From Superhero Babylon: Illogical...but Fascinating...

Jmaurone's picture
Submitted by Jmaurone on Mon, 2009-06-01 01:10


The J.J. Abram's reboot of Star Trek is, as they say, "not your father's Star Trek." And yet, the more things change...

The J.J. Abram's reboot of Star Trek is, as they say, "not your father's Star Trek." And yet, "the more things change"...The facelift is certainly notable, with an Apple store esthetic that renders the little touches of nostalgia, such as the sound effects, out of place. The music doesn't reflect the original score until the closing credits, wisely, the old theme just didn't feel right in this version. The effects, of course, are stunning, but there is something to be said for the "feel" of the old show. Even some of the intimations of the earlier actors are subtly captured in the new version (or not so subtly, in the case of Dr. McCoy!).

So what is the common denominator between the old and the new that does work? The heroism, of which there is a lot on display. Captain Kirk, of course, remains the space cowboy that we remember, fearless and capable. The whole crew gets their chance to show their heroism in their own way as well, from the physical (Sulu's fencing abilities, Captain Pike's courage, and, of course, the ill-fated red shirt) to the mental (Chekov, Spock, Uhura and Scotty). The story itself doesn't have a lot of meat, but the action speaks volumes, and everyone steps up to the challenge, capturing the "can-do" attitude of the original series. In an age of pyscho-vigilantes like Rorschach of Watchmen or the ineffectualness of The Dark Knight, this is a nod to an earlier era that discards the camp and keeps the hero.
The story, while thin, is interesting in one respect; many have pointed out the lack of a "message" that was often found in the original series. The creators, I believe, have said that would wait until the sequel, so I'm going to take them at their word for the following. I don't believe they intended to plant a "big message," and the message that I detected was inherited from the original series. It is a message that brings the original series to its, uh, "logical" conclusion. The message is in the tension between reason and emotion.
The battle between reason and emotion is a classic theme of literature and mythology, most notably captured in Nietzsche's use of the archetypes of Apollo and Dionysus in The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche proclaimed the logic of Apollo useful, but Dionysus the winner. And so does this incarnation of Star Trek. In the original series, the tension was symbolized by the Doctor and the Vulcan, the bleeding heart and the logical, emotionless alien. Kirk was the man in-between, who consulted both sides. Often, Spock, who after all, is half-human, would be the butt of Kirk's jokes, but still respected for his contribution. In this version, however, the message is clear: emotion is superior to logic. Though Spock is welcomed aboard, in the end, it is in the inferior role. Even Leonard Nimoy's appearance to his younger self confirms this, with the push to "feel, not think." (Spock even wishes him "luck" in place of the standard "Live Long and Prosper."
Now why am I harping on this? Is it not true that logic is only a tool of life, not the purpose? Well, at least they recognized the importance of logic, but my problem is with the suggestion and embracing of a dichotomy to begin with. It was Nietzsche who formalized the duality, but it was Ayn Rand who smashed it with a rejection of any dichotomy, embracing a symbiosis instead. This view is the basis of the album Hemispheres by the band Rush. At its best, the original Star Trek did the same. In this case, logic is reduced to the technical work of building and flying spaceships, leaving the ethical, political, and psychological realms to chance and emotion. What possible defense is their for this interpretation? Why is this dichotomy so persistent?
Arthur Koestler, in his book The Ghost in the Machine, theorized that the human brain, besides having two hemispheres which we divide as the emotional right-brained and the logical left-brained, was also made up of three larger divisions: the reptilian, the mammalian, and the neo-cortex. The evolution of these parts was not smooth; the neo-cortex was "slapped on" to the others, and they don't always communicate in harmony. Thus, in extreme situations, logic gives way to the older, animal structures, and the amygdala "hijacks" the brain in to a flight-or-flight response. Spock, being half-human, is not immune to this, apparently, as demonstrated in his outburst. This is where the plot fails; Kirk goads Spock into an emotional reaction, prompting Spock to relinquish his temporary control of the ship, and Kirk takes over. But having proved that Spock was not impervious to emotional breakdowns, how does that make Kirk qualified?
On Kirk's first encounter with "Bones" McCoy, we find the good doctor fretting over space germs, personal matters, and everything else that humans find themselves dealing with on a daily basis. We find Spock conflicted over his half-human, half-Vulcan heritage. Kirk, on the other hand, we find with a fearless, can-do attitude, one that puts him at death's door on more than one occasion. But we do not encounter an idiot; he is portrayed as a genius-level mind. This is presented somewhat superficially, however. We don't see him studying, it's simply implied through a few verbal demonstrations and assertions from Captain Pike, who has "reviewed his file." Ayn Rand demonstrates a similar characterization when she pits the main character of Arrowsmith against The Fountainhead's Howard Roark. One is superficially depicted as a genius, the other is demonstrated. To paraphrase Rand, this movie's Kirk is depicted along the lines of "sorry babe, I can't go to the pizza joint tonight; I have to split the atom!". She argues that such a character is impossible; to really understand such things, it takes a certain kind of dedication...Whether one could be like this in real life is debatable, but it is of no coincidence that many Objectivist are characterized as "Vulcans."
And yet, we can draw on real-life leaders to see that not all successful leaders are Vulcan in approach, and not all scientists are fit to be leaders. Some leaders get so caught up in "thinking" that they over-think, or "rationalize." To bring it back to Koestler's theory, Koestler ends his book with the suggestion that the solution to the dichotomy is to be found in pharmaceuticals. Star Trek presents another alternative: creativity. That is where the character of Kirk, at his best, succeeds. He acts on the information at hand, but is not bound by it. Whereas Spock is trained in logic, he is not trained to think creatively. McCoy, who would panic in an emergency, is urged by Kirk to be more grounded in reality and less in fear. Kirk is not bound by fear or logic; rather, he uses logic to his ends, to find creative solutions where others would admit defeat. Refusing to be beaten in an unbeatable computer simulation, which is meant to confront the cadet with fear and the possibility of loss, Kirk simply cheats by beating the program. In battle, the enemy will not be expected to play fair. This infuriates Spock, who is confronted by his own paradox: how can he design a program to expose cadets to fear when he, a half-Vulcan, is trained not to embrace emotion? That, ultimately, is why Kirk is captain: the "instinct" to survive, even when logic says otherwise. In that sense, Kirk is a trickster in the vein of Odysseus, one who will break the rules in order to get the job done. It is not the always the "smartest" who gets the job done.
In it's own, clunky way, the lesson of the movie that Spock learns is not to disown logic, but to be human; to be human is not to be an emotional animal, or a rational animal, but a creative animal, and not accept fate as a given. When Kirk is confronted to be "something greater," it is not the "greater good" that is being invoked, but greater as being something more than a determined plaything of fate. That is what Spock learns, he is not bound by the dictates of logic, but liberated by it, to be not determined by his heritage, but free from it, from tribalism or fate. But James T. Kirk is captain because he is able to combine the use of logic and the primal "instincts" of life to create new possibilities. Where Dr. McCoy would get emotional and fly off the handle, and where Spock would not be able to think "outside the box," Kirk represents the romantic realization of not what is, but "what could be." That is the shared and lasting legacy of all incarnations of Star Trek.

