In my previous entry, I said that I seem to find great comfort in Star Trek during times of emotional turmoil. When I moved from Denver to Omaha two years ago, I began a major binge of the original Star Trek series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and many of the feature films. Recently, after Mags died and as a prelude to the premier of Star Trek: Picard, I again began to re-watch great chunks of the franchise. I also re-watched the original Star Wars trilogy over the holiday season.
I have some random thoughts about Trek overall, but I want to focus on a common thread that I see running through the major reboots of our time, especially Star Trek and Star Wars.
When we first see Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we quickly discover that he is a vagabond. Far from the relatively happy person he was at the end of Return of the Jedi, he is a galactic burn-out who has separated from Leia and who is now reduced to near homeless status. By the end of the movie, he is murdered by his own son.
In the sequel film, The Last Jedi, we discover Luke Skywalker, another major hero of the original trilogy, living as an embittered old hermit on a secluded island. He voices regret for everything he did as a Jedi, feeling that his efforts made little difference. He ultimately becomes a force ghost, and even though subsequent writers quickly tried to retcon Luke’s initial sentiments in the final movie, the contrast alone signifies major tonal discords in the Star Wars universe.
Now, we meet Jean-Luc Picard after 20 years in Star Trek: Picard. Again, we find a defeated, embittered old man, living on his family vineyard in France, looking back regretfully at his life. Time will tell as to where Picard will end up, but it’s safe to say that he is not in a happy place when we first rediscover him. In interviews, Patrick Stewart seems to refer to the TV series that re-launched his career as flawed in some way.
Why does Hollywood insist in tearing down its own mythology?
It’s not a stretch to lay much of the cynical mindset of the creative community at the doorstep of current-day politics. Stewart did that himself in his own pre-show interviews, siting Brexit and Donald Trump as the key inspirations which drove him back to the role 17 years after the last movie in the franchise.
In a strange, twisted way, we can link these recent events in the fictional world to those in the real world; specifically, those of The 1619 Project, launched last year by the New York Times Magazine. IN it, a series of authors and historians claim that the entirety of America’s existence must be viewed through the lens of slavery. It is an impressive body of work, but it has been disputed by many historians from across the political spectrum. Still, The 1619 Project is now slated to be included in the curriculum of many education systems across the country.
Why are we living in a time when our mythology, as well as our own history, must be torn down? I have no concrete answers. I do think that a good deal of it has to do with the blurring of the lines between fact and fantasy. Terms like, “Fake news,” can easily be reshaped into terms such as, “Fake history,” “Fake philosophy,” or “Fake science.” In this hyper-flexible environment, it is easy to tear down someone’s reality in an effort to supplant it with another. If one’s own substitute reality isn’t readily accepted by the masses, better to plant seeds of doubt with a giant question mark, rather than allowing crystallized reality to continue.
We are eight days away from the Iowa Primary; the first in the 2020 election cycle. I have absolutely no idea where our country will be a year from now. As I age, I seem to know less and less about the real, static world around me.
But I know this. We all need heroes in our lives. As a child of the ‘80’s, I found Luke, Han and Leia to be a great comfort to me. In the ‘90’s, I found Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Data, Worf and all the rest of the Enterprise crews from both centuries to be a continuing comfort. More than that, even as I questioned the possibility of Gene Roddenberry’s utopian future, I found peace in the hope of it. Apparently, I still do 25 years later.
I can’t say that I believe in Roddenberry’s vision for the future. There are far too many holes in it. As I grow older, I fear that my worldview comes closer to that of Game of Thrones than Star Trek. This is why I liked Princess Leia much better as a female hero than Daenerys Targaryen.
More than anything, I find classic Trek to be the best form of escapism for me. I love the constant rumble of the engines of the Enterprise D, the childlike musings of Data, the growling observations of Worf and the calm, paternal presence of Picard.
I agree with Irvin Kershner that Star Wars is a fairy tale. Many categorize it as science fiction, but there is very little of actual science in it to explain lightsabers, blasters, droids or The Force. Star Trek tries a little harder, but it too is unlimited by its own ever-changing rule book. I treat them both as fantasy. They have different props and settings from Harry Potter, but they are tonally and thematically similar. In all three cases, they served as fictional beacons of optimism in a volatile world for three generations.
The character arc of Han Solo is particularly tragic to me. When we first met him, he was a criminal; rakishly handsome, callow, arrogant and charming. His self-seeking nature was transparent. He made it clear that he was not rescuing Leia out of any sense of the betterment of his world. He was only doing it for money. Yet, Luke and Leia lifted him up, showing him that he too had a stake in working for something larger than himself. At one point, Han tried to run away from his responsibilities, but he never quite made it before he ended up as a screaming carbonite statue. Yet, his friends risked everything to save him. Han discovered that the price of growing up was friendship, loyalty and honor.
But his story ends with Han as an old space bum who gets a lightsaber in the chest; a lightsaber wielded by his own son. Many young men might very well examine the trajectory of Han Solo and ask, “What the hell was all that for?”
Luke Skywalker did very little to advance his own arc, even before he died. Leia could not do more to empower the next generation of women warriors everywhere due to the untimely death of Carrie Fisher, but given our current political climate, it’s safe to guess that the woke writers in Hollywood would have been kinder to Leia’s legacy than they were to the other two heroes in the original trio.
Captain Picard may yet be able to restore the legacy he holds with classic Trek fans everywhere. It is likely that he will rise from the ashes and redeem himself. He will likely do it by forcing the United Federation of Planets to redeem itself for its wayward ways since he left. Yet, if the first episode is any indication, the tone of the show will be much darker and may prove to be inhospitable for Picard’s calm, measured approach.
Many critics would argue that the time for the wide-eyed optimism that used to characterize Star Trek has passed. Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense!!! One need only look at the time period in which the original series was conceived to know that there is always room for hope and optimism. When Star Trek premiered in 1966, America was in the middle of the most divisive military conflict in the 20th century. Rioting occurred in the streets of most major cities as minority groups rose up and marched for their civil rights. Every American institution was questioned and criticized down to its very core. In the ‘70’s, when Star Trek Flourished in syndication and really captured the imaginations of the public, the country also experienced an energy crisis, tension with the Middle East, a mounting drug epidemic and the resignation of a sitting president one step ahead of impeachment. Sound familiar? So please don’t tell me that the times don’t allow for hope and optimism in our culture.
Sidebar: I find it interesting that Captain Kirk’s legacy seems to be unblemished, even though the younger version played by Chris Pine didn’t perform very well in two of the three reboot movies. Perhaps it is because the character was killed off when Trek was still in its creative prime. Even though the manner of his death did not go over well with fans, he died a hero, unlike Han Solo.
I mentioned Harry Potter before. I think he, more than Kirk, Picard or Han Solo, signifies the hopeful hero of our current generation of youth. They didn’t grow up with the U.S.S. Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon in their subconscious. They grew up with Hogwarts. Wouldn’t it be a shame if someday, we learned that Harry, Ron and Hermione did it all for nothing?
Sorry, Katya, but fanfic doesn’t count.