TOMORROW IS YESTERDAY: So The Nation is taking on the new Star Trek series. I haven’t seen the dratted thing (loved concept, couldn’t deal with theme music, read some descriptions of first episode and decided life’s too short, plus I don’t have a TV), and for me, Star Trek means nothing but The Original Series. So the following commentary should not be taken as an endorsement of “Enterprise.” (What a cool, cool name, though–reminding us that the first ship’s name meant something. There’s an air of hope, of “what will we find?”, of a desire to explore the unknown; and there’s an acknowledgment of danger.)
Donna Minkowitz, who is occasionally an insightful writer, dismisses Kirk and crew in the second paragraph, and doesn’t seem to have watched any of TOS. She’s thrilled that the Picardesque future is “socialistic” (though she notes that we’re talking wussy socialism here, “more a matter of providing food, housing and medicine to everyone than preventing some from getting richer than others”–and if you think the feds do a lousy job on that task, wait till you see an intergalactic bureaucracy!). She also lauds the later series’ focus on “expanding the list of sentient life forms who are judged to have rights and acknowledged to be persons” (but she means black people and Palestinians, not, say, unborn children).
Minkowitz: “The titles, set to a hymn that combines the first Christian references ever heard on Star Trek with some boasts about resisting alien domination, show drawings of the ships of fifteenth-century European colonial powers and European maps and globes from the same period. On one is scripted ‘HMS Enterprise.’” First: Minkowitz has obviously never seen the hideous, hideous episode “Bread and Circuses,” which actually includes the line, “Not the sun in the sky, Mr. Spock! The Son of God!” (aaaggghhh.) But that’s not important right now. Making the colonialism/”Age of Exploration” theme explicit actually frees the series to investigate all kinds of neat issues–does our drive for knowledge and adventure conflict with other peoples’ needs? Is the rush out into space a replay of European colonial expansion, or will we be able to restrain the desire to exploit the peoples we contact? Should we refrain from contacting some peoples at all–is cultural mixing necessarily contamination? Are some cultures just better? Minkowitz can’t even see the possibilities here–she’s too busy being horrified that someone would build a metaphor on the fact that hey, European exploration was driven not just by greed but by the old human longing for the horizon. (That longing often reflects a deep desire to escape reality; you want to leave home because you feel trapped. Sometimes, too, the longing arises because we don’t feel at home, and we think we might find a home if we just traveled far enough.)
Minkowitz: “In this way, [the Vulcans on "Enterprise"] are straight out of Nazi propaganda about Jews, so that I almost expected to see little comics of Vulcans poisoning the wells of Aryans and strangling Nordic farmers with their moneybags.” T’Pol, the main Vulcan, is “a caricature of a bitter woman of color.” This would come as a surprise to the warblogger types who have deduced that the Vulcans are actually the Europeans, specifically the French (or maybe the British–or the Americans!).
I have no idea whether the show’s treatment of women is as despicable as Minkowitz claims; it wouldn’t surprise me, since this is, after all, TV in the year 2002, and we’ve come a long way, baby. But this is just kind of funny: “In my recollection, this is the first Trek on which Starfleet officers have ever considered buying women.” Repeat after me, folks: Green. Orion. Slave. Girls.
The original series was a nifty mix–there was a strong anti-authoritarian streak, best exemplified in the hilarious “Trouble with Tribbles”; a sometimes-cool, sometimes-ridiculous civil-rights subtext (TOS featured the first interracial kiss on TV–Kirk+Uhura, in “Plato’s Stepchildren”–but their minds were being controlled by aliens… so there you go); and random bits of philosophizing that didn’t necessarily add up. There were many great love-vs.-duty storylines (the best being “City on the Edge of Forever,” which always tops the fans’ best-of lists), and the series mocked intellectualism (the belief that intellectuals should run the world) while not mocking intellectuals. Pretty much all the aliens were recognizably persons, even when they looked like big angry rocks–they had the same basic desires and fears and possibilities that humans had, even if their cultures responded to those emotions and longings differently. (The episodes featuring Vulcans and Romulans–”Amok Time,” “Journey to Babel,” “The Enterprise Incident,” and “Balance of Terror”–were particularly adept at showing this.) Yes, the patriotic episodes were cringingly obvious. Yes, the third season sucked like a Hoover. Yes, the future was resolutely religion-free in all but a very few episodes. But at least the original series had vigor, whimsy, and raw emotion, not just bloodless ethical commitments and busty telepaths. If “Enterprise” is getting back to that model, maybe I should give it a spin.
Somehow, I don’t think that was the effect Minkowitz intended…