Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Star Trek’s Optimism Into Darkness

Adam Throne’s review of Into Darkness got me thinking about why the latest Star Trek reboots are leaving me in a sour mood.  Indulge me, please, as I go off topic.  I read some reviews for the latest Superman reboot, Man of Steel, and they inspired some clarity.

First I came across Andrew Gruttadaro’s "Why Are Superman Comic Fans Enraged?"  in which he writes, “One specific part of the new Superman movie’s ending has fans of the comics shocked and enraged, believing that the sanctity of Superman has forever been destroyed.”

What is this event?

Spoiler red alert:

Superman kills General Zod.

Darren Franich’s review in Entertainment Weekly explains why this is upsetting to comic fans: “Superheroes don’t kill people, but Superman definitely doesn’t kill people.  It’s a defining aspect of the character.”

Though many couldn't care less about General Zod getting what he deserved, I think a defining aspect is what gives a character or a storyline its integrity.  And without that integrity, the character and/or storyline are ruined.  For this reason I believe the integrity of Star Trek has been ruined by the 2009 Star Trek and 2013 Into Darkness reboots.  Both movies abandon the defining aspect of Star Trek - that humanity will unite to explore the final frontier of outer space - and replace it with an emphasis on war.  This is a Star Trek rather than a Star War.  The sanctity of this trek is based on an optimism that humanity can overcome its tribalism.  Thus, humanity no longer goes to war with itself. 

When the original series premiered in 1966, Hitler’s Third Reich during WWII, the subsequent Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the backlash to the Vietnam war must have dominated the thinking of creator Gene Roddenberry.  His Star Trek universe arose from the fictional Eugenics Wars of the mid-1990s.  Khan Noonien Singh, an augmented human being due to genetic engineering, leads a race of “supermen” who almost seize complete power over the Earth.  Hitler’s “master race” perhaps? 

Defeated, Khan and his followers escape into space aboard a sleeper ship - the S.S. Botany Bay.  But the legacy of genetic manipulation continued.  So humanity still had to decide if it was going to follow the path of a master race or not.  A 21st century “genetic cold war” maybe?  The issue is settled with World  War III in 2026.  Humanity bans augmentation, but by the war’s end in the 2050s, the Earth is devastated by nuclear holocaust.  Humanity has fought itself into ruin.  Like the backlash to Vietnam, the conditions are ripe for a peace movement.

From this hell-on-Earth, Roddenberry develops the defining optimism of Star Trek.  He dares to predict that Earth will be rebuilt into a paradise, with the world’s diversity united in respect and equality.  Roddenberry introduces the Vulcans, a brutal and violent race that adopts logic to pacify their warlike tendencies.  They are the alien species to make First Contact with humanity.  The Vulcans help Earth rebuild after WWIII’s nuclear holocaust.  We are a reflection of the Vulcans, but instead of logic we adopt a different uniting principle to pacify our brutality.  Humanity comes together in a common cause - the exploration of space. 

Exploration is the theme of this enterprise, aboard the ship named EnterpriseStar Trek is an exploration of what humanity can become if its motivation is to advance knowledge rather than to acquire individual wealth; an exploration of how we create friendships with alien species rather than defeat them with supermen; and of course, an exploration of what wonders humanity will find in space if we boldly seek out new lifeforms and civilizations.  Humanity becomes the model of cooperation and initiates a United Federation of Planets, an organization based on diversity, peace, and exploration.

The human condition, then, evolves into a paradigm of exploration rather than the exploitation model of Earth’s past.  There is no more exploitation of Earth’s landscape and oceans, exploitation of Earth’s other species, even exploitation of humans by other humans.  In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home the storyline involves time travel in order to save whales from going extinct.  Talk about optimistic thinking.  Who could top that?  The answer, of course, comes from Captain Jean-Luc Picard, a man so dedicated to the ideals of this future humanity that he remains short and bald.  No genetic engineering for this guy.  During his time travel to Earth’s past he states a simple description of the future in Star Trek: First Contact:

“The economics of the future are somewhat different.  You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century...The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives.  We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” 

In sum, humanity no longer needs credit cards.  Isn’t that optimism on steroids?  In fact, you could even say that by the timeline of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Klingons are no longer motivated by total war.  They have made peace with the United Federation of Planets.  A greater community has taken root.  Humanity has overcome its tribalism, and other war-like alien species are doing the same. 

