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Star Trek (X)II: The Search for Issues?

This could go either way… or nowhere at all.

Recent quotes from JJ Abrams and Roberto Orci seem to suggest that the sequel to this year’s Star Trek could “reflect the things that we are all dealing with today”. It’s certainly interesting, suggesting that the movie series could reflect the goings on in the real world – but it would require a damn fine writing staff to pull it off.

Kirk will have issues...

Kirk will have issues...

Star Trek was built on issues – at least for the first three shows in the franchise. Everything from sexual orientation to witch-hunting to Holocaust guilt was handled in someway by the distortive mirror of science-fiction. Some of this worked, some of it didn’t – but it was boldly original and an interesting way to deal with issues that (back then) didn’t really get discussed much on prime time drama.

The recent incarnations of the show have mostly avoided it – though the last televised series did attempt a convoluted metaphor for the war on terror arching over the entire third season. It’s also notable that the movies themselves have rarely tried to venture into the big issues of the day. Sure, it’s easy to point to the most obvious exception – Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country examined the fall of the Berlin Wall and the age of detenté through a Star Trek filter and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had a fairly hamfisted environmental message just stuck on in there as well – but that’s two films of eleven.

You could make the argument that Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was a prescient commentary on religious extremism (what with a radical Vulcan hijacking the Enterprise to take it to God – you read that right, Shatner even got to utter the immortal line, “What does God need with a starship?”). Still, there’s a reason we ignore that particular film (some suggest that the director, William Shatner, just wanted to write a story where he killed God – talk about ego!).

You could make a somewhat compelling case that the general humanist ethos of Star Trek underpins nearly all the movies, so Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: First Contact were about the kind of world man could build if we were willing to try. But that’s hardly a modern issue. We’ve been dealing with that for yonks.

Admittedly science fiction as a genre lends itself to clumsy allegories and discussions on things we’d normally feel awkward talking about. District 9 was an interesting examination of apartheid, viewed through a fishbowl. Some even explore more person questions – Moon toyed very cleverly with the issue of identity. So, it can be done. I’m just trying to figure out how.

The most interesting reading of this summer’s Star Trek is as an Obama blockbuster. A lot of critics looked at the similarly explosive genre film of last year – The Dark Knight – and saw reflections of the Bush administration and the compromises necessary in American domestic and international politics. Star Trek instead represents hope. I doen’t explicitly deal with the themes, but it mere offers an image of a future where mankind has a place in the stars and where an Iowa orphan can grow up to find his own destiny. It’s bright, it’s sparkly and it’s engaging.

Gone is the moral ambiguity and compromise that soaked through every frame of The Dark Knight. Here the good guys can win propelled by nothing but their own self-belief. Yes, we shall suffer loss and pain as Spock did, but we shall overcome. It shall not defeat us. Yes we can.

I quite like that reading of the film and I think audiences responded to it. From the comments we’re getting from the staff behind the scenes, I’m guessing that they might have something just a bit more overt in mind. I’m not sure what modern issues lend themselves to an examination in this brave new universe. I’m not even sure that audiences – impressed and bedazzled by the rock-and-roll nature of the pounding action and wit and heart of the original – will respond to the insertion of a political commentary in the midst of all this.

It will require a very careful hand to balance this social consciousness with the plot and the characters. If this issue is applied too heavily, it might throw off the delicate mixture that these writers have created. If applied too weakly, it is liable to seem like a confused afterthought or a half-baked idea shoved in.

I can’t think of any ‘every day’ issues that could be inserted while maintaining to hope and brightness that made the most recent movie such a hit. The recession is hardly a topic that gels well with Star Trek’s pseudo-communist future. The war on terror is so last year. But I am intrigued.

I thought that Abrams’ movie had willpower and heart, and was the product of a very skilled hand. I was a little purplexed at how lightly it treated the material. If the writers are serious about adding some carefully-considered social commentary into the next film, I am already excited.

2 Responses

  1. It’s interesting how “social commentary” in film and literature is a matter of both production and experience. A writer may insert something into his or her work that no one picks up on, and conversely the audience may see something that the writer never intended to put in there.

    I think that – namely, the “found” and “finding” quality of issues, meaning, and value – is a fine phenomenon for pointing out how incredibly important art – even science fiction – is for culture and society and our bids to work it all out.

    -bn

  2. Quite an interesting in reflective look at the movie but Star Trek has always been about the better future howver some episodes or films were more obvious than others. Thanks enjoyed this. james

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