Published May 20, 2013
“Star Trek Into Darkness,” the newest edition in a space saga that reaches back a half-century, was, of course, a big hit at the box office this weekend.
We might consider why.
Beloved story, glowing with nostalgia? Check.
Good special effects? Check.
Good characters? Check.
Indeed, there’s a special richness to science fiction. Sci-fi looks into the future; the slogan of the Syfy Channel (formerly the Sci-Fi Channel) is “Imagine Greater.” That is, imagine greater, with either fear or wonder. And there’s a part of everyone that wants to do just that.
Yet in addition, the most powerful works of sci-fi also provide commentary on the present. Yes, they show us the future, but they also show us ourselves.
H.G. Wells’ 1895 novella, "The Time Machine," for example, was a tale of a time-trip 800,000 years into the future, and yet it was also a sharp commentary on the deeply divided class system of 19th-century Britain. A half century later, George Orwell’s "1984" was both a future dystopia and a savage depiction of contemporary communism.
Then, in 1966, TV producer Gene Roddenberry put forth his own vision of the future, “Star Trek.” Roddenberry once said that by creating “a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles.” And that’s just what he did: In 1968, for example, Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura shared the first interracial kiss on a regular series in TV history.
Beginning in 1979, the “Star Trek” movies, too, were filled with political messages. “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” released in 1986, proved to be a Green morality play, in which the heroes of the film were humpback whales.
Meanwhile, the Borg--a collective hive-mind that, as all Trekkies know, declares “resistance is futile”--has been a running “character” through decades of “Star Trek” shows. Watching the Borg, Trekkies can debate among themselves whether the Borg’s totalitarianism is an allegory for the tyranny of governments, corporations, or simple conformism.
In 2009, the film series was rebooted yet again, this time by the hot director J.J. Abrams--and it was a huge hit. As the inevitable sequel was being planned, one of the screenwriters, Roberto Orci, told The Los Angeles Times that his goals for the next film included arch-topicality: “We’re trying to keep it as up-to-date and as reflective of what’s going on today as possible.”
Indeed, at time of the new film’s release, one of its stars, Benedict Cumberbatch, declared to the BBC, “It’s no spoiler, I think, to say that there’s a huge backbone in this film that’s a comment on recent U.S. interventionist overseas policy from the Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld era.”
Yes, we all know that Hollywood leans left and Democratic, but if the goal of “Star Trek Into Darkness” was to rebuke the George W. Bush administration, the filmmakers missed their mark.
Without risking any spoilers for new film, let’s just say that the story is complex; it plot owes much to the morally murky John LeCarre novels of the Cold War. No character in the film even remotely resembles anyone from the Bush 43 era; meanwhile, the film reminds us that terrorism is a genuine threat, that we have real and lethal enemies, and that, sometimes, tough tactics are the best tactics.
As the words from the title “Into Darkness,” suggest, the film is dismissive of the notion that there’s any hope for long-term peace in the universe. Instead, we are reminded that various players, human and not, simply disagree on too many things ever to get along.
So in that sense, the movie could be viewed by some as a subtle repudiation of the Bush Doctrine of forcible democratization, but of course, that same Bush Doctrine was always a kind of ideological outrider for the right; as a general rule, it’s liberals who believe that collective governmental action can lead to perfectibility, not conservatives.
Yet even the left sees limits; it’s hard to find anyone in America today, liberal or conservative, who holds out much hope for American-led improvement in Afghanistan.
So if “Star Trek” has always been a commentary on its times, it has also been a reflection on its times. If the originator, Gene Roddenberry (1921-1991) was a political liberal, he was a liberal in the mode of his hero, the technologically exuberant and yet also politically tough-minded John F. Kennedy.
Roddenberry hoped that the optimistic--some would say naive--United Nations-style internationalism of his era would grow into the future United Federation of Planets (UFP) of the 23rd century.
Still, “Star Trek” always insisted that the universe as a whole would remain a dangerous place. So yes, in Roddenberry’s telling, the Cold War on earth in the second half of the 20th century--punctuated by hot wars--would eventually be resolved, and the whole earth would unite. Yet even as earthlings, and their near neighbors on other planets, would learn to get along, evil empires would nevertheless continue to exist elsewhere.
In Roddenberry’s 23rd century, the cold war was waged against the Klingons, although the USA--oops, make that the UFP--would have to be ready to fight. Fortunately, the UFP had military heroes, such as the swashbuckling John Kennedy--oops, make that Jim Kirk.
Yes, the America in which “Star Trek” first appeared--the series premiered in 1966, less than three years after Kennedy’s assassination--was still shaped by JFK’s bold vision. In a 1962 speech to Rice University in Houston, the dashing 35th president laid out an inspiring vision of the whole world becoming a new “spacefaring civilization.” The spearhead, of course, would be NASA and America:
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
Take those intrepid declarations, push them ahead 300 years, and we have the guiding vision of “Star Trek.”
Indeed, in the 60s, the nation was preoccupied with travel and transportation of all kinds. The 60s were probably the peak decade for the hot-rod/muscle car culture. Meanwhile, planners looked ahead to new kinds of trains and mass transit, such as the monorail at Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow (EPCOT), now folded into Florida’s Disney World.
And up above us all, it seemed plausible, as in the 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” that human travel between earth and the moon would be routine--so routine that by the early 21st century an ordinary person could get to the moon and back simply by buying a ticket on the Pan Am lunar shuttle.
