What Star Trek Is About
November 22, 2009 1 Comment
I consider myself a skeptic of all things “J.J. Abrams” but have to say that his Star Trek reboot was near-perfect in my view. It could not have been better: spectacular, fun and exciting. However a blockbuster like this is often most interesting not for its story as such, but for what it says about the mass audience.
One takeaway from Star Trek is that we still like cowboys for our heroes. Kirk and Bones are essentially hicks from Middle America. Of course Bones was always a cowboy, played by DeForest Kelly, a veteran of lots of Western TV. But on the original series, this side of him was somewhat muted; here (although Bones really doesn’t have a lot to do) his hickness is played up and New Zealand actor Karl Urban has to do his best Virginia-miner impression. Meanwhile, Shatner had always played Kirk as speaking with a sonorous TV Accent, an accent unlocatable as being from anywhere other than in TV Land. But Chris Pine, who as far as I can tell was born in LA, instead often has Kirk lapsing into a faux Midwest farm-boy accent, usually when he needs to be his most Kirk-like. There’s also a wise-talking Scot (Scots may as well be proto-cowboys), a sword-wielding Japanese dude, a strong Cuban starfleet captain, another older cowboy captain (Captain Pike), and a quirky Russian whiz kid. You know who there isn’t? An enlightened “progressive” who wrings his hands over everything and advocates nonviolence and nonintervention. (The closest by default would be Uhura, I suppose, the ambitious ‘xenolinguistics’ expert now played by a sort-of-black actress.) Even Spock (who does have moments of being ‘enlightened’ but they merely make him come off like a prig), has been beefed up, liable to fly into rage and start pounding on you if you diss his mama. Much as we might hate to admit it and try to suppress it in the Age Of Obama, our vision of adventure and manliness still inherits a lot from the cowboy, it seems.
The main theme of the Star Trek movie’s story, though, is race and racial guilt. This is where the film is at its most consistent with the spirit of the original series – and also where the film finds and explores the contradictions always present in Star Trek at its best.
In the original conception of Star Trek, of course, there are humans, and Vulcans, and Romulans, and Klingons – all sorts of different alien races (usually standing in for Russians, Chinese, etc.). And within each alien group, they were pretty much interchangeable. There was a ‘Federation’, and the Prime Directive (don’t interfere with alien development), baked into Star Trek from the start. This was the ‘enlightened’, ‘progressive’ Gene Roddenberry trying his best to paint his naive ’60s vision of a United-Nations type future. Highly ‘multicultural’, and of course completely anti-individual. But nobody would have wanted to watch Star Trek if it had had no interesting characters. The show’s writers (and definitely, the writers of movies #2-6) must have quickly figured out that the actual appeal of the show lay with Kirk, and Spock, and Bones, and the interplay between them. In other words, they wanted and tried to make a show about multiculturalism, but in practice when it came time to come up with appealing adventures, they couldn’t help making the show be about an adventurous gang of individual characters, and their friendship, and their uniqueness, in the process.
So Star Trek, when it’s been good (which is certainly not always or even often), has always been about the contradiction between the ‘progressive’, multicultural vision it tries to paint, and the focus on a small set of individuals, their personalities and decisions (and especially, their rulebreaking). It tries to be a celebration of peaceful multicultural coexistence and morality, but always ends up being a celebration of the bold, brave, swashbuckling, adventurous individual – i.e. Kirk – and the friends who complement and support him. (And when it doesn’t, i.e. many of the Picard adventures, it sucks.)
Abrams’s Star Trek doesn’t suck, and it’s in large part because the writers go back to that original dynamic of the celebration of the cowboy hero set against a progressive/multicultural backdrop.
And that backdrop is certainly there. The driving force of this movie’s story is race and genocide. Nero the Romulan is mad at Spock for failing to save Nero’s home planet (Romulus). Spock is mad at his Vulcan peers for sneering at his half-human bloodline (a definite progressive no-no). Then Nero destroys Spock’s home planet Vulcan, so Spock has to grapple with the emotions of losing his ‘culture’ and being an ‘endangered species’ (an odd thing to say, since we know Vulcans can breed with e.g. humans…). These conflicts are all consistent with a ‘United Nations’ view of the world as well-approximated by the conflicts and relationships between various ‘peoples’ (aliens). ‘Peoples’ are important (not individuals per se), ‘cultures’ are important and their loss tragic (not individuals per se), it is important to respect this or that ‘culture’ and if you don’t you’re a racist. The setup of Star Trek is steeped in these progressive assumptions.
So much so that to some extent they don’t even make sense. Take Nero’s anger at Spock. It makes absolutely no sense. We see in a flashback that Spock tried as hard as he could to save Romulus. There’s no reason to believe he could have done anything more. So why is Nero so mad at him? Why does he want ‘revenge’ against Spock of all people, the one person who tried to save Romulus? This makes no sense on a realistic level. It does make sense, however, from the ‘United Nations’ point of view of a progressive always ready to blame himself and his society for their inability to intervene successfully in other affairs and utopianize everyone else 100% of the time. The central conflict of this Star Trek is set up by the lefty/progressive fear that there are always peacekeeping missions and humanitarian interventions out there that you (i.e. Spock) failed to do, and those peoples can turn into terrorists because of it, and (on some level) they are right/justified in doing so – and if you strike back in anger, that’s letting your emotions get the better of you.
The second half of the film then becomes about how Spock deals with the genocide against his people. Star Trek‘s answer (and even the Older Spock’s answer) seems to be that he should step down as Captain of the Enterprise and let the adventurous/individualistic/instinctive Kirk take over, because the genocide made him ‘emotionally conflicted’, and Spock can accomplish more by becoming the sidekick and friend of a reckless cowboy. This switch is accomplished by expositing to the audience that there is a Starfleet rule requiring a Captain to resign his command anytime he is ‘emotionally conflicted’. I am not a very knowledgeable Trekkie so maybe this rule has always existed, but I can point out that if it had been followed consistently, Kirk and Picard and Janeway and (etc etc) would have had to resign their commands dozens of times over. That it is called upon here as a somewhat contrived trick to slot Kirk into the Captain’s chair where he belongs is quite telling. (In fact Kirk’s entire trajectory to the captain’s chair is fairly ridiculous if considered rationally….)
Because overall we have a story where
- the Bad Guy was created by the Good Guy’s failure to be 100% successful in his humanitarian efforts
- the Good Guy is bad/wrong to react in anger to that, and needs to control his emotions
- but it’s ok if he steps aside and lets a cowboy take over and do what needs to be done. We need the cowboy.
In other words we have a progressive fairy-tale that tries its hardest to buttress progressive virtues but still celebrates the need to call upon a reckless cowboy to save the day. Star Trek is a backhanded tribute made by progressives to the need – a need they could never admit openly – for a solitary “George W. Bush” figure to come in, take over, and kick ass.