This article contains Spoilers! Do not read unless: a/ you want to, or b/ dislike value-judgements, or c/ have seen Star Trek Into Darkness.
Let me get this out of the way: I love Star Trek. More pointedly, I love Star Trek on television. Sure, the films are great – some of them, anyway – but Star Trek, for me, deserves to be on TV due to its seriality that allows depth of character, continuity and sophistication that cannot be maintained through cinema alone.
That said, the decision to “reboot” the franchise was a necessary strategy following the risible Star Trek: Nemesis and the cancellation of Enterprise. If a reboot – in computer terms – serves to reset a system following an error message, then this tactic was fundamental in restoring the franchise back to operating parameters. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept of rebooting – and I do not mean the manner with which the term is now bandied around ‘willy-nilly’ to incorporate, well, everything: from remakes (The Evil Dead; Total Recall); sequels (Scream 4; Dallas; Tron: Legacy; Rocky Balboa; It’s a Good Day to Die Hard; and, as announced in May 2013, 24); prequels (The Thing which, as Laura Mee points out, has been described also as a ‘premake’, a conception conflation of both prequel and remake), and so on and so forth. A reboot collapses a previously existing narrative story-world and ‘begins again’ from year one (or even year zero) disconnected, at least narratively, from the earlier continuity. We can include Nolan’s Batman films, the forthcoming Man of Steel and Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man in this category.
Star Trek, on the other hand, is a rather different beast. What is its paradigmatic designation? Abrams’ 2008 film created a parallel timeline through the quirk of science fictional ratiocination which serves to disconnect itself from the former iteration – the Shatner-Kirk-Nimoy-Spock-Stewart-Picard-Mulgrew-Janeway-Brooks-Sisko-Bakula-Archer universe.
This narrative orchestration allows new stories to be told whilst still keeping the ‘original’ timeline uncorrupted and canonical. Shatner is still Kirk, somewhere over the multiverse, at least. This, in effect, frees the text from polluting established mythologies and, as Alan Dead Foster points out, “opens up a raft of possibilities in the sense that anything is fair game now, because nothing is canon” (Foster quoted in Gross 2010:28).
Like the comic book model of both Marvel and DC, the multiverse is a nexus of parallel earths that allows multiple stories to be told without impinging upon canonicity, continuity and causality. For a lot of readers, stories must adhere to an internal consistency, an Aristotelian cause-and-effect logic. Abrams’ Star Trek performs this task beautifully. By borrowing a conceit from the comic book medium – and let us not exclude Michael Moorcock’s epic tales of Elric and Stormbringer – this ‘new’ universe can now co-inhabit with the ‘original’ series and, for fans, give it a sense of rationality.
The inclusion of Spock – or ‘Spock-Prime’ played by Leonard Nimoy – in the film serves to confuse the identity of this latest episode in the Trek firmament. Is it a sequel? Spock’s inclusion posits the idea that it ‘follows on’ from the ‘Prime’ universe which is explicitly made so through the comic book series that preceded the film itself. Countdown shows Spock seeking to repair the damage he inadvertently caused regarding the planet, Romulus. This, of course, is explained in the Abrams’ film, but this graphic episode problematises the status of Star Trek 2009 as reboot somewhat. Countdown to Star Trek is a prequel to the film, a sequel to Nemesis and, by extension, Voyager and Deep Space Nine – which makes Trek 2009… what? A sequel to a prequel to a sequel which is also a reboot and prequel but can operate as a ‘sidequel’ and a ‘sprequel’? I don’t have a problem with this per se. This is part and parcel of negotiating the palimpsest or, to borrow Will Brooker’s words, the ‘matrix’. For me, I enjoy these questions – it is a part of my fandom and it brings me pleasure and amusement (not to mention thick, blinding migraines that threaten to rip my head from its axis permanently). Additionally, it provides excellent analytical fodder for the last stretch of my PhD thesis which investigates the reboot phenomenon in popular culture.
David A Lloyd argues that Star Trek 2009 is not a reboot because it leaves the previous universe intact – albeit in a different spatiotemporal location. This has some validity. A reboot collapses a previous story-world and ‘begins again’ while Trek 2009 certainly ‘begins again’ but explicitly validates, not cancels, the previous order. Head hurting? Brain dribbling through your ears like jelly? Welcome to my world!
