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Going Portentiously Where Everyone Has Gone Before

Saturday, May 16th, 2009 | Posted by Soyka

Okay, so I’m interested in seeing what everyone is calling “the reboot” of Star Trek, though I could be content to wait until the DVD comes out. And, sure, there’s a lot of buzz (as well as some discussion in this forum), if only because the franchise appears to be doing something interesting, for a change. Fine. But all this blather about the “significance” of Star Trek, particularly this article by Dave Itzkoff in The New York Times is really too much.

Itzkoff characterizes Star Trek as “supremely influential,” and I guess in that it has promoted grown-ups dressing in space pajamas and wearing pointy ears and expecting to be taking seriously, I suppose he’s right.

Look, I’m old enough to have watched the original Star Trek when it was first on television. As I recall, I lost interest sometime in the middle of the second season. Because, even then I realized what a lot of commentators such as Itzkoff overlook: for a supposed science fiction series, it was pretty bad science fiction.

Forget the lack of seat belts when the Enterprise went carooming off in one time warp or another. Or that whatever planet they went to, the natives spoke English. Or that command officers always went on planet reconnaissance, and you could point to the non-recurring character in the security detail as the one who was going to be vaporized. The series started out borrowing plot lines from Golden Age space opera, which I didn’t realize at the time, but at least it was something science fictional. For awhile, it actually used “real” SF writers (notably Harlan Ellison, despite whose protests about the bastardization of his script yielded one of the better and most famous episodes). But then it lost its dilithium crystals and spiraled down the vortex of monster of the week and/or simplistic social commentary (the Frank Gorshin episode in which he tells stunned a Kirk that the criminal is trying to catch is obviously inferior because the left side of his face is black, unlike his which is black on the right side, was one of the better ones; the one where the Enterprise finds the Woodstock nation on another planet is remarkably ridiculous).

And please don’t hand me the “UN in space” line. Spock may have been half Vulcan, but other than the pointy ears he was a white guy. As were all the lead actors. Everyone else was supporting cast, and, the women were there to wear mini skirts and show off their legs. More than a few episodes could have been titled, “Kirk Gets Laid Again.”

Moreover, it wasn’t exactly radical. Several episodes actually supported the conduct of the Vietnam War. It didn’t tackle “the big issues” except in a superficial way that was safe enough for advertisers wanting to buy time to sell soap. They didn’t stop buying time because of any controversial episode, they stopped buying ads because no one was watching.

It’s not that I’m anti-Star Trek. The humorous dynamic among Kirk, Spock and McCoy (which evidently underlies the reboot and which the first Star Trek: The Motion Picture forgot in favor of emphasizing all that was pretentious and silly about the series, redeemed by Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, still the best of the feature-length movies IMHO as well as most other folks) is what made the series. But that’s characterization. It isn’t science fiction.

Yeah, I know it came back, thanks to re-run land and a fan base. I’m probably going to enjoy the latest iteration. But I just don’t take it too seriously. Not the way I would, say, Neuromancer. Something that was real science fiction, and not just mildly entertaining.

5 Comments »

  1. Hey David,

    Nice post. It seems to boil down to “As SF, STAR TREK is not as good as NEUROMANCER.”

    Well, yeah. NEUROMANCER appeared in 1984. That’s 18 years after TREK. Compared to SF in print in 1966, TREK was fairly strong – and compared to SF on television, TREK was an enormous breakthrough.

    I don’t think it’s particularly telling to point out that in the 45 years since TREK first appeared, it’s occasionally been surpassed. That’s to be expected. You might argue that watching TREK is a step backward, into 1960s-era SF, and there I think you’d have a good point.

    But we like it that way. Going to see STAR TREK in the theatre isn’t about getting a cutting edge SF vision. It’s a re-imagining of a Cold War era TV show, with all the goofy stereotypes and sexism that went with it. It’s only partly SF – the rest of full-blown nostalgia. That’s exactly what I was hoping for when I walked into the theatre, and that’s exactly what I got.

