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Star Trek Sans Politics

Kirk and SpockI’ve got a new essay on Religion Dispatches that I did up in a sleepless tizzy after seeing the new Star Trek movie. I had a great time going with my old Star Trek convention buddy Mat to the Lincoln Center IMAX on opening week. Nothing can quite compete with the thrill of seeing those starships shooting around on the screen with green-blooded Vulcans inside. But, as a person whose metaphysics, cosmology, and anthropology is due probably more to Star Trek than anything else, I was disappointed in the worldview it had on offer.

Am I asking too much? It is, after all, just a sci-fi show. Not really. At least in retrospect, 1991’s The Undiscovered Country was a political masterpiece for the end of the Cold War—a tale of reconciliation between two long-warring societies, of old warriors learning to overcome their hatreds. Or the sometimes cheesy Voyage Home from 1986, in which the villain turned out to be a benevolent force of nature bearing an environmentalist message. Or even William Shatner’s The Final Frontier, which made a somewhat bumbling, but partly effective, try at taking on God. Another recent Slate article, as well, pointed to the poignant portrayal of torture in a latter-day The Next Generation episode. The latest aspires to none of these things, at least none that I can tell. Admittedly, I have learned, these films get deeper with age.

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7 comments on “Star Trek Sans Politics

  1. It may be true that the franchise is not exactly reaching for relevancy any more — that may be just too much for the writers to handle, when Star Trek is such an institution that controversy might only damage it, at least in their estimation. (Political relevancy in the Bush years was taken up by more experimental, cable venues like Battlestar Galactica.) Trek’s goal now seems to be just to deliver a thrilling plot and a lot of character, which they did well. Furthermore, if the franchise really wanted to be current and edgy, they would have included a gay plot by now, which they have amusingly avoided amidst all the inter-species copulation going on in Starfleet.

    Still, for what it’s worth, I had to notice that when the Romulans are trying to interrogate the captured Captain Pike, they do not show him in the customary tied-to-chair position, but rather strapped down supine, over what seem to be pools of water and with dripping sounds in the air. Perhaps on some level imagery can’t help but change with our associations.

    Lastly, I’m not sure about your use of Freud here, though I’m not an expert. Certainly, Freud saw civilization as depending on a good dose of repression, but that isn’t necessarily an endorsement — the title “Civilization and its Discontents” should signal a pretty strong ambivalence about the whole thing. Your analysis of the movie is great, but still, I saw the young-Spock plot as pointing to the illusory, temporary nature of repression — a very Hollywood theme, but one that Freud might not have rejected entirely, I think.

  2. You’re so right about the need for some engagement with gay in Star Trek. About time.

    As for the Freud—no, I don’t think Freud would really advocate becoming Datas or Spocks. In fact, he’d be glad to see them getting more in touch with their emotions. For Freud, the repression that civilization requires is a necessary compromise that the individual chooses to take on. It’s a delicate balance. You’re right that, psychoanalytically speaking, the new Star Trek is probably healthier. But I also think there’s a connection between the loss of a true sense of utopian community and the backing-down from totalizing repression. Maybe that’s a good thing. I probably should have been more ambivalent about it. But I miss my utopia!

  3. I’m a long time Star Trek fan — though I didn’t really discover it until it reached reruns — since we didn’t get enough channels to get the show during childhood. You may be right that it lacked the political poignancy of previous efforts, but J.J. Abrahams is by his own confession not a Trekkie. He made a movie for a broader audience. Apparently not enough people payed attention to the old versions — this is a movie for the non-trekker, which is why my son says he won’t see it!

    But, I enjoyed it and look forward to a next one.

    Now it’s interesting that there seems to have been more sexual chemistry between Spock and Uhura than anything Kirk got to experience. That’s a new one!

  4. I think it’s important to note that Star Trek has always depended on non-Trekkies to keep it alive and healthy. For fans, too much is sacred, and they’re often the worst at relevance. Patrick Stewart created an incredible character in Picard not because he had memorized William Shatner’s every mannerism, but because he brought his Shakespearian background to the 24th century! So I don’t think Abrams’s non-familiarity is any excuse. If the filmmakers could get all those lines like “I’m a doctor!” and “If you eliminate the impossible…” in there, they could have at least noticed the show’s political legacy.

  5. In general I was very satisfied with the film, especially because Spock is my favorite character from the original series. (Chekov is my second favorite, and although I liked the way his exuberant 17 year old self was performed, there was a lack of physical resemblance to the original that kind of bugged me)
    One thing that did bother me about the movie was that I was supposed to believe that the Zach Quinto Spock would somehow go on to become Leonard Nimoy Spock. The way that time travel has been depicted in Star Trek in the past, like in “Time Squared” (TNG), for example, the doubles that the characters encounter are alternates — they are free to either become or not become that alternate self by making different choices.
    The Zach Quinto Spock could not grow up to be the Leonard Nimoy Spock after what has happened — too many variables have changed. I think JJ Abrams made a mistake in trying to convince us that this is the case. However, I believe that this paradox can be solved IF, in the future, when the supernova near Romulus is about to explode, Zach Quinto Spock succeeds in arriving with the red matter soon enough to save Romulus. Nero gets home happily and so Vulcan is not destroyed in the timeline from which Nimoy Spock has come. Old Spock still lives out the rest of his life in the universe in which it has been destroyed though, which is actually probably a really good thing for the Vulcan culture in that universe.
    I wonder if pon farr is responsible for Uhura’s relationship with Spock ;).

  6. Andrea,
    I’m actually not convinced that we’re supposed to expect this timeline to be the same as the last. I mean, Kirk already doesn’t have a father and Spock has met himself. My sense is that they’re creating an alternate timeline for a new set of movies. It’ll be different. Kinda like how the Battlestar Galactica remake was different from the original, maybe.

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