The 2016 ‘Star Trek’ movie urged viewers to tolerate and embrace differences even as some Americans sought safety in homogeneity

April 28, 2017

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 28, 2017

Author’s note: I am once again on a bit of a Star Trek kick. Having just written, respectively, about the most recent and the first Trek movies, I now intend to discuss the cultural and political implications of the latest Star Trek and Star Wars features (that’s the purpose of this post). Be on the lookout for a vignette about going to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture in the movie theater, after which I’ll return to more varied subjects. MEM

The Star Wars franchise is a largely apolitical one. Creator George Lucas conceived of his space saga in largely black-and-white terms. The color lines were literal in some cases, as when the towering evil black-clad Sith Lord, Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones), menaced the elfin, virtuous white-clad rebel, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in 1977’s Star Wars (retroactively retitled Star Wars: A New Hope).

Lucas later introduced some more nuance and ambiguity, with moody protagonist Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) donning dark-colored apparel for the latter half of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and most of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. And to his credit, Lucas attempted to explore what happens when peaceful societies are overtaken by complacency, greed and corruption in his prequel trilogy.

But even in the prequel trilogy, Lucas was pretty light on specificity; other than “Don’t vote to establish a standing army” or “Don’t entrust leadership of your enfeebled and embattled republic to a creepy politician who is also secretly a master manipulator and skilled warrior with awesome telekinetic powers who can shoot death lightning from his fingertips,” he offers no solid prescriptions for preserving peace and democracy. This is, perhaps, no surprise: The franchise is called Star Wars, after all, not Star Governance.

By contrast, the sociopolitical commentary of Star Trek has always been both more deliberate and more overt. For example, the crew of U.S.S. Enterprise was designed to be racially and ethnically diverse. Sure, the cast was fronted by three white male North American actors, but one of them (Leonard Nimoy) portrayed a half-human, half-alien character. Other key crew members included an Asian-American helmsman, Sulu (George Takei); an African-American communications officer, Uhura (Nichelle Nichols); and a Russian helmsman, Chekov (Walter Koenig). It’s hard, a half-century after Gene Roddenberry first brought his science fiction show to television, to understand just how ground-breaking this was.

Star Trek certainly had its blind spots. It wasn’t until 1995 that the franchise’s fourth TV series, Voyager, introduced a female captain, Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). (NBC executives rejected Roddenberry’s initial attempt to have a female first officer for the Enterprise.) And as Devon Maloney wrote for Wired four years ago, before the premiere of Star Trek Into Darkness, the franchise’s portrayal of LGBT characters has historically been weak.

That legacy was tweaked last summer with the release of Star Trek Beyond, which gave us a (very brief) glimpse of Sulu (now played by John Cho) embracing a male partner and their young daughter. And it could receive a major upgrade as a forthcoming series, Star Trek Discovery, is set to include a gay lead.

Regardless of its inconsistencies, one of the major themes of the franchise has been to encourage inclusiveness. And Star Trek Beyond addressed that topic head-on, not just through the allusion to Sulu’s sexuality but through the philosophies spoken by the film’s characters.

(Reader beware: Minor plot spoilers for 2016’s Star Trek Beyond follow.)

The villain in Beyond is Krall (Idris Elba), a mysterious figure who has it out for the multicultural and multiracial United Federation of Planets. Krall schemes to obtain a powerful biological weapon, which he then plans to unleash on an outpost of the Federation that Captain Kirk and his crew serve.

Some of the most important exchanges in Beyond are between Krall and Enterprise crew members. “The world I was born into was very different from yours, Lieutenant,” Krall tells Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in one such conversation. “We knew pain, we knew terror. Struggle made us strong — not peace, not unity. These are myths the Federation would have you believe.”

Later, Krall tells Sulu and Uhura, two of his captives: “The Federation has told you conflicts should not exist. But without struggle, you’ll never know who you truly are.”

Krall’s first target, Starbase Yorktown, is a fantastic sprawling space station with sunlit plazas, spacious water features, high-speed trains and mind-bending multidirectional artificial gravity. Yorktown is a peaceful place, home to millions of sentient beings from multiple of species. The Enterprise, at least in this generation, is crewed only by able-bodied adults, but we see adults and youngsters strolling Yorktown’s public spaces.

The Federation’s establishment of Yorktown, and the Enterprise crew’s defense of the starbase, is an endorsement of diversity. Uhura tells Krall that there is strength in unity, and the movie whole-heartedly champions this sentiment.

In the climactic showdown, Kirk (Chris Pine) chides Krall for clinging to the past. The antagonist insists that plunging the galaxy back into open warfare will (to paraphrase a certain politician) make humanity great again. The Starfleet captain replies by telling his nemesis that he underestimates humanity. Krall then rages against the notion of humans “break[ing] bread with the enemy.” Kirk responds: “We change. We have to. Or we spend the rest of our lives fighting the same battles.”

The candidacy, election and inauguration of Donald Trump has electrified a certain revanchist, xenophobic sector of American society that distrusts outsiders — a broad category that frequently translates into “non-white, non-Christian people.” This social movement was prefigured by the conservative reaction to the election of Barack Obama, in which a wide swath of white Americans became increasingly distrustful of people they perceived as being racially, culturally or theologically different from them.

So while it’s not right to say that Star Trek Beyond is a response to Trump’s candidacy, it is appropriate to say that the movie is a response to the conditions that enabled Trump’s victory. In that way, both Beyond and the most recent Star Wars movie, Rogue One, seem like products of their time.

That film, you may remember, was released after Trump’s election (although I saw and reviewed it prior to my viewing of Beyond). Rogue One featured a band of rebels contemplating an apparently hopelessness of defying a powerful Empire. Their decision, ultimately, was to resist, even though they faced overwhelming obstacles. It was about as pointed a political message as has ever emerged from the Star Wars franchise.

It’s telling — an indication of societal turmoil — that both of the latest cinematic releases from both Star Trek and Star Wars have an air of urgency and timeliness. Let’s hope that the sociopolitical situation we have in a few years more closely resembles that of the former universe rather than that of the latter.



Author’s note: Some of the Star Trek Beyond script quotes come from this frankly sketchy-looking siteMEM

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