Star Trek's Lost Legacy of Literary Pretension

by Kit MacFarlane

21 May 2009


Next Generation films as Khan remakes...

The Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact

The Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact

The later series of Next Generation films more or less remade The Wrath of Khan in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), but it ended up something of a lifeless shell without the hammy intensity or audacity to engage with the underlying sources and themes of the original. And just take a look at the laboured Moby Dick reference in Star Trek: First Contact:

Jean-Luc Picard: Ahab spent years hunting the white whale that crippled him; but in the end, it destroyed him and his ship.

Lily Sloane: I guess he didn’t know when to quit.

What insight. Where Wrath of Khan attempts to channel Ahab’s intense fury, simultaneously human and inhuman, First Contact merely recites a quote and proudly points out its own reference. Khan aims to propel us into that contradictory realm where driven obsession is destructively horrific but still cannot allow itself to fall into retreat (nor could we accept Khan’s retreat, having embraced his passion), and where impossible hatred overrides the mundane flow of regular life. First Contact, meanwhile, takes this core and spits out a trite statement of ‘Ahab was nuts, guess I’d better lighten up’. Like all those more concerned with displaying their own culture and good taste, it’s too busy analysing its own relevance to cut loose and truly engage with all the vibrant and often difficult inherent contradictions.

Lest it seem like some random quirk, Meyer continues his subtle repositioning of viewer sympathy and understanding in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  Here, Kirk’s inherent military us-and-them racism is brought to the fore as he damns his enemy and hopes for their annihilation as a race rather than pursue proposed peaceful co-existence (the key scene here is effective in its simplicity: old friends and allies Kirk and Spock address each other across an empty conference room, an emphasis on the ideological distance suddenly between them. ‘They’re dying,’ says Spock. Kirk replies bluntly: ‘Let them die!’.)

The quotation use in The Undiscovered Country is particularly frequent, the film’s subtitle taken from Hamlet, although it’s perhaps not as directly integrated into the action as in Khan. Nevertheless, it provides at least one interesting nugget of conversation and dramatic interest: with old enemies the Enterprise crew and a Klingon party sitting down together at the dinner table, a toast to ‘the Undiscovered Country’ is interpreted by one as a toast to ‘the future’.

Often presented as a ‘goof’, since Shakespeare’s ‘Undiscovered Country’ referred to ‘death’, it actually nicely and literately represents the dual possibility of the narrative’s, and Kirk’s, trajectory: the choice between a necessary ideological shift (the future) or a traditional Trek military mindset (death). Once again, the quote asks us not to merely admire long-dead words, but to accept that the subtle conflict between ‘death’ and ‘the future’ inherent in the scene relates to the very nature of Star Trek itself. Not only does Kirk need to re-evaluate his ideological outlook on his universe to turn from death to the future, but, as a result, so do the viewers who have embraced the underlying ideology of this universe for so many decades. The supposedly-goofed ‘Undiscovered Country’ quote is a neat bit of dramatic irony that pays off nicely for the literate viewer.

It’s a simple optimism perhaps, but it’s hard not to admire a film that would have the audacity to redefine Shakespeare for its own purposes (whether or not it actually succeeds).

There’s plenty more Shakespeare in the mix of The Undiscovered Country (though not necessarily essential to the proceedings) and a nicely effective and perfectly delivered ‘Don’t wait for the translation! Answer me now!’ quotation as General Chang (Christopher Plummer) interrogates Kirk, drawn from a famous United Nations Security Council exchange during the Cuban Missie Crisis.

But it wouldn’t last. Meyer may have turned the original Star Trek‘s sometimes dopey but passionate recitals into subtle and literate challenges to the Star Trek universe, but they were quickly absorbed into the passionless and self-consciously cultured world of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The inter-species referential playfulness of The Undiscovered Country, with a dinner table suggestion that ‘you have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon’ and an ‘old Vulcan proverb: only Nixon could go to China’, quickly became in The Next Generation marks of a universal mono-culture of self-seriousness.

Whether or not Abrams will go on to tap into Star Trek‘s legacy of cultural engagement and/or pretension remains to be seen. For the moment it seems he’s willing to tap into a slightly more recent cultural source. Just take a look at those John Ford movies, glorifying conservative military men who started out as hot-headed young rebels for some Abrams Star Trek prototypes; just replace John Wayne in the first half of John Ford’s 1957 The Wings of Eagles, or Errol Flynn in Raoul Walsh’s 1941 They Died With Their Boots On, with the new Kirk and you’re just about done (after all, Abrams is the man who simply took all the jokes out of True Lies and called it Mission: Impossible III).

Incidentally, unlike Abrams, Ford knew when to slow down for a moment or two. Compare Abrams’ overblown opening where Kirk’s father and mother are separated: ‘The ship’s being attacked! She’s pregnant! Systems are off-line! She’s giving birth! Wheel her to the escape pod! The Captain has to stay on board! It’s a boy! Ramming speed! Let’s call him Jim!’ For all its mad rushing about (and it’s not too bad an opening, really) it can’t compare to the simple couple-separation scene in They Were Expendable (1945), where John Wayne and Donna Reed are quickly and efficiently cut off their final phone call with neither fanfare nor emotional farewells. The quiet and brutally efficient moment lingers long after Abrams’ big pile o’ melodrama has been forgotten.

Even when quoting from its own universe, Abrams doesn’t seem to be especially willing to let Star Trek engage in any insightful way. When Spock from the future (Leonard Nimoy) greets young Kirk with an originally sincere and emotional line from his death scene in The Wrath of Khan, a line that resonated with an odd sincerity after so many decades of cultural presence, Abrams can’t manage to give it any weight. ‘I have been, and always shall be, your friend’, says Spock (somewhat flatly), recognising Kirk and briefly explaining the friendship they will form. ‘Bullshit!’ responds Kirk, a cheap laugh or two flittering through the audience.

But if Abrams has merely recreated the conservative foundation of Star Trek, has tapped into the enclosed ideology without reaching for the philosophical possibilities that Star Trek sometimes sought (though rarely achieved), then at least the chance remains that it might all be overturned once again in future installments. If nothing else, Nicholas Meyer’s Wrath of Khan and Undiscovered Country proved that, with a careful hand behind it, a combination of literary sources and Star Trek doesn’t have to end in either pretension or disaster.

And, with all this quotation talk, I might as well get a little pretentious and end with one of my own. Abrams spends a lot of time telling us how strong the bond is between Kirk and Spock, but never really actually show us: a thoroughly literal attempt to engage with one of modern culture’s oft-remembered and slightly abstract relationships. Maybe a little literary pretension might have suggested that such an archetypal and evocative image of friendship can never truly be verbalised in such a literal way. As Henry Thoreau wrote of friendship:

“Our actual Friends are but distant relations of those to whom we are pledged. We never exchange more than three words with a Friend in our lives on that level to which our thoughts and feelings almost habitually rise.”
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