Tag Archives: Spock

Progress Backwards: Star Trek’s Voyage Away From the Leading Edge

by Forrest Sayrs (Guest Contributor)

This week’s Star Trek hype started me thinking.  How does a series that we in the Geek community so singularly associate with progressiveness become what it is today?  It’s shockingly easy to criticize later iterations of Trek for their failure to live up to the original’s legacy of equality.  But maybe we’re coming at this from the wrong direction.  Maybe it isn’t about what Star Trek became.  Maybe the question should be, ‘what was Star Trek in the first place?’  And to answer that, we need a little context.

For starters, what does ‘progressive’ mean anyway?  Is it just being politically liberal?  Does it have to do with technological progress?  Is it about being ‘edgy?’  What made The Original Series (TOS) progressive?  There isn’t a quick and easy answer to any of these questions, but they lie at the core of what TOS was and why it remains iconic today.  These are also questions that have very different responses today than they did in the 1960s.  And that is my argument in a nutshell.

From the episode “Spock’s Brain”

Science fiction is uniquely affected by the times.  Unlike the timeless characters and themes of, for example, Shakespeare, science fiction is reliant upon a set of assumptions about the world. The writer assumes things about the world he experiences every day in order to craft a vision of a potential future.  If those underlying assumptions change, or are just wrong, the message of science fiction loses effectiveness.  A good example is the early fiction of Ken MacLeod and Peter F. Hamilton.  Both of these authors released novels in the mid-90s that used the platform of communism as a vehicle to talk about the political challenges facing the world after the Soviet collapse.  Both novels make compelling arguments for and against communism as a style of government.  But they both feel dated when read today.  While communist and socialist ideals may still exist, we have largely moved beyond irrationally vilifying an economic model.

Similarly, some of Star Trek’s ideological message (and special effects) haven’t aged well.  Just take the classic TOS episode, “Spock’s Brain” in which Spock has his brain removed by a female assailant but is somehow able to survive using a, wait for it, remote control headband.  The premise is so absurd that even at the time it was considered to be one of the worst episodes of the series.  On a more ideological note, the TOS episodeA Private Little War” parodied the U.S. and Soviet involvement in Vietnam and while the episode was a daring commentary at the time, today it feels more like history than a look into the future.  

Now don’t get me wrong.  My argument isn’t that TOS isn’t progressive, just that it was progressive in the context of the 1960s.  It’s not that the ideals of TOS aren’t progressive anymore; it’s that the forefront of being progressive has changed.  So when The Next Generation (TNG) tried to capitalize on the progressive success of TOS by featuring, among others, a blind, black helmsman and a female chief of security, it didn’t manage to resonate the same way that Nichelle NicholsUhura or George Takei’s Sulu did.

TNG’s failure to get back to the forefront of progressivism didn’t make for a bad show.  America at the end of the 80s was in the process of a massive conservative shift that would define the next decade and set up many of the political conflicts we’re living through today.  That TNG was able to hold its ground and make some small gains with stories like Symbiosis and The Measure of a Man is testament to a desire to remain progressive and influential, but the show has few real landmark moments.

From the episode “Measure of Man”

Really, Trek wouldn’t be a progressive leader again until the premier of Deep Space Nine (DS9) in 1993.  With its sharp criticisms of war, terrorism and the military and a recommitment to the ideals of multiculturalism, DS9 moved beyond the legacy of TOS and claimed a new place for itself.  The show’s timely indictments of the Gulf War, unchecked capitalism and the ethics of conflicts were not only important at the time, but oddly prescient of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the progressivism of DS9 is very different from that of TOS.  While both shows depict a world where race is largely no longer a factor, DS9 was much more focused on political issues rather than social ones.  When it did choose to focus on social criticism, DS9 was less successful.  Episodes like Rules of Acquisition, Rejoined,” and Profit and Lace danced around the ideas of gender, but did so in terrible taste.  Even episodes like the much praised two part Past Tense approached the subjects of discrimination and disenfranchisement from a political angle, arguing for the expansion of federal employment programs. There is one notable exception to this rule, Far Beyond the Stars,” and it is singularly spectacular.  Everyone should watch it at least once for its uncompromising depiction of the 1950s and the inspiring final message.

From the episode “Profit and Lace”

The roundabout point I’m trying to make here is that the ‘legacy of progressivism’ isn’t so straightforward.  Being progressive means different things at different times.  We criticize Trek, past and present, for not featuring strong LGBT characters because the LGBT movement is very visible right now and it seems natural to us that Star Trek should be commenting on that.  But that’s on us.  We’ve assigned a pseudo-obligation to be progressive to a franchise that was at its best when it could approach progressivism in its own way.

Is it unfair to expect better of Star Trek?  Probably.  The creative staff of Star Trek have had their hands tied by studios, producers and lawyers at every turn.  Were they capable of doing better?  Of course, but there is a difference between what they were able to do and what they were allowed to do.  TNG was supposed to feature an episode titled Blood and Fire that contained an allegory for the AIDS epidemic as well as a gay couple.  That episode later made its way into the fan-produced Star Trek: Phase II, but was blocked from being produced for TNG’s television run.  An untitled episode of TOS that would have featured Uhura and McCoy getting stranded on a planet where black skinned people were dominant was rejected for being too risky.  So, it’s not that these ideas didn’t exist, just that they never became public knowledge.

At the same time, shows like Farscape were able to portray a diverse and vibrant universe, commenting on the ideas of racial purity, discrimination, sexism and religious persecution, while featuring characters that transcend the concepts of gender and gender identity on such a complete level they don’t even seem human any more.  Doctor Who uses kid gloves when it approaches the ‘big issues’ because it is, in some ways, still a children’s show, but it too has featured an ethnically and sexually diverse cast, though it tends to rely a bit much on the damsel-in-distress for drama.  And my crowning jewel of an example, Caprica, a show steeped in the rhetoric of the religious conflicts of our time, but still willing and brazen in its depiction of homosexuals, group marriages, and racial tension.  How can we even begin to call Star Trek ‘progressive’ in the face of these potent examples of our ability to do better?  Well, the answer to that trick question is that Star Trek wasn’t on cable.

Caprica promotional image

So what’s the alternative?  The television medium and particularly broadcast television is still one of the most effective ways to communicate a message to the masses.  In my discussion with Geek Outsider, I mentioned that TNG effectively passed the torch of an egalitarian future back to science fiction authors.  Writer’s like Iain M. Banks, whose series of Culture novels depicts a version of humanity so advanced that they can change gender through willpower alone and no body-morph is too far outside their ability to engineer.  In such a society, race and gender mean nothing because everything is mutable.  But Banks doesn’t have an award winning TV show to preach his ideas.  Other authors, such as Catherynne M. Valente and China Miéville, have created incredibly compelling stories of progressive characters, but as litte as paperbacks and e-books cost, television is still cheaper and easier to access.

At the end of the day, the conclusion that we are forced to come to is that there is no satisfactory alternative.  Trek may not be perfect, but its ubiquity and steps in the right directions make it the best thing we’ve got in many ways.  Does that mean we should give up on JJ Abrams’ version of Star Trek?  No, but there is something to be said for accepting this vision of Star Trek for what it is.  And, no, I’m not saying what it is or isn’t.  I haven’t seen Into Darkness yet and I haven’t made up my mind about new Trek.  We’re all just going to have to keep watching, and see what moves us to speak up, or maybe even cheer.

Star Trek: Into Darkness — Tons of Fun But Short-Winded

Star Trek: Into Darkness was… fun! The opening night theater was jam-packed with a perfect mix of 40-year-old Trekkies who’d resisted the temptation to dust off their Vulcan ear set,  and 20-something nerds who pirated the entire Star Trek series the minute they heard the 2009 film was coming out.

Half the film was one big shout-out to this geeky mix, with symbolic “winks” at the fanboy audience every few minutes and Wrath of Khan references bordering on parody.  That’s not necessarily a complaint. It’s a fun good time when you laugh along with the other two thirds of the audience that gets the references. And J.J. Abrams did a great job of smoothing most of these geek-targeted moments into the film subtly enough that Trek virgins could laugh along as well. Add in some heavy-duty wallops, impossible acrobatics, and a handful of decent sized explosions… Fun for all! And who can complain about fun?!

Well… Star Trek fans can.

As mentioned in this overly-hopeful pre-premiere post, the Star Trek franchise was built with a long-view in mind. Exploration, imagination, story, daring commentary on the issues of the day. These are the elements that made Star Trek a long-lasting epic.  Certainly a little cheekiness, and lots of beaming, warping, and phasers is what brought most fans to the original show in the first place. But it was the dynamic characters and the literally out-there, boundary-breaking stories that kept them, creating a multi-generational epic.

With Into Darkness, Abrams and crew created an explosive and wildly entertaining homage to this epic legacy, but it lacked anything that will stay with you beyond the theater.

In the film’s opening we get a glimpse of the exploration mission of Starfleet – a frantic view of an encounter with a tribal culture and brief nod to the classic confrontation with the Prime Directive. Before long, things are exploding and emotions are high. Bones (Dr. Leonard McCoy) injects his requisite skepticism and quirky rebuffs to Spock‘s robotically delivered logic. Kirk and Spock firm and reaffirm their bro-love, and Uhura speaks Klingon

There are some original developments, like the Uhura and Spock romance introduced in the 2009 film, but despite the opportunities for originality in this alternate timeline, the film weighed too heavily on nods and winks to the franchise legacy, rather than developing an original story or letting the character’s develop beyond the stock phrases and punchlines of their future selves.

From left, Chris Pine, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho and Zoe Saldana. (via. LA Times)

The film itself was sort of a punchline.

