Star Trek: The Right Stuff?

Note:  Contains spoilers and has become more of a reflection than a review* …

Star Trek Movie Poster

Star Trek Movie Poster

Faith & Geekery claims Star Trek Will Rock the Summer.  Yes, Star Trek features superb action, casting, soundtrack, and special effects.  As a fan who only reached the theater on Monday (to distinguish myself from Trekkies who went to the early screening in uniform/costume on Thursday night), Star Trek not only fit in the 43 year history well enough, but also created the foundation for a future series which will boldly go where it hasn’t quite gone before.

With that on the table, I must confess that I spent much of the film reflecting upon how followers of Christ in the academic community should respond to Star Trek‘s portrayal of reality, courage, emotion, integrity, intellect, love, mentoring, and what is right. Why?  Because J.J. Abrams set the destiny shaping, coming of age story of the crew of the Starship Enterprise (largely focused upon Spock and James T. Kirk) in the context of Kirk’s rise to Captain before early graduation from Starfleet Academy.  Kirk was so much the right stuff that he received special recognition for his heroic emergency field service and completely avoided the traditional fast track to Captain as described by Captain Christopher Pike earlier in the film, i.e., four years at Starfleet Academy followed by four years in the field.

1.  With regard to Star Trek‘s portrayal of reality, I find it hard to avoid the age old question of what is the science of Star Trek? ** On this topic, even Roger Ebert has a word or 2 for the director J.J. Abrams.  Since the art of storytelling involves sharing a convincing story, what does one do with black holes as a portal for space time travel depositing crafts unharmed at different times?  Or how about the opportunity for one character to discuss future direction with his future self from a now alternate time line (should we call it a parallel universe)?  As I have not received academic training in this area, I see this as an opportunity to learn more about God’s creation.  Any scientists or philosophers have some bit sized educational tidbits/links on black holes, time travel, and/or life co-existing across parallel universes?

2.  But good storytelling holds together and calls us to suspend disbelief.  Let’s say I embrace the science of Star Trek.   Do we find ourselves left with a space soap opera (Roger Ebert)?  The NY Times review (A Franchise Goes Boldly Backward) declares

“Star Trek,” the latest spinoff from the influential television show, isn’t just a pleasurable rethink of your geek uncle’s favorite science-fiction series. It’s also a testament to television’s power as mythmaker, as a source for some of the fundamental stories we tell about ourselves, who we are and where we came from… the spirit of adventure and embrace of rationality that define the show are in full swing, as are the chicks in minis and kicky boots.

Yes, the overwhelming spirit of adventure keeps one engaged throughout much of the film.  But where is the embrace of rationality? Spock’s younger self receives this counsel from his future self (from a now alternate time line),

Do yourself a favor. Put aside logic and do what is right.

Yes, the Spock of the original series could loosen up a little bit and take emotions more into consideration, but are we called to affirm all of the new Spock’s emotional outbursts as right?  Are there logical decisions which the older Spock regrets, wishing he chose what was right?  Surely the new Spock could have used a little more logic and self-control when responding to taunts as a child, when approached physically by his student Uhura,  and when he compromised command in the face of Kirk’s ridicule.  I find it quite disturbing that this last act was encouraged by Spock’s future self in order to form the proper/right relationship on the bridge (and to help his younger self do what was right?).   Are we to understand Kirk’s lifelong passionate expressions of emotion as always right (or leading to helpful outcomes), no matter their impact upon others?

Spock and Kirk

Spock and Kirk

I think that it’s the retaining of Star Trek‘s set, characters, and gadgets without the high humanistic moral ground which gives the Onion’s satire so much stickiness.  Deep down our culture has nod, nod, wink, wink confessed that humanism is all about the winner making the myth and determining what’s right.  Furthermore much of what we have come to embrace as right, even in Christian circles, stems from what feels right at the time.  So what’s wrong with cheating on a final exam in order to graduate, sneaking on board when suspension is pending in order to help the cause, or helping someone’s older self trick their younger self into an inappropriate display of emotion which compromises their ability to lead in order to restore relationships to their proper place(!)?  Are these the type of things which distinguish top students at the Academy, even potentially leading to their recognition?  Does the younger generation not require mentoring, except for a few challenges at destiny-shaping moments to embrace themselves, because they’re in touch with their emotions instead of their rationality (like previous generations) … making them always right?

3.  Spock’s future self shares this counsel with his new, younger self,

You will always be a child of two worlds, and fully capable of determining your own destiny. The question you face is, which path will you choose? This is something only you can decide.

As Christ-followers, we too are children of two world/kingdoms and must make daily decisions regarding our path.  But God is God and we are to responsibly live in submission to His Kingdom alone, not one of our own making. I’m not calling us to embrace logic over feeling.  But instead, I’m urging us to recognize that when we are encouraged to do what feels right at the bar, on the bridge, during the final exam/special project, in the elevator, in our classmate’s apartment, when we reflect upon our past/future, we must submit to the rule and reign of Christ alone.  That’s how we journey through the Academy in the proper manner.  These are the voyages of the Emerging Scholars Network …***


*Note:  Check out Movies: stories of a postmodern generation for some pointers on watching movies.  Recommended review:  Sydney Anglicans.
**For example visit the homepage of Lawrence M. Krauss, author of a number of books including The Physics of Star Trek.
***These pieces may be of interest to you:  Christianity needs to be unfashionable on campus, The Community of Scholars, Part One, The Community of Scholars, Part Two

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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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    Aaron commented on May 14, 2009 Reply

    Terrific thoughts! Lots of good questions, and relevant not just to this film, but to the whole of the Star Trek mythos. This is where film excels: it makes us think and ask deep questions.

