Star Trek Marks a Shift in the National Mood

Goodbye grim existential struggles ... hello cheerful existential struggles!

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

The national mood can be traced in some ways by the movies the country produces and consumes.* I wonder if we won't look back in a few years and see in Star Trek the demarcation of a new such era.

The great science fiction and fantasy movies and TV series in this decade have shared a sense of overwhelming, grave, and gathering danger (to borrow a phrase), and while there has been no shortage of heroes, they have seemed to be perpetually on the run, scrapping to stay alive rather than marching confidently forward. Think of the Lord of the Rings trilogy; Battlestar Galactica (the best TV show of its time), Watchmen (where heroes of questionable character have to select the least evil outcomes), and underappreciated shows like Firefly (where an imperious government had won a galactic civil war and the heroes were skirting the law trying to stay free) and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Even the lamentable Star Wars prequels were grim (in a digital, plastic way), chronicling evil's rise and triumph. Or think of Batman and James Bond, venerable franchises to varying degrees associated with camp goofiness suddenly reborn as gritty, realistic (for superhero/super-spy movies), and dark.

And the theme fit the national mood in the years after 9/11. We were suddenly brutalized and at war against a host of enemies that we didn't understand and seemed to spring from nowhere to become a mortal threat. (Remember in the days after 9/11 the reports of the scores or hundreds of countries in which al Qaeda operated.)

Comes now Star Trek, another creaking franchise relaunched. But it has not been restarted a la Bond and the Bat. This reboot will have you grinning almost all the way through (even if, unlike me, you don't have a phaser, tricorder, and communicator sitting on the shelf above your desk). Yes, it involves an existential threat, and planet-killing genocide, but the overall mood is forcefully optimistic. And while young Jim Kirk is a rebellious punk, he embraces charismatic, happy warrior leadership with greater gusto than Aragorn, William Adama, John Connor, or Bruce Wayne. Even the villain seems oddly chipper at times. You know the heroes will triumph, have fun doing it—and learn positive things about themselves.

Jim Pinkerton, a thoughtful conservative, has a great piece in our op-ed column today looking at the politics of the new Trek film, which is worth a read. He writes that the film is

...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...

I don't agree with everything Jim writes here—I remain a huge fan of the various movies and shows he lists (and I list above), but I think he's caught the mood of the new film quite well. And I suspect that Trek has caught the mood of the country as well. We can argue about whether the growing national optimism is something Barack Obama created or merely tapped (or some combination of both), but he seems of it. And so does Trek.

*This should not, as I said, be surprising. Consider the paranoia and corruption and hopelessness of 1970s dramas like Chinatown and The Parallax View; or dystopian science fiction films from that era like the Charlton Heston trio of Soylent Green, The Omega Man , and Planet of the Apes (which was from 1968 but close enough). While the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) (an allegory about the threat of communism or Red Scare-ism) ended on a hopeful note, with the government warned and mobilizing against the alien threat, its 1978 remake ended with humanity having been taken over; so too The Thing From Another World (1951) ended with the intrepid heroes, having defeated the monster, warning the world to "watch the skies," while John Carpenter's 1982 remake (the '70s funk spilling over here) ended with the two heroes resigned to sacrificing themselves in order to save humanity.

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