I’m not precisely a trekkie, but I know an awful lot about Star Trek: The Next Generation. I love it. It was something my family watched together, and it represented a moment of thoughtful enjoyment when we were all still stuck together and blamed each other for dissolution of our personal dreams as various ages set in. I was disappointed later in life when I went back to Star Trek in a fit of nostalgia and discovered it wasn’t that good. It wasn’t for lack of creativity, it was the writers’ compulsion to illustrate every minor emotion and trivial event with expository speeches by whomever was the most self-righteous character present.1
However, Star Trek is the undeniable face of geek culture, even more so since the portion of the human race which creates humor hinging on the definition of geekdom has been universally enslaved by computers, and can no longer mock geeks for the same affliction. Despite this role as the lowest common denominator for geekery, the Star Trek franchise seems unmoved by the usual geek demands. Every incarnation of Star Trek ignores the conceit of its predecessor, and the fans devour it. Regardless of their aesthetic opinion, they clog the internet with commentary as often as they clog it with porn downloads. If you look at the vehicles for the mythology, it’s baffling: The initial Star Trek was the epitome of camp. The first six movies slowly fixed this by virtue of eventually being good movies focussed on character, a journey aided by the participants eventually learning to act. Then comes Star Trek: The Next Generation, which, aided by the digital revolution, captured an audience with special effects that were special in the good way, meaningless jargon, and Marina Sirtis’s tits. Gone are the catch phrases and cowboy sentimentality, gone are the semi-humorous references to a misremembered past, gone are the soft-focus close-ups of the female crew.
Contrast this to the reincarnation of Doctor Who. Despite a budget that appears to be several billions pounds more than the original series, the new Doctor Who maintains the camp value. Things happen because the doctor shines a blue flashlight in the general direction of the problem. Doctor Who fans of old would not have accepted less.
The power of geek demand is even more evident in the inevitable arc of Marvel Comics movie adaptations. I submit the Spiderman and X-Men series. The first movie has to cover the basics, the introductions, and establish the world of nuclear spiders or genetic freaks. This movie will attempt to appeal to the public at large, but will have jokes nobody but the target demographic will understand, the best example being Cyclops’ line in the first X-Men when Wolverine complains about his uniform: “What would you prefer… yellow spandex?”2
The second movie in both of these series is fairly good. They’ve captured the audience in just the way the first Fantastic Four movie didn’t, and whoever is directing feels liberated to focus on the most interesting story line and make a real movie. Both the second X-Men and the second Spiderman were excellent movies for the budding genre.
Then comes the third. Everybody making Marvel Comics movies understands they will never have the gravitas of a DC Comics movie. Batman and Superman are comic characters that captured a notable percentage of our metaphor-making abilities; Marvel Comics, is, well, comic books, one of the socialist forces taking our children away from Jesus. So the producers are certain they have a trilogy to work with, and that’s the end of it. Here, as in the first movie, they pander to the geek power, trying to satisfy every imagined conversation starting with “Man, they’d better do the (most complex multi-year, thousand-issue, defining story of the characters) in this movie or I’ll post disparaging comments on this internet forum.” They are not paranoid; most of their fan base is having that conversation well before pre-production. So they try to cram a twenty thousand pages of story line into a two hour movie.
One of the very few times I try to defend the film industry is when people complain about a movie adaptation not being true to the book it was based on. This is probably misguided, as the film industry—from the production assistants working for fifty dollars a day to George Lucas and including every pre- during- and post-production house and every TV show cast and crew and everybody who reviews or works on or distributes or is professionally related to any frame of film in any way—is composed of power crazed and developmentally paralyzed narcissistic screaming lunatics. The exceptions are too rare to be worth mentioning, so these people should be criticized for everything all the time, just because they’re mostly bad people who should suffer. However, the aforementioned critique is a misconception about what a movie is, and what the art form is capable of. At its most epic, a movie covers the narrative space of a short story. You cannot fit a four hundred page novel into a movie unless it’s fifteen hours long. You cannot fit a ten-year weekly story arc into a movie at all.
Yet they try. And the movies are awful. And they did it because of the power of the geek demographic, which demanded that the movie tell a story it’s not capable of telling.
Star Trek transcends this kind of obsessed fan-base hamstringing. Star Trek: The Next Generation3 changed the pathos with tectonic ferocity. The techno-babble was jacked up in direct proportion to the production values, and the special effects made the world of the next generation a more staggering advancement over the world of the original series than the original series was over the actual world of 1966. They could do this because the true fans of Star Trek were either nostalgic middle-class boomers or totally insane, and both kinds of people love reincarnations of dead pop culture. It gave the boomers something recognizable in modern culture, and the insane something to argue about.
Spurred by the success of SNG, the producers spun up Deep Space Nine, which is the West Wing in space with slower dialogue and fewer jews. What’s next?
A lot of crap, honestly. No matter. The meaning of Star Trek lies in its role as the archetypal geek obsession along with its immunity to geek demands. It’s defining its culture instead of being a byproduct of it. Add the fact that its creators are the forbidden offspring of cultural opposites: the scientist and the TV producer. Geek culture, since it’s defined by a lack of access to sex, is predominantly male, thus what Star Trek offers us is the template of what thinking geeks believe to be, and can sell as, the definition of manhood.
Via the captains.
James Tiberius Kirk (Star Trek, 1966-1969, and a bunch of okay movies)
The best line William Shatner ever delivered was “Second star to the right. Straight on till morning.” It was at the end of Star Trek 6, the last Star Trek movie with the original cast. Personally, I didn’t get it right away; my mom4 pointed out that it was from Peter Pan, and that Kirk has a Peter Pan complex. This was the summation of the Kirk character: a boy who never grew up, living in the stars. I would say Kirk is the Peter Pan of the late sixties, but I won’t, because Kirk was indicative of return to youth in the heroes of the era.
I’m hesitant to make judgements about the late sixties, since I wasn’t there and I’m barely aware of the thirty years I’ve been around. I’m going to defer to my parents for most of the facts. But since the music of the late sixties still informs most of the emotional assumptions of college students, I can start with that.
The picture that so many young hippies hang their misinformed fashion senses upon is the flower child. It should almost have quotes. “Flower child”. The flower children are now yuppies (mostly), dead (occasionally), or still hippies (rarely). I cannot believe that a generation of undergrads adopted “child” as part of their name without a Freudian agenda: the political and social wake up call was a more senseless than usual war started by the aging generation of The Last Real Men who fought The Last Moral War. This, alongside a sexual and drug revolution, led to the kind of budding consciousness that inevitably and wrongly associates itself with childhood. Children are in fact little psychopaths, but we need to think they’re innocent and wondrous to perpetuate the species, so we imbue them with all the most irrational expectations we have for the platonic fantasy of our own egos, and say things like “children see the world the way it really is,” and depict children getting free tickets in afterlife fictions like Defending Your Life and the rapture. This leads us to confuse childlike actions (starting fights over the slightest upset, claiming things for themselves just to see if they can get away with it, complaining about everything that isn’t a silver teacup on a hooker’s ass) with the qualities we miss about being a child (idealism via ignorance, egalitarianism via powerlessness, and curiosity because everything is new and pretty).
The backstory was this: the man of the factory fought the good fight, and won for the values of a hardworking, unquestioning people working for a nation. Then, after a quick honeymoon in the 50’s, they were alternately betrayed by and betraying the nation they’d bronzed in blood. The only option for a person growing up in this situation was to try not to grow up, and clutch the confusing ideal child archetype. For the actual flower children, this meant sex and drugs to a degree I wasn’t even capable of, and God knows I tried. For the geeks, this meant James T Kirk.
For the geeks of the day, Kirk was the geek who battled jocks and slept with asians. Jocks and asians? Yes. Mean, gigantic aliens, without remorse, without any attempt at relating to your unique, misunderstood position as an open-hearted traveller in this cruel, cruel, M-class planet of the day. Asians because the white American psyche is basically divided into white people (like me!), black people (I feel bad for reasons I don’t completely understand!), and asians (exotic in a way I’m not required to understand! Thank Christ!). For anyone who doesn’t live in a real city, alien women in science fiction basically amount to asian women in real life. Women that men are not historically required to understand are the lifeblood of the stereotypical geek who doesn’t understand women, because now they are in their element of trying to figure out a puzzle no one else has the patience to solve.
Except Kirk. James Kirk understands alien women. He is the the Peter Pan who fights space pirates and suspiciously human-looking Klingon bullies, and wins every time. No one takes away Kirk’s toys. Logic (Spock) and reason (Bones) are mere obstacles to be trampled by Kirk’s will to powerfully fulfill the dreams of Man-Geek. Every other supporting character is a foreigner or a babe. Kirk was the uber-child, a being enslaved by his impulses, and immune to punishment despite daily violations of what is apparently the only directive of the organization that gave him a heavily armed battlecruiser. The myth of Kirk is that only the unpredictable, wild card child, following his personal sense of good, against all odds and all the laws of the very government that granted him the privileges of his command, could solve the intractable problems of his mission.
Hard not to love him.
Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek: The Next Generation, 1987-1994, and a few shitty movies, except the second one, which was okay)
Was French. Isn’t that awesome? In the time of freedom fries, the geek man’s man5 remains French.6 Of course SNG was off the air seven years before freedom fries became a cultural necessity for the stupid, but Picard remains an icon of manhood, as symbolized by the ubiquity of the face palm. Google it. The face palm is the fundamental expression of utter disgust in geek culture. Picard would willingly sacrifice his emotional control to aid a vulcan ambassador in need of Valium. Picard will experience any form of humiliation or risk of death in order to save an innocent species, a treaty, or his ship, in that order. Picard reeked of dignity, but would sacrifice that very dignity for a cause, or even for the sake of someone else’s dignity, which made his dignity all the more profound. So if Picard’s response was to put his head in his hand, you fucked up something tragic.
Picard is the opposite of Kirk. Picard felt privileged to do his duty, while it was never clear Kirk knew what the word duty meant. Picard was the picture of self restraint, Kirk sought out new and interesting aliens to punch. Kirk was a salve to a generation that realized they hadn’t questioned enough, Picard was the answer to a generation that questioned too much without waiting for an answer. Picard, above all else, was in control, and his sense of right and wrong is based on simple guiding principles which he follows without exception. He is never morally confused about the next course of action; if he cannot decide what to do, it is only because he has incomplete information.
There’s a telling scene in Data’s Day7 where Data gives the odds of Picard’s next course of action. It was probably meant to point out that Data sees personality as a collection of probabilities, but it’s illustrative of Picard’s predictability. That’s the fundamental difference between Picard and Kirk: Kirk was an unpredictable force who could eliminate any enemy advantage because he wasn’t playing by the rules, and he didn’t play by the rules because his heart was bigger than a bunch of rules. Rules were for fascists. Picard always followed a strict code of ethics, which made him predictable, but his focus made him ridiculously good at everything. Kirk was a boy who never grew up, Picard is a man who was never a boy.
This is why Picard’s two-episode torture story arc is the best work in the series.
I assume non Star Trek fans have given up reading at this point, but for Star Trek fans who don’t know the story, Picard is tricked and captured by the Cardasians, who are sort of the Iranians of the Star Trek universe. Once captured, Picard is beaten, stripped naked, and left to hang by his wrists until his torturer arrives. The next episode is an hour of Picard’s relationship with his torturer.
The torturer opens their relationship with a seeming act of mercy, handing Picard something to eat. Picard, starving, accepts it, and opens what looks like an alien egg filled with maggots. Picard is slightly taken aback, but even as an abused prisoner of an alien species, with no hope of escape and little of rescue, Picard will not allow himself to be seen as culturally insensitive. He eats the maggots with gusto.
His torturer expected this, of course, and uses Picard’s impeccable etiquette against him by putting the primary means of torture8 in the maggot snack. I like to think of this as the first act of psychological torture. Picard’s reputation precedes him, and his torturer is attempting to turn his greatest personal strength into a weakness.
Picard will have none of this, of course, so the Cardasian quickly resorts to an extremely painful, but completely invisible and network friendly form of torture.
This continues for some time, with occasional breaks for the rest of the plot to figure out how to rescue Picard.
Then, just before the last commercial break, Picard and the Cardasian are having a little chat, like you do, and the Cardasian inadvertently reveals a childhood trauma that Picard picks up on, and thinks aloud at his captor as he figures out that the Cardasian is really just getting back at people to compensate for being a little kid who got beaten up a lot. The Cardasian confirms this by losing his cool and cranking up the remote, and we cut to commercial on the image of Picard shouting, “you’re just a scared little boy!” even as he’s being hit with nine billion nano-quantimitons.
As viewers, we know Picard has just won by being the better man. But he couldn’t just be the better man by not being the man torturing a helpless prisoner. Picard’s infinite patience and understanding would never accept mere torture as evidence of someone being bad; it could be a cultural misunderstanding. No, Picard needed firm evidence that his opponent was of inferior moral character, and had selfish motivations for his actions. After this, the actual rescue is a minor plot point. Picard has proven he cannot be broken.
As the Borg later prove, the only way to truly break Picard is to remove chunks of his brain and replace them with evil computers. And even then, the moment he has an iota of self-control back, he destroys his opponents—opponents who, by the way, just destroyed every ship in the combined forces of three species’ military without blinking—with one word. Picard’s tombstone would read “don’t fuck with me,” except that he’d never be associated with such vulgar language.
Dignity is what people desperately craved at the end of the eighties, and I speak with authority on this matter, because I was there, seeing it as the child psychopath that I was. Geek culture in particular craved it, since the eighties geek hadn’t yet found its iconic billionaires, and was still mocked in popular culture even as it looked aghast at a popular culture consumed by cocaine and impossibly ugly fashion. It was the decade of Steven Morrissey, who built a game-changing career on angst-ridden lyrics and a voice that sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of a sad little milk carton recently slapped out of his hand by a bully. Self respect without the need for external recognition was seeing its conceptual extinction, and Picard emerged, and represented a classical sense of manhood as the face of science fiction’s most beloved narrative. Picard is the vision of manhood that is mostly just hinted at by men wishing they were better and women wishing they dated better: he is so self assured he doesn’t need validation. When someone doesn’t need validation, they can actually do what they think is right, instead of straining to look like they’re doing what they think everybody else thinks is right.
Aside: Kirk vs. Picard
I need to weigh in on this briefly, and only once. Picard would kick Kirk’s ass. Not because of some ideological reason, but because Picard almost single-handedly took down three armed Klingons in less than ten seconds,9 while Kirk regularly made tactical hand-to-hand combat errors while fighting off foam rubber zombies.
Despite all the attentions of alien ladies, Kirk just wasn’t a closer.
Benjamin Lafayette Sisko (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 1993-1999)
Sisko definitely wins the most humorless captain award. This could be because he’s the only one who has a kid. It could also be because he’s black.
In my reviews of the many captain vs. captain debates, the things that people point out about Sisko is that he punches a lot of people, never loses a fight, and plays baseball. He carries the torch of indignation on from Picard, but his speeches, though no less eloquent or effective, are not Picard’s “How can this be?” speeches, but more “How can you be so stupid?” There is violence and anger in Sisko, and it’s not Kirk’s emotional violence nor Picard’s existential anger, but a distinct feeling of “I will hurt you to make this right.”
If you are white or black in this country, it’s difficult to separate your opinion of culture from the fact that white people did something so horrific I can’t even bring myself to encapsulate it in a cute, ironic metaphor. A lot of white people are still doing it, with less justification or rational explanation than the average Scientologist11 has for whatever it is a Scientologist does. Enough. The fact is, liberal culture accepts anger in black people far more readily than it accepts anger in white people. In the show, Sisko’s anger is introduced by revealing that he has to deal with Borg Picard (see above) being responsible for the death of his wife. Nice story. He’s angry because he’s black, and the writers saw an opportunity to get some Kirk punching in without losing all the Picard dignity.
The early nineties saw a transformation in the popular culture of the angry black man stereotype becoming sexy instead of just a scary ideological construction made by white people who felt bad but wanted to stay racist. The mainstreaming of that transformation has been disappointing, because it cheapened the accurate frustration of being black, or even a white non-racist: how can racist people be so fucking stupid? After all this time? Seriously?
Sisko embodies this frustration, and he is presented with a revolving door of species who hate each other for no good reason. Each time he is confronted with another example of bigotry masked as political maneuvering, or people doing stupid things for personal gain, he delivers the “how can you be so stupid?” speech. They are either properly chastised, or he beats them up. In a way, he delivers both the emotional satisfaction of Kirk, and the moral satisfaction of Picard. The fact is that geeks, and men in general in America, don’t really know how to do this without being black. You can be fundamentally cooler as a black person in western society, because if you are in mixed company and a white person says “Oh, everything’s cool, we’re all brothers,” a black person can say, “No, dude, you fucked it all up. I’m being cool by not punching you, and if I do, you will take it and shut up.” Meanwhile, white people love seeing black people punch white people, since it relieves white guilt by evening the score a bit, and validates both overt and secret racist fears.
The recent history of being a man has ricocheted between fixating on knowing when to throw a punch versus knowing when not to. Being a man these days has a lot to do with being angry all the time, but being unable to express it in any socially acceptable way. The media of black manhood throughout the nineties was was a weird evolution of guilt and emotional management: for the most part, coming of age, in a movie, while black, involved being a criminal as the only option, creating the post-modern exploitation of the victimized murderer.
Sisko, through a consistently stunning performance, manages to transcend his decade’s expectations and create a character that is, despite all of the above, an almost impossibly normal human being, whose moments of anger are as relatable as his dreams of a more sensible world. He’s a mix of dedication and disinterest, which is difficult to pull off.
But Star Trek is a universe of archetypes, and I wish the writers hadn’t made him punch so many people.
Kathryn Janeway (Star Trek: Voyager, 1995-2001)
I’m skipping the Voyager series. Not just because the captain was a woman (this could have interesting implications for my thesis, after all) but because there don’t seem to be any men at all on this show. Also, they’re so badly written. I can’t get through a single episode, much less enough of them to form a sociological opinion.
Jonathan Archer (Star Trek: Enterprise, 2001-2005)
Enterprise was fun for ten minutes of “Oh it’s the guy from Quantum Leap, I thought he was dead,” followed by five hours (as far as I got) of wishing he actually was. Skipping. From what I remember, they were trying to rehash the Kirk persona. Oh, and there was a hot Vulcan, which I guess is how math majors will get action in the future.
The new Kirk bears little relation to the Star Trek show. For one, Kirk is a secret genius who merely has to grow up. As mentioned before, the original Kirk did not grow up, so the new Kirk’s coming of age is incongruous with the mythology. Furthermore, the new Kirk is the kind of standard anti-anti-hero of today’s consumption ethos, embodying a neutral union of conservative and liberal values: he craves life, but really only as self-destruction to deal with the pain of being raised in a single-parent family. He proves himself charming, brilliant, and badass by beating up a bunch of obnoxious military cadets, pleasing those of us who want to identify or have sex with a smarter James Dean, and then joins the military to honor his father, pleasing everyone else.
Kirk’s mother’s sole purpose in life seems to have been to give birth. Her complex feelings of pride and fear over her son’s life decisions are unimportant. Mothers in general get short shrift in this movie, obviated by choosing Winona Ryder to play Spock’s mother. This succeeded in reducing her career to the singular accomplishment of managing to play an aging alien bride and still remind everybody of Reality Bites and not being able to get a job.
So we are left with a parentless badass who beats up (well, gets beaten up by) aliens for the man. It’s similar to the original Kirk ethos, with a more patriotic tint in the character arc. But the original Kirk’s charm was “There’s nothing more important than how I feel right now,” and that that was enough to make a moral decision. The new Kirk does it for the memory of his father, and that memory has been co-opted into military service. So there’s still the importance of one’s personal feelings, but the new manhood intimates that these feelings are validated by an approving government, and only validated when they are in the service of the government. But your feelings do matter, and they can affect world events if you’re in the prevailing political party.
This is the “I am an army of one” manhood, and it’s a lie, to which even geek manhood has proven susceptible.
It could be argued that JJ Abrams created a geek schism when he reframed the Star Trek mythology in modern Hollywood terms, but I think this is false. JJ Abrams and Joss Whedon are the architects of our geek media today the same way Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas were the architects of its past. It doesn’t matter who directed it: as pointed out above, Star Trek is not responsive to geek culture; it’s instructive of it. Star Trek is the medium through which normal pop- and counter-culture feed their mores and values to the geek world.
I’m the opposite of a conspiracy theorist. The history of Star Trek is not a history of manipulation. The popular image of manhood in the media reflects the idealized object of craving, particularly in America, where manhood has neither ritual nor stable definition.
Star Trek is how the media explains this ethos to the only consumer group that looks forward to the deconstruction of its own entertainment.
I would say I look forward to the next incarnation of Star Trek, but it appears to be in JJ’s hands for the time being, so I can’t justify further research.
1 Many people think this was Picard; it’s not. Picard was culturally righteous. The most self-righteous characters were Riker, who had no personality and had to be self-righteous to build a character, and Beverly, who was a bitch
2 I wouldn’t attempt to imagine the pain in James Marsden’s heart as he did the third take.
3 Hereafter, SNG. I was going to be a bitch about it and type the whole name out every time, but now I’m drunk.
4 My mom is the actual Star Trek scholar in my family.
5 And remember the geek gave us things like computers and nukes.
6 Although, judging from the accent, at some point in the future, the British seem to have finally conquered France.
7 For non-viewers: Data is an android, and this episode is narrated by Data reading from his journal.
8 Some sort of remote control neurotoxin; it doesn’t matter. If you’re ever confused about what something means in Star Trek, just try to hear “anti-nano-quantumiton-plasma is screwy again” in place of whatever they’re saying and ignore it.
9 SNG, Season 3, Episode 17.
10 Although the evidence for this is only slightly less circumstantial than the evidence for Bogart banging Bergman in Casablanca.
11 Spell check had no guesses for “Scientologist”, thankfully.
12 Full disclosure: I will never forgive JJ Abrams for the end of Lost. It proved that he never, in fact, had a plan, and was lying to us the whole time. I watched every goddamn episode, and in the end, he explained nothing, left countless loose ends flopping around, then tried to trick us into buying it with emotionally manipulative bullshit that essentially said, “Oh it doesn’t matter what really happened, this is all about the people you love,” which is as insulting an excuse as I can think of. Every time I think about this moment, I try to picture JJ Abrams saying it to his wife when she bails him out of jail after he’s caught with an underage prostitute.