The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Boldly go [contains spoilers below the fold]

May 18, 2009

I finally managed to see the new Star Trek film yesterday. Unlike the terrible travesty that was the Watchmen film — to which I had such an adverse reaction that I still can’t manage to grind out a coherent blog post about it, despite having tried on multiple occasions to do so — this re-imagination and re-invigoration of the franchise actually got it right, in my view: what we saw on the screen combined the best elements of classic Star Trek with a newly open-ended optimism about the human future that captures Gene Roddenberry’s initial desire for a “wagon train to the stars.”

I am going to follow Charli’s example and hide any potential spoilers below the fold. but let me just say at the outset that although this probably doesn’t make my top ten list of IR films, I will almost certainly teach it the next time (Spring 2010!) I get to teach my (in)famous undergraduate seminar “Social/Science/Fiction” — and I’ll pair it with Anders Stephanson’s Manifest Destiny, which I’ve traditionally paired with some episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In our surprisingly authoritative paper on the Borg and U.S. foreign policy, Dan and I introduced what we referred to as a “political economy of consumption” perspective for analyzing serial pop-culture artifacts like Star Trek: a serial pop-cultural product occurs at the sometimes-tense intersection of audience, narrative, and technical considerations. “Technical” catches up the conditions of filming and distribution, including — especially important for a science fiction film — the state of special-effects technology; “narrative” catches up the “internal” continuity of the fictional universe; and “audience” catches up the cultural and interpretive resources that the viewers bring to the product, as well as acknowledging the important role of the audience in co-producing the phenomenon in question. We further suggested that by examining how representational dilemmas were resolved in practice — in this case, on the screen — could tell us interesting things about the state of the world, and in particular about world politics and the articulation of foreign policy — itself something of a serial pop-cultural production.

This latest Star Trek film is no exception. I won’t say anything about the technical aspects except to join Charli in marveling at how good ILM has gotten at doing CGI space battles and how good Abrams’ team was at learning from Battlestar Galactica and the original Star Wars about the pacing of such battles. Wow. Especially in IMAX. I also won’t say much about narrative continuity — I already did my über-geeky reconstruction of the Star Trek timeline in comments to Charli’s original post — but suffice to say that the producers did their homework about fictional Star Trek history. They also managed to create narrative continuity by doing a remarkable job of casting the major parts; the whole bridge crew pretty much nailed their efforts to channel the characters that we already know so well, and I for one had no trouble accepting these new versions as plausible takes on the old versions (special kudos to Karl Urban’s turn as McCoy and Simon Pegg’s Scotty).

And then there were the fan-community shout-outs: the red-suited Ensign Expendable, Sulu having experience in fencing, classic moments like McCoy referring to Spock under his breath as a “green-blooded hobgoblin” and of course Scotty complaining the the engines “canna take any more.” Tip-o-the-hat to former Duck Maia Gemmill who pointed out that I, my wife Holly, Dan, and she herself were some of the only people in the theatre laughing at such moments, which shows what a good job the filmmakers did in crafting a film that appealed to a broader audience than simply the fan community. The fact that the film continues to do well in its second week of release, and has reportedly made back its production budget in only ten days of release, is further testimony to its broad-based appeal. The film largely eschews the technobabble that traditionally accompanies Star Trek movies; instead we get — as J. J. Abrams famously promised — something that feels much more like the original Star Wars films, in which technology is basically magical and doesn’t get explained. Instead, it becomes a plot device: the producers don’t get hung up on the physics of black holes, but they instead have Nero and Spock fall through a PLOT DEVICE to get them back to where they are supposed to be for the action to ensue, carrying with them the PLOT DEVICE (“red matter”) that fuels the epic events that unfold.

“Epic” is key; this film is more grandiose, more space-operatic, than Star Trek often is and has been since the days of the orignal series. And here’s where Abrams really is channeling Roddenberry, since what he’s presenting on screen is a view of the human future in space, suitably updated to avoid the “continuation of the Cold War, but with the Klingons” that the original series featured. The Federation in the canonical timeline was basically an empire in a galaxy of other empires that it did not recognize but instead maintained “neutral zones” with; in this film it’s a universalist project from the start, constitutively engaged in peacekeeping and humanitarian relief efforts. (It will be interesting to see — since I think the studio would have to be completely nuts not to at least give us another couple of films expanding on this re-imagination, if not a new television series (please please please) — what happens to the Klingons in this new version; do they get invited into the Federation earlier on this time through the chronology?) So this Federation is unencumbered by the paradox of limited universalism characteristic of the Cold War, at least from the outset; this is not the post-Cold War world, but the post-post-Cold War world.

That, to me, is the most striking thing about this film: its open-endedness. The parallel-timeline trick basically allows the producers to do whatever they want to with these characters and the essential situation. They’ve managed to get Kirk in command of the Enterprise faster than that happened in the original canonical timeline, and have managed to assemble the crew already. The weight of future history is gone, since even “Spock Prime”‘s memories won’t be of much use to anyone in this timeline any longer; pure unfettered universalism has been restored, and optimism seems to be the order of the day. At any rate, it’s a big galaxy, and the Federation’s flagship is now in command of a brash young captain with a gift for inspiring his followers. Is this change we can believe in?

And: what will be the Khan-equivalent in this re-imagined Star Trek — the moment that makes the optimistic humanitarians confront the consequences of their attempts to be merciful?

website | + posts

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.