Sunday, August 7, 2016


I should like this new Star Trek film: Star Trek Beyond. After all, it’s wrapped around an idea that is core to my writing at The Missing Point. If you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want do that before reading further... or not.  **SPOILERS BELOW**

I should like this film, but I don’t. Ever since J.J. Abrams “rebooted” the franchise, creating an alternate timeline outside Star Trek canon, Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry’s essential ethos has been more set dressing than central theme. For me, this ethos has always been one of transcendence, a vision of humanity’s future beyond the petty conflicts we presently use to define our existence.

Gene’s vision has, at times, proven difficult for Star Trek writers to embrace. It doesn’t fit into a western narrative structure defined by conflict:

Ok – so what kind of story would it be without the conflict? Would it be a story at all? English 101 instructs that a story has a beginning, middle, and an end. This is referred to as the three-act structure: Setup (exposition), Confrontation (conflict), and Resolution. Accordingly, the conflict moves the plot forward and fuels the reader’s interest. It is the central feature of the dramatic arc, building tension and leading to the climax of the story. Man against man, man against society, man against nature, man against self – this is our accepted model of narrative structure. No conflict – no story.

Star Trek boldly asks, what does a story look like that begins on the other side of this dramatic arc?

Some of the best Trek, cheats this a bit by backtracking into conflict in order to showcase the transcendence itself, rather than purely focusing on a vision of what follows. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, a particular favorite of mine, is an excellent example of this.

In that film, director Nicholas Meyer cast Kirk himself as the character that must transcend his own prejudice and hatred. This thematic choice was met with protest from both William Shatner and Gene Rodenberry; Shatner objecting to Kirk exhibiting this kind of naked prejudice, and Gene objecting to the very presence of prejudice in a Star Trek film. Again, Gene’s vision begins after humanity has transcended prejudice, greed, hunger, war, etc.

The new film, Beyond, presents a dualistic narrative pitting “unity” against “struggle.” Three years into their Five Year Mission, an exhausted crew is confronted by a ruthless adversary, who pointedly argues that strength only comes through struggle, that unity makes the Federation weak. And of course, this adversary, Krall, is hell bent on destroying the Federation to prove his point. Much later in the film the crew uncovers that Krall is one of our own, a soldier who cannot let go of the long fought wars preceding the Federation’s formation.

There are a number of similarities between this new film and Star Trek VI. The adversary in STVI also turns out to be one of our own, an entire cabal of politicians and generals in fact, who prefer their familiarity with war to their uncertainty of peace. But STVI goes deeper to reveal the enemy within – Kirk’s prejudice, and how it blinds him to the true motivations behind the unfolding events.

The adversary in Beyond is certainly not the first Star Trek villain to be presented as beyond the reach of reconciliation, but given this film’s emphasis on the distinction between “unity” and “struggle,” it seems odd that the Federation crew would seek to resolve the conflict through more struggle. An argument could be made that it is the “unity” of the crew that allows them to prevail in this conflict, but ultimately it is Kirk that confronts this too far gone enemy in a knock down drag out fist fight. Again, not particularly uncharacteristic for Kirk, but also not particularly indicative of United Federation ideals either.

Is the Federation, and Star Trek in general, simply a vision of unity in the face of adversity, against a common foe? What about Gene’s vision of unity for the sake of the common good?

Krall’s backstory provides an opportunity for this “united” Federation to show what it really takes to make peace, to take responsibility for the chaos our wars create. We train our soldiers to be killers, to set their humanity aside, symbolically shown through Krall’s monstrous transformation. How do we bring them back into the fold once the war has ended? Is there really no possibility for resolution or reconciliation here? Is the only solution to destroy the monster we have created in order to save ourselves? Is there honor in this? Is this the message of Star Trek Beyond?

While I found the dualistic narrative presented in beyond lacking, it does feel strangely appropriate for our time. People around the world are refusing to fall into line with the fear based neoliberal narratives used to control them. Here in the States, Bernie Sanders ran on the slogan “A Future to Believe In.” Hillary Clinton went with the perennially popular “Fighting for us.” Now we are all supposed to be “Stronger Together.” Stronger than what? Stronger than who? In order to do what? Do we really need a common enemy to define our unity? Perhaps we should start thinking about how we might address the needs of the people beyond the conflict narrative, from the other side of that dramatic arc.

As Kirk says in STVI – “People can be very frightened of change.”

Gets me every time.

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