Star Trek’s Lost Legacy of Literary Pretension

“As the Earth-poet Shakespeare wrote, ‘That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet’.” So says Earth-ham William Shatner, wooing an alien beauty with some olde-worlde charm in the original series Star Trek episode ‘By Any Other Name’. And J. J. Abrams’ new Star Trek might have geeks around the globe discovering that Earth-poet Shakespeare was right all along! If the reviews are to be believed, Star Trek fans are finding the new film to be mighty sweet, indeed.

But, realistically, we’ll probably have to wait until the somewhat fanboyish hysteria that now seems to make up most current blockbuster film criticism dies down a little to see where Abrams’ new Star Trek really fits into in film and Star Trek history. Clearly there’s plenty to like: it moves along quickly enough, supporting players Karl Urban and Simon Pegg bring most of their scenes to life instantly, and that fact that Abrams manages to maintain the original Star Trek‘s look and colour scheme is no mean feat in the drab emo cinematic world we’re usually immersed in.

There’s also plenty to be less than impressed with. Abrams’ reliance on a continuous flow of hyperbolic and fairly predictable melodrama, punctuated by cutesy character shtick, tends to make the whole thing a little twee. The action sequences don’t exactly flow especially naturally, so we’re left with a series of loosely-linked vignettes rather than any consistent narrative, generally validating some flimsy teen-style rebellion with the usual goal of conservative institutional validation (‘Kids rule, OK!’).

Critics and theorists like Roland Barthes and Slavoj Zizek have some pretty solid commentary on how a few concessions to minor rebellion really just help cement the overall authority of a conservative institution and, in this light, Abrams’ Star Trek certainly carries on the simplistic military ideology of its predecessors without too much variation. Still, most of those criticisms can be aimed at just about any modern blockbuster right now (and, let’s face it, most ‘team made up of conservative, pretty young things with unique personal attributes but not properly appreciated by a world that is mean and nasty to them’ movies are really only differentiated by the costumes the young models-cum-actors wear).

But one Star Trek-specific trope that I was on the lookout for in the new film is certainly one of the Star Trek franchise’s most enduring: its dogged literary pretensions and quotations. Eagerly I waited for Kirk to dissolve some ham-fisted allegory with a dramatic recital, or engage in a battle of quotations with some scaly-faced alien freak, or even woo some alien babe with an old naval sea shanty. But, not surprisingly, Abrams’ pouty pretty-boy rebel Kirk doesn’t have much time for fancy book-talk, unlike William Shatner’s tough but frequently faux-philosophical Kirk. Could it be? Have Star Trek‘s literary pretensions finally spat their last breath?

To be honest, I’m not sure if I’m disappointed or relieved that Abrams has left the literary connections and/or aspirations by the door (save for a brief Sherlock Holmes reference by Spock, which simply repeats without much panache an amusingly logical connection between Holmes and Spock from an earlier Trek adventure). After all, while the literary quotations and allusions scattered through the original Star Trek could make for fun viewing and even occasional authentic dramatic engagement, they’d completely lapsed into dull and passionless literary name-dropping by the time The Next Generation rolled around.

In fact, thanks to lingering memories of The Next Generation, there’s a certain kind of quotation or allusion in general non-Star Trek movies and TV that I tend to call the ‘Star Trek quotation’: a quote that seems to have been thrown in by a writer for no other reason than to fabricate a sense of class and intelligence within the proceedings and, by extension, to validate their own intellect (and presumably that of the viewer).

Sometimes we can spot a clear warning sign (‘A wise man once said…’), sometimes there’s a furrowed brow and a dreamy gaze into the distance as the character prepares to drag a quote from their culturally-overflowing memories. But usually the quotes simply spring forth unfettered from the mouths of characters we’ve never before seen read, hold, or acknowledge a book. More often than not, the surrounding characters instantly understand the reference: the partial quote completed by another character (or having a character instantly recite the quote’s source) is perhaps the most annoyingly persistent attempt to make vacant-stare actors appear to be walking in a realm of intelligence and culture.

Usually the quote implies instant truth and wisdom. If it doesn’t, it because it’s been countered with another quote, or completed in a way that contradicts the initial partial reading. Actual discussion is unlikely, it’s more a game of one-upmanship. (With too-cool-for-school back in vogue, the ‘response quote’ is now sometimes overturned by some dopey example of self-satisfied anti-intellectualism, like ‘A wise man once said: eat this, suckah!’)

