Sunday, June 7, 2009

Terra Incognita 88 Part 1: Star Trek

Terra Incognita
Issue 88

“Written to enlighten, guaranteed to offend”

A Publication of Seth J. Frantzman
Jerusalem, Israel


June 4th, 2009

1) Star Trek and Star Wars going back in time: Recently movie franchises have been going back to their ‘origins’ in various “prequels.” Examples include Batman, Indiana Jones, Star Trek and Star Wars. This development is most interesting in Star Trek and Star Wars because when they were originally released they presented a picture of the future. Now we are seeing the past in the future. Whereas the original movies offered a vision for humanity and ideas Hollywood now tells us humanity has no ideas and possibly no future.

Star Trek and Star Wars going back in time
Seth Frantzman
June 1, 2009

The mega-franchise of Star Trek has recently released a new film Star Trek: The Future Begins. Like recently released prequels to Batman and Star Wars this new film takes the viewer back to the past, exploring the early lives of the crew who eventually became famous in the Star Trek series. But this ‘back to the past’ approach that has become so popular in Hollywood is not just about expanding on successful franchises, the tendency to go back to the past also says much about our own culture, our inability to imagine the future and Hollywood’s own inability to confront the issues that affect us today.
The original Star Trek series ran from 1966 to 1969. The series was groundbreaking in several ways. It was not only futuristic but it also imagined a utopian world where peace had come to earth and released man’s energies to explore the universe using a Starfleet of essentially humanitarian and peace seeking soldiers. Star Trek’s original cast was also groundbreaking in being multi-cultural, including an African woman (Uhara), a Russian man (Chekov), an Asian (Sulu) and an alien (Spock). But while Star Trek supposedly imagined a utopian future its episodes were steeped in the symbolism of the present. It dealt with the controversial issues of the Vietnam war in several episodes, softly critiquing both militarism and passivism. Later Star Trek television series such as The Next Generation (1987-1994) explored issues of inter-racial dating by involving the Klingon Worf with the half human Deanna Troi. It continued its groundbreaking efforts by having a female captain and lead in Voyager (1995-2001). The franchise had to navigate the end of the Cold War and did so by having the traditional enemies of the utopian ‘Federation’, the Klingon empire seek peace in Star Trek VI after a Chernobyl like environmental disaster. The episode speaks of the Klingon Empire’s economy polluting itself to death because of its focus on war, an obvious parallel to what befell the Soviets.

Star Wars was a motion picture franchise with the first episode being released in 1977. Its third episode, ‘The Return of the Jedi’ was released in 1983. The entire plot of Star Wars involves a group of rebels fighting an all encroaching empire. This has a seeming parallel to the perception among Americans in the late 1970s that the U.S was losing the Cold War. There was also a religious element in Star Wars with the ‘force’ and Luke Skywalker being a sort of Jesus-like figure coming to save humanity.

Then between 1999 and2005 Star Wars came out with three new feature films, all ‘prequel’ episodes intended to explain how it came to pass that an evil empire was formed out of what had been a peaceful republic. This seems to parallel the fall of Rome’s Republic or the destruction of democracy in 1930s Europe. But since the episodes were released in 2002 and 2005 it also has harsh things to say about the Bush Administration’s war on terror and the critique that many of the American Republic’s values were having ridden rough shod over them.

When Star Trek decided to follow in the footsteps of Star Wars and create a prequel episode it didn’t have any of the social commentary of its earlier movies or of Star Wars. Star Trek 2009 doesn’t say anything. But why? Why is Hollywood going back to the past? Can it not imagine a future? Has it already cast enough diverse actors and had blind men flying space ships and women as captains that it simply can’t do any better? Is it saying “we have reached the future”? Or is it simply afraid to confront the issues of the present, such as the rise of Islamism and terrorism? Does it feel that an inter-galactic religious cult of terrorists is either too far fetched or too ridiculous? Can anyone imagine Captain Kirk up against religious terrorists in the future? The future always seemed to be without religion, at least the human characters never had any religions. The Aliens were always pious and many of them dressed in costumes reminiscent of American Indians or Arabs or a combination of the two. Headscarfs and face veils were typical as were long flowing roads and carved wooden staffs. Thus Star Trek and Star Wars seemed to be telling us; in the future man will abandon God but the Gods of the others, such as Vulcan theology, will be fascinating. This is much the way many in the West view religion today: it is interesting if it is foreign and ‘exotic’, it is problematic if it is from our own past.

But does the endless returning to the past also mean that our leading cultural critics simply can’t imagine a future. In Star Trek the Federation was always supposed to be a peaceful utopia but meddlesome aliens kept threatening it. Once the Klingons were humbled and became allies the enemy became Romulans or the Borg or something else. A return to the past seems to say “if only we can go back to the Cold War where the enemies were clear.” The decision by the makers of these massive franchises to return to the past says much about the lack of new ideas, ingenuity and innovation in our own time. The diversity imagined in Star Trek has come to fruition and many people seem disillusioned that it hasn’t brought the promise they thought it would. A black president here, a woman in charge there and yet we haven’t found utopia. Hollywood is telling us we never will.

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