Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It's a good year to like Star Trek

It shouldn't be as though you have to ask, dear reader, why it is a good year to like Star Trek. The movie has been out for just a week. I'm not talking about liking Star Trek in the Trekkie sense of the thing. I'm thinking more in terms of Abrams' new film has preserved and updated what was best about the original series. To be honest, I have a certain amount of respect for The Next Generation and gave up almost entirely on the franchise after Roddenberry's death. First Contact, yes, I did muster up the interest to see it and it was fun but TNG has never had the same appeal or value the original series had for me.

See, Star Trek is old style old TV liberalism in politics and intellectual thought and to some degree that is both its weakness and its strength. It could be preachy and didactic. And with characters like the self-impressed horndog James T. Kirk, and the equally cardboard cut-out characters of Spock and Dr. McCoy vrrtinh wildly to the intellectual left and emotional right we were seeing caricatures on the small screen.

But like Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup this trio of characters became vastly more than the sum of its initially limited parts. Trekkies, take some meds because I'm sticking with that comparison for the rest of this blog entry. Star Trek was at its essence a humanist show, a deeply humanistic show. Many Christians don't want to recognize how profoundly secularist the perspective of Trek as a franchise has always been. Name me a Republican Christian Trekkie who complains about Star Trek IV and the whales and I'll show you someone who just plain wasn't paying attention to the previous two decades of Trek!

But let me set that aside for a moment. Star Trek, the original series, gave us an inspiring trio of characters in popular culture because the trio of mind, body, and spirit is conveyed through Spock, Kirk, and McCoy. Let's face it, Kirk is body all the way because he's always jumping the bones of alien women. What the three characters lack as individuals they find in the others. Through the community of these three Kirk, Spock, and McCoy can be presented, by means of the always subtly to brazenly didactic Star Trek, to reveal what the fulness of the human experience can be. At its best it did not seek answers so much as encourage the legitimacy of being able to ask questions. It might be best to phrase things this way, that Trek as a franchise has its best storytelling and best characterization when it eschews the pablum of the triumph of the human spirit (or whatever) and examines the profundity of human need in terms of the individual and the community. I would submit that this is a reason Christians of various stripes DO like Star Trek and why it's okay to like what I have often considered to be the celluloid syndicated secular humanist's version of a Chick tract. Fortunately for us regarding the original series Roddenberry and company gave us a FUN show, not merely a didactic one.

And this examination of human need is why I find the spin-off series to be, well, underwhelming. There was no other series that capture the trichotomy of mind/body/spirit the wway Spock/Kirk/McCoy presented it. There were no Powerpuff Girls adventures, more or less. The multiracial integrated crew of the ship is no longer the novelty it was forty years ago. Many things are simply not as daring as they once were. I don't happen to have any real affinity for secular humanism, to be honest. I consider it to be as naive as the unbelievers consider Christianity to be. On the other hand, humanity bears the image of Christ whether it recognizes Christ at all. I can respect that Hayao Miyazaki can sense shadows of divinity or the image of divinity in the human race despite his pessimism about the inclination of the race as a whole.

Christians should not be so averse to what they consider the enemies of the faith in humanism or liberalism or whatever culture war shibboleth they are obsessed with now that they faill to recognize something--that there is still something valuable about humanity recognizing the possibility of redemption. When Trek wallows gleefully in its belief that we have come so far or would be further were it not for bad guys ... it sucks (Insurrection). When Trek examines how the foibles of men lead to unexpected catastrophe and how people can choose in the darkest moment to sacrifice themselves for the greater good it is genuinely touching. Seriously, I shouldn't have to tell you I'm referring to Spock's death in Star Trek 2 but I might as well underline it. There is nothing wrong with being touched by a statement we all yearn to hear and often do not, a statement we often sense is made without meaning it, which is why even in an imaginary story it is still touching when Spock says, "I have been and always shall be your friend."

