Off Topic, On ‘Star Trek’

I recognize that this is way far afield of what I usually write about, and I assure you that we’ll be getting back to the month of rhubarb very soon, but I wanted to point this out to all of you. It is Matthew Yglesias’s rankings of Star Trek stuff — films, series, episodes, villains, and crew members — from best to worst (or in some cases, from best to tenth best).

I point to it because I love Trek. With all my heart, I do. It’s been a topic of academic research for me. I’ve written about it here and here. And in a drawer somewhere, I have an article about Deep Space Nine as a critique of colonialism that I’d love to get published somewhere scholarly.

Off Topic, On Star Trek
via Wikimedia Commons

Anybody who writes intelligently about Trek receives the coveted Twice Cooked Stamp of Approval™. And Yglesias, who I already admire and who also has this accompanying Star Trek piece, gets two stamps in my book.

I also bring it up because though I am not a big fan of best-of lists in principle, I do think that these particular best-of lists are fun. Ordinarily, my position is that unless you’re top-tenning something that is objectively quantifiable (like the performance of hard drives), or something that is utilitarian (like the most useful styles of kitchen knife), you might as well title your list something like “Ten Random Objects That, For a Variety of Reasons, Are On My Popular Radar.”

But in this case, I’m making an exception. I’m backing off my critique of the form because it’s sometimes fun to quibble with the contents — with the order of the rankings. And specifically — with all the good natured joviality I can muster — I want to quibble with this one:

Off Topic, On Star Trek

I’m sorry to have to disagree with Matthew Yglesias, here, but I must insist that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is significantly better than Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Khan is good, and it has the advantage of tying into one of the best The Original Series episodes (“Space Seed“), but its plot is full of embarrassing holes, and it is kind of a disaster of dated aesthetics.

Don’t you think, for instance, that eugenically-bred super-genius Khan Noonien Singh might be able to pick up on Kirk and Spock’s clever code about how hours could seem like days? Don’t you think that advanced Starfleet sensors could pick up on the fact that Ceti Alpha V might be inhabited by more than just a few proto-living particles? I know it was the Eighties, but don’t you just cringe, just a little bit, watching what looks to be the members of the band Whitesnake capturing a Starfleet vessel? And don’t even get me started on the KHAAAAAAN!!! debacle.

Off Topic, On Star Trek
via Neil Zlozower

Star Trek VI, on the other hand, isn’t just a good Star Trek film, it’s a good film. Beyond the fact that it has the most interesting and nuanced political message of any non-DS9 Trek, it does an admirable job of making the future seem at least moderately real. The Enterprise feels more like a real ship, with crew quarters, and a galley, and an engine room that has more than just the usual array of blinking and strobing lights. The conference room at Starfleet Headquarters feels like a place where people might have meetings, not “space meetings,” and the same is true for the venue of the Khitomer Accords. The Klingon Empire is in trouble for sensible reasons, not “space reasons.” And the way in which years of cold war have created lingering prejudice in Kirk, Admiral Cartwright, and General Chang feels emotionally true, rather than like a Roddenberry-esque lesson in forward evolution.

And speaking of Roddenberry, I’d also like to put in a plug for lowering the J. J. Abrams Star Trek film from its generous fifth position to somewhere about equal with Nemesis. Abrams’s go at the franchise is slick with its fancy effects and admittedly cool-looking Enterprise set, but it undermines the strong ideological foundation that makes Trek Trek. In the name of action, it does away with the idea of an optimistic future, in which exploration rather than warfare is the thing. We see Vulcan destroyed, and neither the crew of the ship nor the audience in the theater reacts with much more than a shrug and a well, that happened.

And then there are the Romulan miners. Yes, they’re violent. But it seems to me that they have a legitimate grievance against Spock and the Federation (that promises help with their dying homeworld, but can’t deliver). And by sending the Enterprise off gleefully to destroy them, Abrams turns Starfleet from a force that, in Yglesias’s words, tries to establish diplomatic relations with new species and tries to play a constructive role in the galaxy into one that’s sole function is to protect the elite class — the political classes of the Federation — from workers’ pernicious calls for having a voice in the system.

Just about the only thing that the Abrams Star Trek gets right about The Original Series is the degree to which it might as well be subtitled: In Which Three Privileged Frat Boys Cruise the Universe for Chicks. But while Roddenberry balanced that aspect of the series with a legitimately uplifting message, Abrams does nothing of the kind, making the main characters — especially Chris Pine’s Kirk — sometimes painfully difficult to watch.

Off Topic, On Star Trek
by France1978, via Flickr

Well that turned into a bit more of an extended rant than I expected.

I thought I’d have some things to say about Yglesias’s choice to rank The Next Generation above Deep Space Nine. And I thought I’d have some some nits to pick with his choices for the top ten episodes. But perhaps I’ll pass. After all, I don’t want to come off as — you know — too geeky or anything.

Instead, I’ll exhort you all, one more time, to go and look at Yglesias’s lists, and at his article about what makes Star Trek great. And I’ll suggest that you should all report back with your own rants, critiques, and defenses of his choices.

And in the meantime, I’ll go back to writing about cooking and eating and all those good things. Because that rhubarb’s not just going to cook itself.