Why Utopia Got a Reboot: Reflecting on the New Star Trek Movie

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There is a point towards the end of the successful new Star Trek movie where the Enterprise is stuck in a black hole’s gravity well and can’t escape, and Captain Kirk gives the order to jettison the ship’s warp core, its main source of fuel.

It is a climactic moment in a movie full of cliff-hanging intensities. And it’s also symbolic of what has been done with the Star Trek franchise.

By God, Jim, they jettisoned the Warp Core.

I’ve waited long enough to comment on J.J. Abram’s long-awaited adaptation of the Star Trek, intended to revive the flagging and much-loved franchise. I waited so that I can include all the spoilers I want. So if you don’t want me ruining the movie for you, and you haven’t see it, then Stop Reading Now.

I’m not going to offer a detailed review. I will say that I thought the move was very entertaining. The key thing I like about this reboot is that the script and the director really capture the essence of each of the main characters. I loved the casting, and really enjoyed the acting and the script. For the first time in a long time, a lot of fans feel like the franchise is in good hands.

But I’m writing here not so much to praise J.J. as to wonder about what was lost. And I don’t actually mean LOST. I mean lost.

Overall, I think the utopian future message of Star Trek, which many fans would claim to be at the heart of Trek’s appeal, appears in only very faded out fashion. Like a pair of faded old dungarees, tried on for size at the very end of the show, with Nimoy’s sonorous voicing over the retro old Star Trek soundtrack. For the old timers, who made it to the end.

I know, I’m old school, but I was disappointed. With so much going on in the world today, the film doesn’t really offer any sort of vision of a future where we can actually see a united Earth, with people actually united together. A guy with a Russian accent on the bridge doesn’t for Diversity make. And lots, and lots of white people everywhere. Turbans? Burkas? Nah. The occasional alien appears, just as the occasional non-white person appears. But the basic canvas, the mass, the average, is lily white.

And how about that 23rd century environment? Am I supposed to believe that we are still driving cars down dirt roads in the 23rd century? No public transportation?

The idea of a para-military force that unite the Earth? Nah, not really. Star Trek looks a lot like Starship Troopers. “Join Star Fleet, see the Stars.”

Ditto with the idea of “credits” and Star Trek’s veiled socialist utopia, where people only work by choice. The economics of the future escape me entirely. They’re just kind of irrelevant. This is entertainment, not philosophy. Yes, Star Trek’sgrand messages could sometime get a little annoying. But they also were inspiring. Especially, I think, to kids.
If there is any big message here that Gene Roddenberry would have put his stamp on, I don’t see it. In fact, I’d venture to say this isn’t the same Star Trek that Gene Roddenberry created. It is “loosely based upon” some of the ideas in Star Trek. It lacks the authentic Star Trek cred. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me. But I don’t see it. Casting Leonard Nimoy to deliver a few old lines about his friendship with Kirk doesn’t make this “real” Star Trek. Then again, maybe “real” Star Trek died along with Gene Roddenberry.

This is a gutted Star Trek movie, a Star Trek without ideology. It isn’t about technological utopianism. It isn’t about a united earth. It isn’t about an optimistic, hopeful, guiding vision of the future. This is all about relationships, special effects, suspense, entertainment, humor, and adventure. That’s what J.J. Abrams does well with Lost. That’s what he does well in this movie. But it’s not really all that Star Trek is about. This is Star Trek as space opera. Star Trek as Star Wars without the mysticism.

Compare that with my favorite Star Trek movie, the 4th one, called The Voyage Home. Aka, “the whales” Star Trek movie. Although its fashion and references are dated, the message in that movie is just as current as it was when Leonard Nimoy directed it. In our time of environmental crisis and culture clash, I was thinking that a new Star Trek movie had an opportunity to make a statement about a positive future. Maybe even insert some insight into the difficult relationship between the environment and technology–something that the original series avoided.

But, clearly, Gene, that’s what got jettisoned. The hope. The long speeches. The worn-on-the-sleeve optimism. The difficult, ever-imperfect struggle to work through a troubled past to an idealistic future.

And it’s interesting to wonder both how and why this happened.

How does one universe shift into the other? Well, through a weird kind of reboot. We are told that this movie is set in an alternate universe. So it’s not really the “real” Star Trek that we all know and love, but something new.

An alternative reality explanation basically gives the producers the latitude for lots of riffing: “Shut up, fanboy, it’s an alternative universe. We can do what we want here”

But that doesn’t really account for major disjunctures like personal cars and motorcycles in use.

What is amazing to me is how many little a-ha, nice, compact, meaningful, character-laden explanations for original series mysteries manage to get stuck into the film, even though it’s supposed to be an alternative universe. Kirk as a bar-brawler makes sense in light of the original series. It explains why there are so many fist fights in that series. Maybe it even explains why Kirk is always part of the landing party. Because he’s the best fighter on the ship, dammit.

Bones as a desperate, divorced alcoholic also makes sense. Actually, Kiwi actor Karl Urban’s portrayal of Dr. McCoy was among my favorites. It was a worthy tribute to DeForest Kelly. Spock’s schooling is also very right. I also really liked how young and bright they made Checkov, and how they made Sulu an expert sword-fighter–that explains his swordplay in series’ episodes. The new, hot, purring Uhura is also a great extension of the original character. Huge plusses for these characters. There’s a new authenticity to them, their accents, their demeanor, their backgrounds.

Kirk and Spock hating each other at first also makes great sense, and although fans seem to dislike it, I loved the confrontation scene where Kirk makes Spock break down. How many times has he done something like that in the original series. Jeez, what are friends for?

