J.J. Abrams’ science-fiction blockbuster offers an intriguing pragmatic analysis of the science-fiction franchise. Being both a mainstream Hollywood sequel and spin-off to a hugely popular television series containing it’s own established community, Star Trek Into Darkness possesses a certain multiplicity (Altman: 1999, p.210) of uses and users, consequently alluding to Altman’s pragmatic approach the goals that it entails. This essay henceforth will attempt to utilize the pragmatic approach to discern and reinforce the fact that Star Trek Into Darkness has “multiple users”, answer “why different users develop different readings” of the film, “theorize the relationship among those users” and consider “the effects of multiple conflicting uses on the production, labelling and display of” Star Trek and science-fiction (Altman: 1999, p.214).
The idiom “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure” springs to mind when discussing why user groups of science-fiction and Star Trek can differ in their readings, as one community of fans of the original Star Trek television series may make a preferred reading of the series yet disregard the film (Hall: 1993, p.513) and vice versa in an infinite number of combinations and “divergent perceptions” of science-fiction (Altman: 1999, p.207). If genres “serve diverse groups diversely” (Altman: 1999, p.207), Star Trek is a clear example of how science-fiction does so, and the question is, why?
A probable reason for “multiple conflicting audiences” (Altman: 1999, p.208) in the case of Star Trek, is due to the change in platform, the jump from a thought-provoking television space opera to a high-concept Hollywood movie of which different communities inhabit. To paraphrase Altman, Hollywood embodies and maintains a host of interests (Altman: 1999: 208), to gain the largest audience possible and, in turn, make profit. Hollywood must therefore produce a science-fiction movie that caters to the fan communities of the original television show (intensified by having their own recognisable communal name – Trekkies) and wider, more mainstream audience communities. Theoretically, this leads to different readings, as there are two of an infinite amount of communities established for this generic film, who may or may not share the same view of the science-fiction genre. For example, the connotations surrounding science-fiction for Trekkies will arguably be different to that of a mainstream community who may expect science-fiction to be excitingly high-concept in contrast.
This “use factor” (Altman: 1999, p.210) that science-fiction entails is aptly demonstrated through textual analysis of the opening sequence of Star Trek Into Darkness. Opening with a wide establishing shot followed by a change in focal length (Brown: 2012, p.213), the user becomes aware that the film has opened immediately with a chase sequence, typical of Hollywood in comparison to the more slow-burning Star Trek episodes. Erratic tracking shots short in duration follows the action parallel (Brown: 2012, p.214) as the protagonists struggle to escape the CGI planet, allowing for an action-oriented opening aimed at a general community. Within this sequence, however, communities surrounding the original series and films are treated to an intertextual reference in the form of dialogue as, trapped within a computer generated erupting volcano, Spock delivers the line “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. Calling back to the original material that would only be understood by communities accessing knowledge of Star Trek endeavours to support Altman’s theory of “an indeterminate number of conflicting users” (Altman: 1999, p.210) of science-fiction, and begins to suggest why different readings may take place between users communities.
The two aforementioned user groups of science-fiction may be all that is needed to reflect the notion that the genre is a “site of struggle and co-operation among multiple users” (Altman: 1999, p.211), which leads into theorizing the relationships and discourse between such users. Science-fiction does indeed serve a “constellated community” (Altman: 1999, p.162), evident through researching sites such as TrekToday (Sparborth, 2015) where thousands of members can discuss the franchise within the context of the science-fiction genre in forums and comment sections. Furthermore, the website League of the Non-Aligned gives users of science-fiction a list of dates of science-fiction conventions (Sci-Fi Conventions, Signing Events and Fan Gatherings, 2015); large gatherings in a variety of locations where individuals come together in a community in the name of a genre suggests heavily that a relationship between users is there. A strong, uniformed relationship at that. “Lateral communication” (Altman: 1999, p.162) is clearly occurring between users over the internet and physically, face to face, where “shared perceptions” (Altman: 1999, p.157) serve the genre that in turn serves the community. The genre, it is clear, is meaningful to a large community, (as Star Trek fandom and communities validates) and it is evident that communication between those users creates a strong, ongoing relationship. Altman’s analogical term “re-ghettoization” is important here, as it reflects the idea that Hollywood can manipulate the science-fiction genre to achieve “partial satisfaction” for a maximum number of user groups (Altman: 1999, p.213), meaning that science-fiction films such as Star Trek can serve communities outside of the hardcore community.