(Originally published at Superhero Babylon)


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I'm rather suprised...

Jmaurone's picture

at the lack of commentary, not just here, but overall, from Objectivists types about the new movie, given the long-time love affair between the two worlds, and the association between "Randroids" and "Vulcans." (And I believe Rand was a fan of the original series.) A small discussion over at Objectivism Online, that's about it. I did, however, see a recent debate on RoR about the implied socialism of the various versions of the show. It seems that Star Trek is a mixed bag of premises that somehow got scrambled through the teleporter...

I did spot this, though, via Billy Beck, a conservative commentator discussing Star Trek and Obama: The Dowd Conundrum: Why Vulcans and Other Intellectuals Don't Belong in the Big Chair. I think that the anti-intellectual claim is incomplete (it's more insidious than that), and this video shows why, as well as the contradiction of conservatism in its approach to intellectuals and reason versus faith and tradition...(and betrays a Machiavellian worldview of dog-eat-dog deception).

The last several

atlascott's picture

of those ST movies were SO BAD--laughably bad. But the actors were so endeared to me, I could not much blame them for hamming it up. After all--God knows that there was nothing else going on worth watching. Bad movies.

It may be that the Trek "relaunch" is a better film that the last 3 original cast films. That does not change the fact that it is all form, no substance.

[###spoiler alert###]

A mining ship from the future kills Kirks' father, then just bounces around in space for 20 years--THEN decides to destroy Vulcan? Why didn't it do so right after killing Kirk's father? Or bounce around to the other unsuspecting future Federation planets and wipe them out? Why wait 20 years? WHY are futuristic mining ships equipped with advanced weapons? And time travelling abilities?

Why was Kirk such a layabout, worthless snot f he is a genius? Why is he so rebellious. No answer. No answer at all. He is rebellious and dangerous because he is Captain Kirk.

That's not how it works. You ARE something, then you make decisions and work, and then you BECOME something.