And this is, of course, what Christ offers us Himself. The reason I admit I love a lot about the original series and don't really care in the end about the rest of the knock-offs is because despite itself the original Star Trek stories had characters who struggled with what it meant to be truly human. They often didn't understand each other, they often didn't like each other, they often were not sure what the future had but they also were willing to "boldly go where no man has gone before" (old school now). It did not matter where, perhaps, so much as with whom you went into the unknown. This is what made the original trio in the Trek-verse so enjoyable--Kirk, Spock, and McCoy might butt heads but at the end of the day they were loyal to each other even when some of them were a bit loathe to admit it.

I admit I find things about the old series strangely touching, and not so strangely touching. I got into Star Trek as a child through reruns and also because of my dad. Before a few things in our relationship changed significantly for the worse Star Trek was one of the things we could have lots of fun conversation about and it was my dad who pointed out that the original Trek trio was great on archetypal grounds because the three characters completed each other and weren't just obstacles to each other. It made for good drama and comedy at the same time because they could work together or lock horns with each other because each had a unique strength that was also a unique limitation. And here let me toss out a potentially pointless observation that the body of Christ can learn much from this. :) Sometimes God uses the stories of others to help us grasp important elements of His story that He shares with us in and through Christ.

I believe Abrams made the right decision abadnoning all the knock-offs and spin-offs from the original series that no one has any reason to give a damn about in this day and age. All those things were the sad creations of guys like Roddenberry who became self-congratulatory, bought their own hype, and forgot that the original thing was a one-off. Perhaps I could liken it to Joss Whedon, an essentially one-trick pony who hasn't realized his time has largely come and gone. He may be the Gene Roddenberry of our time amongst sci-fi and genre fiction fans.

Back on track, Abrams wwas right to bring back and reboot the premise and cast of the original series. He was right to abandon the "scientific plausibility" that Trekkies have clung to that has made the show increasingly ossified and missed the real point of the series. Abrams was right to distill everything down to revealing who these characters are and why we can come back to them and enjoy their story in a new way.

It can be easy to look down on things from forty years ago or things that were before our time. I have met people in their twenties or thirties who have no thought for any of the arts before their childhood. This might manifestt itself as the attitude that no movies made ten years before you were born "matter". The release of a movie like Trek reveals, in this case, that the old stuff matters and the old stuff will continue to matter, flaws and all. Those who do not know the past, it is said, are doomed to repeat it. In the arts those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it without knowing they have wasted their lives and our time. This can also happen when people hope to build on the past without understanding the past. Ergo, the rest of Star Trek after the original series ... at least, in my opinion, until about now.

I make exceptions, but I make this broad, polemical point for a reason. Star Trek, the originals eries, was good campy fun while still making its serious points. The characters worked and they still work. There were no "principles" that humans couldn't have conflict with each other. The rest of the Trek franchise is, in some sene, varying degrees of failure because they missed the point of the original. They saw the optimism of Trek without seeing that the optimism was brought to bear against odds, not ignorant of the likelihood of failure, but not considering failure to be as bad as inaction. Spock tells Kirk there is only a 4.3 percent probability that what they are undertaking will work. "Spock! ... It'll work!" is Kirk's optimistic reply. And, of course, being Star Trek, it does work. As with the far flung solutions, so with the original series and original characters.

Seeing Star Trek in the theater this year not only reminds me what I loved Star Trek once but also why my dad loved Star Trek and that's anything but a bad thing. I am not a particularly optimistic fellow, I am often more cynical and moribund than perhaps a thirty-five year old person should be. I need to be reminded that wanting things to be better and hoping tha tthings can be better and working to make things better is not in vain. In my case, specifically, I have to recall these things because in Christ life is not in vain. In Star Trek a character can die in vain and The Humanist will be pleased with that. Great, someone had to sit through Generations. In Star Trek a character can die in vain because you'll cyniclaly observe that in yet another movie they will be brought back, but that's a different kind of "in vain" known as the "death without cost".