Of course, as I have previously argued, a reboot can never actually begin again as it cannot truly ‘wipe the slate clean.’ Star Trek Prime (the universe that Shatner and co inhabit) has not been cleansed from our brains – we remember it wholesale, we can buy the DVDs or watch the re-runs on Sky Atlantic. On a chronological level, however, a reboot operates causally whilst, on the other hand, at the level of intertext, it is an orgy of connections, allusions, quotations and multiple exchanges of textual fluids. Textual intercourse may be a concept too far for some, but, as Stam points out, Derrida used the term ‘mutual invagination’ to explain how texts are never islands floating in an island of isolation and originality, but permeate each other explicitly and implicitly: ‘Any text that has ‘slept’ with another text…has also slept with all the other texts that that other text has slept with …in an amorphous exchange of textual fluids’. Textual intercourse, indeed!
Following Abrams’ coup de theatre, I did look forward to Into Darkness, the latest instalment, with high hopes. Henry Jenkins recently told me that he re-watched the 2009 film in preparation for the release of Into Darkness and thought that it served well as a pilot for a television series, but did not do enough to warrant a four year gap, at least in terms of quality. I liked the first film fine, as I’ve said, but is it Trek? Here’s what one fan had to say after viewing the 2009 film:
The shape of the new film is so ‘new’ that it no longer reflects Star Trek for me, and the mythology hasn’t been bent, more like broken, smashed into a million pieces…I am of the opinion that if a filmmaker is going to create a prequel/sequel/franchise then they have to stay true to the source material, otherwise there is no point in making the film and they may as well create a whole new, separate film unconnected to Star Trek.
Another commentator stated that this was the equivalent to “urinating on Roddenberry’s grave and fornicating with his corpse” (quoted in Anijar 2007:231). Beautiful imagery aside, it is clear that some fans have problems with this latest version of Star Trek. I remained somewhat on the fence – glad that Trek was back, unsure about the new direction.
Many commentators, including Abrams himself, have put forth the idea that a Star Wars flavour was a much needed ingredient for the Trek recipe, to spice up the generic pot as it were. Abrams criticised the original franchise as involving “a lot of discussion about things that were happening and not a lot of action depicting it” which “needed to change” (quoted in Dyer 2008:127). Indeed, Star Trek 2009 is “fast-paced, full of action and visually stunning” (Abrams quoted in Dyer 2009:76-77) and “replaces stately discussions of moebius loops or eye-brow tweaking Vulcan philosophy with zippy-pacing and wise-cracks” (Jolin 2009:167). It is rather significant that Abrams’ inspiration lies not within the Star Trek universe, but from its bête noire, George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy. Whereas “Star Trek was essentially a submarine naval battle in space, Star Wars was flying down the trench of the Death Star at the speed of mach 70,000 to shoot a little bullet into a hole (Kurtzman, quoted in Rundle 2009:56). Many compare the frenetic pace of the film to Lucas’ blockbuster hit and the associations do not end there. For instance, Jim Kirk is described as a ‘farmboy’ akin to Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy. The ice planet of Delta-Vega in Star Trek is analogous to the opening sequence of The Empire Strikes Back which shows the rebellion hiding on Hoth, another ice planet. Both scenes include an ‘ice creature’ which threaten both Skywalker and Kirk (before being summarily dispatched). In addition, the Enterprise “does a good impression of the Millennium Falcon in the battle of Yavin” (Kennedy 2009:70).
What separated the Star Wars mythos from Trek is one of sophistication and depth – and, I might add, seriality. I must point out at this point that this is a highly subjective piece and I do not wish to irk the fury of Star Wars fans. I’m a Star Wars fan, too. But it didn’t – and doesn’t – provoke much in the way of thought. Except to scream in the direction of Lucas: WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHYYYYYYYYYYYYY!
I’ve spent more time in bafflement and confusion over Lucas decisions post-original trilogy than I ever did philosophising over the text itself (well, at least beyond the ages of 8-12). But I still retain a fondness for Star Wars and can’t wait to see who they get in the director’s chair. Wait…what? Abrams you say? Well, this fan does not mind so much, even following the travesty of Into Darkness – he can’t be any worse than ‘good ol’ Georgie’ and his self indulgent poetry. I am rather worried, however, that Star Trek is becoming (phasers set to stun, sorry, kill) ‘dumbed down’?
Could Abrams be ‘Jar-Jar-Binxing’ the Star Trek franchise?
