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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Getting Star Trek Mostly Right

I'm not going try to compete with Matthew Yglesias's tremendous survey the whole Star Trek mythos. (Well, actually, as he admits right at the beginning, it's not the whole mythos--he looks at only the canonical stuff, the television shows and the movies, ignoring millions of pages of novels and comic books and fan art and fiction, which is an entirely reasonable decision, despite the fact that it's arguable that much of the canonical stuff has been influenced and shaped by the fan stuff.) I can claim some cred for having come from an extended family of Star Trek-loving nerds, I've made it clear that at least two shows from the Star Trek franchise (the original Star Trek series and Deep Space Nine were hugely important to me, and I had many concerns with the grand J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot which parallel those that Yglesias mentions. But ultimately, he's watched all this stuff, and I haven't. (I bailed on Voyager after only one season, and on Enterprise after only one episode.) So I'm going to take his views seriously, especially since he gets one of the very most important things right:

Even if commercially successful films saved the franchise, Trek’s true home has always been television. The cinema demands what Abrams has delivered: action, suspense, drama. But it’s less well-suited to the signature thematic project of the franchise: to depict, in a sustained way, life in a better tomorrow. Utopia requires moments of peace and quiet. Random episodes about an android bonding with his cat, say, or a bartender’s schemes to increase his profits. You can’t make a lucrative sci-fi flick about people sitting around in a conference room debating options for resolving the situation peacefully--but something that can be accurately teased as primarily consisting of thrilling space battles is not the real Star Trek. A bunch of friendly folks using advanced technology to help people? That can only be profitable, I suspect, on the small screen.

Exactly true--Star Trek, for all the ways it evolved and experimented in its various presentations over a 35-year period, was always fundamentally a progressive, organization-minded, deeply and complicatedly human vision of the future, and the sort of summer movies which the reboot are apparently content in delivering to us can't possibly capture that kind of developmental, essentially liberal attitude. Just the same, I wouldn't call what the television versions of Star Trek gave us "utopian" exactly, because I think Yglesias is using that term in a somewhat limited and banal sense, communicating only the idea of a society that has achieved equality, justice, and peace. The appeal of utopia is--and, I think, this is even the case deep within the liberal heart of the Star Trek ideal--more than that; it is the idea of achieving or experiencing something which is truly alien, truly other, truly beyond, truly different. (It's for this reason that "utopia" is so often a mocking insult, or that those who are really grappling with genuine socialist and communitarian alternatives insist that they are looking for "realistic utopias.") The usual geek classification is that Star Wars is the mythos with a sense of myth, of transcendence or mysticism, whereas Star Trek is for those for those earth-bound liberals who just want to see the Department of Health and Human Services extended infinitely into outer space--but that geek classification is wrong, and Yglesias does the Star Trek mythos a (slight) disservice by somewhat buying into it. Because he's not recognizing that Star Trek, above and beyond the 60s-style-New-Frontier-Cold-War liberalism which it so obviously reflected, was a work of science fiction--and, even more than that, had some of the finest science-fiction authors of the day pen its best, earliest episodes.

To downplay the human-science-meets-the-infinite, I-put-on-my-space-suit-and-plug-in-my-time-machine-and-touch-the-face-of-God, character of the Original Series (and the echoes of it which continued with decreasing frequency through The Next Generation, going through a slight revival in Deep Space Nine, but disappearing almost entirely thereafter) leads Yglesias to miss noting probably the greatest accomplishment of the whole mythos: it was a way of telling stories cinematically in which ordinary human organizations and bureaucracies interact with and are challenged by the unknown, and those challenges--even when they are tragic and chastening, are ultimately positive. (The spirit of Arthur C. Clarke looms over the best of Star Trek's science fiction; Ray Bradbury might be more of Star Wars guy.) Yglesias, to be sure, isn't the only person to be more engaged by complicated, well-plotted soap operas and political dramas in outer space than by real science fiction; it's this sort of thing which leads him, like so many others, to consider The Next Generation "in most respects the 'real' Star Trek"; or to rank the original series (which, yes, sure, had some atrocious episodes, but which also have us the best, purest science fiction which any Star Trek franchise ever produced) even lower than Voyager; or--and this is one of my greatest peeves with all Star Trek fandom--to have so little respect for the Star Trek movie,  Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was probably the purest realization of the whole mythos's attempt to put entirely human organizations and technology and bureaucracy up against (indeed, even connect it to!) the ultimately unknowable, that he ranks it lower than a genuine piece of crap like Star Trek: Nemesis. Fine, I will grant that there are all sorts of visuals in ST:TMP which just plain drag, but really, if there is a purer expression of what Star Trek purports to be about than the climactic reveal in the final minutes of that movie, than I don't know what is:

A small complaint, maybe--and if Ygelsias wants to stand by his judgment, I'm not likely to watch a hundred or so additional hours of television to attempt prove him wrong. And as I said above, he gets the most important stuff right, and so let's just argue with him about whether we think Khan or Gul Dukat was the better villain, or whether our favorite crew members were Worf or Spock, as we wait for the opening of Star Trek: Into Darkness tonight. But let me just insist: the utopia which the Star Trek mythos represents may be a liberal socialist one, but beneath that it is a science fiction one, with all the sense of wonder which that conveys. Miss that, and you may miss the core truth of the mythos altogether.


Glen said...

I like your take. What initially attracted me to Star Trek all those years ago, when there were no movies and we could only watch the series as afternoon re-runs, was, as you put it, the "human-science-meets-the-infinite, I-put-on-my-space-suit-and-plug-in-my-time-machine-and-touch-the-face-of-God" feel. And, yes, there were some atrocious episodes in the original series, but to my mind none of the subsequent series ever really matched it at its best. TNG was just *too* utopian. And, yes, I actually liked ST:TMP, mostly.

That being said, I'm very happy with the reboot. And the reason is that what was even more important to me than the canon was the fan fiction. In my teenage years I read every single published novel. A lot of those were pretty bad too, of course, but to a teenage kid living in the middle of nowhere with no cable and no internet, they were a breathtaking glimpse into what could be someday. I'm not ashamed to say they affected me profoundly, for all their bad dialogue and byzantine plot lines.

So if the movies keep the fan community alive - which I think they will, at least far better than the alternative of no movies and no new series would - then I'm good. If the movies are well written and tightly directed, which so far they have been, then all the better.

Redag said...

The Motion Picture is horribly underrated. I also think it is the Trek movie that most clearly has a metaphorical underpinning.

Kirk's transposition of sexual desire onto the Enterprise leads to him being a dick. Whereas Decker, valuing a woman in that role, is rewarded by getting to be the hero.

If you watch the movie as a long sex act, I think it holds up. Of course, there's some embedded heteronormativity. I wish there weren't.