Friday, September 06, 2019

Star Trek Week 2019: Beyond

The world really needs a good Star Trek movie right about now. 


As a reminder of who we are, who we have been, and who, I hope, we can be again.

And because -- let’s face it -- 2016 wasn't a good year for humanity.

Nor was 2017, 2018 or 2019. Historic international alliances are in jeopardy because of the politics of fear and resentment, and major candidates for high office paint dystopian, apocalyptic pictures of our collective future based on the scapegoating of ethnic and religious minorities. 

Instead of actively engaging with the world, we see an administration putting forward major policies about retreat and retrenchment. They want to build walls to separate us from the rest of humanity, presumably to cower behind in terror.

It’s a worrisome time to be alive, as the unity of Western society frays, and long-held values are threatened by surging nativism, racism, and demagoguery. We are told to fear and ban those who don’t share our “beliefs,” while those who make such recommendations trade on slander, conspiracy theories, logical fallacies, and division.

Who needs enemies from outside our borders when we have them inside our borders, inciting violence and hatred?

By contrast, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek has proven itself a beacon of light and optimism for fifty years now. 

It is a vision of a future in which people of different cultures (and co-cultures) -- and different beliefs -- work together in unity, to push the boundaries of knowledge and friendship ever further. 

It is a vision in which racism is conquered, and all life forms are considered worthy of respect, of appreciation.  

It is a vision in which the unknown is only knowledge “temporarily hidden,” and fear and hatred are more dangerous forces than are alien beings, or other belief systems.

Consider: fifty-three years ago, the makers of Star Trek put a white Caucasian male, a green-blooded Vulcan, an Asian man, a Russian, a Southern gentleman, a Scot, and an African woman together in the control room of a starship and showed us that this crew represented humanity’s best not in spite of their differences, but because of their differences

Captain Kirk, a bold leader, needed the advice of his logical alien friend, and of his cantankerous Southern medico too.  But he could not take his starship anywhere without the Asian man and Russian man driving it, or the Scotsman keeping the whole thing from flying apart. And the African woman at the communications console was the ship’s voice to the universe at large, mellifluous and gentle.

The lesson of Star Trek was -- and remains -- that the future is ours for the taking if we can overcome the petty differences of the present.

We achieve that world by getting to know each other, and learning to respect and even love the differences we see in one other. When we don’t know others, we stereotype them, we discriminate against them.  When we get to know others, we detect common ground, and we see ourselves mirrored back.

A hideous rock monster, upon further knowledge, is a mother protecting her young. (“The Devil in the Dark.”) A weird energy cloud is not a zoo-keeper or captor, but a companion, and friend, upon learning the facts (“Metamorphosis.”)  A hideous monster in a giant spacecraft is actually a child-like being, prone to laughter, testing our resolve, and seeking friendship (“The Corbomite Maneuver.”)

Those are just three examples from Star Trek’s fifty year history in which hostility is reduced not by war or gunfire, but by attempts to understand and appreciate that which is different, or unknown, to us.

We need a good Star Trek movie right now -- especially now -- to remind us of all this.  We need Star Trek to remind us that we don’t have to wallow in petty resentment, and nay, that we musn’t do so, if we hope to achieve the egalitarian future Star Trek projects with such optimism and confidence.

Thankfully, Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond (2016) is not just a good Star Trek movie, it is a great one -- the best of the reboots so far -- and perhaps the best motion picture in the franchise since the original series cast said goodbye in 1991’s The Undiscovered Country.

The purists and nitpickers will complain -- because they always do -- but Star Trek Beyond is a joyous, optimistic expression of Gene Roddenberry’s core ethos and belief system. The future need not be about war or bloodshed. It can be about friendship, loyalty, progress, and the better angels of human nature.

