Come into My Space Dungeon and Let Me Poke You with a Pogo-Stick
Review of J.J. Abram’s Star Trek, Part One
By Patrick McEvoy-Halston
It’s not exactly what Star Trek offers, but the film is perhaps most easily—if not most fairly—assessed as belonging to the bread and circuses “school” of societal extension. It offers a “plot,” a delineation of the way ahead, people can readily imagine themselves participating in, readily imagine themselves wanting to participate in, which if followed by a similar national “narrative” could at least help pave the way for a neat and orderly—if totalitarian—way of finishing all things off. The pro-offered life of adventure, appeals. The sense of purpose, also very much so. But the best “drug” it offers comes out of allowing you room to readily imagine yourself playing a part in something like this, and thereby partaking in the dopamine-high of specialness counting yourself amongst the few select geniuses good enough for the Enterprise affords one. To be a member of the Enterprise means you are the best at your position—it means that though for the most part you will sit alertly but still somewhat placidly in place, every once in a while, when visited upon by, ostensibly, some miracle of realization / inspiration, all eyes will be drawn to you as you act up and save the day, and perhaps your species, and maybe the universe, as the prize “rises” so that the high doesn’t ever have to flag. To be a genius is never suggested to be anything other than a rare and special thing in Star Trek—it is always noteworthy, but is made to seem something most anyone with sufficient desire could imagine themselves being in possession of: you need to 1) be able to be brash, and in a way in which your brashness ultimately and for the most part immediately garners praise, without any really ill-consequence and sometimes with further good fortune (e.g., Kirk gets banished from the Enterprise for his acting out, something that leads very rapidly in succession to a quick high-speed chase, the discovery/recovery of great “treasure,” and an enterprising way of taking charge of the Enterprise—i.e., the requisite kind of stuff he needs to seem the One and Only), and, to 2) know things, like lots of languages or whatever, or the select, “impressive” fact, like, for example, some incident surrounding some aspect of your bio you’re unlikely not to have well attended to, not primarily because it is associated with one of your parent’s death but because you’ve long seen how useful details in your tragic but unique bio are in garnering both sympathy and ready assessments of yourself as being selected by fate for some special role. So if you’ve ever bullied your way, Uhura-like, to the head of the line, legitimating your presumption as only appropriate to one of your importance, and as evidence that you don’t count amongst the pathetic sheepeople who stand about—you’ve managed to convince yourself—solely out of fear of what others might think; if you’ve ever spent hours staring ahead at the TV, but also found it in you to do things like turn away from just watching TV toward using it as a “site” for violent wii/xbox control twitching (“Time to fret, Death Star—I’m going off auto-pilot and switching to manual”); if you know things, like, for example, the plot-lines of the whole current panopticom of SF shows, or ever brought up some the universe-in-a-nutshell fact garnered from your bachelor arts education or handy philosophy tract, that awed friends suspiciously and frighteningly willing to cooperate with your need to be special smart, you’ve probably got it in you to see yourself readily, ably, ingeniously, serving as one of the Enterprise’s “new” crew.
But if you would like to be part of something similar to the Star Trek trek at least your purpose would be not just to wander about or “boldly go,” where-ever, but to save civilization against rogue villains—that is, to work on behalf of humankind in a really obvious and immediate way. Well, your conscious mind would never think otherwise, but in truth the core of you would throw one hell of a tantrum if they didn’t end up serving you—your self-assessments needs (again), something they could in fact best do by being dispatched or humiliated rather than saved. For demonstrating your own prowess would have to go into exhausting, stressful overdrive if it wasn’t for the fact that everyone beyond your immediate crew is made to seem somewhat deficient, if not well retarded. For Kirk to seem the potent fighting cock, chock full of potential, five trained soldiers have to end-up seeming, in sum, just beyond him in a bar fight; for Uhura to seem more the translation wizard (Wow! You know four hundred esoteric languages! Amazing! Our computers only know a handful plus a billion of them.), some other has to be efficiently but ruthlessly dispatched as not up to snuff; for Captain Pike and his prodigy, Kirk, to seem especially able captains, another captain has to be shown as “thank you sir, may I have another?” eager ready to obey/satisfy the sadistic needs of terrorists (“Come into my dungeon; stand still before me; and give me satisfaction by letting me stab my handy-dandy, ready-side, space-spear into you”); for the crew of the enterprise to seem Luke Skywalker-able, and the ship itself, oh so fleet-of-feet, they have to survive when a whole slew of other ships are scattered about, a calamity and a pity, but also their just deserts, for so easily being drawn into the enemy’s trap.
