Spoiler Warning: The following post assumes you saw the new Star Trek film this weekend. If you didn’t, you probably shouldn’t be reading this post. You should be heading to a multiplex.
Cynthia and I went to see the new Star Trek film this weekend. We have managed to see every Star Trek film together as a couple on opening weekend since the film franchise lost with Star Trek: The Motionless Picture in 1979.
So, the two of us proceeded to spend the better part of the evening going through the film scene by scene armed with a lifetime of fan and critical perspectives on the franchise, trying to figure out what it signals about the future of Trek.
We certainly went into the film with high hopes but also with a certain sense of dread. J.J. Abrams has worked hard to demonstrate to the world that “this is not your father’s Star Trek,” and the problem is that we are, well, sorta, when you look at our birth certificates and all, part of ‘your father”s generation. People like ‘Your Father’ and even more likely ‘Your Mother’ have kept Star Trek a viable franchise for more than four decades. None of us object to bringing in new souls for the faith or attracting younger followers but you don’t have to write off the old fans to do so.
We certainly were not opposed to the recasting of cherished characters: quite the opposite, many of the franchises we care about — Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Cyrano, Hamlet, Sam Spade — have been recast many times with differing results but always with new discoveries to be made. We certainly hoped that having someone other than William Shatner playing the part would rekindle our respect and affection for Kirk, as a character, for example, while we remained skeptical that a new actor could capture the complexity which Leonard Nimoy has achieved through his portrayal of Spock through the years. As a fan of the new Battlestar Galactica series, I’d be hypocritical if I objected to them rethinking the characters or revamping the worlds depicted on the series.
When Cynthia was asked what she thought upon walking out of the theater, she responded that it felt like a Star Trek movie precisely because there were things we loved and things we hated about it. It’s been like that from the beginning and it will always be thus.
Rather than write a review of the film, though, I figured I’d throw out some discussion topics. After all, it’s exam season around here and so the genre of essay questions comes readily to hand. The following are some of the things we’ve been debating since we saw the film:
1. For us, the coolest thing in the movie was the image of Vulcan educational practice, which is consistent with previous representations (most notably the scenes of Spock retooling himself in Star Trek III) but also gave us new insights. Vulcans seemingly learn in isolation yet immersed in a rich media landscape. Each climbs down into a well surrounded by screens which flash information, allowing them to progress at their own rate, dig deeper into those things which interest them, and at the same time, develop a certain degree of autonomy from other learners. There are no teachers, at least none represented in the segment we are shown here, but rather the individual learner engaging with a rich set of information appliances. In some ways, this is the future which many educators fear — one where they have been displaced by the machine. In other ways, it is the future we hope for – one where there are no limits placed on the potentials of individual learners to advance.
But if learning is individualized, why do people come together into what can only be described as a school? Why not locate the learning pod in each home? Why have a structured school day?
In the midst of all of this well-considered if somewhat alien pedagogy, we are introduced to the issue of Spock’s bullying by his classmates. The scene where he confronts the Bullies is oddly ritualized, as if he was reporting to them for today’s insults and abuses, and as if they were testing his ability to develop the toughness and emotional control to push aside those insults. It’s clear elsewhere that he faces a certain degree of prejudice as a result of his half-human/half-Vulcan background — see the casual deployment of race as a handicap as he is admitted to the Vulcan Science Academy. But here, it is as if there is a system of ritualized bullying designed to test and toughen each student. What if bullying was incorporated into the pedagogical regime as it is more or less in several other educational systems on our planet? Certainly the content of the insults would be different in each case, but the logic of ritualized insults as a way of developing emotional control is not actually alien to the way Earth cultures operate.
2. I’ve read reviews which suggest that the Uhura in this film represents a progressive reworking of the character from classic Trek. I’m not convinced yet, even though I very much liked the actress who played the part. However limited her role might be (“hailing frequencies are open, Captain”), the original Uhura was defined first and foremost by her contributions as a member of the Enterprise Crew. Whatever subtext there was suggesting a Kirk/Uhura romance, it was just that — a subtext — left for fans to infer from a few telling moments in the trajectory of the series, among them, the first interracial kiss on American television — albeit executed under mind control — albeit an implied projection of one or both of the character’s actual desires.
In the new film, Uhura asserts her professional competence but she never really demonstrates it. How does that make her different from many of the female professionals in classic Trek who are introduced in terms of their professional abilities and then reduced to being the girlfriend of the week for one of the primary characters? Here, more screen time is devoted to her but she’s ultimately a love object in some kind of still to be explored romantic triangle between Kirk and Spock. Basically, she’s been inserted into the story to discourage fans from writing slash stories, though most of us won’t have any trouble figuring out how the exchange of women facilitates an expression of homosocial/homoerotic desire.