The trailer for Into Darkness was brilliantly conceived. So much so, that I would say it works better than the film itself. I had high hopes for this, I really did.
YOU CANNOT TAKE A SACROSANCT TEXT LIKE THE WRATH OF KHAN AND REMAKE IT IN YOUR OWN IMAGE! IN THE IMMORTAL WORDS OF (ahem) HARRY ENFIELD, ‘I SAY…OI! ABRAMS! KURTZMAN! ORCI! AND DAMON ******* LINDELOF…NNNNNNOOOOOOOOO!’ I sat in the cinema with my Texan friend and fellow academic, Justin Battin and we both cringed, booed and cried ‘havoc’. I wanted to ‘let slip the dogs of war’ and remove this offending artefact from cultural history. The reversal – I refuse to say subversion as that implies a level of intelligence– of Spock and Kirk in the final act was just stupid! And you cannot have Spock scream ‘KHAN!’ Well, you can, and it did, but you shouldn’t. Not on my watch, Mr. Abrams! You task me…you task me, and I shall have you.
It’s not that I have a problem per se with the intertextual games that were being played here. Yes, yes, I get it…it played with our expectations. Yes, it did. But, I did not expect anyone could write something so, well, crap. It just didn’t work for me. On any level. I understand that intertextual references – or so-called “easter eggs” – are important to audiences and spotting them is part of the fan-fun. But there is nothing to spot, seek out, or uncover if they are RAMMED DOWN THROATS! I say to you, J.J Abrams: ‘At Hell’s heart I stab at thee!’
Should we blame Abrams? Sure, he’s a fine director (get that lens flare out of my face!). But what has he done? Really? Beyond Alias and Lost which was wrapped up expertly with such storytelling finesse that…oh wait. ‘At hells’ heart’… oh you get the picture. Mission Impossible III? Meh. Super 8? Okay, it was a good film but it was made by Spielberg decades ago and he just couldn’t help himself with the mawkish, nice cutsy alien which dissolved all tension and rising dread. Yet he is applauded by fans as this popular auteur. In Khan’s name, why? I feel the same way about Joss Whedon. Buffy? Love it. But it certainly hasn’t dated well and it finished rather damp squidlly (not a word, but I’m an academic – it’s allowed). Firefly? I just don’t get it! I know, I know, it was broadcast out of order and wasn’t allowed to have its ‘day in the sun’ due to early cancellation, etc etc. But I still don’t get it. Dollhouse? Great premise, promising start and – BOOM! – axed, gone, dropped unceremoniously. It makes one think that Whedon must have really pissed someone off (until The Avengers which is rollicking fun, but goofy and ostentatious).
Should we blame Orci and Kurzman?
All the above?
If the new Trek timeline allows the opportunity to experiment and traverse uncharted territory then I would like to see that. Okay, stick some Klingons in, tribbles, if you must, the Jem Hadar, why not? But I would like to see a different tact next time, narrative-wise. New stories, new enemies, don’t be beholden to history so much, that kind of thing.
Oh, and less sexism. And a gay character or two. A new villain. A new race. Maybe a flux-capacitor.
(Picture: Henry Jenkins as Klingon)
I received an email yesterday from aca-fan, Henry Jenkins after he had seen Into Darkness (which opened in the US a week after the UK). I quote him here at length because I find his comments interesting and bluntly accurate:
Cynthia [Jenkins’ wife] and I went to see the new Trek yesterday. We have managed to see all of the Trek movies together on opening day going back to The Motion(less) Picture, so this was an important personal event. I was glad to have seen it, but ambivalence does not begin to describe my relationship to this film. I have to admit that it has many enjoyable moments — the chemistry between the new cast has grown, and I especially liked the development in Bones, Scotty, Chekov, and even to a degree, Kirk in this film. It was great to see them distribute the ship-saving moments more fluidly across the entire secondary cast, and there are some great dialogue moments and small details that show a real appreciation of Trek and its legacy. That said, everything that has frustrated me about the first movie has grown worse, especially the sexism. It seems that the only way to get a job as a female officer on the Enterprise is to let Kirk see you in your underwear first, and that once you are there, your skills will take a backseat to your relationship to the important male characters, especially if you are a girlfriend to the Big Three or if you are the daughter of a villain. It seems that the old series give the characters of the new series a sense of entitlement, a get out of jail free card, so you can break the rules, get stripped down in rank, and then get your ship back instantly, because you are the only officer in the room who knows how to duck, cover, and then pick up a gun and start blasting, or the only one who can make the most basic inferences about what’s happening, and if you get in real trouble, you can just phone a friend from your own future who can tell you how to solve the problem. Don’t get me started about the white-casting