It seems odd that I have lived long enough that a sentence like, “The Star Trek nerds of the Internet are become outraged,” should seem like news. Because I remember a time, back in the long ago, in the before times, when the Internet was much smaller, and it seemed that fifty percent of the bandwidth used on the Internet Super Highway was engaged in an endless war of Picard v. Kirk.
But we do, we live in a world where your most elderly relatives can, with a click of a mouse, keep tabs on your entire life through Facebook. And as the popular culture spreads through the Internet, just like a deadly virus spreads through a bad B-thriller about the Congo or something, and as Internet nerd culture has engulfed the mainstream, a sentence like this becomes a novelty.
And, so: The Star Trek nerds of the Internet are become outraged. A story broke that, in addition to the upcoming film that he’s announced about the Manson Family murders, Quentin Tarantino has come up with an idea he likes for a next Star Trek movie, and will, in all likelihood, move on to supervise the writing of it, and direct it as well.
Let’s forget for the moment that Quentin Tarantino is notorious for conceiving, enthusiastically announcing, and discarding movies (the joint Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction sequel about the Vega brothers, or the real-time 15-years-later follow up to Kill Bill being the first two that spring immediately to mind).
And let’s forget for a moment that Tarantino seems to be hip-deep in production of this Manson film, which should probably take the focus of his energies for at least the next year. And there’s no knowing what Tarantino, of the famously fleeting attention span, will feel about his Star Trek movie when he actually gets the time to sit down and make it a reality. Or not.
But that’s no fun. So let’s talk about what has this fandom up in arms, which is Quentin Tarantino and Star Trek.
As an aside: The Manson movie is a no-brainer. And not just in the broad, general sense that Tarantino is the ultra-violence and pitch-black humor, Larry Cohen-as-artiste, Grindhouse-on-the-Riviera guy. But because his trademark is switching from moments of dark comedy to acts of brutal violence, often on the whisper-blink of a dropped dime.
Who else could do justice to the story of a failed singer/songwriter, of a burnout who swung into Dennis Wilson’s orbit long enough to have the Beach Boy steal the tune from one of his songs. The tragicomic American success story who finds family, love, and fame as a hippie philosopher king as the head of a sex and murder cult, who found his celebrity as a murderer/criminal in the murder of the wife of a celebrity director (and soon-to-be criminal himself?).
If Oliver Stone’s final draft of Natural Born Killers turns a story of a cross-country thrill-kill spree into a heavy-handed satire of the media’s tendency to make heroes of outlaws, then Charles Manson was Tarantino’s proto-draft, making the same point but in real life. It would make sense that eventually he would circle all the way back in his career.
And so. Tarantino’s characters scurry and scutter like cockroaches in the shadow that pools like blood beneath the green trees and white picket fences world of that dream. In the projectionist/revolutionary-cum-revenge killer of Inglorious Basterds, in the unseen and shadowy mastermind Bill of Kill Bill, in the seedy drifters and petty criminals of Jackie Brown, the late Charlie Manson would have found plenty of happy company in Tarantino’s movies.
All of which makes Tarantino The Auteur of the Bottom of the Double Feature a hell of an odd fit for Star Trek, the JFK Era’s “In ten years’ time we will land a man on the moon” credo made flesh. A director, whose gritty bottom-dwelling characters live in a world governed by the Bob Dylan lyric, “To live outside the law you must be honest,” tackling a TV series star-bound ideals of the Mid-Century Man , whose moral code lies in the refrain repeated throughout its films: “The good of the many outweighs the good of the one.”
Tarantino the filmmaker about compulsion and expulsion, about blood and lust, often spontaneously so. Taking the reins of Star Trek, a series whose hallmark is restraint and, most importantly, the enforcement of the codified rule of laws, both of man and of nature.
Star Trek’s characters may be men and women of action—or in the case of The Next Generation, men and women prone to endlessly debating and discussing, like a Jewish family at the Olive Garden for the first time, examining the menu—but their actions are grounded in sharply-drawn laws, directives, and codes of conduct. By the laws of the Federation of Planets, the directives of Starfleet that govern everything from dress code to protocol on encountering new species and traveling through time. Some of Captain James Kirk’s biggest struggles are the moral ones between what’s “right” for the crew that his captaincy makes him responsible for, and what’s “right” for the beings he encounters, and what’s “right” as defined by the iron-clad laws of the world in which he lives.
