By DAVE ITZKOFF
Published: May 9, 2009
It takes a certain mix of optimism and frustration to contemplate the
possibility of space travel. To dream of navigating the cosmos is to
assume that man has the resources and the know-how to propel himself
into the heavens, but also some compelling reasons to exchange his
home planet for the cold vast unknown.
It was these seemingly contradictory impulses that shaped "Star
Trek," the supremely influential science-fiction television series
whose three-season run yielded 40 years of sequels and spinoffs
including a new feature film about the origins of Kirk and Spock that
opened on Friday. Yes, the series is at heart a geeky space epic, but
it is also one with a political and historical context.
When it was created by Gene Roddenberry in 1966, "Star Trek" was
meant to expand the notions of what a unified world could achieve a
mission that was deeply complicated by the turmoil of the era. And
the newest incarnation of "Star Trek" arrives at a moment when the
country again finds itself teetering between limitless potential and
peril, yearning to boldly go in all directions but potentially stuck
The original "Star Trek" imagined the futuristic fulfillment of John
F. Kennedy's inspirational oratory, in which his New Frontier became
"the final frontier." The budget surpluses and budding space program
of the early 1960s gave rise, in the 23rd century, to the utopian
United Federation of Planets. On the Starship Enterprise, men and
women, blacks and whites, Americans, Russians and Asians with names
like Uhura, Chekov and Sulu worked side by side, reflecting Mr.
Roddenberry's belief that "when human beings get over the silly
little problems of racism and war, then we can tackle the big
problems of exploring the universe," said David Gerrold, a writer for
the original "Star Trek" series.
But events during its brief original run the race riots of Newark
and Detroit; the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr.; and the nation's ever-deepening commitment to
the Vietnam War inevitably affected the tone of the show. By the
second season, episodes like "A Private Little War" (in which Captain
Kirk attempts to balance an arms race between two extraterrestrial
tribes) were commenting on America's intervention in Indochina.
As Richard M. Nixon was entering the Oval Office on an anodyne
platform of peace, "Star Trek" was blunter with its audience. In the
episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" that aired in January
1969, Kirk was giving dire warnings to aliens and by extension, to
viewers that they would "end up dead if you don't stop hating."
Forty years later, as "Star Trek" is returning to its past so is
America: the country is again gripped by anxieties about
entanglements abroad, compounded by the fear that the economy could
collapse at warp speed. A cautious optimism has emerged in the
afterglow of the election of President Obama (whose Vulcan-like
composure has invited frequent comparisons to Mr. Spock), but a surge
of foreign violence, a swine flu outbreak or any number of other
events could easily dampen that mood.
Under President Obama, "we're starting the era of the 1960s in 1967,"
said H. Bruce Franklin, a professor of English and American studies
at Rutgers University who was the guest curator of the National Air
and Space Museum's "Star Trek and the Sixties" exhibition in the
early 1990s. "Culturally we're reinventing the '60s, but economically
we're reinventing the '30s."
In recent decades, Mr. Franklin said, "Star Trek" ceded its position
as America's dominant science-fiction mythology to "Star Wars" both
the Reagan-era missile defense program and the George Lucas movies
(which in turn were influenced by Depression-era serials and World
War II dogfights).
Roberto Orci, who wrote the new "Star Trek" movie with Alex Kurtzman,
acknowledged that its retro vision of an Earth at peace was meant as
a tonic for an era when people wonder if perpetual war is becoming
the norm. "We're smack-dab in the middle of that very debate," he
said, pointing to the growing American military presence in
Afghanistan and an increasingly worrisome situation in Pakistan. "It
couldn't be more stark now."
The new film has plenty of modern-day angst to address too: the
efficacy of torture is touched upon (though only the film's villains
employ it); an entire planet central to "Star Trek" lore is
destroyed, intended by the writers as an amplified metaphor for the
And a scene in which an aged version of Spock (played by Leonard
Nimoy) converses with his younger self (played by Zachary Quinto)
becomes a platform for the regret that the grown-up children of the
1960s feel for letting down the youth of today, just as they might
have felt they were let down by their leaders. "It's kind of a baby
boomer apology for where we are," Mr. Orci said. "Not that I'm asking
for the baby boomers to apologize."
But at least one person closely identified with "Star Trek" argues
that for all the ways in which the franchise has been affected by
current events, its optimistic vision has persisted .
"A lot of science-fiction is nihilistic and dark and dreadful about
the future, and 'Star Trek' is the opposite," Mr. Nimoy said. "We
need that kind of hope, we need that kind of confidence in the
future. I think that's what 'Star Trek' offers. I have to believe
that I'm the glass-half-full kind of guy."