Over here at Trash Talk! we’re going to take a look at pop-culture through an artistic lens, more specifically exploring the dichotomy between high-art and low-art in movies, TV, comics, and video games. What’s fine cinema, and what’s trash? Sometimes the line may be thinner than you think.
“To boldly go where no man has gone before.” That’s the most famous tagline to Gene Roddenberry’s classic creation, Star Trek. While he pitched the show to NBC back in 1966 as “Wagon Train to the stars,” it was also a vessel for Rodenberry’s lofty ideas on the future of humanity. Spurred on by the political realities of the time, and inspired by the counter cultural movements that sprang from those realities, Roddenberry imagined a future that saw racial equality and an end to violence. However the original Star Trek series is viewed today, at the time Roddenberry pushed it to have an extremely progressive political ideology, and the show is credited in helping overcome barriers both social (it featured TV’s first interracial kiss), and scientific (it has been cited as an inspiration for the cell phone). This is probably the main delineation from the franchises most often cited pop-culture competitor, Star Wars. Star Wars takes place “A long time ago, in a galaxy far away.” Star Wars is about fantasy, while Star Trek is about possibility. Though recently, those lines have begun to blur.
To label Star Wars as sci-fi (like Star Trek) is a misrepresentation in many ways. Science-fiction implies a basis on understood science, not necessarily little green men, and chatty robots, and definitely not just those things. Star Wars is more aptly labeled science-fantasy. In our reality there isn’t a “force” and we will probably never see lightsabers (at least in any practical sense), but it is fun to imagine these things and they are wonderful tools to tell a modern fable. There is a reason Star Wars has captured the minds of millions of people, especially children. If you are of a certain age Star Wars probably factors into one of your fondest memories (either at a theater, or on TV). Personally, I’m just on the wrong side of that generation. Star Wars factors into my early memories too, mostly of going to see Episode I as a kid and having my first experience of leaving a theater with the overwhelming feeling of ‘meh’ (I will, however, site The Empire Strikes Back as one of my favorite movies ever, even if I have lukewarm feelings about every other movie in the franchise).
Star Trek, on the other hand, is all about what could happen. Whether we will achieve the things the franchise imagines remains to be seen, but the ideas are rooted in the direction our society is headed. Science-fiction at its best strives to examine human culture and identity through a fictional, and sometimes futuristic, lens. This is also what Star Trek would do, at its best. As Roddenberry once said, “[By creating] a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek: we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network.” Roddenberry was attempting to push the conversation forward, and he used healthy doses of high-concept adventure to help the medicine go down.
“Basically, it was more action, more of the adventure elements and less of the real Trekkie stuff.”
In that light you’d think Star Trek would be as relevant as ever, and it is, but not for any social or political reasons. While there are plenty of real world issues in our present that Star Trek could tackle (limits on political authority, contemporary warfare, marriage rights, and immigration, among many, many others) the new Trek films don’t pause a beat to look at those issues. While the franchise is making more money than it ever has before, that extended reach seems to be at the cost of not only its brain, but its heart, too. As Paramount’s head of international distribution Anthony Marcoly states in this article when discussing the franchises newfound success, “Basically, it was more action, more of the adventure elements and less of the real Trekkie stuff.”
Full disclosure here. I’m not a hardcore Trekker. My parents enjoyed the franchise’s second TV series (subtitled, The Next Generation, or TNG for short), and so I watched that with them when I was a kid (and enjoyed it for the most part), but if I was told today that there would be no new Star Trek productions I wouldn’t shed any tears over it. However, I do believe that if you are going to return to an existing property, you should stay true to what made it special to begin with, and in that light, the statement above breaks my heart. I’m not suggesting Star Trek should have remained stagnant, but there are ways for the franchise to push forward and still remain true to its roots, by embracing counter culture and exploring the divisive issue of our time. Instead the franchise has embraced broad themes of good versus evil, family, and honor, while transforming it into a swashbuckling action-adventure, with healthy doses of lens flare. Which isn’t terrible really, except there is another franchise that already does all those things better (except that lens flare), and it’s called Star Wars.
Star Trek’s slow mutation into Star Wars makes sense. Despite Star Trek’s success, Star Wars has always been more marketable, especially in recent years. It has also been traditionally viewed as more acceptable to like (how many comedy routines can you think of that make fun of Star Trek’s fandom, how many for Star Wars?). JJ Abrams, the director of the new Trek films has also been very open that he didn’t grow up a Trek fan, but loved Star Wars, which he discusses in this interview with Jon Stewart.
While he may have grown to appreciate Star Trek, his sensibility was far more informed by Star Wars, and that’s reflected in the final product. It’s no wonder he was on the top of Disney’s list for the new Star Wars films.
I’ve enjoyed the new Trek films. They’re fun and dynamic. They are not, however, reflective of the bold path set out by the original series. There is a future for the Star Trek franchise, and it doesn’t come from aping Star Wars. “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” if that isn’t a great mission statement for any storyteller I don’t know what is. It is the responsibility of storytellers, and artists, to push boundaries, to re-examine the things we think we understand, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations,” and to present those ideas in an impactful, and effective way. That’s what Star Trek tried to do in it’s illustrious past, and having those big complex ideas doesn’t need to keep the final product from being a ton of fun and full of action. Star Trek may not have our cultural inner child enthralled as Star Wars does, but that’s because it never was, nor should it be, childish. It should be entertaining, but challenging, and thoughtful at the same time. We now live in a society where the formerly shunned “nerd” culture thrives. Ideas and concepts that used to only be shared with kids that were shoved in lockers, can now be accepted and adopted by the world. Star Trek and Star Wars can co-exist, and both be immensely successful, but not if they are busy making the same types of stories as each other.
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