Friday, May 29, 2009

The Enterprise As A Start-Up

This is a post about the new Star Trek movie that contains no spoilers.


Here's my rule about movie and television spoilers. If you're giving information that's already given in a preview, then you're spoiling nothing that hasn't been spoiled already. Likewise, if you're giving information that can be reasonably inferred, no spoiling has occurred.

If you're not willing to entertain either of these possibilities, if you scrupulously avoid movie trailers or cast lists, and you still haven't seen this movie, then not only are you a weirdo, you also stopped reading this post long ago.

So, you will be shocked, shocked to learn that at one point in the new Star Trek movie, just as you've seen in the trailer, James T. Kirk sits in the captain's chair, and that by the end of the movie, most of the characters that we associate with the Enterprise's crew are working together on the Enterprise.

Okay? Good.

So here's Henry Jenkins's thoughtful post, "Five Ways to Start a Conversation About the New Star Trek Film," which DOES contain more detailed spoilers. My excerpt, however, does not:

In the past, we were allowed to admire Kirk for being the youngest Star Fleet captain in Federation history because there was some belief that he had managed to actually earn that rank... It's hard to imagine any military system on our planet which would promote someone to a command rank in the way depicted in the film. In doing so, it detracts from Kirk's accomplishments rather than making him seem more heroic. This is further compromised by the fact that we are also promoting all of his friends and letting them go around the universe on a ship together.

We could have imagined a series of several films which showed Kirk and his classmates moving up through the ranks, much as the story might be told by Patrick O'Brien or in the Hornblower series. We could see him learn through mentors, we could seem the partnerships form over time, we could watch the characters grow into themselves, make rookie mistakes, learn how to do the things we see in the older series, and so forth. In comics, we'd call this a Year One story and it's well trod space in the superhero genre at this point.

But there's an impatience here to give these characters everything we want for them without delays, without having to work for it. It's this sense of entitlement which makes this new Kirk as obnoxious as the William Shatner version. What it does do, however, is create a much flatter model for the command of the ship. If there is no age and experience difference between the various crew members, if Kirk is captain because Spock had a really bad day, then the characters are much closer to being equals than on the old version of the series.

This may be closer to our contemporary understanding of how good organizations work -- let's think of it as the Enterprise as a start-up company where a bunch of old college buddies decide they can pool their skills and work together to achieve their mutual dreams. This is not the model of how command worked in other Star Trek series, of course, and it certainly isn't the way military organizations work, but it is very much what I see as some of my students graduate and start to figure out their point of entry into the creative industries.

The Enterprise as a start-up! It reminds me of that story about the guys who started Silicon Valley's Fairchild Semiconductor.

Let me add that I think Jenkins is wrong about the way promotion is presented in the film -- Star Fleet actually appears to be remarkably meritocratic, much more deferential to performance and aptitude tests than years served. Captain Pike tells Kirk that he could command his own starship (the second highest rank) in four years after leaving the academy. Chekhov is a starship navigator (and not, like Kirk or Uhura, a cadet) at only seventeen years old; Spock is a commander and academy instructor without there being a sense of a considerable age/experience gap between he and Kirk or Uhura. (He's introduced as "one of our most distinguished graduates," like he's a really good TA.)

But it's not academia; it's the NBA. You give these kids the ball.

The important point is that within this highly meritocratic structure, the crew members of the Enterprise are PARTICULARLY and precociously talented. Kirk is the fastest to rise to captain where fast rises are not uncommon. As I said to my friends after seeing the movie, it gets bonus points for emphasizing just how SMART these people are; Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Scotty, and Chekhov (among others) are explicitly presented as geniuses.

Okay, now I've probably actually included spoilers in this thing. So. What. Go see the movie already. Then read the rest of Jenkins's post. You'll enjoy them both.

(H/t: the awesome Amanda Phillips.)

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