Which isn’t to say that Tarantino’s characters are lawless. They live by the outlaw’s code, and it’s only when they step outside that code, when they go back on their word or sin against their fellow bottom-dwellers, for lust or money, that they meet their fate. In Pulp Fiction, Ving Rhames’ mob boss Marcellus Wallace explains at great length the moral and philosophical underpinnings of why Bruce Willis’ boxer Butch must throw his fight. Instead, Butch wins his fight, killing the other boxer in the process, and finds himself facing death and sexual assault in the basement of a redneck pawn shop.
In fact, it’s only after his decision to stop, when he’s on the verge of freedom, to go back and save the mob boss who has marked him for immediate murder because it is the right thing to do by the lights of the world he lives in, that he finally gains everything he lost by going back on his word; freedom to travel, freedom to collect the money he won betting on himself, freedom to be with the woman he loves (and he gets to trade in his crappy old car on rapist Zed’s dope chopper in the bargain).
And yet, at the end of the day, is Captain Kirk and crew so different? Look at Star Trek III: The Search for Spock where Kirk and crew risk everything to save their friend Spock, whose dying body was separated from his mind saving his friends in the previous Star Trek film. They steal a starship, they turn outlaw, they land on the Genesis planet – a place of Godlike power to create life that has been forbidden to man, they destroy a Klingon warship in an act of war that is contrary to every law of Starfleet, all to save their friend who had just recently saved their lives. And then in the subsequent film, they find redemption and restoration to their status quo only after saving the planet Earth from a shadowy alien threat.
In Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino breaks every narrative rule concerning depicting historical events, destroying the entire Nazi High Command in one act of bloody, explosive revenge, ending World War II years early. Cristoph Waltz’s SS colonel Hans Landa could have saved the lives of his superiors, but instead chose to use his knowledge of the forthcoming event to strike his own deal with the United States high command to flee the soon-to-topple Fatherland and land in comfort. Of course, this being a Tarantino movie, and Landa having broken the outlaw’s code, a bloody and permanent punishment is practiced on him in the woods before he can escape.
Whereas, in the classic Trek episode, City on the Edge of Forever, Kirk and Spock end up back in the New York City of the Great Depression, having made a leap of faith through alien time travel technology to rescue his friend Dr. McCoy. Back in the past, he meets, and falls in love with, a woman, Edith Keeler, whom Spock discovers in her alternate timeline founds a pacifist movement that ends up delaying the United States’ entry into WWII, thus allowing the Nazi government to triumph. Deciding that the good of the many outweighs the good of the one, and realizing that he can’t allow his love for this woman to destroy history as we know it, Kirk must stop himself from allowing Dr. McCoy to save Keeler from being killed by a truck.
Breaking this moral code is depicted as an almost impossible choice in the Star Trek universe. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the crew is back in 1986 San Francisco. They have rescued the whales that will talk down the alien satellite that is destroying the Earth. They have their stolen Klingon Bird of Prey ship powered up. And they have a crewman, and friend, being held prisoner by the 20th century military. Mr. Spock, the reliable logical moral arbiter, says that they must go back and rescue him, at the risk of their own mission. Kirk asks if it’s the logical thing to do. Spock says, “It’s the human thing to do.” And the theater I watched this movie in erupted in applause, because goddamn it, he’s right.
In Inglourious Basterds, we have Melanie Laurent’s Jewish projectionist who has seen her family destroyed in the Holocaust, and in City on the Edge of Forever, we have William Shatner’s Captain Kirk who must let his girlfriend die, and they are both given a chance to personal satisfaction at the expense of history’s delicate tapestry. Tarantino is willing to destroy history as a way of creating a helluva twist, while the Star Trek universe is about maintaining the status quo. About personal sacrifice in the service of the common good.
For all of Kirk’s reputation as an intergalactic ladies’ man, his swinging is mostly confined to the bloodless clinch and kiss. Whereas Tarantino is about the twin flames of murder and desire. And yet, for the surface differences, this is where the two come together.
Another classic Star Trek episode: Theodore Sturgeon’s Amok Time. In the Trek universe, First officer Mr. Spock comes from an alien race, the Vulcans, whose entire civilization is built on the suppression of emotion in favor of cold, logical behavior. But once every seven years, they undergo pon farr, a savage blood lust and inevitable death, and once every seven years, unless they are able to mate (been there!) with someone with whom they are in a relationship, they will die.
