Saturday, November 24, 2012

Treklife: This Is Not The Kirk I Was Promised

I only watched the classic Trek for the first time in its entirety a few years ago. As a TNG-loving teen I'd made a few attempts over the years, most notably dipping into a Trek marathon that aired on Canada's Space Station over...the holidays, I think? Or possibly while I was out of school, sick? I honestly don't remember, though being sick might explain my inability to engage with it. Or maybe that's just because I was, y'know, a teenager. Camp is the bane of teenagers, and TOS was campy even at the time it was made. I was outgrowing the kinds of clunky TV shows I'd uncritically consumed as a kid and embracing a whole new set of supposedly cooler shows, ones that offered more superficial appeal and engaged with my adolescent reptile thrill-seeking brain. You know the drill. You went through it yourself.

This dorky, extremely low-budget series with its hammy acting was too ripe for my newly minted sense of reflexive irony. I've actually always been a little more open towards older movies and TV shows than many, even as a kid, but Trek just didn't click. I think it might have been the fact that it was nominally connected to The Next Generation--instead of being free to be its own thing, I could only view it through the lens of the new show. I ended up sitting there and nitpicking how ridiculous the Klassic Klingons looked and trying to concoct reasons for why the Cardassians or the Ferengi weren't on anyone's radar back then.

As an older, "wiser" specimen, I've actually found my tastes becoming broader and my willingness to engage with art on its own terms expanding, and thus, with J. J. Abrams' reboot was threatening to hit the screens, I borrowed the box sets from a friend and delved in.

(My thoughts on Abrams' remake have cooled quite a bit, but I enjoyed it at the time, and in fact wrote this snotty review of Trek in general that ticked a lot of people off. I did mean it tongue-in-cheek, but yeah, that was kind of dickish of me. You should probably read that before continuing.)

I think one of the things that caused me to write that review--that caused me to fall away from Trek in the first place--was my reading about the backstage travails of how it came to the screen. You see, I really *believed* in the ideals of Trek. I still do. Exploration, rationality, communication and compromise, striving towards a better future. These have become a major part of my moral makeup, and Trek is a big part of why. And I was naive enough to believe that the show's creators shared these ideals.

But of course, it's just a fucking TV show.

It's not even some story of Hollywood backbiting that drove me off (though it became clear later that Rick Berman was quite a tool.) It was the underlying cynicism and laziness that was beginning to seep into the show, the way the writers didn't seem to care much about exploring the issues they raised anymore, the way continuity was shredded and characters treated callously. Basically, all the stuff I wrote about in my last post on the subject. But it was exacerbated by my growing awareness of the way TV shows were made.

Look, I'm aware that art isn't some perfect, pure process in which the muses flit down on wings of saffron and caress the artist's brow to provide inspiration, and even if it were the process of getting it to the screen would require change and compromise. I know that the ethereal, platonic magic that stirs your soul has to go through a mundane process of realization, which can be reduced to charts and graphs and scripts and outlines and formulas. All artists have a physical process. I know that now.

But at the time I felt deeply, deeply betrayed by uncovering Trek's relationship to showbiz, and combined with the way that, in the latter seasons of TNG, no one involved seemed to care all that much, it provoked a hostililty that lingered all the way to 2009, when I wrote that review.

So there's that.

Really, though, what I was still reeling from--and what I now find fascinating--is just to what degree classic Trek isn't the thing everyone seems to think it is.

We all know the litany: a post-scarcity future with prosperity and enlightenment for all. The Vulcan reverence for Logic. The Prime Directive. The emphasis on communication and co-operation. The glimpse of a better future for mankind. These are things that have a powerful appeal.

Which is why it's so astounding that the classic series was so conflicted about all this stuff.

Decades later, Roddenberry and the fans codified the above ideas as the core of Trek, and it's been that way since the movies. But the thing is, Roddenberry wasn't that great a writer, and he left a lot of the work to a talented team that seemed to have different ideas about what Trek would be. This clash of ideologies made it into everyone's Platonic ideal of the show to a degree, but Roddenberry's vision has been the one that prevailed.

Roddenberry clearly was a socialist democrat who believed in military adventurism (I’d argue he was more mainstream in the 60s, some of the more offbeat stuff that crept into his thinking–a slightly creepy collectivism, for instance–having come later) but the show had libertarian and counterculture writers as well. Likewise there are episodes like “The Way to Eden” which is pretty contemptuous of the youth culture of the time, yet a lot of other Trek stories seem to embrace it in more subtle ways, particularly the idea that there’s something ridiculous about authority and that love, peace and harmony can triumph over evil (and “Way of the Gun” sees the crew using passive resistance and an oddly Buddhist mindset to overcome violence.) There are episodes that can be read as both for and against the Vietnam war (which is really what the Prime Directive was about in the first place) and episodes that are both for and against organized religion.

As for Spock, he definitely seems to have been created as a straw man--someone to show the value of humanity and the perils of relying on logic entirely. And yet it doesn’t take too long before the writers seem to start siding with Spock on a lot of things–in fact, he almost seems to be the representative for the counterculture at times, his spirituality being almost as big a point as his logic. In “Space Seed” Spock is appalled to hear everyone else speaking well of Khan, and I can’t imagine we aren’t supposed to, at the very least, sympathize, if not completely agree. (And it’s interesting to me that the supposedly detached, logical character is the one taking the firm moral stance while the more emotional humans can admire the historical monster, if somewhat back-handedly; conventional storytelling would have flipped that to criticize Spock's logic, but here it seems like humanity is the one that’s in danger of falling under the sway of a charismatic figure.) Of course there are plenty of “silly Spock, there’s more to life than logic” episodes as well, but the character was no Agent Scully, there just to voice the “wrong” opinions. (Actually I’d argue even Agent Scully wasn’t an Agent Scully, but I’m drifting from the point here.)

Likewise, there's the idea of a post-scarcity society without money, which looms so large over discussions of Trek, but which barely seems present on the original series. It’s implied by the replicators and so on, but the way everyone’s needs seem to be taken care of could be chalked up just as much to the fact that this is a pseudo-military organization as to anything else. Isn’t there discussion of mercantile arrangements in the early episodes? Isn’t Harry Mudd basically a con artist? What’s he swindling people out of if not their money? And I could have sworn Scotty or someone mentioned getting paid, though of course he could have been speaking figuratively.

Finally, there's the Prime Directive. The fact that Kirk violated the Directive practically every week is, by now, a cliche, but what's even more interesting is that, looking at the original series in isolation I honestly couldn’t tell you if the writers meant for it to be seen as a good thing or a bad thing. It often seems more like a dramatic obstacle than a philosophy, something that was just there so that Kirk could show off what a badass renegade he was--the Cop Who Plays By His Own Rules transposed into the 23rd century. And indeed, Starfleet in general seems to be heavily populated with stiff bureaucrats who exist only to make Kirk's life miserable.

Utopian future? I don't think so.

It's a fascinating series precisely because of these contradictions, and it's ironic that the show's own creator asserting his creative vision arguably produced something less interesting. It's certainly a handy riposte to people who think Trek's vision of a relentlessly positive future is naive or unworkable: that vision never really existed...

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