John Kenneth Muir, a prolific writer and unabashed fan of the genre TV and movies of the 1970s and '80s, has a few comments inspired by that Star Trek reboot trailer I mentioned on Friday. While I'm not as receptive to this project as he seems to be, he nevertheless hits several nails squarely on their heads, and he even manages to give me a new perspective on how and why Abrams-Trek (as I'm starting to think of this project) may be a good thing:
In the months ahead, we're all going to be tempted to second guess the new movie. Is the right actor playing young Kirk? Do the Vulcans look like Romulans? Where is Gary Mitchell? Didn't Kirk serve on the Farragut before serving on the Enterprise? That's what fans like us do. We can't help it. I know I can't help it.
...I want a faithful Star Trek movie, but at the same time, I desperately want a Star Trek movie that my son Joel, when he is old enough, will love. I want a film that will inspire a generation of kids. I want today's kids to grow up with a reinvigorated, exciting, adventurous and bold Star Trek...a moral, progressive and heartfelt franchise like the one I grew up with and which, in many ways, made me the person I am today. I don't want Next Gen political correctness, I don't want the Love Boat in Space where the crew's family beams up to the Enterprise to go through some uninspiring family drama. I don't want fictional adventures in Holodecks...that's masturbation, not boldly going. And I don't want the United Nations in Space. I want what Star Trek was once about: space exploration....going where no man has gone before. I want excitement, adventure, and heart. I want Captain Horatio Hornblower in space again...not some kind of incestuous, insular vision that only a few die-hard Trekkies can appreciate. We must re-define faithful, I believe, in this case. I want a film that is faithful to Star Trek's pioneer spirit and Star Trek's swashbuckling heart. If I get that, but Kirk never served on the Farragut, well...so be it.
Much of the bloviating I've done on Star Trek over the years has been along these same lines, if not in these exact words: in my opinion, what all the spin-offs lacked and what the franchise drifted farther and farther away from over time is what Muir terms a pioneer spirit and a swashbuckling heart. (Thanks, John, for giving me the framing that I've never quite managed to articulate!) I would dearly love to see a film or television series that successfully resurrects that same spirit and heart, that inspires kids to look to the future with hope and imagination instead of indifference or fear, and which makes cynical old farts like me feel young and wide-eyed again.
However, the question remains in my mind whether it's even possible to recapture that feeling given today's sociopolitical climate and the realities of the modern media business, and, if so, if it can be done using this property. Star Trek was basically a product of JFK's New Frontier, a time period that I think is difficult to even imagine now because it was so different from where we've ended up as a society. There's always been much made about the show's progressiveness and how it addressed the social concerns of the day -- the infamous kiss between Kirk and Uhura, for example, is widely acknowledged as television's first inter-racial snog, and it's not coincidental that it came at the height of the civil rights movement -- but the overall tone of the show, its guiding philosophies, plainly originated in the early 1960s when the show was first conceived, as opposed to the chaotic end of that decade, when Trek was actually being produced. The vitality, compassion, and idealism of the show was a direct reflection of a country that was still flush from its victory in World War II and the post-war prosperity that followed. You can even make a pretty good argument that Captain Kirk was inspired, at least in part, by President Kennedy himself. (It's no secret that Gene Roddenberry was an admirer of the young president, who had also been a heroic naval captain during the war; in his later years, Roddenberry repeatedly pitched the idea of having the Enterprise crew time-travel back to 1963 and somehow take part in -- or even prevent -- Kennedy's assassination.)
I suspect that the original Star Trek series seems dated to us now because of something more fundamental than the obsolete special effects or the scenery-chewing performances; I think it may have to do with the fact that the youthful America that informed Trek is gone. All the twists and turns our nation has taken since Roddenberry first started outlining the series "bible" -- Kennedy's assasination, as well as the killings of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; Vietnam; Watergate; the selfish "Me-ism" of the '70s; the "greed is good" mindset of the '80s; and about a million other things, up to and including 9/11, the Iraq War, and, yes, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo -- have drained us of the confidence and optimism that my parents' generation so fondly remembers from the Camelot days. I know my opinion isn't a popular one, but I believe we are, in many ways, a worn-down, used-up society that can no longer relate to the old-fashioned flavor of liberalism that lies at Star Trek's heart. It's a mindset that is nearly as alien to our self-involved, support-the-troops-without-sacrifice-of-own, don't-bother-me-I'm-eating moment in history as the silicon-based Horta was to the miners on Janus VI.
Here's the conundrum that I see J.J. Abrams facing with his Star Trek: in order to remain faithful to the original Star Trek in tone if not in details, he must somehow recapture a spirit that is based in a form of liberalism that long ago ossified into the PC preachiness that Muir and other old-school fans decry in Star Trek: The Next Generation. If he does successfully resurrect that obsolete and sometimes painfully earnest mindset, will it render the film irrelevant (or worse, hokey) to modern audiences? And if he chooses not to even attempt to capture the New Frontier spirit of the original, then can this new Star Trek properly be called Star Trek? That's when you start getting into issues like I have with the new version of Battlestar Galactica, which I personally feel has sacrificed what was best about the original series -- its warm spirit, based in the idea of family -- in order to make it seem timely and grown-up. What makes a franchise anyway, the details or the ineffable quality we call "spirit"? Does it reach a point where you'd be better off creating something original that's inspired by an older series or film, but doesn't use the same character names, settings, and premise? In other words, is it better not to do a remake of some properties? I think my regular readers can probably guess what my own answer to that question is. I just can't past the feeling that Star Trek's time is past, and while we may revere it and continue to enjoy it on DVD and glean whatever wisdom from it we can, it ought to be left alone. I hope Abrams manages to prove me wrong...