The new Star Trek movie is an entertaining flashback to the 1960s, when a different and brighter vision of the future prevailed. Back then, in the era of Apollo, it was presumed that planes and rockets would go steadily faster and higher, soon whooshing us all the way to the stars. Remember the SuperSonic Transport? Remember the fictive Pan Am Clipper, shuttling to the moon in the 1968 film 2001?
Indeed, overall confidence in government's ability to undertake grand projects was much greater in those days. Some '60s projects, such as the Internet, turned out well. Others, such as the Vietnam War and Model Cities, worked not so well.
But the pessimistic downdraft of the 1970s black-holed all forward-looking projects, as economic and ecological concerns—plus a cynicism bordering on nihilism—crowded out support for Big Science. Indeed, by the mid-1980s, William Shatner, who on the original series played Captain Kirk—one part John F. Kennedy, one part Christopher Columbus, one part Hugh Hefner—had cannibalized his own heroic persona, telling Trekkies on Saturday Night Live to "get a life!"
Yet if that was end of Star Trek, we wouldn't be seeing this new movie in 2009, a film boldly reviving the spirit of the original series in all its spacefaring, techno-loving, and, yes, horndogging glory. So maybe Star Trek isn't just a flashback, but rather a flash-forward, a tractor beam to a better future, attracting an audience that mostly wasn't born when the original series ran from 1966 to 1969.
Chris Pine (born 1980), who stars as the new Captain Kirk, spoke diplomatically to Entertainment Weekly as he compared current film fare: "You've got apocalyptic movies like Watchmen and Dark Knight—movies that explore the darker side of human psychology—and they're great. But this is not going to be one of those movies," he added. "This is not nihilistic. This is not grim. This is a bright vision of the future, full of hope and optimism."
And that's a far cry from not only the politics of the last few decades, but also from much recent science fiction, which has descended from techno-inventiveness into pseudo-Wagnerian mysticism. The six alternate-franchise Star Wars movies, for example, stretching from 1977 to 2005, are of a different ilk, owing more to the "sword and sorcery" genre than to Jules Verne.
By contrast, the creator of "Star Trek," Gene Roddenberry, was that rare breed—a tech poet. He had been a B-17 pilot during World War Two, so it was easy for him to see military machinery as a valuable companion to human valor. And like his fellow vet John F. Kennedy, Roddenberry saw no contradiction between flag-waving patriotism and what has since been called "big government." Indeed, it was only a muscularly robust Uncle Sam, in the view of the Greatest Generation, who could defeat fascism abroad and racism at home—with help, of course, from the popular culture; the original Trek series featured the first inter-racial kiss on TV, between Kirk and Lt. Uhura.
By contrast, George Lucas' Star Wars films put forth the bleakest possible genetic determinism. The Phantom Menace (1999), for instance, tells us that membership in the Jedi Knights is reckoned not by virtue, but by the presence of "midi-chlorians" in the blood. In other words, if the Star Trek series was about equal opportunity—including an equal chance for all females anywhere in the galaxy to enjoy a fling with Captain Kirk—Star Wars was about something dark and drear: immutable race-based destiny.
On the other hand, the new "Star Trek" vindicates the high call of duty, summoning all who hear it. At the beginning of the film, a veteran space commander tells Kirk, then still in his young-punk phase, "Your father was captain of a starship for twelve minutes. He saved 800 lives, including yours. I dare you to do better. Enlist in Starfleet." And Kirk does.
That's our James Tiberius Kirk. And that's the gallant America—transmuted into the United Federation of Planets—that Roddenberry envisioned for the 23rd century. Guardians of galactic freedom, the Federation's Starfleet patrolled the ramparts of civilization, pulling lonely tours of duty in a long twilight struggle stretching into eternity. As Kirk first said 43 years ago, space is the final frontier. And 40 years ago—on July 20, 1969—the United States put a man on the moon, just as JFK said we would. But then Americans forgot how to do such great deeds for the benefit of ourselves and for all humanity. In conspicuously consuming, we laid waste to our powers; the Luddites, Green reactionaries, and neo-Hobbits did away with the rest.
James P. Pinkerton, a fellow at the New America Foundation and a contributor to the Fox News Channel, was a domestic policy aide in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses.