The Essence of Star Trek

A couple days ago, we finally got a new trailer for Star Trek: Beyond that felt a bit more like “real Star Trek.” Now, there are Trekkies who will say none of the new films are “real Trek,” but I’m not one of them. Though parts of Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) irritated me as a life-long Trekkie, overall I thought they were good stories and I’m nothing but pleased with the cast’s performances of my favorite characters (especially Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy).

The Essence of Star Trek | marissabaker.wordpress.com
image credit: my screenshot from Star Trek Online

I did, however, feel these films were missing a focus that has always been core to the idea of Star Trek. Star Trek’s mission is about exploration, science, new cultures, and ideas. It’s not a space-battle heavy type of science fiction nor was it a “crisis of the week” type of show. It’s much more thoughtful than that. The new movies engaged with ideas of this nature to a certain extent, but they were also fast-paced, explosion-heavy, and largely earth-centric blockbuster films. The first trailer for Star Trek: Beyond made it look like the new film took that to an extreme. It was so bad that Simon Peg admitted he “didn’t love it” and told Trek fans “hang in there, be patient.”

In this new trailer we get discussion about Kirk’s motivation and character. We finally see hints of exploring new worlds, engaging with different cultures, and wrestling with tough ideas. This makes me happy because, at its core, Star Trek is about people trying to do the right thing in complicated situations. Trek should engage with current cultural topics in a unique way. It should support the idea that “good” and “right” are a real things rather than abstract concepts while also acknowledging it’s not always easy to know what’s the good and right thing to do.

Here’s some examples of what I’m talking about. I could list many others (the TNG episode “Measure of a Man,” for one), but for the sake of space I limited it to three episodes. *Spoilers for all episodes below*

TOS: City on the Edge of Forever

Written by science fiction legend Harlan Ellison, “City on the Edge of Forever” is regarded by many as hands-down the finest episode in the Original Series and perhaps all of Star Trek. After Doctor McCoy inadvertently alters earth’s history, Kirk and Spock travel back to the 1930s to repair the time-line, at which point Kirk (predictably) falls for a woman who needs to die for history to play-out as it should. Edith Keeler is a social-worker who runs a soup kitchen and seeks peace for the entire planet. In the correct timeline, she dies in a car accident. If Doctor McCoy saves her life, her peace movement delays U.S. involvement in World War II.

Kirk is the product of a society with the type of peaceful, one-world government Edith dreams of and fights for. He agrees with her ideologically, but he also knows that if she lives Germany’s victory prevents the formation of his unified future-earth. The whole episode grapples with the ideas of responsibility and accountability. Letting someone die is wrong, but letting a planet’s future die would also be wrong. Which is the lesser evil? Can we allow one personal tragedy in order to prevent a global catastrophe? Those are questions we’re still wrestling with today.

DS9: In The Pale Moonlight

While not one of my favorite episodes, “In the Pale Moonlight” is a good example of what we’re talking about today. The story is set during the Dominion War, and the Federation is losing. To borrow from Memory Alpha’s description, “Captain Sisko enlists Garak’s help to ‘persuade’ the Romulans to join the Federation/Klingon alliance to win the war. Sisko unwittingly learns that to save the Federation, he may have to sell his soul and the values Starfleet stands for.” Sisko, and the audience, wrestle with the question of how far the “good guys” can or should go to win a war. He begins with “good intentions,” but they’re the sort that proverbially pave a road to hell.

As the plan becomes ever more complex, he moves from spying, to fabricating false evidence, to paying off dangerous criminals with the ingredients for biogenic weapons, and finally he becomes complicit in an assassination. But Sisko hasn’t gone off the deep end — he simply came up with a plan, received approval, and kept moving forward with sanction from the Federation. Though the assassination wasn’t part of the original plan, there aren’t any repercussions for it. Romulus declares war and the Alpha quadrant is saved. Mission accomplished. But not without great moral wrestling. The episode ends with Sisko staring into the camera ending his personal log with the words, “So I will learn to live with it…Because I can live with it…I can live with it.”

STC: Lolani

Star Trek Continues really feels like a 4th season of the Original Series, and it continues Star Trek’s rich history of dealing with complicated ethical questions and current cultural issues. In this episode (click to watch), the Enterprise rescues a frightened Orion slave girl from a damaged ship. Having been taken from her family and enslaved, Lolani’s situation is very much akin to trafficked victims here on earth. You might think freeing her is the obvious, moral thing to do, but Star Trek is never simple. The episode wrestles with other issues as well, such as whether or not Lolani’s victimization can excuse her crimes and to what extent Kirk and his people can legally help her.

Since the Orion system isn’t part of the Federation and their law demands any slaves found revert to Orion control, the Federation insists Kirk return Lolani rather than risk an international incident. Kirk initially complies, then chooses to rescue her in violation of Starfleet orders. Before he can, Lolani kills herself and her master by destroying the ship. It’s too late for his change of heart to help; for his moral core to over-ride his nation’s law. That saves the Federation from war with the Orions, but what does it do to Kirk’s soul?

I’m hoping Star Trek: Beyond and the new series coming next year continue Trek’s history of tackling complex ideas, pushing us outside our cultural comfort zones, and looking at issues and ideas from multiple angles. I want more stories that make us think while they’re entertaining us.

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Love in the Enderverse

Cover of the only version of Ender’s Game I could find in the library

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been reading Orson Scott Card’s Ender books. Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say I’ve been absorbed by them. So far, I’ve finished Ender’s Game, the three sequels, and four of the Shadow books (Shadows in Flight is waiting for me on the bookshelf). After finishing these books, I feel like I know the characters better than many people I’ve been friends with for years.

I’d been meaning to read more Orson Scott Card for some time, since I stumbled upon one of his short stories in a sci-fi collection. Ender’s Game moved to the top of my reading list after I found out it’s going to be a film. I wanted to read the book before Hollywood ruins it (don’t get me wrong — I’m going to see the movie and it might be good, but there’s no way it can be as good as the book).

The Ideas

It’s not just the amazing characters that make these books so compelling. The ideas that Card presents in his stories are some of the most fascinating I’ve ever encountered in fiction. Ender’s key to defeating an enemy is just a sample of these compelling ideas (quote is from Ender’s Game, the idea shows up in all the books).

In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them…. I destroy them.

Don’t you just want to give him a hug? Anyway, this is the idea I’ve pondered the most since starting this series: when you fully understand someone and see through their eyes, you can’t help but love them. This is underscored (for me at least) by my reaction to the characters. By the end of Ender’s Game, I knew him and felt for him. I had similar connections with Bean in Ender’s Shadow and Peter in the other Shadow books, especially Shadow of the Giant. Orson Scott Card wrote the characters so well that readers can understand them well enough to love them (to the point that I finished three of these eight books in tears not necessary because I was sad, but because I was overwhelmed by how much I sympathized with the characters).

A Spiritual Question

One of the thoughts this idea — the connection between understanding someone and loving them — has sparked in my mind is a possible answer to a spiritual question. Just reading though the Bible, I can accept “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16). But when I start to think about this a little more deeply it’s mind-blowing. Christ didn’t come to die only for the good “lovable” people in the world. He died for and loved everyone, even the people we would classify as the most unlovable. How is such love possible?

Since reading books from the Enderverse, I’ve been wondering if God’s love for everyone might have something to do with the fact that He is all-knowing. He understands everything  and sees into our hearts, and even when He does not approve of our actions or is angry with us, He loves perfectly. It’s an interesting “something to think about.”

If you’d like to try reading these novels, here’s a list of books in the series. It shows both publication order and a (rough) chronological order in the Enderverse.