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Star Trek Boldy Goes Into the Obama Era

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by Mark Simpson

(The London Times, April 16, 2009)

It died a death during the Bush years in 2005, but it’s back. I’m talking of course, about the American Dream. Rebooted. In kinky boots.

The first teasing trailer for the new Star Trek movie in January last year showed glimpses of a shiny new USS Enterprise “under construction”. In the background President Kennedy was famously speechifying about space and Neil Armstrong’s crackly “One small step for Man” was heard. And then came the voice of a much more famous figure: Mr Spock, speaking the immortal, still spine-tingling line: “Space, the final frontier . . .”.

As things turned out, a year or so later it wasn’t just the Enterprise that was “under construction”. It wasn’t just the most successful TV and film franchise to date being rebooted – it was also the USA that was hitting the “reset” button. And what is the default setting? That Sixties optimism. They believed in the future back then.

There was always a very close relationship between the American Dream – not to mention American imperialism – and Star Trek, with its liberal, secular, multiracial, technophiliac vision of the future. But the two seem almost to have mind-melded with the election of an optimistic, liberal, iPod and Blackberry-loving multiracial President with a Kenyan father and a white American mother (Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on US television, sparking protests at the time) – and, who is himself something of a 1960s tribute act, with his JFK and Martin Luther King cadences. Suddenly, with Barack Obama ‘taking the con’, America looks like a brand that people can believe in again. Or at least root for at the movies.

Obama has admitted that he was a big fan of the original series. Others have already pointed out that “No Drama Obama” bears some facial, voice-pattern and character similarities with Tuvok, the black Vulcan chief of security in Voyager, the third Trek spin-off TV series, a character who learnt how to master his emotions.

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It’s entirely apt then that the Star Trek franchise went into suspended animation in the middle of the Bush presidency – along with the American Dream itself – after the critical and commercial failure of the Next Generation movie Nemesis, the TV prequel series Enterprise – and the blockbuster Operation Iraqi Freedom. Bush, who probably saw himself as something of a Captain Kirk figure, was certainly at least as inclined to ignore the “prime directive” (of non-interference in alien worlds) as James Tiberius, not to mention the United Nations/Federation. But instead of the loveable, roguish Kirk, the world, and eventually much of America itself, just saw a cowboy.

What’s remarkable about the Star Trek franchise is how closely each series corresponds to Republican or Democrat presidencies. The original series (1966-69), with its radical optimism and Cold War ethos (the Klingons are clearly the Russkies), maps the Lyndon Johnson Democrat presidency and the “Great Society” (1963-69). The rather more corporate and hygienic Next Generation (1987-94) covers the Reagan-Bush Republican era (1981-93), while the deeply dull but industrious Deep Space Nine (1993-99) and the feminist vehicle Voyager (1995-2001), featuring a female captain (Hillary played by Catherine Hepburn), falls into the Clinton Democrat years (1993-2001).

The ill-fated Enterprise series began the same year as the ill-fated Bush presidency, in 2001. It starred Scott Bakula looking eerily like Bush in a flight-suit and even, opportunistically, included an evil-doing adversary called the ‘Suliban’. Now, of course, we have a movie series reboot that corresponds to the beginning of the Obama presidency – however long either franchise lasts, we can probably expect their fates to be closely related.

There is perhaps another reason why Star Trek has gone back to the original Sixties series: to get back in touch with Kirk’s massive, tight-trousered mojo. Although disliked by Gene Rodenberry, Star Trek’s creator, for hijacking his rather sexless, sweatless vision of the future and for taking his shirt off and wrestling with rubber aliens too much, William Shatner, stressing words and syllables that mere mortals might think had no importance, pausing painfully . . . in the middle… of… sentences . . . while-rushing-over-their-conclusions, somehow conveyed something credibly human. Even Shatner’s immense soft-focus vanity is sympathetic. Real people are faintly preposterous after all.

Above all the original Star Trek was very . . . pointy. As well as Shatner’s urgent libido, there were the fabulous pointy boots (low-risers for the men, knee-length ones for the mini-skirted ladies), pointy sideburns, pointy breasts, pointy ears, pointy engine nacelles, pointy Federation logos, pointy lettering in the credits, and also the pointedly pointy mission statement: “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” which of course was bluntly desexed/corrected in The Next Generation to “where no one has been before”.

The new movie though is gratifyingly pointy. The kinky boots are back, as are the form-hugging uniforms and miniskirts – though now they look like fashionable sportswear. The cast is pretty, male and female, and now, forty years on, the men also have bodies and pointy-chests (the two stars, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, reportedly work out at the same gym in LA – and share the same trainer). It looks like there’s enough (metro)sexual tension to power the warp drive. Back too are the brightly Utopian colours of the original series’ sets and costume design. The Enterprise herself handles like one of those pointy Sixties sports cars.