    – John

    Comment by John ONeill - May 16, 2009 8:22 pm

  2. Well, okay, forget Neuromancer, how about any of the New Wave writers that were roughly contemporary with Star Trek? Trek was strong compared to, say, Dick or Ballard or Ellison or Sturgeon (though the later two wrote for the show and, not surprisingly, resulted in the better shows; the problem is the better shows don’t add up to a solid single season, let alone three)?

    Let’s compare other SF (though admittedly mixed with fantasy) on television: Star Trek was stronger than The Twilight Zone or (though I believe it appeared after Trek was cancelled) The Prisoner? While all three creak in the seams looked at today, Twilight Zone and The Prisoner hold up because they at least have some ideas behind them. I’ll grant you, some of these ideas can be as silly as some episodes of Star Trek (remember that William Shatner’s histronics were first on display in the Zone’s episode about gremlins at 20,000 feet), but overall there was more going on than retreads of Golden Age plots, e.g., the crew encounter a strange alien life form that threatens their existence unti some flaw can be discovered.

    I don’t disagree that Star Trek is good nostalgia or good fun. As I said, I’m looking forward to seeing the latest flick. What I am saying is that the original series was bad, cliched, sometimes poorly acted science fiction (with some notable exceptions). Accounts such as Itzkoff’s that make it sound like some kind of bellwether of science fiction is probably why some folks still reject it as a secondary immature genre. Because that’s exactly the kind of SF mostly represented by Star Trek.

    Comment by Soyka - May 17, 2009 11:31 am

  3. On some levels, STAR TREK can be views as more a fantasy than a science-fiction work. The main draw of TREK is NOT the science-fiction…it’s the concept of a BRIGHT FUTURE. A future where Earth has united in a lasting peace, and has become part of a galaxy-spanning alliance dedicated to peace.
    TREK is about the triumph of Humanism and Hope…it’s an adventure into a future world where “Everything Turned Out Okay!” Of course, it looks at the tension and violence that still persists in the universe, inevitably, but there’s a sense that the “good guys” (our noble captain and his crew) are out there fighting the good fight.
    TREK is a vision of the future as not something to be feared and owned by prophets of doom, but as the fulfillment of a dream of posititivy. It is the adventure of Optimisim.
    The hope that the future could actually turn out this well lies at the heart of every “Trekker’s” fascination.
    Now, though, the new TREK is bringing those daringly optimistic dreams born in the blood and terror-soaked 20th Century into the 21st Century. TREK is eternal optimism…and that’s why it keeps reviving itself, like a Phoenix from the ashes.
    Hope Springs Eternal.

    Comment by John R. Fultz - May 17, 2009 9:10 pm

  4. Maybe that’s why the new BSG (or whatever the initials are) is so much more successful dramatically and, though secondarily, science fictionally — it’s darker, it explores human contradictions that result in otherwise decent people doing stupid and destructive things, it recognizes that life is not always fair, that sometimes (actually too much of the time) the good guys lose.

    In other words, it’s more realistic, not a Pepsi commercial for how we’d like the world to be.

    Needless to say, I generally prefer the straight-up stuff, without the fizz. Which is not to say that an occasional fizz here and there isn’t enjoyable, just that as a steady diet it has harmful side effects.

    Comment by Soyka - May 18, 2009 8:47 am

  5. Good points, Soyka. There’s room for both utopic and dystopic future-fantasies (i.e. sci-fi). Afterall, if they were all one or the other, it would be pretty darn boring!

    It’s worth noting that the utopic future is the minority among sci-fi movies and books. More often than not, that incurable optimism that fueled the sci-fi of the 1950s is buried under darkness and cynisim. The original TREK was definitely a product of a creator who grew up reading the optimistic/utopian sci-fi of the 50s. In some ways, it’s the most “wholesome” of all the big sci-fi franchises, because it refuses to give up the Dream of a Bright Future.
    It also never forgets that Peace isn’t the absence of tension, it’s knowing how to Live with tension…

    Comment by John R. Fultz - May 18, 2009 9:30 pm


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