November 11, 2006

The brave old world of "Star Trek"


In preface these remarks, I note that I still hold in my mind the thrill I got from watching a handful of the original broadcasts of Star Trek as a young child (yes, I'm that old). When I was in high school (this was during the long, dry years between the original series and TNG), my mom graciously took me to see Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner when they were on college speaking tours. My interest in the franchise started to wane in the latter seasons of Deep Space Nine, dried up completely during Voyager (except for a smattering of Seven of Nine episodes), but was resurrected for the brief run of Enterprise.

Nevertheless, I have come to be most interested in the Star Trek phenomenon as an example of artistic failure: it is more compelling because of what it does consistently wrong than for its brilliant successes. Science, to start with. Star Trek isn't so much science fiction as space opera. There's nothing wrong with that, but what makes opera opera is that it's operatic. This was certainly true of the first series.

But by the time The Next Generation rolled around, they'd convinced themselves that they were doing Madame Butterfly when what they were really doing every week was a high school drama club production of The Mikado. Playing farce with a straight face can prove awfully painful entertainment at times (for everybody but the parents, who don't want to hear your critiques of their kids).

But even with space opera, it helps to keep science on your side. The need to play fast and loose with scientific facts is understood--the speed of light and all--but you can't go messing with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Star Trek was first sold as "Wagon Train to the stars," and horses have to eat sometime. The original series respected this fact with their incessant quest for dilithium crystals. And though what was actually done with the energy catalyzed by these crystals remains unclear--what the warp engines actually warp--it did establish that Captain Kirk was not piloting a perpetual motion machine.

By The Next Generation, though, the futures market for dilithium has bottomed out. Now there's so much dilithium about that you get crystals with your Cracker Jack. Which is sad, because scarcity is a main ingredient in drama. How interesting would The Road Warrior be with a fully functioning gas station every ten or twenty miles or so across the Australian Outback? But it gets worse. In the future, it seems, everybody's got everything they want. Clearly established in one painfully Marxist episode was the fact that there isn't a market, period. In money or ideas (except politically correct ones) or the future.

It enough to set both Newton and Adam Smith to spinning in their graves. But it gets worse. In "The Fascist Ideology of Star Trek: Militarism, Collectivism, & Atheism," Kelley Ross argues that

Star Trek has a Utopia to picture, or at least a world free of many of the ills perceived in the present, but it doesn't have to deal with anything so inconvenient as the experience of history. Star Trek is free to disparage business and profit without the need to explain what would replace them. Star Trek is free to disparage religious belief and ignore traditional religions without the need to address the existential mysteries and tragedies of real life in ways that have actually meant something to the vast majority of human beings. And it is particularly interesting that Star Trek is free to do all this with the convenience of assimilating everything to the forms of military life, where collective purpose and authority are taken for granted.

The credit for the above link is courtesy of Ed Morrissey, who adds:

Politically and economically, [Star Trek] operates outside of the realm of science fiction and into fantasy. Nothing in its universe explains how human society manages to build the massive ships that comprise Star Fleet, nor the brilliant technology that enables them. Who builds these things--and how and why? It's all well and good to say that money no longer exists, but people have to be compensated in some manner--otherwise, the Star Trek society is based on benevolent slavery.

Joss Whedon's brilliantly conceived and executed Firefly, in contrast, "doesn't try for the slightest bit of Utopianism. It does not assume that a single galactic government would be best, as it does not assume that present religion and capitalist economics are undesirable." And contra Star Wars as well, observes Ross, the Alliance of Firefly and Serenity is not so much evil as "something perhaps too big for its own good, or the good of its citizens . . . . This in itself is all a rebuke to the statist complacency of Star Trek."

Political philosophy aside, utopianism, like bad science, makes for bad fiction, which is why the Star Trek arc, up to Deep Space Nine, increasingly flirted with annihilation as a dramatic engine, as the only option left to a utopia is its collapse. The last series, Enterprise, which I consider the overall best of them all, neatly sidestepped the problem (though couldn't avoid its own apocalyptic plots) by creating a Star Trek universe just prior to the utopian rot setting in for good. Illustrating this reformed attitude well was the episode in which T'Pol's ancestor visits 1950s Middle America and actually has some nice things to say about the good old days.

That pretty much encapsulates the fundamental problem with Star Trek: its reliably retroactive nostalgia. Whenever they time travel back to the good old days (i.e., the bad old now), the good old days end up looking much better--despite their protestations (and they do protest too much), or at least more interesting, than the brave new world of the future.

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