I will absolutely never say that nostalgia is a bad thing. It’s a major part of why we continue to love things as we get older, even as our tastes evolve. It’s what leads us to revisit works we enjoyed as children and, if we’re lucky, get something new out of them. To an extent, it’s why a lot of us love superhero comics. It’s why those characters survive.
The problem arises when the nostalgia filter makes us blind to the flaws of a work in the past and closed off to any changes. It’s common in sci fi, and it’s common in comics. I’ve noticed that when start talking about when a piece of media was at its best, they’re often not talking about the original themes of a work. What they’re usually talking about is the way they remember it – often inaccurately – before someone decided to take a different approach or introduce new characters and concepts. They don’t want characters to develop because they prefer archetypes rather than actual characters with arcs.
These forms of media have become an echo chamber, filled with writers addressing people like themselves. It’s a vicious, endless cycle. A vocal minority of white male fans jealously guard something they consider theirs by right. They’re the root of a lot of backlash against anything that dares to be different. This includes – but is by no means limited to – new characters, new interpretations of old ones, and challenges to the status quo. It further propagates the idea that comics are for white men and alienates other people that would enjoy it and that could contribute to bettering the genre.
The Original Series is seemingly paradoxical. It’s mired in the 60s at the same time as it was ahead of its time. It defined modern science fiction and influenced countless other pieces of media at the same time as its fans were considered the geekiest of geeks. It was Fair For Its Day and still is adored for it, while also standing as an example of something out of date that should be adapted to better suit our more evolved society, and appreciating the show requires the modern viewer to remember the historical context of when it was made.
Yes, at times, Uhura was basically a glorified secretary and she didn’t get an official first name until long after the series first aired. Yes, all the women were wearing short skirts with most of them seeming only to be around to look pretty. Yes, Chekov was a bit of a caricature. But Uhura was – still is – an icon. She was a Lieutenant that repeatedly demonstrated her ability to man other posts besides her own. She was involved in what wasn’t the first interracial kiss on television, but certainly the most remembered. She inspired Mae Jemison, Whoopi Goldberg! The actresses wanted the miniskirts. They liked showing off their legs, and besides, the miniskirt was a trademark of that second wave feminism. According to George Takei, every Asian actor of the time was clamouring to play Sulu because he wasn’t a stereotype. There was no call for a heavy accent. He was a pilot, a botanist, a fencer – he was at heart, a Renaissance Man. Chekov wasn’t any kind of villain, he was there to appeal to teenage girls. The Original Series presented a black woman in a major role during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, a Japanese man twenty years after the US had stuck all Japanese people in internment camps, a Russian character that wasn’t a villain played by the son of Russian Jewish immigrants during the Cold War. It was imperfect – especially the treatment of women – but that doesn’t change the fact it was revolutionary.
I didn’t mind Star Trek (2009). I thought it was a decent movie. But, like others have pointed out, it felt like the work of someone that would have much preferred to be making a Star Wars movie – which, five years later, he’d be doing. I got the feeling that the people involved had a general understanding of the source material, a vague knowledge of what a Star Trek movie should be…but that knowledge is so coloured by the way Star Trek is perceived in popular culture, it didn’t feel authentic.
The macho womanizer Kirk was depicted as in the 2009 film, that he’s remembered as, really doesn’t have much basis in canon. In TOS, he was the balance between Spock’s logic and McCoy’s emotion. He wasn’t nearly as rash as some would have you believe. And the claims that he was a womanizer takes away a lot of the agency these women have. He was a charmer, and he flirted with a lot of women, but there really isn’t much canonical evidence for him having the degree of chauvinism required for him to be an actual womanizer. Kirk was attracted to smart, driven women that he usually developed genuine feelings for. I seem to recall an episode where a character mentioned that they tried to distract him from a class he taught by orchestrating a meeting between him and some technician that he wound up nearly marrying. He respected the women on his crew and fell in love easily. The idea that he just slept his way through the galaxy because every woman fell for him came more from people that wanted to live vicariously through him than the actual character.
In some ways, the 2009 movie is a step up from the misogyny of TOS. But it wasn’t done thoughtfully. Uhura got to do more than just answer the phones, which was great. Both Kirk and Spock were far more demonstrative of toxic masculinity in the 2009 movie than in TOS. Reboot Kirk was prone to violent confrontations and with much less respect for women. He got into a bar fight, ignoring Uhura when she told him to stop. He hid under Gaila’s bed while Uhura undressed. There was more focus on Spock’s anger at the claim he’d never lost his mother than on his grief for her passing. It felt as if J.J. Abrams had known enough to keep the Star Trek trappings…but not the soul.
