Beyond Star Trek (About the New Star Trek Trailer)

So there’s a new Star Trek trailer out, and people are mad. As far as I can tell, everyone is mad.1 And they’re general reaction is: “this isn’t Star Trek.”

747 - Star Trek Whiners

Me? I’m too busy feeling smug to be mad.

When I complained about little details like long-distance transportation in the first rebooted Star Trek and the all-around plot confusion of the second, other Star Trek fans called me a whiner. But I could see what they couldn’t see (yet): the reboot isn’t really Star Trek.

What do I mean by that? Well, here’s what Keith Phillips had to say about the first movie back in 2009:

It is, undeniably, a reconsideration of what constitutes Star Trek, one that deemphasizes heady concepts and plainly stated humanist virtues in favor of breathless action punctuated by bursts of emotion. It might not even be immediately be recognizable to veteran fans as Star Trek. [emphasis added]

So, to every Star Trek fan who told me I was being too critical: I. Told. You. So.

Now, the second reason I’m not mad is this: the movie looks like it might be fun! See, here’s the rest of Phillips’ quote:

But they’ll have to actively tune out Abrams’ eagerness to entertain not to enjoy the ride.

For me, this comes down to how you define science fiction. The definition that means the most to me is the idea that science fiction is “the literature of ideas.”2 This is often linked to science, and it was Isaac Asimov who wrote that sci-fi was “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings” 3 That’s a good description of what was being written by serious sci-fi writers in the 1960s and 1970s, but it mistakes the tool with the goal. Extrapolating scientific advances to create new situations has always been primarily a method to ask philosophical “what-if” questions. It’s the what-if that really matters. The extrapolated science was just a way to get there, and it ended up not being the only way.

This is why I stand by my designation of Frankenstein as the first real work of sci-fi. You can find older texts with, for example, trips to the moon in human-created craft, but in Frankenstein Mary Shelley wasn’t just postulating some advanced medical technology for the sake of a good story (although there’s that too), but also using those imaginary inventions to ask questions about creation and responsibility that you couldn’t get to in any other way. The philosophical aspects of the work were at least as important as the scientific ones.

That, to me, is the heart of sci-fi. And it’s what Star Trek has always done when it is at its best. The science in most Star Trek is ridiculous technobabble nonsense. But the world–and the individual episodes–were crafted to ask meaningful questions. That’s where the romance of the world came from.4

This new Star Trek? Not only is it not recognizable Star Trek, but it’s not even recognizably science fiction in the “literature of ideas” sense of the word.

But there has always been another definition of sci-fi living side-by-side with the “literature of ideas” version. The other definition is all action and adventure, and instead of Frankenstein you’d think of something like Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom series. This view of sci-fi is just action-adventure with lasers and rocket ships instead of handguns and airplanes. And you know what? I like that kind of sci-fi, too.

Of course in practice, these two views of sci-fi not only live side-by-side in the same bookstores, but often in the same books. Lots of people–myself included–find spaceships to be fundamentally romantic. We like them in the same way that other people really like tall ships. And so you can see a series like the Vorkosigan saga or the Honor saga as really just Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series or C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series… but in space.

And that’s OK!

In other words: I gave up on the Star Trek reboot as “literature of ideas” sci-fi back when the first one came out. I’ve had time to get over it. And so I’m ready to watch a new Star Trek movie as what the reboot series clearly wants to be ray gun and spaceship sci-fi. And who knows, on that basis? It could be really great.

7 thoughts on “Beyond Star Trek (About the New Star Trek Trailer)”

  1. For me, Star Trek begins with TOS and ends (more or less) with DS9. I was in and out with VOY, mostly because I wasn’t nearly as engaged with the characters, as I was with TNG or DS9 — despite 7 of 9 and the silver suit. I liked the 2009 movie, but could recognize that Star Trek was going in a different direction. I haven’t seen the Cumberbatch film. I suppose I ought to remedy that. As a coherent arc, the Abrams edition of Trek doesn’t seem any better, nor worse, than all that went before. But does it capture the same feeling? I try to be generous with my estimations, because I remember how much the TOS crowd bellyached over TNG, and I thought TNG had some of the finest acting and scripting Trek has ever seen. But at the same time, reducing Trek to a chain reaction of lens flares, action shots, and quippy dialogue, seems to do a disservice to the deeper dimension that Trek has often striven for — sometimes, to a fault (see: TMP.)

