Star Trek and the Continuing Mission of American Imperialism
It is set years in the future, but the new Star Trek movie is a sixties nostalgia film. I sat riveted to the screen and to the present moment with my husband and our daughter between us. At the same time, I was transported back to the original run of the series between 1966 and 1969, and I was transported back to the reruns that still pop up now and then. That’s what the sixties are in American political culture: a history that actually happened, has been replayed, and has not yet played out. In the repetitions, there is much fabricated and passed off as what really happened. And with the original show, as with nostalgia for the sixties, what’s going on now is always the most important story line. So, what is going on over the past couple of weeks or so since the film was released? What are we longing for? And what are we refusing to let go of?
I didn’t have these questions sitting gaga watching Spock publicly make out with Uhura and whisper her first name. (Forget the red goop they carried around in a bottle that could cause the formation of a black hole. The Vulcan public display of affection was the most unrealistic moment in the film. But so many of us want such lapses for so many different reasons that it played as true to life as transporter technology (which, face it, we all accept unconditionally.)) No, most of my worry came later. But sitting there, first viewing, I did have the thought that this show appeals only during a certain kind of rise in the power of American hegemony.
I worked hard, like many others, to make American empire Obama-style happen. I worked because a state as powerful as the U.S. propelled by fear is too much of a danger to the world. Fear or hope is apparently the only choice on offer, so I picked hope. But returning to the myths of the sixties, to understand the present, we have to remember that hope can be a problem too. Doesn’t our confidence about American hegemony right now protest too much? Are we so frantic to be hopeful that it seems as if, maybe just maybe, we are still quite fearful?
The sixties, personified by James Tiberius Kirk, were in large part hope and power spiraling closer and closer and closer toward an explosive core of over-confidence. And God they do over-confidence well in the new movie. These kids are the characters of those then-kids without being William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols et al. Kirk remains blessedly a whorish asshole, but Spock out-sexes him. Uhura in this iteration is as hot as ever and she attends to her man, but she is over-educated too. J.R. Jones, writing in the Chicago Reader, is right: the new film is about the characters first and about ideas second or only vaguely, and that’s not what science fiction is about. But if the red goop is, well, merely goopy and the dimensions of the genre are lacking, the representations of empire enacted by the characters are solid and scary. The film’s nostalgia may be out-photon-torpedoed by its realism.
Spoiler alert in all senses of the words: genocide is a casual gesture in the new movie. Two entire planets are destroyed. And they’re not just any two planets. They are Vulcan and Romulus. Okay, I’ll admit it: I was sitting there waiting for a full resolution of the time travel trope, and hence the time distortion, in the movie’s plot. I was seriously expecting them to fix everything so that Romulus was not actually destroyed and then Vulcan would be saved too. The destruction of Romulus couldn’t really happen, because it would be like living in this world with China or the Middle East completely destroyed. Right? (Perhaps, too much like that?) I was sure there would be no way they would let the movie end with planet Vulcan a cloud of dust. I mean, Vulcan!? But that’s how the movie ends. Earth’s closest friend-think United Kingdom here (the foundations of our own constitutionalism)-and one of Earth’s most powerful peers are both wiped out. We are the only super-power left standing in the movie. Is that what Americans would like to believe?
The story of the film turns on how the protagonists deal with devastation and loss. The Romulan, Nero, becomes a terrorist bent on destruction after seeing his family and planet destroyed. The surviving Vulcans are stoic, sad but stoic, refugees; and they have what the movie takes to be the appropriate response. The Vulcans are the good survivors and Nero is the bad one. Think of him as the kind of person the president thinks we will get when all of the photos from Abu Ghraib are released. He does not represent all of Romulus-let us be clear on that-but is instead the leader of a rogue ship. He is quintessentially the evil terrorist asking to be smoked.
How did the first atrocity, which sets the action in motion, occur? Mr. Spock, the elder of the movie’s future played by Leonard Nimoy, made a "mistake" and did not save Romulus as a super nova threatened. His timing was a little off and that sort of thing just happens in an inter-galactic order sometimes. Sad and tragic, but we have to know how to deal with such things with calm maturity.
