Thursday, May 14, 2009

Boldly Going Where We Have Been Before

Star Trek’s latest incarnation warped into theaters this past week. Praised by critics, fans, and newbies alike, the film is more than successful in relaunching the venerable franchise. If you care about such things, spoilers are ahead.

Long time readers know that GayProf has been a die-hard trekker since he was GayFifthGrader. While I have never worn the ears, I will confess to having attended a Star Trek Convention shortly before becoming a teenager. My knowledge of the Trek “universe” would likely frighten the uninitiated. I have opinions on things that you don't want to know, like which was the "best" Enterprise.

Producers of the new Trek worked hard to lower expectations from die-hard fans before this film’s release. They noted it would be impossible to retain continuity with the original series and therefore weren’t going to bother. Instead, the film offers an “alternate time line” approach. All the adventures chronicled on the sixties television show, according to this gimmick shocking plot twist, are not to unfold in the same manner.

To make a long story short, a really pissed off Romulan mucked up the time line after an elderly Spock failed to prevent a super nova from destroying Romulus in the future. Of course, now that young Spock knows what will happen one hundred years in the future, he could work to prevent the destruction of Romulus in his old age. If successful, then the pissed off Romulan would not need to travel back in time and muck up the time line. This would then create a temporal paradox, but possibly erase the new time line and restore the first time line chronicled in the sixties t.v. show. Confused? Believe it or not, that’s considered a boilerplate narrative for the franchise.

Let’s be clear: I actually liked the new movie. While the actor playing Spock lacks Leonard Nimoy’s commanding voice (or presence), all the other actors filled the roles quite well. Watching Karl Urban mimic Deforest Kelley even bordered on the eery at times. Besides, after all of the disasters that were the Next Generation films, it was refreshing to see a Trek movie that wasn’t a total embarrassment. And yet. . .

You don’t keep coming back to CoG for sunshine and lollipops. Even though I like something, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be better. Or that I don't have a rambling blog post about it. I am inclined to criticize something I like even more than something that was simply “okay.” Just imagine what type of parent that I would be!

The biggest problem with the “updated” Trek is that it’s not very updated at all. Because Trek has become such a part of the nation’s cultural landscape, we tend to take for granted the many revolutionary innovations it ushered in when it premiered in 1967. Even in the midst of the Cold War, the Star Trek universe (occasionally) promised an end to capitalism and explicitly rejected the accumulation of wealth as a symbol of one’s social worth. It also presented a future peace for earth and an end to national borders. In the middle of the various civil rights movements in the U.S., the show offered an egalitarian future where racism was solved. The show even pledged an end to sexism – Well, sort of.

Despite the show’s credentials, its utopian ideals were obviously always filtered through the social lens of the era it was filmed. Limitations that could be partially justified in the late sixties no longer seem as dismissible in 2009.

As I have complained about in another post, Latinos only appeared as ancillary figures in the Star Trek universe. Aside from attending the convention, I will also confess to having written my own Trek fiction while in middle school. Though I haven’t thought about it in years (and those pages are thankfully lost forever), I do remember feeling the absence of Latino characters so strongly in the Original Series that I created a Latina captain in my fictional accounts. In those stories, she communicated to her crew entirely in Spanish. Given that I wasn’t actually raised in a bilingual household, it was an interesting choice on my part (and I can’t imagine what the Spanish-text even looked like. It’s funny what we internalize, isn’t it?).

Latinos aren't the only group that apparently doesn't exist in the 23rd Century. Producers of Star Trek also explicitly rejected adding any openly gay characters.

Hmm – Limited spots for Latinos and no openly gay people? The bridge of the Enterprise looks a lot like the Obama administration.

I won’t bore you with those complaints – again. This time, I want to talk more about gender in the Trek universe.

When Gene Roddenberry first filmed a pilot for the show, he did have a revolutionary idea for 1967: The second in command of the Enterprise would be a woman (known only as “Number One”). This first version of the show had Captain Christopher Pike commanding the famed ship along with the "logical" Number One as First Officer. That first episode showed Number One making life and death decisions and playing with really big guns. Alas, the network executives didn’t like the notion that an uppity woman would take over command of the ship whenever Captain Pike was in peril (They were even less pleased that Roddenberry was having an affair with Majel Barett, the actor who played “Number One”).

