Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The virtues of a reboot

So I just saw the new Star Trek movie. To be fair, I never really watched the original series, and while I enjoyed TNG when it first ran, and will willingly watch reruns (likewise DS9 and Voyager), I'm not terribly invested in the mythology or backstory of the Trek universe. So I think they could do well rebooting with either a movie franchise or a tv series, and I think they set up the premise and ending quite well for sequels on either the large or small screen.
But what I want to talk about is the idea of the reboot itself, and what this reimagine, forty years later, says about changes in our culture. (Note that in some ways George Lucas was trying to do this sort of reboot with the Star Wars prequels, but he's lost touch with his audience. That post is coming) The original Star Trek was bursting with promise, the idea that humanity were the great explorers, the great nation-builders. After all, the very idea of a Federation of Planets, a hugely diverse group that could nevertheless work together to do great things, was revolutionary in the age of Martin Luther King. Sure, there were enemies, conflicts, but there was also plenty of barter of goods and knowledge, and of course sexual openness. Nearly any problem could be solved with either ultra-modern technology or good old-fashioned diplomacy (whether it WAS solved that way is another question). And they were always learning new and interesting things about the universe! A strong metaphor for JFK's America...
In the reboot, we have a diverse group that works together a little uneasily (the Vulcan children certainly consider Vulcans as better than humans), but still fairly well. They face an opponent who saw, granted, a terrible tragedy, but he has vowed to retailiate with ten times the force, killing a dozen worlds for the one he lost. (Never mind that with the time travel/dimension hopping/whatever he's done, he could just SAVE his own planet and family.) He will not be reasoned with, he just wants vengance. While the bridge (and the rest) of the Enterprise herself is shiny and gleaming and ultra-modern, we also see plenty of areas that are grimy, run-down, or ill-kempt. The sexuality does ring very true to modern relative-openness, and they even managed to make Kirk's womanizing both realistic and central to the plot, which is impressive. A strong metaphor, overall, for the Bush years (since that's when it was written) and the Information Age.
I saw an episode of CSI recently (I believe it was from the new season) in which the victim of the week was a writer/producer who had done something similar, rebooted a favorite old chrome-future show with a darker and grittier theme. However, in that the fans of the original hated the reboot because the main character was confident and positive and diplomatic in the original, and in the reboot he was whiny and defeatist. The writer claimed this was more realistic, but it really went too far in the other direction. Abrams has avoided this by making all of his characters flawed but still likable, true to the originals but more realistically drawn. (Original Kirk was brash and remarkably charismatic, the new one charming but obviously reckless; original Spock the epitome of the cool-headed scientist [generally], the new one reaching for the ideal of perfect, cool logic, but falling short at times.)
I must admit myself disappointed on one front. The first time we see the space battle from outside a ship, there is silence, and I found myself excited that Abrams was aiming for realism. However, in later battles, the shots from outside the ships have the sounds of proton torpedoes and such firing. The silence was instead repeated inside, for a dramatic moment, and I realized he was using it as a dramatic device, not adhering to actual physics. I'm a little let down. We should require our science fiction to have better science, in this the Information Age.
The original Star Trek was full of hope and starry-eyed wonder. The new one is practical, but still positive and proactive. I say bring on the franchise, we could use more of that sort of hope.

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