11th Mar2009

watchoo mean OPTIMISTIC?!

by jerad.formby

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”In a world where a movie as incredibly produced as The Dark Knight is raking in gazillions of dollars, Star Trek stands in stark contrast. It was important to me that optimism be cool again.” –J.J. Abrams

That’s all fine and dandy a notion, but what in the heck does that mean??? A lot of trekkies will tell me that it means Star Trek is a noble future that we can all look forward to. Maybe. They’ll also say Star Trek has done a lot to change social attitudes. Perhaps.

Star Trek is a phenomenon over 40 years strong. It grew out of the 1960s, but it wasn’t alone in its fearless exploration of space. A similar show aired on CBS at the time and it was called Lost in Space. It ran for three years, just like Star Trek. But unlike Star Trek, it has achieved only a niche iconic status amongst a cult audience.

A handful of years after Star Trek was cancelled, Space: 1999 launched with Martin Landau and ran for two years. There are no Lost in Space conventions and Space: 1999 fans have no word like “Trekkie” to describe themselves (or if they do, I don’t know it and if I don’t know it you can bet lots don’t know it).

I would not be so presumptuous as to set Star Trek down next to these other shows in order to do point by point comparisons in order to determine why Star Trek is more popular. But I will suppose that there is something inherent in its optimism that has ensured its continued existence into the 21st century.

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Gene Roddenberry created his show in the 1960s and of all eras in recent history, it can be argued that this particular decade gave birth to most of the political changes that we see reflected in our own modern culture. The 60s brought us the Civil Rights movement. This era brought us bra-burning feminists and war protests in song. Social change, political distrust, and turbulent violence shook the decade to its core.

This was the atmosphere wherein Star Trek appeared. It didn’t single handedly change the world, but it did perform a number of contributions that rocked the status quo. This show featured televisions first interracial kiss. This show had the audacity to suggest that one day a Russian would be an ally. It suggested another time in which a United Earth would one day press toward the stars and take its proper place with similarly evolved species.

This show was recognized for what it suggested by at least one civil rights leader at the time. Nichelle Nichols was ready to leave her position on Star Trek’s bridge as she found her role too limiting. It was Dr. Martin Luther King who asked her to stick with the role of Uhura. He explained to her that her simple position in a command structure where she was treated as an equal gave more hope to people than she could know.

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I don’t believe social change is the total definition of Star Trek optimism. But I do see it as the fertile ground from which it ultimately springs. My reasoning is that a forward way of thinking is not enough for true sincerity. After all, these social battles were fought before I was born and a lot of my friends were born. We live now in a world where Barack Obama is a historical figure simply because of the color of his skin. This would suggest that Star Trek optimism, if defined only by social change and challenge, should be yesterday’s news.

In fact, if that is what it means to be optimistic then Star Trek has actually let us down.

When the Next Generation began its earliest creators endeavored to find the scope of the new show. They hashed out plan after plan with Gene Roddenberry. One of the biggest pushes at the time was from David Gerrold (the creator of the Tribbles). He advocated that Trek continue its social challenges. He wanted the new show to tackle the issue of gays. Since the Federation had always been more evolved then our own planet, he saw no reason to treat sexual orientation any different from race or skin color.

I don’t know what happened with Gerrold’s agenda. I am under the impression that he didn’t continue to develop TNG with Roddenberry once it was clear that homosexuality was not going to be addressed. We can all stare at our TNG box sets and see that the issue was never brought up –unless you count “The Host” in which Trek only skirted the gay issue in a very homophobic way.

It would take years and an effort by fans to see Gerrold’s effort to bring the gay issue to the forefront. James Cawley’s internet Trek show Phase II actually realizes one of Gerrold’s original TNG scripts and features gay Starfleet characters. It was an adventure written for Captain Picard, but Gerrold himself adapted to the era of Captain Kirk.

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So if Star Trek optimism is defined only by social change then it seems the fans know more about it then the show’s own creators.

The makers of the new film keep repeating that Roddenberry’s spirit is intact –that optimism is intact. It’s hard for me to envision a social issue that a movie blockbuster can smash into head on. That would be awesome, but I think highly unlikely.

What they’re talking about and I agree with them is the human relationships that have made Star Trek so incredibly strong. It’s that heroic level of friendship and selflessness that has carried Star Trek this far. It’s reflected in the camaraderie of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. In the encouragement of Commander Data. The understanding between Worf and Chief O’Brien. All of Star Trek is full of good and very deep human relationships.

Most other science fiction shows and movies demonstrate relationships formed under pressure. But its Star Trek that dares to show the times when there aren’t epic levels of stress happening. Bonds between the characters grow over time and are nourished in fascinating and very real ways.

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It’s those sorts of relationships that everyone seeks in their own life –Star Trek fan or no. That’s optimism. That’s caring for someone else not because you have to but because you want to. If the level of love and understanding between any of one of us and someone else can be as heroic as Star Trek has demonstrated then the world will be a better place.

I can see how that idea might not be popular right now. Our sights as a whole world seek darkness and violence from our blockbuster films. We want intensity and over the top pop sensation. A good movie is rated by how “bad ass” it is and wildly, of late, there aren’t a lot of friendships given the sensitivity and sincerity that Star Trek has mastered for years.

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That’s what Abrams and his new Star Trek crew are talking about with the press. When they speak of Star Trek optimism, they’re inviting all trekkies and everyone else to see how sincerity is a good idea. That’s the Roddenberry ideal that’s been present the whole time and I know will continue with this new translation.
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Follow Jerad Formby on Twitter.

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  • VegasAndorian

    I’ve honestly been been befuddled by the optimism comment myself. I mean, I see it, it is there, but, as J-rad pointed out, it’s not exclusive to Trek and those other properties are nowhere near the phenomenon that Trek is.

    Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley set a standard for character relationships that sci-fi has a hard time matching. There are some great concepts out there, but I think the really popular stuff, as in BG, SG, and Firefly, have character relationships the audience loves and identifies with (which further helps to explain the fan phenomena). And Trek excels at this.

    J-rad, perhaps this is where some of the optismism comes from? Friends are the family you choose. With such support, people who will go to the falling apart Genesis planet to rescue your corpse on the outside possiblity that maybe some mystics might have a chance to potentially resurrect you, when you can depend on that, who has room for pessimism?

    And when you watch it week to week, how can you not have hope for the future.

  • nimbus

    “We can all stare at our TNG box sets and see that the issue was never brought up –unless you count “The Host” in which Trek only skirted the gay issue in a very homophobic way.”

    You forget about TNG episode “The Outcast” – An inversion of ‘gayness’ whereby an androgenous race perceive the preference of one sex over the other as deviant.

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