Note: Incoming SPOILERS, captain. Or whatever.
O brave new world / That has such people in’t! – The Tempest, Act V, Scene i
The early destruction of the starship Enterprise, at first glance just a repetitive stunt, is in fact Star Trek Beyond’s boldest gambit. Narratively and thematically, it destabilises the character dynamics just enough to put the ship’s crew in a position where seeing them work together when re-united has an additional impact. This forms the core (the ‘warp core’, if you will … no, I’m not sorry) of the filmmakers’ approach to pushing their version of Star Trek forward.
Visually and iconographically, however, the stricken ship’s descent into the atmosphere, having been torn apart at the neck by a swarm of alien drones, recalls all those flying saucers of the early science fiction films of the 1950s (and the sci-fi pulp art which preceded them) from which artist and designer Matt Jeffries took inspiration in imagining the Enterprise. Like an archaeological excavation, its ruin reveals something of its origins.
Eight years before Gene Rodenberry pitched a sci-fi television show called Star Trek to television executives, and a full ten years before the first episode aired on CBS, Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet was released in American cinemas. Famously riffing on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the plot of Forbidden Planet follows the crew of a saucer-shaped spaceship from Earth who, arriving on the desolate world of Altair IV in search of a missing colony, discover that the only intelligent inhabitants on the planet are an elderly scientist named Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), and a friendly robot named Robby.
The boisterous but well-meaning spacemen, led by Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen in an earlier, more serious role than the comedies he is now mostly known for), nevertheless undermine by their very presence the prolonged innocent girlhood of Altaira, and threaten to disrupt Morbius’s investigations into the hyper-advanced technology of the Krell, a long-dead alien race native to the planet. As tensions rise between the scientist and the crew, a series of inexplicable and increasingly violent attacks are mounted against the visitors and their vessel by an unseen entity.
Then, in a final act twist, this entity is revealed to be Morbius’s own subconscious id, actualised by the advanced alien technology hidden in the depths of Altair IV into an unstoppable force of destruction, lashing out against those who threaten Morbius’s peace of mind, attempting to destroy the crew just as it did the scientist’s fellow colonists. “This thing of darkness / I acknowledge mine”, says Prospero of Caliban in the last act of The Tempest; the Monster from the Id is only disarmed when Morbius acknowledges his subconscious actions and desires, his animal and base self, and rather than denying it exists, repudiates it consciously and with clarity of thought and vision.
Separated by sixty years though they may be, more specific resemblances between the two films, deliberate or accidental, are apparent. Following its alternately melancholic and bombastic opening, the second act of Beyond’s plot finds the crew of the Enterprise marooned on the desolate world of ‘Altamid’, struggling to prevent an ancient and deadly technology constructed by a long-dead alien race from falling into the hands of a dangerous, barbarous foe named ‘Krall’ (Idris Elba).
Then, in a final act twist, Krall is revealed to have once been a human Starfleet officer, Balthazar Edison, a starship captain like the Enterprise’s James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), but from a more violent era of interstellar wars and interspecies conflicts. Edison resents the utopian Federation not only for failing to rescue him and his crew from Altamid, but also, on a more fundamental level, for making lasting peace with the alien enemies he spent his life fighting against.
This revelation does come, perhaps, too late for the film to fully flesh out Edison’s character in the same way that Forbidden Planet does for Morbius. The nature of and expectations for what constitutes a science fiction spectacle has, of course, changed greatly over the last sixty years, and the fast-moving action-adventure of Beyond will invariably have less time to spend on character work than the dialogue-laden atmosphere-building drama of Forbidden Planet.
Unfortunately, despite the fascinating ideas behind the character and Elba’s performance, the lack of definition early on means the character never becomes as central to the narrative as he is to the film’s themes. This is a particular shame, since the parallels between Morbius and Edison are, on paper, quite fascinating. Both men become the thing they hate: Morbius, the rational scientist, is revealed to be a territorial beast, a Faustus whose passions overwhelm his intellect; Edison, once a heroic defender of humankind, is transformed into a monstrous, inhuman brute – a Kurtz who has lost his moral compass in the darkness of space.
The scientist is the more complex, developed character, but the soldier is (in theory at least) the more tragic. A fallen Faustian magus he may be, yet Morbius is able to reconcile with the beast within him, and even though it costs him his life, he is able to save the lives of his daughter and Commander Adams, as well as ensuring that the Krell technology will not be misused by anyone else in the future.
