Incremental progress meets Zeno’s Paradox

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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


    January 12, 2015 @ 1:20 am

    To be fair, there is evidence some of the fatal flaws were down to Shatner. Most notably, The Final Frontier pushes back against the "crew-as-ensemble" vibe we got in The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home. The Final Frontier throws a few bones to Scotty/Uhura/Chekov/Sulu, but they feel like scraps from the adult table. Scotty and Uhura romance? Why not! Chekov in command despite the fact George Takeo had been pushing for Sulu as a command office? Go ahead! Shatner is quite candid about this in the commentary, suggesting that the ensemble had grown too big for their boots.

    As a result, The Final Frontier is the last Star Trek story featuring the original cast that feels like a "big three and company" story. Even the Abrams reboots pay attention to the rest of the cast, bumping Uhura up to the trinity.

    While it's debatable whether Shatner was right or wrong to push the rest of the cast back down – and I think you make a spirited defence – it is one big part of why The Final Frontier feels like the 1960s series brought back to life. The Final Frontier is perhaps the movie closest to an episode of the classic series – not the popular memory of the classic series, not the version that many eulogise or praise, but the version that actually existed.

    Kirk and the crew vanquish an entity calling itself a god! (THE God!) the focus on the leading trinity! An episodic adventure, following the serialised nature of the last three films! Dodgy special effects!

    I think that it's possible to read The Final Frontier as the movie most close in style and tone to the actual Original Series, which perhaps explains the strong rejection of it. Nobody likes to be reminded of how the past actually was, especially when they've been busy creating their own revisions of it. If the movies redeemed a lot of the sins you point out about the show, The Final Frontier reminds a lot of people of those same problems.

    And so it is dismissed as heretical. This is not what Star Trek is, the fans proclaim. Nor what it ever was.


  2. Cleofis
    January 12, 2015 @ 12:43 pm

    On the contrary, Josh, I think TNG is without a doubt the only Trek to have established itself in the culture the way TOS did (it most certainly is even more memeified, I'd say). Granted TOS does (and always will, unfortunately) loom over any discourse about Trek, but TNG is a massive touchstone to so many people it's reached a similar level of reverence. On a different note, man that Tim Burton Batman movie is great and I wish superhero movies engaged in that kind of singular aesthetic glory instead of the depressing, lifeless, factory line assembly of modern blockbusters 😛


  3. Adam Riggio
    January 12, 2015 @ 2:44 pm

    You're definitely onto something there, Cleofis. I think TNG has taken a generally solid hold on popular culture (especially among the generation who's seen TNG as children during its original run, who are all late 20s to early 30s now) as the default Star Trek. It was the first Star Trek series to debut on Netflix, and I think it was one of the first older series to make a genuine popular splash simply by the news that it was now going to be available on a widely-used streaming service.

    Among self-identified Star Trek fans, however, TOS still looms large over all. I'm talking about the ones who will forcefully correct you, "The proper term is Trekker! Actually!" They're the demographic who still believes in the romanticized vision of TOS, rather than the sketchy, only occasionally brilliant, deeply problematic show that was actually produced. Today, it would seem that they aren't heard that much outside the circle of folks who are dedicated to editing and updating Memory Alpha. But they are present, and they were certainly more present in 1990, when only a few short years before, it was a weird idea to have a Star Trek show without Kirk, Spock, etc.

    But when it comes to the overall popular barometer of what Star Trek is, TNG has won. And we're all the better for it.


  4. K. Jones
    January 12, 2015 @ 5:25 pm

    We talked a lot back in the wayback machine about Shatner's bonafides in exploring the avenues he explores through the artforms that he uses, but did we ever connect them to the other half of his unique appeal – the fact that he's the driving force behind the feeling of a "working-class spaceman"?

    There's something terrifically honest, appealing (and while I'm at it, a bit Northeastern, though I'll cop to them being universal) about how and why it's Shatner who attempts to wield these creative devices and for what purpose. His explorations of transcendence, humanism and linked art forms are the kinds of explorations you're going to get from someone who grew up working-class but longed to explore philosophy through art. His knowing artifice isn't a far cry from blues, jam poetry, or beat poetry, let alone more pupae-stage movements like punk, hip hop, et al. His spoken word isn't that far from Woody Guthrie.

    Comedy is a wonderful device for satirizing, and a wonderful device for salving the wounds of civilized culture, healing it into scar tissue. But it's not the best choice for exploring the existential black hole in the heart of a working-class life – the struggle to make your own meaning, because you're not born into meaningfulness or status and if you have to work for every bit of it, you have to make a choice and pick a direction.

    Here we can't fault Shatner's themes, or even his choices of symbols, regardless of some being pretty well-worn iconography at this point. I don't even want to fault his action beats – if the art design and SFX had somehow miraculously been Star Wars good, that shuttle landing would be a crowning achievement for Sulu.

    I don't hate Star Trek V. Whenever I watch it, even as I grimace at the poor production values and bad edit choices I can see somewhere in there existed a script that had more genuine hope, earnest working-class motivations, not a lot of cliched masculine or feminine tropes or bravado, more than an ounce of humility … and ironically most of all, cohesive attempts at world-building.