And here, we find a Tarantino-esque moral dilemma. Spock, who faces an arranged marriage that has been set by his parents since birth, arrives at the planet Vulcan to find that his promised, T’Pau, is in love with another. And if a Vulcan woman does not wish to wed, she may demand a kal-if-fee, a duel between her two loves, to the death. In order to protect the man she truly loves, she demands Spock fight his best friend Kirk in the kal-if-fee. This story is the bloody stuff of the best western murder ballads, and certainly a plotline that could fight into a Tarantino-esque film. And Spock does it. He murders Kirk in the heat of pon farr. Only to find later that Kirk was only heavily-sedated, because nobody was that committed to serial storytelling in the 1960s.
After all, in Pulp Fiction, it’s only after John Travolta’s hitman clearly decides that he is going to sleep with his boss, Marcellus Wallace’s wife, and after she decides to sleep with him, that she accidentally overdoses on heroin and Travolta’s Vincent Vega must save her life or surely be murdered by Wallace in return.
It’s this horror of upending the status quo of the world that the characters live in that many of Tarantino’s films share with the best of Star Trek.
In fact, the famous “Spock with a goatee” evil alternate universe is one that the director would find himself quite at home in. A world where murder is dispensed liberally (if, again, bloodlessly, through the use of a machine) as a means of gaining and keeping command. Where Kirk gives in fully to his animal, sexual passions, keeping mistresses among his crew. It’s telling that the closest this universe has to a “good guy” is dependable Spock-in-a-goatee, who remains logical and intelligent, displaying restraint and a relative respect for the chain of command. In a world where Starfleet acts less as an exploratory and military force and more as a loose-knit aggregation of pirate ships, Spock stands against the horrors of lack of respect for the rule of law.
In other words, it’s a cautionary tale about what happens if society in that universe behaved in the way it does in Quentin Tarantino movies. And if he wanted to set his Star Trek movie in that evil mirror universe, I would be the first in line to buy a ticket.
But as I said, nerds on the Internet are furious about this. And I say, if the Trekkies are going to freak out, then by all means, let them freak out. This is the nature of the passionate fan. Because Star Trek has been around for a long time, because it’s never been a blockbuster in the nature of the Star Wars phenomenon. Not only has that never been Trek’s strength, when Roddenberry and Paramount tried to fit Star Trek into that mold with The Motion(less) Picture, it failed miserably.
Star Wars is a film series that values spectacle over all, with much less concern for interpersonal relationships except in the grandest terms; it’s a world of gigantic oedipal stories told with gigantic mythic archetypes. It’s telling that of all the characters, the most consistently relatable is Han Solo, the cocky pilot who gets in over his head constantly, who fails consistently, and whose heroism lies in overcoming his own limitations.
And the first three movies were set in worlds painted with such broad brushstrokes, that much of the detail and shading happened offscreen. As a young child, how did I know that the lead Ewok’s name was Wikket? It’s never mentioned in The Return of the Jedi, and I certainly was not sitting still studying the closing credits. No, it’s through the tie-in books and toys and spin-off specials and Burger King giveaways that you learn more about this world, names of species and back stories and characters who popped up in the background. If you are of a certain age, and I say the word “Lobot,” you know exactly who I am talking about, even though he spends almost no time on-screen and has no lines.
But Star Trek is all shading and detail, all about character development and relationships. Even the starship Enterprise becomes a leading character, and her heroic death and self-sacrifice in The Search for Spock is shocking and tragic. Kirk and Spock and McCoy are three mid-century manly men in the John Ford western mold. All surface bravado and machismo, under whose cover strong emotions simmer. There’s a bond of brotherly love that dares never show itself except in times of extreme distress and danger, or in the afterglow of a near-death experience, when they can relax and let their guards down. No wonder so much fan-fiction surrounds a hypothetical romantic and sexual relationship between the three, when there is a love that clearly does not speak its name. Even if that love is nothing more risqué than the fraternal bond between the members of a college football team.
The strength of Star Trek lies in its relationships, and not just between the characters, but even more importantly, between the show itself and the fans. Before the Internet broke down the walls between popular and outsider art, there were many examples of music, TV, movies, that were initially designed for mass-market consumption, but was such a product of personal vision that it found itself the object of a niche, or “cult,” audience. A group of fans for whom part of the joy of watching a show, or reading a book, or following a band that wasn’t constantly on the Billboard charts and in rotation on MTV, lay in knowing that it wasn’t popular.
