I recently had the misfortune of watching Star Trek Into Darkness. It is of course an utter failure as a film — a convoluted and contradiction-laden plot barrels along with no character development whatsoever — and as an adaptation of Star Trek. Many people complain of the new films’ violation of the spirit of the original, but the real problem is that the films themselves have no discernable spirit whatsoever. They don’t betray or violate the original Star Trek, so much as piece together themes and characters in a completely free-form way. Sometimes they reverse themes from the original, but it doesn’t have any kind of message — for instance, they seem to have pointlessly violated Spock’s lack of emotions (which they didn’t even set up adequately for it to have any impact to a new audience), solely so that Spock and Kirk could reverse roles in a kind of parody of one of the most beloved scenes from Wrath of Khan. And what does that parodic reversal get us? Nothing whatsoever. It simply refers to itself as a parodic reversal and expects us to pat it on the head for being so damned clever.
As I meditated on this abomination, a point of comparison emerged: Family Guy. The references back to the Star Trek canon were just as pointless on the J.J. Abrams films as the random cut-scenes on Family Guy. At this point, the show has become such an institution that it can refer back to itself — for instance, to Fox’s shortsighted decision to cancel it early in its run, to the real-life identities of the people who voice the various characters, etc. The show can go so far as to criticize itself for its lazy incoherence, but even that self-awareness seems somehow “quoted” from other, better shows, like The Simpsons.
This is the afterlife of postmodernism: endless pastiche, with neither subversive nor playful intent. In place of subversiveness we get an unearned “grittiness,” and in place of playfulness, we get smug self-satisfaction. The Abrams Star Trek and Family Guy franchises combine both in the worst possible way. Both take their previously optimistic vehicle (Star Trek, cartoons and sitcoms) and twist them toward the darkest possible worldview. The point of doing this, however, is simply to generate “unexpected” juxtapositions. Peter is an abusive alcoholic because — ha ha, imagine a cartoon where the father is an abusive alcoholic! TV families love each other no matter what — ha ha, what if they hated Meg no matter what? Star Trek is about the adventure of exploration in a world where humans live in harmony — wow, wouldn’t it be a curve ball if we set the story on earth and made it about domestic terrorism? What cleverness, what creativity!
A similar dynamic is at work in their relationship to their own era. Abrams turns the sexism of the original series up to 11, including a purely gratuitous scene of a character in her underwear — because, ha ha, can you imagine being that sexist in this day and age? The racist jokes in Family Guy work in the same way — the very gap between the joke and the present day is what’s supposed to be jarring and therefore funny. They’re meant to function in the same way as the simple references to consumer products and television shows from the 80s. As Chris says after a cut-away gag on the Robot Chicken parody of Family Guy: “Ha ha! That existed!”
Much has been made of the fact that the new Star Trek films try to harness the emotions associated with the material without really earning it, but the problem is deeper — late postmodernism wants to harness the subversiveness and the liberatory effect of much “classic” postmodernism without remotely earning it or even understanding it. It’s all about a totally free-standing “subversion” without any context or relevance, as shown by the fact that its only possible target is the “politically correct” liberal consensus — itself a pretty retro reference at this point.