As one of the teeming teens who wrote letters to NBC in the late sixties urging execs to keep Star Trek on the air, I've often felt vindicated by the success of the franchise. And so I felt an odd disquiet after my mother and my wife opted on seeing Star Trek and dinner out to celebrate Mother's Day. I'm sure they did it to sweeten the deal for two grown sons and me, but it was an oddly appropriate choice. The film opens with a heroic child delivery, along with a nascent notion that something's not right about this film, maybe this culture.
By opening his film in a Star Trek universe pre-altered by a vicious tattooed time traveler, director J.J. Abrams dodges several space mines. First he shields the film from sentimentality. Because the movie's pre-history is all wrong, the appearance of so many familiar characters in the bloom of youth serves for more than misting the eyes of aging Trekkies. It obliterates the original series, in which Captain Kirk's father lives on, Spock's mother lives on, the planet Vulcan is very much with us, Uhuru kisses Kirk, not Spock, and so on.
Altering history through time travel has become a hackneyed plot device, sure, but using it on such a cultural touchstone is a stroke of dark genius.
Newsweek recently featured a cover story suggesting Obama must be a Vulcan.
Let's hope not, for this film is a betrayal of Spock, indeed the Star Trek canon. Not because of the changed prehistory, per se, but for the dark uses Abrams puts it to.
Think about it. If you render the entire ST canon a-historical, as a history that couldn't have happened, what does that do to the first interracial kiss on American TV? What happens to the optimism and celebration of the cosmos that made Star Trek so lovable? What happens to its empathy for aliens, be they Tribbles, Romulans, robots or clouds of psychedelic consciousness? What do we make of the series' defunct parables illuminating issues of war, race, environmental decline, doomsday machines, the abyss between logic and feeling, and even torture? Remember The Empath, from season three?
Abrams not only bends Star Trek out of shape, he turns it into one more dark, shoot-em-up thrill ride. Yes, it's a thought-provoking thrill ride, and Abrams had the good sense to pepper it with Trekkie trivia and culture. The splayed Vulcan salutation, pointy ears and mind meld are all here. So is Leonard Nimoy, who surely can't be THAT old. McCoy says “Dammit Jim I'm a doctor…” at least once, and both Scottie and Chekhov beam the captain and others up just in the nick of time, with the exception of Spock's mother… oops!
Most such touches are gratifying, until we come to Sulu's in-character-but-unlikely swordfight. It's about then the Trekker in me began to rebel, for reasons I once turned against the glamorous violence of Star Wars.
I'm one of those idealistic kids who took refuge in science fiction, because I saw it as a force for a rational and enlightened humanity. Over the years, however, I wondered whether the cartoon violence of Star Wars and some latter Trek shows paved the way for renewed American jingoism and celebration of all things military under Reagan and two Bushes. Our space movies were becoming the equivalent of cowboy and Indian flicks and World War II movies that served to redeem war in the eyes of a new generation.
To be fair, photon torpedoes and Fasers were always part of Star Trek's appeal, but at least the latter could be set to “stun.” Mostly such gee-whiz devices as Fasers and Tri-corders served as window dressing for a sensibility that embraced intelligence, curiosity, wide-eyed wonder and largeness of spirit.
Precious little time's devoted to such in the new Star Trek. Zero time's devoted to exploring what it must've done to the villainous Nero—his very name cartoonish--to watch his Romulan world get sucked down a black hole, though Spock's anguish at the same thing happening to Planet Vulcan is nearly relentless.
And there's only a moment in which our transposed Captain Kirk and Spock—in yet another weird role reversal—debate whether to rescue the doomed villain and crew. Kirk speaks up for showing such mercy, but Spock will have none of it. There's no mistaking the relish on our heroes' faces when Nero refuses help and they blast him to smithereens.
Yes, there's genius at work here, but it's in service to a dark pop gestalt.
In the Sixties, kids like me believed the Whole Earth as seen from space just might be our salvation. Star Trek was not only symbolic but catalytic of such change. Each Friday it offered new ways of understanding The Other.
Even as Star Trek went off the air, such visions began taking root in the real world. Important arms treaties, environmental reforms, international treaties, diplomacy, racial and gender equality became manifest. And yet, it's as if dark forces draped in cloaking devices shadowed all the angels of our better natures.
It was against the backdrop of a hopeful new millennium that such forces broke out with a vengeance. Blowback terrorism, economic pillage, war and Constitutional subversion became rampant. The selection of George W. Bush as president and his jingoistic crusades in the wake of 9/11 did irreparable harm to notions of a better world.
Wish I could say it doesn't matter, but a pro-war mindset informs this film, especially the explosive ending: Give `em an insincere last-second chance to surrender, then blow `em away? That's precisely the offer Bush made to Iraq, and it betrays us still.
Some say, hey, Abrams is reflecting changing times here, but that won't wash. Gene Roddenberry launched Star Trek in the midst of war, jingoism and patriotism run amok, yet he struck an enlightened chord. Creative and entertaining as the new Star Trek is, it embraces hearts of darkness. Let's hope the next installment returns us to the light.