Star Trek 2009 is Troubling and Wonderful at the Same Time

Okay–I began writing this blog post on Thursday, May 7 after watching the new Star Trek film.  Since then, I’ve seen it a second time, and I’m probably going to see it a third when I have a chance.  Since I saw the film, I’ve been blitzed with SFRA scheduling, Pakistaniaat layout work for our first issue, grading, and I haven’t had a chance to begin evaluating The Postnational Fantasy book project submissions with Swaralipi and Professor Raja.  So, I wanted to go ahead and publish this post as it is, and I may return to these ideas in the future with something more coherent, methodical, and rigorous.  The following is as it is.

Yufang and I just got back home from seeing J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot, and I had to put down my initial thoughts about the film.  If you haven’t seen it yet, go forth, watch it, and come back and let me know what you thought.  For those of you who have seen it, read on and comment below.

Visually, Star Trek (2009) has much more visual energy than any other Star Trek film or television series (and I’ve seen them all in toto).  Part of this energy comes from its borrowing a thing or two cinematically from the recently finished re-imagined SF series, Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica.  The cinematography sweeps, lunges, plays loose, and zooms and tracks.  Furthermore, the editing and pacing of the film overcomes one of the major detractions from the other Star Trek movies.  The new Star Trek artfully bridges the immediacy of television with the longer play format of film.

However, a significant difference between the two filming styles is the visual brilliance of the new Enterprise compared to the grit and dirt of the BSG.  The BSG definitely connects to earlier SF space craft such as the Nostromo from Alien, while the new Enterprise looks like something Jonathan Ive would cook up.  Additionally, recent space craft design and cinematographic aesthetics bleed between these firmly entrenched franchises–the new USS Enterprise and Cylon Basestars, and Nero’s Romulan mining vessel and the BSG.  It would be interesting to explore the implications and meaning behind spacecraft design in contemporary SF film and television–I will begin developing this into something longer.

Considering the cast–Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as Bones, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as Chekov–I believe that these actors have assumed these established roles with care and expertise.  I don’t get the sense that any of them are over playing or parodying what has come before.  Each brings something more to the table than merely mimicking the work of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, George Takei, and Walter Koenig.  The new Star Trek, working with a mythos and formula that goes back to the late 1960s, returns to the beginning instead of trying to reformulate that origin as we saw in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.  It is this point that, as much as my inner fan delights in it, is one problematic issue for bringing Star Trek into the 21st century.

Star Trek has long been lauded as the touchstone example of a progressive television show, or more exactly, a SF show that engages contemporary issues, including human equality and the Civil Rights movement, veiled in SF narrative.  Why then is the new Star Trek held up by its token antecendents?  It is impossible for Star Trek to be more progressive in the same way that the re-imagined BSG did where characters were remapped (though it is important to note that BSG transcended race, ethnicity, or gender in an overwhelmingly positive way). I acknowledge that the new Star Trek is meant to be a reboot and not a re-imagining, and as such, it facilitates this maneuver through the too-often-used technoscientific time travel narrative, which means that the characters remain essentially the same with slightly different histories and personal development. It is as if the past (TOS) is reaching forth from a syndicated grave to leave an indelible imprint on what could be a new and progressive vision of the future.  The hierarchy and friendships must remain the same between the members of the Enterprise crew.  

However, the relationship between Spock and Uhura caught me by surprise.  It is in a way more positive than Kirk finding his way into Uhura’s bunk, but despite Spock’s hybridity and green blood, he still resembles a white man.  Furthermore, he is Uhura’s instructor and superior.  The power structures are intact with Uhura on the bottom.  Even with her demand to Spock to put her on the Enterprise, how much of this is selfish acquiescence on the Vulcan’s part?  

Another problem that I encountered in the new Star Trek film has to do with the tragic hero, Nero (I assume that this was a pun by the screenplay writers).  As I have argued before regarding Joker being the true hero of The Dark Knight, I believe that Nero is the hero of the new Star Trek film.  He witnessed the annihilation of his family and the Romulan home world prior to the serendipitous time travel facilitating singularity created by the so-called “red matter.”  He reveals his pain and anger as something raw and single minded.  Nero does not accept the universe of Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations.”  Nero blames the Vulcans, the distant relatives from which the Romulans split, for the destruction of Romulus and the billions of lives lost.  Obviously, the history of politics and (possible) racism between the Romulans and the Federation (particularly the Vulcans) fed into Nero’s beliefs.  

There were attempts at unification and peace between the Romulus and Vulcan when we last left a future Enterprise crew on the NCC-1701-D and E iterations of the Federation’s flagship.  The Romulans had their “empire,” and the Federation of Planets was represented as a democratic body with representatives from the various member worlds.  However, were the Romulans really antagonistic to the Federation, or were they reacting to their being boxed in by the Federation behind the so-called Neutral Zone?  Why is the supposedly science and knowledge oriented Starfleet, the militaristic arm of the Federation, regimented, armed, and never willing to run from a good fight?  On one level, the new Star Trek film reveals that the real threat comes from an uncaring Universe, but the political sentiments, beliefs, and machinations are an equal threat to life.  

Nero takes the opportunity to save his planet by attempting to eliminate the peoples he feels are responsible for not preventing the dangerous supernova. Unlike Terminator 2, in which Sarah Connor attempts to prevent the Skynet orchestrated armageddon by killing Miles Dyson, Nero assumes a scorched Earth approach to protecting his and his people’s future.  Could he have traveled to Romulus with his technology and given it to the past?  Yes.  Could he have communicated with the Federation rather than fire the first volley at the USS Kelvin?  Yes.  But, I don’t think that any of us can really imagine what it would be like to witness that kind of loss and devastation.  The Vulcans apparently take it all in stride in the film when Vulcan is destroyed, but I do not believe that even a strictly logical Vulcans could overcome the hatred born of (real or believed) racial animosity and genocide.  Let me be clear that the Vulcans did not actually, as far as the story tells us, destroy Romulus, but how would an off-world Romulan miner see the destruction of Romulus with their history of a divided ancestral past?  And, in what way does “diaspora” (I’m thinking of the Jewish and African diasporas respectively) play in the imaginative annihilation of Romulus and Vulcan?  Are the Romulan and Vulcan representatives from another Star Trek mythos/timeline/alternate history sent forth into the void not in place, but in time?  Have we run out of place in the Trek universe, and all that is left is time?  When presented with the vastness of the physical universe, what does it mean for us, as an audience of Trek stories, to be bored with place and now only concerned with time?  

I can’t say that I adequately addressed all of the many ideas that the new Star Trek illuminated in my mind since I first saw it, but this post serves as a beginning for further work that I might endeavor on this new film.  As the most successful box office Star Trek film, I am confident that this film is connecting with people who would not otherwise watch a Star Trek film.  There is something new going on here that I am interested in discovering.  For my work, as in the film, time is the great arbiter.

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.