During the past year I, as already mentioned, didn’t manage much reading. I did, however, manage to watch the latest addition to the Star Trek universe – Star Trek: Into Darkness – at its theatrical première here in Stockholm back in May.
The film as such is what it is – a modern remake and retake, shifted into the new alternative universe of J.J. Abrams‘ Trek. Some people doesn’t care about Star Trek at all but of those who do a significant part is irked by the new version, variously for it being untrue to canon, the fake physics of the new basic premise, or for just being… you know – not the Original.
My personal take on the changes Star Trek has gone through over time is that I accept them.
I am a bit too young to have experienced the Original Series in real time. Born in 1966 I was too young, had it aired on Swedish television back then… which it didn’t. When (some) of my classmates started talking about Spock et company during the mid-70’s I was hooked on Space 1999, and besides – reading, not watching, was my thing, and my torch was my best friend (for under cover reading at night).
No, my real love for Trek started with The Next Generation, at which point I started to seek out both TOS and the films. This was back in 1994, when Swedish television started to air TNG, and by that time TOS had started to look much like at least early TNG look today – a bit… cheap. The special effects development, the art of prop making, and, later on, HD TV and big screens at home, has conspired to make made-for-TV stuff look exactly as mass-produced as it was. The effect was as detectable in the 28 years that had passed between 1966 and 1994 as it is in the 26 that now has passed since 1987.
Of course, the real appeal of Trek is not in the special effects but in the message: the possibility of a brand new future, a future of hope, of a humankind who have managed to grab itself by its lapels and drag the collective out of the slums and poverty, out of war and hate. Saying no to fear and bigotry and yes to rational thought, to science and curiosity and respect. Saying yes to dialogue as the only valid way to solve a conflict. And proposing an area were there still was things to discover.
It is my belief that those were the core values that made Star Trek what it was.
Later versions of Trek, such as Deep Space 9 and Voyager, stepped down from those ideas and values. Dilemmas was more often solved by general ingenuity than by speaking to people, and plots centred on making an issue of what might happen when idealism meets greed for money and power.
Hollywood seldom invents or goes into the breach – what it produces reflects the sentiments, norms and dilemmas of the time. It so follows that the subsequent versions of Trek reflect the way society changes. Star Trek has survived over 47 years. That in itself is an amazing feat, testament to the appeal of the original vision. But the spirit of the mid-60’s, or even the late 80’s to mid-90’s, is not the spirit of the present century. And much as I’d love a slow-moving dialogue-driven show championing values such as equal rights, respect for the other, and rational thinking, in the post-9/11 world that has been almost impossible. Post-9/11 Trek stumbled, just as human rights such as freedom of speech, thought and expression took a serious tumble. Discussing moral dilemmas wasn’t on. The world became black and white, no grey zones, no zones for intermingling and exploration.
The last instalment set in the original universe – Enterprise - descended into territory already claimed by so many others, territory brilliantly owned by, for example Babylon 5 (another show that I followed religiously when it aired), and thus was lost.
Was the Trek enterprise failing? Yes, I’d definitely say so. At least it didn’t attract new followers. Enter Abrams and the New Trek.
A lot has been made about the improbability of the time travel plot device that shifted this incarnation into an Alternate Universe. But really. Warp speed, anyone? All kinds of faster than light travel are highly improbable, which sets almost all science fiction well into the realm of the impossible. Which to me makes the objection in itself laughable if not bigoted. Either you accept the basic concept or you don’t. Either reject FTL or embrace it, with all its plot-side consequences. Or – what about the growth-spurt the Genesis device incited in both Wrath of Kahn and Search for Spock? What about the time travel of Voyage Home?
But beyond the fake physics New Trek also depends on lots of special effects, lots of action, and slap stick-like drama. What about that? Wasn’t that anathema to Trek?
No. It wasn’t. Core to Trek was the moral dilemmas and how to approach them. Teaching methods for managing conflicts of interest, and to accept them as conflicts of interest and not as good versus bad, right(eousness) versus wrong. But it’s also about adventure and hopefulness.
I do like both Star Trek The Movie and Star Trek Into Darkness. Is it Trek? Well, if DS9 and Voyager was, then I think these should count, too. The Movie conspicuously lack in the moral dilemma department (the “message” in that one would perhaps be to bring hope to juvenile delinquents, lol) but Darkness has some – violation of the Prime Directive is a classic, the needs of the many versus the need of a friend, and even a “bad” guy can have valid motives behind his choices. Then, of course, the bad guy turns out to be singularly self-interested, and quite vicious about it, too. This is nothing new, this happens in quite a few episodes in at least TNG and the movies prior to Darkness. So even if I personally would like to see the bad guy turn out to be someone you can talk to this didn’t happen often historically and likewise will not happen often now or in the future.
Darkness also sets the famous Five Year Mission going, much thanks to Spock’s insistence on Federation law and principle – had Kirk gone in and nuked Kahn they would had had a war on their hands; instead now they have conflict and death but ultimately reason prevails, and peace.
Maybe the story is told in a way uncommon to Trek. But ultimately Trek has to exist in this world; the expense of making it must be justified or it won’t get made. For many perhaps form is more important than the survival of Enterprise. But if this new incarnation can continue to provoke insights in its followers I have no problems with the form.
Because let’s face it – it’s a series of TV shows and movies. In a world of vicious egocentricity anything that shows success through collaboration and through utilisation of each other’s differences is a good counter-balance.
Even if it’s made by a black-and-white Star Wars fan-boy. And even if I am reviled by the aggressive commercialism surrounding present-day Trek.