So I just got back from watching the new Star Trek movie, Star Trek Into Darkness. As someone who never really watches movies unless they have the name “Star Trek” or “Harry Potter” in the title, going to a movie is usually an experience for me that prompts reflection (often annoyingly during the film) as to whether or not I am actually enjoying myself and why I am enjoying myself– it’s something I cannot help… I’m a scientist. As for the the above question however, I can answer “yes” with certainty to the first half– I definitely enjoyed myself even though I only subtly show it. For the reason why, the reasoning is a lot more complex with reasons that might significantly diverge from why others enjoyed the film.
Unlike most others in my age group, I am a long-time Star Trek fan, having watched all of the series (including the animated one) to the conclusion of Deep Space Nine where I hope to continue on to Voyager. I got into the franchise after reading about Captain Kirk’s final adventure, having picked up the book almost randomly at my high school’s library. I can recall the very position I sat in at my old house on Autumn Springs Drive while I read the final moments of the captain, the starship Enterprise, and her crew. Being a young scientist with an eye for adventure, from that moment on, Star Trek represented to me not just any science fiction story with space crafts and lasers– it represented to me a lifetime of curiosity, wonder, and dealing with the unknown alongside your friends, ultimately cultivating unbreakable bonds between one another.
Star Trek engenders this mood by placing a species-wide importance on the pursuit of knowledge, for on a planet where war, poverty, and currency no longer exist, there is nothing else left to promote the betterment of mankind. Indeed, this is the underlying goal of Star Trek no matter what direction any one movie or episode may choose to go in– whether humans work towards it through their relations with other life forms or by simply observing unknown phenomena, Star Trek most certainly catalogs the trek of humanity.
That being said, there have been contrasting opinions regarding the reboot of this series since May 8th, 2009. It is undeniable that the franchise has become more action-oriented to fit newer perceptions for what science fiction “should” be and this has many old-school fans upset. I can certainly see their viewpoint that Star Trek is less about action and more about tactics/implications, but I disagree that the essence of the series has been lost. I myself am not the type who gets filled with adrenaline during action scenes to the point that I may even get bored when a film shows senseless destruction with little reasoning other than “it looks cool.” Nevertheless, I still enjoy the majority of the new Star Trek action because it largely follows with human implications which, as mentioned above, is often a large concept in Star Trek itself.
Star Trek Into Darkness did a wonderful job at illustrating this notion. Yes, I enjoyed the movie but I felt that it went by very quickly and may as well have been a feature-length Star Trek episode at times, but it also had its merits. Yes, the slow and talky “cat and mouse game” that would often be seen in the older movies (and holds a special place in my heart) was diminished in favor of action, but every action set itself up to magnify the significance of what was happening. The most glaring consequence of what was transpiring onscreen was the undeniable corruption within Starfleet as a result of Admiral Marcus’ actions and everyone who helped him.
One evening when hanging around the honors lounge of my college, I got into a conversation about Star Trek with a political science major that I had seen lounging around from time to time. Do not get me wrong– a nice guy and definitely hard working, but like most political science majors that I met, he had the tendency to get his head stuck in fantasy land. During our discussion, I was talking about how I was enjoying Deep Space Nine despite it not falling into one of the two “iconic” Star Trek series. This guy was completely opposed to acknowledging Deep Space Nine as Star Trek because he was concerned about the various “non-Starfleet” things that were going on in the series, namely Section 31 which was essentially a secret Starfleet mandated spy organization to get things done where Federation Law could not reach. In addition, since the series took place on the outskirts of the Alpha Quadrant and far away from Earth, it was also apparent that some human colonies were openly xenophobic and hostile towards certain aliens that threatened to encroach upon their territory despite Federation treaties existing to promote otherwise.
On Earth, there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see paradise. Well, it’s easy to be a saint in paradise…
– Captain Benjamin Sisko
Political science dude was missing the point of Star Trek, as are the people who get upset when lengthy discussions of regulations in favor of doing. The consequences, the surge of emotions, the gut feelings on which the officers act upon define the characters as human. The sheer imperfection of both the heroes and the villains (and in this movie’s case, even Star Fleet) defines them as distinctly human because the lack of perfection, not Hollywood archetypes is what gives people their humanity. When Admiral Marcus takes it upon himself to shatter regulations, single-handedly attempt to start war with the Klingons, and try to annihilate the Enterprise, it reminds us that an institution is only as perfect as the humans that run it.
Less subtle means of exploring this human imperfection have manifested themselves as Spock’s various relationships in the new movies. In the first movie, there was a degree of prominence placed on the vulcan’s apparent affection with Uhura. Four years ago, I was rather annoyed that they took this route, but have now come to realize that this dynamic has been a means to showcase Spock’s difficulty in acclimating to the human tendencies displayed by his fellow crewmen (as showcased by his and Uhura’s dialog in the second movie). In addition, his changing attitudes toward Kirk speak volumes about his inner conflicts. Homage aside, it was quite appropriate to have Kirk and Spock’s roles switched during the radiation scene and even Spock’s KHAAAAAN scream, while sort of goofy, was oddly fitting for his character.
Large-scale movie characters have come to represent everything from heroism to neuroticism within Hollywood, but it is those who display the most normalcy on screen who gain the most respect from me. Even in the most “perfect” circumstances, there will always be a modern-day Caesar or Stalin who thinks he or she can do better. Then even for every super-human born over generations, there will be thousands of normal people who have no desire to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of strangers or otherwise deviate from their status quo. Everybody likes to think that they would take a bullet for their friends or family to protect them or deliver a calm yet moving speech at gunpoint to ultimately subdue the attacker, but outside the realm of Hollywood without frequent exposure to such scenarios, can one honestly say they would do this? Chances are, he or she would be paralyzed by either indecision or fear, hoping for the ordeal to pass as soon as possible so that things can go back to normal. In the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, 14 year old Shinji often frustrates viewers with his indecision and unwillingness to “fight,” but if one was in his position and knew full well that his or her actions potentially kill innocents and bear the weight of humanity’s fate, I would expect that they react similarly.
Inaction. Indecision. Turmoil. These are qualities that when felt make human beings human beings.
Adaptation. Analysis. Action. Our very capacity to overcome the above also outlines our humanity and ultimately our ability to survive. It is for this reason why I respect Captain Kirk so much and see him as my role model (I have even answered as such during interviews). Captain Kirk is not an automaton who follows the Prime Directive as if it were a religious doctrine. Yes, Kirk disregards rules when convenient and can engage in reckless behavior, but he does so by following his feelings and his intense desire to do what is right at any cost. Illogical, but very human.
This is why Star Trek will never stagnate. The entire universe within the series will never become paradise. The people in command will never escape the sway of conflicting interests and opinions. The betterment of mankind will continue indefinitely since mankind by its very entity cannot be rendered flawless. Star Trek tells us that as a species we have multiple lifetimes of voyages ahead of us to learn about the existence around us, for a real plausible future is never perfect.
To boldly go where no man has gone before.