Innovation and Brutality; Reflections on Science Fiction Trends

Innovation and Brutality; Reflections on Science Fiction Trends

Whether or not science-fiction is ‘your thing’, most people have seen a movie or read a book which falls into the category. Science-fiction sings to us about the future of humanity. About our hopes and fears. About our potential to create and our tendency to destroy. But despite being set in the far flung future, most science-fiction stories deal with issues of the present day.

In the early days of film and television, science-fiction was an easy way to slip issues past the censors. That’s how Star Trek was born. Gene Roddenberry wrote morality plays set against a sci-fi backdrop and the issues presented suddenly became acceptable because they took place in an imaginary world. He painted one actor half-white and half-black and another actor half-black and half-white and had them rant about their hatred of each other. The argument must have been ridiculous even when the show first aired, and that’s the point. Why do we care about the color of a man’s skin? Inside, we’re all the same. We all bleed. We all die.

Many of the original Star Trek episodes have a melancholic, haunting resolution that leaves you wondering. The happy endings aren’t always happy. They make you wonder what could have been done differently. Was there a better way? At times the concepts at the heart of the story leave your mind reeling (three hundred year old kids without parents? Freaky!). But therein lies the appeal. It certainly isn’t the cardboard sets and campy costumes that have kept generations of fans coming back for more. Star Trek, and each of its successive iterations, challenges you to think about the world you live in and what you can do to improve it.

There’s a beautiful intellectualism present in the original Star Trek. When the crew encounter a problem, or a new lifeform, they usually try to get out of danger through diplomacy before they start shooting everything in sight. There are exceptions, of course. Klingons are usually treated with hate and disdain, having proven themselves unworthy of the respect granted most other sentient lifeforms. But despite Captain Kirk’s tendency to end up in a fist fight (and lose most of his shirt in the process), the crew use reason to resolve most of their difficulties. In fact, turning away from violence is a common theme. When Kirk is forced to fight the leader of the Gorn in a battle to the death, he walks away rather than killing his foe, prompting an advanced alien race to recognize humans as reasonable, intellectual beings and potential allies. When hijacked by a group of aliens to participate in an experimental battle against good and evil, both Kirk and Spock vehemently protest the violence, though they are ultimately forced to participate in the struggle. Once, Kirk even bluffs to an advanced alien race that the destruction of his ship will result in an explosion large enough to consume its destroyer. When the alien race accepts the bluff, but runs into a bit of trouble, Kirk shows compassion, offering assistance to the apparently damaged spacecraft, once again earning himself an unexpected ally.

As science-fiction re-surges in Hollywood, thoughtful, intellectual plots seem to have fallen by the wayside. They don’t sell movies anymore. Apparently explosions do.

I’m by no means writing this post out of nostalgia (I’m not that old) or mourning over some non-existent golden age for the genre. But it is painfully obvious that science-fiction now tends to lean more toward action than intellectualism. Tension used to come from the unknown, from the desire to discover answers as new information is revealed. Now high speed chases and epic space battles are pretty much a requirement.

While watching the special features of the latest Star Trek movie (the J.J. Abrams incarnation) I was struck by a conversation between two crew members about what they felt Start Trek needed (lens flares apparently). They were fans of Star wars and spoke of bringing that popularity to the Star Trek universe (though I’m confused by the insinuation that Star Trek is less popular. I’m pretty sure they both have legions of fans). They used the metaphor of Star Trek as soothing classical music, while Star Wars is sexy rock and roll. “We wanted to infuse Star Trek with that rock and roll vibe,” they claim. But I would argue it never needed it. What’s wrong with classical music? You might not be in the mood for it every day, but it’s not inferior to rock and roll.

Before anyone can accuse me of picking on the new Star Trek movie, I should mention that I loved it. I’m looking forward to the sequel. But I think the re-launch of the series is a fine example of how we now throw guns and explosions (and lens flares apparently) at all of our problems instead of trying to reason our way through them. And I’m aware that the problem is hardly unique to or new with the new movie. Even the later Star Trek series tended toward violence more often than diplomacy. Deep Space Nine included a large war plot against shape shifters. Star Trek Voyager included several struggles against the Borg. And I’m pretty sure no one got along with anyone in Enterprise.

Another prime example can be seen if you compare the first two Star Trek movies. Among Star Trek fans it’s generally accepted that the odd numbered movies are terrible while the even numbered movies are great. I would argue the first movie breaks that rule (GASP!). But take a moment to think about why no one likes the first movie. It’s boring. I agree with that. I very rarely sit through the whole thing at once. But what makes it boring? The plot is actually interesting; the Voyager probe wanders across the universe, finds a race of sentient computers and becomes one of them. It then returns to Earth searching for its creator, trying to fulfill the purpose given to it by humans. It’s full of all the questions with which science-fiction normally challenges us; do we have a right to destroy this lifeform without fully understanding it? How can we come to peace with something which can kill us in an instant and refuses to listen to us? What does it mean to be human? The plot was originally written by Alan Dean Foster, one of sci-fi’s greats.

So what is it that bleeds the tension from the movie? I point my fingers at the ridiculously long special effects sequences. I once zoned out for about two minutes during the scene where Kirk is being transported via shuttle to the ship and he STILL hadn’t gotten there yet. It takes something like seven minutes for the ship to leave space dock. Every time they go somewhere there’s half an hour of zooming in on the ship or its surroundings while the camera pans around the vast spacescapes. We get it. You had special effects budget. You could compare those long special effects sequences to unbroken paragraphs of description in a book, which people tend to skip over. It isn’t the writer’s fault they ended up in the movie. I’m guessing that was the director’s call.

But if you were to cut all those long special effect sequences, you’d get a streamlined story which is actually quite interesting. Almost like a long episode of Star Trek the original series. Some people point to that as a BAD thing but… really? It’s Star Trek. And it’s a movie. Isn’t a really long episode of Star Trek what you’re looking for?

Wrath of Khan is one of my all time favorite movies ever, Star Trek or otherwise. It’s another example of what makes science-fiction great. There’s a lot more action and tension in the movie and a lot less sweeping special effects sequences, clear proof they learned their lesson from the first movie. (In fact the scene where the ship leaves space dock and the astronaut waves at them is re-used from the first movie.) But while the Genesis plot raises a lot of questions about life and morality, the main plot of the movie is Khan’s search for revenge and the game of cat and mouse which plays out between himself and Kirk. There’s action, there’s explosions, and there’s never really a question of trying to reason with the enemy.

If you compare the two movies, Wrath of Khan is the clear winner. But if you compare the plot and themes, Star Trek the Motion Picture has a lot going for it too. If it had been given better screen treatment, it would probably be remembered more fondly. Science-fiction doesn’t need a lot of action and explosions to make it interesting. Even special effects are expendable; look at the popularity of the original series. It’s the way the genre makes us think which gives it appeal. Yet I suspect the trend will continue in the direction of action. At the end of the day, that’s what seems to draw numbers to the box office and that’s all Hollywood really cares about.

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