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Boldly Going Backwards







Going to the movies in this super slick, image controlled world, can be an eye opening, and sometimes depressing experience. Especially if you’re a Star Trek fan. The new Star Trek film in many ways perfectly reflects the new Obama era, one where style triumphs over substance. The ability of marketing campaigns to convert expectations and hopes into altered perceptions is phenomenal. Like a juggernaut that continues to gain momentum, the spin effectively frames how people are to experience the reality. Not until the aftermath, once the campaigns are over or the curtain closes, can genuine reflection occur.

The blockbuster movie season is now in full swing with more hype and hoopla to come. The unfortunate part of this year’s season is that one of Hollywood’s more thoughtful franchises, Star Trek, has been sucked into the machine, dismantled, reassembled and pushed out the other end as this year’s generic and soulless blockbuster.

 

What makes science fiction, and Star Trek, great is its ability to hold a mirror up to our modern world while simultaneously offering a vision of the future, a future where we’ve overcome blind prejudices or systems of inequality. It allows for critical reflection while exploring big, bold ideas at the same time. It sparks the imagination in creative and critical ways. Due to the vision of a different society we are able to compare and contrast the vision presented before us to what the world is like today. The vision creates the critical thought.

The downfall of the new movie is that it fails to do that. Sure we get a flashy view of the future, one with technological change, but we don’t get to see or explore the society behind the gloss. We don’t hear how the ‘United Federation of Planets’ works. Star Trek’s creator the late Gene Roddenberry was apparently concerned with the militarism that was injected into the later Star Trek films, into Earth’s ‘Star Fleet’. Unfortunately this carries through again in the new film. The scientific and exploratory mission of the original television show is swapped for a militarized Star Fleet where (the new) Kirk and crew are part of a rigid, hierarchical pecking order of military discipline. The motive of Star Fleet’s existence seems to be one of defence. Ideas and ideals are put aside for the sake of entertainment, to ensure big bangs and a fast moving plot.

The original series, and to lesser degrees the later spin-off shows, pushed and challenged social conventions of the time. It broke new ground for TV in the 3 seasons it was on air. While not perfect, the show sought to question and reflect society in many of its episodes, whether it was race relations, religion or the futility of war. A multicultural and gender crew presented a vision of a better society.

Its later incarnation, The Next Generation, sought diplomacy over conflict. It’s first episode setting the tone, with humanity put on trial, forced to justify itself after centuries of violence and bloodshed. The message presented was that people, humans, could grow, to move past petty conflicts, to consciously change themselves and their surrounding institutions. The resolution to the episode’s climax was not to go in phasers blasting but to recognise the diversity of life, that communication and broadening one’s perceptions and conceptions of life facilitates solutions for all, rather than just those with superior weaponry. The new Trek seems to be shoot first and ask questions later.

 

The ‘reboot’ of the Star Trek franchise unfortunately lacks big ideas. Like the rest of the Hollywood film industry, the nuances and vision of the original have been toned down, or removed, replaced by rapid fire dialogue, fast editing, and more action. Rather than crediting their audience with the intelligence, ability and desire to explore and question their own beliefs or values through sci-fi allegory, the film’s producers, writers and director have crafted a film that panders to the lowest common denominator. Missing is the ethical discussions between Spock (logic) and McCoy (humanism) advising the best course of action to a moral dilemma. The conflict between heart and mind, of trying to reconcile the ability to reason with the ability to feel, to navigate the horrors of the universe required the audience to travel with the characters on these philosophical journeys. The production budgets of Hollywood films these days require that all films appeal to as wide an audience as possible to ensure returns are met and profits are made. The effect on story, on character, on bold visions and meaningful content is that they’re marginalized by the fear that they might put off a demographic. The effect of this is that the elements are what give a narrative vitality, a depth, a purpose are filtered through market research and testing. Movie making then becomes like a paint-by-numbers. The stories serve only to facilitate an expensive computer generated fireworks display and roller coaster ride.

For Star Trek fans, this means that beloved characters become mere shells; big ideas and vision make way for just action.

Star Trek’s critical and commercial success highlight that with enough money and hype, a lack of imagination and creative courage can be seen as new and fresh.

Like modern political campaigns the battle of the box office is not over substance anymore but in who can better manage style and convince that it’s substance.

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