(If you think this won’t have spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness, you’re out of your Vulcan mind.)
Roddenberry’s dream lives on.
This might come as a surprise to many; it certainly came as a surprise to me. I wrote in my first post on BlogTarkin some months ago that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with its grim but brilliant take on Roddenberry’s utopia, nevertheless eroded the Federation’s moral edifice with “the slow poison of necessity.” J.J. Abrams’ first foray into the franchise in 2009, with only an oblique reference to Starfleet as a “humanitarian and peacekeeping armada,” seemingly abandoned Star Trek’s vaunted position as the moral high ground of popular science fiction.
Did Star Trek Into Darkness bring the franchise back to its roots? It depends on what those roots are. Much of Star Trek’s enduring popularity comes from the chemistry between its diverse crew. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and their shipmates met even the wildest expectations in building this camaraderie. At the same time, Star Trek has always represented a moral and social paradigm to which we could aspire. That utopian vision, however, is often presented fully-formed to the audience without any perspective on the work that went into building it. Into Darkness tackles this weakness.
There are occasional allusions to destructive conflicts and world wars. Upon pursuing a Borg invasion to late 21st century Earth in First Contact, Data is able to estimate “from the radioactive isotopes in the atmosphere” that they had arrived a decade after World War III. “Makes sense,” Riker muses. “Most of the major cities have been destroyed. Very few governments left. Six hundred million dead. No resistance.” And yet, in the ashes of the society in which you and I currently live, Zefram Cochrane builds a starship out of a nuclear missile, travels faster than the speed of light, and ushers in a new era for human civilization. In Star Trek, dystopia precedes utopia.
But this is as far as Star Trek’s depiction of the late 20th and early 21st century goes. The franchise envisions humanity without racism, poverty, disease, or war, but never showed what must be done to achieve it. This leap is like jumping from the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the birth of American hegemony after World War II without addressing the slaughter of the Civil War or the desperation of the Great Depression in between. Roddenberry showed us the far future’s promise in the 1960s but gave almost no indications about mankind’s imminent challenges.
Except for Khan.
Khan Noonien Singh, introduced in the 1967 episode “Space Seed”, is a genetically-engineered superman who conquered most of Eurasia in the 1990s before his Napoleonic exile into cryogenic sleep. More than just another villain, Khan is faster, stronger, and smarter than Kirk and his crew could ever be. The 20th century tyrant is never bested by strength or intellect alone in the Star Trek films: only Kirk’s greater familiarity with starships in Wrath of Khan and Spock’s knowledge from the future in Into Darkness allow them to gain the upper hand. Khan is, as the elder Spock gravely observes, the most dangerous foe the Enterprise ever faced.
But Khan’s significance goes deeper than just clever plot devices. Star Trek, at its most fundamental level, exalts the limitless nature of human potential; Khan subverts that ideal by combining the heights of human endurance and cunning with a brutal amorality. This ruthless “savagery,” as Khan himself describes it to Kirk, is so utterly absent from 23rd century humanity that Starfleet must resurrect it from their ancestors to use against the Klingon Empire. Most damningly, Khan isn’t a medieval European king or bygone Asian emperor who ruled at a time when such brutality was expected. He came to power in the mid-to-late 1990s. He’s one of us.
Into Darkness may have lacked grand soliloquies on philosophy or visions of gleaming utopia, but it did counterpoise Kirk and the Enterprise against contemporary societal issues. Since the last Star Trek film alone we’ve seen a Starfleet more militarized after its failure to defend Vulcan, whose upper echelons are even willing to use untraceable missiles to kill fugitives. Our heroes ultimately reject targeted killings, threat inflation, societal militarization, and the worldview that Khan and the Starfleet admiral who awakened him represent. Crucially, Kirk’s final position is influenced by Spock’s cool logic and McCoy’s folksy wisdom but not framed by either. Instead the Starfleet captain from Iowa relies upon a much simpler argument: that’s not who we are.
Americans, especially millennials, can understand this. The destruction of Vulcan in the first film changed Kirk and Spock’s timeline; 9/11 changed ours. How many young Americans learned Arabic and Pashto or studied counterterrorism and international relations because nineteen men flew three planes into a building and one into the ground, killing thousands? The September 11th attacks prefaced a decade marked by the proliferation of Islamic terrorism, long and painful wars in the Middle East, a toxic and divisive political climate in the United States, weakened protections for civil liberties, and vast expansions of government power. Is that who we are now? Is that who we want to be from now on?
Granted, Into Darkness doesn’t provide flawless comparisons. Whereas Starfleet doesn’t bother telling the Klingons they’re going to kill a fugitive on their homeworld with advanced missiles, for example, the U.S. government’s targeted killing program almost certainly operates drones in Pakistan and Yemen with those governments’ secret permission. And as Kirk and the audience also later discover, a Starfleet admiral orchestrated the entire terrorism campaign to provoke a war with the Klingons. The parallels with contemporary American society aren’t perfect, but the trajectory is unmistakable.
To what extent must we reshape our society to confront threats, real or imagined?” As far as Star Trek’s questions go, it’s not as dramatic as “Should we use a morphogenic virus against the Founders?” or as philosophical as “Are androids entitled to the equal protection of the laws?” But it is more pertinent. Kirk gives us his answer in the film’s closing monologue, a eulogy for those who died in Khan’s final devastating attack.
There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves. Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that’s not who we are. When Christopher Pike first gave me his ship, he had me recite the Captain’s Oath. [“Space, the final frontier…”] Words I didn’t appreciate at the time. But now I see them as a call for us to remember who we once were and who we must be again.
Will Barack Obama, a Trekkie, heed this call? The president signaled a willingness to change course in his State of the Union address earlier this year. On Thursday, he’ll give a speech at the National Defense University on the drone program, Guantanamo Bay, and counterterrorism where he might outline those shifts. Already Obama has overseen significant broader shifts in American foreign policy by emphasizing multilateralism and a widely-touted “Asia pivot,” with varying degrees of success. But Obama, unlike Kirk, has so far failed to recast the current conflict in his own terms or to bring it to a close.
Thus the psychological burdens remain. George W. Bush framed the struggle against al-Qaeda as a “war on terror” and the imagery remains fixed in the American collective consciousness. But this level of indefinite conflict is mostly unfamiliar to the American historical experience. Britain recognized independence after Yorktown, Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Berlin fell to the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union fell in Berlin. Without a capital to seize or an army to defeat, bin Laden’s death might be the closest American society can come to closure. That’s why, instead of the macabre triumphalism that some commentators described with revulsion, the street celebrations and public jubilation following bin Laden’s death should be seen as a societal catharsis too long denied. When Obama announced the raid in Abbottabad, another dark chapter in American history seemed ready to close. It hasn’t yet, of course, but the onus is now on us. When it comes to ending the war on terror, the first step is choosing to take one.
Perhaps there’s still room for Star Trek to set the example for us after all. Kirk tells us to remember not only who we once were, but that we must be them again. The film ends with the characters embarking upon the five-year mission of exploration that made them legends in another timeline. Balance is restored and history is (mostly) returned to its rightful trajectory.
The Enterprise is leading us not into darkness, but out of it.