Having recently been awed by the superior sequel “Blade Runner 2049” I was intrigued that the future depicted in the film’s 2049 was not a future based from our current 2017. BR2049 shows a 2049 projected from the 2019 we saw in the original “Blade Runner” of 1982. A future complete with ads from now defunct Atari, Soviet Russia, and Pan-Am airlines. There are also cathode ray monitors (a technology that was obsolete roughly a decade ago), ads from Soviet Russia (which fell almost 30 years ago), and of course, flying cars, off-world colonies and replicants (which are no closer to being commonplace now then they were in 1982). A wonderful hodgepodge of low and high tech that is both futuristic and retro at once. A fully realized world, with its own rules and laws.
Such retro-futures are a fascinating conceit that’s not entirely without precedent in science fiction, but it’s exceptionally well-realized in Denis Villeneuve’s retro-future.
There was also 1984’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, starring the late John Hurt. I didn’t catch it in theatrical release (I was too busy being a stupid, self-absorbed high schooler at the time), but I did see it years later and it was very impressive (also surprisingly faithful to the George Orwell classic novel). In spite of the year of its release, it depicted a 1984 remarkably free of Nikes, Prince’s “Purple Rain” and the Ghostbusters.
And, arguably, there are the two Arthur C. Clarke “The Sentinel”-based adaptations, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) and “2010: The Year We Make Contact” (1984). 2010 was released only 17 years from its predecessor’s imagined future, and even by 1984 it was clear that we wouldn’t have lunar bases or manned spaceflights to Jupiter anytime soon.
So while “2001” was, for its time (in the heady days of Apollo) a reasonable projection of the future, it was clear in 1984 that “2010” wouldn’t resemble that future at all (a future that, like BR2049, also had cathode -ray tube monitors and a fully functional Soviet Union). “2010” (while a very worthwhile film on its own merits) was time-locked by events and stylistic choices depicted in its 1968 classic predecessor. It had to look and feel a certain way to remain consistent within its own universe.
And of course, there’s Star Trek; which imagined a 1990s dominated by the “Eugenics Wars”, led by genetically engineered superman Khan Noonian Singh (“Space Seed” “The Wrath of Khan”). Who knew it’d wind up being an era dominated by grunge, Nirvana, Bill Clinton and “Seinfeld”? There were also references to the 2002 launch of the semi-sentient space probe “Nomad” (“The Changeling”), and a hypothetical “Voyager Six” that disappeared in a black hole at the end of the 20th century, and returned to Earth as the mutated “V’Ger” in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979)
Which brings me to the focus of this blog entry; I came across an interesting post on Twitter from writer/filmmaker Robert Meyer Burnett (cowriter/director of the wonderful 1999 geek comedy, “Free Enterprise”), and he posed an interesting notion in this tweet:
“BLADE RUNNER 2049 is FULL of retro-tech, but absolutely respected the fictitious world in which the story takes place. Why shouldn’t TREK?”
On the surface, that’s a good idea. Why can’t Star Trek be entirely self-referential to its own mythology? Why can’t it be a retro-future using the looks and styles of its older incarnations?
As it currently is, Star Trek recreates its own look & internal technology every few years or so to keep up with current technological developments; such as the ‘iMac bridge’ of the Enterprise seen in “Star Trek” (2009) or the new holographic communicators used in the prequel series “Star Trek: Discovery,” a series that takes place ten years before the decidedly retro-future of the original series’ 23rd century (in the year 2256, to be exact). Not to mention that its overall look is far more advanced than the future the original series depicted in the 1960s.
Holographic communications were a ‘new’ technology first used in the 24th century of Star Trek’s spinoff series, Deep Space Nine (season 5’s “For the Uniform”). It’s curious that the writers of “Discovery,” who carefully weave in bits of Star Trek minutiae within each episode (so far), would seemingly choose to ignore such a clearly depicted event within that universe…
As our own electronics technology becomes increasingly advanced within our ‘real’ world, it may be tough for modern viewers to believe in a series about a centuries-off future that still uses clunky flip-top communicators and bulky tricorders that are only a few generations away from my iPhone 6.
So why can’t Star Trek do what Blade Runner 2049 did, and create a retro-reality based on its own 1960s vision of the future; as opposed to rewriting it to keep up with and project from our own present-day reality?
Meyer-Burnett followed his original tweet with this:
“STAR TREK is a period piece of an alternative future. In its way…TREK is a version of steam punk, with a rich history and legacy.”
Well, here’s what I wrote in response to Robert Meyer-Burnett’s tweet:
“It’s also a future which we can aspire to, even if we’ll never reach it. If it gets too time locked, it risks being quaint and irrelevant.”
And this is why Star Trek can’t go down the Blade Runner path and create an alternate, steampunk-like universe with its own future and history.
