Tuesday, July 07, 2009

To Boldly Go

[Spoilers ahead. I know most who care about Star Trek have seen the movie, but just in case, here is your warning.]


Growing up in the 1970s, Star Wars was supposed to be the cultural icon of my generation of geeks. I did have the Star Wars action figures, and I can quote from the climatic scenes. “Luke, you switched off your targeting computer. Is everything all right?” Still, my heart has always been with Star Trek. I grew up on the reruns, and the show has shaped my outlook and temperament. I identify with the optimism and democracy that the series championed. I would guess that my sense of politics is still greatly influenced by this show born in the light of John F. Kennedy's New Frontier.

Let's just accept the fact that Star Trek is not high art. Plot holes and inconsistencies abound despite the best efforts of the wiki-nerds working by the internet glow deep within the mines of Janus VI. In fact, it is primarily a clunky morality play with phasers and giant Styrofoam rocks. Behind most of the shows and movies, there were messages about hard choices, human fallibility, and realpolitik. Think Reinhold Niebuhr with warp drive.

Even the bad episodes or movies had an intriguing idea behind it. Remember the fifth film, The Final Frontier? It was hailed as one of the worst of the franchise. We got T.J. Hooker-style action sequences and Uhura fan-dancing. More importantly, the crew also searches for God, and the god that they find isn't what they want or expect. Great idea. Poor execution.

Kirk and Spock are the central figures in the show. The interplay between these two characters was the heart of the original series, and a recent blog post by Mark Finn made me think about my own connection. Finn writes, “Captain Kirk, without a doubt, went into the alchemy of what I thought constituted Being A Man.” Interestingly enough, Kirk was not my model of masculinity. Spock was. Friends in high school said I was a Vulcan, and I took it as a badge of honor. For me Spock represented rationality, duty, discipline, and devotion to a higher ideal. Nonetheless, Spock is not complete without Kirk. The two need each other. As Spock wrestled with the duality, I did too.

Although the theme is present in many of the episodes and movies, a few examples might clarify. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Spock refuses to complete the kohlinar, the purging of all emotion leaving only pure logic. In the same movie, V'ger serves as Spock's counterpart. The probe is programmed with a simple mission “to know that all is knowable.” Without the human component of imagination, intuition, etc, V'ger cannot complete its mission. Likewise Spock needs the human Kirk with his irrational passion.

Kirk also needs Spock. In Wrath of Khan, much is made about Kirk cheating the Kobayashi Maru test, the “no-win” scenario. The test is an affront to everything that Kirk believes. Like Odysseus or the biblical Jacob, Kirk is not beneath employing trickery and deception to achieve his goals. He cannot accept his limitations, and thus he is susceptible to hubris. At the end of the movie, Spock lays down his life for the crew of the Enterprise. He tells Kirk, “I never took the Kobayashi Maru test until now. What do you think of my solution?” By allowing the needs of the many to outweigh the needs of the few, Spock redeems the lives of the crew with his own. Kirk faces his own finitude through the death of his friend.


All this is background for my thoughts on the new Star Trek movie by J.J. Abrams. Weeks after the release of the film, a friend greatly encouraged me to go see the film. So I finally took a look. The casting is superb. There are enough nods to the original series that even the most hardened fans will smile. There are plot holes, but no more than usual. Many have complained that J.J. Abrams took major liberties with the canon of the Star Trek universe. He did, but for some reason, it doesn't bother me.

Nonetheless, I still have concerns. If we accept a Freudian analysis, J.J. Abrams' prefers Kirk's id to Spock's super-ego. Several times, Spock learns that his logic is insufficient. Due to circumstances involving his home world, the young Vulcan grows up quickly. By the end of the movie, Spock rejects logical action in favor of pure revenge. In itself, that's not necessarily a terrible thing, but Kirk, on the other hand, gets rewarded again and again for acting like a space-age James Dean. Kirk never pays for his hubris. That bothered me. Perhaps, I am too sympathetic to Spock. Perhaps, Abrams just doesn't understand the irony at the heart of Star Trek. I assume that there will be more films. I just hope that in future movies Kirk finally gets his comeuppance.

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