To me, it felt like kind of a homogenization of Star Trek and Star Wars. Those stories are so different, trying to blend them together results in something utterly generic that doesn’t have what makes either of them good. Star Trek (2009) was missing something special. It was missing some of the heart. It lacked the social messages, the pacifist ideals, the recurring idea that we can build a better tomorrow. And in terms of the diversity themes…Society has caught up with Star Trek as it was when it first aired. As such, the alternate origin movies just aren’t the same kind of progressive. Sure, Uhura and Sulu are still there, and Uhura has a more important role than she did in The Original Series, but that’s no longer revolutionary. Chekov was still there – though Abrams saying they won’t recast after Anton Yelchin’s tragic death means he won’t be there in future movies – but without the real world backdrop of the Cold War, the fact that he’s Russian no longer means as much. Star Trek: Discovery is lacking in some departments – the core of idealism that is absolutely integral to the franchise doesn’t exist to nearly the same degree – but is doing more to further the diversity at the heart of Star Trek than the movies have.
The Original Series was, in part, about the wonder of the world. It painted an image of a future worth dreaming about, worth fighting for, worth building. I don’t see much of the point in making a Star Trek movie if you’re not a fan of that message. You can study it, delve deeper into it, deconstruct it…but if that kind of thing bores you, you should be making something else. Nostalgia matters a great deal when it comes to Star Trek. Star Trek Beyond managed to strike what I thought was a good balance between nostalgic respect for what Star Trek: The Original Series represented and making critical changes that updates the concepts to become better suited for today. It did a good job of translating the spirit of Star Trek. It stands as a pretty clear example of how future instalments in the franchise can honour that long legacy. To be true to what Star Trek has always represented, the Star Trek movies, books, and shows of today must keep pushing. They need to become more inclusive. They need to normalize diversity and push for a better tomorrow at the same time as they respect the core ideals of TOS. There’s no place for either creators who don’t respect the franchise history nor those that are determined to keep things precisely as they were in the 60s.
We really, really need more diversity in comics. Like I said at the beginning, comics fans aren’t just white men, but that’s who comics are perceived to be for, because that’s who most of the writers are and to whom they’re talking. One of the consequences of that is how it results in a lot of characters that don’t appeal to that demographic being underused and poorly treated.
You can often get a pretty good idea of who a writer’s favourite characters are if you think about how old they are and what characters were popular around the time they were about ten. Nostalgia makes it a pretty safe bet that those characters will be treated well in the writer’s issues. A good character stands on their own without needing propping up. Fanboy writers, though, feel the need to completely disregard characters that aren’t their favourite in favour of trying to make their favourite look better. This can include writing characters they dislike badly in an attempt to make readers hate them, characters getting derailed to make the writer’s favourite look better, and more. The most obvious example of this I can think of is the eternal white boy favourite: Wolverine.
There’s something so…white dude about the fact that so many writers are determined to make Wolverine look better. Which is weird. Not all white dude characters lead to the same feeling of, oh, dear god, this is too much white male for one issue. Like, take, I don’t know, Colossus. He is white and he is a dude, but he doesn’t come across as nearly as much of a white dude as Wolverine does. That’s largely because Colossus is a genuinely good guy, not a designated hero who can only be viewed as a good guy because of major Protagonist Centred Morality. But Wolverine? Oh, boy.
When he’s written well – preferably in a more minor role – Wolverine is fine. He was fine back when he was first introduced and used as more of a Lancer, or just the guy whose impulsive running off and insistence upon doing things his way landed him in trouble that had to learn how to follow orders. The problem arose when people that read about him and thought he was cool when they were kids grew up and became writers themselves. Unfortunately, that’s most of today’s writers.
Because Logan is considered “cool”, he gets to be a huge hypocrite. He does any number of terrible things without facing consequences for them. He’s a self righteous jerk. And he’s straight up over exposed. Wolverine fans complain every time he demonstrates interesting flaws. So none of his myriad of character defects ever gets portrayed as a bad thing. He ends up winning every fight, even against opponents that should, by all logic, defeat him. He gets to lead teams and head the school despite his character being utterly unsuited for the job. He promptly forgets every lesson he’s ever learned. He very rarely has any lasting development. It’s incredibly irritating.