“Blade Runner”, like Orwell’s “1984”, is a cautionary tale; a future we’d generally like to avoid. In classic science fiction tradition, such tales show us the darker sides of progress, even while they dangle some of its appealing attributes (flying cars, for example).
“Star Trek” is, and has always been, optimistic. It’s aspirational; a future we would want to move in the direction of, no matter how impossible it may be to reach. Transporters and warp drive are most likely off the table, at least in a universe with our physical laws. But even in Star Trek’s darkest episodes, it remained a series that promised a unified and bountiful Earth; with fleets of faster-than-light spacecraft warping around the universe, making contact with alien races (however dangerous or even deadly those initial meetings might be).
As Kirk himself might say…
And there is, of course, the attraction of a galaxy of colorful, diverse beings all working together in common cause.
Star Trek’s Federation is essentially an interstellar United Nations, cooperating towards an ever more harmonious and peaceful galaxy.
It may be hopelessly naive, utterly unrealistic, and even against human nature but part of Star Trek’s appeal is that many of us fans truly want to live in that world; observing the wonders of the universe from our roomy, pressurized cabin aboard a comfy, carpeted spaceship, complete with artificial gravity and replicators that take care of all of your material needs.
Armchair exploration at its apex.
Now onto “Blade Runner”….
“Blade Runner,” as much as I enjoy watching it as an entertainment, depicts a future that only has flying cars and holographic girlfriends going for it. Since I’m happily married and am perfectly content with my 16 year old Honda, I desire neither. “Blade Runner” is a universe of slave labor, brutal law enforcement, oppressive architecture, and near-total environmental collapse (a collapse that is not too far off from our own world of today, sadly).
“Blade Runner 2049” implies that our own past and the movie’s past were congruent for awhile. For example, we see that both had Elvis Presley (whose “Fools Rush In” is Deckard’s favorite song) and Frank Sinatra. Both the King and Ol’ Blue Eyes’ holographic recordings survive in the movie’s post-dirty bomb ravaged Las Vegas.
Apparently the alternate reality of “Blade Runner” diverged dramatically sometime in the early 1980s or so. There were some fantastic advances made in that reality concerning genetic engineering and flying automobile technology. Yet Pan-Am airlines, Atari home entertainment, the Soviet Union, and CRT monitors still rule their respective roosts, 65 years on.
The world of “Blade Runner” (both 2019-set original 2049-set sequel) is a beautifully realized and detailed universe, and I enjoyed every frame of it; but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there. But its universe has a wonderful self-consistency and level of detail that is downright hypnotic at times.
Conversely, Star Trek has tripped over its own feet many times while reinventing itself.
Obviously, the infamous ‘Eugenics Wars’ of the 1990s never happened (though Greg Cox’s trilogy of “Eugenics Wars” Khan-centered books posit fascinating reasons as to why they remained off our cultural radar…).
Nomad and Voyager Six were never launched, so that particular Voyager never became V’ger. And, of course, we’re no closer to some of the other 21st century predictions of the show (though I’m increasingly worried that Next Generation’s “World War 3” might be coming sooner than later, to be honest).
Undeterred by its own anachronisms, Star Trek is still thriving (51 years later) within current pop culture. Yet it never quite takes the Blade Runner route of a separate, enclosed reality. Our world’s own advances in the late 20th and 21st century are carefully woven into Star Trek’s own fictional future as often as possible.
The 2001-5 series “Star Trek Enterprise” showed the 1997 Sojourner rover on Mars (at the Carl Sagan Memorial station). Various shuttlecraft of “Next Generation” have been named after latter-day scientists and explorers, such as geologist and Apollo lunar astronaut trainer Farouk El-Baz, and fallen Challenger space shuttle astronaut/teacher Christa McAuliffe.
There was even a shuttlecraft named for Professor Stephen Hawking (who also guest-starred as his holodeck-generated self in season 7’s “Descent,” Part 1).
A couple of weeks ago on “Star Trek Discovery,” Captain Lorca (the devilish Jason Isaacs) also made a reference to PayPal entrepreneur/SpaceX founder Elon Musk, right up there with the Wright Brothers and fictional warp-drive inventor, “Zefram Cochrane” (seen in the episode “Metamorphosis” and the movie “First Contact”).
So why does Star Trek seemingly subvert itself by shoehorning in modern references and real-life people/space missions etc into its fictional universe? Why can’t it remain a locked-off universe, complete and whole unto itself? Well of course, one obvious answer is that ALL works of fiction are alternate universes created within the minds of writers and other creative people.
