Apocalypse Always: The Imagination of Terrorism in JJ Abrams' Star Trek(s)

Curator's Note

The Imagination of Disaster was developed by Susan Sontag to explain the popularity of 1950s science fiction movies. Sontag asserts the popularity of these films rested on post-atomic fears of US culture being taken over (by the “Communist Other”) or annihilated altogether.

Today, in a post Cold War, post 9-11 world, the Imagination of Disaster has (d)evolved into The Imagination of Terrorism. The fear of the destruction of U.S. culture still exists, but is now being chiseled away with every terrorist act. People look over their shoulder, fearing that they will be the next victims of terrorism. Rather than instant annihilation, the Imagination of Terrorism encompasses one of gradual destruction.

Popular science fiction film today often reflects the Imagination of Terrorism, and J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek (2009) franchise is an example. In Gene Roddenberry’s original work, continuing after his death, “acts of terror” can always be overcome and flawed societies set right. Terrorism is an isolated incident, and “terrorists” are reformed or eliminated, their acts erased—Kahn is killed, the probe is answered, wars resolved. Only the Borg stand as a recurring enemy, and they too are handled without much lasting damage. Picard, after all, escapes. 

However, in Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) the threat of terrorism and its effects is ever-present. Nero, the terrorist of Star Trek, is defeated, but not before he kills Kirk’s father, Spock’s mother, and destroys an entire planet. Terrorism alters all of history, and the goals and technology in the new universe reflect this threat.  

Into Darkness is an even more explicit Imagination of Terrorism. The film plays out as a series of terrorist attacks reminiscent of those commented by Al-Qaeda. An archive/secret base is blown up. A Starfleet base is attacked. Most importantly, multiple buildings are destroyed 9-11 style, Kirk gives an epidictic presidential-esque speech, and a dedication to the victims and first responders of 9-11 appears at the end. Unprovoked explosions and a constant fear of being the next victim is always present in Abrams’ Trek, just as it is in other films released concurrently (e.g. Man of Steel). Kahn, after all, was killed in the original film; in Into Darkness, he lives to terrorize again. Into Darkness represents not just the apocalyptic present, but also the apocalyptic process.


Thanks so much for kicking off the week with this very interesting update to the Imagination of Disaster. I think your last point is really key to the recent trend in apocalyptic media. The focus on the apocalyptic process perhaps normalizes both a culture of paranoia and the increasing banality of destruction, leading to a kind of apocalypse burn-out. The process of the apocalypse draws out the end of the world until it appears the normal ebb and flow of terrorism and modern warfare. In other words, the apocalypse is always already happening, and media focusing on the fully realized end of the world (like This Is The End and World's End) can be comedic and cathartic whereas apocalyptic-process films (like Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness) draw out the dread and are seen as speaking more directly to our current cultural moment.

I've only seen the 2009 reboot movie, but didn't initially connect it with terrorism vs cold war. It's a very interesting connection. As Charlotte mentions, there are many other current movies following this trend. I wonder if it crosses media forms into books and comic books. Or perhaps what I want to ask is: is there a generational gap of cold war writers vs post-cold war writers? I'm thinking particularly of McCarthy's The Road, which very much goes with the older Cold War style post-apocalypse setting. (To the point, I'd say, where the apocalypse itself seems to have happened during the actual historical Cold War, and not in our own times.) I wonder, as well, if this is a peculiarly American trend. Do you think apocalyptic media from other cultures show the same fears, or different ones? On another note entirely, I'm glad to see that Charlotte beat me to "always already." That's where my mind went, as well, and I think it goes a long way to explaining why apocalypses shift with the times. Edit: I initially intended to talk about anti-apocalyptic/dystopian literature, which is why my subject doesn't make sense. Is anybody familiar with Neal Stephenson's Project Hieroglyph? (http://hieroglyph.asu.edu/)

I think what resonated with me most were reactions to the movie that brought up the Roddenberry question. In particular, the off-the-cuff interview with LeVar Burton, who really seems to indicate, as many Trek fans believe, that there is a particular Roddenberry vision.... one lost in some of the post-Roddenberry movie but particularly the Abrams reboots. I have to wonder if this is more about Roddenberry himself being a product, albeit a progressive and utopian, of his particular time.

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