11/28/09

The Differences Between Star Trek: TOS and Star Trek (2009) and What It Says About Society


Like many secular humanists (like Walt Disney) Gene Roddenberry had a very clear utopianistic view of the future. He held to a widely believed philosophy that humanity was only getting better and better which made a whole lot of sense given the amazing advances that had taken place between 1900 and 1966. He presented a universe in which multiple planets come together in a Federation that spreads peace, love and justice throughout the galaxy. Then along came J.J. Abrams, an iconic filmmaker of this generation, and within the first half hour of his Star Trek we see Spock get in a fight with Vulcan bullies, Kirk getting punched out by a group of meatheads (who, in Roddenberry's future, wouldn't exist), and a Romulan ship from the future (the future which is supposed to be "better," right?) completely demolishing a comparatively defenseless Federation ship. This is not the utopianistic ideal that Gene had in mind, is it? So what happened between 1966 and 2009 that put a gravity field under Roddenberry's pie in the sky, splatting it on the floor?

Gene's philosophy was not unique. He shared it with the likes of, as I said, Walt Disney as well as many people at NASA and throughout the country. Wherever you found someone who didn't believe in a God, it was likely that that same person believed, in stead, in the power of the human spirit. This is one of the reasons shows like Star Trek as well as Lost in Space and Buck Rogers and even the Jetsons made it to the air. After the end of World War II it seemed like things would just go up and up and up and up and we would be sending manned flights to Jupiter by 2001.

As time went by, however, the growth of technology seemed to slow. Humanism seemed more and more unrealistic and wars popped up randomly all over the globe. In fact, as popular as the Star Trek franchise was, popularity continued to wane in the Next Generation era until the introduction of Borg in 1989. The Borg effectively took the happy-go-lucky Star Trek future and blew it to pieces with a dark, gritty almost gothic enemy like no one had ever seen. It's interesting to note, in fact, that both TOS and TNG find themselves in a slight progression from boring and preachy to action-packed and fun through their entire lifespan including movies. When Gene Roddenberry died in 1991, Star Trek had an extremely rough time balancing adherence to Roddenberry's vision with mainstream appeal.

The progression of technology, the accumulation of material possessions throughout the century culminated in the materialistic 80's which ended in the 90's when people realized that "stuff" wasn't enough. The 90's brought with them a dark sense of a bitter void. These feelings are what birthed in many the ironic, sarcastic sensibilities that many of us enjoy in today's humor. Star Trek just never had the right sensibilities to compliment the growing darkness within society. It was telling people that stuff is only getting better when we could clearly see that things were only getting worse. Technology might have been progressing, but humanity was just spiraling the drain. Star Trek needed a change. It needed to revisit its roots and try to refocus its sensibilities without destroying the cannon. In 2001, they tried... and failed. The spin-off, Enterprise, came and went for 4 seasons trying to being grittier and more progressive, but failing to capture the public's attention.

Four years passed without a peep from Star Trek. And then... J.J. Abrams.

With the sight of a huge, spiky Romulan ship entering space through a black hole, Abrams effectively changed both Star Trek's lore and sensibility. This is perhaps the most brilliant work of writing ever performed on a franchise because it successfully completely remade Star Trek for a new audience while keeping the original series wholly in tact without separating it from canon. Star Trek (2009) was a huge success, perhaps even more so than the original. But what does that say about society? We no longer believe the future will be happy and nice and just. It will be just as rough and difficult as today, except we'll be able to go to other planets. As a matter of fact, we have no idea what the future will hold. For all we know, an alien from the future could come back to the past and change everything. One thing's for sure: it's exciting!
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