The creator of the original TV show, a former pilot from El Paso called Gene Roddenberry, wanted something that would allow him "to talk about love, war, nature, God, sex", but which the censors would pass "because it all seemed so make-believe". NBC demanded an injection of action and adventure, but the phenomenon beamed up in 1966 quickly became the byword for a particular attitude to humanity's destiny.
In spite of the cold-war demonisation of the period, the mission of the Starship Enterprise wasn't to destroy evil empires. It was "to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before". Behind this brief lay the assumption that progress would eventually put an end to the strife and misery that currently bedevil our planet. By the 23rd century, harmony based on the impeccable values of technology, logic, tolerance and compassion would have given our species the chance to reach out to other worlds and in the process further enhance civility and equality. Resistance would be met with diplomacy rather than force.
The aspect of this vision that made most impact at the time was the then startling diversity of the starship's crew, with Americans, Russians and Asians, blacks and whites, men and women and even a semi-alien working in harmony. At the end of Star Trek's first season, Nichelle Nichols, the African-American who played the Enterprise's communications officer, Uhura, considered leaving for Broadway. Martin Luther King wrote to her: "You must not leave… You changed the face of television for ever. For the first time the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people."
Through the next half-century of TV series and feature films, Star Trek's many manifestations emphasised different aspects of the original myth; yet it continued to be seen as a standard bearer for optimistic liberal humanism. When JJ Abrams picked up the director's mantle for a new Star Trek movie in 2007, he declared himself eager to evangelise the franchise's idealism. Nonetheless, he'd preferred Star Wars to Star Trek in youth, and said he wanted to make a film "that grabbed me the way Star Wars did". This was to mean a big budget and an emphasis on special effects.
When Abrams's Star Trek appeared in 2009, it was welcomed more for its thrills than its message. Nonetheless, in those days, the time-honoured upbeat agenda, acknowledged somewhere in the background, could almost be taken as read. This was a moment when Barack Obama's vision of hope, change, peace and altruism still enthralled. Those inclined could treat Abrams's perky film as vaguely in tune with the times, and were encouraged to do so. "This is a franchise that offers hope for unity – and so does Barack Obama,'' said Zachary Quinto, who played Spock.
Star Trek Into Darkness bursts upon a rather different world. As prosperity falters, intractable conflicts deepen and aspirations are cut back; hope, optimism and expansiveness are in short supply. From movies we get glum nihilism and flippant cynicism rather than inspiration and uplift. Here, we could do with a bit of the vision that Roddenberry delivered. Does Abrams provide it?
His film touches on issues of the day. Urban terrorism, drone attacks and military adventurism are checked off, but they're not there to provoke reflection. Instead, they're integrated with familiar Hollywood tropes. Kirk is now a Bond-style impetuous hero stripped of his post for breaking rules, only to win it back when he alone can save the day. He confronts not the mysteries of the universe but the kind of villainy with which 007 would be quite at home. He even tries on the part of the lawman forced to conscript his prisoner into the fight against a common foe.
These devices are deployed to trigger elaborate action sequences of the kind we get in so many other films today, but didn't get in the Star Trek TV shows, whose low-budget simplicity nurtured, instead, thoughtfulness and imagination. The darkness into which Abrams has taken the franchise is that of multiplex mindlessness.
At the end of the film, the federation's original mission statement is read out, but it's had little bearing on proceedings. Far from exploring strange new worlds, the film's journey has merely probed the blockbuster default of loud and relentless battle between unquestioned good and overweening evil.
Elements of the original mise-en-scène are relentlessly paraded, but if nerds will be pleased to tick them off, they do little to recreate the original concept. Today, the diversity of the Enterprise's crew means nothing: we take it for granted, as we do the characters' no longer edgy relationships. The contest between rationality and emotion has become no more than an excuse for jokes. Nowadays, we all know it's emoting that really matters, as even Spock is forced to appreciate.
Feeble themes, like the equivalence of comradeship and family, are floated only to fall flat. Ironic nostalgia for the trappings rather than the meaning of the original takes the place of any attempt to reinterpret its philosophy for our own times.
Abrams has at least succeeded in his stated aim: he's made a version of Star Trek that's more like Star Wars. This has doubtless been good practice for his next trick, which is to be having a bash at the real thing. Unfortunately, Star Trek grabbed some of us in a way that Star Wars didn't.
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