To Paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, People Get the Trek They Deserve

06/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Julian Yap Senior Fellow in Public Law at Duke Law School

I've never really watched the original series, but I think that few would deny that the show was really a child of the 60s (indeed, as Richard Jeni has said, it certainly seemed at times that the writers were coming up with plots after a long toke: "Dudes, listen... we'll have an evil Spock... and we'll know he's evil because he has a beard"). Similarly, the Trek of my youth, The Next Generation, was clearly a product of the end of the Cold War: the Russians are no longer our enemies and now there's a Klingon on the bridge. Deep Space Nine, I believe, was a response to the mid-90s holiday from history, which led to a darkening of tone and suspicion of government in all sorts of media in the US (The Matrix, X-Files, the so-called "Dark Age of comic books), perhaps in disbelief that things were going so well. Voyager, at least with the addition of Seven of Nine and UPN's general order to show more skin could be read as a reaction to the same prurient cultural shifts that marked both the end of the Clinton administration and the beginning of the era of Britney Spears (yes, it's a reach, I know.) Enterprise pretty much sucked, just like the early aughts.

So what does the new Star Trek movie have to say about our era? It would be glib to say that it represents the triumph in our culture of slick pictures and marketing over real ideas and art, both because a) that's hardly a phenomenon unique to our time, and b) I don't think it's entirely fair to compare the depth of this Star Trek movie to the depth and thoughts that could be expressed over the run of a television series. In fact, I think that it stacks up pretty well against the other movies, which are hardly bastions of profound thoughts and ideas.

Dana Stevens over at Slate has already called this movie a blockbuster for the Obama age and I think I'm inclined to agree with her. If nothing else, this new Star Trek, a literal hand-over from one generation to the next, comes out at the beginning of another generational shift: the election of our first post-baby-boom president. I think that we can all agree that the movie retains Star Trek's essential quality of hope and optimism, the new watchwords of this post-Bush American age. It also reflects, I hope, the idea that it is good to be willing to extend a hand to our enemies: Kirk's willingness to rescue Nero and his crew after they have been defeated is in marked contrast to America's diplomatic style in the years just post-9/11, but seems to be in line with those of our new president.

So it's early yet, both in the new Administration and in this new franchise. But if this younger, more diverse, hopeful, humorous, and ultimately optimistic Star Trek is a reflection of our times, then perhaps things are looking up.

But one last thought: to stretch the connection further than the writers of the show intended, I think it's notable that old-Spock does not try to go back in time to prevent the destruction of Vulcan. The terrible things that happened still happened. In fact, Spock's continued existence in the new timeline reminds us that the things that came before still came before, and can continue to affect our new present. We cannot wish our new present to simply write over the last eight years. We need to acknowledge, and confront, what came before. We boldly go into what we hope to be a better future, but we cannot undo the tragedies of the past.