Beyond my issues with fanboys writing Wolverine, a lot of writers seem to be kind of missing the point of the X-Men – that or not really understanding the mutant metaphor, because again, most of them are white men. The introduction of the timeshifted original X-Men seems kind of like the result of writers longing for the version of Scott before all his years of character development, because that’s the version of the character they first got to know. That feels wrong to me on a visceral level. Scott becoming angrier and more driven to fight for a place for mutants is immensely relatable. He’s been told for years that what he has to do is play respectability politics and show repeatedly that he means humans no harm, only to learn from hard experience that that doesn’t work.
Nostalgia is all well and good. Longing for that more innocent version of the character is understandable. But to suggest that it would be better for Scott to go back to that version of himself is an affront to all those people that see themselves in the X-Men and in Scott’s growing cynicism and persistent idealism.
Infinite Crisis is pretty much my favourite crisis story. And mostly, that’s for shallow reasons – Dick Grayson is pretty much my all time favourite comic book character; his relationship with Bruce is amazing; and the “what about Dick Grayson?” scene where Bruce is on the verge of giving up but believes that any universe with his son in it is worth fighting for and where thinking about how good a man Dick is makes Earth-1 Superman question what he’s doing is one of my favourite scenes ever. But it’s also for a deeper reason, and that’s that it’s critical of looking at things through the nostalgia filter. It’s critical of the idea that the Golden Age was fundamentally better. Which is why I find it all the stranger that it was written by Geoff Johns. Johns weirds me out, because he stands both as an example of the positive and negative aspects of nostalgia. That results in some of his stuff really working, and others…not.
The Good: respect for the past and existing characters, like the importance of Dick Grayson and Barry Allen, without denigrating them to make newer creations look better; creating some great characters, like Kate Kane and Jessica Cruz.
The Bad: his sense of nostalgia and love for old characters resulted in him doing dumb things, like erasing legacy characters for the sake of bringing back his old favourites and, well…Justice League. I think that movie shows off the flaws in his approach pretty well.
Geoff Johns is, in a sense, the opposite of Grant Morrison. As I said in this post, Morrison is completely unafraid of making big changes, regardless of how far from convention they be. His Batman and Robin took place without Bruce, the character that even people like me, who loved Dick as Batman, recognize as The BatmanTM. He introduces new characters and concepts, blows up the status quo. He makes his own world without ever looking back. And while that sometimes works, it sometimes really doesn’t. Everyone draws the line somewhere different, and for me, Morrison crosses it – he doesn’t have as much respect for the work of others even as he operates under the idea that everything that’s ever happened is in continuity. Johns, on the other hand, goes back to what’s familiar, when concerning characters he didn’t create. To what’s safe. Is that necessarily a bad thing? No, of course not. There’s a reason there’s so much love for his Green Lantern, his Aquaman. He likes the classics and is very much a fan. But his love for the classics involves doing things like kicking Wally West out of continuity to bring back Barry Allen, who at that point hadn’t been the Flash for over two decades.
This is similar to what happened with Cassandra Cain, Bruce Wayne’s only daughter and the second Batgirl. The New 52 erased her, a move comics still haven’t fully reversed. While Cass exists again, and while she’s loosely affiliated with the the Bats, she’s not a member of the family in the same sense as she used to be. She’s not being used as one of Bruce’s children, which was made painstakingly obvious by the fact she – like Tim, actually – didn’t get an issue of her facing off against a member of the Batman Rogues Gallery during Prelude to the Wedding. Her identity just rubs salt in the wound, because it wasn’t enough to strip her of her Black Bat mantle, wasn’t enough to make her the only member of the family without a bird or bat motif in either her code name or costume. No, they had to rename her Orphan. That’s adding insult to injury – before the New 52, she was happily adopted with a family that loved her.
While I can’t be certain as to why Cass and Steph were temporarily removed from continuity, the only reason I can think of is that it was about making it easier to return Barbara to the Batgirl mantle. In that one fell swoop, the writers took away the only Asian member of the Batfamily and one of the most popular disabled characters in all of comics. Which…thanks, I hate it. Barbara has outgrown Batgirl, but the writers are so nostalgic and change-averse, they don’t want to believe it. They don’t care about the close to thirty years she’s spent as Oracle and all the character development since her paralysis. They just immediately associate Batgirl with Barbara and because of that, are willing to toss aside years of content to go back to that without regard for what it’ll say to the readers. It’s unthinking nostalgia that does nothing to better the genre.
Works are best when they both respect the past and look to the future. Writers in shared mediums need to hold on to some level of nostalgia and respect the worlds built by others, but they can’t let it hold them back from trying new things and pushing boundaries. I want all writers in these mediums are fans – I just hope they aren’t fanboys about it, unable to let go of what they love for long enough to make changes.