reason they don’t sit well with me. The Christopher Nolan films are held back because of their fetishism for “realism”. In a desperation to be “realistic” they water down and resist the more bombastic elements of what makes Batman stories so wonderful in the first place.
We’re specifically told that the neck of the cowl has been improved in order to allow for head movement (a complaint about the previous movie suits from the various actors) and it’s one of the elements that contributes to undermining that overall form of this suit.
Also, the armour isn’t emulating the human form, its high detail is conveying the sense of a high-tech armour. In doing so it makes Bruce look more slender. It’s no longer an imposing form (I’ve seen beefier cosplayers make this work better but that sort of proves my point). Also that high detail was introduced to offer up a “flaw” that is then used later in the film (less protection between the armoured plates) so making him more armoured looking but seemingly less protected than the previous suit?
See, we’re told that these things make it more real when that’s completely unnecessary as the job of the filmmakers should be to make it convincing. It still looks “cool”, it still looks like Batman, and it mostly serves its purpose but compared to the other “rubber suits” and the resources at hand it’s the least impressive.
Batman: Arkham Knight
For the sake of comparison, another high-tech version of Batman can be seen in the upgraded suit featured prominently in the video Arkham Knight, a design I have a love/hate relationship with.
The first two games in the Arkham series were co-written by Paul Dini (co-creator of Harley Quinn and writer on The Animated Series) so they take a lot of their cues from the animated 90’s TV show and have done a distilled, grittier version of that, going for the opposite of the Nolan films and trying to be “hyper-realistic”.
And I LOVE the look of these games. I even think that the batsuit in the Arkham Knight looks cool too yet I am torn about it. In my mind it looks too high-tech, bordering on an Iron Man armour with all its individual moving components. But that’s personal taste.
The reason it works against said personal tastes is because of the context of the story: this is the climax of the three games (we don’t include Arkham Origins) and the stakes and the threat level is extremely high. Being armoured to hell and back makes sense.
It’s also more successful in addressing some of the practical concerns actors (and fans) have had with the previous suits. For instance, here the neck armour looks like it allows for better movement while still retaining the intimidating form and silhouette. Easier to do in CG sure but the end result speaks for itself.
Overall, Batman still looks menacing while also looking over-the-top high tech and ready for battle.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Like Batman, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have also seen many versions and renditions over the last three decades, as is the nature of comics and adaptations. Bursting onto the scene in the early 1980’s, their look was unique and instantly recognisable even in black and white.
I want do a quick rundown of each of the representations in moving media and point out what worked and what didn’t work for them…
With the help of Playmates Toys as well as Fred Wolf Films, the Ninja Turtles were given a softer, more kid-friendly makeover, which spearheaded a merchandising boom for the property as well as turning these martial arts reptiles into a pop culture phenomenon. It’s where we all first discovered these characters and perhaps went back and found out their black and white origins after the fact.
That makeover really was about smoothing out the rougher edges of the designs (as well as the premise) but they retained almost 1:1 the basic designs from the original comics. And even though there had been coloured artwork for the comics (covers and posters), which featured the Turtles all wearing red bandannas, the toys are where the different coloured bandannas were introduced mainly as a way to encourage kids to buy more than one turtle.
This change up pretty much defines the look of the Turtles from here on out.
If you’ve ever played around with the equaliser settings on your stereo then you’re familiar with adjusting the various sliders to get the sound just as you like it. That’s what we have with the 1990 live-action version of the Turtles.
Created by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, these designs retain the softer, colourful appeal of the cartoon but have elements that hark back to the comic book design such as the brown leather belts and pads.This was due, in part, to director Steve Barron looking to those original comics, literally ripping pages out and handing them to the writers and designers as the inspiration.
These could easily have been monstrous in live-action (and we’ll get to that) especially with the darker visual tone of the film, but as is always the case with anything from Jim Henson’s production, there’s an ability to balance said tone with visual appeal. These are the good guys, you’re meant to like them not be repulsed by them.