Star Trek Beyond occurs in a dangerous period for the Enterprise -- and the Federation -- as an unknown menace strikes unexpectedly from out of the dark, threatening the crew’s survival. This force hates everything the Federation stands for, and wants to take Earth and its people back to a previous age, to a time of victory and glory, but not, importantly, of inclusion or equality. This force thrives on fear and disunity.

Facing this threat, the Enterprise crew -- separated and endangered -- never forgets its unity of purpose, or ideals, and fights back to preserve progress.

Replete with many delightful and pertinent references to Treks past (particularly, Enterprise [2001-2005]), Star Trek Beyond doesn’t recycle old villains or ask us to relive old narratives. 

Instead, it provides a fresh tale that plays right into the cultural dialogue of the present epoch. It thus fulfills Star Trek’s highest aesthetic and moral purpose: it serves as a social commentary on who we are, right now.  

And -- again optimistically -- it shows us that we draw strength from unity, not fear.  

Perhaps the greatest quality about this movie is the manner in which it shows each crew member -- Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Sulu, Scotty, and Chekov -- contributing to the well-being and safety of the crew, and indeed, the universe. Not since Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), have we had a Trek movie which highlights every member of the bridge crew so effectively, and with such delightful good humor.

Similarly, Star Trek Beyond’s commentary about “unity” in the face of backwards, divisive villains, not only reflects the specifics of the asymmetric warfare tactics of our current age, but finds literary and historic “symbols” to make its case about progress.

Sometimes, we get “lost,” the movie suggests, but we can find our way back…with a little help from our (pointy-eared) friends.

“Unity is not your strength. It is a weakness.”

Three years into the Enterprise’s five year mission, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is tired, and uncertain about the future, feeling that every day is becoming “episodic.”  As his birthday nears, he considers a vice admiral position in Starfleet, and turning the ship over to Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto).

Spock, upset to learn of the death of Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy), is also reconsidering his options for the future.

The ship docks briefly at a new starbase on the frontier, Yorktown. Once there, Kirk learns from Commodore Paris (Shohreh Aghdashloo) that the Enterprise is needed to help a crew in distress.

That distress call, however, proves to be a lure to get the Enterprise into an uncharted nebula. Once inside, the ship comes under attack from a swarm of bee-like spacecraft, which cripple her.  The enemy leader, Krall (Idris Elba), apparently seeks an artifact that Kirk has aboard the starship; an artifact that can be used as a weapon.

Krall captures most of the Enterprise crew, including Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) and holds them captive on a nearby planet surface. Scotty, however, befriends an alien, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), who has made herself a home out of a crashed Starfleet vessel over a century old, the U.S.S. Franklin.

As Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin) attempt to locate the position of the missing crew-members, McCoy (Karl Urban) must tend to Spock, who has been badly wounded.

As Starfleet’s finest gather -- with no ship and no crew -- the Federation’s future itself is at stake from a monster who wants to see the progress of the last century torn down. He wants a return to the past he knows, and will stop at nothing, even mass-murder, to achieve that goal.

“This is where the frontier pushes back.”

One of the greatest lines in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country comes from the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner). He notes to Captain Kirk that “if there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it.”

His line suggest that progress is always jeopardized by an old guard; a generation, or establishment that wants to maintain the status quo. Even if that status quo is conflict and warfare.

In many ways, this is also the subject matter of Star Trek Beyond

Krall is a man who was bred into war and conflict, and who fought the Romulans and the Xindi as a military officer. After those wars, he saw the emergence of a “brave new world” (like Gorkon’s) and couldn’t adjust to it.  Instead, he feared it.

The world he had served in was, specifically, human centric, but this new “Federation” is not.  Instead, in the new order, humans are just one square in a quilt of many colors and designs.  This fact is conveyed in beautiful visual terms through Beyond’s surfeit of aliens.  It has been years since so many alien beings took center stage in a Star Trek film, and their make-up and designs here are fantastic.

But the message is that Krall wants things to go back to being the way they were when he was comfortable and at the top of the food chain; he wants to return to a “human” world, or one where humans are, at least, first in line.  

