The dramatic rebooted revival of 'Star Trek' coincided with the beginning of the Obama Era. There was clear synchronicity, as new President Barack Obama was a self-identified Trekkie who enjoyed flashing Spock's "Live long and and prosper" hand signal.
Indeed, Obama not only looked the part of a cool young Starfleet officer, he always seemed to me to come from 50 years into the future. A decidedly better future than our then present of 2008 and 2009.
But now, at least to most voters in the latest presidential election, those dark-turning-to-light days of the early Obama Era, when the young president struggled to stave off a depression and disentangle the nation from disastrous military over-stretch, look like a paradise in the making.
That future 50 years from now from which Barack Hussein Obama seemed to spring, the one in which our first black president, our first multi-racial president, seemed no more than a little exotic, now looks to have come too soon for the America which actually exists. The reaction formation against the futuristic persona of Obama set in early, with far too many implacable in their bitter resolve against the multi-cultural, implicitly social democratic and ecologically engaged future America that 'Star Trek' has always represented. And it came back with a roar last month. The trademark 'Star Trek' values of science and exploration? Simply antithetical to the aggressive know-nothingism promoted by Trumpism.
In the election just past, Donald Trump, who, whether he likes it or not, ran a campaign which epitomized anti-intellectual, anti-diversity themes, received more votes from white evangelical Christian voters than Hillary Clinton received from Latino and black voters. The fabled "Obama coalition" again failed to materialize for anyone other than Barack Obama. (Except in California, where it has nothing to do with Obama and is so much a part of our present reality that we don't even call it the "Brown coalition.")
The spectacularly rebooted 'Star Trek' of 2009 proved a smash hit coinciding with the advent of our first Trekkie president, the rather futuristic Barack Obama.
But in 2009, the idealistic prospect for America seemed very much real. And the rebooted version of the venerable television and movie franchise, with a terrific young cast reprising the classic roles from the original series in a fatefully altered timeline, was a smash hit.
I've seen every one of the 726 episodes of the various 'Star Trek' television series from 1966 on, as well as all 13 of the feature films, 10 of which came out before the reboot. It was clear that so much repetition had led to fatigue, and a bit of a rut. (I give you 'Star Trek: Voyager,' and the last film with the Next Generation crew, 'Star Trek: Nemesis.')
But there was clearly a big audience remaining, not to mention a big potential new audience, for what had become a very significant cultural presence. The J.J. Abrams reboot began in bravura fashion -- the very birth of James T. Kirk as his father (Thor-to-be Chris Hemsworth) dies heroically saving his wife, just-aborning child, and hundreds of Starfleet comrades, plus the early education of a very conflicted half-human/half-Vulcan Spock -- and continued with great energy and verve throughout.
If there were a few intellectual problems with the script, the sheer energy and spectacle of the thing roared past them. The film was a great hit, the seventh largest of Obama's first year in office at the domestic box office. It was a return to 'Star Trek's glory days of not only the 1960s and the 1990s but also the mid-'80s. Then the great success of 'Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,' the good-humored save-the-whales holiday smash of 30 years ago and fifth biggest film of the year, seemed to presage very good things for another youthful, intellectual, future-oriented political figure, then-presidential frontrunner Gary Hart.
Things, of course, turned out better for Obama, at least in the election, with the first Trekkie president winning by a strong margin in the midst of the greatest American economic and geopolitical crises since the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Though the first rebooted film, named simply 'Star Trek,' was able to overcome its problems with not only the sheer energy of the direction and performances but also its very direct linkage to the new Obama administration, the intellectual problems came very much to the fore in the second film of the rebooted timeline era.
By then, things had gotten a little complicated. J.J. Abrams had curbed his enthusiasm for 'Star Trek' in the wake of an unsuccessful attempt to gain control over the franchises's merchandising. He then did a Spielberg homage film about teenagers in then '70s doing a homemade horror movie encountering an extraterrestrial in their all-too-Spielbergian small town. Pardon me if I forget its title.
The other writer-producers involved in the so-called 'Star Trek' "Supreme Court" proved to be more interested in highly lucrative TV deals for already forgotten TV shows.
An appalling four years passed before the follow-up to the 2009 smash hit appeared. It turned out to be a film, that, while very action-packed, essentially insulted the intelligence of 'Star Trek' fans with a reworking of the classic 'Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan' so ludicrous that when I learned the plot nearly a year before the film came out I was convinced that my informant was trying to punk me.
The film was still a hit, wasting the very game Benedict Cumberbatch as an unaccountably London lily white version of genetically-engineered superman South Asian warlord Khan Noonien Singh. While the international box office numbers went up nicely, following the growth in screens around the world, the domestic box office actually dropped. The backlash among Trekkies killed studio hopes for a 'Dark Knight'-style leap forward for the more expensively budgeted sequel.
Then Abrams, who had rather infamously said he had never gotten into the show as a kid because it was "too philosophical," went off to his first love, taking on the long-awaited 'Star Wars' continuation. (Which turned out to be something of a remake all its own.) Other members of the "Supreme Court" drifted off to other projects, mostly TV stuff I can't recall.
