Here we are, near the end of the first decade of the 21st century, and I honestly expected to have a personal jet pack by now.
The speculative fiction of the last century promised a shiny, happy future that's conspicuously failed to pan out. Maybe it's too much to ask for flying cars, android butlers or domed cities on the moon, but why can't we commute to work in safe, fuel-efficient, non-ass-burning jet packs? As high-tech personal transport goes, the Segway is a poor option.
In some ways, our real present exceeds the visions of the future imagined by writers of the past. The iPhone completely outshines the 23rd-century Starfleet-issue communicator. Our cordless cell phones empower us to take pictures, send text messages, play games, access a vast network of computers and even, in a pinch, talk to other people. On "Star Trek," the Starship Enterprise crew's walkie-talkies didn't even have touch-screen technology.
Otherwise, "Star Trek" set a relatively high standard for things to come, and gave the human race something to shoot for. Fans and critics frequently point to the enduring sci-fi franchise's positive attitude to explain its longevity. Gene Roddenberry's optimistic space opera began as a low-rated NBC series in 1966. It found a fanatically supported second life in syndication, eventually spinning off four more live-action shows, a cartoon series, a multitude of books and 11 feature films. The latest, simply named Star Trek, opens in theaters on Friday and boldly strays from Roddenberry's vision of the future.
"Star Trek's" notion of a near-perfect Earth proves to be an anomaly in speculative fiction, almost as weird as the alien phenomena routinely encountered by the various starships named Enterprise. Utopian science fiction about rosy scenarios tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Even the generally improved futures of such lighthearted series as "The Jetsons" and "Futurama" suggest that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Flawed human nature remains a constant, shown in the way George Jetson bitches about his three-hour workday, for instance.
Most science fiction, especially for film and television, offers cautionary tales that take a present-day trend and project it to an apocalyptic extreme. Early 20th-century opposition to totalitarianism and industriliazation led to classics such as Fritz Lang's silent film Metropolis and George Orwell's novel 1984. The Cold War and reliance on fossil fuels begat The Road Warrior. Overpopulation begat Soylent Green. Global warming begat Waterworld. Human reliance on automation gave us The Terminator, with the franchise's latest film entry, Terminator Salvation, revealing the hellish details of the robot holocaust upon its release May 21.
Perhaps "Star Trek's" only real rival in its hopes for a bright future is 2001: A Space Odyssey and its follow-up, 2010. Both suggest that technology leads to dehumanization and acknowledge that computers like HAL 9000 can kill people under the right circumstances. But individuals seem to fare well enough, and the universe includes enigmatic but seemingly benign aliens that nudge mankind up the evolutionary ladder. Perhaps no science fiction catchphrase holds out more hope than 2010's "Something's going to happen. Something wonderful."
The original "Star Trek," of course, eagerly anticipated mankind's future deeds with William Shatner's opening lines about seeking new life and new civilizations in "Space, the final frontier." The words deliberately echoed President Kennedy and space race rhetoric, while the show's plots threw plenty of 1960s progressivism into the mix. The Vulcans, emotionless aliens who serve as the show's intellectual role models, embrace "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations," while the United Federation of Planets strives to uphold a Prime Directive to respect the self-determination of others. The documentary Trekkies shows the inspirational qualities of the show's influence, as well as how the franchise can be so immersive, some fans seem to have a tenous grip on present-day reality.
Utopian futures seldom make for dramatic fare because they leave little room for conflict or flashy space battles. Part of what made "Star Trek's" utopianism thrive was, while Earth had eliminated hunger, poverty, war and bigotry (more or less), the shows took place out on the final frontier, leaving plenty of room to brawl with hostile aliens.
For "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and the additional shows set another 100 years in the future, Roddenberry imagined a 24th century so enlightened that people wouldn't even bicker among themselves. I'll establish my geek credentials by quoting from my copy of The Making of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "In laying down the framework for life in the twenty-fourth century, Gene Roddenberry had made it clear that he expected humans to be above petty personal conflicts, especially the select few who made it into Starfleet. Thus, the regular characters aboard the Enterprise 1701-D could not fight or argue among themselves as the command crew of the original Enterprise had done." Many of the spin-off series tried to backpedal from those strictures.
To reintroduce the Enterprise to a new generation of movie-goers, Star Trek goes back to the franchise's roots, dispensing with the chummy officers and drab set design. Director J.J. Abrams takes an approach similar to his treatment of Mission: Impossible III, offering a Trek that's bigger, louder, younger and, above all, faster. As a film, it's more about appealing to fresh viewers without alienating the fans than establishing its own vision of the future, or even extending Roddenberry's. If anything, it's hard to find much of "Star Trek's" defining idealism in the new movie.