We see a similar desire in 2016 America, as demographics change.  There is a longing by some to “take America back” to a time when it was less diverse, less colorful, and more monolithic.

It is no accident, I submit, that the new starbase in the film is named Yorktown.  

It is true, of course,  that Yorktown was the original name of the starship Enterprise in pre-production of the original series in the 1960s.
But historically-speaking, Yorktown was the site of the last battle of the American Revolutionary War. It was there, in 1781, that the forces of the Colonies defeated the British, and finally, truly became something greater than a group of states. After Yorktown, those states -- which had declared their independence from England in 1776 -- truly became the United States of America.  The war was, for all intents and purposes, over.

And yet those thirteen colonies, of course, still had big differences in terms of industry and agriculture, religious belief, and even geographical features. Beyond, by selecting the name Yorktown, celebrates the last battle for the birth of the United Sttates. And thus, we can speculate that this Yorktown is the place that expresses, in the final frontier, the ideals of the ethnically-diverse, still young United Federation of Planets.

We know it is vulnerable. Bones compares it, explicitly, to a glass snow-globe. 

Glass snow-globes break. By inference, we understand that this is a fragile time in the history of the Federation.

Pitched against the young Federation is a villain named Krall, who is essentially a 23rd century equivalent to Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). But Krall is based more upon the literary figure, Kurtz than he is the historical one. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz is described as a demi-god; as being more than a man.  Given his abilities to regenerate (and absorb life), Krall could be given the same description.

In Conrad’s narrative, Kurtz is a man who goes to the Congo Free State and becomes a tyrant of sorts, using superior technology to control the natives. He is prone to exclamations of hate such as “Exterminate the Beasts!”  

Krall -- also like his literary corollary -- travels to uncharted territory, harnesses unusual technology, and plans a campaign of extermination. He even gets, upon his demise, a kind of “the horror, the horror” moment, at least in visual terms.  

But most importantly, Krall is a strong contrast to our Starfleet crew.

He is a twisted reflection of Kirk, at least on one level.  Kirk fears getting “lost” as captain of a starship, engaging in an enterprise with no end, and with no relativistic direction. Krall is the embodiment of such a lost captain; one who goes up river, or into the nebula, and strikes out to make his own kingdom or fiefdom. He cannot live in modernity.

And Krall, again in keeping with his literary antecedent, views alien races (read: the natives) not as equals or as beings to respect, but as people to conquer; to destroy. Like the Enterprise crew, he is “of” civilization, and yet falls victim to ethnocentrism; the belief that other cultures are not as worthy as his own. This is especially ironic considering how he willingly and repeatedly sacrifices his human appearance for longevity.

Star Trek Beyond thus diagrams a pitched battle between the forces of egalitarian progress -- represented by the U.S.S. Enterprise crew -- and the regressive forces of nativism/racism/imperialism. This “war” is waged at the aforementioned Yorktown, a place that -- if it survives -- will be remembered, perhaps, as a true test of the Federation’s unity (just as the 1781 battle of Yorktown cemented the unity of the Colonies).

I find it fascinating how Star Trek Beyond’s screenplay suggests a knowledge of history and literature, and more than that, finds a way to give those influences valid context inside the Star Trek world. 

It’s no accident, either, that the film picks and chooses its original series references carefully.  

In my introduction, I noted the line about the unknown being something, simply, “temporarily hidden.”  

That is an exact quote from Pine’s Kirk in Star Trek Beyond.  It is also, importantly, a quote from Shatner’s Kirk in the original Trek episode, “The Corbomite Manuever.”  

That episode concerns the Enterprise crew grappling with a fear of the unknown, until the light of understanding dawns.  There is even a crewman in that installment, named Bailey, who becomes convulsed with fear…until steadied by Kirk.  Star Trek Beyond chooses wisely indeed, this particular allusion, because the film concerns what happens when people are fearful.  The “other” becomes someone not merely different…but terrifying…a force to be destroyed.  

