Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dawson's Trek

Well, I almost hate to say it, but this Onion video pretty much nails my reaction to the new Star Trek. I thought it was great fun - a highly entertaining and extremely well-produced thrill ride. Visually, this may be the best space opera to date. All the creatives involved seem to be die-hard fans trying to bring the concept back to basics and make it appealing for today's audiences.

But therein lies the rub, as some obscure Trek villain might say.

Hollywood seems to think that "today's audiences" have been dumbed down to the point that the only characters that are allowed to speak anything resembling proper English are either bad guys or androids. As much fun as the story is to this film, the kind of jokey, ironic fan-speak that you hear on the various Stargate or Joss Whedon franchises took me out of the story time and again.

Why does this matter? Well, the kinds of young, ultra-achieving military types we're supposed to believe these characters are simply wouldn't speak and behave the way these characters do, because these characters relate to one another like fans at a cosplay con. I realize you don't want them to be so earnest they're impossible to relate to, but I really needed to feel there were some stakes involved here. As exciting as this film looks, there is no trace of the gravity of the original series. The villain was especially casual. I can see wanting to escape that portentious villain cliche, but hearing something to the effect of "Hi Christopher, I'm Nero" didn't fill me with dread.

The cast looked like Dawson's Creek in space for the most part, most especially James Tiberius van der Kirk. The fact is that outside of Quinto as Spock and Pegg as Scottie, you could've gotten anyone to play these roles, simply because the amazing infrastructure Abrams and crew create around them is so idiot-proof. Millions of folks are going to see this movie and have a wonderful, good old-fashioned night at the movies, but I'm willing to be that no one's life is going to be changed by it.

The funny thing is that I've seen people bash Nemesis time and again writing about this new film, but in fact the new Trek grabs a boatload of ideas from the last TNG film. We have Romulans, a doomsday weapon, a planned attack on Earth, two incarnations of Trek icons encountering one another, a lost crewman on a desolate, dangerous planet, a captain held hostage and probably a ton of other bits I'm forgetting at the moment.

So this is Trek for the masses - or today's masses. I'm OK with that. To be honest, Voyager and Enterprise nearly extinguished my enthusiasm for the franchise. But the signals I'm getting from my tinfoil hat are telling me that maybe there's a reason to rejigger the concept for all of the Justin's and Courtney's out in the food courts of Anytown, USA. Here's what I wrote about the Trek weltanschuang a year ago:

Under the smiley veneer of humanism, politically correct pandering and New Deal-vintage liberalism, the Federation certainly feels like a socialist military dictatorship. At the core of the Federation and at the core of Starfleet is the presence of a expansionist philosophy (the Federation must grow to survive) and a Masonic, heirarchal world view. And these stories are all told exculsively from the point of view of elite military officers on spaceships armed with world-destroying arsenals.
Let's just say that the Trekkers you see milling around a Creation con might be perfectly nice folks, but probably not the targets of any potential social engineering messages embedded in big budget sci-fi. But certainly the high school jocks and preps attracted to this new age Trek might be. Of course, this is all just blue sky here, but there a few themes in this film that caught my attention:

  • As in previous Treks, the message is clear- civilians are either trouble-makers or just plain trouble.
  • Young people who can't fit into society need to be militarized, like Kirk and Spock.
  • The best place for ambitious young people to make their mark is in the military.
  • Even individuals in their 30s or so who can't cut it out there should try enlisting, like McCoy.
  • Exactly as in Dark Knight, we see that the world (or the galaxy, in this case) is filled with psychotics whose mission in life is pure, mindless destruction. Only complete militarization can save us.

Now, don't get me wrong- this kind of thing has been part of sci-fi since Doc Smith's heyday. Sometimes you just have to accept the in-universe logic of these things. On the other hand, I was struck that Starfleet's vibe in this new Trek is more Starship Troopers than ever before, right down to the 30s vintage dress uniforms. If you were looking to get the youth pumped up for the militarization of space- or society, for that matter - this is a very good start. It will be interesting if any particular interests try to capitalize on the film's sucess for any kind of agenda in the months to come.