    I'm not a person who puts TOS above TNG. I like the art design better, though obviously the set-construction and effects are just lightyears difference. I luck out in that it's "All" my Star Trek. It's a holistic, all-encompassing view.

    But if there's one thing the TOS crew has in spades that the TNG crew sort of lacks (at least until O'Brien starts getting some spotlight), it's that working-class sensibility. The only whiff of aristocracy on the Enterprise-A comes from Spock's family, and he seems to have bucked the tradition, whereas nobody on the Enterprise-D quite pulls this off with earnestness, and there's terrible irony in there because the TNG cast are wonderful working actors and Stewart most of all could really bring home some working-class bonafides if the writers hadn't decided that Picard needed to be a stodgy academic from wine country. Worf's father is of noble, high ranking blood. Geordi's a Starfleet brat (mom's a captain, no less!) with a professorial tone. Data's unique in all the universe. Troi's mother is an actual aristocrat. Really, only Riker and Tasha captured this sort of vibe, but I think this might be some of what really feels quippy and relateable when we get Riker interacting with O'Brien in Season 2, whether it be poker games, hanging out in Ten Forward, or a wry remark on the way to the transporter.

    There's no better metaphor for Star Trek V than the early scene where Kirk sits in a dismantled command bridge taking orders from "Starfleet" while Scotty alone, and in vain, attempts to put the ship back together.


  5. Daru
    January 12, 2015 @ 11:05 pm

    "Other artistic traditions don't see the same disconnect between narrative and other sorts of creative expression"

    This leads me to think of some of my favourite cinema from the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. With films such as Solaris and Stalker his work is for me akin to a weaving of poetry, symphony and meditation. He uses the term "Sculpting with Light" in the title of his book about his filmmaking process.


  6. gatchamandave
    January 14, 2015 @ 10:45 am

    " Captain…not in front of the Klingons"

    One of the things I think Bill Shatner tries to do with this movie is make peace with at least some of his co-stars.

    So with the above comment, a hundred slash fiction writers over the last 20 odd years punch the air.

    Spock gets a brother who has followed the spiritual rather than the pragmatic, logical approach, and is deluded.

    McCoy fails to save his father, giving him a motivation he's never been given before.

    Uhura is so beautiful that even, on the cusp of the menopause, she can entrance men.

    Scotty has a past with Uhura. Which is nice.

    Chekhov and Sulu go camping together. And another hundred slash fiction writers…

    Other things the film is notable for ? Introducing David Warner to the franchise, which is going to pay off in droves. Skewering The Motion Picture in one brief, lovely, shot. The ultimate "Shaggy God" story – only Jim Kirk could ask " ummm…excuse me…EXCUSE ME !!! What does God want…with a starship?". The one line I can actually picture Chris Pine delivering only, Y'know, not so well.

    I see this film as a last celebration of the Silver Age of Star Trek, and SF in general. In the 90s SF cinema is going to be hard edged, brutal, such as Starship Troopers or Alien 3, Babylon 5 and Space: Above and Beyond, in which space is where people live…and die. Even bleeds into the Franchise with the Dominion Saga and every attempt to reboot Voyager. The next film will be much more brutal, and the saga of Jim Kirk will end, unsatisfactoraly to my mind, being gunned down by the Malcolm McDowell, thrown away in an attempt to establish a frustrating Next Generation franchise.

    Something ends here – the blinkered innocence, the silliness, the willingness to risk being lousy-but-fun that was part of 60's SFTV. You may think that's no bad thing, I would have difficulty arguing. But I'm glad it's got this one last Hurrah.


  7. Froborr
    January 17, 2015 @ 11:46 pm

    Urge to talk about how everyone (including, all too frequently, the people writing it) misreads the Dominion Saga rising… but no. Save it for when we get there. (Short version: The actual start of the so-called Dominion Saga is not "The Jem'Hadar." It's "Past Tense." Because it's not the Dominion Saga, it's the Stress Testing the Federation Saga.)

    Also, if you think brutality got into the franchise in the 90s, yeesh, watch out for Star Trek Online. Starting that immediately after finishing a DS9 rewatch makes it REALLY obvious that September 11 and the resulting state of perpetual warfare happened in between the two. (On the other hand, it managed to make the Devidians outright terrifying, has treated both of Denise Crosby's characters with impressive respect so far, and the fact that the supernova that destroyed Romulus did not remotely resemble how supernovae work is a major plot point, so kudos for all that.)


  8. K. Jones
    January 20, 2015 @ 3:47 pm

    I remember when Star Trek Online first dropped I was nearly piqued enough to get into it – the initial storywriting seemed really thought out. I never actually got into it. PC gaming is one of those things I just don't have the ambition to keep up with. But man, whoever was writing those "Meanwhile, since the last time you were here in Star Trek's galaxy, THIS has happened" backstories you could tell put some thought and proper Trek knowledge into organic changes.

    VG universes are great places for holistic synthesis, and relentlessly patching plotholes from way in the way back.


  9. Froborr
    January 20, 2015 @ 5:26 pm

    Are these back stories available written down somewhere. Because I mean I've managed to more or less divine what's going on with the Klingons and Romulans since the end of DS9, but most of the other races not so much…

    And yeah, some of the ideas I've hit so far are great, especially in the Klingon War. It's just that they're up against the video game logic that dictates that violence is the first and best solution for everything.


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