Supersonic Man

September 9, 2016

Star Trek: 1966–2005

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:43 pm

Star Trek has now been an important and inspiring part of our culture over a span of fifty years.  But it’s done.  It is now time to let the shambling corpse have its rest.

As it got gradually less successful and less relevant around the turn of the century, we could all see that the ideas and stories it could offer were running dry.  Then they rebooted it in 2009, and that version offers us nothing at all, except to take old stuff and make it more ex-treeeeme.  Everything that you generally expect to go wrong with a remake went wrong, plus additional unexpected stuff that only a goofball like JarJar Abrams would manage to think up, such as all that hideous headache-inducing glare he stuffed into every frame.  I’ve heard that Star Trek Beyond is much better than its two predecessors now that they’ve replaced Abrams as director, but I have no interest in watching it.  The new series was fatally flawed at birth, and its congenital defects are incurable.  It’s an insult to anyone who found inspiration in the original.

Last century, Star Trek was important.  It not only gripped the imagination, but it also could inspire us to be our best selves.  It was an important counterbalance to other popular action-oriented science fiction because it so often addressed difficult choices.  Particularly once captains Picard and Sisko were on board, it very often addressed conflicts not in terms of “how can our side win”, but “how can our side do the right thing”.

Contrast that with, say, the Star Wars series.  I would say that the overall theme of Star Wars is about teenage rebellion, while Star Trek’s overall theme is about the burdens of adult responsibility.  That such a thing managed to be competitive in popularity with the dumber stuff is quite an achievement, and something that we can take some pride in as a culture.

That theme isn’t out of style, but Star Trek is no longer an effective place to address it.  It’s said what it has to say, which is why people stopped watching it on TV.

One part of the problem is that Trek is science fiction, based on science which is now fifty years out of date.  Its vision of a future in which people zoom all around the galaxy having adventures is now just quaint.  It was always based on intentional scientific implausibilities, but some of them are definitely outworn, such as the idea that time travel is interwoven with our history.  Science fiction was a niche field back then, but today it’s mainstream (thanks in no small part to Trek itself), so nowadays ordinary people are much more readily able to recognize the inherent absurdity of ideas such as temporal paradoxes.

On the more plausible front, we are now starting to have to confront aspects of the future which Star Trek deliberately avoided facing.  Artificial intelligence, for instance: in their future it occasionally exists, but somehow it never spreads or develops beyond those few isolated cases.  Meanwhile, we’re only a few decades from a time when AI will develop sufficiently to take away your job, and the time when an artificial mind might actually become smarter than a natural one is not so far away after that point.  It’s an issue that the younger folks among us will have to face in their lifetimes.

Another example is genetic engineering.  In Star Trek, occasionally some bad guys try it, but there’s no room for it to ever become a broad part of society for the good guys.  In real life, we’re now coming up on the time when we’ll have to decide how or whether to regulate the creation of modified human beings.

How about linking brains electronically?  The evil Borg do it because they’re evil.  No room for considering whether it might be used for good.  Research on prosthetics for the disabled will lead directly to innovations that could give us ways to communicate without use of our hands or vocal cords, and that is something which will make our world better.

The idea of regular people like us zooming around the galaxy is becoming steadily more implausible now, not because the stars are unreachable, but because the beings who reach them will not be like us.  Between AI, genetic engineering, and brain linking, the descendants of ours who see the galaxy will be something other than human.  They will be more than human — genuinely better than we are.  They might have a thousand times our intelligence, and a thousand times our lifespan to go with it.  And the sense of individuality which we, and the characters of Star Trek, often cling to as the most precious gift of life, might for them be outmoded: they could regard having a separate consciousness from their community with the same annoyance that we have for an internet outage.

Of all the science-fictional visions in Star Trek, the one that most closely resembles our own likely future might be the Borg.  Which means that Star Trek, instead of inspiring us with possibility, will instead be holding us back with fears.

About the only way that the people in Star Trek seemed to have advanced beyond the people of the 20th Century is that they don’t use money anymore.  Except when they do.  They never did get that straight or figure out how it worked socially.

Even the gadgets on Star Trek hardly seem futuristic anymore, because we have imitated so many of them.

Star Trek is also noted for its social commentary, and that too is now growing somewhat obsolete.  In a galaxy full of “humanoid” alien societies — that is, people who speak English but have weird foreheads — you could say that the ongoing social topic of Trek as a whole is multiculturalism.  The various costumes and makeup designs are analogies for possible human cultures.  This view of alien life is, of course, utterly absurd biologically, but worse, I don’t think it offers much of a challenge anymore for audiences to stretch or expand their definition of who is a person to have empathy for.  Sure, you could point to people in our society who still haven’t learned that lesson… but you’re not likely to reach them with repetitions of what they’ve already seen.

At its best, Trek went further, as in the original series episode with the Horta, “Devil in the Dark”.  They let us empathize with an angry silicon-based acid-spewing blob monster.

But from what I’ve seen of the reboot series, they’ve completely given up on doing any of that sort of stuff anymore.  They’re not intersted.  Even if they were, it’s becoming clear that if you want to use science fiction to get people to have a new thought about present-day and near-future issues, Star Trek is no longer the place to do it. Captain America has more to say  about society nowadays than Captain Kirk does.


But if Trek isn’t able to do these things like it used to, what is?  It’s clear that none of the other ongoing franchises are stepping up.  Not the Disneyfied Star Wars, not any of the superhero teams, and certainly not the Trek reboot.  Not Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, not the Terminator or the Matrix or the Hunger Games, not Alien or Planet of the Apes, nobody.  I think the nearest thing we’re seeing to a replacement that can fill a little bit of the space in those shoes is the revived Doctor Who.

Science Fiction in Hollywood seems in some ways to be regressing to where things were at back when it first boomed in the fifties: the most forward-looking and original visions are one-off projects that disappoint at the box office and have little short-term impact, and even the better of those generally aren’t all that impressive.  There are moments when Hollywood does science fiction as it should be done, but they’re brief — they don’t continue.

What science fiction can do that no other form of fiction can do is prepare us for the future — not just for the practicalities of how life is going to change, but for how we can choose a better future.  It can help people see life more broadly and more openly, to pay attention to what really matters instead of to what you’re accustomed to believing is important, and get people to genuinely reconsider old loyalties and faiths which may no longer serve them or their societies.  It can help prepare us to be our best selves when facing situations that are genuinely unexpected, in a way that no traditional moralizing can match.

And that’s the legacy of Star Trek.  It may not be doing this good work anymore today, but for decades, it did.  Nobody did it more often over a longer period or for a larger audience.

More than anyone else in movies or TV, the people behind Star Trek turned entertainment into something that genuinely left the human race better for having seen it.  They have my gratitude.

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2 Comments »

  1. I actually think that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is about adult responsibility to continue to nurture the values we held dear in our earlier years. The essay I posted on FB says it: you’re not done yet. The fight is not permanently won, and it may never be, not in our lifetimes.

    Comment by Erik Miller — November 16, 2016 @ 1:53 pm | Reply


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