Future Technology in the 'Star Trek' Reboots: Tethered and Performative
If space is the “final frontier”, then the technology that facilitates the adventure is one of the central mechanisms by which we can learn new things about ourselves and our society.
As human beings, we are constantly developing, and exploration is one of the ways in which we can expect to know ourselves better, grow and evolve in directions hopefully of our own choosing, and exert ourselves outwardly towards boundaries and borders in an attempt to better understand and shape the societies and cultures within which we are situated.
Likewise, with Captain Kirk’s (William Shatner) opening staccato from Star Trek The Original Series (hereafter TOS) -- a mantra which is repeated across the Star Trek reboot films -- the focus is also on exploring "new" horizons, as in "new worlds", "new life" and "new civilizations". This interest in newness is a reflection of the USS Enterprise crew from the fictional future(s); the time at which the show and its various franchise permutations were created in the past; and ourselves, watching and considering Star Trek in the present. While all of our notions of what constitutes "new" may vary, this desire for expansive and novel discovery is a consistently integral part of the allure for those that have come together on the intrepid voyage, either as a fully-fledged bridge-crew member or as a disposable red-shirted viewer.
But aren’t the Star Trek reboots all about the ‘pew-pew’ laser explosions? you may well ask. Although this is certainly a factor, especially in the reboots -- Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), and Star Trek Beyond (2016) -- where Hollywood action plays a significant box-office role, science fiction, the genre at the heart of Star Trek, has been defined as "a contemporary mode in which the techniques of extrapolation and speculation are utilized in a narrative form, to construct near-future, far-future, or fantastic worlds in which science, technology, and society intersect" ("The science fiction of technoscience: the politics of simulation and a challenge for new media art". Thacker, 2001: 156). So, the inherent deeper appeal of the "new" within the Star Trek reboots is not, we would suggest, necessarily derived from a single-minded surface focus on sexy new alien races or new technology purely for the sake of spectacle (although we’re quite fond of these things too), but to borrow once more from Kirk’s classic monologue, if space is the "final frontier", then the technology that facilitates this investigative endeavor is also by extension one of the central mechanisms by which we can learn new things about ourselves and our modern society.
Even if the future world of Star Trek is near, far, and/or fantastic, it's always uncannily tethered to our own understanding of basic human impulses and actions. In Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s Writer/Director’s Guide for Star Trek: The Next Generation, it's explicitly stated (in capital letters for emphasis) that "BELIEVABILITY IS EVERYTHING":
"Would I believe this if it was occurring on the bridge of the battleship Missouri?" If you wouldn’t believe it in the twentieth century, then our audience won’t believe it in the twenty-fourth.
Especially the people must be believable -- just as believable as if they were living in the 20th century. [...] They have been selected for this mission because of their ability to transcend their human failings.
[...] We often get our best STAR TREK by showing how real human beings cope with fantastical situations.
[ ...] The ship is not just a vehicle -- she is the touchstone by which all of our characters demonstrate who they are and what they’re up to in the universe.
(Writer/Director’s Guide, Roddenberry, 1987: 9)
This outline, in which human agency is placed front and center, is not only a central aspect of the Star Trek franchise (which we will return to later), it also explicitly states that the believability of diegetic action -- that is, action within the fictional reality of the story -- is connected to future technology (the Enterprise, in this example) and that it must also feel somehow real.
This is why the concept of the bureaucratic United Federation of Planets is so critical as a sociological placeholder in Star Trek: it’s a vanilla backdrop against which science, technology, and society can not only intersect with, but also rub against, argue with, and test each other out. While the Federation is vaguely and abstractly futuristic enough to make world peace, hunger, and capitalism appear to be plausibly obsolete as a plot device, it’s also a notionally comprehensible playground of moral liberal idealism, hierarchy, and governmental control against which the equally human constants of ego, avarice, revenge, and violence can also be agitated, kindled, projected and magnified -- often from within. It’s significant then, that in a franchise predicated on outward exploration, Nero (Eric Bana), Khan (Benedict Cumberbach), Marcus (Peter Weller), and Krall (Idris Elba) are all directly connected to the evolving history of the humanistic Federation and all use future / advanced technology -- even for the period -- to test the crew of the Enterprise.
To understand how future technological developments can be tethered to reality for dramatic effect in the Star Trek reboots, one only has to look at the sequence from Into Darkness where Thomas Harewood (Noel Clarke) agrees to bomb his place of work in order to potentially save Lucille (Anjini Taneja Azhar), his dying daughter. When London is first presented to the viewer, St Paul’s Cathedral (consecrated in 1697) is still clearly visible, and the skyline is clearly augmented by buildings that have been built leading up to this century as well as the fictional future centuries leading up to the 23rd century, where the Star Trek reboots are set. It’s not only realistic that old buildings would still be standing and inhabited in the future, much as they are today, but this visual continuity of history grounds the historiographic narrative.