Having said that, I will defend the third live-action film from 1993 until my dying breath! Tonally, it’s a mix of the first, much darker film as well as the way-too-kid-friendly incongruous tone of Secret of the Ooze.
The suits were created by a completely different company as the production had a much smaller budget and it shows on screen. While they may not be as “good” as the Jim Henson ones, they’re perfectly serviceable. When you examine the designs, basically copying the elements, it’s the execution of proportions as well as the how well the animatronics move that really make these suits appear “inferior” to the previous Henson ones. And that’s a tough break.
I too had a visceral reaction to them when I was younger but I did get over it eventually and I suspect so many fan opinions of the film overall has to do with their reaction to these suits (I’ve noticed it’s always the first criticism of the movie, never about the story itself). Although it must be said, if people reacted poorly to these innocuous suits then how did anyone think certain later designs were going to work?
The less said about the complete train wreck called The Next Mutation the better.
The 2003 animated series, which is one of my favourite versions, takes much of its inspiration from anime mainly in its depiction of action.
That drawing style is also reminiscent of how co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird drew the Turtles in the later issues back in the 1980’s, with slightly more heroic proportions and angular features. Again, it’s the adjusting of the dials to deliver an appealing look that is different enough to what came before but also remains faithful to the original.
Each reboot of the Turtles, or each phase if you will, has a downturn. And although it wasn’t responsible for said downturn, the 2007 CG animated movie marked the beginning of it.
Considered a “spiritual sequel” to the 1990’s live-action films, it’s the first time since those movies that they reintroduced the idea of making the four brothers distinct from one another. Like the 90’s films their faces are slightly different, they have slightly different body builds (Raphael is bulkier, Michelangelo is smaller as he’s the youngest), and more like the original toys their skin tones are slightly different even if not to the same degree.
Again, like the 90’s version it’s subtle but it’s there and it’s enough to add variety to them all while denoting they are brothers. It’s one of my favourite movies even if the half-baked villain’s story was unfortunately a letdown.
They are also much more lithe than previous incarnations. While they feature well-defined muscle lines they are leaner than their predecessors. This helps in highlighting the ninja aspect of their premise by making them more convincing when they leap around the rooftops like ninjas.
It took me a while to get into the 2012 Nickelodeon version of the Turtles. Story-wise that first season is a complete write-off for me and knowing full well it was intended for a much younger audience it just didn’t work for me. It would be many years until I gave it another chance, discovering the second season was a vast improvement.
Despite my misgivings of the first season, I didn’t hate the designs, in fact I kind of liked how they looked in toy form. I even appreciated how there was an attempt to maintain the differentiation of the four brothers with their appropriate, if minor, visual differences.
As bizarre as it sounds, what I like the most about these designs is perhaps the introduction of a third toe.
Yeah I know, really weird but honestly it makes sense. Up until then, the Turtles had always been designed with two toes per foot. Like in the original comics these were meant to invoke the split-toe design of traditional Japanese footwear, or jikatabi, often depicted as being worn by ninjas in media at that point. However they’d always had three digits per hand, two fingers and a thumb. We either ignored the difference or explained it away as “because mutation” but really the addition makes basic biological sense.
After the success of the video game Transformers: Devastation, I was immensely disappointed by Mutants in Manhattan despite its story potential (it was just a repetitive and crap game overall).
What I did appreciate about this version are the character designs. Many of them updates to beloved characters from the original 80’s cartoon. But in particular the design of the Turtles, which actually take after the 2012 Nickelodeon series in basic design forms but added more detail that made sense in this visual world.
The rendering style had more lines, more additions to their “outfits” what with practical pouches on their belts, which made sense for characters that don’t wear clothes so they don’t have pockets. It’s not the most amazing rendition but I can appreciate the attempt of not going overboard.