I used to have a joke that the Internet made moot, about how nerds who are nerdy for a thing, enjoy maintaining the status of a “true fan.” That I’d found not only a Star Trek slash fic (gay-themed fan-fiction) site, but one that was written entirely in Klingon, with the only English being, “I do not provide translations. If you cannot read Klingon, you are at the wrong site.” That this kind of nerd was nerdy about the thing that they loved that it turned them into snobs.
Because before the Comic-Cons became so huge that they were an important part of launching film franchises, before “geek culture” and “popular culture” became entwined, the official mass-media popular posture on shows, especially science fiction shows like Star Trek or Doctor Who, would be that this was fringe-dwelling weirdo stuff appreciated only by foul-smelling losers who live in their parents’ basements.
Not like “real” entertainment, TV shows like Miami Vice or The Dukes of Hazzard which ran for years on major networks in prime-time slots, and weren’t cast off onto fuzzy UHF stations from far-flung states in late-night syndication, or even more suspect to population at large, on PBS.
And so you would have to hunt for the shows you liked, which, even if they did play in first-run prime-time, often jumped around the schedule sometimes with no notice. And you would seek out books, and fan clubs, and little fan conventions in run-down hotels. And you would build a community.
When I was a lad of twelve, my dad taped a marathon showing of the British pre-apocalyptic show The Prisoner. I watched the whole thing, enthralled with its clever plotting, smart scripts, and groovy English Mod style. One day at Barnes & Noble bookstore, and it’s funny to think that Barnes & Noble, which was once considered poison for mom and pop bookstores, was choked out of business by Amazon. But one day, I found and paid my own birthday money for a guide book to The Prisoner, entitled The Prisoner Official Companion. It was there that I learned about entire alternate versions of episodes that were shot and never aired, and I learned why there were weird fantasy episodes that were completely out of tune with the rest of the series (long story short: ITV contract with more episodes than series creator/star Patrick McGoohan had good ideas for).
I carried The Official Prisoner Companion around my junior high school for three months, hoping a cute girl would notice and tell me that she thought I was super cool. Shocking twist ending: Never happened. But in the back was a guide to all of the various Prisoner fan groups you could belong to, and so as a 12th birthday present, my parents subscribed me to the cheapest one (six bucks for six months, I think). Every month or so I would receive a hand-Xeroxed, hand-stapled fanzine, with stories and baffling comics written by fellow fans. It was a thrilling peek into a world where people obsessed over all the same things I did.
I owned The Doctor Who Programme Guide, a listing of all of the episodes of the first 20-something years that was already five years out of date by the time I picked it up. And I read it cover to cover many times. I was a lonely kid, yes, but I also got a huge kick out of the paragraph-length breakdowns of the show’s episodes. I would read them over and over, noting which episodes I hadn’t seen, wondering about the episodes that hadn’t been produced, and trying to imagine the episodes that had been lost forever.
And so, when you feel as if you are alone in the dark, loving something as your own, wondering who else could even be paying attention, feeling isolated, it’s as if the show has been made for you personally. And you develop a specific personal emotional attachment to it. You love it, yes, and you also feel an ownership over it.
And then came the Internet.
I’m a native New Yorker. If you’re ever in New York City and you want to find out who grew up there, just talk to them for more than thirty seconds, and they will tell you. I am that guy, and frankly, I make no apologies. And so here’s a story, called Once Upon A Time, Here’s The Way It Would Go:
A little place would open up in your neighborhood. A café, say, or a restaurant. And maybe a local paper would give you a little blurb about what was opening there, and you would decide to give it a chance. And if it was good, the décor charming, the food tasty, the price reasonable, you would spread the word. And maybe it would get to the point where you would have to wait ten, fifteen minutes for a table on the weekend, which is only fair because you like to see a local business that you like stay open.
Then word of mouth would spread to a writer for a travel guide, Fodor’s Guide to New York, or maybe Zagat’s would catch wind and drop in on a good night. Or a friend knows a guy at the New York Times and their reviewer comes by. And there would be a major write up, and then the place would be mobbed and the owners would maybe expand into the next three storefronts to handle the overflow business, and then open a second location in midtown.
And this process would take years, and even though you had lost a neighborhood spot, you had gained the ability to tell everyone you know, “Oh yeah, that place? I used to go there, before it became a tourist trap.” And while it was always sad to let go, it’s the natural cycle with everything that’s beloved, whether it be a bar, or a restaurant, or an entire neighborhood. And so it goes with popular culture.
