Five Ways to Start a Conversation About the New Star Trek Film

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.

Comments

  1. tvmaisinternet.wordpress.com says:

    Bingo. And about Uhura (2), she´s an expert but she didn´t told the authorities about what she heard. Oops, omission spotted, punishment! :)

    In a new version like this, a story reloaded to fit into the times of the sons, not father´s days, I thought they could put her in a role position, not as the trophy Spock won and Kirk not. They lost an opportunity to bring more girls in to trekkie universe and to correct something from the past.

    I went to the theater expecting something with a visual impact, visual stunning, as The Fountain. I thought Trek would be a movie I could stay looking to screen and let my mind go away with the images – it´s in the DNA of the movies, just watch the 1979 picture. Unfortunately, it´s a remix of classic stuff with Battlestar Galactica.

    I think the purpose of the movie is make a lot of people look back and discover that Trek is good, rewarding every discovery from the past with a new meaning to some scenes of the present. It happened to me, after watch the new one I saw Wrath of Kahn again and smiled when I saw again the original Kobayashi Maru test. And with this new fandom made by new ones and oldies they can start to tell really new stories. Seems that JJ Abrams and crew put us all in a blackhole, necessary for them, to go where no man and no storyteller has gone before.

    Ok, no Klingons, but Ceti eel was there :)

    cheers, André

  2. excellent thoughts. my favorite line: “This would work if it were the pilot episode of a new television series.” i’d watch it.

    as a fan of LOST, the phenomenon of SpaceTime was more than evident; it seemed like a little review before the 2 hour LOST finale this week (no doubt the synchronicity was more than coincidence). and i was the only person in the IMAX theater to let out a little yelp when leonard nimoy appeared.

  3. emiliekopp.wordpress.com says:

    First off, I’m not what you would classify as a fan of Star Trek, nor have I seen the movie, but I found this blog post incredibly interesting. Thanks for the excellent commentary.

    Rather, I’m intrigued by the transmedia aspect of Star Trek fandom. I agree it seems as though a television series might have been a better choice to integrate with the online and social activities fans are sharing these days. TV shows are far more advanced in connecting with and inspiring fans than film. For every example of a film that has successfully courted an online community, I can think of 10 television series that has done the same, and better.

  4. Both The Guardian and the Feminist SF blog criticized the Star Trek film for its lack of progressiveness on gender roles.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/may/11/star-trek-jjabrams-sexism

    http://blogs.feministsf.net/?p=1162

  5. grime and livestock says:

    Point 1: I took the pits as a testing practice, actually, because one of the functions of schooling is the socialization aspect, and I’m sure Vulcans don’t ignore that.

    2. I think you underestimate Uhura in this film. She does accomplish rather more than simply be The Girl, and while I would have preferred she get more to do in the second half of the film (and get to wear something other than the miniskirt), I wasn’t too dissatisfied with her role. I’m not even that unhappy with the relationship, except inasmuch as it violates fraternization rules quite overtly, and doesn’t speak well of Spock’s judgment. You might appreciate reading LJC’s commentary about Uhura here, which I found pretty convincing.

    Point 3 makes me beat my head against the desk. Who would give command of the flagship to a recent graduate who stowed away on board after being brought up on honor code violations, and who then got himself written up for insubordination? Kirk triumphs in the movie through pigheadedness and blind luck, not through any particular genius of command.

    Abrams’ insistence on putting all the original characters into the same places as ST:TOS, in violation of any kind of objective logic, rather violates the insistence in the rest of the story (by way of the destruction of Vulcan, for instance) that this is A New Universe. There’s no particular reason for Kirk, Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura to end up the bridge crew of the Enterprise, except that Abrams made it so.

    Fun movie, great visuals, decent acting, but I’m floored by the lapses in logic perpetuated, which could have been avoided with a better script.

  6. http://openid.aol.com/bgp0rt3r says:

    w/r/t giving Kirk the ship — remember that we don’t know the extent of damage to the fleet that was sustained when they came out of warp to be destroyed by Nero. We saw a bunch of ships warp out of the docks, and a lot of floating debris in the shape of starship fragments. I assume that the Enterprise only survived because of Sulu’s mistake that caused them to miss the big firefight and be recognized by Nero as the Enterprise instead of one of many ships to be destroyed.

    I agree that it’s a stretch, but isn’t it possible that he’s actually the best solution to the problem without knowing more about the actual conditions? (well, obviously after adjusting your definition of ‘actual’).

    It’s far more unclear to me why they promoted Pike to Admiral (or is that a thing where they bump you a grade when you retire, and he’s going inactive as a result of his injuries?)

  7. these aren't the droids you're looking for says:

    Interesting points re: Vulcan pedagogy. My impression was that the bullying was spontaneous, but possibly actively tolerated by those in authority: based on the fact that the physical fight, once it began, went on for some time in a very exposed environment without intervention. I got the sense the students were being monitored, and noted, on their social behaviors.

    [Forgive me if I’m reiterating things you’ve heard many times since you first made this post, but I’ve just found it, so here it is.]

    I have to disagree strongly with your inferred assessment of Uhura as a “Mary Sue”, though. I don’t know that “progressive reworking” is the right way to put it, because the original Uhura was fantastic in her own right and as a character didn’t need that much progressiveness. But I personally found Saldana’s Uhura to be a compelling presence and a dynamic character — one that I hope will continue to be developed in further movies, of course. A few points:

    1. She is introduced first as intelligent and confident; then later promoted to fabulously gifted”. This happens both through assertion of her skills (maneuvering Spock into putting her on the Enterprise) and actual demonstration of her skills (fluently speaking 3 dialects of Romulan when the official communications officer couldn’t distinguish Romulan from Vulcan). This is pretty much exactly what happens with each of the other secondary Enterprise characters (particularly Sulu and Chekhov) as well: narrative constructs to demonstrate that the PCs are the absolute best at what they do in all of starfleet, and that’s why they’re on the Enterprise.

    2. a) Kirk is a dog and b) Uhura is at attractive female: I didn’t really see anything more than that, any “romantic interest” happening there. Now, it’s pretty clear to me that Uhura is the love _subject_ in Spock/Uhura, not the love _object_. She begins the film by rejecting Kirk’s common and clumsy advances, and then she pursues Spock actively… and clearly she asserts her personality on that relationship to such an extent that Spock does out of character things like let her kiss him publicly.

    I suppose canonizing Uhura/Spock does add a layer of conflict to any K/S slash possibilties in the new trek’verse, but then in this particular movie there was more Kirk/Bones subtext going on anyway. ;)

    Your mileage, as always, may vary.