Film

Star Trek's Lost Legacy of Literary Pretension

What's a Kirk without Earth-poet Shakespeare? Has the awkward Star Trek quotation spat its last breath? Trek's lost legacy of literary pretension.

"As the Earth-poet Shakespeare wrote, 'That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet'." So says Earth-ham William Shatner, wooing an alien beauty with some olde-worlde charm in the original series Star Trek episode 'By Any Other Name'. And J. J. Abrams' new Star Trek might have geeks around the globe discovering that Earth-poet Shakespeare was right all along! If the reviews are to be believed, Star Trek fans are finding the new film to be mighty sweet, indeed.

But, realistically, we'll probably have to wait until the somewhat fanboyish hysteria that now seems to make up most current blockbuster film criticism dies down a little to see where Abrams' new Star Trek really fits into in film and Star Trek history. Clearly there's plenty to like: it moves along quickly enough, supporting players Karl Urban and Simon Pegg bring most of their scenes to life instantly, and that fact that Abrams manages to maintain the original Star Trek's look and colour scheme is no mean feat in the drab emo cinematic world we're usually immersed in.

There's also plenty to be less than impressed with. Abrams' reliance on a continuous flow of hyperbolic and fairly predictable melodrama, punctuated by cutesy character shtick, tends to make the whole thing a little twee. The action sequences don't exactly flow especially naturally, so we're left with a series of loosely-linked vignettes rather than any consistent narrative, generally validating some flimsy teen-style rebellion with the usual goal of conservative institutional validation ('Kids rule, OK!').

Critics and theorists like Roland Barthes and Slavoj Zizek have some pretty solid commentary on how a few concessions to minor rebellion really just help cement the overall authority of a conservative institution and, in this light, Abrams' Star Trek certainly carries on the simplistic military ideology of its predecessors without too much variation. Still, most of those criticisms can be aimed at just about any modern blockbuster right now (and, let's face it, most 'team made up of conservative, pretty young things with unique personal attributes but not properly appreciated by a world that is mean and nasty to them' movies are really only differentiated by the costumes the young models-cum-actors wear).

But one Star Trek-specific trope that I was on the lookout for in the new film is certainly one of the Star Trek franchise's most enduring: its dogged literary pretensions and quotations. Eagerly I waited for Kirk to dissolve some ham-fisted allegory with a dramatic recital, or engage in a battle of quotations with some scaly-faced alien freak, or even woo some alien babe with an old naval sea shanty. But, not surprisingly, Abrams' pouty pretty-boy rebel Kirk doesn't have much time for fancy book-talk, unlike William Shatner's tough but frequently faux-philosophical Kirk. Could it be? Have Star Trek's literary pretensions finally spat their last breath?

To be honest, I'm not sure if I'm disappointed or relieved that Abrams has left the literary connections and/or aspirations by the door (save for a brief Sherlock Holmes reference by Spock, which simply repeats without much panache an amusingly logical connection between Holmes and Spock from an earlier Trek adventure). After all, while the literary quotations and allusions scattered through the original Star Trek could make for fun viewing and even occasional authentic dramatic engagement, they'd completely lapsed into dull and passionless literary name-dropping by the time The Next Generation rolled around.

In fact, thanks to lingering memories of The Next Generation, there's a certain kind of quotation or allusion in general non-Star Trek movies and TV that I tend to call the 'Star Trek quotation': a quote that seems to have been thrown in by a writer for no other reason than to fabricate a sense of class and intelligence within the proceedings and, by extension, to validate their own intellect (and presumably that of the viewer).

Sometimes we can spot a clear warning sign ('A wise man once said...'), sometimes there's a furrowed brow and a dreamy gaze into the distance as the character prepares to drag a quote from their culturally-overflowing memories. But usually the quotes simply spring forth unfettered from the mouths of characters we've never before seen read, hold, or acknowledge a book. More often than not, the surrounding characters instantly understand the reference: the partial quote completed by another character (or having a character instantly recite the quote's source) is perhaps the most annoyingly persistent attempt to make vacant-stare actors appear to be walking in a realm of intelligence and culture.

Usually the quote implies instant truth and wisdom. If it doesn't, it because it's been countered with another quote, or completed in a way that contradicts the initial partial reading. Actual discussion is unlikely, it's more a game of one-upmanship. (With too-cool-for-school back in vogue, the 'response quote' is now sometimes overturned by some dopey example of self-satisfied anti-intellectualism, like 'A wise man once said: eat this, suckah!')

One of my favourite, completely pointless, and contrived literary references popped up in the always hilarious Law & Order: Criminal Intent: a suspect in the interrogation room emphatically declares his situation to be 'Ka-a-a-a-fkaesque!'. The show's female sidekick snappily replies with what must be a contender for the most convoluted 'I understand your reference' responses of all time: 'That would make you the bug. And my partner, he likes to crush bugs'. I'm sure the writers were proud of themselves for that, as were those viewers who vaguely remembered Kafka's Metamorphosis from high school. But the reference is not only pointless, but the tangled mess of dialogue is really just an awkward segueway for the sidekick to appear smart for a moment but defer, as always, to her partner's superior intellect and stature.

I suppose modern television is one of the worst offenders because over-educated writers are so keen to demonstrate that their knowledge extends beyond cops and lawyers, and perhaps because the audiences like to think so, too. There's often a sense of reaching for a higher medium when cramming in a literary reference, as though this will somehow validate the sullied arena of the small-screen.

Calling these throwaway moments of literary pretension 'Star Trek quotes' may be a little unfair to Star Trek, but Star Trek: The Next Generation was so often guilty of filling its cardboard characters' mouths with references to Shakespeare or some other definitively-cultured piece of literature to show just what knowledgeable and insightful individuals they all are. The actors, and presumably the writers and audiences, would nod seriously and sternly at such serious and pithy references, just to make sure we all knew how pithy and serious they were.

The quotes are always reverent but simplistic, sincere but uninvolved, emphasised but irrelevant: perfect for the 1987 rebooted Star Trek universe's bland and passionless characters. Whenever we see the Star Trek crew sitting-in on an on-ship theatre or music performance they always look like a bunch of posing second-year Drama students, straight-backed and carefully nodding at the right times to indicate how much intellectual stimulation they're receiving. Literary presence denotes culture, but is witnessed only as an unexamined and uninvolving husk.

In other instances, it's not only self-satisfied but also just too cutesy for words -- like just about anything dealing with historical or fictional characters on the ship's Holodeck (a big V.R. computer game that most ­Star Trek ­fans surely dream of merrily abusing) or, in one particularly nausea-inducing scene, Captain Picard sorting out a problem with a suddenly-destructive Data (the Spock-like robot guy) by singing Gilbert & Sullivan in one of the Next Generation movies, Star Trek: Insurrection (1998):

Picard: We've seen how he responds to threats. I wonder how he'd respond to ... Do you know Gilbert & Sullivan?

Disaster averted by the inherent cultural superiority of a Gilbert & Sullivan duet. Sigh.

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