BEWARE: THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD
I came into Star Trek: Into Darkness with very low expectations. (see here). I thought that the first Abrams Trek was enjoyable, but much more of a space adventure movie than a Star Trek movie. It lacked what the best Star Trek movies and episodes have, which is an overarching moral theme.
(What do I mean by moral theme? I mean that, for example, Star Trek VI is about overcoming enmity and bitterness for the sake of peace. Star Trek IV is a cautionary tale about our environmental recklessness. Star Trek II is an absolutely epic, philosophic tour de force about James Kirk’s journey from adolescent heroism to mature adulthood by accepting his own mortality.)
Star Trek didn’t have that. Neither did other, weaker, Trek films like Star Trek III, First Contact, Generations, etc.
Star Trek: Into Darkness, however, does have an essential moral theme. A theme that underlies nearly every minute of the film from the first to last. That theme is simple:
Starfleet officers prioritize the ideals of the Federation over safety; not only the safety of themselves, but also the safety of others.
The very first thing that Kirk does in Into Darkness is violate the Prime Directive for the sake of saving Spock. Following that, he is chewed out by Pike and demoted. And what was Kirk’s defense? His defense is that in his tour as Captain of the Enterprise, he had not lost a single crewman.
That loyalty to his crew is admirable. It’s an admirable thing for a leader of any group. But as Pike rightly points out to him - there is an arrogance to it as well. And Spock’s admonition towards Kirk for saving his life is that he did so by violating one of the primary ideals of the Federation.
That arrogance infects Admiral Marcus, who uses Section 31 and Khan to advance the military might of the Federation so that he might provoke a war with the Klingon Empire. Throughout the course of the film, Marcus rejects virtually every Federation principle and most other ethical principles besides.
In the name of safety, of course.
It’s telling that the pivotal moral decision of this movie is Kirk’s decision to personally capture Khan instead of killing him without trial. Despite the fact that it’s the riskier move. Despite the fact that he was ordered to kill Khan. Despite his seething personal rage and desire for revenge.
Inspired by the ethical wisdom of Spock and Scotty’s decision to resign, and no doubt with Pike’s words ringing in his ears, Kirk beats back his rage and makes the correct moral decision. The decision that’s in keeping with Federation ideals.
The rest of the movie is simply dealing with the consequences of that decision, culminating with the mirror image of a similar scene in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. At the end of the movie, James T. Kirk, the smug, arrogant prick who cheated to avoid a no-win scenario sacrifices himself for his crew. That was the cost of his pivotal decision to do the right thing and not sacrifice morality for pragmatism.
“I’m scared, Spock.” he said as the compartment flooded with radiation. An amazingly humble thing for this Kirk to admit, isn’t it? And yet, as he tells his friend, “I did what you would have done.” And we are back full circle to the beginning of the movie, where Spock was fully willing, despite his fears, to sacrifice himself for a greater idea.
And by the end of the film, the James Kirk who always took the easy way out finally found himself willing to make the sacrifice for a greater principle.
Complain about Khan’s blood all you want, but that’s not nearly as bad at science as the Genesis device. Nitpick all the plot holes you want, but no hole is as big as Khan not realizing what was meant by “hours will seem like days.”
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the best Trek movie because of its great story surrounding its philosophic theme. It is also chalk full of stupid plot holes and bad science.
Star Trek: Into Darkness also has its share of stupid plot holes and bad science. But despite those things, it is also a great story set around a moral theme.
That’s pretty much as Star Trek as it gets.
“We’re still remaining tight lipped about the plot. I don’t care how many spoiler monsters plaster story details across their blogs, we’re still keeping schtum. It’s important to protect the audience experience and that sometimes means protecting the audience from itself. Someone on Twitter accused me of lying about a plot detail of Into Darkness the other day, as though I owed them the truth in some way; as if there is some law somewhere that states film makers have to fess up to the secrets of their movies if speculation randomly hits upon a truth. I say screw that, as far as I’m concerned, the people who are hell bent on ruining the film for everyone else are the enemy and I owe them nothing, least of all the truth.”
Read Pegg’s full interview here, but I agree with this wholeheartedly. What’s the point of knowing the story ahead of time? Knowing ruins it.
“Machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work a man can do.”
So said Herbert Simon, an early artificial intelligence researcher, in 1965.
Western civilization, it seems to me, stands by two great heritages. One is the scientific spirit of adventure — the adventure into the unknown, an unknown which must be recognized as being unknown in order to be explored; the demand that the unanswerable mysteries of the universe remain unanswered; the attitude that all is uncertain; to summarize it — the humility of the intellect. The other great heritage is Christian ethics — the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual — the humility of the spirit.
These two heritages are logically, thoroughly consistent. But logic is not all; one needs one’s heart to follow an idea. If people are going back to religion, what are they going back to? Is the modern church a place to give comfort to a man who doubts God — more, one who disbelieves in God? Is the modern church a place to give comfort and encouragement to the value of such doubts? So far, have we not drawn strength and comfort to maintain the one or the other of these consistent heritages in a way which attacks the values of the other? Is this unavoidable? How can we draw inspiration to support these two pillars of western civilization so that they may stand together in full vigor, mutually unafraid?
I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both.
Then I said to myself, ‘The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?’
I said to myself, ‘This too is meaningless.’
For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!