Anyway, many, many people enjoyed the film and it made money, which is the point, I guess.

My parting shot is: I wish more screenwriters understood the first thing about telling a story, plot, character development, and motivation.

Junk is junk

atlascott's picture

Your assumption is correct. I mean, Transformers did great at the box office, too.

We will see how revived the franchise is with writing like that. Once the curiosity factor has worn off.

It would make perfect sense that in Airhead America, the new Trek is very popular. Pretty actors, lots of shiny things on screen moving.

I should clarify that the original Trek movies were not much good past II.

Hint: every time time travel

jeffrey smith's picture

Hint: every time time travel rears its head in Star Trek, it is a sure bet that their writers have nothing to write about--not an idea in their tiny heads

As witness the Save The Whales film (was that ST III or IV? Can't remember.)

But the most intellectually vacant member of the series was ST VI. Not because of the "let's find God" storyline (if you want to call it a storyline), but because apparently the only thing the script writers could think of was to let each member of the cast ham it up in turn. Remember Uhuru bellydancing?

No

Jmaurone's picture

No, not proving his point; the franchise has been in decline for some time before this.

Was it "anti-intellectual?" I didn't think so. Compared to the cerebral Next Generation, it might seem so, but it's more in line with the original series, and it makes a logical buildup to the Kirk from that show (including making love to green-skinned women.) Was it "Vulcan?" Definitely not. It's not a science class, it's an action film of the 300 variety, not meant to be "intellectual." But it wasn't "dumb," either.

I'm sure ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

I'm assuming you mean intellectually, in keeping with the theme of your criticism, since it's a hit at the box office...no other Star Trek movie has done the numbers this one has and critical reception has the prequel as reviving the franchise...

Aren't you proving Scott's point? Eye

Airhead America. Dont'cha luvit?!

Warp-Drive Perception

Jmaurone's picture

"This Star Trek relaunch just sunk the franchise. They did the same thing to the Alien franshise, and so it goes."

I'm assuming you mean intellectually, in keeping with the theme of your criticism, since it's a hit at the box office...no other Star Trek movie has done the numbers this one has and critical reception has the prequel as reviving the franchise...

The new Trek

atlascott's picture

Anti-intellectual rubbish. Transforming somewhat conceptual and story and character driven science fiction into an MTV video, with big special effects, no character development, just rubbish.

It is a very pretty film with very pretty special effects. The actors are all very attractive people, very pretty.

Hint: every time time travel rears its head in Star Trek, it is a sure bet that their writers have nothing to write about--not an idea in their tiny heads.

Story and character have given way to spectacle in cinema. Same goes for the new Terminator travesty.

With the billions of dollars changing hands in California, you would think that SOMEONE would have figured out how they were able to launch a billion dollar movie franchise with a low budget sci-fi flick with almost no special effects to speak of.

It's called IDEAS, a PLOT, CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT and ACTORS like Michael Biehn (playing the role he was born to play--though he was good as Johnny Ringo in Tombstone) and Linda Hamilton and a director who knew how to do more than blow stuff up.

A $6.4 million dollar movie that earned $78 million at the box office, and launched a franchise.

This Star Trek relaunch just sunk the franchise. They did the same thing to the Alien franshise, and so it goes.

Spoke: "I'm in control of my emotions!"

sharon's picture

Emotions are strange, aren’t they? They tell you things that the mind can avoid, can push away, evade and mute, whereas emotions grab you by the shirt collar and shake you, letting you know what the reality of things are -- or at least some aspect of reality that the mind can seek to escape (and in many cases does). Emotions tell us things, things that can very much speak to the truth of a matter and do so in a more vigorous way than reason. Emotions don’t let you escape and they don't bullshit, whereas your mind can take cover and hide. Not the emotions. They may not be an appropriate guide to action (and even here that might not always be truth) but they are a voice to at least be given a fair hearing where reason might be silent.

Spock came to realize this in his old age. He learned a wisdom that had eluded his whole intellectual life: emotions are not our enemies; they have a voice that is, perhaps not equal to that of reason and logic, but that they are a voice that nonetheless should be heard.

That is what I took away from the film.

This looks interesting Joe,

Mark Hubbard's picture

This looks interesting Joe, thanks for posting.

I'm waiting for the DVD to come out, but in the meantime, I've enjoyed reading your first two paragraphs, however, does it contain spoilers if I go on ... skimming one bit looks like it might. If so, I'll bookmark and read after I've watched the movie.

(On the recommendation of Glenn's much earlier thread, I've rented Iron Man to watch tonight. Looking forward to it.)

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