Star Trek as Post-9/11 Film

So, I have this theory that the reboot of the Star Trek franchise reflects a shift in the American self-imagination following the events of 9/11, a shift that disrupted the cultural logic of the original Star Trek timeline and that required the a creation of an alternative timeline to take its place.  Stay with me.  This may take some doing.

Okay, I start with the observation that the Star Trek franchise before 9/11 was the product and the reflection of a particular sort of  American utopian narrative, a narrative that understands the advance of science and technology and democracy and capitalism as a manifest destiny that will culminate in a world without poverty or hunger and where the threat of violence and disaster can always be met through technological intervention.   It is in this sense that Star Trek is a true science fiction.  The solutions to its problems are always technological and scientific in nature.  They are almost always a matter of reconfiguring the phaser banks, or modifying the warp core, or introducing a new modulation to the sensor array, or rerouting the signal through the secondary power relays.  These are the kinds of solutions to most problems in Star Trek, and these solutions produce a universe that is a coherent and continuing narrative, where the right people are always sitting in the Captain’s chair and making the decisions necessary to ensure the continuation of the Federation’s technological utopia, and it is this utopia that stands as the imagined future of the American way.

With the events of 9/11, however, America’s popular self-conceptions become questioned, and it ceases to be so self-evident that science, technology, democracy, capitalism, and the American way will achieve the future that this utopian narrative had imagined for itself.  The narrative of triumphal Americanism becomes seriously disrupted, and it now becomes necessary both to explain how this disruption could possibly occur and to determine how it might be overcome.

The newest Star Trek film, directed by , J. J. Abrams, responds directly to the challenges that 9/11 poses to the imagined future of technology, science, democracy, and capitalism.  Its story begins with a 9/11-like catastrophic event, a disruption to the very fabric of time and space that changes the course of history laid out in the original Star Trek timeline, replacing it with an alternative universe in which James T. Kirk does not in fact become captain of the Enterprise, but is replaced by the much more logical and analytical Spock.  The Star Trek universe, therefore, like the American nation, has suffered a tremendous shock that has disrupted its story as it was meant to be told.  The enemy has not just managed to threaten and to attack and to hurt.  It has managed to alter the course of events as they were supposed to have unfolded, an alteration that becomes symbolized by Spock’s replacement of Kirk in the captain’s chair.

The film positions the choice between Spock and Kirk as a choice between logical adherence to protocol and instinctual willingness to follow emotion.  A good leader, it suggests, is the one who knows when to throw aside the book, bend the rules, ignore protocol, and just get the bad guys, even when all logic and all odds would suggest another course of action.  As the story unfolds, Spock is represented to be a poor leader because he represses his grief and anger and desire for revenge beneath a logic and an adherence to protocol, whereas Kirk is represented to be a good leader because he embraces his emotions and decides to attack his enemies directly, even when it seems very likely that this course of action will lead everyone to their deaths.

If this is read as a response to the crisis of 9/11, the film affirms a need for leadership that values emotion and immediate revenge over logic and consultation.  It argues, essentially, that the disruption to the narrative of American technological utopia can be corrected as long as the right sorts of people find their way back into the captain’s chair, people who are willing to destroy their enemies at any cost.  Although the film purports to be a “reboot” of the franchise, therefore, I would suggest that its narrative is actually profoundly conservative in nature, advocating for a recovery, by any mean necessary, of the technological utopia that Star Trek has always represented in the popular American imagination.

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7 comments
  1. Luke, I have got to say, I have seen the movie twice in theaters, and not at all recently- but, I think the blanket you want to cover the film with is not specific enough for your findings- Spock can easily be placed in at a point where he fits the exact role necessary to perpetuate the problem- the logic that says we are facing an insurmountable problem- then goes out and looks for the next logical- take the solution from someone else.

    I much more concrete examination would be a NONH comparison, where Kirk doesn’t take his logical circumstances seriously enough, and Spock eliminates all ideas of providence and chance from his, taking his circumstances too seriously. In this case, Kirk comes out the leader, based on the fact that he uses logical reasoning against itself, logic is rigid, immovavle, hence, brittle, bendable, breakable, without give, so lets push it until it breaks- win! They’re nothing more than the simple farm boy from ohio, the salt of the earth, meets the medicated intellectual priest from on high, who has to hide his stupification at the meaning of life behind cold logical reason- while Kirk, truly, knows that the life is in the living of it, in all situations- logic, in the end is the cessation of imagination which leads to no access death- logic actually predicates a scenario from which there is no way out- and then, insists that all conditions will be universal, endlessly- I find the analogy you want loose an without stick, because Kirk is not without strategy- the kind of strategy, out of the box thinking, that given your example, the post 9/11 world needs. He’s not off to seek revenge, he’s out to save his mentor, a very key feature, and he is forced from the very true dilemma of being a responsibly leader, to hand over a crew member, to save the day, or more likley delay the end, or not, as a starfleet officer, he can’t.

    I just think your example fits.

  2. Curtis,

    I have no idea what NONH means, but Kirk appeals explicitly to revenge on several occasions, particularly in the scene where he is trying to reveal the emotions that Spock is feeling, and if Kirk’s motivation in risking the ship and everyone on it is really to rescue his mentor, who may not even be alive any longer, this does not really show his leadership in a more positive light.

  3. Like I said, I haven’t seen the film recently, but I don’t know much anything about the presence of Revenge, and if so, I don’t see the situation mimicking 9/11 in any form of a sense, the Villains have their very sympathetic reasonings for their own revenge disclosed, also, the villain’s presence is somewhat more present and universal than he 9/11 tragedy and response. Ultimately Kirk offers clemency to those he is fighting, on several occasions. if anything I see Spock and Kirk representing the opposite situation which Star Trek really really fell away from, as Shatner failed to really deliver on Kirk later on, Logic and science and technology, have not very much to teach us about the human Spirit- Kirk is supposed to be the character whom simply defies the logic by his spirit to lead, the part of the situation that technology cannot fix or account for that tips the scale in their favour. Kirk encounters resistance for a very simple reason- he’s not a modern man in the sense of the modernity- constantly rejecting the prime directive for the sake of what is right in the heart of Humanity- whilst also embracing his human vices- alcohol sex, violence etc.

    And NONH is Napoleon of Notting Hill.

  4. I’d be interested to know what you think of the newfound interest in “rebooting” a series, which in as similar vein is seemingly coincident with the Obama presidency.

  5. John Jantunen said:

    If the series being rebooted pretends to be something different but ends up just being more of the same then I’d say there might be a connection with Obama. Could be also, I suppose, that reboots (again like Obama’s presidency) are just another sign that the creative impulse that motivates us towards truly original ways of thinking (which is, perhaps paradoxically, always a synthesis of the past coupled with an understanding of the present) is increasingly being discarded as it tends to raise alot of complex questions that don’t serve the short term whether of our collective narrative (the one that holds us together as a society and/or species) or the economic chimera that we, more and more, substitute for the above because, we tell ourselves (and some even belive it) it’s better that way (or atleast it’s easier). Still, Star Trek (the reboot) was one hell of a film, I laughed, I cried, well you know the rest (and I really did too).

  6. Mike,

    I would hazard that some of the same impulses are indeed responsible both for electing a president who promises radical change and for producing “reboots” of various cultural artifacts, though I would agree with John that these “reboots”, both in politics and in entertainment, are perhaps not all that substantial.

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