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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Call it the soft bigotry of low expectations or heretofore unexpected reserves of good will for the franchise—or maybe J.J. just nailed it—but I found Star Trek surprisingly good. And "good" is an amazing accomplishment given the self-contradictions inherent to the project:

1) innovate and revitalize a franchise that, let's face it, is built almost entirely on the bedrock of nostalgic repetition;
2) do so while further hamstrung by the excruciating prequel format.
But Abrams strikes a more or less successful balance, aside from a few hamhanded "R2-D2, meet C-3PO" moments and a little too much handholding and lampshade-hanging.

As is probably to be expected, the prequelization provides both the worst parts of the movie and its primary source of narrative pleasure. As a certified member of the Nitpicker's Guild I confess I was a bit annoyed to see how little effort was made to stick with the original continuity, even granting the timeline shift. Many of the gadgets had different behaviors and limitations than in the original show; no one knew Romulans were related to Vulcans until part of the way through the original series; Chekhov didn't join the ship until later; Pike wasn't the first captain of the Enterprise; etc, etc, etc. (You can fanwank most or all of these away with "The USS Kelvin Changed Everything," but that's not very satisfying. Clear lines of cause-and-effect matter, especially in time travel stories.)

That this cherished original continuity is essentially bulldozed permanently by the film is pretty unfortunate and will, I think, permanently damage the franchise in the eyes of its loyal and notoriously defensive fanbase, especially as fifty years of strict adherence to Roddenberry's particular Utopian vision has not prepared them well for our heroes to lose a planet, much less the entire timeline.

But at the same time it is quite fun to see these characters meet each other, and Abrams does an amazing job of capturing the feel of the original series (all the way from aesthetics right down to the level of contrivance and occasionally nonsensical plot points). That the actors playing McCoy and (especially) Spock are very good mimics of the original actors helps things along a lot as well.

It's also astounding how apolitical the film tries to be; I went in with the idea of writing a post about neoliberalism and Star Trek and it just didn't give me much to work with. Now, this is a neoliberal, United Nations fantasy of the future, to be sure, in which difference only exists to be flattened out—but that's really true of almost all Trek, DS9 and some other choice episodes excepted. (There's also a making explicit of the longstanding metaphorical connection between Vulcans and Jews, with a Vulcan Holocaust followed by a choice between diaspora, assimilation, and resettlement in a "new colony," but I don't know what to do with that yet.)

Star Trek (2009) is no better or worse, politically speaking, than what Star Trek's always been: a fantasy of what the world would be like if consumer capitalism had no labor or environmental costs and American military-cultural hegemony was pure, stable, and uncomplicatedly good. It remains our defining ideological fantasy, in other words, the thing that blinds us still to the sort of world we're really living in and the sort of future we're actually creating.

So it's no surprise that at this point my thoughts turn to the mediocre, to the unchosen, to the radicals and the subaltern and the dissidents. What becomes of difference in this future? We see these people only sometimes, in the background: Sisko's dad, Picard's brother. Usually they exist only to be made Star Fleet officers or good Federation citizens by the end of the episode, and we see no one like this in this movie at all. The lack of flexibility in this narrative template has grown, I think, exhausting, and it's for this reason that over the years I find myself much more drawn to presentist and mundane SF, or apocalyptic futurity, or to anti-Trek futures like Firefly, the first few seasons of BSG, or Samuel Delany's Triton.

But all the same every so often it's nice to come home again.

Just one request: no more product placement, please; there's no money in the future, much less corporations...