of Khan — it seems in this future, human perfection consists of having white skin and a South-Asian name. But, I was kinda going with the flow until they started reperforming lines and shots from Wrath of Khan and then it was all over. These moments destroyed any suspension of disbelief I had achieved. These youngsters really are fan boys playing dress up! And the producers are so tone deaf in their “fan service” that they include the shouted Khan, probably the most infamous moment in the entire series. People were laughing out loud in the theater. I fully expected them to have a funeral scene where we learn that Spock thinks Kirk is the “most vulcan” person he’s ever known — well, that reversal would almost be worth it, given how much I despise the “most human” line in the original. But, how do you come back from this pure parody of Trek to any kind of coherent universe. This is where this new Trek died and with it, any confidence I might have that J. J. Abrams is going to do anything respectful and intelligent with the Star Wars films. He has said all along that this was not going to be “your Father’s Trek” and my problem is that, basically, I am “your father” in that equation, but I felt like I had come a long way to accept his new version of the characters, only to be slapped in the face by the closing moments of this new film. I haven’t seen anything this disrespectful since Shatner’s “Get a Life” sketch. End of Rant, for the moment. You DID ask me to share what I thought. 🙂
What I find especially interesting is that this new ‘neo-liberal’ Trek – if I can describe it thus – has its roots in the cancelled Enterprise TV series. David Greven (2008) argues that Enterprise is a xenophobic and neo-conservative text. Whereas The Original Series “stood for diversity, pluralism, tolerance, non-conformity and individualism”, Enterprise is a
[r]eactionary, revisionist work, a neo-conservative fantasy of a return to a time before progressive, politically correct new values, ruined things for everybody and policed the expression of good, salty, enjoyable, essentialist, racist, and sexist values…[Enterprise is] one of the most misogynistic and racist science fiction shows in television history (ibid).
For example: in the pilot episode, Broken Bow, Archer expresses enmity for the Vulcan race by accusing them of stunting humanity’s intergalactic progress. The Vulcans – emblematic of an alien ‘other’ – are shown to be pernicious, calculating, and “engaged in deception, covert operations, state prejudice against minorities and other quasi-totalitarian practices” (Hark 2007:54). Archer constantly undermines his female Vulcan science officer, T’Pol and, in one particularly charged exchange, he denounces her for failing to obey his orders and threatens to “knock her on her ass” if she refuses to comply.
Similarly, Commander Charles ‘Trip’ Tucker, Enterprise’s Chief Engineer, is consistently “provincial, xenophobic and crass” (Greven). Ensign Hoshi Sato is an Asian-American linguistics expert, yet she is largely ineffectual as a crew-member except where language is concerned (and she often struggles in those moments). Travis Mayweather is an African-American but, rather than this being a reaffirmation of the racial harmony of Roddenberry’s original vision, he is “a complete blank” (ibid).
From this perspective, Enterprise is morally and ethically problematic. Captain Archer is racist, sexist, and, at times, amoral. He is, in short, a more negative representation than his forebears. For example, ‘the Captain’s Chair’ has been occupied by an American (Kirk); a European (Picard); an African-American (Sisko); while Voyager attempted to navigate the contentious waters of gender by placing a ‘woman’ in the lead role alongside other, positive female representations, such as B’Elanna Torres and the Ocampan refugee, Kes. Enterprise, on the other hand, seeks to re-traditionalise ‘women’ within normative gender roles and, arguably, strives to negate feminist progression to some extent through the reactionary representations of, for example, Hoshi, the hysterical ‘drama-queen’, and T’Pol, “the tough woman denounced by hostile males” (ibid).
It is important to note that Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969, Paramount) – although seen to be emblematic of Roddenberry’s vision of liberalism and egalitarianism – is extremely problematic in a number of ways. As Dariotis argues, “every incarnation of Star Trek has reproduced racial stereotypes” (2008:65). The most infamous Star Trek enemies are the Klingons who are depicted “via an array of orientalist stereotypes” (Booker 2008:201). From an ideological standpoint, the United Federation of Planets can be viewed as a synecdoche for the U.S.A and the USS Enterprise is an icon of “Americanized global culture” marching towards an era of “galacticization” (ibid:199). In other words, the Enterprise is not a beacon of humanity per se, but, rather, of America. This is demonstrated quite profoundly in Voyager as Janeway seeks to re-intergrate and re-traditionalise Seven-of-Nine into the Starfleet way of life.