Kirk himself, of course, is back. But not Shatner, who, unlike Nimoy isn’t allowed on board, even for a cameo, perhaps because the director, J. J. Abrams, wants to make sure that his Kirk, played by Chris Pine, is not going to be overshadowed by Shatner’s intergalactic manhood/ego. Whatever the reason, Pine’s Kirk is a Daniel Craig moment, a reminder of the startling sexiness of a franchise that had become lifeless and effete.

Back also, and very much in the foreground, is what Abrams has quite rightly suggested is the relationship without which Star Trek really makes no sense: Kirk and Spock. Here Spock is played by an androgynously fringed Quinto (apparently channelling early 80s Marc Almond), and we finally learn how they met at Starfleet Academy and overcame fierce rivalry to become the most famous male “marriage” in pop culture.

Despite Spock’s pointy ears, there doesn’t appear to be however, anything terribly pointy-headed in this reboot: no cerebrals, no reflecting on where the American Dream might have gone wrong – just the enhanced, sexed-up aesthetics of hope. But while great effects, pecs and kinky boots might not be enough to rescue the American Dream, they’re probably enough to be getting on with.

6 thoughts on “Star Trek Boldy Goes Into the Obama Era”

  1. But the best of us are apparently the most chaste of us – in Star Trek sexual relationships are doomed, unless you are committed to “the one”. In the Star Trek future, as it is today, only a one-on-one relationship will give you the appearance of maturity, of wholeness, of respectability.

    There are a lot of fan-made Star Trek films about – some excruciating to watch, some mediocre, some excellent. But they all push the same tired line, even the ones with prominent gay characters – happiness, contedness and social acceptance is only when you find (and marry) the one.

    Bring back the days of sexual tension between Kirk and Spock, at least that was interesting.

  2. To my knowledge, the U.S has never gone much of anywhere where no one/man feared to go except in the dreamland of the Telly and consequently the American mind. The U.S has made an unrelenting profusion imperialistic advances into other peoples countries in Corporate interests; in all cases “freedom” refers to freedom for McDonald’s and Walmart ; of course so we were fighting the Commies-unions, etc(the democratic choice!) The U.S. is responsible for nearly every dictatorship throughout the World, and currently has a “military presence” in over 100 countries. Why didn’t they call it the “Imperial Starship Enterprise”? ‘
    “Deep Space Nine” could be fun if it wasn’t associated associate it with those impotent queens: Reagan /Bush Sr..(“Shallow Space Two”.)
    The show got shut out in case anyone noticed the discrepancies when the Bush cadre came along and privatized war for their own individual personal profits that even the most extreme of American dreams were threatened. At that point Captain Bush came down on the media with a vengeance that would put Hitler to shame and allowed as little as possible reference to dreams realities or anything that might signify the HYPOCRISY of the whole Zany affair: bombing innocent goat farmers. Relying on the proposition of Machiavelli said that “wars are easy to start but hard to stop.“Bush et. al hoodwinked most everyone and despite all discouraging evidence started the war. With the able help of propagandists the likes of Rupert Murdoch, perverted and shut down the media almost completely. The Enterprise would resemble more a Klingon Vampire vessel as the truth unraveled, which it was surely bound to. Bush may have feared something like the Vietnam rallies, but little did he know how paralyzed American brains had become. Proof that the Telly deactivates brains more than deep sleep. So nobody noticed until they realized that THEY WERE PAYING for it with their taxes.
    . The whole Series had succeeded as a coverup of the Neocon project. I suppose there isn’t much difference between a delusion and a dream. They had succeeded in setting the “American dream” adrift in the American unconscious to make citizens believe we were still Cowboys only when we were evidently the bad guys .
    Now with Bush out of the way, most people think we are back on course, despite the fact that we still have an immense standing army and a Government run by Corporate interests. Nothing is a whole lot different, just a little less insane. Back “on course” as they say in flight school.
    It serves well for the characters to appear to belong to a gym and to have returned to the pointy 50’s go -go boots and pointy bras. The object is to make everything to have returned to the “American dream” and it has as a DREAM, as such aesthetics are all that count.

  3. What always irked me in all the Star Trek series and films is the relentless 1950s sexual ethos among the crew – apart, perhaps, of the holodecks on DS9, which at least offered carnal pleasure of your choosing (at a price, of course, they were after all run by the Ferengi/Jewish traders).

    All those pointy bits and nowhere to stick them in.

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