Thus, after a complete rewrite, Roddenberry’s ambitions for women on the show had been significantly altered. Kirk appeared as Captain and women were demoted to “more traditional roles,” such as yeomen or nurses. Instead of taking over command and making decisions for the crew, women on-board the Enterprise took the Captain’s messages and made him coffee. Majel Barett, no longer First Officer, assumed a role as Nurse Chapel who spent her days mooning over Spock and handing out aspirin.

Significantly, the show also “sexed up” the women’s uniforms. In place of Number One’s sensible turtle neck and slacks in the first pilot, women officers squeezed into ultra-mini skirts, go-go boots, and beehive hairdos. All of that, I am sure, was real practical for working in space.

Still, even with all those deletions, the show did push for an inclusive universe rarely seen on television to that point. The characters of Uhura and Sulu allowed actors-of-color to play characters that (mostly) avoided racial stereotypes. Most other representations of Asian men on television presented them as either meek flower gardeners or as treacherous (but easily defeated) villains. Lt. Sulu, in contrast, figured as an equally valued crew member.

Comparably, Nichelle Nichols portrayed Lt. Uhura, the most prominent woman on the original series (FYI: Nichols was the keynote speaker at that convention I attended – I got to ride in an elevator with her!). Uhura broke sixties-era boundaries by being a Black-woman bridge officer. Her character offered a much needed corrective to the usual assortment of maids that most African-American women had to play in sixties film and television. For once, a Black woman on television appeared to have more on her mind that scrubbing toilets, making pancakes, or ensuring that the house had a fresh pine scent.

Of course, Uhura’s role as a commanding officer was still heavily proscribed. Instead, her assignment was more-or-less presented as one of a space-receptionist who staffed an intergalactic switchboard. Uhura had little to say beyond “Hailing frequencies open.” Nichelle Nichols found the role boring and contemplated quitting the series after the first season. None other than Martin Luther King, Jr. intervened in that decision. King, who claimed to be a fan of the show, convinced Nichols to stay on board despite her limited role. He argued (apparently convincingly) that her mere presence on the bridge made an important statement about racial politics in the U.S.

Nichols stuck it out through the rest of the show, an animated series, and six films. Through it all, she always advocated for a more elaborate role for Uhura. In particular, she hoped for an opportunity for Uhura to take command of the ship (which she did in one episode of the Saturday-morning cartoon (but only after all the men on board became slaves to an all-woman planet who sought to drain them of their essence (don’t ask)).

The relaunch of the series therefore presented some significant problems to reforming a pretty dated character. Out of the eight main characters on the original series, Uhura was the only woman and one-of-two characters of color (Not even having a Mexican-born producer was apparently enough to add a Latino character to the latest film). Sadly, I have a fairly harsh assessment of Uhura’s new incarnation.

The new Uhura was given a bit more in the way of professional credentials. Rather than being somebody whose greatest accomplishment was mastering the use of a hold button, Uhura is now a skilled linguist. In the opening scenes with her, she also shows significant promise. Uhura deftly ignores the boorish Kirk, his clumsy passes, and a crude joke about blow jobs. It seemed possible that Uhura would be a significant equal of the Enterprise bridge crew. Then things kinda go off track.

Returning to the sixties model, Uhura mostly kept out of the way of the men on board, who clearly had important things to do. Her skills as a linguist were rendered moot as the Romulans jammed all the communications anyway. The difference between Uhura and one of the blinking bridge consoles thereby became minimal. She contented herself by looking pretty and flipping her long, straight hair as often as possible. While each of the men had some profound action sequence, Uhura’s major duty in life focuses on cheering Spock up. She does that task mostly by making out with him.

The implicit premise behind the egalitarian diversity of the original series was that each of the crew members was professionally respected as the best at their particular job. The new film inverted that professionalism by having Uhura be the only crewmember who has an affair with her instructor and her commanding officer, Spock. Apparently Starfleet forgot to write rules and regulations about sexual misconduct among officers (If Trek producers really wanted to push the envelope, they could have had cadet Kirk having an affair with his instructor and commanding officer, Captain Pike!).

The producers' clumsy decisions forever clouds Uhura’s representation of a professional Black woman. I am willing to not tred into the obvious stereotype of women-of-color’s bodies being always available for white men. Nonetheless, Uhura’s success on the Enterprise becomes irrevocably linked to her affair with Spock.

Indeed, the character of Spock even acknowledges this potential when Uhura complains that she was not assigned to Starfleet’s perpetual flagship, the Enterprise. It is her romantic relationship with Spock that initially sends her to another commanding officer to avoid the appearance of “favoritism,” but it is that same romantic relationship that allows her to insist that Spock return her to his command. Uhura becomes a bizarre combination of Spock’s available lover and space-mammy all rolled into one ultra-mini skirt (Which, along with knee-high boots, reappeared on the women in this Star Trek).

I don’t object to either Uhura or Spock having romantic relationships per se. Indeed, the original series suggested that Spock did have romantic entanglements while a young officer. The problem with this incarnation, though, is that Uhura becomes defined only by her relationship to Spock. In contrast, Spock’s relationship to Uhura is one of many elements of his history and character that we get to see on film. Lots of celluloid is spent charting Spock’s goals, childhood experiences, relationships with the other crew, and even his old-age shenanigans. Uhura’s needs or ambitions, meanwhile, are never explored. We are even unsure whether she wanted to be on board the Enterprise for the sake of her career or just so that she could whisper sweet nothings into Spock’s pointed ears.

Add onto that the fact that the only other woman in the film with any significance is Spock’s mother and we start to see some serious (and Freudian) problems here. After forty years, one would have hoped that Star Trek would allow more roles for women than as the mothers or lovers of the male leads. Turns out, not so much.

According to some reports, Paramount executives understood that Star Trek (and science fiction in general) has had a poor record for attracting adult women as audience members. They therefore charged the current Trek producers to solve that problem. How did they tackle this issue? Astoundingly they suggested their solution came from consulting their wives about what women wanted in a film. Yeah, ‘cuz asking your spouse over morning bagels is just as good as, you know, hiring a professional woman onto the writing/producing team. Wow, they really did master time travel and returned us all to 1967!

The new Trek makes it clear that the job of saving the universe rests exclusively with men, preferably white men. Indeed, Starfleet values white, male leadership so much that Kirk gets to skip up the ranks from Academy Cadet to Captain of his own Starship all in one go! Let me tell you, if I was on the Enterprise and had actually earned the rank of Ensign, Lieutenant, Lieutenant-Commander, or Commander, I would push for a mutiny against the woefully unqualified “Captain” Kirk.

Unlike 1967, it is no longer revolutionary to just acknowledge the presence of people-of-color or women. They can’t be the tokens who promise future inclusion, but then step aside when the “real” decisions need to be made. This new Star Trek only sneaked around questions of gender and racial equality. In the end, it is still a “boy’s” franchise that no longer wants to think about contemporary problems of racism and sexism.


rosmar said...

You are right, of course. Even though I didn't notice half of what you said when I watched it myself.

pacalaga said...

I knew I should have gone to see it before I read this. Crice! (That's my verification word, and it really just feels like an exclamation.) I am sad that they made Uhura suck. I had a girl crush on her before I knew what a girl crush was.
That little Capt Kirk pipsqueak is staring at me from the back of the Cheezit's box, and even though Kirk was a total pill, he was still Kirk, dammit. So which was the best Enterprise? I lost interest when Hawk from Spencer for Hire grew hair and showed up on a space station.

susurro said...

wow, it frightens me how similar and completely different our two reviews of this film are . . .

Thanks for working in the Uhura-Sulu photo which is like one of my favorite episodes!!!

And thanks for out geeking me! I honestly never realized that the nurse was "number one." In fact, I had forgotten that insipid nurse all together, or at least shoved her out of my memory.

Zundian said...

Obviously the 1701-D is the best Enterprise?

Historiann said...

Love this--will link to it soon.

Here's something to indicate how dumb I was as a kid: I thought Checkov was Mexican! Yeah, I didn't grow up around too many Mexicans (or too many Russians, for that matter.)

Artistic Soul said...

You EXACTLY put your finger on what bugged me about the film. I loved it, but that was the Spock/Uhura thing really bothered me the entire time.

onebadbint said...

Wow, Historiann! Similarly -- when my father (Anglo) met my mother (Mexican), he assumed (from her Spanish last name) that she was Hungarian. ??? And this was in Texas!

Chad said...

Another Trek-fluent friend of mine complained that Spock's mother Amanda had a more diminished role than might be expected and isn't referred to by name.

This backs my pet theory that we're living through a new '50s and have actually taken several steps back since the '60s. Judging from your description, the showrunners of "The Next Generation" and Gene Roddenbury seemed more conscious of the issues you raise (well, aside from LGBT representation) than the makers of this film.

GayProf said...

Rosmar: Even though you didn't notice, the important thing is that you acknowledge that I am always right.

Pacalaga: I had a gay-boy crush on Uhura, too. As for the Enterprise, I think the eighties films had the best option.