This is precisely how Krall sees the universe.

There are other original series references in Beyond that will draw positive reactions from longtime fans.  These come from “Amok Time” (“in a pig’s eye!”), “Who Mourns for Adonais” (the giant green space hand quip), and “A Private Little War” (“Lucky his heart is where his liver should be, or he’d be dead right now.”) That last one, especially, plays into Beyond’s theme of being strong because of differences, not in spite of them. McCoy credits Spock’s survival to his Vulcan anatomy. Were he human, he would have been killed.  

He is strong, literally, because of his differences from us.

The theme of “differences making one strong” weave in and out of the Beyond narrative at different points. Jaylah is a thickly-accented alien of unique appearance, for example. She could be treated as an enemy, but Scotty treats her as a friend, and her knowledge and abilities become part of the key to defeating Krall. 

Strictly-speaking, Kirk doesn’t “need” Jaylah alive to defeat Krall at Yorktown. By that point, she has done all she can do, really.  But Kirk treats her as a necessary member of the team, and risks his life to rescue her, in one of the film’s many dynamic action sequences.

Star Trek Beyond also references today’s post-War on Terror threats with Krall’s method of ambush. He launches an attack against the Enterprise with thousands of bee-like fighter crafts which carry quite a “sting.” 

There is no typical ship-to-ship combat here (a nice way of keeping things fresh and inventive, certainly). Instead, the Enterprise is overwhelmed by a force of chaos the crew can hardly understand.  Welcome to the world of modern, unconventional warfare. Two forces, with significantly different strategy and tactics, collide.

Historically-speaking, I couldn’t help but think of this ambush scene as being reflective of the U.S.S. Cole incident.  That American Navy destroy was attacked by terrorist bombers in October of 2000.  

But the situation is analogous. A powerful force, representing a vast organization or nation-state, is suddenly and unexpectedly jeopardized by a small but zealous force of vicious fighters using the techniques of asymmetric warfare.

But Star Trek Beyond succeeds as Star Trek not only because of its social commentary and allusions to literature and history, but because writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung have absolutely captured the essence of the franchise’s diverse characters, and their relationships. 

It is a pleasure to report that Pine, Quinto, Urban and all the others have become their characters in a dynamic, delightful way.  In the original Star Trek, there was always this sense of esprit de corps -- of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants ingenuity in the face of danger and insurmountable odds.  

This film nails that spirit like no film in the franchise since the aforementioned The Undiscovered Country.  Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura and the others live and breathe again, and showcase, for fans, the promise of Starfleet. 

Even when the people around you are different in color, sex, or planet of origin, they are worthy of, loyalty, empathy, compassion, and, finally, love. 

That pointy-eared hobgoblin who drives you crazy can be, simply, the best friend you’ll ever know. 

Although I can’t believe this, there are those fans who complain of too much action in Star Trek Beyond.  There is indeed, plenty of it, but what there is really a lot of here is, simply, characterization…of the crew as individuals, and the crew as teammates.  

Again, not since Star Trek IV have we seen the crew on individual adventures, but working towards a task accomplishing “the needs of the many.”

And the message -- of all these unlike parts working together for the betterment of us all -- is transmitted, expertly, particularly in the film’s coda.  

We hear the traditional Star Trek narration. You know the words by heart: “Space, the final frontier…”

But for the first time, this fifty-year old narration is not spoken by merely the captain of a starship.  

Instead, the entire command crew delivers it sequentially -- handing-off the words from Kirk to Spock to Bones, to Scotty, and so on -- thus proving again, that the diverse characters of Star Trek are joined in a noble purpose, for the sake of us all. They are united, not diversity. And in their unity they are indomitable.

I am thankful we got a great and timely Trek in Star Trek Beyond. 

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