Sunday, April 29, 2012

Back from beyond

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2009)

I was pretty big into the original Star Trek for a few years – enough that at one time I could reel off all 79 episodes in order of their first airing (nowadays I can just recall bits of it, the major scaffolding having long eroded); I owned a Star Trek encyclopedia and various other long-vanished books. Later I bought maybe twelve of the episodes on video, in the days when owning anything on video seemed like a thrill. But by then my interests had broadened considerably and any adherence to Star Trek was purely nostalgic. When the franchise gained new life with Next Generation and the other TV spin-offs, I responded (in that-never-join-a-club-that-would-have-me-as-a-member way of mine) by largely jettisoning all remaining interest. I haven’t seen an episode now for well over a decade. But I did get a big kick out of Leonard Nimoy’s recent vacation back in the spotlight – doing the top ten on Letterman, a walk-on on Saturday Night Live, a cameo on the hot new show Fringe.

The Appeal Of Star Trek

 Spock was definitely a big part of the mystique for me – offering, to a teenager struggling with his own emotions and social skills, a fascinating proposition in triumphantly assimilating the ultimate nerdy outsider. I loved his clashes with Dr. McCoy, as a primal dialectic on the confounding question of how to go about this whole adult thing. Star Trek felt adult – the diversity among the crew was always very striking, and there was a rich contour to many of the relationships - but the sense of discovery and exploration differentiated it from the grim, washed-out adulthood I mostly saw around me. Even something as giddy as the colour coding of the uniforms (red, yellow, sky-blue), if mysterious, was a happy, life-enhancing kind of enigma. And the show was good at crafting accessible allegories and philosophical challenges. It might seem trite now, but I still remember how the episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (the one where two guys, each divided down the middle into white and black, carry out an endless race war, based on which colour goes on which side) helped me clarify my own feelings about prejudice (a diversity-free Welsh village wasn’t much of a location from which to become progressive on that topic).

 I was as excited as anyone when the original cast reunited for a series of movies, starting in 1979 and continuing for a decade or so (I do recall there might at one point have been a school essay in which I referred to Star Trek: The Motion Picture as the best film ever made, a judgment I’ve since revised a little bit). The movies offered some pleasures, but never really achieved an inherent sense of purpose. When they announced a year or two ago that J. J. Abrams (creator of Lost and Alias) was reviving, or (as they like to say now) rebooting the (as they like to say now) franchise, I didn’t have much reaction. I mean, there’s nothing very mysterious about the calculation there: take a property with enormous name recognition, bring in a young master of the new vernacular, and just watch the curiosity value skyrocket.

Star Trek Rebooted

 Recently, as regular readers will know, I’ve become tired of Hollywood’s weekly parade of mechanical marvels, and by the time Abrams’ movie actually opened, I might well have decided to skip it. Good reviews, and the Nimoy victory tour I mentioned, tipped the balance. Half an hour into the movie though, I was already tired of it, and going through my ‘how do I keep falling for this stuff’ internal conversation. The scenes setting up the young Kirk are so raucous they hurt my head; those setting up the young Spock are boring.

 It gets better, once it settles into what we’re all there for. The cast is almost uniformly strong, whether they’re somewhat reinventing their characters (Chris Pine as Kirk, Zoe Saldana as Uhura), working more in straight evocation mode (Karl Urban as McCoy, Zachary Quinto as Spock), or doing their own sweet thing (Simon Pegg as Scott). Although there is no plausible way in this world (nor in one of those alternate universes so beloved of modern mythmakers) to explain how a bunch of kids (a drop down the age scale was an inevitable part of the reboot) gets to run the show on a piece of technology as stunning as the Enterprise, the movie probably does as well with this as it possibly could. And the use of Nimoy as the old Spock is certainly one of the better time-travel contrivances.

 As it often did in the show, the use of the “transporter” as a plot short cut is jarring; whether or not that’s a plausible technology, it certainly doesn’t seem feasible within the universe depicted. I could go on. But as you see, I am merely reduced here to reeling off my own subjective debits and credits, measured against the original series. If you ask the broader question, whether the film achieves any kind of valuable distinct presence, then I’m afraid it’s a pretty clear no. The more it revs itself up into the mother of all cosmos-eating, mankind-threatening, time-and-space-whipping extravaganzas, the clearer it is it’s about next to nothing at all.

At Least It’s Fun

 Well, you say, there’s that all-important commodity, fun. But when you look at the immense increase in our fun-gleaning options over the last decade, from PVRs to smart phones, it gets awfully hard to rationalize how any of us can possibly need the minimal additional stimulation represented by whatever Hollywood’s peddling this week. If we do need it, then surely it’s only at the cost of admitting that this explosion of possibility has failed us, that instead of being better able to craft our own menu of choices (as the hype tells us) we’re merely better placed to be manipulated into the next narrative of supposedly necessary cultural consumption.

 That famous opening voiceover - “Space, the final frontier…to boldly go where no man has gone before”- is easily parodied, but then you think about those times. The moon was yet to be conquered, all manner of social progression barely yet envisaged. Star Trek perceived and dramatized these as two sides of the same urgent renewal; it was fun, as an engaged conversation is fun; it delivered easy entertainment, but persistently reached further. The new movie has resources and possibilities they couldn’t have imagined back then, but they also couldn’t have imagined that surviving for this long would count for so little.

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