    Thanks for the link and for exploring deeper into a very entertaining movie.

  • Tom Grosh commented on May 14, 2009 Reply

    Thank-you Aaron. Great to connect! I really appreciate Faith & Geekery’s focus upon “the peculiar,” … keep pressing on (HT: Gordon).

    Madelaine Hron commented on May 15, 2009 Reply

    Though I was really looking ffw to seeing this newer, hipper version of Star Trek, I was really disappointed by this adaptation…

    Probably because I am female. And thus could not help notice that the film went back and replicated all the misogynism of the 60s as if the last 40 years hadn’t happened… While the original ST could be excused for being sexist, as it was part of the times then, and progressive in many respects (first black woman in a series, first interracial kiss), this film erases all the progress women and their media representations, be they in ST spinoffs or more generally, have made. Here women are back to being mothers, wives and eye-candy. I watched the film with a 13 year old and his equally furious mom; we were both worried that the film sends the wrong message… But thank goodness, when we explained he added \yeah, why do girls have to be green to be interesting? Girls can fly spaceships and kill bad guys too!\

    As for the ethical questions raised by this film, again, I must express my disappointment… The above article only cites Spock’s ethnic identitary crisis, and the fidelity/originality question, both very weak ethical questions… For more of what I mean, I urge folks to read
    Here director Kurtzman notes that the films main message is about cheating (as a positive virtue in this case…) Or that the film’s context is post-911 (as if we couldn’t tell! …) The Federation’s (read American) exceptionalism and “saviour syndrome” is clear here to anyone not American… The Fed’s allies, Romulin or Vulcan, are, after all extinct in this revisionist present or future… And we obviously are fighting a terrorist guerrila group…

    What about discovering strange new world? Seeking new civilizations? Or going where no one has gone before?? I can find them nowhere in this remake… Even the Prime Directive is violated here– by Spock of all people — in the completely illogical scene of Spock meeting Spock… Why even J.K. Rowlings knows better than to avoid influencing the past with the future when time travelling!!

    Madelaine Hron commented on May 15, 2009 Reply

    I correct myself — the above article does rightly address the problematic “do what feels right, (even if that means cheating)” paradigm driving this ST’s version of the “truth”…

    Madelaine Hron commented on May 15, 2009 Reply

    P.S. I obviously “cheated” and did not read the article properly and instead did what felt right — venting my frustration… 😉

  • Tom Grosh commented on May 15, 2009 Reply

    Apology accepted Madelaine. Thanks for joining the conversation 😉

    Yes, it’s disturbing how cheating comes to frame Kirk’s relationship with Spock in Starfleet Academy. In essence, both the new and the old Spock come to embrace cheating for the higher purpose which is winning (i.e., bringing peace to the Federation and some form of proper direction to the future time line?).* Your concerns are similar to “Exploring the Universe, One B-Movie at a Time,” Here’s the conclusion,

    “Ultimately, then, “Star Trek” was prescient not for its futurism, with the Enterprise crew using communicators that look like flip-phones, but for exploring a universe absorbed with pop-culture history. The slogan for the new movie may be “The future begins,” but what “Star Trek” really says is, the past continues.”

    In another NY Times piece, there are statements made regarding the new film being offered as “a tonic for an era when people wonder if perpetual war is becoming the norm” and for the future Spock’s conversation with the younger Spock to be understood as a “baby boomer apology for where we are.” — The Two Sides of ‘Star Trek,’

    *Note: An expansion on the theme of cheating would include Spock’s writing of transporter code for Scotty (which Scotty wrote later in life in the ‘original universe’). But the future Spock in this act along with his others is trying to make the best of the situation provided by Nero’s aggressive use of time travel, no doubt a form of cheating which will yield unknown consequences in the new time line. Spock’s cheated (or defeated) time, space, and Nero? I Star Trek doesn’t become LOST in time and space with Abrams 😉

    Amy commented on May 28, 2009 Reply

    It’s interesting that the lack of strong female characters just didn’t occur to me as I was watching the movie, when I’m usually the one to raise such objections. I think all my attention was focused on how well the actors interpreted their version of these well-known characters. (And since it hasn’t been said yet – Come on! Who isn’t absolutely *floored* by Karl Urban as Bones? As few lines as he got, he sold me with every quip and raised eyebrow.) And since I only watched a handful of the original cast movies, I know nothing about Uhura and had therefore had no reason to expect any significant role for her in this movie. And maybe I’m just losing steam in expecting movies to be better … it’s a good reminder to me.

    As to disappointments with the lack of exploration/interaction with new civilizations in the movie, I’m willing to wait and see how the next turns out. I think realistically, they had to re-use beloved characters in order to get anyone to come to a Star Trek movie. But then they’d always be beholden to those fanatics who are wielding their original series scripts and shouting “Canon!” Personally I am very impressed with the way the writers were able to deliver a script that could neatly turn aside said fanatics, and convert them at the same time to a new storyline that can go to all the new places we’re hoping for.

    Btw, I interpreted Spock’s statement about “doing what’s right” to mean finding value in his relationships, which pure logic does not always account for. And because Spock had struggled previously in the movie with the intermingling of his relationships and his choices – i.e. whether his mother being human should affect his decision to go to the Vulcan Science Academy or Starfleet. But it was quite a vague statement, so I could certainly be wrong on this point.

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