Everyday Semiotics

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Star Trek's fathers

Paternity is what the new "Star Trek" movie is all about.

The tagline, "This is not your father's Star Trek" seemingly is more interested in attracting a new audience than placating the old. Yet fathers, and their offsprings' indebtedness to them, run throughout and around the film.

To reinvent the “Star Trek” franchise is to acknowledge the "anxiety of influence" (see Harold Bloom) engendered by the original TV series and its spinoffs. Producer/director J.J. Abrams and co. recognized deficiencies in what came before, and evidently felt the need to rectify those deficiencies for a new generation. But at the same time they had to pay due respect to the source material, especially the "vision" of the father of it all, Gene Rodenberry.

Sadly, this reinvention and modernization must give in to the demands of Hollywood, a patriarchy in its own right which today demands tie-ins and product placement.

It is certainly true that handheld communicator of the original television series contributed its genetic material to today's cell phones. The movie reverses this lineage with the clearly-labeled Nokia system in the dashboard of Kirk's stolen Corvette. And just as the 40-year-old TV show conjures up nostalgia, the movie reflexively experiences its own nostalgia in the form of the hotrod and the "Budweiser Classic" enjoyed by Starfleet cadets in the movie.

(To properly understand the Mustang's place in the film we must not only recognize its nostalgia factor and utility in demonstrating Kirk's rebelliousness. Hijacked from the stepfather and driven off a cliff, it is also Rodenberry's franchise, ruined by Berman and Braga, and discarded by Abrams. Note that Kirk is next seen riding a motorcycle, which he abandons beneath the nascent U.S.S. Enterprise.)

Until now, “Star Trek” had no Nokia, no Budweiser, no Chevrolet. In fact, the Trek universe had no such thing as money -- meaning brands would have been irrelevant. Conceived at the dawn of consumerism, Rodenberry's 23rd-century society seemed already to have moved past corporations and advertising -- leaving, one could argue, a paternalistic, socialist monoculture instead.

Before, Kirk was a father, not a son. He had always been the pater familias of the Enterprise family; in “The Wrath of Khan” and thereafter, he grappled with literal fatherhood. Now he is the son of the late George Kirk, whose figure looms large because he died heroically. Nestor to his Telemachus, Capt. Pike tells James T., “I dare you to do better.” No pressure.

Where Kirk succeeds, Abrams fails. For all the hype about the new movie being “not your father's Star Trek,” its greatest improvement upon the tradition seems to be the replacement of the aged original cast with younger, sexier actors. The gender imbalance, technobabble, and evil planet-destroying badguy motif have all survived intact.

Projects like former Trek producer Ronald D. Moore's re-imagined “Battlestar Galactica” and the fan-produced series “Star Trek: Hidden Frontier” have more constructive things to do with their forebears' raw material. One strove for greater realism and continuity; the other broke with heteronormativity to explore frontiers of human relationships and sexuality to which the official Star Trek canon has barely even paid lip service.

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