Susurro: Mirror, Mirror was also one of the few episodes where Uhura had more to say then "They are jamming all frequencies, Captain!"

Zundian: The Enterprise-D grew on me after some time. The bridge, though, always felt like an airport lounge.

HistoriAnn: I wouldn't feel too bad. Chekov's accent wasn't really a very good Russian accent.

Artisitc Soul: I think that the producers will ultimately regret their decisions around Uhura. It was sloppy and intended only to shock the fans.

OneBadBint: I am perpetually amazed by how most people in the U.S. know little about Mexicans (or even the differences between Mexicans/Mexican Americans and other Latino populations). But, when shows like Star Trek and others decide to simply eliminate them, there are no points of reference to even begin a discussion.

Chad: It does feel like we have taken some serious steps backward in terms of gender equality.

All Thinky said...

Also? Remember how the first time Kirk and Spock tangled w/the Romulans, their Commander was Joanne Linville?

And how has Winona Ryder aged out of "hot" roles and into "Gramma" roles so quickly?

Hollywood, I love/hate you so much.

Laura Elizabeth said...

I've been a Trek fan since the middle 70's when it started appearing on late-night tv. I knew I didn't want to see this version, or re-vision, of the original. Why can't anything be left alone?

"Wow, they really did master time travel and returned us all to 1967!"

I frequently feel this way. I'm often left wondering what happened to the Civil Rights Movement as well as feminism. I frequently wonder if I'm living on the wrong planet. Uhura as Spock's bit of fluff. Charming. That's just insulting to both characters. And... I think Uhura was a linguist in the original... or maybe that was only in the books. Which I'll stick with - the originals that is. The more recent books are horrible.

Justin Cognito said...

Chad -- I know what you mean about the new '50s point. Hell, I saw a trailer for a rom-com the other day called Management, the premise of which was that a hotel worker falls in love with a guest and follows her home, despite her request that he leave her the fuck alone. Because stalking is a bunch of laughs!

GayProf -- Another interesting note on Uhura in TOS: NBC execs REALLY didn't like the idea of a black woman on the bridge. They wouldn't let Nichelle Nichols be listed in the main cast for the first season, and part of the reason she almost quit involved finding out from one of the janitors that her fan mail was being kept from her.

Chad said...


I also remember seeing an ad for a film with Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, which seemed to be all about some contrived situation forcing "Stern Boss Woman" (Bullock) to marry her assistant (Reynolds) which "causes the tables to turn!" (actual quote from the ad)

Now to be fair this was only an ad, which can be horribly misleading when it comes to media, and the jokes themselves didn't ring any bells, but the way the premise was conveyed definitely sounded a bit like "uppity bitch gets her comeuppance."

I could go on (especially about every adult woman in commercials now seem to be a housewife with multiple children), but it will be interested what cultural and social observers have to say about our decade. From my admittedly limited vantage point it looks like the '00s combined the worst aspects of the late '40s/50s and the '80s.

Chad said...

And I meant to add we have a tendency to think that cultural/social progress is always linear, or at least has been for a long time now and will remain so barring some sort of political-economic cataclysm, but sadly it's not the case, as any comparison between the 1700s and the 1800s in Europe will show.

Steven said...

Hey, at least we all became coordinated enough with our fingers to be able to give the "V" sign. :-)

Unknown said...

I must have turned my critical mind off when I entered the theater! I didn't think of any of your points when I saw the movie, although I can see all of them now. And I'm the woman who always counts the number of women in general and people of color on the screen! Embarrassing! Now I have to talk to my pre-teen son about the movie in a different way...
One more embarrassing side note--I thought the actor who played Spock was Latino because of his last name. Luckily, I googled him before talking about him in class. Turns out "Quinto" is Italian.

The Bittersweet Girl said...

I almost fell over when I saw Winona as Spock's mother. Holy crap, what was that casting about??

susurro said...

@Justin - "her fan mail was being kept from her." You just broke my heart with that tidbit.

@all thinky - Joanne Linville was . . . words fail. I don't think anybody could forget her or that role. Say what you want about the women of Star Trek, and I do, she rocked!

Emily said...

A very minor note: isn't Zoe Saldana, the actress who played the very poorly written new Uhura, Latina? But of course the character isn't identified, and your points are well taken.

susurro said...

just checked. Zoe Saldana is Dominican-Puerto Rican and spent several of her childhood years living in RD. She is however identified as a "black" actress and read as African American by most unknnowing N. American audiences. So she is Afra-Latina playing African American (since Uhura was written specifically to be African American and originated by an Af-Am actress). Nice catch tho.

