Saturday evening, burned out and brain-dead after two weeks of grading papers, I plopped down in the living room to take advantage of my weekend by watching the first two Star Trek films. It had been, probably, fifteen years since I watched the 1979 Star Trek , and it was every bit as strange as I recalledeven more so at times. But behind that weirdness was a decision to strive for a particular type of science-fiction. Of course its weird: there are weird things out there in the universe, the movie says, and can we do anything other than marvel at them? Gene Roddenberrys future might be one without religion, God, or moneybut it is one that hasnt lost its sense of wonder.
The trailer for the upcoming Star Trek: Into Darkness shows some wonderful-looking shotsthe coloring, one might say, is almost wonderful. The new movie, like many Star Trek films before it, takes some kind of imminent threat to the Earth as its plot-line. But where the renegade space probes in I and IV are also invitations to wonder or marvel at something about the universeeven its weirdness, its potential destructivenessI dont see a universe that one can wonder at in this (brief) clip: only one that is dark and fearful.
Granted: the Star Trek television shows were sci-fi procedurals and the movies space action flicks. Even the darkest, however, take up this question of wonder. First Contact is an attempt to preserve humanitys next big leap into space. The crewmembers are suddenly living through the historical events that, to varying degrees, inspired them to go into space. And, at its heart, theres the question of humanitys future: some kind of semi-robotic hive mind, or an idealized version of the fallible being capable, even within the mistakes, of wondering and marveling.
The Wrath of Khan , at its end, moves away from the questions of revenge (and even aging) that have driven it and shows the characters standing in awe of the creation of life even in the face of death. Earlier in the movie, Dr. McCoy, that wonderful Percy-ite space traveler, watches a report on a device to create life from lifelessness in a matter of minutes, gasping in horror. The professionalization, the technologizing, the reduction to a series of equationsof Genesis? The old Earth myth, he complains bitterly, said the world was created in six days. Well, move over Godwell do it for you in six minutes! He doesnt believe the Biblical storythere are no believers left in the Star Trek universebut its clear hed prefer this account to humanity claiming to have understood lifes origins entirely.
I dont mean this simply as a complaint that J.J. Abrams has moved the franchise that filled my childhood rather too much away from what I most fondly remember. I see this, in fact, happening in the darkening of our re-booted franchises and pop culture more generally. Maybe were less optimistic than we were in the late 1960s (though Star Trek was born during Vietnam and the first movie was released late in Carters presidency); maybe were a society of realists nowbut I fear that what we mean by that term is a preference for cynicism and pessimism, a failure or inability to wonder at the strange, mysterious, marvelous fact of life, the universeand, well, everything .