Thursday, May 14, 2009

To Boldly Split Infinitives: The New "Star Trek," and why it matters.

I saw the new Star Trek movie last night, and it was good.
J.J. Abrams seems to have struck the right balance, honoring the original premise of the show while not being a slave to it.
While the new movie jazzed things up a bit over some of the old (and relatively low-budget) offerings from the early series it remained faithful to the most important aspects of the series, its optimism and emphasis on cooperation, and its somewhat idealistic look at the future.

One thing that Star Trek offers us, that many otherwise brilliant science fiction stories do not is the simple idea that the future can be better than the past. Too many stories either assume we have to reach back to some mythic "Golden Age" or that we're simply going to keep slipping into a corrupt, barbaric dystopia. Star Trek was always the antidote to that. Don't get me wrong, I love Star Wars and Blade Runner and the other great SF/Fantasy stories out there, but it's nice to have a little hope with your space battles.

There are still problems and conflicts, disasters and villains, but society moves forwards, and while the government is far from perfect, it contains a lot of good people trying to make things better.

And unlike some other series, Star Wars for example (especially in the lamentable Episodes I-III), Star Trek doesn't have a Campbellian "chosen one" who is destined to save the day. Yes, Captain Kirk is the face of the story, but it's made explicitly clear (more so in this movie, even, than in the previous films) that Kirk is nothing without Starfleet. On his own, as a lone-wolf antihero type, he's just a waste of talent. It's only with a good ship and good crew, which includes his conscience Dr. McCoy and his dramatic foil Spock, that he becomes any sort of hero.

And the design of things... Starships are big. Starfleet Academy is big. These aren't scrappy little pirates with a heart of gold saving the day, these are humongous cooperative endeavors between entire worlds. When you see the Enterprise being built in a dry dock in Iowa (I guess the whole ehtanol thing doesn't pan out, they've got to put that real estate to use for something), you can imagine what we might accomplish if we put our collective heads, hearts and muscles together to solve problems and explore.

As author David Brin points out, Star Trek is less about Top Gun than it is the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle.

Who knows, it might be an overly idealistic fantasy world, which is a common criticism of the series (it's much more trendy to be gritty and cynical these days, although that might be changing little by little). On the other hand, since the original series debuted in 1966, it has had an undeniable impact on not just popular culture, but real-world technology.

A few examples of modern things that were either anticipated by or even directly inspired by the series: cell phones, tablet PCs, PDAs, MRI machines, MP3 players, flat-panel televisions and jet injectors. And let's not forget that we've already had one spaceship prototype named The Enterprise. There will be more.

Additionally one cast member alone, Nichelle Nichols, who played Chief Communications Officer Uhuru (and by the way is that a Bluetooth headset in her ear?) worked with NASA on a special program to recruit minorities and women to the space program and has been a strong advocate for space exploration since the 60s.

Well done Mr. Abrams and company. Live long and prosper.

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