So we’ve looked at James Bond and Batman. There really wasn’t a question of what series of films I was going to watch next. It was always going to be Star Trek.
Star Trek was originally a television series back in the 1960s in a similar genre to Batman, Bewitched, and Lost in Space. It never rated particularly well on television and — it could be argued — was able to find a niche specifically because television companies were more inclined to have these quirky niche products than they are today. By the time of the first movie, the original series had been off the air for over a decade. The Star Trek films have therefore always been framed in terms of nostalgia.
This nostalgic element results immediately in difficulties. How do you satiate existing fans while attracting new audiences? How do you balance the need to present spectacle and action with the fans’ awareness of the absurdities? More importantly, how do you refresh the structure of a Star Trek story to meet changing expectations about the world? Do you update the individual story elements, images, and styles?
Take the example of the Orion slave girls. In a 1969 episode of Star Trek (‘The Original Series’) called ‘Whom the Gods Destroy’, Yvonne Craig (who also played Batgirl in Batman) portrayed a member of this species:
In 2005, the Orion slave girls made a return in a completely fresh, entirely updated, and very modern take on the original:
Or maybe not.
The Orion slave girl example provides an interesting insight into the way science fiction is used as a mirror of society. When the Original Series was on the air, the key political question of the day was the conflict with Russia and distrust of China. In 1967, the episode ‘Errand of Mercy’ introduced the Klingons as an avatar for the Communists. The Federation, on the other hand, has always represented the Anglosphere in Space (even when it’s had Japanese and Soviet characters in Star Fleet). Over the course of the Star Trek franchise, the Klingons would eventually be reconciled with the Federation, but women who were more than mere titillation objects would always be the exception rather than the rule.
This gendered element of Star Trek allowed the series to explore some deeply troubling aspects of society: was there any limit to what could be sexualised? No matter how far away from Earth we flew, we’d always find something that looked hot in skin-tight pants. Although the Star Trek universe is inherently political (what does it mean for a society to be built around a regimented institution of scholar-warriors?), it is — first and foremost — about sexuality and masculinity. (more…)