In the latest Star Trek movie, the Enterprise crew suffers a crisis of faith in its idealistic mission. They’re bored, restless, and considering changing careers. This is territory into which no Trek film or series has gone before.
by Jason Teich
Early on in Justin Lin’s slick and entertaining Star Trek Beyond, Captain James T. Kirk — our intrepid but increasingly world-weary hero — addresses a gathering of volatile pint-sized aliens. “My name is Captain James Tiberius Kirk of the United Federation of Planets,” he declares. “I bring you a message of goodwill and present to you, esteemed members of the Teenaxi delegation, a gift from the Foboden high council, with the highest regards.” Then he produces a funky-looking doodad that seems like something that might sell for $19.99 (plus shipping and handling) on a late-night infomercial.
Kirk’s effort as diplomatic go-between quickly descends into misunderstanding, tribalism, and violence. The Chief Teenaxi Delegate flies into a fit of xenophobic hysteria, denouncing the Foboden as “untrustworthy thieves who want to see us murdered in our own beds,” and within moments, Kirk is swarmed by the Teenaxi and in need of rescue. The Delegate’s reaction foreshadows the outlook of the film’s Big Bad, Krall, who trumpets similar notes of disunity and chaos. But the Delegate’s fear-mongering and name-calling also bring to mind a certain floppy-haired, mango-hued reality TV star who has built a political campaign by stoking fears of immigrant “killers and rapists.” (The similarities have not escaped co-screenwriter, co-star, and fake Scotsman Simon Pegg, who told the New York Daily News that Krall has an “insular, mean streak” that reminds him of Trump.) Kirk’s ill-fated attempt at diplomacy introduces the film’s central themes of communication vs. misunderstanding, unity vs. division, inclusivity vs. exclusivity, and fear of the other vs. embrace of the unknown. Although principal filming wrapped in October 2015, these themes are particularly timely, only weeks removed from two presidential conventions that showcased radically different visions for the future of this country: One nationalistic and exclusive; the other globalist and inclusive.
Beyond picks up three years into the Enterprise’s five-year mission to explore strange new worlds and establish diplomatic ties on behalf of the Federation. The crew has grown restless, distracting themselves with random hook-ups, some even questioning the mission’s purpose — none more so than the film’s two leading men, who find themselves in the midst of full-blown existential crises: Kirk (Chris Pine) from the repetitiveness and often fruitlessness of his efforts, and Spock (Zachary Quinto) from the death of his mentor and doppelgänger, Ambassador Spock. Both now contemplate the previously unthinkable: Leaving the Starship Enterprise. Kirk has applied for a vice-admiral position, possibly taking him off the bridge for good. Spock, feeling duty-bound to his race, has concluded that he must become the new Ambassador Spock and procreate with a Vulcan woman to perpetuate the species, neither of which leaves him much room for Kirk, the Enterprise, or his longtime lover Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). This represents a marked change from the unquestioned optimism of the original series and the unerring faith that William Shatner’s Kirk and Leonard Nimoy’s Spock displayed in their own mission.
At this point in the new franchise’s run, Chris Pine’s and Zachary Quinto’s performances have matured as much as their characters. Initially a brash, irresponsible rebel when the reboot began, Pine’s Kirk now exudes patience, discipline, selflessness, introspection, and an increasing depth and complexity of thought, as he pains over each strategic and moral choice. If Pine’s performance is smoother than ever, Quinto’s is simply effortless. Quinto makes good lines great. Pressed by ship physician “Bones” McCoy (ably and affably played by Karl Urban) on whether he’s told Kirk of his plans to leave the Enterprise, Spock’s voice cracks with emotion as he equivocates: “I could not find the time . . .” The rest — the love and hard-earned mutual respect between Spock and Kirk, and how painful it will be to say goodbye — doesn’t need to be said, because Quinto’s delivery says it all. Nor has Quinto lost his comic touch, as he slays his well-crafted one-liners with deadpan perfection: “I thought it would be more pleasing to engage with you socially,” he explains to Uhura in the most robotic come-on in recent memory.
The plot of Beyond kicks off when the Enterprise is lured into a devastating ambush. It turns out the as-seen-on-TV doodad that angered the Teenaxi delegation is an object of great value and power to Krall (Idris Elba), a violent, megalomaniacal alien, who has devised a plan to seize it. Justin Lin, in his first Star Trek outing, brings his Fast & Furious skillset to bear and offers fans the action, grandeur, and space-opera spectacle they’ve come to expect from big-screen Trek, and no set piece is more thrilling than Krall’s ambush, which leaves the Enterprise in pieces and the crew captured. Only a few Starfleet VIPs — most of the usual suspects — escape the attack and have a chance to save the day. The unity vs. division theme is clear; the crew of the Enterprise has always been stronger together than apart. Now, though, the ship’s destruction leaves our heroes scattered across the surface of an unknown world, cut-off from their tech and from each other. The writers do, however, give everyone a companion: Kirk and Chekov (charmingly played by the late, talented Anton Yelchin) trudge through the strange landscape looking for the Enterprise’s wreckage; Bones treats Spock’s injuries as they try to stay alive and find their friends; Scotty (Pegg) meets Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a welcome ally with trust issues, and they work to repair an old ship to fly them off the planet; and Uhura keeps Sulu (John Cho) company while they’re prisoners of Krall. Our heroes must uncover Krall’s evil plan and stop it, of course, but first, they must find each other. As Scotty tells Jaylah, when he welcomes her to the crew, “Ya cannot break a stick in a bundle. You’re part of something bigger now, lass.”
In its day, the multi-ethnic crew of the original Star Trek was an American TV landmark, and here, as you may have heard, the Star Trek franchise has expanded that inclusivity to the LGBT community, depicting Sulu as a happily married gay man with a child. It’s surprising that it took this long, considering how the original series gave us American TV’s first interracial kiss, and how the franchise has always endorsed interspecies nooky — but we’ll take it. In at least one area, though, the rebooted franchise has neglected to move forward with the times: the uniforms. The male Federation uniforms are designed for dignity and functionality, while Ms. Saldana’s incredibly short dress is clearly designed for sex appeal and is pretty much on par with the mini-dress and stockings worn by the female crew of the original series. I wonder what 24th-century feminists have to say about this.
If Star Trek Beyond revives some of the lamentable sexism of Gene Roddenberry’s original series, it also stays true to the original’s spirit, offering bold adventure, campy humor, iconic characters, and themes that are effective, timely, and not the least bit subtle. Beyondforegrounds its unity-over-division theme in almost excessively direct fashion: Characters work together to achieve their goals, and frequently survive only because a comrade saves them at the last second, while Krall and Kirk argue the matter openly: “Unity is not your strength. It is your weakness,” chides Krall, prompting Kirk’s equally heavy-handed rejoinder, “I think you’re underestimating humanity.” But then, subtlety is not the goal. Like last month’s Democratic convention, Beyond provides a rebuttal to those who use fear and anger to divide us, offering an optimistic and inclusive vision of humanity in its stead. Krall gives us a firsthand view of a Trump policy in action by gleefully torturing some prisoners, while Spock offers the beautifully simple and simply beautiful Roddenberrian credo, “We will find hope in the impossible.”
The Star Trek franchise has always offered a hopeful and idealized vision of humanity. A glimpse into a future where we’ve achieved our best selves, not only reaching out into the stars with astonishing technology, but also reaching out to other civilizations in the spirit of friendship and cooperation. The Federation itself, an interstellar republic composed of hundreds of planets and an equal number of races and sentient life forms, is the apotheosis of diplomacy, cooperation, and inclusiveness.
But the current iteration of Star Trek is not as unswervingly optimistic as its 1960s forebear. The crew’s existential struggles reflect a more cynical era and a less starry-eyed audience. The original series was conceived in the mid-1960s, in the afterglow of the heady optimism of the Kennedy years (and the enthusiasm he brought to a still-nascent NASA with his iconic moonshot speech), and still a few years before the largest Vietnam War protests. Roddenberry birthed his creation when Americans were still optimistic about looking outward, into space and into the world. Kennedy had created the Peace Corps in 1961. The notion of a benevolent America spreading democracy and helping less developed nations was still very much in vogue when the Enterprise showed up on TV screens in 1966. The original crew never got restless or doubted their mission, even when confronted by overwhelming danger, death, or adversaries who didn’t share their spirit of exploration, curiosity, and benevolence.
The unshakeable idealism of the original series is stunning, from today’s perspective. You might have to rewatch an episode or two in order to recall just how resolute the old crew’s faith was. In season one’s “The Corbomite Maneuver,” for instance, after Kirk saves his ship from a mysterious, floating space cube, he doesn’t hesitate to fly right back out in search of the intelligence that sent it. “The mission of the Enterprise is to seek out and contact alien life,” he tells Spock, and that’s that. End of discussion. That same alien intelligence later nearly destroys the Enterprise, but Kirk doesn’t hesitate to turn the other cheek, reiterating his earlier mantra to McCoy: “What’s the mission of this vessel, Doctor? To seek out and contact alien life. And an opportunity to demonstrate what our high-sounding words mean.” In the end, Kirk arranges a peace and exchange of ideas with his alien foe.In fact, Shatner’s Kirk rarely fails to find a peaceful solution to his problems — the Federation’s ideals always win out (even if Kirk has to bend the famous Prime Directive now and then). In “The Devil in the Dark,” another first-season episode, Kirk negotiates a truce with an acid-spraying lifeform that has already killed several humans, and he turns a conflict based on misunderstanding into an alliance, convincing the creature to mine precious metals for the Federation. Kirk even negotiates a peaceful solution to his first conflict with the infamous Khan in “Space Seed” (also season one), a feat that would unfortunately prove un-repeatable and come back to bite him.
But as times have changed, so have the attitudes of the American people and the crew of the Enterprise. After America’s destructive attempts at regime change in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, Libya, and other places around the globe, Americans are a lot more skeptical of their nation’s supposedly benevolent intentions, more prone to wonder whether it’s wise, moral, or even possible to spread our ideals abroad. Similarly, the crew of the Enterprise has seen how often Kirk’s efforts at diplomacy fail, as they do with the Teenaxi in the opening scene. Pine’s Kirk solves problems with violence more often than diplomacy. Still, neither director Lin nor screenwriters Pegg and Doug Jung have taken Trump’s approach of fully renouncing America’s globalist endeavors. The film depicts not a reversal of the old faith that powered the original series nor an outright rejection of globalism, but a period of doubt much like the one America now faces. The Enterprise’s core mission remains the same, and crew members regain their faith as they unite to fight Krall. In the end, Star Trek Beyond suggests that we, like the crew, might emerge from our period of doubt with restored vitality and renewed faith in our national values and collective purpose.