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.