I won’t say that I’m a Star Trek expert (or a “trekspert”, a phrase I am now copy-writing), but I’m an avid fan. I’ve seen almost all of the Trek shows and films and read a few books, even the dreadful Star Trek/X-Men crossover, but I couldn’t tell you a single episode name, or get into the deep character mythology of a background, once-seen nobody. So, no, this post will not be getting into the nitty gritty of the franchise. I am, however, going to register my dissatisfaction with J.J. Abrams 2009 Star Trek film and my growing dread that its sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, will be even farther off the mark.
Matthew Yglesias over at Slate.com just published a great piece explaining in detail what makes Star Trek so compelling and he rightly looks to the nature of the Enterprise’s five year mission as summed up in Star Trek’s famous opening lines: “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Everything amazing about Star Trek is contained in this sublime statement of purpose, and Yglesias sums up the ideas behind them beautifully:
“The Federation, which our beloved crew serves, is engaged in something like a cold war with the Klingon Empire. But its premiere starship is not a military vessel and has no sharply defined political agenda. Kirk establishes diplomatic relations with new species and tries to play a constructive role in the galaxy, but he’s not there to open new markets to Federation goods or to assist one side or another in proxy wars.”
If ever there was a time to revive these principles, it is now. Think of what’s happened in the last decade or so. 9/11 led to fears of a terrorist holocaust and growing xenophobic extremism, a slow-motion economic collapse showed the deep structural failures of capitalism, the environment is dying, each day inching closer to a kind of fatal path dependency toward, well…the end of everything. It is easy with all of this going on to feel despair, to feel nihilistic, to lose hope. We can see this in the kinds of science fiction coming out: visions of calamity, of doom, of the decline of cities, the spread of war, of the end of the world. It is as if, to quote Slavoj Zizek, “we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”
Star Trek came out of a time of similar doom and gloom, but rather than losing hope, Trek dreamed of utopia. Star Trek dared to question what would happen if humans do not destroy themselves. In the 23rd century of Star Trek, not only does humanity beat the evils of war and environmental collapse, they overcome the ugliness of feral capitalism, racism, sexism, and bigotry. Trek posits a humanity that no longer cares for political brinksmanship, thinks in ugly, realpolitik terms, or even considers ruthless acquisition of property to be a social good. In fact, in Star Trek, the people that do think in these terms (like the Romulans, Borg, and Ferengi) are the villains, the people getting in the way of humanity’s quest for enlightenment. Humanity has devoted itself to exploration, to expanding the definition of life itself, all while embarking on a search inward, to understand the nature of humanity when the term itself can mean so many wonderful things.
Anything less is beside the point.
And yet, none of this made it into J.J. Abrams Star Trek. J.J. Abrams himself says that he never liked Star Trek. In fact, on The Daily Show, he claims that he never liked how philosophic it was. So rather than developing a film based on the premise of Starfleet as a force for exploration and discovery, Abrams defines Starfleet as a “peace keeping and humanitarian armada”. Abram’s Starfleet is basically the military, a kind of spacefaring U.N.
This is not just a minor change, this is a totally different premise that effectively neutered what was formerly the only popular vehicle for utopian, philosophic science fiction. Yes, Abrams made a film that retained all of the visual trappings of Star Trek, but none of the strange, wonder philosophy that defined it. Instead, Abrams made a generic science fiction movie, starring empty copies (ok, I’ll admit that I loved the performances) of Trek’s amazingly crafted characters. Abrams’ Trek has no thematic connection to Star Trek writ large. No exploration of humanity, no broadening of the idea of life, no examination of a world beyond our ugly ideological assumptions. This Trek is just a fun movie, as exciting as it is shallow. Abram’s goal, presumably, was to reach large audiences and to do this, he must have guessed that he had to make a “popcorn” film. I can’t tell if this is insulting or just sad. Either way, it implies that audiences aren’t smart enough for challenging science fiction, and are too cynical to buy into utopian thinking.
I fear that Into Darkness is going drift even further away from Trek’s core themes and ideas (or maybe even flee from them at warp speed). The trailers suggest that Abrams is further investing in high action and whiz-bang effects and less I philosophy or utopia. I’m sure that, like 2009’s Trek, I will enjoy it as a summer film. I’ll probably buy it. I’ll probably even watch it a hundred times. I’m also sure that I’ll be disappointed in it because it will be Space Film: A Movie About The Future…Of Space! But it will never be Star Trek. And that’s what disappoints me.