The classic definition of a Mary Sue is someone who is claimed to have extraordinary mental abilities, who manages to gain the romantic interests of multiple members of the crew, and who manages to have the information needed to save the ship. In way sense, then, is the new Uhura anything other than a Mary Sue figure in the body of an established character? Surely after forty plus years, Trek can imagine a more compelling female character.
3. I’m still trying to make sense of the implications of Kirk’s absurdly rapid rise to command in this version of the story. In the past, we were allowed to admire Kirk for being the youngest Star Fleet captain in Federation history because there was some belief that he had managed to actually earn that rank. Here, he manages to gain command in large part because Captain Pike was an old family friend, and because he had one really successful mission. It’s hard to imagine any military system on our planet which would promote someone to a command rank in the way depicted in the film. In doing so, it detracts from Kirk’s accomplishments rather than making him seem more heroic. This is further compromised by the fact that we are also promoting all of his friends and letting them go around the universe on a ship together.
We could have imagined a series of several films which showed Kirk and his classmates moving up through the ranks, much as the story might be told by Patrick O’Brien or in the Hornblower series. We could see him learn through mentors, we could seem the partnerships form over time, we could watch the characters grow into themselves, make rookie mistakes, learn how to do the things we see in the older series, and so forth. In comics, we’d call this a Year One story and it’s well trod space in the superhero genre at this point.
But there’s an impatience here to give these characters everything we want for them without delays, without having to work for it. It’s this sense of entitlement which makes this new Kirk as obnoxious as the William Shatner version. What it does do, however, is create a much flatter model for the command of the ship. If there is no age and experience difference between the various crew members, if Kirk is captain because Spock had a really bad day, then the characters are much closer to being equals than on the old version of the series.
This may be closer to our contemporary understanding of how good organizations work — let’s think of it as the Enterprise as a start-up company where a bunch of old college buddies decide they can pool their skills and work together to achieve their mutual dreams. This is not the model of how command worked in other Star Trek series, of course, and it certainly isn’t the way military organizations work, but it is very much what I see as some of my students graduate and start to figure out their point of entry into the creative industries.
4. If the narrative makes it all look too easy for the characters, the narrational structure makes it much too easy for the viewers. There’s a tendency not so much to ask questions as to hand us answers to the questions fans have been struggling with over the past four decades. So, for example, classic Trek was always carefully not to fully explain how Sarek and Amanda got together, allowing Vulcan restraint to prevent Sarek from fully articulating what he feels towards Spock’s mother. As a consequence, there were countless fan fiction narratives trying to imagine how Sarek and Amanda got together — Jean Lorrah, for my money, wrote the best of these narratives, though there were other great fan novels out there on precisely this theme. Yet, here, the question is asked and answered, overtly, in a single scene.
Ditto the issue of whether Vulcans are incapable of feeling emotion on some biological level or if they have simply developed mental discipline to bring their emotions under their control. Again, this question inspired decades of fan fiction writing and speculation and is here dispatched with a few short sentences.
The mystique that surrounded Spock from the start had to do with things he was feeling but could not express: he is a deeply divided character, one who broods about where he belongs and how he relates to the other Enterprise crewmembers. But this film makes it look ridiculously easy for him to get a girl friend and he is surprisingly comfortable necking with his pretty in the transporter room, an act that it is impossible to imagine Spock prime doing. The original Spock was a deeply private person. It isn’t that the new film has made Spock Sexy. The old Spock was a whole lot sexier than the new Spock for all of his hidden depths and emotional uncertainties: the new Spock is just too easy all around and there’s no real mystery there. He isn’t sexy; he’s having sex and that’s not the same thing at all.
5. As a stand alone film, it’s reasonably engaging: I like most of the cast and think they achieve good chemistry together. The pace is, as has been suggested, good, though most of the action scenes — except for the free fall sequence — seem pretty average. It’s a flawed work but I’m certainly in for more adventures. My problem is that the film didn’t give us much to anticipate for the sequel. In answering its mysteries so easily and not setting up new ones, there’s just not that much room for speculation and anticipation.
This would work if it were the pilot episode of a new television series. I haven’t loved any of the pilot episodes but they gave me enough reasons to like the characters that I kept watching. It usually takes a good number of episodes for the cast to jell with their characters, for the writers to figure out what they are doing, and for the audience to figure out what is distinctive about the new series. I think I need more momentum to get over the hump than a movie every few years and that’s why television would have worked better to relaunch the franchise than a feature film is going to do.
Is this a space where transmedia storytelling practices can create a bridge between this film and the next? Is there other ways that they can allow us to have encounters with these characters as embodied by the new cast? If so, what strategies will be the most effective at strengthening what ever level of identification was created for this new film?
Finally, if there are new fans who are created through this relaunch of Star Trek, which is certainly what Abrams and company are claiming is their goals, what has the film left them to do? What are the gaps and kernels they will work with? It’s clear enough what the cultural attractor here is but what is the cultural activator?
Then, again, there’s nothing wrong with this film that couldn’t have been improved by the addition of Klingons. I will explain later in the week.