That said, it was wonderfully shot. The 3D was perfect for this film, especially the warp scenes. Benedict Cumberbatch was a magnificent and nuanced Khan. The musical score was riveting, and if the movie is a punchline then Simon Pegg as Scotty was the one holding the mic.

It’s like telling someone about that great night you had out drinking with a witty group of friends –  it was a really good time…yea…that’s it, just super fun! …So, how was your night?

Highlights: 

Simon Pegg as Scotty  

The beautiful Enterprise poster that was handed out before the show. (waaay better than the usual a giant poster of some actor’s face)

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The upgraded Klingon makeup job

 

via. Screenrant
via. Screenrant

 

Benedict Cumberbatch living up to the riotous love of his international fan cult.

Newer Frontiers: Will The Star Trek Reboot Live Up to Its Social-Frontier-Breaking Legacy?

Star Trek was one of the most forward-thinking TV shows of its era. First airing in 1966, it boldly pushed at the boundaries of the social issues of the day, not shying away from controversial subjects like race and women’s liberation. And you don’t have to be a “Trekkie” to know that Star Trek was also one of the most diverse TV shows of its time, possibly of all time.

The regular cast of the Original series included Black communications officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, Japanese senior helmsman Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, and the young Russian ensign Pavel Chekov. In fact, even the iconic Spock was played by actor Leonard Nimoy, who is of Ukranian Jewish heritage. Happily each of these iconic characters made it to the Star Trek reboot, the second installment of which premieres tomorrow!

However, what made Star Trek so universally adored for decades across such a wide array of audiences was its fearless confrontation of many of the most controverial social issues of the day.  While it was thrilling to see characters like Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov return to the big screen for the 2009 reboot, to really capture the Star Trek legacy, this rebooted franchise needs to be much more than the action adventure film of the 2009 film. A Star Trek that fans will recognize would take on the issues of our day… issues like anti-Muslim hate, the rampant manic fear of terrorism, LGBTQ rights (check out Devon Maloney‘s insights on this over at Wired), slut-shaming, abortion, police violence, the achievement gap… Just as The Original Series drew on metaphors to talk about the Vietnam War and dared to air the first interracial kiss on television.

Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Kirk kiss in the “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode of “Star Trek: The Original Series” (1968)

Whether or not audiences always agreed with the social commentary of the original Star Trek series and films, it was notable that a show with such a large following was bold enough to bring these issues to the forefront.  Though today several small screen and big screen features  address many of our society’s issues in interesting ways, the Star Trek franchise, with its status as an iconic science fiction series, could have a large impact on these important conversations. The first Star Trek reboot film in 2009 was more or less solely an action adventure. Here’s hoping tomorrow’s premier shows at least a hint of the franchise returning to its bold roots!

In the meantime, before the movie premieres tomorrow and the critics emerge, let’s get in the celebrating mood…

Aside from the famous Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov, throughout the decades Star Trek featured many other dynamic characters of color, some of them even nabbing prominent or recurring roles in the epic Star Trek story. Here are a few we might look forward to seeing again in the reboot!

Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) was a helmsman and the chief engineer in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was also born blind and so wore a visor that allowed him non-standard vision.  His father Doctor La Forge also appeared in a few episodes.

Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn) was the first Klingon to join the Star Fleet. He first appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation as a tactical officer before being promoted to Chief of Security. Originally not intended to be a regular character, Worf appeared in more episodes than any other character.

Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) was a mysterious recurring character in Star Trek: The Next Generation and also appeared in two Star Trek films. Her race is never mentioned in the TV series, but she is later described as El-Aurian in one of the films. Guinan is a bartender on the ship is believed to have lived for several centuries. She is often depicted listening to members of the fleet and offering advice.

Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) was played by Sudanese-American actor Alexander Siddig (aka Siddig El Fadil). He was the chief medical officer in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) was the first and only Black character to lead as Commander in the Star Trek series. He was the Captain in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. A New Orleans native, he was originally the owner of a restaurant in New Orleans before joining Starfleet and moving swiftly up the ranks.

Tuvok (Tim Russ) was possibly the first Black Vulcan to appear in the franchise, making his first appearance as the chief of security and chief tactical officer in Star Trek: Voyager. His Vulcan wife T’Pel also appears in several episodes.

Chakotay (Robert Beltran) – Played by actor Robert Beltran, who is of Mexican-Native American heritage, Chakotay first appeared as First Officer in Star Trek: Voyager

Hoshi Sato (Linda Park), played by Korean American actress Linda Park, was the communications officer in Star Trek: Enterprise. She was a linguist who could speak 40+ languages

Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) – So in The Original Series, the iconic villain Khan was played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban. The role of Khan is being reprised in Star Trek: Into Darkness by British Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch. We’ll definitely be seeing Khan. While he won’t be portrayed by an actor of color as in the past, the fan favorite Cumberbatch is sure to give an incredible performance.