The invasion of Iraq was certainly a mistake that the calm and mature guy now needs to go in and clean up. But it only makes sense to think of Iraq as a mere mistake from the center of American hegemony. And it is from this center that the myths of the nineteen-sixties, all of the Star Treks, and the American present no matter how hopeful issue.
My biggest problem with the new movie is how very much I enjoyed it. It is perfectly familiar, comfortingly arrogant, and blithely pernicious.
Throughout the film, the very young and very cute Kirk and Spock play around with and banter about the idea of cheating: it’s okay sometimes for, say, reasons of state and other matters of survival (and maybe just for proving one’s prowess). And they play around with and banter about our higher democratic and humanist values. Finally confronting the Romulan rogue Nero-with the capacity to destroy him (he’s cornered and as good as dead already)-Kirk offers the possibility of negotiation. But our heroes make a joke of the offer. Spock pulls Kirk aside to ask what he is doing. Turned from the screen Nero is projected on, Kirk says he’s doing the logical thing and offering to negotiate. Flirtatiously, "I thought you would like that." Spock, turned away from the screen, whispers that now is not the time. Is the joke here on Palestine, Iran or Pakistan? The young studs face the screen, face their enemy, and pounce with glee when negotiation is refused and they can boldly kick ass, one more time, where ass has not been kicked before.
We all know we’ve got to stop doing this at some point. Don’t we?
I was roughly my daughter’s age when the original television show ran-she’s eight now, I was between six and nine-and I watched it with both of my parents. My mother’s relationship to the show helped me understand my first viewing of Spock/Kirk lesbian porn years later in the nineties. What we all want-and get often enough in the original show and the new movie-is more and more of the word "Jim" uttered emotionally by Mr. Spock. But all of the many possibilities of the new politics of the sixties were firing through my mother’s viewing of the show, and I grew up along that trajectory. Everything in it and in the period was packed with possibilities for transformation and we needed the reruns and the many spin-offs, just as we cling to sixties nostalgia, to keep in touch with and work through all of those potentials. There was this thing, though, called criticism that went with all of that ya-ya stuff and the current cinematic romp is criticism, counter-criticism free. During the hopeful exuberance of the sixties, the facts of the death and destruction we were wreaking remained present to mind. The images were tough to hold together in a package. Spandex clad men and women were on television, and so was a naked little girl running through her napalmed village. But we looked at all of it. No turning away from the screen back then. Not with my mom and dad, at least.
The new movie’s dubious art as an exercise in sixties nostalgia is that it destroys the best of what it would have us remember. And it does this without our noticing. The uncritical response to this movie has been astounding. So let me remind you: until now, the two power sources making the Star Trek franchise go have been sex and intellect and the latter unequivocally fueled the former. In the new movie, the sexuality punctuates the brutality of imperialism and there’s nothing imaginative or smart about it. We’re hot for them, but it’s dumb empty lust. The movie is about fear and force and little else.
The new Star Trek is totally Bush: like military tribunals at Guantánamo, but it’s dressed in sheep’s clothing just like . . . military tribunals at Guantánamo are now. Look hopefully off into the future as you hold captives without charge or trial? There’s no dressing up Obama’s fear that all of the images from Abu Ghraib will be released. What has been going on over the past week or so? The new genocidal, war on terror Star Trek movie has been wildly popular at the exact moment when the president of hope started holding tight to the outrages of the president of fear. Why are both presidents petrified that we will look closely at the screen? It’s not what Iraqis will do if they see all of the images from Abu Ghraib. Obama, like Bush, is afraid of what Americans will do. Here’s my nostalgic, please happen myth-making belief for you (both presidents may share it with me, but not in the good way): Americans are not idiots when we are allowed to see and think and hope and fear for ourselves.
Will American empire be able to explore new worlds? A lover of the new movie, offended by my concerns, may want to counter that the newly minted Kirk and Spock have lost their parents in the space-time continuum of the film-Kirk his father and Spock his mother-and that I’m being a little hard on the kids by forgetting their loss. Yes, they’ve suffered too and that is the problem. Isn’t it? The good survivors have had their home world destroyed and there’s very little context for boldly moving forward, for procedural justice or for any other object of nostalgia you might want to call up and replay.
SOPHIA MIHIC is an associate professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.