Only the Internet accelerated this to a destructive pace. Suddenly there were a million New York blogs, and suddenly there were a million local experts touting any and every new thing under the sun. And there came the scenesters, like locusts they came. From all across the country, from all around the world. Young people, the offspring of an affluent generation who told their children that they could be anything they wanted to be, without adding the important addendum, unless you don’t have a natural talent for it, in which case it’s okay to stay closer to home and live an ordinary life. And being a generation that only dared to move to NYC after a decade of sitcoms promising it was tame and bland enough for safe living, and fearful of anything that didn’t come pre-approved, they built their Gaps and their Starbuckses and they swarmed over any and everything that these blogs promised were cool. Venues and bands and entire neighborhoods they consumed.
And look, this isn’t to say that I don’t want the things I love to be appreciated by a wider audience. Because Paramount believed there was a wider audience for Star Trek than NBC was giving it credit for, we have all the movies, and novels, and comic books, and other ancillary media I consumed as a child.
As I said, when I was young I would go to science fiction conventions. At their best, these would be a floor of conference rooms in a somewhat disreputable hotel. The actors would come to speak, to meet their fans, the authors would come to drink and mingle, the vendors would sell their merchandise. For twenty dollars, I got my hot pudgy hands on a second-generation bootleg dub of Heavy Metal, which was at the time unavailable on home video due to music rights. Grainy Star Trek blooper reels would be played. I once met, and shook the hand of Isaac Asimov, who was the keynote speaker at one of the bigger cons.
I’ve stopped going to conventions. They give me panic attacks. The convention floors is packed with packed with young people in costume, having found a way to keep the Halloween party going beyond the full week out of the year it’s allotted in most cities now. The sounds and the music and the lights and the overwhelming melancholy I feel knowing that the world I once knew is gone.
And so, of course, as a Star Trek nerd, I’m going to have mixed feelings about Tarantino taking the reins on the franchise. But he could be good for Trek. He understands, in a way that the best producers and directors of the original franchise films did, the need for action to propel story, for humor to leaven the operatically-tragic moments of tragedy.
And yes, Tarantino is a grindhouse director, but he’s also shown himself to be the master of what Star Trek is at its absolute best – the granite and stone elements of B-movie garbage, chipped and chiseled and shaped into a work of art. Popular, yes, and in its own ways trashy, but still art. Of all the living Great American Directors, he’s the one I would most trust to take something as basic as a show pitched as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” and turn it into something great. Roddenberry did it almost by accident. Maybe Tarantino could do it on purpose.
But that leaves the real question: Why? Why do we keep bringing Star Trek back? Why do we keep making every Star Wars movie a record-breaking blockbuster? Why are the biggest money-making films based on comic books like The Avengers? Not to say that these aren’t great franchises that don’t speak to every new generation.
It’s just that the first Star Wars movie came out forty years ago. The first Avengers comic came out fifty-four years ago. The original TV series that Star Trek is based on went off the air almost fifty years ago now. Doctor Who still follows almost exactly a template that was established almost fifty-five years ago.
So why do we keep circling around these things over and over? Why is our culture incapable of creating new beloved myths? Is it because they still speak to us, or is it because they made us a feel a certain way once upon a time, and we as a people are trying to recapture the magic of that first fandom? When I watch, when I support, these things, am I holding on to something I love, or am I having trouble letting go of who I once was?
Western civilization, as defined by American-style democratic institutions both political and cultural, is facing a crisis point. A significant chunk of the population, scared by a chaotic-seeming present, cling to a certain cultural recidivism. Won’t let go of a mythical past where everything was better, and so a President was elected on the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The idea was to bring back, not so much a better time, but the feeling that believing that such a time had existed gives you.
And while I am certainly not going to sit here and compare Quentin Tarantino to Donald Trump, the question becomes: In order to move forward in our culture, is it necessary to bring everything with us? Luggage filled with nuggets of gold mixed in with blocks of lead? These things are the movies and television and boks I have loved, but sometimes it is time to let the dead bury their own dead, in the words of the prophet, and remember that part of the thrill of popular culture was the thrill of discovering something new. Nurturing it, following it, loving it, and letting it speak to you in the aloneness of the dark.
A fear of the new, of the unknown, of change and trying something new, will eventually lead to a culture like all the formerly hip neighborhoods of New York City, nothing but chain stores and culture that is neither surprising nor scary.