So everybody's seen Star Trek by now, right? It was totally awesome, and really, just about everything that I would possibly want from a reboot of a very beloved franchise that I have spent a long time enjoying. Of course, you'll notice I said "just about everything." There's one thing, and it's not even a criticism of Star Trek so much as it's that the movie fell into the same trope that a lot — scratch that — nearly every movie, novel, television show, or other media production made in the Western World falls into.
So does anybody remember Star Trek: Nemesis? I mean, I'm sorry for bringing it up and making you think about it, but if you will recall, that Star Trek movie featured a giant, scary, pointy-ended Romulan ship dedicated to the destruction of the Federation and cast the comparatively underpowered Enterprise as the only line of defense opposing it. Sound familiar? Yeah.
There's just something, apparently, about the little guy standing up to the giant threat from beyond. And I'll be the first to admit, this makes for a great story. Unfortunately, in recent years, it's made for the great story, especially in Hollywood. Our hero is always inexperienced, overpowered, and outclassed, and yet somehow he comes out on top — and by somehow, I of course mean "by banding together his friends to outmaneuver and outmatch the overpowering threat." Every. Single. Time. Every. Single. Story.
The US and the Underdog
The United States of America has the underdog story written into its DNA. We like to tell ourselves that we won our independence by fighting off the terrible and overwhelming outside threat of the British army. Of course, there are two problems with this: firstly, it didn't actually happen that way, and secondly, that was a long time ago, and the US today is nothing like the thirteen colonies in our collective imagination. Now, I'm going to unpack that right now, but I get hella pedantic, so you might want to just skip to the next header. In any case, to unpack:
First off, the British were not the enemy from outside — they were us; we were them. The thirteen colonies were British colonies, peopled by British colonists, and while there were certainly valid and compelling arguments to secede, we have, on this side of two hundred years, turned the British into an Other, when in fact the shared culture between the colonies and the British Isles accounted for far more than their differences. The American Revolutionary War was a family blow-up where two brothers (or more accurately, a father and son) have a violent argument and then don't talk to each other for twenty years... and we started it by breaking laws and refusing legal (though unethical) searches. We weren't the victims of an unprovoked attack from outside our borders; we decided to draw a new border down the middle of the British Empire.
Secondly, the popular account of the Revolutionary War tends to forget our allies, the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch (also known as all of Western Europe at the time)... and the world war they started in Europe that siphoned off British troops and supplies from the American front. We only won here because the British were fighting a much bigger war over there. Or to put a finer point on it, we only won because we were less important than the French, Spanish, and Dutch all trying to invade London at the same time. And then, through a number of historical factors that I won't go into here, after the wars were over, the newly-minted United States of America dropped their erstwhile allies like a hot potato. We didn't outmaneuver and outwit the big, bad redcoats... we outmaneuvered and outwitted the poor redcoats that got abandoned in the colonies while their friends fought in the real war.
Now, up till now, all that criticism really does is challenge the historical pertinence of the American myth. Which is to say, the artistically responsible thing to do in such a situation is to keep making movies and whatnot about this myth, but do so with a little subtlety, a dash of irony, and perhaps a touch of humility. The American Revolution is a glorious, fantastic piece of history, but it's way more interesting when it's nuanced with all those little facts and details that make it something other than a straight-up black-and-white conflict.
However, there's another problem with fetishizing our little national myth. In 1776, we were thirteen backwater colonies having a spat with Dad. In 2009, we are the last standing superpower, the leader of the free world, the engine of the global economy, and so on and so forth. We aren't the little guy any more. We just aren't. We are a nation that possesses frightening amounts of power — which is not to say power that we "shouldn't" have, but power that we must be very, very careful about using. At this level of power, it's very easy to make more problems than you solve — and the easiest way to do that is by swinging around our last-standing-superpower weight as if we were the scrappy little underdog out to take down the way-more-powerful Othered badguys. In the light of that reality, telling ourselves that we (and Captain Kirk) are the underdogs is not just wrong, it's irresponsible.
