I saw the new Star Trek movie this week, and I thought that it was quite good. I’m not really going to write much about it, though. I’d rather talk a bit about Trek in general.
I have no idea when I started watching Star Trek. Sometime in middle school, maybe. Perhaps earlier. I don’t know if I saw the original series or The Next Generation first, but regardless, it had a big influence on me when I was young. I don’t just mean in terms of aesthetics or taste- I’m talking about my actual worldview with regards to politics and philosophy and such. Star Trek, in part, made helped make me the liberal humanist that I style myself as today. Yes, I really mean that.
Back before the horrible prequels, I remember constant debates among young nerds about which was better- Star Trek or Star Wars. I occasionally went back and forth in these debates, but I most consistently said that Star Trek was better. I didn’t think it was necessarily better because of the acting or writing, but because of its ideas. At the end of Star Wars, Luke turns off his computer and just “uses the Force.” He lets himself go and only uses his instincts. I can’t really see a Star Trek character doing the same thing.
As intuitive and gut-trusting as characters like Kirk and Riker were, they didn’t rely on pure emotions or suppositions. They thought about things, and characters like Spock and Data were often chimed in as the voice of reason. As good as Kirk’s instincts were, he was still reasonable and unimpulsive. He wouldn’t have turned off his computer while fighting the Death Star, and that’s why I always sort of preferred Star Trek- it was, as Spock would say, logical. The things that saved the day were always things like expertise, clever applications of technology, or diplomacy. There was no room for Star Wars‘ woo-woo mysticism. The very presence of Spock sums it up nicely- the character that served as the sage and voice or morality was also the most logical.
It’s easy to accuse Gene Roddenberry of being optimistic about all of this. His future is bright, shiny, and almost utopian. However, I have to give Roddenberry credit for this in a way. Not only did he believe that technology would advance, but that ideas and social norms would as well. So much SF simply maps on the values of the present to an imagined future. In Roddenberry’s view of the future, though, humans have gotten over racism given up smoking, to name two examples.
Yes, smoking. Back in the sixties, NBC thought it was odd that no one on the Enterprise smoked, like normal sixties people. There was a bit of pressure on Roddenberry to include weird space cigarettes in the show, but he refused, maintaining that by the 23rd century, us humans would know better. Not only would people of different ethnicities work side-by-side, they would do so in a healthy environment. Looking around now, we have a black president and smoke-free bars, only forty years later. Roddenberry’s optimism wasn’t entirely baseless, it seems.
Many of Star Trek’s episodes (both in the original series and the Next Generation) were basically geeky problem-solving sessions. The Enterprise would encounter something like an alien being, a machine, a new society, etc., that was hitherto unknown. The crew would scratch their heads about it and theorize about how it worked, usually while sitting around a table. After a bit of action and a few dead redshirts, there would be some kind of deunoument usually brought about by the ingenuity of one of the crew members. Kirk would would use his wits, Picard would flourish out some clever diplomacy, Geordie or Scottie would spout technobabble and make the ship do something impressive, McCoy or Crusher would make a startling biological discover. In any case, the crew would use their newly found revelation to get out of the jam, and then there would be a nice little meditation on the interesting scientific, social, or philosophical consequences of what just happened.
I loved this stuff. I still do, in fact. (Thinking about it right now, I’m struck by how much Trek resembles Isaac Asimov’s short stories. It all has this “Hey, guys! Isn’t this interesting!” quality to it.) It makes for fun episodic television and appeals to a certain kind of person who thinks way, way too much. It is not, however, “rollicking” or “fun.” The sort of speculation and head-scratching that happened on Star Trek certainly invited parody, and if it wasn’t done well it just came off as heavy-handed. More than heavy-handed. Leaden. William Shatner expounding on the significance of things in general can be just as easily tedious as it can be charming.
As the franchise regressed, I eventually get really, really bored of Trek. I didn’t really like Deep Space 9 or Voyager, and I actively loathed Enterprise. Insurrection and Nemesis were both sort of tepid movies, and I didn’t come to expect anything new or fresh from the franchise. When the new movie was announced, I just sort of said “meh.” I was very surprised to see that not only did it not suck, it was actually good.
The new movie succeeds because it seems to have the same kind of ideological underpinnings of the original Trek– Enlightenment values in space- but keeps them as just the underpinnings. The characters who save the day are still a diverse scientists, geniuses, and all-out supernerds, and the bad guys are a bunch of militaristic, tribe-like nationalists. The movie, though, doesn’t get preachy about it. The original principals are there, but it has none of the heavy feeling that seems to descend when William Shatner puts his hand on his chin and broods behind his eyebrows. Instead, it was really zippy. Zippy! It was a movie that went “Zoom!” in the best way possible. Watching a fun, zippy Star Trek movie is kind of like seeing a really geeky guy getting over his own awkwardness and start dancing. I like Star Trek again. This feels sort of weird, being all suffused with nostalgia. Zoom!