  2. Brad,

    I’m with you pretty much down the line. For me TNG is the Star Trek, but I realize that a lot of that is just my personal history with the series. (My family used to watch new episodes together every Sunday evening. TOS went off the air well before my time.) Since then, I’ve seen plenty of TOS episodes that resonate for me as “literature of ideas” sci-fi. There are definitely some classics in there.

    I liked the new films well enough, but only to the extent that I was able to compartmentalize them far, far away from the Star Trek that I knew and loved. You’ve got to approach the reboots as basically an entirely different show that happens to share the same names, I think.

  3. I’m going to disagree about the first science fiction novel – after reading Isaac Asimov’s annotated Gulliver’s Travels, it’s clear that is the first real science fiction novel – Swift actually went to great lengths to get the math consistent and even based a lot of the technology (and there was a lot of technology) on plausible speculation from the science of the day.

    People treat it like it’s fantasy, but Swift actually wrote it as what we might consider “hard” science fiction. Gulliver’s Travels is the first work where scientific speculation, utopian worlds, and several other “proto-sf” genres came together in a jumble of sorts in order to comment on modern (well, modern to Swift) society.

  4. If I want the more escapist SciFi, then I’ll go re-read the Barsoom novels, or even re-watch John Carter! Star Trek has *never* been that kind of science fiction. Maybe a few episodes here or there were mostly action, but the entire tone of the reboot is so completely different that we other Trekkies are justified in calling it “not Trek.”

    If you want ray-gun and spaceship SciFi, then do so. But don’t call it “Star Trek.” Because it’s not.

    From my blog post in 2009 reviewing the first Abrams Star Trek:

    “So in the end, the movie did what it wanted to. It rebooted the franchise. We know the characters. We know how they interact. Everything is back in more or less its original place. Problem was that this story had so little in common with what made Star Trek great—namely the science fiction social commentary that it appears Battlestar Galactica has inherited. So note the asterisk on the final score. Whether I like the reboot is whether or not they do actually Star Trek-ish things with it from here on out. Reboot successful. Now please don’t Quantum of Solace this Star Trek’s Casino Royale.

    Final Score: 95*/100.”

    The asterisk was me reserving the right to downgrade the score if the follow-up movies weren’t Star Trek enough. With ST:ID, I did downgrade the score to 75/100. Now with this trailer, I might just drop it to 50/100 territory. They’re just . . . failing.

    On another note, I wonder if your designation of Shelley’s Frankenstein would be better explained as the first example of the “literature of ideas” SciFi, but not SciFi in general.

  5. I like the new Star Trek. I grew up with the original, and loved The Next Generation, and never bothered with the others. I like SF when it’s done well, like The Martian and Interstellar, but I also like Star Wars (which isn’t really SF, as you define it above) and the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter stories. I think the important thing is to enjoy a work for what it is, not what you think it should be.

  6. I didn’t mind the first Star Trek reboot movie, and thought the action was a much needed shot in the arm to a franchise that became lethargic. When I saw the trailer to the second one, I heard echos of a more mature thematic presentation. When I actually saw he second one it was completely different than expected, and for the far worse. The movie was pure action, incomprehensible, full of plot holes worse than Generations, and at times laughable.

    Needless to say I am not looking forward to this, but it will probably do well because the reboot is not for us die-hard fans of the original. The general audience seems to love it, despite the serious flaws. Interesting that the first pilot of the original Star Trek was rejected because it was “too cerebral” and had to be redone as more action-oriented. History repeating itself I suppose.

  7. Then there is sci-fi which fits somewhere in between the two types. Things like the Lensman series. Space opera with plenty of hardboiled action (blows to the solar plexus and such) but also handles deeper themes like the nature of the struggle with evil, addiction, corruption, the cost of victory, and the need to discover one’s true potential. This is also where the Star Trek creators got the idea of an interplanetary/intergalactic confederation with a peacekeeping force drawn from various species. In a way, ST is drawing closer to some of its roots.

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