by Mark Simpson
(The London Times, April 16, 2009)
It died a death during the Bush years in 2005, but it’s back. I’m talking of course, about the American Dream. Rebooted. In kinky boots.
The first teasing trailer for the new Star Trek movie in January last year showed glimpses of a shiny new USS Enterprise “under construction”. In the background President Kennedy was famously speechifying about space and Neil Armstrong’s crackly “One small step for Man” was heard. And then came the voice of a much more famous figure: Mr Spock, speaking the immortal, still spine-tingling line: “Space, the final frontier . . .”.
As things turned out, a year or so later it wasn’t just the Enterprise that was “under construction”. It wasn’t just the most successful TV and film franchise to date being rebooted – it was also the USA that was hitting the “reset” button. And what is the default setting? That Sixties optimism. They believed in the future back then.
There was always a very close relationship between the American Dream – not to mention American imperialism – and Star Trek, with its liberal, secular, multiracial, technophiliac vision of the future. But the two seem almost to have mind-melded with the election of an optimistic, liberal, iPod and Blackberry-loving multiracial President with a Kenyan father and a white American mother (Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on US television, sparking protests at the time) – and, who is himself something of a 1960s tribute act, with his JFK and Martin Luther King cadences. Suddenly, with Barack Obama ‘taking the con’, America looks like a brand that people can believe in again. Or at least root for at the movies.
Obama has admitted that he was a big fan of the original series. Others have already pointed out that “No Drama Obama” bears some facial, voice-pattern and character similarities with Tuvok, the black Vulcan chief of security in Voyager, the third Trek spin-off TV series, a character who learnt how to master his emotions.
It’s entirely apt then that the Star Trek franchise went into suspended animation in the middle of the Bush presidency – along with the American Dream itself – after the critical and commercial failure of the Next Generation movie Nemesis, the TV prequel series Enterprise – and the blockbuster Operation Iraqi Freedom. Bush, who probably saw himself as something of a Captain Kirk figure, was certainly at least as inclined to ignore the “prime directive” (of non-interference in alien worlds) as James Tiberius, not to mention the United Nations/Federation. But instead of the loveable, roguish Kirk, the world, and eventually much of America itself, just saw a cowboy.
What’s remarkable about the Star Trek franchise is how closely each series corresponds to Republican or Democrat presidencies. The original series (1966-69), with its radical optimism and Cold War ethos (the Klingons are clearly the Russkies), maps the Lyndon Johnson Democrat presidency and the “Great Society” (1963-69). The rather more corporate and hygienic Next Generation (1987-94) covers the Reagan-Bush Republican era (1981-93), while the deeply dull but industrious Deep Space Nine (1993-99) and the feminist vehicle Voyager (1995-2001), featuring a female captain (Hillary played by Catherine Hepburn), falls into the Clinton Democrat years (1993-2001).
The ill-fated Enterprise series began the same year as the ill-fated Bush presidency, in 2001. It starred Scott Bakula looking eerily like Bush in a flight-suit and even, opportunistically, included an evil-doing adversary called the ‘Suliban’. Now, of course, we have a movie series reboot that corresponds to the beginning of the Obama presidency – however long either franchise lasts, we can probably expect their fates to be closely related.
There is perhaps another reason why Star Trek has gone back to the original Sixties series: to get back in touch with Kirk’s massive, tight-trousered mojo. Although disliked by Gene Rodenberry, Star Trek’s creator, for hijacking his rather sexless, sweatless vision of the future and for taking his shirt off and wrestling with rubber aliens too much, William Shatner, stressing words and syllables that mere mortals might think had no importance, pausing painfully . . . in the middle… of… sentences . . . while-rushing-over-their-conclusions, somehow conveyed something credibly human. Even Shatner’s immense soft-focus vanity is sympathetic. Real people are faintly preposterous after all.
Above all the original Star Trek was very . . . pointy. As well as Shatner’s urgent libido, there were the fabulous pointy boots (low-risers for the men, knee-length ones for the mini-skirted ladies), pointy sideburns, pointy breasts, pointy ears, pointy engine nacelles, pointy Federation logos, pointy lettering in the credits, and also the pointedly pointy mission statement: “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” which of course was bluntly desexed/corrected in The Next Generation to “where no one has been before”.
The new movie though is gratifyingly pointy. The kinky boots are back, as are the form-hugging uniforms and miniskirts – though now they look like fashionable sportswear. The cast is pretty, male and female, and now, forty years on, the men also have bodies and pointy-chests (the two stars, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, reportedly work out at the same gym in LA – and share the same trainer). It looks like there’s enough (metro)sexual tension to power the warp drive. Back too are the brightly Utopian colours of the original series’ sets and costume design. The Enterprise herself handles like one of those pointy Sixties sports cars.
Kirk himself, of course, is back. But not Shatner, who, unlike Nimoy isn’t allowed on board, even for a cameo, perhaps because the director, J. J. Abrams, wants to make sure that his Kirk, played by Chris Pine, is not going to be overshadowed by Shatner’s intergalactic manhood/ego. Whatever the reason, Pine’s Kirk is a Daniel Craig moment, a reminder of the startling sexiness of a franchise that had become lifeless and effete.
Back also, and very much in the foreground, is what Abrams has quite rightly suggested is the relationship without which Star Trek really makes no sense: Kirk and Spock. Here Spock is played by an androgynously fringed Quinto (apparently channelling early 80s Marc Almond), and we finally learn how they met at Starfleet Academy and overcame fierce rivalry to become the most famous male “marriage” in pop culture.
Despite Spock’s pointy ears, there doesn’t appear to be however, anything terribly pointy-headed in this reboot: no cerebrals, no reflecting on where the American Dream might have gone wrong – just the enhanced, sexed-up aesthetics of hope. But while great effects, pecs and kinky boots might not be enough to rescue the American Dream, they’re probably enough to be getting on with.