Quote(s) of the day: Star Trekkin' across the universe edition

>> Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I can't decide between:

The standard line among Trek apologists is that the franchise is not just a lot of sci-fi nonsense but a meaningful exploration of what it means to be human. And among Trek’s kaleidoscope of Vulcans and androids and holograms and shapeshifters, this is a core concern. But Trek has a very particular take on what it means to be human. Part of what it means, the franchise teaches us, is participating in an ongoing progressive project of building a utopian society. Even though the bulk of Trek comes from the ’90s, the franchise launched in the mid-’60s, and the now-anachronistic spirit of midcentury optimism has remained at the heart of the franchise throughout. It’s a big part of what makes Trek great.
To dismiss Kirk’s multiracial crew as blatant tokenism seems unfair, given that it piloted the Enterprise at a time when legally entrenched segregation was a subject of ongoing political controversy. Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura is a black woman whose name means “freedom” in Swahili and who served as an officer aboard a starship at a time—back on Earth,  I mean—when there were no female astronauts or military officers and black characters on television were more likely to be maids than professionals. Equally striking, given the political context of its era, is Ensign Pavel Chekov, navigator and proud Russian nationalist. The show asked audiences to imagine a seemingly amicable resolution of the Cold War.
 --both from a long piece Matthew Yglesias posted at Slate today, "I Boldly Went Where Every Star Trek Movie and TV Show Has Gone Before", which is worth a read if you care the least bit about Star Trek in any of its incarnations.

The first quote captures something I've been thinking about a lot, what with J.J. Abrams' second Star Trek movie (the ridiculously-titled Star Trek Into Darkness) being due in theatres tomorrow if you're in the U.S. (or out for weeks now if you live in the U.K. or months from now if you're in Japan, etc.).  The second quote is less punchy but serves as a pretty tough and concise defense against a common set of contemporary critiques of the Original Series.

Both--along with the rest of the Yglesias post--point to one of the biggest things I'm just not feeling about J.J. Abrams' version of Star Trek, though; yeah, I'm kind of bothered by the way the characters are being reinvented, but I'm also conflicted (after all, it's good that James Bond and Sherlock Holmes get reinvented by new actors every so often, just to pick two characters off the top of the head), and I have to disavow my 2009 review of the last Star Trek movie in retrospect because once the sugar rush from the movie wore off I was left with a nauseous empty feeling that what I'd watched lacked substance and didn't make much sense (Star Trek (2009) gave me the notion of a "cotton candy movie", something that looks bright and awesome and fluffy and huge and gives you this enormous high--followed by a sick crash when your body processes that all you've really consumed was sugar and air).  But I think the thing that hits me the most right now is how, as I get older, I find myself increasingly nostalgic for the future.

I'll cop to being snotty about it sometimes when I was a kid.  When I was in the single digits, the original Star Trek was off the air (except in reruns), but there were books and toys and View-Master discs, and any fledgling nerd knew who Captain Kirk was even if he was still pooping his pants and learning how to spell and add.  Then Star Wars came out and eclipsed Trek, perhaps mostly by not looking cheap the way Star Trek admittedly did; you didn't have to be the most sophisticated media critic in the world to notice that maybe the Tunisian desert George Lucas used as a location in the Tattooine scenes had a physicality, a presence the Styrofoam rocks Captain Kirk and the Gorn threw at each other specifically lacked, not to mention, you know, how fucking awesome lightsabers are and how cool was the Millennium Falcon or what?  The Trek movies matched the relatively big (and, later, actually big) budgets the Star Wars films had, but at that point if you were a certain age, you were almost definitely a Star Wars fan more than a Trek fan, and you might rub it in by suggesting the Trek universe was overly sterile looking or by pointing to some of the superficial clichés that Abrams Trek now seems set on enshrining as character traits (Kirk is a hotheaded playa, Scotty's a drunk, Chekov an English-mangling Russian bigot--nevermind that these were never really defining traits of the original character, just how we often remember them when we've forgotten the context of otherwise memorable scenes where they behaved this way for a few minutes or less in a particular episode).
And one confesses that one became more snide about it, not less, by the late 1980s when the early, nearly-unbearable first seasons of Star Trek The Next Generation went on the air (and the absence of new Star Wars material made the original trilogy glow more brightly in the receding distance with every year).
Of course, Next Generation got much better, and Star Wars got much worse.  Then again, phrasing it that way probably elides the fact that the Trek franchise slipped into a clutter of increasingly unwatchable series and returns on the Next Gen feature films that diminished into an utter abyss ending with a fairly terrible Wrath Of Khan remake in which things happened like an elaborate dune buggy chase written into the script primarily because in the real world, Patrick Stewart likes driving dune buggies (no, seriously).  The Star Wars prequels did offer up a chance to reevaluate the ethics of the Star Wars universe and contrast them negatively with Star Trek, though perhaps not to as withering a degree as the semi-infamous new-asshole-ripping David Brin gave to Star Wars back in 1999.

Actually, though, I think what happened more than anything was that I got old, and the real world got worse than anything approaching the Star Wars prequels or the execrable Star Trek: Enterprise.  And I find myself, as I enter middle age, feeling nostalgic: not so much for astronauts in miniskirts (though that's a notion with obvious appeal to me), but for Gene Roddenberry's postwar, New Frontier, techno-utopian future.  Which didn't happen and looks depressingly unlikely with every rolling-over of my personal odometer.

