Darkness and Wonder in the 23rd Century
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 alone 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 recalled—even more so at times. But behind that weirdness was a decision to strive for a particular type of science-fiction. Of course it’s weird: there are weird things out there in the universe, the movie says, and can we do anything other than marvel at them? Gene Roddenberry’s future might be one without religion, God, or money—but it is one that hasn’t lost its sense of wonder.
The trailer for the upcoming Star Trek: Into Darkness, shows some wonderful-looking shots—the coloring almost made me doubt the purpose of this post. It, like many Star Trek movies, 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 universe—even its weirdness, its potential destructiveness—I don’t 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 humanity’s 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, there’s the question of humanity’s 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 equations—of Genesis? “The old Earth myth,” he complains bitterly, “said the world was created in six days. Well, move over God—we’ll do it for you in six minutes!” He doesn’t believe the Biblical story—there are no believers left in the Star Trek universe—but it’s clear he’d prefer this account to humanity claiming to have understood life’s origins entirely.
I don’t 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 we’re less optimistic than we were in the late 1960s (the first Star Trek movie, however, came out in the middle of Carter’s term); maybe we’re a society of “realists” now—but 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 universe—and, well, everything.