Star Trek is James T. Kirk, and James T. Kirk is Star Trek. At least, that’s the impression you get from 2009’s Star Trek, which focuses mostly on young Turk young Kirk’s rebellious awesomeness and daddy issues.

The trailer for that film opened up with Kirk (Chris Pine) riding a motorcycle, and it’s big money shot is that same Kirk easing himself into a starship captain’s chair, legs widely manspread:

The recently released trailer for its sequel, Star Trek Beyond, is again Kirk centered, as that’s the nature of the reboot.

In that first film you had Kirk jumping without a parachute, Kirk fighting in a bar, Kirk having sex. With Star Trek Beyond, it looks like Star Trek’s initial white guy hero will be performing feats of even more daring:

In this, Star Trek Beyond’s trailer symbolizes the Star Trek film reboot in general — and, for that matter, the wider obsession with nostalgia properties.

When Star Trek premiered back in the 1960s, white men were even more the default media heroes than they are now in the era of Rey and Finn. Kirk himself was presented as a swashbuckling, risk-taking cowboy lothario, sweeping green-skinned women off their appendages and battling brawny lizard-men to a draw with his bare hands. To recycle Kirk (or James Bond, or Iron Man) is to recycle the same heroic male dude forever and ever, screen without end. Getting your heroes from the past is, inevitably, conservative. If you take all your protagonists from a past where the protagonists were always white guys, then your protagonists will always be white guys.


The contradiction here is that Star Trek itself, originally, looked to the future — and specifically to a future in which white men were not the default.

Gene Roddenberry deliberately imagined his space crew as a multi-ethnic group, including a Japanese navigator, (Lt. Sulu, played by George Takei) a black communications officer (Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols) and other bridge members from Russia, Scotland, and the planet Vulcan.

Star Trek even featured the first interracial kiss on television, between Kirk and Uhura…

That first interracial kiss came with an asterisk, though. Uhura and Kirk were mind-controlled into kissing by evil alien bad guys; the possibility that black and white people might actually find each other attractive on their own was carefully sidestepped.

Similarly, throughout the original Star Trek, the diversity on display never threatens the show’s white hierarchy. The Asian, black, and Russian crew members are all subordinated to the white captain, literally in terms of the chain-of-command, and metaphorically in terms of their position in the show. Just about every episode of the original series focused on white guys Kirk, McCoy, and Spock having adventures while everyone else looked on and nodded. If you were especially cynical, you could even see Star Trek as a deliberate validation of Cold War politics, as people of every race and nation harmoniously accept rule by the American, aiding him in his fight against the war-mongering Soviet Klingon empire. The fact that the guy playing the iconic American Kirk was Jewish Canadian William Shatner only emphasizes the imaginative importance of whiteness to the American hero archetype.

Star Trek, then, has always vacillated between a utopian vision of heterogenous harmony and a staid vision of benign, traditional hierarchy. Over time, perhaps, enemies like the Klingons become friends — but they become friends on the Federation’s terms, with Lt. Worf, like Uhura, installed as one more ethnic token standing beside the Captain’s chair. Science-fiction authors such as Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler imagined futures in which the replacement of white men at the center of the universe had profound effects on ideas about gender, sexuality, identity, justice, and freedom. In Star Trek, on the contrary, diversity seems to mostly mean slightly different people doing more or less what Kirk would do.

The Enterprise, like the evil Borg, reaches out and assimilates.

KirkSpockMcCoy

The breadth of what’s assimilated, though, is impressive. Especially on television, Star Trek has expanded on Roddenberry’s template in adventurous ways. Next Generation still had a white captain, but included larger roles for women like Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Lt. Worf, a Klingon played by African-American actor Michael Dorn. It also starred Lt. Geordi Laforge (Levar Burton) — an unusual instance of a disabled, African-American hero in a mainstream series. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine featured a black commander of a star station, while Star Trek: Voyager featured a female captain. Even the Star Trek reboots featuring Pine as Kirk have expanded the role for Uhura, played by Zoë Saldana.

Admittedly, that expanded role consists in large part of serving as romantic interest for Zachary Quinto’s Spock. And while various television Trek series have featured non-white-guy commanders, the only ones that have made it to the big screen — the original Trek, Next Generation, and then the original rebooted — are helmed, safely, by white guys.

Star Trek has not gone boldly into the future. Instead, it’s gone nervously into the future. And then it’s gone backwards, and then stepped forward again, with much hesitation.

Hollywood’s obsession with past, safe franchises is itself a mark of timorousness. But still, Star Trek has, at some times, in some ways, pointed towards a progressive dream. Would the latest Star Wars: The Force Awakens have featured non-white-guys heroes if Star Trek hadn’t, long, long ago, shown the way? In its vacillating progressivism, Star Trek perhaps shows that the future will always be in thrall to the past. But it also shows that the past, with all its problems, shows us some ways to change, if we’re only willing to take our eyes off the Kirk.