So if this is the sort of narrative that grabs the public’s imagination, that suggests some sense of how the future could afford all a life that feels purposeful and well laid-out, surely would-be totalitarians out there will soon realize the public will be soon be in the mood to respond ever more enthusiastically to their call. Totalitarians would deliver: they would suit-up and militarize the nation; offer everyone some role to play against whatever pressing villain; organize them into community groups, where every resident “best” Americano, pizza, sushi, whatever maker in town, could imagine themselves as being part of—really—the most distinctive, able group of freedom-fighters around; ensure they get a lot of praise, and, lest they forget!, give them room to every now and then voice some kind of rebel yell—after all, people whose self-esteem is so dependent on external sources likely sense the extent of their dependence, and need to act out some loud demonstration of their not in fact existing independence every once in awhile so that the charge they get from the resulting muscular arousal/engagement makes them feel like they could scatter all away as so much space debris, go their own way, and be so much the happier.
— Spock’s Humanization Project —
Review of J.J. Abram’s Star Trek, Part 2
But no film can fairly be critiqued as simply playing to people's insecurities and damned for doing nothing other than help playing a part, however small, toward a societal shift toward militarism, would ever risk showing an audience up, draw attention to their own inauthenticity, by showing them what a human being with real substance is like, draw attention to their brave-seeming evasiveness by showing what real engagement with something difficult is like, but Star Trek in fact does, and in a way where a comparison between the two—pretense and real substance—can hardly escape notice.
When Kirk is expelled from the Enterprise, sent to the ice planet as punishment, we might wonder for a moment if Kirk might be made to experience—if even only for a short while—what being alone, abandoned, can really be like. That is, not so much about an opportunity to showcase your “badness,” your ingenuity, your uniqueness, or to bond with an ally and conspire something enterprising "between you two," but about being left alone and left behind, “unequipped” to deal with whatever variant thought, feeling you experience, outside of the context of experiencing it amidst a cocoon-offering group. Though we might even have laughed—out of shock, possibly—when along with Kirk we discovered that Starfleet could intentionally dispatch an unruly crew member to his own private ice Guitanimo, we may also of had a moment of disquiet as well, resulting from encountering something—namely, isolation—until then the movie had set up as pretext for more action. Action follows, and we’re back to genius vs. ordinary, giant-devours-the-suddenly-pathetically-small, sadistic-relish “normalism,” but when it leads to him encountering (“Leonard Nimoy's” Spock [hereafter "old Spock"]) Spock, someone who's known this ice isolation, apparently, for 25 years, rather than 2-and-a-half minutes, the earlier hint of the kind of brutal test abandonment can present to the origins and solidity of your fair self-assessment, self-esteem, becomes trenchant.
Spock has known what it is to be isolated for decades, away from all his friends, all space adventures, and, owing to Leonard Nimoy's acting—owing to Leonard Nimoy—we feel all this when we "meet" him. He has been forced to witness the destruction of his home planet and all his kin, and we sense his distress. All this would be only logical, as it were, but how differently we are encouraged to understand isolation here from how it was presented when Scotty, for example, spoke of his own isolation, where it wasn't allowed to amount to a wound that would play against the crew's ascendance to form, and in fact largely served to establish Scotty as quirky, estranged, somewhat removed—appropriate to someone whose natural abode will soon be the Enterprise's underbelly—and how different is the feel of old Spock's experience of his kin’s extermination from how we are encouraged to imagine it as playing in the life of new Spock, where it seems energy that can be directed to showcase how this Spock handles his "predecessor's" logic vs. emotion conflict, and, worse, to assess and enjoy the frisson in the naughty fracture that is his relationship with Uhura. The pain has beaten old Spock down, but all is far from lost: he is persuasively made to seem someone who though he had come to prefer being amongst friends, could weather long stretches of being alone, titanic experiences of loss and pain, if he must, primarily because of the love and friendship he gained from so many years of knowing and loving good friends like Kirk—his gimmicky, immature-seeming vulcan vs. human nature-thing, seemingly long left behind him as so much an easy identify and comfort-zone providing childish prop. In a film which had hereto suggested the ultimate prize to be being part of an elite crew, and the sheen you get from being part of something so relevant and fashionable, the greatest thrill, it's very beautiful if a little bit overwhelming to witness the satisfaction and soul-food a lifetime spent being amongst supporting friends can offer one, and wholly out of place: here in our encounter with what should amount to the most familiar (i.e., Leonard's Nimoy's Spock), is our one and only taste in the film of something rare enough in its frantic, frenetic universe, to seem truly alien.