I mean, there's a certain irony to it insofar as Gene Roddenberry the writer had one script in him--the one where humans space explorers meet some kind of computer that has godlike powers and/or thinks it's God, which he recycled, I dunno, eighty-five times over the course of two Star Trek television series and the one feature film they let him work on before not-so-delicately handing the film franchise over to people who were more temperamentally suited to making summer films (which is not meant as a knock on summer films: The Wrath Of Khan and The Undiscovered Country aren't just the best entries in the Star Trek film franchise, they're solid entertainments that have held up pretty well over time and have just enough depth beneath the surface to be kind of smart summer films in their respective ways).  But Roddenberry the... I dunno, calling him "Roddenberry the visionary" seems like cheese or even cheese-food product; but however you want to describe him, the Gene Roddenberry who made Star Trek into a lifelong labor-of-love had this unshakeable sense that the ideals (though not the practices) of the Kennedy years weren't just something but were the template for the future of the human species.  We'd use science and technology and the endless hope held out by the infinite frontier of the universe to solve our problems and come together, ending poverty and racism and sexism and nationalism and the divisive parts of religion.

You might nitpick over how much of that shiny idealism survived the gantlet of NBC and, later, Paramount executives.  Go back and watch the original pilot for the show, and Roddenberry's original idea of a woman's place in the future was casting his girlfriend (and future wife) as a pants-wearing, tough-talking, no-nonsense-taking badass second-in-command deferentially referred to as "Number One" (a title restored for The Next Generation and bestowed upon that Enterprise's second-in-command).  NBC was responsible for the miniskirts and high boots, or at least they provided the fuel for it by rejecting the pilot while saying they'd reconsider a sexier re-shot alternative.  Nichelle Nichols on the Enterprise bridge was either a radical act encouraged by the greatest civil rights advocate of the era or a depressingly retro example of the only thing people thought a black lady in space could do was maybe answer phones, depending on how you want to frame it (meself, I'm deferring to Dr. King, thankyouverymuch).  But I think, really, at the most all the realities of making television for corporate America did was tarnish the silver, not take away it's preciousness.

That preciousness being what I think I most miss these days.  Odds are depressingly good I'll end up dragging myself by the hair to see the new J.J. Abrams movie because it's something Star Trek-ish, even if every preview, trailer, interview, leak, etc. all screams at me that this isn't really the Trek I want, that this is very likely another big-explodey action-adventure movie dressed in Star Trek drag (I would like to be wrong).  J.J. Abrams keeps telling people they wanted to make a Star Trek movie for everyone and not just for Trek fans as if that's a good thing; and I guess I should admit that it is a good thing insofar as fanservicing a bunch of increasingly elderly grognards is no way to make a good movie, much less a successful one (and besides, it's a mug's game, fans being notoriously impossible to please).  But where it isn't a good thing at all is that they apparently want to make one of these crowdpleasing adventure movies for everyone and no one out of stock that used to stand for something worth recovering: I don't know if you can really make a two-hour movie where people solve their problems by applying reason and their moral principles with a dash of sciencey-sounding gibberish ("We could use the deflector to invert the polarity of the tachyons!"), and I think Yglesias is probably right that Trek's natural home is on television, where you can posit a new moral quandary or science-fiction riddle every week and take your time brewing and aging your characters to a fine finish.  But just the idea that you can solve problems with science and ethics in the first place!  These days, when a major American political party seems to have declared war on science and caters to a small vocal minority obsessed with a weirdly superficial reading of a 17th Century translation/interpretation of Iron Age texts, when all of our time seems to be taken up by folklore and conspiracy theories and effective governance is thwarted by lobbying groups peddling urban legends, these days it seems absolutely marvelous to think there was ever a time when someone might be so naive as to think someday all that would be set aside and we'd spend all of our time zooming around to places simply because nobody had ever been to them before and figuring out ways to improve ourselves and/or whomever we happened to meet out there.  Learning shit just to learn it.  Going just to go.  And if a crisis arises, thinking our ways out instead of arguing ourselves into paralysis until the bad thing happens anyway and everybody stupidly asks why didn't anyone do anything before it happened as if no one had tried.

I miss, I really, really miss the future.



Carol Elaine Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 12:54:00 PM EDT  

I won't lie: I really, really want to see the new Star Trek movie. Yeah, there will be parts of it that will make me yearn for the Star Trek of old - I cut my teeth on TOS and embraced TNG wholeheartedly, primarily because of Rodenberry's vision of the future.

But I know I'm going to enjoy it, even if it does turn into a big explodey summer picture of a movie and not much more.

Besides, Benedict Cumberbatch as the big baddie? My skin is all atingle just thinking about it. I NEED to watch it.

Eric Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 1:48:00 PM EDT  

Spoiler alert: Benedict Cumberbatch is really the Gorn. And the Gorn is really a tribble. And the tribble is really Khan. Who really is the Gorn. Or would be, if the Gorn wasn't that creepy baby-alien played by Clint Howard.

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