This leads to the place where Harewood’s daughter is being treated for her degenerative medical condition, which is an equally augmented pre-modern ‘20s mansion (incidentally, located in California, not London), sympathetically populated with the fantastic future technologies of the 23rd century. Except, they’re not so "fantastic" as his daughter’s illness is incurable until Khan steps into the frame. For all of the lauded achievements of the Federation, not all illnesses can be cured, and by extension, the flashing and blinking future technology in this scenario is largely for naught. The film props may as well also be intradiegetic set-decoration. This failure by science and technology, where it has been relied upon and has come up short at the critical moment in a personal narrative, sets the scene for believable human motivations and actions: that a father might do anything for his daughter; something that feels as true today or of the 17th century, as it might do in the 23rd century.
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While the terrorist act, in apparently blowing up the Kelvin Memorial Archive, would appear to be a transgressional desecration of the noble history of the Federation, it transpires that the Archive was actually an advanced research installation for the secretive intelligence organization Section 31, inviting the following questions (which has parallels with our own modern realities): If their money was spent on inwardly developing research and technology to help benefit and save the lives of people, such as Harewood’s daughter, instead of outwardly seeking to create instruments of war (under the guise of being an advanced race that has already solved most social problems), could they, as a human race, have achieved more by this point in the future?
Furthermore, if Khan is from the past, and his blood has miraculously curative properties enhanced by eugenic selection and genetic manipulation, then does this imply that the future population of the Federation have become biologically weaker, and if so, are they weaker by choice (as the ruling elite also have Khan’s knowledge and bloodwork at their disposal) or is it a biological consequence of their allegedly worry-free existences? It’s certainly a grey area that we are being asked to peer in to: do we build on the errors of the past and use the technological / scientific knowledge garnered from them to move forward, or do we forge a separate direction that may prove equally compromised? Star Trek excels in asking these kinds of realistic moral questions, and one would imagine that all of the answers lie somewhere between these two poles, depending on who you were to ask.
Conversely, if we compare Into Darkness’ depiction of London to the Yorktown Starbase in Beyond, despite the jaunty-angled skyscrapers, transporter booths, and monorails of the future (bizarrely reminiscent of The Simpsons’ Season 4 episode "Marge vs. the Monorail" which also features a guest appearance by Leonard Nimoy), McCoy (Karl Urban) is understandably apprehensive about the solidity of the place, saying that it "looks like a damn snow globe in space waiting to break." Unlike the depiction of a techno-futuristic London, the problem with Yorktown as a believable location for the viewer is that it does look more like a CGI toy from Inception (2010), to be turned upside down, shook about, and played around with, than it feels like a truly habitable physical location.
While the curved spherical streets demonstrate a future solution to a particular problem (space stations that have evolved past the International Space Station type habitable, pressurized tin cans), and is evocative of standardized models of an atom (surely the ultimate retro-sci-fi symbol turned into a metaphor for the scope and scale of human existence), the novel spectacle potentially outweighs the tangible tethering to terra firma reality as we understand it. Instead, referring back to Kirk’s (Chris Pine) opening monologue, that "It can be a challenge to feel grounded, when even the gravity is artificial", we are shown a faltering reality with compromised universal rules, where the literal tethering of the engineered gravity systems fails Kirk and Krall as they fight each other like encircling and combative protons and electrons in the nucleus of the Yorktown.
This collision of the old, modern, and futuristic technologies is expressed more sympathetically within the hulls of the spaceships themselves. The USS Kelvin’s engine room, with its dark confining spaces and industrial utilitarian aesthetic, was shot on location at Long Beach Power Plant, California, which was built in the ‘30s. By contrast, the Enterprise’s machine room, weapons bay, power house, and several corridors, were all shot on location at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in Van Nuys, California, built in the ‘50s with a faintly Modernist aesthetic (look at the cross beam corridors), where beer vats and taps are still on display within the frame and stainless steel shiny pipes dominate the futuristically adorned mise en scène.
Furthermore, while the Kelvin was designed to have a semi-Cold War submarine aesthetic that plays on the duality of peaceful explorative travel and potentially militaristic confrontation (when the aforementioned travel becomes complicated) from the earlier days of Starfleet, "The Starfleet shuttle departure bay [in San Francisco] was set in a World War-II era hangar" (Star Trek: The Art of the Film, Cotta Vaz, 2009: 54). The most futuristic looking spaces aboard the Enterprise that come by way of contemporary shooting locations are from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility: home to the world’s largest laser system and requiring the US Department of Energy’s permission to film. Even though the laser, which is capable of "simulating the conditions in the interior of stars and giant planets like Jupiter", sadly isn’t fired, the gridded walkways are evident within Into Darkness when the crew are tangling over the new torpedoes brought aboard the Enterprise, and the NIF’s target chamber (looking like a giant techno-futuristic piece from a game of Jacks) sets the scene for Kirk’s fatal(ish) warp core heroism.