Contrast this with the movie reboots in 2009’s Star Trek and 2013’s Into Darkness.  The first is an alternate timeline that involves the genocide of billions when the planet Vulcan is destroyed.  The most important alien species in the Star Trek franchise is wiped out.  Then in the sequel Khan makes his return, except this time he’s a 23rd century terrorist.  Starfleet Admiral Alexander Marcus is then willing to destroy his fellow humans, indeed, destroy an entire Starfleet crew and vessel, just to kill Khan.  This goes beyond cynicism, and completely negates the anti-war messages of Roddenberry.

Exploration is subsumed in this alternate universe, and that is what has thrown Star Trek’s optimism into darkness, because war is the guiding modus operandi of these movies.  In the first one, James T. Kirk’s father, George Kirk, is killed in battle.  The son grows up to be a rebel without a cause, and gets into a tussle with Starfleet cadets.  A future that does away with money is now plagued by good old-fashioned bar fights.  Humans are punching each other in the face once more.  In the sequel, a Starfleet officer is exploited by the terrorist Khan to save his daughter.  Captain Kirk is exploited by a Starfleet admiral to kill said terrorist.  Kirk and the terrorist exploit each other to defeat said admiral.  The movie becomes nothing more than a reflection of our modern world.  There is no evolution of humanity.  It’s humans killing humans.  In fact, the admiral refuses to sacrifice his own daughter to wipe out the terrorist threat, because humanity has returned to its tribalist instincts in this movie.  As long as your own daughter is safe, you can kill other human beings.

And look what becomes of Starfleet.  Roddenberry followed a less-is-more philosophy.  Less military and more scientific research.  But Starfleet undergoes a transformation into a militarized space navy.  Even the captains and admirals are given new military uniforms and military hats that remind me of the 1997 movie Starship Troopers.  Since when do Kirk and Spock wear military hats?  Even Admiral Alexander Marcus admits his intentions to fight a war with the Klingons.  A pre-emptive war.  Is Kronos now Iraq?  Again, this plot is more like our present than the fictional Star Trek future.

Even one of Roddenberry’s greatest optimisms - the exploration of friendship between humanity and alien species - gets twisted with war themes.  Though I think Zachary Quinto is an excellent First Officer Spock, I wish he wasn’t portrayed as a gladiator who goes after Khan to have a grudge match.  This is as out of place as Superman having a death match with General Zod.  Instead of Spock’s famous nerve pinch working on Khan - the Vulcan way of avoiding violence - the fight must go on.  So even a Vulcan is now fighting a human, but that’s okay because Khan is an augmented terrorist. 

The friendship between Kirk and Spock is a metaphor for the friendship between humanity and the Vulcans, but in the reboots that portrayal is empty.  We’re never given the character development to see how their bond has grown.  Instead, I cringed when Spock shouted “Khaaaaannn” after Kirk’s death.  This scene was lifted right from 1982’s The Wrath of Khan when Kirk shouts “Khaaaaannn.”  I think I can speak for those of us who are big fans of the original Star Trek II storyline - having Spock repeat Kirk’s emotional outburst just sounded ridiculous. 

For these reasons, when Into Darkness ends with the Enterprise about the begin its five-year mission, I’m not excited.  Not one bit.  There’s no grand sense of exploration.  Just a sinking feeling that humanity has not evolved.  Nor, for that matter, has Spock, who now lets emotion unleash his inner-gladiator.  The entire movie focused on humanity fighting itself, while the previous movie focused on genocide.  All I’m left with is a reflection of the polarizations and terrorism that humanity is currently afflicted with.  The reboots do not dare to think what humanity can become; they only take us back to what we currently are.  I feel the need to remind those who are big fans of these reboots that when Kirk and Spock are aboard the Enterprise, they follow Star Trek’s most sacred mission statement:

“Space: the final frontier.  These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  It’s five-year mission:  to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new lifeforms and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” 

The Star Trek reboots boldly go nowhere.

By Mark Schelske