The Philosophy of Star Trek
The last panel I attended at the OSFest 6 convention was the Philosophy of Trek panel. It was one I was determined not to miss. I enjoy both.
I think that the panelists had planned to cover several subjects, but it was the first subject that seemed to dominate the discussion, as well as stir up some passion both on the panel, as well as with the audience. The opening subject for discussion was the JJ Abrams’ incarnation of Star Trek with the films released in 2009 and earlier this year. It seemed to me that the members of the panel were not happy with the Abrams handling of the film as they tossed a few lighthearted remarks back and forth between themselves and the audience. One member of the audience sitting directly behind me got quite upset and in essence, whispering to her neighbor that if the panel was going to be a JJ Abrams bashing session, she wasn’t going to stay. I am paraphrasing here, so you may add any appropriate expletives you wish to what she said. Well it is too bad that she left the room because JJ bashing is not what happened at all, but rather the panel was leading a discussion on how JJ’s universe compared with Gene Roddenberry’s vision and whether JJ had any obligations that he might not be fulfilling to Roddenberry’s ideal. This took up a full 2/3’s of the time allotted for the panel and could have gone on for much longer. I only wish I had brought my recorder to help me with my Swiss-cheesed memory of the discussion.
As always, I do not pretend to have all of the answers, nor do I have all of the facts in this matter, but I do have some thoughts which I will share with you. First, as I understand philosophy, it is a quest for the truth of something. The truth is found through an examination of all the available facts. A philosophy is developed and can evolve as more facts and experience is gained. This is at the most basic level as there have been many books written by many far more qualified people on this subject. So what I write here will be my own individual philosophy of Star Trek. Feel free to agree or disagree with my conclusions, and as always, I welcome any comments one cares to make.
Much has been written and discussed over the past four-plus decades of Gene Roddenberry’s “vision” of the future. In his vision, Roddenberry saw the future as a place where all prejudice and bigotry had been eliminated in human society. The people of the Earth had learned to finally get along by getting past their superficial and materialistic needs and began to work together to move out of our own solar system and spread the word to other “strange new worlds” and civilizations in a spirit of learning and exploration, boldly going “where no man has gone before.” This is indeed a noble vision, but it was an element in a much bigger picture.
Roddenberry was, before Star Trek, a marginally successful television writer. He had made many attempts at getting a hit television series on the air, and keeping it there. It wasn’t until the advent of Star Trek that he had found backing from Desilu studios and Herb Solow who saw value in what Roddenberry was producing, that got the show on the air. One problem that Star Trek faced in those days was another television show called Mission: Impossible. Desilu was wholly invested in this hit show and a great deal of the studio’s resources were put into that show, while Star Trek was forced to make due with a shoe string budget and leftovers. One big advantage Star Trek had to fight the budget battle was Matt Jefferies who could take junk, dress it up, and make it work as props and set decorations that were convincing. When one watches an episode of the original series (TOS), one finds a very Spartan environment, especially when compared to later series, such as Next Generation (TNG) with their million-dollar per episode budget.
Gene Roddenberry was a brilliant television writer, but it wasn’t only the scripts that made Star Trek work. For me, Star Trek is about the people and their interactions with each other. It was magical in how this show was cast, and how well they worked together. Kirk, the commander, relied on Spock and McCoy to make good decisions. Actually, Spock and McCoy were extensions of Kirk’s personality; Spock the logical side that looks at situations in black and white, and McCoy who was the compassionate one that added those little grey areas. What chemistry. This is what resonated with me, and what is missing from the Abrams version of Star Trek.
Before the 2009 Star Trek film was even in production, JJ Abrams admitted that he knew nothing about Star Trek. It also seemed that, beyond making a pile of money, he didn’t really care about Star Trek. I can agree with the first statement, but I cannot totally agree with the second. On one podcast I listen to regularly, one of the cohosts said “this is new Star Trek” for a new audience, if you cannot handle it, get over it. Another podcaster said that Star Trek is not about explosions and glitzy special effects, it is not supposed to wow the audience, but tell a good story. I can see merit to both points of view. The former is a young person who sees lots of movies, and the latter is more of a television watcher (but definitely not a couch potato). As far as I am concerned, Abrams doesn’t know Star Trek, and by what I saw in Into Darkness, he doesn’t seem to be interested in knowing the subject of what he has taken on.
One panelist on the Philosophy of Trek stated that all of the movies are bad. This person didn’t have a chance to elaborate on that statement, unfortunately, due to time constraints. I would have loved to hear this argument fleshed out. But I would tend to agree with this statement to a certain point; Star Trek does not belong in the movie theater. Star Trek is a television show. A weekly installment in which the crew of whatever ship or space station is presented with a problem, and then thinking their way out of the problem and comes up with a solution that is amenable to all parties involved. The best of the Star Trek movies are the ones that play like an extended television episode; The Wrath of Kahn, The Search for Spock, The Undiscovered Country, and First Contact all come to mind falling into the category of extended television episodes. Two of those films were directed by a Nick Meyer, someone who was known for his work in television before breaking into film.
The big question brought up during the panel was does JJ Abrams have a responsibility to Star Trek to be true to the legacy of Gene Roddenberry? If I recall correctly, the panel’s opinion was yes. As a fan, I would have to agree, but if I take a step back and look, I would have to say no. What if one took away the title Star Trek, changed the names of the characters, and the ships? Change the design of the sets and models. Are JJ’s movies good space opera? I would say yes, they are good films, but not good Star Trek. But what about the responsibility aspect of the question? As a film maker, JJ’s responsibility is to make a film that will fill seats and make as money as can possibly be made for the studio. Nothing more. It is just too bad that CBS and Paramount put the Star Trek name on JJ’s films knowing that this would automatically up the ante.
Star Trek 2009 opened new possibilities for the Star Trek universe, and did a pretty good job. The new cast worked well and gave me hope that there was a whole new universe full of stories that could be explored. Into Darkness was a cheat. Kahn? Why did we go backward? Why didn’t we get a new villain and a new story. Star Trek isn’t about explosions, lens flair, CGI special effects, red matter, magic blood, Borg enhanced Romulan ships, genocide on a planetary scale, and especially not about attractive young women in front of the camera in their underwear. JJ isn’t going to get the message by us arguing amongst ourselves, the dollars in his pocket speak much louder than fandom. The only way to let him know that he has gone wrong is to not go to his films. But in this less than ideal world, we all know that isn’t going to happen. If it says Star Trek, we are going to go and see it like watching a train wreck that we know is going to happen, but just cannot look away. And JJ will be laughing all the way to the bank.
My philosophy of Star Trek is this: It is about well written stories acted out by good characters in the backdrop of space that gives me hope for the future that we, as the human race, will really be okay. It is something that is plausible and possible. It is something I can invest myself in. When I watch Star Trek, I want it to be like a visit from a friend I haven’t seen for a while.
Well, there it is…