At one time, decades ago, a television series hit the airwaves that was groundbreaking for it’s time. It dealt with issues of race, gender, gender inequality, war, and had television’s first inter-racial kiss. If the pilot had stood, it would also have had a woman as the first officer of the starship. As it happened, it had a black woman as a communications officer, and a Japanese American as a helms officer. And it didn’t treat them as special or different, they were members of the crew.
That television series was Star Trek.
For three seasons, it went boldly as it examined the human condition and (at the time) current social issues. It’s been said many a time, even on this blog, that it even caught the attention of Martin Luther King Jr. who convinced Nichelle Nichols to stay with the show as she represented a black woman in a form not seen on television before.
The years passed and then came the movies, and a resurgence in Trek proved there was enough interest to produce a new series. The Next Generation came out, and it too went boldly were its predecessor had gone. It examined social issues under the guise of science fiction. From capital punishment, to torture, to the need for diplomacy.
While TNG was still running, the producers of Star Trek decided they could do another series. One that ended up much more serious in nature. Deep Space Nine wouldn’t just explore the galaxy, but it would explore more social issues, using the backdrop of a recently liberated world from decades of oppression as the setting. The show talked about the ravages of war, racism, inequality, and trust. It even had the distinction of being the first Trek series to have a black commanding officer.
Voyager came next, and continued the tradition that had come before. With the backdrop of an unfamiliar region of space, the crew of the Federation Starship Voyager met social issues head on and often times made a positive mark.
The last series in the group was Enterprise, and while it went back to Starfleet’s infancy, it still reminded the viewer that Earth had just overcome a massive world war, had dealt with poverty, crime, disease, and had found similarities to overcome their own differences and appreciate their own differences.
And then came 2009.
In 2009, the entire original series was rebooted. And while the cast was good, each actor taking on the role incredibly well, the stories weren’t the same. Everything was set aside for action, and a lot of exposition. The original series movies and Next Gen movies had a lot of action as well, but they still managed to tell stories that had similar social issues. Such as The Voyage Home, and Insurrection. But the new take didn’t have that same aspect, as everything seemed to be done for high thrills and playing off of tropes that had often gained a snicker or two over the years (such as Kirk and his involvement with women as seen in the beginning of ST 2009 and ST Into Darkness… by the way, those weren’t Caitians, as much as Abrams wants to say they were, they weren’t). Khan was handled terribly, whitewashing the original Indian aspects of the villain, and seeming to dumb him down. Khan’s strength wasn’t just his physical strength, but his ability to manipulate and his charismatic nature to convince someone to do something they normally wouldn’t do. By the time Wrath of Khan was released, it would be expected that Khan was a little insane with revenge, due to the fact he was marooned on a planet, his wife killed by the natural inhabitants of the planet, and blamed everything on Kirk. In ST Into Darkness, Khan was just angry all the time. There was no manipulation at all. There was no cunning that was the level of the original series or in Wrath of Khan.
As far as a science fiction story that manages to use it’s backdrop to tell stories of social conscious, Star Trek has begun to fail. Worse so that the announcement of the script for a third film has been dumbed down because the producers feel the wider audience wouldn’t understand it. Which isn’t putting a lot of faith in the fans. The fans are people who meticulously catalog every aspect of Trek. The fans are the ones who go out of their way to learn Klingon just for fun. The fans are the ones who manage to poke holes in the stories, albeit without malice but more light heartedly (look to the Nictpicker’s Guides).
While Star Trek has failed, there is another movies series that has picked up the slack.
George Miller’s latest in the Mad Max series manages to look at several different social issues, without using exposition, without using glamour shots, and without using gore. You’d think a movie set in an apocalyptic wasteland would have tons of gore and have a multitude of gratuitous shots. But no, it’s all done with great story telling.
There’s discussions of rape without actually showing a rape. The Wives are sex slaves, and it’s basically mentioned that they had been raped. But there was no need to put this on display at all (which is something the producers of Game of Thrones could take a lesson from). There’s discussion of patriarchy, there’s discussion of slave trade, there’s discussion of an oppressive systems. And the best part is, it’s all done with very little dialogue. Couple that with the fact that a huge percentage of the movie was done with practical effects. This isn’t even touching on the fact that Furiosa was a disabled woman, which was never once pointed out in a gratuitous way.
Where Star Trek failed, Mad Max succeeded.