Sunday, May 17, 2009

Star Trek: To boldly gone where we've already gone before

So it's been over a week since the opening of Star Trek--the movie. This, for the uninitiated, should not be confused with the following:

*Star Trek: The original series (the one with Shatner and Nimoy)
*Star Trek: The Motion Picture
*Star Trek: The Next Generation (the one with Patrick Stewart as Picard)
*Star Trek off-shoot series like Deep Space 9, Voyager, or Enterprise
*The number of films made starring both the first generation cast (like the ones with the whales) OR the TNG cast (like the one with the Borg/invention of warp drive)

This, is the Star Trek that opened last weekend:

[It's minus Spock but otherwise it's the whole cast]

As I've written about before, I am a Trekkie (or Trekker) at least in the sense that I have a deep and abiding fondness for both the original and TNG series. I've seen every episode of both the show from the 1960s and the one from the late 80s/early 90s, and I've seen all the movies made with both casts too (Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan KICKS ASS!).

So of course I saw the film during opening weekend. And I've waited until today, deliberately, to talk about the film because I didn't want to give anything away to any die hard Star Trek fans. So yes, there are spoilers ahead, which means if you have not seen the film and don't want to know what happens (or what I think about the film), then STOP READING RIGHT NOW!

OK? Are you still there? I'm assuming if you are still reading you either have seen the film or don't really care about having the plot described and/or really aren't into Star Trek/Science Fiction and are just curious about what I'm going to write about. And what I'm going to write about is Star Trek and race.

[Found this image by doing a google search--thought it was pretty cool that it was in black and white since I'll be talking about race]

Let me first begin by saying that I really enjoyed the movie. I liked getting the back story on characters that were so familiar to me, and I thought the writers did a good job of integrating former Trek lore and storylines with a new Trek cast. In fact, one of the things I was most skeptical of, having the original Spock in the form of Leonard Nimoy actually be part of the plot of this film. But it was well done and handled the pesky question of inconsistencies that were bound to pop up in this film version. The alternate universe plotline works for me as a way to appreciate what this film is doing as different from the previous films/series but still see that it is within the Trek universe.

[Aside: I am a bit troubled about the whole destruction of Vulcan and genocide of their race. I mean, I know this is supposed to be an entire alternate universe and everything, but all I could think about is that it really throws off a lot of different storylines of the original cast and even TNG--like the return of Spock in the 3rd film. Also, if we are thinking of a time when the earth has worked through its issues of war and poverty and conflict, why are we still encountering so many other "aliens" who want to kill us or harm us or maim us based on our species difference from them? Seems like even in an inter-galactic way, we can't get away from trying to hierachize each other or, in the case of Spock's mixed "race/species" identity as half human, half Vulcan, that there's still a troubling language of "purity" that permeates the future.]

But in thinking about Star Trek as a franchise and with respect to this new film in particular, the question of race is something that I was aware of as I was watching it and also has popped up in other forums before--like in this Colorlines blog post "Race Wire Goes to the Movies: Star Trek edition" and in a recent comment thread on this blog by one of the commenters (thanks "I").

[Aside: It seems as if only 1-2 of the commenters are actually Trek fans; the majority of the commenters are, in their own words, "Trek virgins"--which I think may explain for the harsh criticism/scrutiny that they bring to bear on the film]

So here's what I think about race and Star Trek. As much as I want it to reflect a future reality in which race or perhaps white privilege/supremacy is a thing of the past, the reality is that this film, like the other films before it and the entire franchise as a whole, is part of a Hollywood/media system in which white men play lead roles as heroes and people of color are in secondary roles, with a white majority being cast as natural extras for the background shots. So this new film is no exception. Because Captain James T. Kirk was played by white actor William Shatner in the 1960s, he continues to be played by a white man in the first decade of the 21st century. Could the writers/producers/directors changed the race or even the gender of the central cast? Not on your life--the very loud and large Trek fan base would HOWL with RAGE at the changes.

I'm not quibbling with the racial makeup of the central cast. In fact, if we recall that the original series was made in the mid 1960s, then you have to recognize that the multiracial cast--and the introduction of a female central cast member--was progressive. But that doesn't mean that there aren't observations to be made about race and gender--that there aren't MORE women in leading roles within the leadership of Starfleet or this new Trek universe--after all, there were several "new" characters introduced that could have been cast as either people or color or women. Even the scenes on Vulcan with the other vulcan children--what we mainly see are little boys and not little girls (which doesn't seem logical does it?).

So the underlying message of this film is still the same as most motion pictures--white men are in charge, women are either absent or in supporting roles (and what is UP with Uhura and Spock being in a relationship? I mean, not to get all ethical, but really, you aren't supposed to be having an affair with your professor, which is what is happening between them--they began their relationship WHILE UHURA WAS HIS STUDENT), and mulitculturalism is a nice backdrop where you have a few token ethnic characters (Scottie, Sulu, Chekov).

But still...I loved the film! And that's the thing--I think you can critique something and realize that it isn't perfect and isn't even a vision of the future that you believe in but nevertheless find an affection and delight in suspending disbelief. I also think that unlike with just any other action film, because this is a science fiction film and because of the cultural import of both the social-historic role of Star Trek (it was one of the first shows to have a multiracial cast, it projected a future where there is no longer racism or poverty, and lets not forget the first inter-racial kiss projected on network tv between Kirk and Uhura).

[It's the original cast with the new cast side by side]

Star Trek--the movie, the original series, TNG, and all the other series (which, for the uninitiated are a bit better on the race and gender front--Deep Space 9 had an African American commander and Voyager had a female captain; granted, these series weren't nearly as good as TNG, but then nothing that followed was) have, at their core, this belief that in the future we are going to get beyond some of the social ills that currently plague us like hunger, war, racism, and sexism. And that's a message that I want to hear and believe in.

[REMEMBER: If you post a comment during the month of May (which is APA heritage month) you will be automatically entered to win one of five books donated by Hachette Book Group. Read the May 14 post (scroll to the bottom) to see the details of the books and how to win]


flowers said...

Interesting viewpoint. I really enjoyed the movie, too.

D.J. said...

First point.. as a fellow Trekkie i was very much against this movie. I am sick and tired of the remakes and reimagines of my youth.

Second point... I hate the taste of feathers. But you get a few when you have to eat crow, which i did because this movie was FREAKING AWESOME!!!!!!! FREA KING AWESOME!!!!!

Third Point... Of the Trek shows my favorite was DS9. Why because Enterprise stank, Voyager was out there all alone and they killed the fear i had of the borg, and TNG was a little too perfect. But DS9 showed all the ugly that still existed in the Universe including what existed in Starfleet.

Fourth point... i would not have liked the new characters to change sex or racial origins but yes you can always have more POC's and women in the background. the aliens were very nice though.

Jennifer said...

Flowers, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. And D.J., I had my doubts too, but they were really dispelled when the crew started popping up on-screen (like Karl Urban as Bones sounding almost EXACTLY like what I imagined a young McCoy would sound/look like) and especially when Sulu (John Cho) whipped out his sword and dispatched one of the Romulans. I could go on, but I'll just add one more thing I forgot to mention in my post, and that is that in the Original Trek Lore, all of the cast members seemed to get their own commissions and/or distinctions and yet "reunited" in the film versions to "save the world"--but we do get Sulu in command of his own ship in the very last film, and he's the one who ended up saving the day, so to speak, so there you have it--an Asian American man saving the world!