I finally went and saw the new Star Trek movie, and enjoyed it… and that’s the problem. Great visuals, cool gadgets, beautiful faces, a driving plot that kept my eyes riveted to the screen… but Gene Roddenberry’s gift for holding out a hopeful vision of the future? Gone, baby. And two of the most important topics taken up in the Star Trek canon, racism and genocide, get short-shrift in this cupcake of a movie (**beware for spoilers**)
The original series broke ground on the topic of race, which I was blissfully unaware of as I sat next to my big brother watching the series in the 1970s. Gene Roddenberry’s “western in space” balanced the familiar and the unfamiliar in just the right mix for this little girl.
The familiar: ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ guns, a ship run like a naval vessel (except with photon torpedos!), the red-shirt crewman to let us know danger was lurking (by dying in the first two minutes after you see them).
The unfamiliar: a multiracial bridge crew that included a Russian (we were fervent anti-communists in my family, so this was a big deal) and a guy with pointy ears from some other race. A different race, not as in, from Asia or Africa, but a completely different race! This Spock guy could knock you unconscious by pinching you, he had a mind like a computer… and he could read your mind if he touched you!
Star Trek made certain that Spock was fascinating, which brought us kids back to what is true but was obscured by racism in our everyday lives: that people different from us can be interesting to get to know.
In Spock, Star Trek gave us lessons about racism without talking about racism. The multiracial bridge crew taught us that in the future, racism as we know it now will be a relic: there was a black woman on TV who was not a maid. Star Trek offered us more than the familiar when it came to race.
When Roddenberry ‘rebooted’ the series in 1987, it was with the “Next Generation” (STNG to us Trekkies), and it too, found a way to balance the familiar and unfamiliar. A Klingon was now on the bridge crew, to re-invoke the theme that enemies eventually become allies. Given how race had changed, STNG now had multiple Black recurring characters.
STNG was explicit in its view that we would learn to get along, or perish. It offered mild rebukes to the original series, with more profound roles for women (up to a point), and a captain who preferred to talk before firing the photon torpedos. STNG mirrored the timing of my own life, as I left home in 1987 and left behind some of the conservative ideas I had about war, peace, and cooperation. I was an adult just in time to appreciate that I was watching a moral tale with cool special effects.
STNG needed scarier villains, and tougher topics to take on, and wound up with the genocidal Borg, who brought us fear, homicidal nano-probes and mass destruction for many seasons. Then came the episode, “I, Borg” in which the Enterprise has an opportunity to destroy the entire Borg race, and are forced to acknowledge that they would, in turn, be committing genocide. You can try watching just that episode, and maybe you’ll get it, but some of it would be lost on you if you haven’t seen all the evil that the Borg do. They’re the enemy! Then comes a moment when we get to know a single Borg, and our certainty about what is the right thing to do dissolves.
The Star Trek franchise, at moments like that, is science fiction at its best: offering just enough of the familiar for us feel like we know what we would do. Then the perspective shifts just enough to force us to question what we think and believe and eliminates the easy answers we thought we had.
But the 2009 film has rebooted by jettisoning Star Trek’s chance to take on anything tough. It takes all the hard-earned prestige of the series and spends it all on pretty effects and cool outfits (excuse me, extraordinary effects and outstanding outfits). Forget tough looks at race or genocide. Okay, sure at first Spock and Kirk don’t get along, and by the end of the film, they do. But it’s a personality conflict, and not even a particularly deep one. If this were an episode of “Moonlighting” I would expect more tension then the whole, “you cheated on my test” conflict they begin with.
There is the same multiracial bridge crew that was radical in the 60s, but now is a cultural status quo. There is no conversation about race that is even vaguely unfamiliar.
Genocide comes up, but hardly as a moral issue. 6 billion Vulcans are killed by a Romulan villain, but there is only screentime for Spock’s immediate family. Genocide is a prop in this movie, and the Vulcan people have become the infamous “red-shirt” characters from the original series, who die to let us know that someone who really counts is at-risk (in this case, Earth).
And what should happen after this genocide? “Let’s go get that m—-f—r” guides the day. As the viewer, we get to wallow in our righteous anger at the villains, and that’s about it.
This movie is like a light and fluffy cupcake topped with two inches of buttercream frosting. I savored details like the new bridge design, the nuanced acting, and those cool parachutes. I am sure I will see it again, and enjoy it.
But some part of me feels like I’ve let Gene Roddenberry down, for loving this movie’s bling instead of being loyal to the heart of what he did for so long: teach me to question myself if I want to become something new and better.
As one person who has been changed by Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, I can’t help but feel like it’s a sad day when I enjoy a Star Trek movie where the future is pretty much like the present, but with better effects.