(T)Raumschiff Surprise (2004)

What’s Surprising about This Dream Ship?

The success of the film spin-offs of Bavarian comedian Michael Herbig’s Bullyparade (ProSieben, 1997-2002), Germany’s televisual equivalent to the U.K.’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-1974) and the U.S.A.’s Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1975-present), is of considerable importance to a new, World Cinema-focused media studies, as these very popular films call into question the basic assumptions of English-language criticism of German cinema, particularly the unwarranted centering of German Expressionism and New German Cinema as the alphas and omegas of that national tradition.

The highest grossing German film ever, Der Schuh des Manitu (Germany, Michael Herbig, 2001), a coarse, and very funny, film, has none of the trappings of international art cinema modernism. The work does exhibit cultural consistency, however, via a parody of the German (“sauerkraut”) Westerns of novelist Karl May, one of the most popular novelists of any genre in German publishing history. However, Herbig’s second big screen spin-off, (T)Raumschiff Surprise-Periode Einze (Germany, Michael Herbig, 2004), a feature-length adaptation of Bullyparade’s most popular skit, a queer parody of Star Trek (NBC, 1966-1969), poses a cross-cultural problem: To what extent does a parodic adaptation of an American television show represent German culture?

Like Da Ali G Show (Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, 2000; HBO in the U.S.A., 2003-2004) by trickster Sasha Baron-Cohen, Bullyparade is built around a series of recurring character-based skits—Ali G, Bruno and Borat in the case of the former and gay cowboys and Indians and the Star Trek crew in the latter. The Star Trek skits developed from simple queer parody on a blank stage as Herbig and his compatriots delivered one-minute punchline-based skits. In one, Spuck and Schrotty hike laboriously with walking sticks while Kork navigates with a map. Kork has gotten them lost. When Spuck fails to use the stars to successfully navigate, they suggest they get away via a black hole, to ribald audience laughter as the scene cuts to a new, non-Star Trek skit.

In another early skit, the bridge crew prepares for the “Intergalactic Theatre Festival,” in which the Enterprise crew will present Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Spuck complains that Kork always gets to play Snow White. Kork explains that being the captain has its privileges. Spuck refuses to be the mirror, since he always has to be the mirror. Kork asks Schrotty, the new mirror, “Who is the prettiest princess of them all?” “Mr. Spuck in leiderhosen,” interjects the first officer. After more hijinks, Spuck performs the evil queen. Schrotty warns the captain about eating poison apples, but Spuck interjects for them not to give away the ending, to more rancorous audience applause as the skit ends.

As the show developed over its five year run, the Star Trek skits became more elaborate, with full sets designating the Enterprise bridge in which the original show’s sound effects were also mimicked. The first skit that caught my attention while living in Berlin was one in which Kork and Spuck berate Mr. Sulu for his poor German skills. Mr. Sulu enters, a horrendous stereotype with buckteeth and outrageous samurai gestures. Neither Kork nor Spuck can understand what the Asian man is saying. Spuck demands that Sulu take a crash course in German. Kork intervenes, teaching Sulu German, but when Sulu converts Spuck’s lesson about fish into sushi, the audience howls.

As the second set of skits converted to a feature film, Traumschiff Surprise seems like a warmed over TV dinner, a lame conflation of the Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and Star Trek universes. The emperor, Darth Vader, and their minions seem directly lifted out of Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs (1987) and the sexualized space ships from Battle Beyond the Stars (Roger Corman, John Sayles, and Jimmy T. Murakami, 1980). However, there are some moments in the film which hit the comedic target quite effectively: in the Jedi Council chambers, Konigin Metapha, the Princess Leia character searches for the missing Enterprise on a giant screen floating in the middle of the room, controlling the images by waving her hands around in an increasingly funny set of spasms. The moment engages the ridiculous ways in which current high-tech television shows like CSI and Hawaii Five O (the violent post-9/11 one, not with Jack Lord) improbably find crucial clues in searching the Internet by waving their hands around a giant TV screen.

Traumschiff thus critiques the nature of science fiction via the generic principles of comedy. The first sequence of the film follows an African-American general into Area 51, only to reveal Mr. Spuck in the middle of the American Southwest in 2004, having time traveled backward hundreds of years. The rest of the film seeks to explain how this bizarre event happened. For me as an American viewer, what’s interesting is that American generals are speaking German, the equivalent to Germans speaking with outrageous British accents in Hollywood World War II movies from the 1940s. This of course resonates with the Star Trek franchises’ obsessive return to Germany, most famously in the original series’ episode, “Patterns of Force” (NBC, 2/16/1968) in which an idealistic historian improbably thinks it would be a good idea to try to build a solar system around the principles of Adolf Hitler. More intriguingly, an entire season cliffhanger of Enterprise was devoted to the Nazis, aided by aliens, taking over the United States. Season four’s premiere episode, “Stormfront” (UPN, 10/8/2004) begins with Nazis in the White House plotting their conquest of the rebellious Western United States, speaking English with an outrageous German accent. In short, it is possible to see Traumschiff as continuing a serious project of science fiction, about language and cultural difference, not merely as offering queer parody of the genre itself.

