A recent opinion piece over at Polygon got my wheels spinning. The author makes the case for Star Trek: Discovery and its emphasis on emotion as qualities putting it into the upper echeclon of of Trek shows. Part of the case is the argument that DISCO is the most overtly emotional iteration of Trek. That may be; I’m not quite sure. The author does their argument some disservice in referencing many of the emotionally driven episodes of Trek history, even if those episodes are presented as evidence by the author of Trek’s focus on logic over feeling since its provenance. It’s this variation in tone and performance from episode to episode and series to series, however, that sets all arguments of Trek dogma on their head.
That DISCO is “weepy” and extremely willing to play fast and loose with some of fundamentals of the universe have been points of contention about what is and is not “real” Trek since the show began some years ago. I allow myself to enjoy DISCO but I am also quite critical of it. I believe those critiques to be objective, made from the perspective of someone interested in good storytelling and, moreover, good genre storytelling. I am deluded. For all arguments, even from the most trained and dispassionate scholar, are corrupted to a degree by ones own cultural lens. I made reference to this in the previous entry about Christianity in the West.
If I can give myself credit for anything its an awareness of my own delusion. Surfing the grim wave of skepticism, of counting and measuring one’s motives, even those motives pertaining to one’s own perception (one’s likes and dislikes) is scary work though. And so many of us, perhaps rightly, cling instead to that which is sure according to our perceptions. Case in point remains a dogmatic take on Star Trek and other fandoms: it feels better for you to know that you know that this is what the thing that you love is and people who choose to make it other than that are threatening this thing that you love. Even (perhaps especially) when they’re not actually a threat.
It seems silly at first. We’re talking about a television program about people blowing stuff up in space. But it’s much more than that, isn’t it?
Be it Trek, or Ghostbusters, or The Lord of the Rings, or the Wheel of the Time, these stories and characters do more than just provide us with entertainment; they connect with us in ways that affirm our personhood, that teach us about ourselves and our humanity. They, in some limited fashion, point to the eschatological horizon (can you tell I’ve been reading DBH?) we’re all bound for even if we only catch a glimmer, a tiny shred of light through overwhelming and obscuring darkness. Even if we cannot name that light.
The Lord of the Rings community truly showed its ass in the past weeks as we received more and new images (as well as a teaser trailer) of the forthcoming series based on the appendices of the books and produced by Amazon. The problem, apparently, is that Black and brown actors are portraying characters in our beloved Middle-earth. Internal consistency aside (the Free Folk of Middle-earth could absolutely have looked like BIPOC), the critique very swiftly took on tragically racist overtones, no doubt shouted by those with more investment in an “anti-woke” position than love for a literary work. That is all beside the point: what many of these critics (and they barely qualify as such; “entitled bellyacher” is probably more appropriate and generous), even the most virulently and overtly racist among them, have a problem with is the [misguided] perception that their very personhood is being trod upon.
I won’t go into how wrongminded their position is. I will only say that somehow, some way, the world of Middle-earth became entangled with their own whiteness and, as such, a part of what it means for them to be a person. With that under perceived threat, they lash out. Stupidly.
The sum total of what I’m saying is but an eddy in the overall cultural current, not just that current of today but of human history. Fandom is a microcosm of who we are, from our likes and dislikes to what we believe about the meaning of the universe. Discourse around personhood is simply more amplified today because everyone, especially the apparently misinformed and thoughtless, has the internet and has chosen to use it to complain about movies. Loudly. Arguments around fandom are even more ferocious because they are low-hanging fruit: I may not be able to speak knowledgeably about moral philosophy, but you can bet your ass I can talk all day about Vulcans.
That brings us back around to my point about historical-cultural context and Star Trek. The easily observable fact that different series within the broader scope of Trek have different tones, different subject matter, different approaches, different acting styles proves the rule: our perceptions of personhood and the content we then produce are reflective of the time and space in which we live. To assert there is one holy and orthodox Trek dogma is foolish because (a) it’s a television program and (b) that’s not what television shows are for and (c) it would be impossible for multiple generations of cast and crew to adhere wholly to this dogma. They can’t be made that way.
We would be more accurate in saying that Trek is a television universe strung together by a common thread of spaceships and a positive future for the human race and that it means something to us on an individual level. That’s really about it. The rest is window dressing chosen by our own tastes and preferences which are almost completely contingent upon our demographic.
A true human tradition that breaks through centuries, cultures, and media may be a better case study than Trek if we are to try and understand any subject beyond the confines of our demographic. The Christian faith comes to mind, as it’s one of the few things I may speak on with the least bit of authority. But when we place into our field of vision the endless variations of Christianity, from the myriad of Eastern and pre-Chalcedonian Churches all the way to Mormonism, the most we can say plainly is that they’ve all something or other to do with Jesus.
Now morph this subject back to the minutia of 20th century fictional realms and any dogma dissipates to the point of inconsequence.
Setting aside fun and good-natured debates about a particular fandom, within the confines of mutual respect and love for said fandom, such arguments are not really about spaceships or elves or the Dragon, are they? We’re talking about ourselves, our own personhood, the way we make sense of that personhood in the broader context of life and the universe. When that is threatened in any way, even if the threat is absolutely nonexistent and stoked by outside forces that do not have our best interest in mind, we get afraid. When we get afraid we lash out.
And contemporary Western (at least American) society is all about lashing out [online] because we’ve been trained to see every opposing viewpoint as a threat. I would put forth that racists and neo-Nazis are a much greater and actual threat than “the wokes” and history would be on my side. But even that misguided bunch is still acting out of malformed and deficient care for their own personhood. Its simply been misaligned to skin tone, even the skin tone of fictional characters. So misaligned, in fact, that these fictional spaces are to be argued over to the point of harming their very real, very nonfictional human brethren.
I don’t have a tidy ending here. I’ll just say that that is the power of genre and that it’s being misused and its incumbent upon all of us who value genre as spaces for the expression of truth to try and say something about it.