In Christ our deaths are not in vain but there is something that can be rarely articulated in the circles I have spent time with, that our LIVES are not in vain. It can be terribly easy for me to feel that my life is basically in vain, that there is not much to accomplish here or to consider valuable in this life as I await eventual death and consider that one day Jesus will return. Perhaps the kind of apocalytpic upbringing I had had something to do with this. Perhaps I grew up getting the impression that whatever it meant to be fully human I wasn't measuring up, couldn't measure up, and wouldn't measure up.

I have been in settings where Christians talk fondly about getting their asses kicked metaphorically by the preaching. There was a time when I valued this but it is an incomplete understanding of humanity and of Christ. But by now, obviously, I have steered so far off topic that I am no longer talking about Star Trek. Well, that is more or less as it should be. In the end my hope is in Christ and if that means in some cases I have to turn my eyes from how Christ is presented by some to consider who Christ is and isn't that is part of the process, too.

Dostoevsky wrote with great clarity that in your twenties the easiestt thing for a man to do is die for a cause. Put that mean in a position where he spends five years of his burning youth toiling away indoors and you discover what he is REALLY willing to accomplish. We are like Peter, swearing that we will embrace sacrifices of the highest level when we are not even willing to admit we know Christ. Over the last twenty years I have seen that happen often, especially in the arts, whether myself or others. I have also seen it, sadly, in professions of faith. I know people who were "on fire" for God who have cast that all aside. I have struggled almost my whole life with doubts that numb the heart and with the visible wickedness of the visible church ... and yet for some reason I can't turn away from Christ. I can neither say that my adherance to Christ is to my credit or that it has nothing to do with me. It is mysterious and I don't understand it.

By now, obviously, I have steered far off from my topic and that is, as I said, just as well. Sometimes learning how to hope that things can be betterhere and now can help one remember that there is a greater hope. All of Hebrews describes how that which we have now is but a shadow of the things to come, shadows compared to Christ. I have come to realize that in the last ten years I have heard people ostensibly preach Christ but preach Him in such a way that He becomes the measure of what you should be NOW or what you should be becoming soon with the help of some "community" or "spiritual authority" rather than a hope that sustains you in the midst o of continuing failure. Some find it easier to preach 1 Corinthians than 2 Corinthians, which is both our loss and theirs.

Some people define spirituality through, say, Spock alone, or McCoy alone, or through Kirk. Some combine two and omit the third. Some combine all three and write books about it. Clearly I'm playing with the analogy of mind, body, and spirit. I have heard preaching from Christians who uphold the body and mind but neglect the spirit. I have heard people who uphold the spirit and body but not the mind. I have heard peopel uphold the mind and the spirit but not the body and these all reveal what they want redeemed in themselves at the expense of whatever it is they omit. A person who emphasizes that Christ redeems the body and mind has no thought of the spirit. The other combinations apply. They are piloting the Enterprise of their selves into uncharted lands without one of the key crew members they need, i.e. that part of their walk with Christ considered. Eventually Spock and Kirk discover they need Dr. McCoy if they have not brought him along. At length McCoy must acknowledge that Spock's logic outweighs his desire to act right away. So it is, by extended analogy, in our walk with Christ. If we neglect the body the spirit and mind suffer terribly, just as the neglect of another causes the other two to suffer terribly. And by now I am pointlessly rambling.

1 comment:

victorious said...

Ok these statements are classic and worthy of a good laugh or two.

"Name me a Republican Christian Trekkie who complains about Star Trek IV and the whales and I'll show you someone who just plain wasn't paying attention to the previous two decades of Trek!"

"and why it's okay to like what I have often considered to be the celluloid syndicated secular humanist's version of a Chick tract."

But for me this worth rejoicing over:

"In Christ our deaths are not in vain but there is something that can be rarely articulated in the circles I have spent time with, that our LIVES are not in vain."

I have read more than a few of your older posts and have been praying for you as you reveal some of your struggles about the value of being in Christ in the here and now.

I rejoice in your renewed perspective of hope that is not just cast upon the return of Christ and the future fullness of the Kingdom but a hope that is thrust into and tied to the gritty details of what we call today.

There is so much more of value in this article but wanted to share these highlights.