Star Trek and the Unfinished Project

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.

9 thoughts on “Star Trek and the Unfinished Project

  1. 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?

    DS9 is of course the anomaly. There the Federation is less the United Nations in a utopian future than it is NATO in the Balkans in the 1990s. Not coincidentally, a lot of Trekkers thoroughly dislike it.

  2. Kerim: You write “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 by Gene Roddenberry. ”

    Please forgive a really geeky nitpick, but Gene Roddenberry never directed an episode of Star Trek….

    I’ve never been a Trekkie, but I did love the series when I was a high school kid in the mid-1960s. From a more anthropological point of view, I remember an essay on Star Trek in the late 60s by an English critic who complained that it was just American neo-colonialism in sci-fi guise, with a sort-of President/Commander-in-Chief leading a happy multi-cultural society in a spaceship, implanting U.S.-style democracy everywhere in the cosmos that they visited. To my 60s, radical, anti-Vietnam War mind, this seemed like a trenchant critique, though I confess I still enjoyed the show, but I was later amused to watch Dr Who and find that the show could be subjected to the same critique, with the Doctor spreading British style cultural forms, not only in space but in time as well.

    In any case, thanks for the memory….

  3. A peculiarity of modernity is how it its interpreted through “nostalgia”. At one extreme is Borges’ short of Pierre Menard as author of the Quioxte, or the metafiction of Calvino and Nabokov which link their narratives with past literary narratives. Your mention of sixties brutalist architecture, if built today would not be the same, but an exercise in mimesis.
    Fan fiction (fan film) pursues a formalism in which the “reader” becomes the “writer”. Italo Calvino writes about his great intertextual novels that “we write about something we don’t know, we write to give the unwritten world a chance to express itself through us.” “Nostalgia” captures in the available fissures of a literary/filmic edifice signs/incomplete worlds that allow renovatations of antecedent narratives. As such, “nostalgia” is a pleasureable part of modernity, whether understood as intertextuality, mimesis, or (fromalist) semantic production, and consumption.

  4. The question, of course, is whose story it would be. Having just returned to Japan from a network analysis conference in Xi’an, where China’s history — from 6,000 year old neolithic sites like Panpotsun, to the China emperor’s terracotta army, to a spectacular outdoor show with totally now lighting and stage effects is built around Li Bai’s “Song of Never Ending Sorrow” about the Tang Emperor and his concubine Yang Guifei separated by the Anlushan rebellion, to a veritable forest of new and still mostly empty apartment buildings in what has become a city of 8 million plus inhabitants, with outlying “culture districts” designed to attract tourists dedicated to Daoism and the God of Wealth (including huge and brand new temple complexes unthinkable under Mao). Anyway, I can’t help wondering what a Chinese StarTrek, envisioned and created now, would look like.

  5. A friend of mine made an interesting observation the other day – “Unless you’re over 60, you weren’t promised flying cars. You were promised an oppressive cyberpunk dystopia.”

  6. Speaking as someone over sixty, I also recall being promised and endless cold war culminating in world from which the only escape was a deus ex machina called a spindizzy that allowed cities to uproot themselves and fly off to the stars at faster-than-light speeds (James Blish,_ Cities in Flight series_), people waiting to die when the radioactivity from the nuclear war reached them (Neville Shute, _On the Beach_), eugenic fantasies (Cyril Kornbluth, “The Marching Morons”), and a gun lover’s fairy tale that beautifully captures the appeal of the National Rifle Association (A.E. van Vogt, _The Weapon Shops of Isher_). There was plenty of grim as well as technogeek optimism in golden age SF. Though perhaps not so unremittingly dark as cyberpunk noir now seems.

  7. What comes around goes around. From a truly wonderful book: Stephen Kern (1983) _The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918_, p. 98,

    “The impulse to look ahead is universal, but the quantity of science fiction in this period and its success in the market place suggest that this generation was especially eager to do it. In America, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a vision of the future in spite of its misleading title, was an immediate success. It sold 213,000 copies within two years of its publication in 1888 and initiated what one historian has called an ‘outburst of literary utopianism.’ Some authors saw the future as a nightmare—dystopias with destructive volcanos, killer diseases, and maniacal rulers who held people captive with fantastic new contraptions. Others looked forward to happier utopias with less drudgery, cheaper goods, and clean, safe cities. Still others saw mixtures of progress and degeneration, islands of carefree pleasure and oppressive technocracies.”

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