So why does Star Trek continue to court reality like this, when it could just as easily retreat within the confines of its own ‘safe’ universe? Why does it risk future contradiction at every turn? Simple. To remain relevant. And yes, perhaps even to inspire young viewers to pursue careers in science, medicine, engineering and even science fiction writing.
If Star Trek’s future ‘froze’ in 1966, and future episodes of the show used only those same styles of sets, uniforms, miniskirts and go-go boots seen in the original? I sincerely believe that we would NOT be enjoying the parade of Star Trek series (six live action, one cartoon) and movies (13 to date) that have occurred in the 51 years since the original series’ debut in September of 1966. Star Trek would’ve been nothing more than a quaint anachronism of the 1960s, static and unchanging. We might still enjoy it in reruns (as a curiosity), just as we enjoy the steampunk stylings of Jules Verne’s adapted stories. Personally I’m a fan of Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954), despite the goofy Kirk Douglas “Whale of a Tale” song. But I wouldn’t look to Captain Nemo’s atomic submarine for futuristic inspiration, any more than I’d want launch from a giant cannon for a voyage to the moon.
A time-locked Star Trek wouldn’t continue to inspire newer generations, as modern space scientists such as Bobak Ferdowsi; NASA/JPL’s “Mohawk Guy” who was part of the team behind the 2012 Curiosity rover’s landing on Mars. He’s said many times in interviews that he was a big fan of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” growing up, and that the series’ directly inspired him to pursue his present career. I’ve met him at both Comic Con and Las Vegas Star Trek conventions. And, of course, there’s the aforementioned Elon Musk.
There is also, of course, another large science-fiction fantasy franchise that routinely rewrites its own history, and that would be the universe of Doctor Who.
Doctor Who, like Star Trek, dates back over 50 years (54 in DW’s case) and has many little anachronisms within its own past; large-scale space invasions by Daleks, Cybermen, Zygons, Autons and other alien races/intelligences that occur and are completely forgotten or ignored later on. I also recall a Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) story of the series (“Ambassadors of Death”) depicting a manned mission to the planet Mars occurring sometime in the 1970s.
So why does Doctor Who get so much wiggle room for its own anachronisms? Why aren’t Doctor Who fans frantically trying to tie up all of its loose ends? I’d say part of the reason is that the show’s titular character is a time-traveller. Routinely altering and rewriting histories is par for the Doctor’s course. He is a changer of history by his very “Time Lord” nature. He eats anachronisms for breakfast.
Many of Doctor Who’s tie-in books, audio-dramas and comics (I’m a big fan of Titan Comics’ Tenth Doctor adventures) manage to brilliantly weave together some of those seeming anachronisms of DW so that they fit elegantly with each other.
And while Star Trek is an ever-changing group of characters on a similar mission, Doctor Who is primarily centered around a single character (albeit with a changing roster of companions), roaming space and time in his trusty time-traveling police box-shaped TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space).
Doctor Who isn’t solely about depicting a brighter or bleaker future. For the Doctor, the future is but one item on a vast temporal menu. He could just as easily slip into Earth’s past, or another planet, or even another dimension. The show’s format avoids rigidity by remaining fluid and free. Even the Doctor’s physical appearance and personalty (even the Doctor’s gender) aren’t necessarily fixed or immutable, thanks to his species’ power of ‘regeneration.’ Doctor Who is a show that thrives on reinvention. It can change worlds and eras with the ease of which we change clothes. It could just as easily depict the world of the present day as it could depict the world of the Aztecs, or the Martian Ice Warriors.
So back to the central question posed by Robert Meyer-Burnett; why can’t Star Trek live within its own fixed ’steampunk’ world, like the self-contained retro-future of Blade Runner?
Because Star Trek would then cease to inspire. It would quickly become anachronistic and dated. It would no longer be a relevant, thriving new entertainment for future generations. Star Trek would forever exist only as a static series depicting Kirk, Spock, McCoy and a curiously 1960s-looking spaceship. The End.
It took Blade Runner 35 years to generate a sequel, and sadly, this utterly brilliant followup has only been a modest hit at the box office (performing much as the original did 35 years ago). Blade Runner, as a cautionary science fiction story, is not meant to inspire dreams of a better future. It’s meant to act as a nightmarish warning. It’s an interesting future to visit, but again, you wouldn’t want to live there.
Star Trek is about pointing vaguely in the direction of something desirable; a carrot dangling just beyond reach of our dreary present. To better aid in that illusion? It uses real-life references to tie it into our reality whenever possible.
Blade Runner’s future is the stick.
That’s why Star Trek, taking a cue from the good Doctor (Who), should never become too locked in its own universe. It would then be only about its own contained world and would no longer be about our world
Star Trek will continue to inspire as long as it stays relevant. Without such relevance to our own world of today (and its continual avalanche of changes), I doubt the series would continue to live long and prosper…