I guess I'll have to change my post a wee bit, & my comment at historiann's to say only one latin@ can be present on the bridge at any given time in Star Fleet. (Someone once said that the academy awards was being racist for putting two Latinas in charge of the Best Foreign Film Award. So can the same be said by assigning 3 of the four Latin@ actors in the movie to Communications Director?)

Ink said...

Wow, great post with so many important issues! But because I am who I am, I need to focus on the sartorial: I too always wondered about the miniskirts and go-go boots. Indeed! Hardly appropriate for wrangling aliens...although some of the alien women also wore miniskirts, which never made sense, either. It's not like they're subscribing to Vogue on Planet X.

GayProf said...

All Thinky: Wasn't Spock's dad the first Romulan commander they encountered? Talk about an awkward family reunion!

Laura: Uhura did have some skills in the sixties show. I don't if they ever mentioned linguistics being one of them, but they did show here doing some serious repairs on her switchboard.

Justin Cognito: I had no idea about the fan mail. That is a horror.

Chad 2 & 3: I just saw a trailer for that film. Yes, it looks to be exactly as you describe.

Steven: Infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

Sydney: Films are seductive. Even we were are trained to think about race and gender critically, we can all be lured by the sweet flickering glow of the screen.

Bittersweet Girl: Even more sad is that Winona Rider is only six years older than Quinto, her supposed son in the film.

Susurro2: I just wanted to wear the Romulan Commander's lounging costume.

Emily: Thanks for the heads up on Saldana's own racial identity. Still, Uhura the character is supposed to be neither African American nor Afro-Latina. Instead, she was imagined to represent a "United Africa." Given her first language in the 60s show was Swahili, she apparently came from somewhere in East Africa. As Susurro3 points out, though, the main audience for Trek probably doesn't register either character or Saldana's origins.

There is much to be said about the Star Trek universe making people of color basically interchangeable. For instance, the new Sulu is played by a Korean-American actor while the first Sulu was played by a Japanese-American actor (And Sulu, I am told, is not a Japanese name. When the original show was broadcast in Japan, they changed his name so it would actually make sense).

Ink: In some instances, the alien-women costumes made the Enterprise crew look downright modest. Often they just strung two strips of ribbon over their nipples and they were ready for intergalactic espionage.

Claire said...

You are so crazy.

tornwordo said...

I'm glad I saw it before I read this. Did you notice how Kirk crossed his legs so effeminately just like shatner used to?

Historiann said...

The casting of Winona Ryder as Spock's mother is like the casting of Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson to play the "older woman" to Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin in The Graduate. I think the age difference was about 6 years too, if that much. (I think Bancroft was 36 and Hoffman 30 when the movie was made.)

It's shocking to think that Ryder is now of the age when she'll be cast only in mommy or grandmama roles! But, turning 35 will do that to a girl...

goblinbox said...

You are always right. ;-)

Miles said...

Thanks for putting into words so much of what I thought was wrong with the movie. I was just arguing with a coworker of what happened to Uhura's backbone in the second half of the movie. I heard Whoopie Goldberg (who did some Next Gen work as homage) was inspired by "just seeing" Uhura on the bridge, so have to agree with Dr. King's reason for Uhura to stay.

It's funny people talking about going backwards. You watch Next Gen and you see what Roddenberry (and all of the US) thought the future was going to be. Sure there was no woman captain, but you can see the way Pikard handled stuff and the story lines about what they expected the future to be. One where equality was taken very seriously, where diversity was important. There are asexual humanoids, women who take different paths to their careers, a diverse acting crew, an interracial marriage, and many hopeful things. Then you watch Deep Space Nine (which btw, I loved also) and you see it degenerate into a world of terrorism, xenophobia, people losing faith, religious extremists. I do sometimes wonder if we've gone a little backwards, at least from my perspective (gender) but I don't know. I just wonder and worry. Obama is like Cisco, it's nice to have the first African-American in command but it doesn't actually change things if the staff isn't diverse and if the principals don't (in the end) defend minorities, defend the weak, and uplift humanity. Jury is still out on Obama, but I think none of us are as hopeful as we were in the 90s.

seekeronos said...

"--- Kirk from cadet to Captain... ---"

That kinda bothered me too... I mean, preventing the big bad Romulan mining crew from imploding the earth might certainly be noteworthy... but there might be a whole pile of crew members wondering who this pipsqueak was who jumped five paygrades in an afternoon, lol.