Sunday, May 10, 2009

To Boldly Go Where Everyone Has Gone Before

I'm a confessed geek, so I enjoyed the new Star Trek movie on its own merits as a fast-paced space-opera adventure filled with plot twists and alternate realities.

But it's got a very powerful subtext: as the prequel to the original TV series, which started its run in 1966, it explores the foundational mythology of a baby-boomer cultural touchstone. Forty years after that series went off the air, with five other TV series and ten films spun out of the franchise, it was time to start all over again.

I wasn't old enough when the series first aired to watch it, but there were endless reruns (there's probably one on right now), and I got to to know the characters well. So good casting was key to my enjoyment of the new film, and they largely got that done. Chris Pine has Kirk's swagger and bravado, and is much better-looking than Shatner ever was, Zachary Quinto has been a Heroes standout and makes a excellent Spock; John Cho is a very studly Sulu and Simon Pegg is an exceptionally entertaining Scotty. (Zoe Saldana looks great in her underwear, but she sadly just doesn't have Nichelle Nichols' gravitas as Uhura, and is risible in her big love scene.)

It was fun to see how they handled their characters' stock phrases, which, if the knowing laughter of the Upper West Side audience I was with is any indication, were well-remembered, and had been burnished by ongoing repetition in previous movies starring the increasingly creaky original cast members. And learning more about Kirk and Spock's childhoods was fun in the way that re-encountering college friends and getting to know them better than you ever did then can be - it reaffirms why you liked them in the first place.

I'm not alone in seeing this as a cultural moment. I noticed today that Sunday's New York Times Week in Review has three different Star Trek pieces, two of them Op-Eds (a Trek-to-news ratio that begins to approach Usenet circa 1993). One of those was Maureen Dowd's column, which incorporated the hilarious photo illustration below.

It's not surprising that our first non-baby-boomer president is so Spockian. As the movie ended with the original series music swelling and the now 78-year-old Leonard Nimoy intoning the "boldly go where no one has gone before" voiceover, tears were running down my cheeks. I realized that something remarkable had happened: the filmmakers had succeeded in doing two crucial things for the Star Trek franchise:
  1. Making the boomers like me in the audience believe, if only for a moment, that they, like Kirk, Spock and Bones, can and will live on as younger, sexier versions of themselves (I told you we were amortals!); and
  2. Making the universe safe for the next generation, even while flagrantly disobeying the Prime Directive.
That's how I felt when Obama won, too. Nicely done, guys.

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