I recently saw Star Trek into Darkness, the second film in J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise. The first movie, which came out four years ago, hadn’t made much of an impact on me, probably because (1) I’m not really a Trekkie, and (2) the whole time-travel scenario was somewhat confusing. To my pleasant surprise, Into Darkness turned out to be my favorite kind of film: action-packed mind candy. Relieved of the burden of having to explain Abrams’ alternate universe, it highlighted the humanist philosophy that the original series was known for.
Star Trek, the syndicated 1960s TV show, used science fiction to offer a covert critique of the issues that defined America at the time. These include the Cold War, the Vietnam war, the feminist and anti-racist movements, etc. In the same vein, Abrams’ film is easy to read as a sociopolitical allegory about the post-9/11 era. It features a stateless adversary who resorts to stealthy attacks against a hegemonic order. The story itself resonates with archetypal ideas about good and evil, the struggle between them, and their often murky borders.
I was intrigued enough to do my research. Apparently, Star Trek’s 47-year history has seen five television spin-offs, including an animated one; twelve movies counting Abrams’ contribution; and voluminous literature in the form of novels, comic books, and fan fiction. In the most recent big-screen adaptations, a time-travel plot device creates an alternate “Abrams-verse.”
In Star Trek (2009), the Romulan Nero, whose planet has been destroyed when a nearby star goes supernova, accidentally goes back in time when his ship is swallowed by a black hole. He is bent on vengeance against Ambassador Spock, who has failed to prevent the catastrophe that befell Romulus. Nero’s appearance in the past leads to the death of Tiberius Kirk, father of the future Captain James Kirk, thus creating new destinies for the crew of the starship Enterprise. (The operational metaphysical theory here assumes that if a person travels to the past, the prime timeline doesn’t change while a parallel one comes into existence.)
This lets the reboot tell fresh stories about familiar characters. In Abrams-verse, they are depicted to be much younger, as the famous odyssey of the Enterprise has yet to begin. We see their early interactions as a team, especially the budding friendship between the swashbuckling Kirk and the coldly logical half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock. There are also the fussy Dr. “Bones” McCoy, the kick-ass communications officer Lieutenant Uhura (who, in this iteration, is in a relationship with Spock), the stalwart Officer Hikaru Sulu, Russian navigator Pavel Chekov, and not least, the comic engineer Montgomery Scott and his silent alien sidekick. Significantly, actor Leonard Nimoy, who originally played Spock, appears as old Spock, lending a strong sense of continuity between the original series and Abrams’ films. As the movie concludes, we hear the familiar voiceover by Captain Kirk: “Space… the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
In Star Trek into Darkness (2013), a mysterious rebel named John Harrison instigates the bombing of a key Starfleet research center and later fires on top commanding officers. Kirk and his crew are sent on an undercover mission to eliminate him, using powerful, newly developed torpedoes. However, Kirk hesitates because the fugitive is hiding in Klingon territory, and any attack could precipitate a war between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire. After he apprehends Harrison, he also discovers that there’s more to his story and the 72 torpedoes now stocked on the Enterprise. Kirk’s decision to ignore his original directive makes him a target of the formidable Admiral Alexander Marcus. In order to save the lives of the people on his ship, Kirk is forced into an uneasy alliance with his strange prisoner.
The preservation of life as an absolute end recurs as a theme in the movie. But the choices of the characters reveal this to be inherently paradoxical. In the name of saving certain others—one’s child, one’s friend, a crew, a family, an entire world—the taking of lives is perceived as inevitable or justified. This of course points to the tragic relativism of values, which Kirk and his friends heroically struggle against. As Kirk helplessly tells Spock, “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do. I only know what I can do.” In this sense, the torpedoes—each of which harbors a surprising secret—represent both danger and safety, destruction and preservation. The ending suggests that, against all odds, there is hope for the latter.
In a way, the principles of warfare have not really changed since at least The Iliad. The differences between then and now are a matter of method and name (weapons of mass destruction, terrorism), but the stakes are the same. Even in an imagined universe where poverty has been eliminated and humans have achieved interstellar travel, the old specters lurk elsewhere in the galaxy, in the form of alien empires or renegade villains who have somehow acquired WMDs. The United Federation of Planets is only the modern (Western and liberal) nation-state on a grander scale. Admiral Marcus represents the consequentialist militarism that cannot think beyond black and white. On the other hand, the tandem of Kirk and Spock represents the union of intuition and reason, without which we can’t even begin to comprehend reality: That we live in a world where resources are tragically limited, duties and goods conflict, and death is inevitable.
All in all, the narrative of Star Trek into Darkness is as rousing as its over-the-top musical score, as awesome as the trail left behind when a starship goes on warp speed. It makes my foray into its overwhelming universe worth it, for after all, exploration is an end in itself.