Star Trek Films Fail Because Freedom Has Progressed
I was underwhelmed leaving the theater after watching Star Trek: Into Darkness, and I found the reaction puzzling. I remain a fan of the original TV series, despite welcome advancements in special effects, and this movie was largely faithful to the series and characters. Plus, the movie was well crafted with plenty of action and some cool effects.
So, why the “ho hum” reaction? I think it’s rooted in my literary science fiction background where I saw authors grappling with fundamental questions about individual autonomy, technology, free will, and the role of the State. Their plots hinged on human reactions to the conflicts presented to them through alien worlds, creatures and technology.
As a teenager, for example, I was captivated by the classic science fiction of Isaac Asimov and his Foundation Trilogy. The idea underlying the series is that human behavior can be forecasted (based on the statistical law of large numbers), and the series protagonist, Hari Seldon, develops the “science” of psychohistory to explain this phenomenon and predict the course of events for the universe. (Ironically, I now teach research methods, urban economics, and urban planning at Florida State University and my approach to economics if fundamentally Austrian which is highly skeptical of this type of forecasting.) In the triology, Hari Seldon sees the imminent collapse of civilization and devises the Seldon Plan to establish a Foundation for perpetuating society. Similarly, I was introduced to the concept of jihad and political power through by Frank Herbert’s Dune saga. Of course, many libertarians have been fans of Robert Heinlein’s work for the similar reasons. Heinlein, one of the pillars of popular science fiction writing, explicitly (and controversially) explored issues of individualism and personal liberty.
I’ve discussed this issue in the context of more mainstream literature elsewhere, but it’s equally true with film. And that’s where my problem with Into Darkness lies. The Star Trek stories in film, despite their popularity, and unlike the television series, simply don’t stack up to these greats of science fiction literature. For many science fiction readers, lumping stories and characters in the Star Trek films into the same category as the Foundation series, the Dune saga, or Heinlein’s work is more than a stretch.
The original Star Trek television series, however, was different; it successfully aspired to address significant social and political issues, and its cultural influence is hard to dismiss as a result. Star Trek TV episodes used a humanist world view to grapple with authoritarianism, war, prejudice, and other social issues. In fact, civil liberties and the right to self-determination were fundamental to the “Prime Directive”—the principle that aliens should not interfere in the social, economic, or political development of indigenous cultures. The series is heralded for breaking down social stereotypes and contemporary prejudices using a multi-ethnic crew (including an alien) and cast, even making American television’s first interracial kiss a center piece of an episode.
The problem is that the Star Trek films, and Into Darkness in particular, are mere extensions of the original series. But times have changed. In the 1960s and 1970s, many of the themes and ideas the series grappled with were cutting edge and provocative. A biracial kiss was a big deal. The Cold War was in full swing. Civil Rights and political equality for all citizens, particularly African Americans, were still unsettled and leading political issues, and social unrest was on the nightly news. European genocide was a recent memory, and many feared the ascendance of a new totalitarian global hegemony.
Nearly five decades after the series started, we’ve come to terms with aliens in our midst. Totalitarianism is still present, but relegated to isolate nations. Even the Occupy movement ended up being a flash in the pan, failing to ignite mass protest of the kind seen (or at least feared) during the 1960s and early 1970s.
The one somewhat contemporary issue in the Star Trek movie Into Darkness focused on the genetically engineered Khan, but his storyline is overshadowed by the more conventional action sequences and plot devices. At several points the film seems more like a buddy flick as Kirk and Spock sort out their personal differences. And the romance between Spock and Uhura is…well…boring. The Admiral leading the militarization of the United Federation of Planets is a rogue, not emblematic of a systemic or structural flaw in the political system. Khan is simply an evil doer that needs to be dispatched, not the film’s central values-based or ideological conflict. In short, nothing in Into the Darkness rises to the level of meaningful social, political, or philosophical commentary.
The Star Trek television series was a product of its times, aspiring to the best of science fiction storytelling in a new medium. The fact the characters, storylines and plots of the 1960s lack social divisiveness in the 21st century may be a worthwhile reminder of just how far we’ve come. While racism and prejudice still mar society, the idea that entire groups of individuals can be legitimately disenfranchised is no longer part of the mainstream political or moral landscape (at least in the West). Even the redistributionist Occupy movement proved to be targeted and contained. Totalitarianism is the province of rogue states such as North Korea, Cuba, perhaps Venezuela and increasingly Russia, but the prospects of global dominance are remote. In short, individuals and communities are freer in large swaths of the American (and global) cultural and political landscape.
In this sense, the mundane storylines that plague the Star Trek films are a sign of progress even if they don’t make for compelling science fiction in the 21st century. They are also a strong indication that these films are destined for film school archives with little hope of an enduring presence in contemporary social history.