Trek on the Small Screen
So do you remember Star Trek? Like, the television show? Back when it was Kirk, Spock, and McCoy on a barely-decorated soundstage, there was us, the Federation, and there were the Klingons. These two states had big conflicts over their mutually-opposed points of view. (Romulans, on the other hand, were usually over there and only occasionally got on screen.) But the vast majority of the universe was populated by third parties: unaligned worlds who both the Federation and the Klingons wanted to sway to their side. Sound familiar? That's because the historical context of original Trek was deep in the midst of the Cold War, where NATO and the Warsaw Pact saw the globe as a chessboard of potential allies in the inevitable war on the horizon. Importantly, though, there's only one episode where the Federation and the Klingons are actually at war, and it's over by the end of the episode.
Additionally, the original Enterprise is only the underdog when it confronts the universe itself. That is, incomprehensibly powerful avatars of the unknowable infinite — guys who style themselves like Greek Gods and perform what is effectively magic. These guys are never representatives of nation-states, and they never come back (they would eventually be wrapped up into one character, Q, in TNG). When the Enterprise faced off with other nation-states, though, they were equals at worst, and usually had the technological advantage. Nobody ever had a bigger, badder ship than the Enterprise. And again, at the time, nobody had bigger, badder ships than the American Armed Forces, either. The US wasn't the underdog, so neither was the Enterprise.
Zip forward 18 real years and 76 fictional years to The Next Generation. Again, it is science fiction written for its own time. The once-vicious rivalry with the Klingons has cooled to nothing; instead, the Federation deals with two fascist states, the Romulans and the Cardassians, and an international cartel, the Ferengi Alliance. However, all three of these are rarely anything more than an annoyance. There is nothing in the universe that matches the Enterprise, which traipses from world to world, sometimes appreciating the varied cultures they find and sometimes judging those cultures with their massive technological advantage. They are burdened by the Prime Directive (which Kirk found to be little more than an annoyance) and the ethical considerations of their actions, especially considering the imbalance of power they enjoy.
Sidenote: one could argue that the Borg are TNG's big bad guys, much like the Klingons were original Trek's big bads. You'd be right — at least, insofar as Kirk didn't fight Klingons as much as we like to think he did, and there was only one borg episode in each season of TNG, except the first season, in which there were none. The Borg are an anomaly — a hackneyed, caricatured, and silly anomaly, but an anomaly nonetheless.
Also consider Deep Space Nine, the first Trek franchise started after the fall of the USSR. DS9 takes TNG's re-envisioning of Trek one step further. Now the Federation is the only real superpower in the universe, and is thrust into the position of shepherding fledgling democracies such as the Bajorans from the rapacious hunger of teetering fascist states like the Cardassians. While Sisko and DS9 itself is often outmatched by big, menacing ships, the Federation is not, and what keeps the station alive is Sisko's ever-present ability to get on the phone and have the bulk of the Federation come beat Gul Dukat into paste. In this milleu, much of DS9 considers to what extent the Federation should involve itself in other states' internal affairs, given that its very presence changes the political landscape ("The problem is Earth!"). The show examines and challenges issues of sovereignty, terrorism, and religion. It was Trek for the 90s.
...that is, until the Dominion muscled in and stripped any semblance of relevance from the show, turning into a highly entertaining by thematically dead pot-boiler.
Now, I didn't watch Voyager or Enterprise. Whether they follow the other series' trend of producing speculative fiction that matters to their audience or go the way of the movies, I have no idea.
Trek on the Big Screen
We might also briefly consider the Trek movies, which have an incredibly wide spread of artistic success. The first was straight-up speculative fiction, and redid what the original series did very well: awe in the face of a vast and incredible universe. And it tanked. As a result, Roddenberry was pulled from the sequels.