Traumschiff’s major contribution is to mainstream the notion of a queer Star Trek. As critics since Henry Jenkins and Constance Penley have been telling us for decades, Star Trek fan fiction is devoted to queering the original Utopian premises of Gene Roddenberry’s universe, much to copyright holder Paramount’s chagrin. Traumschiff certainly continues that playful sexual disintegration of Kirk’s traditional predatory masculinity. While not quite as graphic as some of the Kirk/Spock slash fiction celebrated in media studies, Traumschiff seems very interested in a queer politics. For example, early in the film, Rock Fertig Aus, the Han Solo character is stunned at Metapha/Leia’s beauty, engaging in a reverie in which he imagines her soaking wet, washing his pod racer. The sex fantasy is brought to a screeching halt as the film burns and Mr. Spuck is revealed to be hitting on Han by offering him a box of praline chocolates. No Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), in which a woman’s face famously makes the film burn, this, certainly, but nonetheless the scene offers an interruption of normative heterosexual male desire with Spuck’s queering reminder of his existence.

If the Rock/Han scene invokes Persona, then a later moment in Traumschiff refers intertextually to Andy Warhol’s Blow Job (1964), a half-hour one-take experimental film in which some sexual naughtiness seems to be occurring below the frame, but which the film stubbornly refuses to reframe. While time traveling to stop Regulator Rogul, the evil emperor, Kork and Spuck are imprisoned in a medieval jail in separate cells, around the corner from each other. As if in Plato’s Cave, Kork can only see the shadows of his compatriots. In an extended scene akin to the puppet sex in Team America: World Police (Trey Parker and Matt Stone, 2004), Kork misunderstands what he is seeing, believing that Spuck and Han Solo’s manipulation of a toy pig is an act of fellatio. With its placement and extended comedy of misunderstanding, the scene is the comedic centerpiece of the entire film.

Intriguingly, the scene replicates a number of moments from Star Trek, in which our heroes are imprisoned and separated from one another. The threat to Kirk and Spock’s relationship is repeatedly indicated by their separation in individual jail cells. For example, in “The Omega Glory” [NBC, 3/1/1968] (the one about the communists and the Yankees), Kirk is put in a cell with a male and a female savage, while Spock is in another cell just around the corner. Mr. Spock tries to help Kirk by talking with him, but to no avail: the savages beat up Kirk. Late in the proceedings, Mr. Spock is able to perform the Vulcan neck pinch on the woman. Kirk convinces the man to help him pry open the cells’ bars. However, the savage betrays Kirk, knocking him unconscious, much to the consternation of a helpless Spock. Kirk/Spock slash fiction could not have been possible without the barely repressed sexual tension between the two heroes of the show. Bullyparade merely makes this tension visible by intertextually reworking such scenes from the original series into overly literal encounters, as if out of Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men.

The cross-cultural nature of the Bullyparade adaptation of Star Trek opens up new avenues for thinking about ideology and science fiction. Whereas in the English-language world, Kirk and Spock “slash fiction” exists as a countercultural queer practice, policed to the margins by Paramount’s corporate muscle; in Germany, the central expression of the Star Trek universe as a gay utopia is to be found in its most successful and visible comedy enterprise. While the “dream ship” is not without its nightmarish components (Mr. Sulu is a buck-toothed Japanese man, straight out of racist anti-Japanese 1940s US propaganda films), the reveries of transnational parody open up startling new dimensions for science fiction. Whereas Gene Roddenberry’s vision of James T. Kirk is a Utopian captain who loves his crew and the sanctity of all life, the show’s 1960s ideological lacunae leave him as a parody-ready roué who wanders the galaxy conquering green women. In the hands of Herbig and his merry satirists, Kirk is reduced to that sexual dimension: whenever the Bavarian-accented actors speak his name, Captain Kork, it sounds like they are saying “cock,” as grotesque a male realism as any in a Preston Sturges’ comedy. Trudy’s dad in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Paramount, 1944) is named Officer Kockenlocker. Herbig’s show proposes that someone should find a cell for Kork/Kirk’s member ASAP.

– Walter Metz