Writer/producer Roberto Orci, probably the biggest actual Trekkie in the group, seemed in as a first-time director for the slated 50th anniversary film set for this year. We had good exchanges in online public forums, including my idea that Chris Hemsworth be reinserted into the film series as a paternal inspiration for the still maturing James T. Kirk (very well played as always by Berkeley grad Chris Pine). The second film had foolishly killed off young Kirk's highly effective mentor figure, Bruce Greenwood's excellent Admiral Christopher Pike.
Orci liked the idea of bringing back Hemsworth through some scifi magic -- perhaps a blast from the past not unlike the reintroduction of Howard Stark in 'Iron Man 2' -- and Abrams announced earlier this year that the 'Avengers' star will appear in an already green-lit fourth film in the rebooted series.
But then Orci was out, along with most of his script. With time very tight, I warned in January of last year that 'Star Trek' -- unlike 'James Bond' and 'Doctor Who,' who have major ongoing franchise minders -- was headed for a very underwhelming 50th anniversary.
In the event, though a fine film was quickly and very, very expensively pulled together, it all turned out to be, as feared, quite underwhelming.
'Star Trek Beyond' was well-reviewed and likable, but lacked any epic feel despite its astounding $185 million production budget. It played more like a good two-part episode of one of the TV series, in the process wasting yet another great British actor, Idris Elba, who was unrecognizable in make-up and indecipherable in an oddly ill-defined villain role.
As for promotion around the 50th anniversary, it was virtually non-existent. With Paramount having just blown both the 'Jack Ryan' and 'Terminator' franchises, it was further confirmation that the studio is simply lost when it comes to any franchise management involving intellectual activity.
Not that 'Star Trek Beyond' did badly. It's actually a hit. It ended with just under $160 million at the domestic box office, more than $340 million worldwide. But that was well off the earlier films, and a whopping $100 million less domestically than the 2009 reboot. And with no sense of event around the picture, it played like just another big summer action movie.
Liked, but not at all impactful.
Not unlike the end of the Obama presidency, as it happens. As I mentioned near the top, the Obama coalition of young voters and people of color did not turn out for Hillary anywhere near as much as they did for Obama. It wasn't that Obama didn't try. He campaigned hard for Hillary. He even joined her in going into big industrial/former industrial states which he had carried and in which Trump was showing late strength. But Trump won those states, going head to head with Obama and the Clintons.
This despite the fact that Obama himself is pretty popular as he leaves the presidency. But most voters believe by a wide margin that the nation nonetheless is going in the wrong direction.
So of course it turned out that, contrary to what almost all Democratic-oriented pols and media types insisted, it was very much possible for a large slice of folks to like Obama and yet turn against his chosen successor.
Speaking in spring 2009 in Prague, President Barack Obama called for the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons. That fall, he won a very premature Nobel Peace Prize. Today there is heightened threat of a new nuclear arms race and more nuclear proliferation. And a reaction around the world against the sort of future-oriented cooperation he seemed to epitomize.
Unfortunately, there is a turn around the world against the admittedly rather utopian (yet all too necessary) ethic so nobly represented by 'Star Trek,' the idea that we must pull together to achieve our highest aspirations as a species.
Somehow the notion of federationism, of going beyond nationalism and tribalism and sectarianism to bring people together and pursue future-oriented goals, has become interwoven not just with corporatism but corporationism. And that is highly problematic, as the Clintons -- who leveraged his post-presidency and her prospective presidency into an astounding quarter of a billion dollars in personal wealth -- discovered too late for their own positioning. Not that there were not earlier warning signs for them from their old friend Tony Blair, the brilliant, empathetic yet decisive British prime minister who once seemed positioned to be the world statesman of the age before being dragged under by his ill-fated championing of the Iraq War and ill-considered post-PM buckraking.
So we have had the shock Brexit vote and the "shock" triumph of Trumpism. And we have just had quite a result in Italy. There the spearhead populists of the 5 Star Movement are much more progressive and future-oriented than the mostly nativists of Brexit and Trumpism.
Yet the initial result is much the same.
I wish I could provide a pithy positive conclusion here, but I cannot. We are in a fallow period in history and politics. Unless, of course, President-elect Trump, who seems more than a bit of a mad hatter, decides to pleasantly surprise with a truly post-ideological approach which embraces the needs of the future while eschewing fascism. As longtime readers know, I've been extremely critical of him since I realized more than a year ago that he was the coming thing in American politics. But it is not impossible. After all, he once backed my candidate, Gary Hart.
As for 'Star Trek' and its ability to inspire in the future, keeping in mind that it was quite inspirational during periods in our history which may well prove to have been much more dire than this, prospects are unclear.
There will probably be a fourth movie in the rebooted series. The present movie looks a lot more like a hit if it does not cost nearly so much money. And I think that much of that whopping $185 million production budget was spent on unnecessary action.
And there is to be a new TV series, as well, which may be Trek's best incarnation. Unfortunately, that is delayed.
Originally intended for premier in this, the 50th anniversary year, 'Star Trek: Discovery' was delayed to January 2017. Now, with the Trek veteran show-runner having departed, it is further delayed to May. And casting seems behind as well, though there is a very good sign in the selection of Hong Kong star Michelle Yeoh, who made one of the very best Bond girls back in the Pierce Brosnan days as a Chinese super-agent, to play the commander of one of the key starships in the new saga.
So then, fingers crossed on all fronts, reel and real. As a certain science officer once said: "There are always possibilities."
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