One of my favourite, completely pointless, and contrived literary references popped up in the always hilarious Law & Order: Criminal Intent: a suspect in the interrogation room emphatically declares his situation to be ‘Ka-a-a-a-fkaesque!’. The show’s female sidekick snappily replies with what must be a contender for the most convoluted ‘I understand your reference’ responses of all time: ‘That would make you the bug. And my partner, he likes to crush bugs’. I’m sure the writers were proud of themselves for that, as were those viewers who vaguely remembered Kafka’s Metamorphosis from high school. But the reference is not only pointless, but the tangled mess of dialogue is really just an awkward segueway for the sidekick to appear smart for a moment but defer, as always, to her partner’s superior intellect and stature.

I suppose modern television is one of the worst offenders because over-educated writers are so keen to demonstrate that their knowledge extends beyond cops and lawyers, and perhaps because the audiences like to think so, too. There’s often a sense of reaching for a higher medium when cramming in a literary reference, as though this will somehow validate the sullied arena of the small-screen.

Calling these throwaway moments of literary pretension ‘Star Trek quotes’ may be a little unfair to Star Trek, but Star Trek: The Next Generation was so often guilty of filling its cardboard characters’ mouths with references to Shakespeare or some other definitively-cultured piece of literature to show just what knowledgeable and insightful individuals they all are. The actors, and presumably the writers and audiences, would nod seriously and sternly at such serious and pithy references, just to make sure we all knew how pithy and serious they were.

The quotes are always reverent but simplistic, sincere but uninvolved, emphasised but irrelevant: perfect for the 1987 rebooted Star Trek universe’s bland and passionless characters. Whenever we see the Star Trek crew sitting-in on an on-ship theatre or music performance they always look like a bunch of posing second-year Drama students, straight-backed and carefully nodding at the right times to indicate how much intellectual stimulation they’re receiving. Literary presence denotes culture, but is witnessed only as an unexamined and uninvolving husk.

In other instances, it’s not only self-satisfied but also just too cutesy for words — like just about anything dealing with historical or fictional characters on the ship’s Holodeck (a big V.R. computer game that most ­Star Trek ­fans surely dream of merrily abusing) or, in one particularly nausea-inducing scene, Captain Picard sorting out a problem with a suddenly-destructive Data (the Spock-like robot guy) by singing Gilbert & Sullivan in one of the Next Generation movies, Star Trek: Insurrection (1998):

Picard: We’ve seen how he responds to threats. I wonder how he’d respond to … Do you know Gilbert & Sullivan?

Disaster averted by the inherent cultural superiority of a Gilbert & Sullivan duet. Sigh.

“From hell’s heart, I stab at thee.”

I’ll take Shatner or Ricardo Montalban diving into some big emotions and chewing up the scenery over polished Next Generation actors dryly intoning ‘culture’ any day; literature is always best served by engagement rather than reverence.

But Trek hasn’t always been that way; while The Next Generation‘s quotations are as stilted as the characters that intone them, the original series seemed to be sincerely trying to engage with its often passionate use of quotation and allusion. No doubt some of this may have been caused by the presence of William Shatner, who seems to be incapable of not being passionate and engaged with anything (just take a listen to his too-fun-to-be-ignored Transformed Man album), but tracking back a little further shows that series writer and creator Gene Roddenberry had a solid pre-Star Trek foundation in one of the most literate shows ever to air on television.

Although commonly described as ‘Wagon Train to the stars’, much of the underlying tone and approach (albeit not the content) of the original Star Trek can perhaps be seen as a logical extension of Gene Roddenberry’s work as a writer on Western series Have Gun – Will Travel (for which he wrote 24 episodes between 1957 and 1963). Have Gun‘s scripts and production demonstrate an unusually strong for the time focus on central-character consistency, one of the elements in Star Trek that helped it evolve so easily from a ‘series’ into a ‘universe’. Just as importantly, Have Gun – Will Travel stands out from its contemporaries by combining its standard TV liberalism with an active and often disruptive participation in its social dramas (often involving violent intervention).

