Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek is back!

If you never really got into the Star Trek phenomenon, you now have a cool way to get exposed to it. If you were into Star Trek in the past, you will be satisfied with the new film treatment. You can finally see a new production that honors the original Trek vision, celebrates the original characters, and still flips the script and keeps things fresh.

The film has enough thought provoking character examinations for old school Trek heads, and enough explosions and glitter for the video game generation to be able to hang with it. Through it all, the timeless characters of Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, Scotty and McCoy all are reinvested with a freshness that was long lost from all the retread films of the past.

Trek is far more than a sci-fi series, because its characters and its messages have seeped deep into the American consciousness. The show has been proclaiming a deeply held hope for a positive, humane, post-racial future since the 1970's when it became a national phenomenon.

Of course the program began in the fall of 1966 and ran through the spring of 1969, during the wildest years of counter-culture protest in America, but Star Trek truly took off in the 1970's as a syndicated television show that steadily grew its audience of teenage idealists and outcasts that are now today's social and political leaders.

President Obama is a well established Trek fan, and reportedly asked for his own White House screening of the film.

It is likely that the character of Mr. Spock, with his half-alien, half-human mixed race issues played out on a galactic scale, played some sort of an inspirational role for a young mixed-race Barry Obama trying to navigate a 70's America as a teenager.

I thought I knew Trek trivia as a kid, until my first trip to a Berkeley co-op dorm in 1978 and some Trek heads were watching the show speaking every word ahead of the actors for the entire length of the program. I wasn't sure if that was cool, or the ultimate in dorkness. This was a few years before William Shatner's classic plea on a Saturday Night Live skit for the Trekkies to "get a life!"

I used to watch Star Trek on a small black & white TV as a kid and marveled at Mr. Spock's use of language, the diversity of the characters (for that time), and the mind blowing story lines.

Now, for a minute at least, the soul stirring power of those original episodes can be revisited for the awe inspiring, horizon-traversing, transcendent adventures that many of them are. (the original series only-don't get it twisted)

I identified with the strong & quiet Spock, but understood the cranky emotionalism of Dr. McCoy, and enjoyed Captain Kirk's ability to reconcile the two extremes of his closest confidants and make his own world-changing decisions on the fly.

But that was just the beginning. The program worked on a great number of levels, On an intimate, personal level - great actors exploring fantastic stories - to some major ruminations on Empire and the soul of humanity.

As most of us know, Star Trek is set about 200 years in the future, where space flight is commonplace, and earth is among a dozen 'civilized' planets in a "federation" of allies that explores the Milky Way in starships, with a lot of symbolic references to the age of exploration in the colonial past. As a child, these references to the wild west, and to "colonizing" planets did not offend me. Nowadays I see how strongly Star Trek both critiqued and yet reaffirmed American "exceptionalism" (i.e. racism, colonial mentality, manifest destiny, white supremacy, patriarchy et al.)

But I also saw the vast expanse of both social and technological imagination applied in the show, and the self-criticisms of western ways in Star Trek to be an opening for a deeper set of transformative, revolutionary possibilities. Then I grew up.

In many ways, Obama is the embodiment of both the sweet and sour of Star Trek's lasting imaginary. Certainly, Obama represents a degree of racial reconciliation in American life in 2009 and I'm not ashamed to celebrate that fact. However, Obama can also very easily be seen as a 'shaded' face on white supremacy and merely a colorful figurehead for Western colonial rule running unabated.

But that is still change, and I'll take my critiques and deal with them, but I'll also be at the party when it is time to celebrate a moment of humanity shining through. The Star Trek movie is nothing more than an action film, but it opens the door to ideas that were once a delight to imagine, and I say its okay for them to be imagined again.

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