Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Frontiersmen

(Yes, it's another Trek treatise. Hey, this is as good a week as any for it.)

One of the claims that drew the most ire during my marathon ten movie Star Trek reviewing streak was the contention, offered up in my Generations review, that Star Trek: The Next Generation, the hugely-successful and popular sequel series, just didn't work.

Now, with Trek 2009's franchise-record opening on the path to a franchise-record box office total, it seems the old Kirk vs. Picard debate, raging in perpetuity since The Next Generation premiered in 1987, has swung back in the direction of James Tiberius. Oh, how fickle the masses...

That leads us to an interesting analysis piece by Ted Anthony from the AP, who posits that the zeitgeist has shifted towards Kirk due to the Kennedy-esque "New Frontier" spirit the character embodied when he was "born," representing an idealized concept of the American self which the public is once more hungry for. Says Anthony:
...if you accept that the Kirk character embodies American ideals projected into the future, here's a guy who — after 9/11, after waterboarding, after Katrina and economic meltdown — restores the balance of American duality.
Strong but caring. Deeply American but casually multicultural. Understanding of history but with eyes squarely focused on the things to come. And possessed with a just-do-it sense that while safety is important, risk, as Shatner's Kirk once said, is our business. America, after all, needs leaping and looking both.
It's quite possible that there's a little too much dime-store psychology going on there, but it makes for interesting reading nonetheless (though it could be considered a spoiler zone, so avoid if you plan to see the movie, but haven't) and is as good a reason as any for Star Trek's sudden rebirth.

Another thought to consider is that those things which demarcated The Next Generation from its TV and movie forebear -- the older, Gaelic captain, the starship bridge as substitute living room, the focus on diplomacy over gunboat diplomacy -- all were calculated to distinguish antecedent from precedent, and all had progressively diminished currency the further into the background the original receded (with the movie series ending and the syndicated reruns becoming more infrequent).

Part of the sequel series' appeal sprang from its differing viewpoint from, and implicit critique of, Classic Trek. While the 1966 model was an action show where they discussed "important" issues, The Next Generation was an "important" show where they discussed action. Without descending to the level of "my Trek can kick your Trek's ass," in essence the two worked best when able to engage and play off each other in the ongoing cultural dialogue.

Both had (and have) something to say, but while the original series functions fine without the others, The Next Generation lost something without the presence of its parent series to contrast itself against. Even after Next Gen ended, the Roddenberry/Berman assembly-lining of the franchise continued, to the ever-dwindling results embodied in the latter two series and latter two movies. **

By returning to the "simpler" era embodied by the Kirk-Spock-McCoy trifecta, one that straddled the line between boundless optimism and stark fears of the unknown, Star Trek's current minders have taken it back to a common frame of reference by restocking the Trek cupboard with its most enduring archetypes. This in turn allows the various iterations to once more have something to offer by way of contrast, lending greater value to the overall brand.
** In case you're wondering, I place Deep Space Nine outside the scope of this discussion. While it was truest in tone and spirit to the original show -- exemplified by the time-tripping, Gump-ified episode "Trials and Tribble-ations" from its fifth season -- it arrived there almost by accident, and even now remains the proverbial stepchild of the franchise (to the franchise's detriment, but I digress...).

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