In the meantime, go see Star Trek and get yourself a big old bucket of popcorn. You'll probably have a blast. If you need me, I'll be up watching some old-school Quatermass with the missus.


  1. I was reading how they spent more on promotion than actually making the movie. They really wanted this movie to be succeed.

  2. Just Saw the flick.. You can download a DVD screener already.. Sheesh.. I'd agree with everything you said Chris.. The villain was the worst part of the entire film.. His Ship was pretty menacing looking.. and to have a little weasel with no will or charisma piloting it was not only out of place, but shockingly contrived. And Spock making out with his GF and getting crabby and huffy during the Vulcan initiation scene? I get they were trying to show he was somewhat emotional.. but to make him the most emotional guy on the Ship? I'll take Data any day.

  3. watched a shitty cam version of it on the internet yesterday.

    Left me with a "meh"-feeling, but unfortunatelly it will rank as one of the "better" ST movies.
    in a closer look it felt like a recruitment video
    Nice review btw.

    oh, and its "Weltanschauung"

    Greetings from Germany

  4. I heard they do the "shaky camera" thing a lot. Is this true? I haven't seen the movie but it does seem that a lot of reviewers are getting paid big time to push this film. The trailer didn't excite me, it looked like John Rambo meets Star Trek (or they were going for more of a "star wars prequel" action feel). Then again, I never watched a whole episode of any of the series. Star Trek was just before my time.

    WV: bound (huh..)

  5. Although I haven't seen the film yet, I'm itching to either before or after I come back from Europe, I trust that your analysis is spot on.

    And I'm glad you're pointing out themes that relate so ardent today. Especially as Star Trek is reaching a broader audience who'll be most intrigued by the effects than by the core of the stories Trek fans have held on to all these years.

    Brava as usual!

  6. wow, its like wheres waldo, sometimes you need someone else to point him out. A ha moment. But while watching this, i got the impression that the "Star"fleet are the masons. Considering their red, blue, and gold shirts, repping the 3 degrees. Which isn't saying much when there are a lot of masons in very high places militarily. Also, JJ Abrams gave crewmembers mini-telescopes upon wrapping, all positioned at different constellations, starfleet-ish! It all seems very silent/crop circle to me, maybe even mithraic, shemsu hor-ish!

    oh yeah, there were teenagers, and young adults galore at the theatre i went to.

  7. Ah, the "sarcasm-speak" issue raises its ugly head again.

    Why am I not surprised....its been a crippling blow to my enjoyment of Sci-fi for several years now. I like to think american culture would have different standards for film & TV dialog, but really its all lumped into the "dawsons creek" factor when "realism" is at stake.

  8. Dawson's Trek! Hahaha... Kind of says it all right there. Looks like a movie full of mannequins. I want to see it to see how right my instincts and your synopsis is. I kinda withdraw from movies that are shiny, sterile and blockbusterish because they water down and destroy alot of the important ideas of the film. Seems the "imbalanced" focus on effects and aesthetic beauty of the actors is more important than the message. I think this shows how "materialistic" or external that our thinking has/is become/becoming. QUESTION. Does the movie help evolve one in any way, or do you even remember the movie next week? Maybe it will bear some fruit in the form of synchromysticism/symbolism.

    I saw an exhibit on Bhutan the other day and it too was focused on the Materials and Components of the Buddhists (shamans) based on aesthetic beauty (sic and sick). Not a single mention of the purpose, reason, or any of the psychoactive plants used WITH them; the "western" lens is external, material, reductive. In fact many visitors were chirping about Bhutanese "god" (Buddha) as if he were the same as our god; external and male. WOW. Nothing learned.

    So, my point is, if it needs spelling, that the external is mainly our focus whether it be movies, OUTER space exploration, or museum exhibits. It is all the same mode of thought; The Age of Materialism.

    Hope the "side" rant won't get me deleted. Haha. Cheers all!

  9. Chris-

    As always, spot on. Best Trek Movie Ever. To these old bones, it was just a ton of fun. Exciting, glitzy, very cool. Excellent score. And yet, most of your critique applies, right down the line. Everything from Cpt. Pike's pep talk to young punk Kirk to the sweeping vista shots of acres of young people at The Academy. This is a military recruiting film, par excellence. Sort of like a well-written, futuristic Top Gun but with likable characters ( remember Top Gun came out exactly four years before Gulf War one. I knew at least one kid so moved by the film he DID join the Navy and became an aviator )
    In the meantime, I'm planning to see it in the theater again, and maybe find a clean copy on the net!
    Always appreciate the insights my friend.


  10. Thanks for this great post as always Christopher!! I was wondering what this movie would be like-although I am by no means a "Trekkie" but always interested in other people's thinking on these types of movies-best to you as always!!

  11. I'm concerned that so many people liked the film without questioning what is going on underneath the surface. It is refreshing and tremendously powerful that someone else is troubled by parts of the film and noticed a decline in plot, intelligence and a lack of any truly important messages -- it seems as though most everyone else was wowed by the cheap parlor tricks. The movie did, sadly, feel a good deal like like Starship Troopers too, a point that gravely distressed me. Such a beautiful concept for a film seems to have gone down in flames. We could have had a great deal more, but it seems we've catered to lesser interests :( Thanks for sharing.


  12. The soul has been ripped out of this franchise. I can't believe that entertainment news reporter said "the forties or something" re: the old show. Kirk on Hoth, Spock on Uhura. Vagina dentata on all alien creatures and "romulan" spaceship. Don't even get me started about the so called "Romulans". There was more romulan in one episode of DS9 than this movie.
    Also, since the timeline has been changed, the studio can do what it wants to the characters and the franchise, positively Orwellian.

  13. Great post as always, Christopher. However, I think you do Trek a disservice. Many episodes, esp. in Next Gen were straight-up Gnostic myths.

    And besides, what's wrong with a little space fascism? ;-> At least the Trek universe is fundamentally optimistic -- sure there are bad guys out there, but humans are basically decent sorts. It's good propaganda all around.

    Anyway, I'd rather live in that Galaxy than say, in BSG's or the Terminator's any day....

  14. That's funny. The "Dawson's Creek" meme was exactly what entered my mind as I watched the ensemble of cute young dumb "stars" assembled on the bridge. Had put together this image, which I may or may not use, should I ever get around to it. Feel free to add if you wish.

  15. Michael- Well, there's no bigger prize for a studio than a scifi franchise. But it does make you wonder...

    Steve - Overall, I did like the movie. But exactly what the Onion piece makes fun of- meaning and allegory- is what kept Trek alive. I think Nemesis was a very good movie- much better than this new one in every way. It just got killed because Voyager did such tremendous damage to the franchise.

    Skin- Time will tell. Hype of the moment distorts everything, unfortunately.

    Tommy- The camera work- and the production overall- is excellent, no doubt. But I'm not sure about the ramping up of the militarism.

    Girl- I think at the end of it all TOS will be the benchmark. Simply because there was such attention paid to theme in that series.

    Just- There's definitely a lot of Masonic influence in Trek. I'm not sure exactly what it means per se, but it's there.

    Orgone- Yeah, I'm so depressed over America's abuse and disdain of our beautiful language. Orwell was certainly on to something.

    Ryan- I follow you- outer exploration will only be as meaningful as our inner exploration. But that seems to be the ultimate taboo for too many people.

    Thracie- Yeah- the funny thing is that Top Gun was a conscious recruiting film for an extant military program. Is there something going on we haven't been told about?

    Devin- Thanks, buddy- it's never to late to get into TOS, especially with the remasters.

    Courtney- Well, the Starship Troopers movie at least was a satire. This film very much fits into the spirit of Heinlein's book. But by the same token, I feel the same way about the Harry Potter books and movies. The whole model for the English boarding school system stems from Sparta, which was a socialist military dictatorship which separated children from the mothers at very early ages in order to indoctrinate them into the totalitarian ethos of the state.

