A Trek Beyond the Stars

One of the words that often orbits around conversations concerning J. J. Abrams take on Star Trek is “relevant.” Specifically, people talk about how Abrams and crew took something that seemed out of touch and stagnant with modern conceptions of sci-fi and made it relevant again. This bugs me, because my question is what did he make it relevant to? I enjoyed the movie, it has satisfying character arcs, a great ensemble cast, slick production and is a great way to effortlessly pass two hours, but that doesn’t make a film relevant. It makes it entertaining. And there’s nothing wrong with that…unless you want a “Star Trek” film.

Star Trek has always been about ideas and issues, like all great sci-fi. Gender, race, politics, science, religion, technology and a plethora of other socially relevant issues have permeated the show’s various series and have made them more than just fun space adventures, but thoughtful and insightful examinations of the world we live in today. I’ve recently been catching up with Deep Space Nine and I am struck by how relevant and profound the show is today, even more so than when it aired.

The show revolves around a space station (Deep Space Nine) that orbits a planet that has been enslaved for five years. Sects of the population has been freedom fighters/terrorists for years, attempting to overthrow their oppressors with bombings, sabotage and more. Eventually, the occupation wears to the point where the enslaved race drives back their invaders and a tenuous agreement with the Federation allows the space station to be run by Federation officers as a sort of peace-keeping force while the population hopes to rebuild and perhaps join the Federation at some point.

The show explores themes of occupation, oppression and the thin line between terrorism and freedom fighting. These issues are only compounded as time passes when a new threat is introduced where shape-shifting creatures begin to take key positions throughout space in order to begin destabilizing and terrorizing the entire quadrant in preparation of a full-scale invasion. This show’s finale premiered over two years before 9/11 and in the wake of that event, and many other attacks throughout the world, the show remains a complicated and relevant exploration of the problems our society faces today. It’s a show that gazed into the near future (even though it takes place centuries after our time) and saw the problems we would face.

In “Far Beyond the Stars,” one of my favorite episodes of Deep Space Nine, Captain Sisko, The African American captain, imagines he has a life as a writer of science-fiction in the ‘50s.  As a black man, he writes in anonymity and is forced into the social conventions of the time when writing his stories. But when he receives visions of a new story (the story of Deep Space Nine), the power of science fiction is demonstrated: it’s a means to look into not only the problems of our future, but what we might one day achieve.

Maybe one day we’ll live in a world where a black character can be a hero in a popular sci-fi story (of course, by the time the show aired, it had already fulfilled this vision while its sister show Voyager featured a female captain).  The point is that Star Trek is also a show about the optimism about what the human race might one day achieve. This is what made (and still makes) the various series of Star Trek relevant.

Returning to Abrams’ Star Trek, I have a problem with calling his vision of the series relevant because it doesn’t tackle anything that is remotely connected to the kind of society and world we live into today. Yes, it explores beautiful themes of self-sacrifice, heroics, friendship and duty, but these virtues have been extolled as long as we’ve been telling stories. Star Trek has always been more than that.

If anything, what Abrams has done is make Star Trek less relevant. Yes, Abrams’ script and the cast bring a new dimension to the tensions and relationships between the characters, but he fails to ever capture the soul of the series. Star Trek isn’t challenging, thought-provoking or relevant. It’s exciting, it’s fun, it’s a thrill to watch and a joy to experience, but it’s not truly Star Trek.

Even the fresh air of optimism in the film is stifled. While it is certainly rejuvenating when compared to the cynical, dark and serious sci-fi of a post Matrix movie genre, it’s not true Star Trek optimism. The show was always about the hopefulness of what the Federation and humanity might achieve through the unification of a greater cosmic understanding of the universe and a more peaceful and diplomatic approach to interacting with each other and human cultures.

In Abrams version, the future can be a bit rough, but it’s overall a better place. The film’s action/adventure sensibilities override the idea of humans ultimately becoming a less violent and bigoted race because making Kirk more like Han Solo makes for more jokes and action scenes. To be fair, this isn’t a problem exclusive to this Star Trek film. Most of the films I’ve seen have also gone for movie action over the diplomacy/discovery focus of the shows.

I still like J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek, but not as Star Trek. I like it as something else. I once read that Abrams’ Star Trek is closer to Star Wars than the Star Trek of the past and I think that is an insightful observation. Both have their places, both are wonderful in different ways, but I don’t love Abrams’ Star Trek like the Star Trek of yore. They’re completely different beasts that have similar appearances. I’m hopeful that after the setup and introduction of Abrams’ version of Star Trek that he will use Into Darkness to get back to what made the show so masterful and, dare I say, relevant.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing