The end of all our exploring: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ and the New Frontier

Note: Set phasers to SPOILERS. Or something.

Spoiler Alert, Spoiler Alert

All decks, spoiler alert.

As T. S. Eliot wisely noted, “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning.” And at the end of 2009’s Star Trek, with the villain defeated and the day saved, the crew of the USS Enterprise, finally united as we know them from the original 1960s TV series, prepare to explore the galaxy. Leonard Nimoy intones the famous words which begin “Space: the final frontier …” and the ship races off to the accompaniment of Alexander Courage’s iconic theme.

As a sequence, it deliberately invokes the franchise’s past in a way that acts as almost a blessing for its future, and offers a new beginning. The ‘mission statement’ itself harkens back to the frontier spirit of the 1960s in which the original Star Trek was steeped, just as John F. Kennedy harkened back to the frontier spirit of the Old West in his “New Frontier” speech at the very beginning of that decade.[1] It is no coincidence that when Gene Rodenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was pitching the show to television producers in the mid-’60s, he described its premise in similar terms, as a “wagon train to the stars”.[2]

For I stand here tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier. From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind us, the pioneers gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build our new West.

Star Trek Into Darkness attempts to further the intersection of past and future by re-imagining the conflict between Kirk’s crew and arguably their most famous foe, Khan, the genetically-engineered superhuman whose gave the Enterprise so much trouble in the 1967 episode “Space Seed” and its feature-movie sequel The Wrath of Khan.[3] That film was itself explicitly interested in ideas of history, legacy and the shadow of the past, viewed through the lens of Kirk’s age and his growing sense of mortality – an essential component of what raised it from being simply a good Star Trek movie to being a genuinely great sci-fi film.

Comparisons between Star Trek Into Darkness and Wrath of Khan are inevitable, not just because the latter is treated as an arbitrary benchmark for the franchise due to its practically legendary status (though that does, of course, happen), but because director JJ Abrams and his team of writers – Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof – deliberately set themselves in conversation with it, referencing not only details of plot and characterisation, but also the most famous scenes from the earlier film.[5]

Here we go again.

Here we go again.

Unfortunately, the gravity provided in the original scenes from Wrath of Khan is somewhat lost not just because of the sight of Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto parroting William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, something the new films have mostly stayed away from, but because these versions of the characters do not have the history of the originals by the time of Wrath of Khan. Instead, they borrow their history from the originals. Hence the awkwardness of the reveal of John Harrison as Khan, to which Kirk and his compatriots have almost no reaction because there’s nothing in their own pasts for them to react to, and the need for Leonard Nimoy to appear later in the film to affirm that, yes, Khan really is the threat the film needs him to be.

Most frustratingly of all, the focus on another genius-mastermind-terrorist-super-villain (or, rather, two, with Peter Weller’s Admiral Marcus and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan jockeying for the spot) means that the film ultimately runs through the same beats as its immediate predecessor.[6]  The villain(s) are defeated and the day saved, and the crew of the USS Enterprise, again reunited as we know them from the original 1960s TV series, prepare to explore the galaxy. Chris Pine recites the famous words which begin “Space: the final frontier …” and the ship races off to the accompaniment of Michael Giacchino’s new theme.

… we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.

The mirroring of the ending of the previous film – done, no doubt, to emphasise that the defeat of Khan by the ‘new’ crew means the torch has truly been passed on – nevertheless makes it feel as if the Enterprise is stuck in a holding pattern, perpetually held on the inner edge of the frontier. And that is the antithesis of what the ship, and the franchise, should stand for. More than any concerns over how intelligent or philosophical the reborn franchise is compared to previous incarnations, this is where Star Trek Into Darkness fails in capturing the spirit of the original series.[7]

True to Gene Rodenberry’s goals (and he was far from unilaterally successful in achieving them himself), there are attempts in the film to couch contemporary moral queries in the accessible form of the modern adventure story, just as Rodenberry & co. introduced allegories of the Cold War, Vietnam and Civil Rights along with William Shatner wrestling a giant lizard. Kirk’s deliberation over whether to, in essence, remotely assassinate a known threat to the Federation, and Spock acting as his moral centre in this decision, does successfully remodel that classic dynamic to address modern concerns.[8] But the film’s arguments ultimately get bogged down in a confused mixture of War on Terror analogues, 9/11 Truther conspiracies, and Star Trek lore.[9]

I say, do you have a flag?

I say, do you have a flag?

At its best, the film strives to embody Kennedy’s idea of the New Frontier which “holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.” Kirk’s elegiac but hopeful speech towards the end of the film echoes, perhaps deliberately, this very point. Yet, at what should have been the film’s emotional core, it instead falls into mere imitation, content in a creative version of “the safe mediocrity of the past” which Kennedy decried. The film’s haphazard plot and intra-franchise borrowings betray its themes, and when Kirk argues that we should be explorers, not warriors, I was left with a question: why didn’t you make that film?

When Eliot wrote of “the end of all our exploring”, he was not just referring to its conclusion, but its purpose. Just as, from a quantum level upwards, the very act of observation can change the behaviour of what is observed, so too does the exploration of the world, of every world, change ourselves.[10] By directing our gaze towards the past, by focussing on familiar aspects, we lessen the possibility of new understandings which, yes, I believe even a Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster can occasionally provide. The new Star Trek has spent long enough at home. Let’s see what’s out there.

___________________________________________________________

Can a nation organized and governed such as ours endure?

That is the real question.

Have we the nerve and the will? Can we carry through in an age where we will witness not only breakthroughs in weapons of destruction, but also a race for mastery of the sky and the rain, the ocean and the tides, the far side of space, and the inside of men’s minds?

That is the question of the New Frontier.

– John F. Kennedy, DNC Nomination Acceptance Address ‘The New Frontier’, delivered 15 July 1960

___________________________________________________________

[1] The full text and video of the speech can be found here. It’s a fascinating slice of history, and a great piece of rhetoric delivered by one of the most notable orators of the modern era.

[2] Arguably, however, his other pitch, essentially “Horatio Hornblower in space”, became the more lasting influence on the franchise as a whole, especially as a result of the very naval style of Wrath of Khan.

[3] While, technically, The Wrath of Khan is a sequel to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and is more properly titled Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, director Nicholas Meyer has admitted that during production they pretty much pretended The Motion Picture didn’t exist. Which is understandable.[4]

[4] It’s very boring.

[5] Some other clear references to previous installments of the franchise: a tribble (“The Trouble with Tribbles”, from the original series), Uhura attempting to speak Klingon (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country), Section 31 (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), a Starfleet admiral conspiring to start a war with the Klingons (The Undiscovered Country again), Scotty disabling a more powerful Starfleet vessel to help the Enterprise (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock), Sulu acting as captain (guess what? The Undiscovered Country). These are, on the whole, pretty inoffensive (apart from the tribble) and rather more subtle than the Wrath of Khan references.

[6] Even Kirk’s character arc feels like a repeat from the previous film, complete with the loss of another father figure and rapid changes of rank. It’s a waste of Bruce Greenwood’s Pike, and if Kirk’s brief demotion was supposed to counter complaints over Starfleet’s flexible hierarchy in the first film, it seriously misunderstood the nature of that complaint.

[7] Nor does it help that so much of the film takes place on Earth, even more so than the previous entry in the series. And just as in 2009’s Star Trek, travelling across the stars is just a little too easy, the voyages from our home planet to Vulcan or ‘Kronos’ seeming a matter of minutes, hours at most, rather than days or weeks. Yes, this a series in which the Enterprise has been to both the centre of the galaxy and its outermost limits, but in both those cases there was, at least, some amount of danger associated with the journey itself.

[8] Zachary Quinto’s Spock, it should be noted, is one of the strongest parts of the film. Whenever one of the story’s emotional beats do actually land, it’s because of him, and the chemistry of the cast. It’s just a shame that most of them didn’t get more to do. Scotty’s subplot was solid, however.

[9] I’m not making the comparison to the Truther movement just for the sake of it. Writer Robert Orci is a well-known proponent of the theory that the destruction of the World Trade Center was an ‘inside job’. Charmingly, he even implied on Twitter that the bombing of the Boston Marathon was orchestrated by the government, even before anyone knew the names Dzokhar or Tamerlan Tzarnaev.

[10] Disclaimer: a quantum physicist, I am not. This may be completely wrong. But it’s a good metaphor.

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2 responses to “The end of all our exploring: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ and the New Frontier

  1. Anne Williamson

    Well done getting post put. At airport by some miracle! Crazy journey!! See you Tuesday. Xxxx

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Pingback: Brave new worlds: STAR TREK BEYOND and FORBIDDEN PLANET | I'll Explain Later

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