Likewise, the original Star Trek sometimes seemed to revolve around some serious attempts (failed or otherwise) to engage with current and potentially difficult social issues beyond mere passive observation. The Enterprise crew often found themselves directly and willfully entangled in the problems they were supposed to be observing, leaning towards an interventionist stance and having only a tenuous reliance on the ‘prime directive’ of non-intervention that supposedly dominated their mission (it’s always a good laugh when Kirk all of a sudden feels bound by the Prime Directive after having already broken it four times before breakfast).

And, perhaps most importantly, Have Gun – Will Travel featured the most honestly cultured and literary character that’s ever lived inside the small-screen (that’s including the great poetic quoter, John Mortimer’s Rumpole). Quotation and allusion were key features of the Western series, beyond mere passing superficial references, and Kirk’s impassioned recitations don’t seem too far removed from Have Gun – Will Travel lead Paladin’s dramatic (and somewhat more restrained) tendency to view the problems he encounters through a prism of literary culture.

Star Trek‘s quotations were never as evocative, obscure (they tend to be fairly obvious) or naturally-integrated, but the sincerity behind the scripts and the intent, if nothing else, at real cultural connection seems clear. But if that connection is speculative at best, Trek really established its own pursuit of a literary core a few decades later, with two excellent films featuring the original cast and directed by Nicholas Meyer: 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (almost indisputably the best of the films, exciting and engaging even to non-Trek fans). The Wrath of Khan draws primarily on two fairly obvious and well-worn sources, A Tale of Two Cities and Moby Dick, but wins out through clear passion and direct application of these texts to the underlying themes and unique resonances of its story and universe.

The allusion to Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities in combination with Spock’s notion of sacrificing the good of the few for the good of the many isn’t surprising or extraordinarily insightful in itself, but it at least makes a perfect complement to Spock’s character and sacrifice: embracing his own death with the ultimate logical pragmatism that nevertheless broadcasts a paradoxical but irrefutable compassion. (And, of course, this opens up Kirk’s reversal of the quoted maxim in the following film, where the ‘good of the many’ is risked for the ‘good of the one’ — a charming if not fully explored extension that nicely sums up the dual outlooks bubbling away under those well-worn characters and their long-established but slightly evasive friendship).

More excitingly, Khan’s use of Moby Dick in the film’s finale really latches on to the underlying emotion of its source with that uninhibited audacity that’s often dismissed as merely ‘camp’. I’ll take Shatner or Ricardo Montalban diving into some big emotions and chewing up the scenery over polished Next Generation actors dryly intoning ‘culture’ any day; literature is always best served by engagement rather than reverence. Nothing kills culture more quickly that a bunch of overly serious poseurs, desperate to prove their own profundity (and killing off the great hams in the process).

What really makes Meyer’s film special is the fact that this quote so cleverly and carefully emphasises the underlying repositioning of the characters and our potential sympathies in the film. After all, Kirk has essentially become the White Whale to Khan’s Ahab. Khan may have, like Ahab, become some almost inhuman creature driven to obscene vengeance, but it’s Kirk and the clean-cut Starfleet crew whose cavalier indifference and untouchable resilience have helped propel him to this state. Khan is, in fact, fairly justified in his hatred (after Kirk abandoned him on some miserable planet and wandered off, carelessly disposing of an entire race) and, thus, in getting the best lines. The lines from Moby Dick nicely define Khan as an being bound by monomaniacal rage in pursuit of an enemy as philosophical as it is tangible, but it is a rage that, like Ahab’s, contains the undeniable possibility of being, at times, our own.

“From hell’s heart, I stab at thee. For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee!”

Importantly, this hatred hurled towards Kirk reflects not just upon the character but also on the show’s own underlying logic. As a result, it also challenges those elements we take for granted about Star Trek‘s approach to its scenarios. After all, didn’t we just as dismissively watch Khan abandoned on that planet, ignore the ethical dilemmas and then forget him completely as we tuned in for the next adventure? Much of Khan’s rage flies out at the shaky logic of always-justified and responsibility-free action that propels the Star Trek universe itself. Meyer doesn’t simply have his characters speak lines long dead, but instead suggests that we transpose, if only for a moment, the breadth of the logic and passion in Melville’s story onto this space-opera.

Next Generation films as Khan remakes…

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.”

(But spoken like Shatner would say it, of course.)