Space, just another frontier

 

 

 

 

 

 

An epic battle of good versus evil. A madman on the loose. Caskets covered in the flags. A familiar name is mentioned. Citizens look up to the sky as a looming menace approaches. A beautiful blonde woman standing almost completely naked, wearing nothing but a bra and panties…

Wait a second.

Full-stop, Mr. Sulu.

I bang on my tricorder. That can’t be right. Spock, is there a problem with the viewscreen?

Negative. Sensors confirm your readings, Captain. Female humanoid. Caucasian. Telemetry shows she is in optimal mating mode.

Into Darkness, indeed. I know this is only the trailer, but the fact that she is appearing in any part of the new Star Trek film wearing sexy lingerie sets me to red alert. I mean she’s just standing there, posing, fabric tight and sleek, skin shimmering. It can’t be necessary for the plot, unless to escape certain death she must disrobe and seduce some hormonal Klingon sentries guarding Kirk’s prison cell. But even that scenario has plot holes in it, what with Spock’s Vulcan though-the-wall mind-meld normally readily available.

So what gives? Why this extended full-screen shot of pushed-up breasts and a perfectly flat tummy? I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical reason for it. This is Star Trek after all, Gene Rodenberry’s brainchild, the birthplace of the Prime Directive and space exploration’s deepest philosophical questions. And director J. J. Abrams is our new messiah, the next Spielberg, the one being trusted with our most cherished pop-culture artefacts. There must be a rational explanation.

“Dr. Marcus is a weapons specialist with a PhD…she’s very intelligent.” says April Eve, the beautiful actress in question. For the sake of fuller appreciation I will let that hang on its own for a bit.

Dr. Carol Marcus was originally portrayed by Bibi Besch in the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In this movie – widely considered to be the best Trek film and credited for saving the Star Trek franchise – Dr. Marcus is a middle-aged scientist, good-looking but not in-your-face hot, and her character was strong with a very straight moral compass. She was there to introduce a new storyline and to add some interesting personal elements for Captain Kirk. There were no flashbacks, no sex-scenes showing anything elaborate or overt, the only backstory given in a few choice but dramatically potent lines. That was all that was needed and its effects are still felt today. The Wrath of Khan is every Trekkies’ favorite.

The first film in this Abrams-led Star Trek reboot (2009), on its surface, wasn’t that bad. It had all the basics covered – Bones was surly, Kirk was rambunctious, Uhura was black – but it seemed that they were just using the famous names and places as decoration, as a means to an end, which was to produce your standard Hollywood action movie. Sure Kirk was banging a green chick, but it seemed thrown in there, like here, see, it is Star Trek.

I tried my best not to be the cranky guy bemoaning how the olden days were better, I tried to ignore the long slow shots of the new Uhura (Zoe Saldana) stripping down to perfect Victoria’s Secret-like lingerie that she just happened to be wearing during her long day in Starfleet Academy’s xenolinguistic lab. But now this. A new Star Trek film and immediately there is a gratuitous shot of a hot blonde standing in her panties, and they dress it up in the name of Dr. Carol Marcus, using a vital character in the canon of Star Trek to try and give legitimacy to a blatantly cheap sales trick.

Unfortunately space is becoming just another frontier and it seems that this will be somewhere we have gone before. Judging by the fast-action and one-liners and obvious sexiness, this will be just another typical blockbuster wearing Star Trek clothing. Let’s use the name, benefit from the cachet, but not bother to keep any of the original spirit. Is this a trailer for Star Trek? Transformers? The Fast and the Furious Do Outer Space? Erase the names and the Starfleet logos and you honestly can’t tell.

The original Star Trek series first aired in the late-1960’s and was a cultural trailblazer in many ways. A black woman was not only on-board but was a senior bridge officer. Sulu was an Asian on primetime network television in a time when they were making Bruce Lee wear a mask to cover his yellow eyes. Chekov was a good-guy Russian in a time of intense of Cold War fear. Today this may seem trivial, but imagine the 60s with African Americans still being lynched and a Soviet-fuelled war raging in Vietnam. Gene Roddenberry was constantly fighting to give his minority characters a more prominent role while the network wanted to keep them in the background. Star Trek is the show that broadcasted the first scripted interracial kiss in television history, and Roddenberry and William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols did their best to make sure the network did not cut the historic scene out. The ideals of Star Trek were based on equality and human progress and the original series tackled subjects such ethic divisions, proliferation of war, and human (alien) rights. In as much as a television show can affect positive social change, Star Trek was an important cultural catalyst.

“Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.” ― Gene Roddenberry

Now compare this to the objectification of women, cultural vacuity, and cheap tricks of the current Star Trek incarnation. Somewhere in the dark quiet of space, Mr. Rodenberry is very, very displeased.

The Star Trek enterprise (nice pun) has lasted almost fifty years, produced twelve feature films, and hundreds of syndicated television episodes. Sure you could say that the original 1960s Star Trek series had its fair share of fluff – female characters often wearing belly-dancer outfits and glowing oddly in extreme close-ups – but that was when the show was an unidentified lifeform and had to bow to the studios in the times of I Dream of Jeannie. Once the franchise was standing on its own there was nothing gratuitous. Gene Rodenberry had a clear vision of what he wanted: the human race progressing and thriving in a future motivated by discovery and higher purpose.

Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven seasons during the 80s and 90s and was a commercial and critical success and I have yet to come across a mainstream show that touched on loftier moral and philosophical questions. A scan of my positronic brain shows no evidence of cheese or overt sexiness in the entire series (Deanna Troi’s tight one-piece excluded). Imagine that. A commercial success built on quality writing, distinguished acting, and mature storylines that included the philosophy of time, determinism, free will, causation, ethics and a robot wishing he was human. To this day Next Gen fans still generate millions of dollars for the franchise.

So why veer off course? Why change the model that has worked for so long? The excuses of financial realities will inevitably be given, and of course there must be a delicate balance between art and commercial viability, but a quick look at the Batman/Dark Knight reboots gives us a current example of making billions by delivering quality film-making and not lowering the bar. So you can toss that logic out the nearest airlock (wait, I think that’s from Star Wars).

The reason there is a Star Trek to profit from today is because time and care was taken to build something of substance. And this effort not only led to a commercially successful product but also added to our culture in very positive ways. When creating something you always have a choice of how it will be handled – some have more control than others depending on their position – and in a time when Mr. Roddenberry was a struggling writer and producer he fought as best he could for his ideals. And it paid off. Today J.J. Abrams is the new golden boy, the one who will supposedly blend Hollywood blockbusters with quality movie-making, just as his mentor and hero Steven Spielberg did for decades. But I don’t recall one Spielberg film ever resorting to flashing skin.

So go ahead guys, keep it up. More and more of us are staying home and watching HBO and AMC and Netflix and giving our dollars to quality writing and character development. By playing it cheap you are digging your own graves.

Yes, there is always a choice. You can plug in the numbers and decide to go with the easy formula – or you can resist the pressures and deliver something with substance, something that will stand the test of time and not disappear into the annals of just another blockbuster. And, perhaps more importantly, you can do your part to add to the culture, to push things forward, to pay true homage to the famous name and legacy that you now control.

 

 

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