On the other end of the scale in regards to “more detail” are probably the worst versions of the Turtles since The Next Mutation…
The Michael Bay produced 2014 live-action reboot is an absolute garbage fire from go to woe. Its 2016 sequel, Out of the Shadows, is an admirable attempt to fix all the mistakes of that film, feeling like an episode of the 80’s cartoon, but by then the damage had been done.
When the internet had its first glimpse at these CG designs they were right to be horrified. Absent from these four brothers were the appeal and charm of pretty much every other incarnation including the original comic book. They weren’t just ugly, despite all the detail they were somehow dull. An example of how every bad choice was made in these films.
The strange thing about these designs is that if you broke down the broad strokes ideas into dot points then it makes sense on paper.
They maintain the body variations between the four brothers that suit each of their personalities, however, it’s taken to an unfortunate extreme. While they all look monstrous, Raphael is a hulking brute and Donatello is the scrawniest because he’s the “nerd”, Get it? No one cares!
Of course, higher resolutions mean more detail. Adding things like nostrils makes biological sense but again the detail is taken to the nth degree to the point where it makes them unappealing and potentially frightening. You can make the argument that people (and audiences) need to see past the exterior to the character as a life lesson but I would argue that them being non-human is enough of a difference in the first place and enough for the allegory to work. Repulsing your audience for the sake of “realism” is counterproductive.
A big part of that extra detail comes from them wearing actual clothes and other accoutrements. Again, in of itself as an idea that makes perfect sense when you remember these are teenagers with a fascination with the out-of-reach human world, let alone needing to protect their bodies. But when you combine that with a literal notion that these are probably things they found in the sewer or similar places then the idea breaks down especially when it’s handled so poorly and to such a dull effect.
I don’t think anyone deliberately tries to make a bad movie but good ideas can fall flat when poorly done or improperly incorporated with other good, if incompatible, ideas. They can be disastrous when those in charge either don’t care enough or just have poor judgement (or taste) to begin with.
This isn’t so much adapting from one media to another per se but more about adapting across decades of fashion and technology.
in the recent lead up to the release of Mortal Kombat 11 some of the whinier elements of the internet complained that the female characters weren’t “busty enough” and that feminism and politics had no place in videos games like MK (ignoring the fact that this games stunt casting was also a problematic figure and a detriment to the game).
The designs of the female characters, while still portraying the ideal of attractiveness, were toned down in their sex appeal my a matter of degrees compared to their previous incarnations, and in some of these cases these are reinterpretations of past costumes. Thanks to a “convergence in time”, characters that appeared in Mortal Kombat 2 have appeared in the present but with updated interpretations of those past outfits as though that’s what they looked like all along.
These designs are an improvement over 20 years ago when the digitised actors were literally wearing leotards and bathing suits as well as the more recent versions where the outfits could easily be mistaken for stripper costumes.
Not that there is anything wrong with “stripper” outfits, it’s just about balancing what is meant to be convincing in this created world with what is appealing to the fans of all contexts and orientations can be be a juggling act or, once again, adjusting the dials.
Of course in the era of 4K there is also a need for more detail, etc and having characters wear more can facilitate that, which is also possible to do with current processing power as opposed to 20 years ago. But it’s more than that…
There’s also a consideration about cosplayers who are fans of these characters being comfortable dressing up as their favourites. There’s a practical consideration (wearing it in public spaces) as well as a body confidence issue to tackle. This isn’t necessarily a matter of “being woke” but cosplay often serves up free marketing and publicity to these properties. If you can rope in more fans by creating more accessible designs then you have more of a pool of talent to draw from.
Again, these updated designs are still sexy and attractive. And while it may sound odd for a game all about bombast and being over the top, sometimes you have to dial back certain elements in order to survive the changing times, the fans, as well as draw in a new set of fans for future iterations.
In a similar vein of adapting in a new era… Star Trek has had many iconic designs and costumes over the last 50 years but none more so than the costumes from The Original Series.
While certainly not the first to depict the future in pyjamas, like so many other science fiction productions of the 60’s and 70’s, the costumes were a product of their stretched (or just outright low) budgets just as much as a vision of a more streamlined future. But like so much else, they were also a product of their time.
