Despite the lofty sound of the "final frontier" - those cosmic places the Starship Enterprise boldly goes where no man has gone before - the real destination of "Star Trek" has always been a lot closer to home.
For all the strange life forms it encountered, it was more interested in what makes human beings human, from Gene Roddenberry's crude TV conception in the 1960s, right up to J. J. Abrams' flashy, effects-laden "Star Trek Into Darkness" that knocked "Iron Man" out of the top spot at the box office this week.
While its spaceships and techno gizmos were endlessly complicated, they were actually just camouflage for probing problems more human-type beings have communicating with each other. Capt. Kirk and crew members Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekhov were a mini-United Nations, with Bones along as the voice of medicine, and Spock as the voice of reason. (Spock had to rely on his Vulcan ancestry for his rationality, despite sharing his name with the pediatrician who shaped the baby boom.)
For all the cheesy costumes and wardrobes - it was hard to take the Enterprise crew too seriously when their uniforms looked more like pajamas - the show was always about bigger issues. The Klingons were stand-ins for our Soviet rivals in those dangerous Cold War times. The inhabitants of distant planets were like members of distant, exotic cultures on our own, before the world got wired. And the various accents of the crew symbolized the series' hopes for some sort of universal language to answer the hard questions. The Enterprise's real destination was someplace undiscovered inside ourselves, with Kirk's hot-headed emotions and Spock's dispassionate logic always locking horns, but demonstrating that it takes both to make us human.
All of which may be why the new "Star Trek" movie is so much fun. It captures all that, yet makes it contemporary. True, the planetary politics are as hard to follow as ever for us non-Trekkies in the audience. The special effects are loud and gratuitous, right down to the latest action-movie cliche: wantonly trashing the skyline of a recognizable American city. And all the running around the corridors and catwalks of the Enterprise still leaves a lot of us feeling lost in a maze.
But the next generation cast - led by Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Karl Urban as Bones, Simon Pegg as Scotty and John Cho as Sulu - embrace their roles as though they're creating them for the first time, rather than walking in iconic footprints. Even the presence of Leonard Nimoy in a cameo doesn't intimidate them from adding their own humorous touches as they remake the familiar caricatures in their own images.
Abrams is now the go-to guy for fantasies, enigmas and other new forms of imagination. The film's most indelible impression is its opening encounter between a primitive culture and a technologically advanced one that feels like it could be out of National Geographic.
Less memorable is its well-worn plot recycling the wrath of Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), a traitorous super being intent on destroying the social order for not very clear reasons. His technologically fueled nihilism feels less entertaining than cynically exploitative, especially in the weeks following the Boston terrorist explosions.
We're barely into the summer, so we can expect plenty more acts of saving the world from Armageddon on a weekly basis. The Apocalypse has become a boring cliche - who knew?
It's also ironic that sci-fi, once a ticket to futuristic possibilities, is now reaching back to the past, searching for sources of comfort.
It's no wonder, considering that dangerous technology capable of stripping us of our privacy and freedom as it controls our minds and impulses isn't in the hands of a tyrannical menace
. . . but at our own fingertips, the product of choices we so willingly make ourselves.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org