U.S. Intellectual History Blog

the 23rd century is not what it used to be: the philosophy and politics of Star Trek

[Spoiler Alert: I waited to post this until after the new Star Trek movie had played for two weekends. In Hollywood terms, that’s a geological age: the DaVinci Code sequel has already replaced the young Captain Kirk as the prime object of moviegoers’ curiosities, and this weekend the Terminator franchise will reboot. But if you, dear reader, still have not seen the film, please be aware that the following post assumes that you have, and is consequently packed with very significant spoilers.]

In his seminal 1988 article, “Captain Kirk: Cold Warrior,” (Journal of Popular Film and Television, 16.3:109-117), Rick Worland argued of the original 1966-69 television series that “its progressive humanism aside, Star Trek neatly duplicated the configuration of international Cold War politics of the 1960s.” Worland’s argument essentially accused the show of not living up to the intellectual and political ideals it set for itself. The article was something of a watershed in academic treatments of Star Trek, in that many such musings before it veered toward a somewhat fawning tone, while those that came after tended to be more critical of the show. Moreover, later scholars shared Worland’s interest in the politics of Star Trek (rather than, say, its mythological, psychological or literary resonance) though they tended to adopt a focus on race, gender, sexuality and audience reception that is largely absent from Worland’s analysis in more conventionally political terms. With a brand-new incarnation of Star Trek now at our multiplexes, then, it’s worth considering how Star Trek’s themes manifest themselve today.

The original Star Trek centered on the adventures of a group of interstellar space travelers who serve aboard the starship Enterprise, led by Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). The Enterprise crew represent the geopolitical interests of the United Federation of Planets, while simultaneously engaging in scientific research and humanitarian interventions. 

Kirk is advised by his friends and subordinates Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForrest Kelley), who embody the conflict in his head between his frequently competing mandates and missions. The show was not terribly popular in its initial run, but once cancelled generated a phenomenal following in syndicated reruns. As a result, Paramount Pictures released Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979; many subsequent films followed. In 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered on television, featuring new characters and actors; it would run for seven years and serve as the basis for four of the later movies.

After three more television series and a total of ten films, however, many perceived that these efforts were running out of gas creatively. The previous Star Trek feature, panned by critics and avoided by audiences, is now seven years old, and the last television series, Enterprise (2001-2005), was unceremoniously cancelled due to low ratings. Hoping to breathe new life into its former cash cow, Paramount Pictures hired Lost creator J.J. Abrams to direct a new movie, and decided, significantly, to “reboot” the franchise by returning to the characters of the original series and recasting younger actors in the famous roles of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and their shipmates.

Thus as the new film opens it has been over forty years since the first show articulated its peculiar political vision of humanist Cold War liberalism. To some extent, this outlook has come unmoored from its origins in the actual Cold War, becoming part of the DNA of the series itself. But in other ways, changes in real-time contemporary politics have significantly influenced Star Trek. To take one example, as the Soviet Union crumbled, the sixth film, The Undiscovered Country (1991), found the intrepid crew working for peace between the Federation and its enemy, the now-weakened Klingon Empire; in the diegetic universe of The Next Generation, the Klingons became uneasy allies. Additionally, the original series’s allegorical references to racial integration and the Vietnam War were replaced in later shows with developments that paralleled controversies over issues like homosexuality, religion or cultural imperialism. Thus the real-world political landscape, the cinematic production team and the diegetic Star Trek universe have all undergone significant changes in recent years; one might wonder how these changes would affect the evolving outlook of the central text.

Well, we need wonder no more. Star Trek now, perhaps unsurprisingly, maneuvers almost entirely in the intellectual and emotional space carved out by the so-called “War on Terror.” The film’s villain, Nero (Eric Bana), is an evildoer with no agenda other than to cause pain to his enemies; though a Romulan, he is a non-state-actor who specifically rejects any connection with the government of his empire. He is, in short, a terrorist. He is responsible for the most harrowing act of the film, one simply unprecedented in all of Star Trek: the destruction of the planet Vulcan and the consequent murder of nearly all of its six billion inhabitants. Of course, such large-scale acts of destruction are not uncommon in cinematic science fiction, or even in Star Trek. But Vulcan is not some stock planet that the filmmakers made up solely for the purpose of having Nero destroy it in order to establish his evil credentials. It is Spock’s home, a planet whose inhabitants have developed a stoic philosophy that has traditionally served as a central element in the very meaning of Star Trek. In this context, even this fictional act of destruction is quite harrowing, and certainly suggests an invocation of September 11.

As a result, the new Enterprise crew is motivated less by its customary balancing act between power politics and compassion, and more by revenge. Generally, Star Trek has accorded this emotion little respect: it is reserved for villains (such as Khan in Star Trek II, or Nero himself), or “good guys” whose judgment or sanity is has been compromised. In the new film, however, revenge is a significant motivational factor for the heroes. This difference plays out most clearly in the revisions to the character of Spock, played in the new film by Zachary Quinto. Always tortured by his conflicting desires to adhere to the Vulcan ideology of logic and to claim part of his human emotional heritage, he is in this film pushed to the breaking point. During Vulcan’s final minutes, Spock attempts to rescue his mother, but instead must watch her die. This is a lot for anyone to take in, and Quinto’s Spock yields to strong emotion far more than did Nimoy’s. (Nimoy is also in this film, playing an older version of the same character, and even his Spock is far more touchy-feely than usual.)