When revisiting this period of Trek there have been attempts to both recreate it pitch perfect, update and homage it to varying levels of success, as well as just an outright redesign.
1996 was the 30th anniversary of Star Trek and the two Trek television shows on at the time celebrated the occasion with similar time-travel stories. In the case of Deep Space Nine it went the ground-breaking idea of combining old and new, inserting the DS9 cast into footage from TOS, which had been famously pioneered by Forest Gump.
In this instance it was about matching the old footage 100% so they had to recreate not only the costumes but also the sets for the cast to walk through and interact with down to the smallest detail without variation or artistic license.
Fast forward to 2009 and the reboot of The Original Series on the big screen. Now while I still maintain that Discovery is what has reignited the franchise back into gear, these reboot movies were a reminder to the greater audience that Star Trek exists.
This reboot is set in what’s been dubbed the “Kelvin Timeline” (after the USS Kelvin, the ship that encountered the time travelling Romulan vessel that caused this divergent timeline by altering the past-zzzzzZZZZZzzzzzzz). In any case there was some “legalese” about who owned the big screen Trek as opposed to the small screen version, which apparently necessitated this differentiation.
Now I have plenty of issues with the reboot (the first two movies anyway, Star Trek Beyond was actually really good): the 2009 film was a retelling of Star Wars: A New Hope because JJ Abrams was a Star Wars fan growing up (forcing a fantasy/destiny narrative onto a premise all about the best and most skilled people exploring the galaxy was ill-conceived). Its sequel, Into Darkness, was an utter turd co-written by a conspiracy theorist trying to spread his kooky ideas about 9/11.
But these first two films were also problematic because they were recreating or paying homage to a reputation instead of actual Star Trek. For example, Captain Kirk is known as a womaniser so in the 2009 and 2013 films you see him jumping into bed with various alien women. However, if you actually watch TOS Kirk doesn’t reflect that reputation at all instead being much more duty-bound and by the book than his “cowboy” reputation would suggested and his interactions and romances with women weren’t as straightforward as a one-night stand (in fact I’m not the only one to notice this).
Now keep this in mind when analysing the Kelvin Timeline uniforms. They look pretty faithful to the originals don’t they? Even with the obligatory updated repeating delta pattern on the tunics because again the higher resolutions.
And in a weird irony I think that’s actually a problem. On first impressions it LOOKS like Star Trek that we’re all familiar with, those uniforms appear functional in their simplicity. But how convincing are “space pyjamas” to a 2000’s audience?
Also, take a look at the uniform worn by Nichelle Nichols in The Original Series and then the one worn by Zoe Saldana in the first two “Kelvin” movies. Notice anything?
Where are Saldana’s sleeves?
No sleeves means no means of showing her rank, something that’s important in a hierarchical organisation. Granted, there are background actors wearing the long sleeve version of this “miniskirt” but why then would the most prominent female character in the movie be the only one without a visible rank?
And then to have that repeated in Into Darkness but also exacerbated with the appearance of Carol Wallace (nay Marcus) and then having her strip down to her underwear is gratuitously unnecessary.
What we have in these two movies in emulating the “feel” or the “vibe” of the original series in very shallow ways rather than understanding the reasons and context behind the choices made for The Original Series, its budget restrictions as well as its place in history. Which also explains why the first two “Kelvin” movies are so superficial.
Star Trek Beyond however seems to be a massive course correction and a legitimately good movie. Co-written by Simon Pegg and directed by Justin Lin (by that time he had directed four of the Fast and the Furious films – the ones with an emphasis on family I think), it’s a good balance of what makes Trek so great as well as high-octane action, with the aforementioned sense of family.
But for the purposes of this write-up, the updated uniforms are a great indicator of the shift in tone and mindset that was behind this production. These uniforms not only balance the iconic elements of what came before, incorporating contemporary lines, giving Uhura back her rank, but also actually LOOK like uniforms.
