I’ve been a lifelong science fiction fan, especially so of the Star Trek franchise. As a kid, I was drawn to the stories and to the ability to use reason to guide humanity past difficulties and solve complex problems (though I could not put such words to it as a child). As an adult, I more clearly see the philosophy embedded within Star Trek, especially so in The Original Series and The Next Generation incarnations.
Theologian Stanley Grenz testified to the philosophy in Trek many years ago. The opening chapter of his book, A Primer on Postmodernism, examines the shift from modern philosophy to postmodern philosophy as seen in TOS and TNG. That chapter is required reading in my intro to philosophy courses that I teach and it is coupled with an readings from Descartes and different postmodern thinkers (Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard) through the lens of James K.A. Smith (Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?). My students are also required to watch specific episodes to exemplify how philosophy is depicted in popular culture and are able to see the shift in focus.
Whether you like Trek or not is besides the point. The point is that Trek has largely been written with a degree of sophistication and has a message within it. Sadly, Trek struggled in the late 90s and early 2000s and was ultimately canceled until a “rebooted” film in 2009 from J.J. Abrams. Now, I like Abrams’ film and television (see LOST and Super 8) and usually his shows do come with a degree of intelligence in them. However, Abrams admits he was not a Trek fan and recently went on record saying that Trek is “too philosophical” for him. From a monetary standpoint, production studios want to make money. Lots of it. To do so, you have to produce a film that society wants to see, give them “sexiness” and action, dimwitted humor and the occasional callback. This is the new Trek.
Now, I enjoyed the first Abrams movie. I was more repulsed by the second film as it recreates and rehashes many famous and monumental scenes from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is, arguably, one of the best science fiction films ever created. If viewed completely independent and in ignorance to the original Trek, one could easily enjoy these films. They are fun. But there is more to unpack.
Both movies are a cultural indictment.
Star Trek used to be about enlightenment, progress, collaboration, and intelligence.
Now, Star Trek is about fun and games.
And prolonged adolescence.
And non-stop, fast-paced cuts which nauseate the viewer (well, at least this one).
The Abrams Trek is a far cry from Trek of old. This should sadden us. Not necessarily because what was special about Trek is now gone, but for where we are as a culture. We’ve lost the ability to think. Things in the new Trek are painfully and blatantly obvious. A big, black ship called “Vengeance” is needed to express danger. Does it need to be so obvious? Carol Marcus, a central figure in Star Trek II, is included in this new adaptation. Where she was an important part of TWOK, here she has little purpose except to take her clothes off. This again, makes me wonder where we are. Are we still in the times where men need a near-naked woman to get a high? Or are we really in times where women are viewed more than objects? Roddenberry would be, I think, livid by that scene.
Further, the characters in the new Trek are caricatures of their original selves. This is most evident in Kirk, Spock, and Scotty. Yes, Kirk was always slick with women and he was no stranger to bending the rules. He pl
ayed by his own rules. But, Shatner’s Kirk was always charismatic with a seat belt. He respected and cared for the lives of his crew, and of the women he interacted with. We now have depicted a sex-crazed Kirk having a Ménage à trois, who recklessly and carelessly risks his crew. Now, yes, this could be attributed to the fact that we are seeing a younger Kirk and to Abrams and Co. credit, Kirk does seem to grow a bit. But he is not the model by which people aspire to be like. He is somewhat repulsing.
Cue Spock. I like Zachary Quinto’s depiction overall. I think he embodies Spock in a way that resembles Nimoy so well. However, some of the writing is dimwitted. Spock is always logical. But his logic in these new films often makes him look silly or down right stupid. In many ways, he seems more like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, someone who is bright yet oblivious to normality. It makes logic and reasoning look foolish. This is truly an indictment of our culture, making intelligence look laughable.
Then comes Scotty. Thank God Scotty had more important things to do in the new film. The casting of the silly Simon Pegg as Scotty was a mistake from the onset. Not only is he not Scottish (and his fake accent is obviously transparent), but he turns Scotty into a joke, the ship’s comedian. This Scotty does not at all feel like the original as portrayed by James Doohan. And I know each new cast member is not supposed to exactly replicate what came before. However, what the new Trek has managed to do is make hyperbolic the subtleties of what make these character unique. Why is this bad, you may ask? Well, again, it speaks volumes to the way we seem to devolved as a culture. We cannot any longer recognize subtle humor, character traits, and idiosyncrasies that make characters who they are. Rather, we have to portray them as if written in the script “MAKE THE AUDIENCE LAUGH HERE.”
Even the promotional materials for Into Darkness (A title which I find utterly revolting) evoke the new mindset behind the film. The characters are running, holding weapons. There is grim, broken buildings and an Enterprise seemingly falling to its destruction. In the film, there is a scene where Kirk orders Spock and Uhura to “go out shooting.” What a far cry from the classic episodes where using any force, especially of the lethal methods, was considered a last resort.
This film is often shallow, uninspired, and a derivative of the greatness that once came before. The new action-oriented conflict between Kirk and “Khan” pales in comparison to the once greatness that existed between those two characters. We have exchanged depth for painfully obvious discourse, and much worse, our intelligence for simplistic complacency and mediocrity.
If the Star Trek of old told us what we could accomplish as members of the human species, then the new Star Trek testifies to how far we can fall, and how quickly that can occur.
To the real final frontier I return.