Monday, May 18, 2009

Star Trek for Today

Watching movies must be my all-time favorite hobby, not least because they help me think. I don't even have to agree with a movie in order to like it. I just want it to ask good questions and attempt to answer them with some intelligence. For attention-deficient people like me, movies do what books and plays did for previous generations.

Don't get me wrong: the medium has its limits. I recently read Twilight before I saw the movie, and the book was way better. Two-hour movies can't always capture everything, like subtle character development or the passage of time. But movies serve as insightful windows into the thoughts and dreams of the cultures that produce them.

Consider the long stream of Star Trek episodes and movies, which saw their latest installment this month, borne out of the prolific minds of J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof (the producers of LOST). Like any franchise that survives a succession of decades, Star Trek tells us a lot about the changes that have taken place since the series began.

Stanley Grenz argued that the replacement of Spock (from the late 60's) with Data (in the early 90's) illustrates the shift in our cultural values from the former generation to the next one. Spock was a purely rational being (even if he was half-human), a cool, objective bystander to the human condition, who judged Kirk's dilemmas from his unaffected left-brain perspective. (Incidentally, some have also noted how the moody Dr. McCoy personified the other half.) Data, on the other hand, is not so purely logical (despite the fact that he is just an android). In fact, he seems preoccupied with becoming human, as if he is on a perpetual search of self. Grenz explains that this mirrors the shift from modernism to post-modernism. Spock represented the fully matured product of the Enlightenment, which taught us to trust Reason and pursue Science as the solution to every problem that life can throw our way.

But then Science failed us. The closer we looked into the make-up of our universe the more our neat categories crumbled and dissolved into uncertainties. Now mystery permeates all we do, just as Data is always mystified by events and by the choices of the strange creatures around him. Data represents the postmodern recasting of Spock, Grenz says, and he represents a sea change in our ideals. I would have to agree.

In fact, Zachary Quinto's 2009 version of Spock does much the same thing, except with perhaps even more boldness. Now we've become so skeptical of Reason that we feel the need to rewrite the canon, making even Spock himself as susceptible to subjective bias as anyone else. In Abram's movie, Spock is romantically involved with Uhura (who could blame him?), something unthinkable in Leonard Nimoy's earlier incarnation. Quinto's Spock is flappable and sensitive to insults (don't talk about my momma!). Therefore he is no more infallible at the helm than any of us would be. Fascinating.

But perhaps most obvious of all (to me) is that James T. Kirk's history has been rewritten. Previously, as the story goes, Kirk became captain of the Enterprise with his own father proudly looking on. But this 2009 retelling of the story goes back and writes the father out of our hero's life. A Romulan bad guy goes back in time and kills Kirk's father just as the young Jim is being born. Now Kirk grows up unruly, undisciplined, thrill-seeking his way through Iowa with no father to tell him which way is up. This is the kind of protagonist that the child of today can identify with. He's brash, irreverent, impulsive, sex-crazed, and yes, fatherless. Makes perfect sense, really.

The new Star Trek brilliantly goes where no prequel has gone before: It alters the space-time continuum, creating an alternate reality in which characters' stories can now be rewritten at the complete discretion of the producers. That's a masterful stroke, really. I trust the newer incarnation of Star Trek will thrill fanboys as much as the new Batman movies do the comic book crowd. I wish all reboots were in their league, but alas.

At any rate, there's my observation for the day. The new Captain Kirk fits our generation as well as the new Spock does. We no longer worship rationality as we once did, and we no longer identify with well-adjusted heroes. But then again, what comic book hero didn't lose his parents at some point in his childhood?

Like I said, fascinating.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Johnny said...

Nanoo-Nanoo!

4:53 PM  
Blogger Neil said...

Wrong show, dude. That's Mork and Mindy!

How 'bout Live Long and Prosper?

5:24 PM  
OpenID peacebringer7 said...

FOund it fascinating as well.
Didn't really quite catch what you picked up on but is similar.

Extensive commentary here: http://peacebringer7.wordpress.com/2009/05/25/movie-commentary-star-trek-the-future-begins/

appreciate any feedback... :)

3:42 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

Neil,

The movie was a masterful choreographed piece of timing that imo was held together by Ambassador Spock as the metronome conducting a symphony of visual delights!

My wife saw it with me yesterday for the first time, I saw it earlier but on a way too small screen.

My favorite line of many was, "Then why did you send Kirk aboard, when you alone could have explained the truth?
Spock: Because you needed each other. I could not deprive you of the revelation of all that you could accomplish together, of a friendship that will define you both in ways you cannot yet realize.

7:31 PM  
Anonymous Chris Pridham said...

Great observations Neil - I enjoyed the read!!!

5:28 PM  

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