Monday, 17 February 2014

Catching Them at Their Best

The Pex Lives boys have done a supplemental podcast about the Star Trek movies.  Got me thinking about why I like Star Trek IV so much.  I decided to try writing something about it, since anything that even vaguely twitches my interest is worth grabbing hold of at the moment, what with my blogging mojo being critically ill and lying, sobbing and wailing, in a deep dark pit.

I don't like the movie because it's 'tongue-in-cheek' or because I have any sort of ideological attachment to the idea that SF in general (or Trek in particular) should be 'self-aware' or anything like that.  I like it because it is, essentially, a movie about a bunch of old relics from the 60s wandering around Regan's America and disapproving of it heartily.

This is not a deep movie.  It isn't hard to parse.  No great leaps of interpretation are needed.  Just look at what happens.

In order to survive in 80s San Franciso, Kirk must sell his beloved spectacles, a gift from Bones.  He, a man who - as we learn from this film - comes from a culture without money, must commodify something precious to him.

In order to achieve their aims, Bones and Scotty must - essentially - bribe a sexist business manager with promises of the untold wealth which will come from a new commodity.  Commodification again.

In the course of acquiring some radiation (or something) Chekhov gets arrested by the US Navy, gets interrogated, called a "retard" and a "Russkie" by paranoid officers, and is chased to the point where he sustains a life-threatening injury.

In the course of rescuing him, Bones encounters an elderly woman, in need of dialysis, waiting unattended and forgotten on a gurney in a hospital corridor.

Kirk and Spock encounter a representative of a moribund counter-culture where the best the 'rebellious youth' can offer is loud anti-social music which screeches that "we're all bloody worthless".  (This is, admittedly, rather unfair on Punk.  The depiction is, at best, a clueless and curmudgeonly parody... but then, by this point in the 80s, the real remnants of Punk were, at best, commercialised and decontextualised parodies of the Punk movement.)

Kirk and Spock must team up with a right-on scientist who seems to be the only person who gives a shit about the whales.  Just as the animals are likely to be slaughtered for commercial reasons once they are sent back into the wild, so the reasons for their being so sent are implicitly commercial: they're not enough of a draw to make them economically viable for the cash-strapped institute.

As if all this weren't enough, how does Kirk justify Spock's eccentric behaviour?  He places him in the context of the 60s.

Diegetically, Kirk et al are from 'the future'... but, in this film, the future = America's past.  Specifically, the crew are played as displaced representatives of the culture from which they extra-diegetically come: the 60s.  They are remnants of utopian Kennedyish 60s liberalism.  Now, however much wrong there may have been with utopian Kennedyish 60s liberalism (and there was a fuck-ton wrong with it), it was mostly preferable to Reaganism, and - more importantly - certainly entailed popular ideas that were far in advance not only of Reaganism but also of its own actual practice.  Similarly, however much old Trek may have frequently failed to live up to the best principles and promises of utopian Kennedyish 60s liberalism (Josh Marsfelder is especially good on this), it also entailed popular ideas far in advance of its own actual practice.  One way or another, the widespread popular idea of Trek that emerges from the mixed-truth of its original 60s run is a progressive and idealistic one.

So these ageing progressives from another time come to Reagan's America.  They encounter resuscitated Cold War paranoia, decaying hospitals, underfunded science, omnipresent commodification, etc.

In this context, they stick out like sore thumbs.  And, as mentioned, Kirk passes off the noticeably hippyish behaviour of Spock (he wears robes and swims with whales) as echoes of his past in the 60s counter-culture.  He speaks of the "free speech movement" on US campuses, associating them with the Civil Rights movement - implying that he sees the entire rebellion as all of a piece and part of a struggle for democracy.  Even the druggie counter-culture is referenced as being bound up with this "free speech movement".

The 60s meets 'Save the Whales' and builds a bridge between the past and the future (the film archly reverses them and pretends that the past is actually the future).

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not about to plonk down my DVD copy of this and call it my manifesto.  There are lots of problems with it... not least the grumpy emphasis on anti-social people in the streets, and the pessimism that means that Dr Gillian Taylor (the right-on cetacean biologist) has to escape back into the past/future because there's nothing left for her in the 80s.  But it's a thing of melancholy beauty nonetheless.

Another repudiation of popular 80s ideology there.
(Image stolen from )

"You're not exactly catching us at our best," says Kirk.

I beg to differ.


  1. Wonderful post. And given all this, it surely qualifies as the grimmest of ironies that in the face of a global weather meltdown which has caused enormous damage already and threatens to soon render the planet inhabitable - an apocalypse brought about by our own carelessness and greed - the only chance for survival is to reach back into the Reagan era, just before the people of the Earth so lost their way.

    It's pretty much inevitable that the very first two things the US right wing will say upon finally being forced to accept that climate change is going to destroy their concept of life on this planet will be 1. progressives caused it, and 2. Reagan would have been able to fix it.

  2. One of my favorite bits of trivia, the punk is played by Nimoy's assistant and future director Kirk Thatcher. And that song was written and performed by him and his friend. Thatcher said they hurriedly threw it together because Nimoy didn't know what to use, and the studio were pushing for what they thought was edgy and punk- Duran Duran! (Who they also had a deal with)

    So while it's reductive it could have been so much more embarrassing...

  3. Fabulous post. You capture everything that I think I was fumbling trying to say.

  4. Hmmm... I must try and watch that film at some point.

    1. I've made it sound like a political treatise, but it's really just a great warm-hearted giggle of a movie.

    2. You didn't make it sound like a political treatise. You made it sound though-provoking and enjoyable.