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).
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.”
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.