I recently watched a “fan episode” of Star Trek which felt so much like the original series that you could easily believe it was
directed produced by Gene Roddenberry. This devotional attention to detail got me thinking about the continued appeal of Star Trek. Habermas’ phrase “the unfinished project of modernity” immediately sprung to mind. Whereas in Star Wars modernity is represented by the dreaded Empire, Star Trek’s Federation is a benign force that carefully oversees the social development of lesser species. If the Enterprise encountered Jedi knights they would probably see them as a vestigial form of feudalism oppressing peasant society with their special powers.*
Here’s a confession. I not only grew up watching Star Trek, but I also grew up being spoon-fed that same version of modernity at school. I went to the United Nations International School for both middle school and high school, and I helped organize a series of student-run conferences on development related issues at the UN. But then I became an anthropologist. As an anthropologist, reading the likes of James Ferguson, James Scott and Arturo Escobar, one becomes a little skeptical about modernity’s “unfinished project.” It was for this reason that I found myself watching this nearly flawless recreation of the original Star Trek series and wondering: what’s the point? I loved it and will continue to watch any new episodes, but I also found it disturbing to have this outmoded vision of modernity preserved so uncritically.
It is like someone designing, in 2013, a building in the style of brutalist architecture from the sixties. I can admire some of these buildings and can even see the argument for preserving the greatest examples of brutalism, but would you really want to make a new building in this style? Perhaps the problem is that we still don’t really have a good alternative? It seems that a lot of science fiction these days is dystopian, zombie movies abound, but there there are very few movies or TV shows that see modernity as something positive. I understand the appeal of the enchanted vision of modernity that Star Trek gave us, but rather than forever try to recapture our lost-innocence, to finish a project which can never be finished, maybe it is time to tell a new story about modernity?
- Star Wars, of course, is set in the past.