It’s slightly more than just squaring off the shoulders for all the variations but it’s a simple matter of adjusting a few lanes and how things drape and it changes the whole “vibe” of the outfits, which then inform the rest of the choices of the story.
The fact that they look like uniforms (or I should say military uniforms) is very important because of audience expectations have shifted since the 1960’s not just by how we view fashion, media, and the world but also how we view Star Trek, which was prompted by Star Trek itself.
JJ Abrams may not have been a fan of Trek but in all fairness neither was Nicholas Meyer, the director and co-writer of1982’s The Wrath of Khan, a game-changer for the franchise with Meyer being touted as the man who saved Star Trek (although it must be noted that producer Harve Bennett also did a lot of the heavy lifting on the project even before Meyer was brought on board in the aftermath of the disappointment that was The Motion Picture). .
Star Trek has always used nautical and navy nomenclature from day number 1 but Meyer decided to lean into it more than ever: the interiors are shot like the inside of a submarine, the space battles are staged like two u-boats moving under the water, and the uniforms take on a much more military aesthetic.
Despite Gene Roddenberry’s best efforts to take things back to “space pyjamas” with The Next Generation a few years later, it eventually shifted its uniform designs to more militaristic and utilitarian forms. Viewing Starfleet not just as an organisation of scientists and explorers but also as military personnel, that would inform out view of the entirety of Star Trek from that point on.
Star Trek: Discovery does a very similar thing to Beyond however with the complications of being set in the “Prime Timeline” (the Trek we’re all familiar with). Discovery is set 10 years before Kirk’s tenure as Captain abroad the Enterprise. This means the NCC-1701 is under the command of Christopher Pike, who we’ve already seen in the TOS two-parter “The Menagerie” (reusing footage from the original rejected pilot “The Cage”) so we know what that era of Trek looked like.
The Kelvin Timeline had leeway to do its own thing for the most part, Deep Space 9’s 30th anniversary tribute to Star Trek needed to match the older footage, Discovery being made in the late 2010’s needed to be able to stand alongside dramatic shows like Westworld, and Game of Thrones.
So that meant a dramatic re-imagining of the Star Trek universe, without in-continuity explanation to make it look more current and more convincing as a high budget television of today. And they’ve done it before most notably with the redesign of the Klingons that came about for The Motion Picture as well as subsequent iterations (Star Trek: Enterprise ruined that by actually trying to explain it but what else didn’t it ruin?).
As I mention elsewhere, I’m not a fan of the uniforms on Discovery but the introduction of the USS Enterprise also introduced a transition of new uniforms even if they were standard for only a single ship at the time.
Just like the Beyond costumes, this balances the iconic elements of what came before with contemporary lines and “necessity” of detail in HD, as well as convey the military aesthetic. There’s even a variation of the original “miniskirt” too that doesn’t detract from the uniformity of, well… the uniforms.
Overall these designs tap into our preconceived notions about what a military uniform looks like while also steering away from the more extreme, possibly jingoistic visual elements. Again, a great balance that works so well in these contexts.
I think I may have covered more than enough examples in this deep dive.
Now whether you “liked” any of these or not is more a matter of personal taste, including the ones I’ve crapped on. Bad design comes from failing to convey those ideas in a manner that is appealing to an audience or failing to convince that audience and repulsing them.
The point I’m making is that faithfulness to the source material isn’t about a 1:1 accurate translation. But on the other hand, that translation doesn’t always mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There are reasons why some characters, stories, and designs have endured the decades and sometimes they are just too incongruous to exist as is. There are always considerations to be made in balancing the elements as well as adapting to the physics of the real world, along with convincing the audience that something works (without lying about it), but also using what the audiences basic knowledge of visual shorthand to convey ideas and tones.
The ability to juggle all these elements within the contexts of the project and the time it exists is what makes a design endure.
Yes it’s another deep dive and hopefully you enjoy my ramblings so please support me by heading to ko-fi.com/oldtrenchy and buy me a coffee or ten!