Edison is faced with a similar moment of self-realisation, at long last seeing clearly not his depravation, but rather his humanity. He ultimately rejects the epiphany offered to him, however, and makes one last nihilistic attempt to kill Kirk and destroy millions more lives. Beyond being the earnest, optimistic film that it is, he fails, dying alone in the vacuum of space, consumed by the very weapon he hoped to use to render his vengeance on the Federation, while Kirk is saved by the efforts of his faithful crew.
Morbius was a tragic figure for the Atomic Age, a scientist who had tapped into a power too great to control, a father figure whose attachment to his daughter unambiguously recalls Freud, who needs a good, sensible, down-to-earth military man like Command Adams to fix his mistakes and bring his daughter into Adams’s own ‘household’ (or spaceship, in this case) as, essentially, husband and wife. Beyond, equally, is in small ways and large, very much a film conscious of the current historical moment. In contrast to the bridal Altaira, the alien survivalist Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who the Enterprise’s crew encounter on Altamid, is not primarily defined as any other character’s daughter or love interest and is instead accepted into the crew and Starfleet on her own terms.
Moreover, that Beyond’s themes of tolerance, unity, and mutual cooperation seem to strike a particular chord in light of the current political situation in both Britain and the United States has already been remarked upon. Not only is Edison ultimately shown to be an embodiment of xenophobic hatred (an unusually layered example, in fact), but when Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo) praises Kirk for saving the day once again, his humble but honest response that “It’s never just me” comes across as an astonishingly direct rebuke to Donald Trump’s conceited, dictatorial line from the Republican National Convention of “I alone can fix this”. The film’s stubborn adherence to the principles of teamwork and, yes, togetherness, is emblazoned by its stirring final moments in which whole crew, for once, gets to follow Captain Kirk in uttering each a part of the original series’ iconic opening narration:
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
Of course, Star Trek’s progressive credentials have always been somewhat qualified and even compromised – leaving aside the original series’ Sixties sexism (trying saying that three times fast), the oft-acclaimed ‘first interracial kiss on television’ occurred when both characters involved (William Shatner’s Kirk and Nichelle Nichols’s Uhura) were under the influence of mind control. Never particularly adept at dealing with issues of sexuality and gender, even the recent revelation that the character of Sulu in the new films is gay – partly to further diversify the crew and partly to honour the original actor and gay rights activist George Takei – encountered controversy when Takei objected on the ground that this interpretation of the character was not accurate to Rodenberry’s original conception.
Rodenberry himself has been suggested to have used his show’s ideals to further his own commercial interests, and his invention of the Vulcan ‘IDIC’ insignia (standing for the very Trek-like mantra of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”) was accused by none other than Leonard Nimoy as an example of blatantly fan-exploitative merchandising. Even Trek’s famed celebration of the frontier is fraught (except for the excellent and underrated Star Trek: Deep Space 9) with mostly un-interrogated colonial baggage and primarily Western assumptions about discovery and exploration.
And yet. Star Trek is, at its best, a cultural manifestation of a wistful yet vital dream – one which has ebbed and flowed alongside the last fifty years of American and world history. It dramatizes the belief that better institutions, better ways of living, the discovery of our better selves, are all, in fact, possible. Though it may be a bit rough around the edges, Beyond exemplifies the best of Star Trek in ways Into Darkness and even the 2009 reboot only managed to hint at. “How far you’ve come,” Edison murmurs when he beholds the Yorktown – a complex, colossal, yet ethereal space station on the edge of the known galaxy; a strikingly imagined symbol of ingenuity and inclusiveness. Perhaps he is merely being ironic, or just maybe, despite his disillusionment, he can’t help but be a little impressed.
 The ‘original’ Enterprise was also destroyed at the end of its third cinematic outing, in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, directed by Leonard Nimoy.
 Star Trek Beyond thus managing to mark both the 50th anniversary of the franchise itself, and the 60th anniversary of one of its most notable pre-cursors.
 Given, at the very least, co-screenwriter Simon Pegg’s well-documented fondness for sci-fi history, the former is perfectly plausible.
 Seen as light fare in its own day, of course, but positively contemplative in comparison to its modern descendants.
 Not that the precise nature of the threat is particularly important to the plot (we’re firmly in MacGuffin territory here), but where the technological fears manifested in Forbidden Planet focussed on nuclear power, in Beyond the threat has been updated to a biological weapon, matching more modern fears of what scientific manipulation of the natural world can do.
 It’s just a shame she and Zoe Saldana’s Uhura never have an actual conversation, at least as far as I can recall.
 Which is doubly remarkable given that Simon Pegg and Doug Jung must have scripted the film long before Trump was even the de facto GOP nominee.
 And don’t talk to be about the Prime Directive, the sloppiest narrative conceit outside of Doctor Who’s ‘fixed points in time’.