For all the acclaim Star Trek has garnered due to its wide range of ethnicities, there has never been a gay or lesbian character, alien or otherwise, within its narrative universe. This has resulted in a kind of backlash from the homosexual community with the textual appropriation of Trek archetypes that re-articulate, for instance, Spock and Kirk as lovers demonstrated by the growing trend of so-called ‘slash fiction’. Despite these discrepancies, however, Greven’s argument shows that Enterprise is more problematic given that it was produced some fifty years after Kirk and crew were first broadcast to the American public. It is easy to look back with the luxury of hindsight and castigate a text that, in essence, “would move media discourse forward into new realms of social negotiation” (Dixon 2008:109).
As Jenkins point out in his quote above, the ‘new’ Trek may be following in the footsteps of its direct ancestor due to its misogyny and sexism. But we do not fear the failure of Abrams’ (mis)adventures. The recent Trek instalments have all destroyed former box office numbers and even appealled to people who would normally never think about going to see a Star Trek film. My hopes for the future of Star Trek, however, hang limply in the balance. Historically, “Star Trek has never truly succeeded in capturing the hearts of mainstream audiences” (Dawson, J 2008:120), yet Star Trek 2009 has been almost universally praised for appealing to the average cinema-goer rather than so-called ‘trekkers’. As Jolin claims, “unbelievers were shocked to find they were not only enjoying a Star Trek movie, but going to see it again” (2009:166-167).
I wonder what fans think of the new episode? A quick trawl around the ‘net and I am confused at the sheer wealth of celebration and kudos electronically declaring the triumph of Abrams. I do, however, plan to talk to different hierarchies of fandom and, even, non-fans. Many students I teach thought it was brilliant. I asked if they were fans of the original series etc. Not so much. Perhaps it is people – like myself and Jenkins – who have a history with the lore of Trek that are irritated by this turn of events while non-fans who see the film have no baggage and, thus, like it fine?
Abrams is quoted as saying that ‘sick and tired of watching big blockbuster movies and feeling like he’s died a little inside’.
Hmmm, interesting. My thoughts exactly.
A message for J.J:
I will have my sweet, sweet vengeance. I’ll chase you ’round the moons of Nibia and ’round the Antares Maelstrom and ’round Perdition’s flames before I give you up!
Anijar, Karen (2007): ‘A Very Trek Christmas: Goodbye’, In Geraghty (2008) (ed.): The Influence of Star Trek on Television, Film & Culture. McFarland: North Carolina.
Booker, Keith M (2008): ‘The Politics of Star Trek’, In Telotte, J.P (2008) (ed.): The Essential Science Fiction Reader.Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.
Dariotis, Wei Ming (2007): ‘Crossing the Racial Frontier: Star Trek & Mixed Heritage Identities’, In Geraghty (2008) (ed.): The Influence of Star Trek on Television, Film and Culture. McFarland: North Carolina.
Dixon, Wheeler Winston (2008): ‘Tommorowland TV: The Space Opera & Early Science Fiction Television’, In Telotte, J.P (2008) (ed.): The Essential Science Fiction Reader. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.
Dyer, James (2008): ‘Back to the Future’, Empire, no.234, December 2008, pp120-127.
Dyer, James (2009): ‘The Prime Director’, Empire, no.239, May 2009, pp74-79.
Greven, David (2005): ‘The Twilight of Identity: Enterprise, Neo-Conservatism and the Death of Star Trek’, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, Spring 2005, No. 50 [online]. Available from: http://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc50.2008/StarTrekEnt/index.html
Gross, Edward (2010): ‘Star Trek: Lost Chapters of the Re-imagined Universe’, SciFi Now, no.38, April 2010, pp28-30.
Jenkins, Henry (2013), ‘Personal E-Mail’, 17th May, 2013.
Jolin, Dan (2009): ‘DVD Review of Star Trek’, Empire, no.246, pp166-167.
Kennedy, Colin (2009): ‘Review of Star Trek’ in Empire, no.240, June 2009 pp70-72.
Rundle, James (2009): ‘Review of Star Trek’, SciFi Now, no.28, June 2009, p54-57.