Everyone says the best thing Americans can do is "get back to normal." While that's impossible, and for good reason, let's take a break from war talk to discuss what would certainly be the most important event in the world if the tragedy of Sept. 11 hadn't happened. OK, maybe not the (BEGIN ITAL) most (END ITAL) important event in the (BEGIN ITAL) whole (END ITAL) world. But, for some of us, it was close.
I'm referring, of course, to the premiere of "Enterprise," the latest "Star Trek" series.
Before you drop this column the way a Klingon drops a Tribble, give me a minute.
"Star Trek" is arguably the most influential and popular television series in American history. Five TV series and nine movies (with the 10th in production) are just a few of the obvious signs of the franchise's success. The first American space shuttle's name was partly inspired by the fictional USS Enterprise, and NASA gladly agreed to scatter "Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry's ashes in outer space.
"Trek" lingo has saturated the culture. "To boldly go where no man has gone before" may split an infinitive, but it's also some of the most recognizable rhetoric in the English language. Ditto, "Space: The Final Frontier," and of course, "I'll wager 400 quatloos on the newcomer!" (OK, maybe that one's not for everybody.)
The new series, starring Scott Bakula, is a pre-quel, taking place 150 years from now (or a century prior to the age of James T. Kirk) when humanity is starting its interstellar adventure. For people like me, who read too much into "Star Trek" and popular culture generally, this premise is extremely significant.
First, some background. The original 1960s series was a direct outgrowth of American liberal self-confidence. William Shatner's Capt. Kirk was explicitly inspired by John F. Kennedy and the "New Frontier." Kirk's Enterprise explored "strange new worlds," but it also saw fit to fix them when they were in trouble. Sure, the "Federation" operated under a "Prime Directive" not to interfere with alien cultures, but Capt. Kirk shrugged such imperatives aside when American-style values of compassion and pluralism were imperiled - most often by the thinly disguised Soviet surrogates, the Klingons.
The show lasted only three seasons on NBC. But because of its unbridled optimism about the future, unapologetic celebration of American values and half-naked green chicks, "Star Trek" achieved a level of immortality unparalleled in the history of
But subsequent incarnations of the show strayed far from the original vision. "Star Trek: The Next Generation" explicitly rejected the cowboy diplomacy of the original. Capt. Jean-Luc Picard was less like John Wayne and more like Boutros Boutros-Ghali. His hands were tied by U.N.-like rules, and, as often as not, he reserved his outrage for Kirk-like colleagues whom he considered akin to Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Subsequent shows like "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager" abandoned Roddenberry's vision even more. "Deep Space Nine," though enjoyable, involved little exploration and was mostly about the darker side of the future - complete with corruption, coups and commerce.
And "Voyager" completely inverted the original mission of "Star Trek." Captained by a woman - to the cheers of people who cared - Voyager was hurled to the far end of the galaxy where the dysfunctional crew was left to its own devices. Whereas manly adventure and benign imperialism defined the original "Trek," "Voyager" was about a lost, homesick crew and a maternal captain who kept asking "Can't we all just get
In a recent issue of Prospect, a high-brow British political magazine, authors Charles Shaar Murray and Mike Marqusee make many of the same points I've just made about the story arc of the "Trek" universe. But that's where our agreement ends.
They believe "Enterprise" is another example of exhausted writers lacking the confidence of the original series.
"What will become of 'Star Trek's' visionary liberal humanism?" they ask. Their answer is nothing. "... by retreating into the prehistory of its own mythos in 'Enterprise,' it seems to be telling us that we no longer have much of a future at all."
And, because they are liberals writing in a liberal egghead journal, they suggest the real culprit is ... George W. Bush.
Of course, this is a stretch, not least because "Enterprise" was conceived and filmed mostly before Bush was elected.
But if we are going to score political points, there is another interpretation. "Enterprise," with its rediscovered emphasis on "human" (read American) values and its revived enthusiasm for the thrill of exploration, is, to me, good news for American culture. The 1990s were more aimless, corrupt and materialistic than the so-called "decade of greed" that preceded them. With the end of the Cold War, and the election of a straightforward, honest and non-intellectual president, we could have said America was "getting back to basics" even before the patriotism we've seen since Sept. 11.
That's how I see "Enterprise." Flawed - as is all science fiction, like all mortal things - but its heart is in the right place, and it is unconfused about its priorities. And that's good news for "Trek" fans and normal Americans alike.