Star Trek envisions the first meetings of twentysomethings Kirk, Spock, et. al, and their first Enterprise mission. Prequels usually struggle with the established continuity of the previous installments. Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, however, craft a story that gives them the perfect excuse to take liberties. The villain, a 24th-century Romulan named Nero (blustery Eric Bana) travels through time to the 23rd century to carry out a devastating vendetta. Nero's first destructive incursion happens almost simultaneously with Kirk's birth, so any changes in continuity — from the look of uniforms to planet-shaking differences — can be attributed to Nero polluting the time stream.
Abrams' Star Trek can shrug at nit-picking details and offer radically different set designs (the engine room looks like a cross between a submarine and a paint factory) while still cracking affectionate in-jokes at the show's relationships and favorite lines. But this Star Trek also seems to draw inspiration from the Star Wars films, a space franchise that's always out-muscled "Trek" on the big screen. The new film features snow monsters reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back, a planetary tragedy comparable to the Death Star blowing up Alderaan, and even a little person (Deep Roy) in elaborate makeup as alien comic relief.
Here, James T. Kirk (28-year-old Chris Pine) could have DNA from both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Like Luke, he's a fatherless, velocity-loving young man who hails from farm country but aspires to more. In an early scene, he looks wistfully at a starship under construction amid the Iowa cornfields. Like Han, he's a cocky rogue who hangs out with aliens in bars, flirts with apparently any female humanoid, and butts heads with authority. Good thing Pine has charisma to match Shatner's take on the Captain, because otherwise his Kirk would be an arrogant jerk. You don't really mind that he's constantly beaten up and hanging off cliffs.
The Star Wars prequels showed the utopian Galactic Republic turn into the dystopian Empire, but the original trilogy offered more simplistic wish fulfillment, crafting a perfect escapist power fantasy of prevailing against opposition. The new Star Trek's ideals primarily offer Kirk and Spock ("Heroes'" Zachary Quinto) the chance to "be all you can be" in Starfleet. "It's important. It's a peacekeeping and humanitarian armada," says the Enterprise's first captain, played by Bruce Greenwood (who, coincidentally enough, played Kennedy in Thirteen Days). Spock, being half-human, fell victim of the soft bigotry of low expectations on Vulcan, but discovers self-actualization, human values and some surprisingly serious relationships as a starship officer. The script gives Spock a rich, intriguing character arc, which Quinto fleshes out without simply doing a Leonard Nimoy impersonation.
The other new cast members fare well in comparison to the originals. Zoe Saldana makes for a fierce, assertive Uhura, who becomes a romantic interest for one of her crewmates. Simon Pegg practically bounces off the engine room walls in his hilarious turn as the excitable engineer Scotty, and John Cho charmingly underplays Sulu as untested but dashing. Karl Urban seems to be feeling out the role of the cynical Doctor McCoy (his quasi-Southern accent sounds like Luke Wilson), while Anton Yelchin sends teenage Chekhov into another dimension with a Russian accent that comes off like a debilitating speech impediment.
As a space opera with phasers blazing, Abrams' film exceeds all the previous ones except maybe Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. The action scenes maintain visual coherence while moving at warp speed, hurling ships into terrifying disaster areas or plunging intrepid crewmen into skydiving missions requiring hand-to-hand combat. It may take a second viewing, however, to make sense of Nero's motivations (and it may be worth noting that a vengeful bad guy in a big, bristling Romulan warship was pretty much the same antagonist in the previous film, 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis).
I feel confident in predicting that Abrams' Star Trek will become the franchise's highest-grossing film by its second weekend in release, breaking the record set by Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. In its audience-pleasing special effects spectacle, however, something's been lost in space. The dialogue's much more salty than usual in the new film, with Kirk declaring "Bullshit!" at one point. The Voyage Home found enormous comic value in showing the civilized Starfleet officers awkwardly using 20th-century profanity, such as Kirk's decidedly unthreatening, "Well, double dumbass on you!" Even the lesser Trek films advocate for a kind of humanism the new one doesn't truly consider.
Abrams' new Star Trek offers a thrilling place to visit, but you wouldn't necessarily want to live there. Having crafted an Enterprise to appeal to the 21st century, Abrams' inevitable Star Trek sequels should fill in the gaps in its idea of the future. If the next Star Trek can retro-fit Roddenberry's vision to Abrams' engine, it might even be good enough to make up for that missing jet pack.