So there are these interesting intersections of this Star Trek 2 universe–which are fun and explanatory–and the old Star Trek that we all know. Why are they there? If Kirk’s dad dies, and changes the whole universe and the way that this story progresses in the process, then we don’t actually need those connections.

That leave the Why question. Why don’t we have Gene’s utopian vision in this movie?

  • Because talk is boring? Who needs another set of big long speeches, the kind that Star Trek became infamous for? Because action leaves no time for reflection? Because we don’t need Hope and Change anymore?
  • Because you can’t have everything in a sequel?
  • Because the producers and director decided to make a big, clean break from the fan base in order to wider the franchise’s appeal and aim for a young, hip, target that doesn’t worry about the future like those Boomer and Gen X kids of the past did?

Maybe Star Trek the Franchise was stuck in its own gravity well, its own black hole. That’s probably true.

But I keep wondering if the optimistic utopian vision of Gene Roddenberry was what really needed to be jettisoned for the series to get unstuck? It seems to me that, like the 60s, we are entering a time of crisis where we crave powerful myths and visions of the future.

Or maybe not. Maybe we’re just living in the moment. Enjoying the relationships. Willing to jettison whatever to get wherever. And to me, that’s a very scary thought.

Interview on CMO 2.0 with Francois Gossieaux

Apologies for the lazy cross-posting. I have been revising my netnography book for Sage–aggh. An author’s life can leave little time for writing, or blogging.

It did leave me a little bit of time to have an interesting and wide-ranging conversation with Francois Gossieaux on Tuesday. We had a chance to talk a bit about academic research and business research, and then got into some nitty gritty topics about managing communities. I’m very impressed with the work that Francois and Lois Kelly are doing, and I think you might be too.

I’m reposting this just-posted blog entry summarizing the conversation we had.

The original is available here. There is also a link on the page to the podcast. Or you can pull it down from the CMO 2.0 podcast link on iTunes.

Take a look at the other interesting CMO 2.0 material and links. There’s a lot of high-quality thinking on this site. I hope to continue to talk and learn from Francois, Kelly, and the rest of the Beeline gurus.

Here’s  the repost…..

CMO 2.0 Influencer Conversation with Rob Kozinets, Marketing Professor at York University and author

Written by Francois Gossieaux on May 7, 2009 – 9:01 pm

For my first CMO 2.0 Influencer Conversation, I spoke with Rob Kozinets, a professor of marketing from York University in Toronto, about communities, consumer tribes and word of mouth marketing – not surprising considering that Rob was the editor of Consumer Tribes, a collection of research papers on consumer tribes, recently finished a book on word of mouth, and is one of the few researchers looking at the practice of business through the eyes of an anthropologist/ethnographer (among other things).

We started the conversation by talking about the disconnect between the world of academics and the world of business, especially as it relates to marketing. It is an unfortunate fact that many mistakes could be avoided if marketers were making informed decisions based in part on some of the recent findings in the fields of behavioral economics, anthropology, complexity theory, sociology, and psychology.

One of Rob’s main themes is that consumer learning, opinions and transmission of influence happens in smaller groups – hence the idea of tribes. Today’s tribes have looser affiliations and are more hedonistic in nature than ancient tribes. They are nomadic by interest, rather than geography, and centered around expertise and commercial culture. Consumer Tribes are also not typically focused on a single brand but rather on a whole group, a whole culture or lifestyle, or a set of activities. Another challenge for marketers, according to Kozinets, is that consumer tribes don’t typically develop long-lasting relationships. Even some of the stronger tribes, like the Star Trek groups that were so popular in the 90’s, aren’t as active anymore – people move on as they get more options. It would actually be interesting to see if the Harley community is still as strong as it used to be. People move in and out of consumer tribes, and the tribes seem to have a natural life and death cycle – including a revival stage sometimes.

Of course, most marketers don’t think of their customers as tribes yet, or don’t realize the enormous impact that successful customer communities can have, so for many of them this is an non-existent problem.

According to Rob, one of the big problems with communities is that companies are setting them us expecting fixed ROI. In reality the measurement of the the impact of communities is very hard. They are hard to set up, take time to take off, and are challenging to maintain. And, as Rob points out, a lot of the successful community marketers have had their communities formed for them by their customers – much like Harley.
We also talked about the proliferation of special interest communities sponsored by various companies – e.g., small business focused communities, of which there are dozens. Obviously members will not want to belong to multiple small business communities, so what then? Consolidation, with most members gravitating towards the most successful small business community, or further fragmentation, with more user-driven communities aggregating around micro objectives? It’s hard to predict where we will see consolidation vs. fragmentation of communities as we do not quite understand how people move in and out of those spaces.

An interesting concept which Rob brought up was “share of community time,” which, in a way, is a measurement related to John Hagel’s Return on Attention (John has also agreed to conduct a CMO 2.0 Influencer conversation with me – stay tuned for a date). The problem with calculating share of community time is that there is a huge spread in the estimated number of people who participate in communities – between 100M and 1b.

Other things we talked about include:

  • The role of payments and incentives in communities
  • Whether online focus groups are stretching the possibilities of online community environments
  • How to engage with your detractors as well as your champions
  • How, if you are going to open things up, you should have a strategy to deal with criticism that will come
  • The pros and cons of having a neat classification system for communities based on the different needs that they are trying to solve
  • How community organizers need to think about members first and brand second

We also touched on word of mouth and how most marketers expect word of mouth to amplify their message, when in reality most word of mouth will transform your message.

As usual, you can listen to the podcast below, and we will be releasing transcripts soon.