What must be discerned from the conflicting nature of users is to what effect it has upon the science-fiction genre. Reintroducing the theoretical differences between hardcore science-fiction users (in this case the Trekkies) and the general community of Hollywood science-fiction users will aid this pragmatic aim. In efforts to target multiple different users, Hollywood undertook the original franchise into a “remapping process” (Altman: 1999, p.212), linking back to the jump from the space opera sub-genre to a broader science-fiction film. This remapping has had a peculiar effect on how users label Star Trek Into Darkness generically; several non-academic (yet popular) sources label the film in multiple ways, logically due to the variety of uses and users surrounding it. Box Office Mojo labels the film as a “Sci-fi Adventure” (Box Office Mojo, n.d.), where conversely IMDb describes it as an “Action Adventure Sci-Fi” (IMDb, n.d.), and Rotten Tomatoes deems it to be “Science Fiction & Fantasy”. This supports Altman’s pragmatic theory, as it suggests that due to varying user groups, institutions have to label the genre of a film in varying ways to address multiple communities at once who vary in their perceptions of science-fiction.
The effect of this divergent genre labelling is apparent in several instances throughout the film. For example, the inclusion of comedic actor Simon Pegg, combined with occasional lines of dialogue that humorously make light of Spock’s logical and emotionless character traits, make for elements of comedy in the science-fiction film. Furthermore, it is easy to understand why IMDb labels the film with three genres, including action primarily, as the film contains many an action sequence. At approximately fifty-two minutes into the film, Uhura attempts to converse with a Klingon in a scene that appears almost to harken back to the democratic nature of the original series. The dialogue, however, is interrupted by an action sequence. A wide shot establishes where the weapon fire is coming from; a character stands on the right third of the frame, silhouetted due to a strong, yellow back light that shrouds the character in mystery. Stunts, CGI and sound effects are combined with a variety of camera movement, such as pans, tracking and handheld shots that follow individual actions and enhance the excitement of the sequence by moving as unpredictably as the characters on-screen (Katz: 1991, p.279-305). These are but two of many examples within the science-fiction genre where an institution or studio considers the multiplicity of users by adding elements of other genres, therefore reinforcing the idea that perceptions of science-fiction can vary, which also varies labelling process.
Pragmatics, then, can arguably be applied to the science-fiction genre. It is clear that, as a genre, it is not just a category, it is a “multivalent term” that is “valorized by diverse users groups” (Altman: 1999, p.214), such as the Trekkie community. Evident is the fact that, in Star Trek’s worldwide success, science-fiction is and can be a successful genre, due largely to “user agreement” about the genre, of which Altman implies genres are a product of, rather than the user, the Trekkie, being a product of science-fiction (Altman: 1999, p.214-215). Discussed in this essay also is the relationships among users, a “situation of user competition”, in that audiences are active enough to “carry out their own programmes” in respect to science-fiction (Altman: 1999, p.215).
The study of Star Trek has mirrored Altman’s pragmatic approach to genre fittingly, as it has addressed the case that science-fiction can carry with it diverse user groups of whom carry diverse readings. An attempt has been made to speculate the kind of relationship that science-fiction users and communities share and, finally, to acknowledge what effects this has on the generic label.
In the words of Rick Altman, “every word, every meaningful gesture, every film image makes meaning only through a process of multiple commutation engendered by the multiple usefulness of the sign in question” (Altman: 1999, p.215). Star Trek Into Darkness is a sign of science-fiction, and through pragmatic analysis it becomes that sign in it’s ability to make divergent meanings that are beneficial to the variety of users of science-fiction for a variety of reasons.
The Film Fanatic
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Brown, B. (2012). Cinematography: Theory and Practice. 2nd ed. New York and London: Focal Press.
Hall, S. (1993). Encoding, Decoding. In: During, S. The Cultural Studies Reader. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge. p.507-517.
Katz, S. (1991). Shot By Shot. Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions. p.279-305
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