    At the end of the day, these stories need to be engaged with. You can enjoy the stories and still confront the memes being put out there by them. In fact, I think this Trek movie is a good vehicle for a discussion on this creeping militarization.

    Anony- Well, Trek continuity is so tortured you have to make a clean break if you want to find a wider audience. But I agree with the spirit of your comment.

    Loadie- Like I said- it's important to engage. Even Werner Von Braun was concerned about the militarization of space. Do a search on Star Trek up at the top of the site- I've written quite extensively on those themes.

  16. startrekpoopers.

  17. i'm goin to cling to the idea that militarization is what it is, but also refers to other movements such as the arts, or whatever industry may be in or want to be in. I heard Fleetwood Mac asked Cheryl Crow to join, and they told her it was like, "joining the military." This was for their upcoming reunion tour.

  18. karl urban's "homage" or whatever as bones mccoy was a high point for me. he seemed oddly "grown up" for the rest of the dawson-y cast...

  19. Hi Chris,

    I saw Star Trek on the big screen today and, as you predicted here, I thoroughly enjoyed it. But I agree with you that the characters were way too casual with the possibility of Earth being destroyed.

    Once back home, I went to CBS.com and watched some of the archived OST there. I was surprised how the new Trek was true to the nuances of the relationships and character interactions of Kirk, Spock, McCoy et al. So I was pleased with the new take.

    And watching the OST today episode 19 "Yesterday Is Tomorrow," I was struck by the casualness and playful banter of Kirk in a once-again life/death situation.

    So maybe you were a bit too harsh about the same banter in the new Trek. But your post is on target with the militarization jazz...way over the top in today's film.

    I gotta admit that this new Trek gave me the same warm fuzzy I felt as a kid watching OTS. The relationship with Kirk and Spock in today's film sealed it for me. At least, that cohesiveness might transfer to today's youth.

    My tween niece texted all during the film and it was a big deal that she and all her friends see this movie...and that really surprised me. The movie went "viral" in middle schools all over I suppose! Hey, that was the target age for me and the OTS too!

    Thanks, Chris! Good work here!

    BTW, the commercials for the new Trek are all over kid's Nickelodeon! They introduce the characters and show huge clips of the movie. This is incessant since the film debuted. And I'm talking long commercials of over two minutes and during every commercial break after 8 PM!

  20. Oops, I nearly forgot to mention that these new "youngsters" replacing the OTS crew were nearly flawless in their look-alike and take on the old crew roles.

    Wow! I remember something a while back about actors being replaced with CGI characters. Not so with these virtual "clones" of the OTS stars! So the old or deceased can be resurrected after all.

    Maybe that's part of the point to this film too. Life will go on and forever move forward. The old and staid need not try to stand in the way.

    And in a way, I'm glad to know that. No matter what, if our civilization continues on for another 200 years; it is an absolute definite that space travel and colonization will be a part of that future civilization.

    Cute Obama/NASA cartoon in our Sunday paper:


    Also there's a cartoon with Obama as Mr. Spock today with Obama holding an earth globe (huge Vulcan ears and all) stating: "Nowhere am I so desperately needed as among a shipload of illogical humans."


    Thanks, again, Chris!

  21. During George W. Bush's 2000 presidential election campaign, Rice took a one-year leave of absence from Stanford University to help work as his foreign policy advisor. The group of advisors she led called itself The Vulcans in honor of the monumental Vulcan statue, which sits on a hill overlooking her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Rice would later go on to give a noteworthy speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention. The speech asserted that "...America's armed forces are not a global police force. They are not the world's 911."

  22. After viewing the latest Trek, I couldn't help but wonder about the alchemical implications of the mysterious VULCAN-destroying 'red matter' (a punishment for sharing the [secret] OF [fire]?)... a singularity-creating energy contained in a drop of RED stuff/ elixir/ stone... BLACK and WHITE holes, time-travel, and alternate realities... beloved 'old' characters (re)made 'young' again... In light of having recently read Harpur's Mercurius and Stavish's The Path of Alchemy, methinks Mr. Abram's is - consciously or unconsciously - playing with the (Secret) Fire...