Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Star Trek Wars

There is a story within the movie Star Trek Into Darkness that goes something like this: in the alternate Trek 23rd century (the JJverse?)--in the year 2259--Starfleet is in danger of being militarized.  A terrorist attack prompts a rogue admiral into setting up conditions to cause a war he has already decided he wants to wage, and for which he has been aggressively preparing.

Because this terrorist attack cost the lives of citizens and valued Starfleet officers, there was no initial resistance to organizing a mission of revenge.  When Spock, Scotty and finally Kirk object and decide to capture the fugitive for trial, the admiral's plan goes awry.  He is forced to show his cards, and his plans to sacrifice the Enterprise and its crew in order to force his pet war.

As an allegory, this story tracks pretty well with events after 9/11/2001 and the American invasion of Iraq.  Members of the Bush administration claim that the Bush White House was intent on waging war on Iraq even before 9/11. They were looking for an excuse.  In the movie there is a further suggestion of 9/11 when the rogue starship crashes in San Francisco, toppling towers.

Ultimately the rogue admiral is defeated. We hear Captain Kirk's voice, and then see him addressing a Starfleet audience.  He says these words: "There will always be those who mean to do us harm.  To stop them we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves.  Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us, but that's not who we are."

"We are here today to re-christen the USS Enterprise, and to honor those who lost their lives nearly one year ago.  When Christopher Pike gave me his ship, he had me recite the captain's oath--words I didn't appreciate at the time.  Now I see them as a call for us to remember who we once were and who we must be again.  And those words..."

And then Kirk recites the standard opening to Star Trek, one of the most famous poems of the 20th century that begins "These are the voyages..."  The Enterprise then sets off on its five year mission, the one that in the GR universe commenced in 2264.

This central story was obscured by the unfortunate choice of melding it with the Khan story, and specific echoes of Star Trek II.  Upon seeing this film again, the central story seems clearer, and the Khan story--though it would make sense within this story if it wasn't familiar from another setting--takes us way out of this story, and the echoes are mostly unfortunate, however well done.

But by the end of the film there is a sense that this is an attempt to move into the exploratory mission and away from a militarily aggressive Starfleet.  And there are hints that this military tendency is not just one rogue admiral.  Starfleet uniforms are more military than any seen before, especially with the hats which I identify with Nazi uniforms, and others suggest are more like Soviet uniforms.  I also noticed that the architecture of San Francisco is uncharacteristically monumental, suggesting a sense of empire.  And Kirk's speech pretty much says that the rogue admiral was only an extreme example.  Why else would he say that they needed to "remember who we once were and who we must be again."

These are words that might be applied not only to the JJverse but to almost all of Star Trek of the past 20 years.  Since the 1990s, Star Trek has been fighting wars--in the 24th and 22nd centuries.  An entire generation of Star Trek left behind its origins in GR's Star Trek in the 1960s. In the original series, Earth had fought and won a war with Romulus without becoming war crazy.  True, there was a Cold War quality to the rivalry with the Klingons, and there were certainly mixed messages about Vietnam in the 60s, but Starfleet was meant to be a model of peaceful exploration, and a mature attitude towards difference and violence.  These themes were deepened and extended in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

But in the 90s, the Federation in Deep Space Nine went to war in the 24th century--briefly with the Klingons, and more comprehensively with the Dominion.  In the real world of the 1990s, the Soviet Union had crumbled, and some were declaring an "end to history" and complete victory to western capitalism.  In this historical context, the Dominion War might be viewed as analogous to H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds as an attack on complacency and a smug belief in superiority.

Then a new Star Trek series began, set in the 22nd century, before the time of the original series.  Enterprise began with stories about the first steps into space exploration.  But then in the real world came 9/11, and an analogous attack on the Earth began the Xindi war that dominated the rest of the series.  Terrorism also became a more prominent theme, and torture as interrogation technique was notoriously shown.

  All of this echoed real world attitudes and events.  After 9/11 there was fear of terrorism, support for military action which resulted in military incursions into Afghanistan.  The existence of covert warfare and violence perpetrated by "intelligence" agencies became common knowledge. The U.S. invaded Iraq and began a war that became the longest in U.S. history, though the weapons of mass destruction that served as the pretext for the invasion did not exist.  Eventually it became public knowledge that the U.S. engaged in torture.  Suspected terrorists were held at Guantanamo and unknown other sites without trial or definite sentence or even charges.  Laws were passed with near unanimity that restricted the civil liberties of U.S. citizens and gave new powers to intelligence agencies and law enforcement.

Many of these subjects became themes that dominated Star Trek fiction long after there was no Star Trek on television.  It is only now in 2014 that the themes of war, insurrection, covert warfare (the "Section 31" of many 24th century novels that is mentioned as existing in the JJverse 23rd century) may be coming to an end--or at least that's the suggestion by a Trek Core writer, reviewing the latest batch of Star Trek novels in "The Fall" series.

All of this means that an entire generation has grown up with Star Trek at war, at least in almost every new story (and lots of games.) What began in the 1960s as an alternative to the primitive emotions, the ongoing violence and threat of even greater consequences of open warfare in that era, has reverted and succumbed to those emotions as well as the temptations of easy dramatics in storytelling.

So even more than a decade after 9/11, when the people of the western world are manifestly tired of war, Star Trek is still mired in its themes.  This is not to say that these emotions and issues of self-defense or aggression aren't pertinent or real.  Kirk's speech in Star Trek Into Darkness is eloquent on these matters.

 But in concentrating on this--as well as easy emotional themes such as revenge--almost obsessively, and getting caught up in the politics of a constructed universe so deeply in Star Trek fictions,  Star Trek has lost its edge.  It is no longer in the vanguard of zeroing in on new important issues in a new way, of revelations and of modeling a better future where problems are understood and addressed.  Even an even bigger-budget superhero epic like Man of Steel dealt metaphorically or allegorically with the transcendent issue of this age, that is truly threatening the survival of human civilization: the climate crisis.

Star Trek should be about the present and the future, but lately it seems to have become mired in the past, including its own.

1 comment:

Adam said...

THANK YOU for writing this. This is an excellent post, and I've been thinking the same thoughts the last couple of weeks as I've seen the ads for a video game called "Star Trek: Attack Wing" on my Facebook feed. There is a contingent of Star Trek fans who really love the military side -- starships and battles -- and they tend to be very vocal about defending the newer, more violent Treks, particularly DS9. I suppose that's okay, we all like things for different reasons, but I can't help feeling like those people are "doing it wrong" and kind of missing the point of Trek.

When I first watched STID, I felt like it was an indictment of some of the recent versions of Star Trek -- whether intentional or not. Say what you want about Bad Robot's take on Star Trek, but they certainly have returned the focus to TOS, and it's hard to do that without getting back to basics somewhat. I watched DS9 and enjoyed it, but I eventually came to feel like Star Trek lost its way during that series and never found it again. These days, my opinion is that DS9 is a great series, just not a great Star Trek series. STID, meanwhile, got to have its cake and eat it to. Since their theme was opposing militarism, they got to show as much militarism as they wanted in their Star Trek universe. Kind of the same approach Cecil B. DeMille took to sex and violence in his Bible epics.