So that’s what America’s futuristic vision looked like in the 60s, when the JFK vision was national policy. “Star Trek” was a strenuously cheerful reflection of that vision.
And so Kennedy’s America sent two astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, to the moon on July 21, 1969. Yet then, immediately, support for the space program collapsed. We might note, too, that “Star Trek” was canceled in the same year, 1969. The last American to set foot on the moon was Eugene Cernan in 1972.
So what happened? Why the rapid erosion of the once-popular space vision, in both our politics and our culture?
One factor was the recession in 1970, followed by a whole decade of slow growth in the 70s. At the same time, the federal government was pressured to spend more money on “unmet needs” at home; the new priority was social welfare, not science.
At an even deeper level, the backlash against the Vietnam War drained away money for anything that smacked of the Cold War or the “military-industrial complex.” And so in 1971, Congress killed a planned Super Sonic Transport, a next-generation airplane.
The rise of the environmental movement was yet another factor. The first Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970; ever since, significant portions of the American population, especially in the post-industrial elite, have been enraptured by the Green vision of low-tech “small is beautiful” sustainability and renewability. In other words, the ambitious technology of NASA--let alone “Star Trek”--was to be shunted aside, in the popular imagination, by simple New Age toys such as crystals and pyramids.
Speaking of New Ages, how can we forget the “Age of Aquarius”? As the 1968 song declared, the better world to come would see “Harmony and understanding/ Sympathy and trust abounding/ No more falsehoods or derisions/ Golden living dreams of visions.” These visions, of course, were likely to be aided by recreational drugs; the avant-garde--the hip and the cool--wouldn’t be tripping in outer space, but rather in inner space, in their own heads.
It might seem laughable, today, to think that drugs such as LSD would make for a better and more humane life. Yet in the late 60s, many truly believed that drugs were the gateway to a new epoch of liberation and possibility.
On May 31, 1969, a young woman named Hillary Rodham, speaking to her Wellesley College commencement, pledged exactly those new vistas to her fellow graduates: “We’re searching for [a] more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living.”
Okay, so maybe the Baby Boomers of ’69 didn’t quite find the answers they were looking for. Maybe the whole drug scene turned out to be a bad trip; we can each assess for ourselves how Hillary Rodham Clinton’s generation changed America. Yet this much we know for sure: There was little room in Baby Boomer politics and culture for the Kennedy-Kirk vision of space adventure.
Yet at around the same time, even as outward tripping--that is, financed by government and the military--shriveled up, the idea of inward tripping took on a whole new dimension: a dimension not of illicit drugs, but of computer chips. Especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, a part of the stoned culture of the 60s and early 70s morphed into something much more remarkable--the computer hacker culture.
The first hackers were anti-establishmentarians; the “phone freaks,” for instance, convinced themselves that manipulating free long-distance calls out of Ma Bell was a revolutionary act. And soon enough, young hackers started to see new business uses for those copper wires.
The computer, to be sure, had been invented long before the 60s. And the beginnings of the Internet were financed, as a Cold War program, by the dreaded Pentagon.
Indeed, it’s more than a little ironic: It was big corporations, including defense contractors, who built the underpinnings of the coming hacker counterculture.
Still, the hackers added their own rapturous romance and poetry to the computer realm, infusing computer users and hackers with a new kind of consciousness. The new world, existing inside microprocessors and phone lines, was a “consensual hallucination,” as William Gibson explained in his hugely influential 1984 novel, "Neuromancer":
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions . . . A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding...”
The message was clear: You want to go somewhere? But not fry your brain, and not go to jail? Go online.
The rest, of course, is history. It’s the history of the last 30 years, as computers, smart phones, and all things digital have conquered our culture. Today, some 78 percent of Americans are online, and whole industries--most obviously, newspapers and publishing--have been disrupted or even destroyed.
Indeed, in the wake of all this economic “creative destruction,” some of the largest companies in America are Internet-based, and they keep faith--or say they do, at least--with their iconoclastic origins. Facebook, for example, is to be found at 1 Hacker Way in Menlo Park, California.
Yet what do digital billionaires do with their money? Having made their fortunes in inner space, do they wish to go even further inward? Actually, no. There’s still plenty of gold in the nano-hills of the Internet, but many of those who have profited greatly from the Net are now looking outward.
Yes, in a complete reversal of directional vision, many tech tycoons now seek to go into space, or at least help others go into space. Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos is a major investor in SpaceX, which has already built new rockets and aims to reignite the idea of popular space travel. Google executives, joined by other Silicon Valley types, have even started a company that aims to mine the mineral wealth of passing asteroids.
So why this shift, from inward to outward? Perhaps the techsters can see that for all the transcendent power of digital technology, one’s physical body is still trapped on earth. And earth is where all of us--even billionaires--are hostage to the actions of terrorists and nuclear crazies, as well as vulnerable to the vagaries of some death rock from space.
To the billionaire who has everything here on earth, it might seem like a good idea to buy the option of having everything, somewhere else, too--somewhere in the solar system.
In addition, the impulse to travel into space is the impulse to move beyond a static and limited computer screen. It’s the impulse to travel, physically, and, yes, the yearning for adventure beyond the confines of cyberspace--way beyond.
As Captain Kirk first declared on September 8, 1969, space is “the final frontier.” Today, after a four-decade detour--through our own heads and through our own new computer screens--we are on the verge of a new era of space exploration.
The past trek to the stars is, once again, the future trek to the stars. In the decades and centuries to come, we will, indeed, go where no man--or woman--has gone before.