In the same vein, the new Kirk (Chris Pine) owes his very existence, or, at least, the form that such an existence will take, to terrorism. He is born in the midst of Nero’s attack on his father’s ship some twenty-five years before the main events of the film. Kirk’s father is killed and young Jim grows up rebellious, impetuous, glib, and aloof, with a penchant for going with his gut. Far from the Kennedyesque figure of the 1960s show, he almost seems an homage to George W. Bush, complete with a tendency to bestow uncreative nicknames on his shipmates.

The fact that the captain and first officer have both had one of their parents killed by the villain brings a decided de-emphasis on two virtues that have long been a hallmark of Star Trek: empathy and compassion. Most striking in this regard is a short exchange between Kirk and Spock near the end of the film. After Nero has been defeated, his ship is about to be sucked in to some vortex or another, and Kirk offers to rescue his crew. When Spock questions this decision, Kirk argues that saving Nero would make for better relations with the Romulans, and suggests that Spock should approve of his logic. In a response played for comedy, Spock replies, “No…not this time,” and Kirk orders the destruction of Nero’s ship. Never have these two characters, or any protagonists in a Star Trek production, been so cavalier about taking life. Indeed, many of the original episodes end with Kirk quite pointedly refusing to kill, even though it may seem justified or even necessary to save his own skin.

One of the tag lines in the film’s advertising campaign is “This is not your father’s Star Trek.” Indeed, it is not. Politically and historically speaking, it has exchanged a complicated and ambivalent relationship with the Cold War thinking of the 1960s for a rather uncritical acceptance of the dominant paradigm of our own era.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. 1) Amanda Grayson does not die in Spock’s arms. Perhaps you mean that figuratively, but that is definitely NOT what actually happens.

    2) Kirk orders the destruction of the Narada only after Nero refuses Kirk’s offer of help. That occurs after Spock declares that he would not assist the Romulans.

    3) There is an alternative reading that interprets Nero as the Dubya character, since he declares his intention of wiping out the Federation before it can, through Spock’s “failure,” facilitate the destruction of Romulus. Hence, far from being a terrorist, he is a proponent of pre-emptive war. I don’t find either reading compelling. And neither answers how blowing up Vulcan and Earth will prevent Romulus’ sun from turning supernova and blowing it up. Nero does have an agenda. It’s a stupid one, but it’s an agenda nonetheless, and one that is not merely to cause pain to his enemies.

    4) If Nero and the Enterprise crew are both motivated by revenge, their responses to such motivation are asymmetrical. Nero hopes to wipe out the Federation, and starts with Vulcan, and then proceeds to Earth. Kirk and co. attack Nero to prevent the destruction of Vulcan, and then that of Earth. That’s a weak kind of revenge, especially given that whatever opportunities Kirk and Spock have to kill Nero personally (if they have any) are not taken. There’s a case to be made that Spock wants revenge, but whatever Kirk is concerned with, revenge seems far from it.

    5) Of course Star Trek addresses contemporary concerns, or as you put it “the real-world political landscape.” Such was (is?) the point of utopian literature, of which science fiction, and thus Trek, is a lineal descendant. That’s one of the things that makes it so interesting. Unfortunately, this version seems quite uninterested in grappling with the moral and philosophical issues that its predecessors engaged with.

    6) I am lukewarm to the movie. It has numerous flaws. But they are not the ones enumerated here.

  2. I have changed the “die in his arms” sentence in the original post. Believe it or not, I actually spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get across the emotional weight of this incident without using several sentences to do so. I thought that this phrase sort of got the “gist” across, but–sure enough–the first comment from the first reader took issue with it! Blackcloud is right, though, that it’s really not even metaphorically what happened: Spock was reaching out to catch Amanda when a ledge collapsed, and she fell away and presumably died, quite far from the arms of her son.

    Blackcloud is also correct, I think, to suggest that I overstated the extent to which revenge is a factor for the Federation crew. In fact, it’s somewhat remarkable that Kirk never even mentions (to my recollection) the fact that the guy they’re chasing is the same person who killed his father. But the exchange to which I referred in the original post does represent, in my view, a significant new direction for Kirk and Spock. So many episodes in the original series make the point that people should resist their urge toward violence, that this could fairly be called a central theme of the show. Thus when Spock puts aside logic in the movie to advocate killing someone (without giving any actual reasoning for the change), and his decision is played as a joke, I see the influence of the changing political culture.

  3. There’s a lot that the movie changes from the original mythology. They completely drained the Kobayashi Maru of significance. Completely. The whole point of that episode in STII was that sometimes there are situations in which every choice is a bad one, or worse, that there are no choices to be had. One such situation of the latter type being whether one lives or dies. There is, of course, no choice to be had: everyone dies. That’s but one of the ways the new one ignores the philosophical and moral issues its progenitor confronted.

    Getting back to the changes made to the characters of Kirk and Spock, Abrams and co. make a great deal of Spock’s mother, I think, in order to emphasize his human heritage. He defends her honor (how old-fashioned a notion is that?) twice in the movie, both times resorting to violence to do so. So the destruction of Vulcan is a double loss for him: he loses his home planet and his mother at once. A double trauma, and in that sense he is doubly orphaned. That could mean something, but you’d be hard-pressed to see any suggestion that this occurred to the filmmakers.

    I agree that Spock’s character has changed, but the changes aren’t extrinsic to the Trek universe. He’s just become more human and less Vulcan. Trek always presented he Vulcans as the logical, stoic, detached species; and Humans as the instinctive, emotional, passionate one. That actually gives them an easy out for the changes. Far more daring would have been for Spock to advocate killing Nero on utilitarian or “logical” grounds, e.g., the “needs of the many” imperative he espouses in Wrath of Khan.

    As for it being remarkable that Kirk never seems to be bothered that the villain killed his father, that would be a fair way of putting it!

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