Wrath of Khan smashed into theaters with high-action swashbuckling in space, bringing back a well-remembered antagonist from the series, conveniently missing any of the thematic trappings he previously possessed. And what happens? A crippled Enterprise faces off against another Federation ship, itself not crippled, commanded by an ubermensch. That's right: they're the underdogs. Harnessing the underdog myth, Khan was tons of fun, thematically dead, and a box-office success. In Search for Spock, Kirk and the crew have to, well, search for Spock, but the Federation itself tries to stop them. Voila, the protagonists are underdogs again! Then, it's a skeleton crew on the Enterprise against a Klingon bird of prey. Double-win! (Star Trek III is the only successful and critically-aclaimed odd-numbered movie.) Then comes four, where the crew start off as fugitives from the Federation, then time-travel back to the 80s. They are fish-out-of-water, which is sort of the comedic brother of action-adventure's underdog, and the movie is also a success.
Such strings of success can't last forever, of course, but that wouldn't stop the makers of Trek movies to abandon the underdog theme. In The Final Frontier, of course, the crew of the Enterprise goes up against God, or at least, an unreasonable facsimile thereof. In The Undiscovered Country, Kirk and Spock are thrown into a Klingon jail, and later attacked by an unbeatable cloak-and-shoot Klingon warbird. You have the Borg in First Contact, the Son'a in Insurrection, an ineffectively-scary-Picard-clone-boy in Nemesis.
Tangent: You might notice I skipped Generations in there. If Generations had a coherent plot, I could draw a conclusion from it. However, since it doesn't, I can't, so we're just skipping over it.
In many ways, you could lay the blame for the turning of Trek nostalgia into a never-ending underdog-fest at the feet of the movies. You'd be right, but it wouldn't be as damning a criticism as you might think. This is because the Trek television formula of thinly-skinned speculative fiction aimed at current events simply doesn't translate to the big screen. The production cycle for an effects-driven feature film, for one, is simply too long. Certainly there are speculative fiction films that comment on the present day, but they look more like Gattaca than Star Trek. Or to look at it another way, the budget for a effects-driven feature film necessitate a broad audience, and there, well, isn't a broad audience for speculative fiction. (Perhaps there could be, but that's a totally different topic.) And, since the television formula for Trek doesn't work on the big screen, they have to go with something else... and nothing draws in an audience like an underdog story.
Which brings us to Star Trek by JJ Abrams, a man who has produced lots of properties, lots of money, and very very little subtext. In Abrams' hands, I foresee a string of fun, exciting, successful Trek movies that say nothing. We will see the completion of the decades-long process of turning Star Trek from speculative fiction into space opera, systematically picking up everything that Trek ever said, taking it out behind the woodshed, and quietly strangling it until it goes limp. But if it wasn't Abrams, it would be somebody else. Star Trek isn't Star Trek when it's on the big screen, and probably can't be, even if it wants to.
Star Trek dissolving into a fun and witless commodity does not mean, however, that we can't have other properties that don't go the same route, though. There's hope yet. The first step is putting down the underdog pipe and stepping up to the reality that America and Americans, yes, even you, have some significant power in this world and a responsibility to use that power wisely. The stories that go along with this, the stories that allow us to talk about how to do right by the world, can be just as engaging as underdog stories.
We can tell stories like Schindler's List, about the path to realizing that you aren't the underdog, that you have considerable privileges compared to other people, and that means that not only can you make a difference, but you ought to.
We can tell stories like Charlie Wilson's War, about stumbling onto making a difference and how horrendously complicated it can be.
We can tell stories like The West Wing, where the vast and complicated world intersects with our own, internal and personal lives, and somehow we need to find a path that may not be the right path as judged by history, but is the path that lets us not hate ourselves.
We can tell stories like Castle, where people who aren't politicians or civil servants step up to do the right thing.
We can tell stories like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, for crissakes, where nobody is a bad guy but everybody has problems to overcome, and if we help each other get our heads out of our asses, we might just make the world a better place.
We don't need bloodthirsty invaders, corporate overlords, or shadowy conspiracies to produce situations where we can make a difference. We don't need to be the chosen one or bound by duty or have our family slaughtered by the badguys to be able to make a difference. Just being human and living on Earth gives us opportunities every day to be good people. We should tell stories about that. It can't be that hard.