This is not to say that the new Kirk would ever want the sort of layered, deep relationship old Spock created with old Kirk: he might indeed feel it amounts to too much "weight" inside the heart and head, with his preferred sort of friendship being maybe more narcissistic, light and trivial, a tactile skin rather than a bloated body, an ain't-it-wonderful-that-genius-me-is-reflected-in-genius-you, sort of affair, with his preferred sort of genius not seeming to exempt him from his being vacuously carried aloft in whatever adventure space titillates his way, here-and-there. But for any one amongst the viewing audience whose need to be thought worthy of love, not owing to amounting to some sort of prize but out of appreciation of the quieter, slowly accumulating, good-and-the-bad, the resonant and the ordinary, day-to-day things you offer the world through your presence and company, it is not nothing to finally encounter someone in the film universe shown to prize a friend primarily for this reason.
But if the current film-going generation is one which has been abandoned to the degree that they cannot risk or even imagine really going their own way, giving weight to and following their own intuition, lest they feel despairingly alone and panicky, if they are those who cannot imagine giving of themselves, developing an involved report with friends, lest it leave them feeling exposed, over-extended and scarily vulnerable (though they can and will readily play-act all this—with it really amounting to all self-containment, with pleasing "feelings" of volition and muscular engagement), then, ultimately, if a film-maker wanted to at least begin to prepare a generation to base their self-esteem on something more solid, establish friends whose relationship is more real, take chances in a way which could lead to genius, then s/he would likely have to do what Abrams does in this film, even if its appeal is such that it means we're no doubt heading toward a totalitarian future. "Kids" want their preferred way of living, existing, validated (and you know, they deserve to have their time—whatever they enjoy should be validated, made to seem right ground for "extrapolation" which can lead to self-growth, life adventure, societal betterment)—Star Trek tells them that there are no traits more apt and fit right now than always being in a state of hyper-arousal, hyper-alertness, to be perennially set to encounter/interact the world implacably, as a hard, unbreakable shell, and violently, with every word a sword-stab, a puncture. "Kids" want to be in charge, not intimidated away from expressing themselves by a previous generations' accomplishments and authority, but also (unlike the original Star Trek, we note) to have adults somewhere not too far off in the background, like so much a corporate head office keeping an eye out on—and thereby in a way offering the sense of security which enables—the playful goings-on in the office, and so it is captained by a new, less intimidating and more awkward Kirk, who seems as manageable and non-constraining as he does commanding (yes, his famous cheat dramatizes his self-command, but how many times in the film is he shown following, sometimes rather dumbly, the lead of others?), is overseen by elders like Pike with little depth, with no capacity to well read your soul, with ready complicity to make what is truly juvenile seem wise, and with the rest of the Federation never too far distant in the mind's eye.
But as long as he is not presented in a way where it intimidates or too readily brings to the fore their awareness of their own vulnerability, once introduced to someone someone who fears s/he is not worthy of love, who suspects s/he is, perhaps, in truth, totally inadequate, could imagine actually enjoy getting to know them, they would want this person kept around; and Star Trek, while making him seem a bit slow-paced to well function on what the Enterprise has become—primarily, that is, a response-ready battleship (i.e., he's not a "wartime consigliere")—allows old Spock a distant but still accessible place in the new universe. Perhaps, just as the film makes it seem right that new "latch-key" Kirk, sparked on by the nature of his abandonment, who seems fated to become akin to trigger happy, action-figure, Captain Pike, and more naturally suited to eventually deem McCoy, not Spock, his best "fratboy" bud, captains the ship over a Spock fueled on by well-attendance, by maternal love, who can second guess himself, disengage from friends, step back, alone, in contemplation, reflection, consideration, but at the same time suggest that his being in the "shadows" will help him be more nurturing and less brutal (notice how careful he is to not humiliate Sulu, to ease the bridge, when he functions as first officer, but how markedly blunt and even brutal he is to Uhura's replacement and to Kirk, when he functions as captain), facilitate the kind of slow growth, soul growth requires, develop into the kind of leader we will eventually turn to, and that this will be how it could go for us as well. That is, maybe our need to play it rigid, safe but violent, routine, and brutally sacrificial, is such that it's going to take awhile for the well-rounded, well-attended, easeful Spocks of the world to introduce us to something more satisfying, variant and human, and we should be well enough pleased to learn that people are attracted to films like Star Trek (and Wall-E, which communicates the same message), which suggest, at least, we seek a more desirable future than rigid mobility and ray guns, but need plenty of time to ready and steady ourselves, to once again venture about so bravely.
Star Trek. Dir. J.J. Abrams. Perf. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto. Paramount. 2009. Film.