Star Trek Into Darkness: The Trouble With Drones

Star Trek Into Darkness:  The Trouble With Drones

Image J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek Into Darkness is a rollicking good ride; an old-fashioned Action/Adventure flick based on a beloved TV series from the 1960s.  Today, as we inhabit an America socially closer to the 23rd Century where the Star Trek narrative is set, we are also nearer to the equality that only existed aboard the USS Enterprise in the America of 1966.  The crew of the Enterprise is composed of both men and women, and its flight deck includes multicultural and multinational representatives who look as if they have been recruited from the United Nations—with even a likeable Russian, Chekhov, and this at the height of the Cold War.  Of course, anyone born after the 1960s still has exposure to the era, through history books, cinema, pop culture, and even modern television such as Mad Men, and knows that chaos was inherent, perhaps rampant, in the era.  Civil unrest, as well as violence over Civil Rights, Women’s Right’s, and soon after, Gay Rights, was all part of the zeitgeist of Star Trek’s tenure.  Not to mention that one of the most controversial U.S. Foreign Policy decisions ever made, The Vietnam War, was at its zenith.

 Star Trek Into Darkness entwines modern cinematic plot structures with plucked out bits of back story, original characters, and plot points from Star Trek’s illustrious past—both film sequels and the original series—to construct a meta narrative, as well as a CGI spectacle, which aspires to be pleasing to both trekkies and novices.  What I find most interesting, however, is its thematic attempt to echo some of the original anti-war motifs of Gene Roddenberry’s series.  Specifically, in this latest sequel to the Star Trek legacy there is the matter of the photon torpedoes, which relate to a very particular aspect of current American foreign policy: drones.

Roddenberry stated that he intended the series to be the antithesis of Cold War politics, with its multinational crew and mission to explore not conquer.  Critics have speculated, however, that like many other popular media texts, the hero of his tale reflects the state of the nation as well as traits and attributes that exemplify the most cherished qualities of American heroes.  Critic H. Bruce Franklin proposes that the plot of the television series shifts gears in 1968 and goes from episodes which supports the colonialist attitude that the U.S. is saving the world from communism, with Klingons encoded as the big, bad savage villains of the universe—to the idea that something has gone terribly wrong with the American Way.  In earlier episodes, when the Enterprise arrived on planets in conflict, they threw their might or knowledge onto the side they saw as “right.”  In the episode “City of the Edge of Forever” Kirk and McCoy are transported through a time warp to American in 1930.  Kirk must let a woman he has fallen for die in an accident because her message of pacifism would have spread in America and allowed the Germans to win World War II (“Star Trek in the Vietnam Era”).  This episode is seen as a justification of the war in Southeast Asia.  But by 1968/1969 Franklin posits that the conflicts on other planets symbolize a dismal view of war as a futile struggle that leads to years of entrenched violence.  Furthermore:

Like other Americans, SF writers were profoundly and bitterly divided about the Vietnam War, and in early 1968 more than a hundred and fifty of them took out rival advertisements supporting and opposing continuation of the conflict … in the March issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction … Among the 82 who signed the ad that stated “We oppose the participation of the United States in the war in Vietnam” were Star Trek scriptwriters Jerome Bixby, Jerry Sohl, Harlan Ellison, and Norman Spinrad as well as Gene Roddenberry himself. (“Star Trek in the Vietnam Era”)

The attitude of the show had shifted.

Author Henry Jenkins states, “Kirk continually intervenes.  He continually disrupts and destabilizes governments.  He seems to embody the Vietnam-era idea of America as a policeman that interferes in other peoples business”(“Star Trek: Klingons and Commies”).  But it would also seem that if Kirk is the typical American who is brutish and brave, charming and dangerous—his antithesis could be found in the other crew members, especially Spock, who seems to balance Kirk’s rash bravura because he isn’t American.  At all.  Spock is something Other—than human.  His creed of logic always seems to veer toward pacifism and the Prime Directive, the doctrine of non-interference.

And so it is with Star Trek Into Darkness.  Blind with rage against a federation rogue, John Harrison, who has attacked Starfleet Headquarters and killed, among others, Kirk’s father figure, Christopher Pike, Kirk begs the Starfleet Admiral to be allowed to track down and capture Harrison.  Things seem fairly straightforward: Harrison is hiding on the Klingon plant of Kronos and the Enterprise is sent to find him.  This is all good and well until 72 photon torpedoes are delivered to the Enterprise and Kirk is told by the good Admiral Marcus to use these to hunt down and destroy Harrison without loss of life to the crew.  Easy. Fine.  Only the bad guys dies.  However, this idea is abhorrent to all the major players except for Kirk.

Spock finds it illogical and unethical that a criminal be destroyed without a fair trial.  The chief engineer, Scott, resigns because the torpedoes are sealed and he is not allowed to inspect them—yet he realizes they contain enough radiation to interfere with the ship’s warp drive.  And Uhura and McCoy just think it’s bad business to kill someone in secret; that a face-to-face conflict is better than well, cheating with the torpedoes.  Therefore, the Enterprise has a drone problem.

Kirk, is convinced to do the right thing and goes after Harrison with a search party—which almost gets them killed by barbarous Klingons, and gives Lieutenant Uhura a chance to show the guys what a real woman can do in terms of guile and bravery.  But in the end, the film’s initial ethical conflict reflects the current state of American warfare, just like the original did way back in the day.

It’s the job of popular narratives to reflect our nation state and Star Trek Into Darkness does its job skillfully.  Not only does it turn out that the drone-like, radioactive torpedoes are unfair weapons, they also harbor what is left of an ancient race.  Following Kirk’s blind faith the crew would have used weapons to an unethical purpose, wiped out an entire race of people, oh, and disregarded the Prime Directive of non-interference which Kirk is always ignoring—to reshape a balance of power—all too familiar territory back in 1966-1969.  And typically, the nefarious plot is set in motion by a mad man with an ulterior motive: war.

How far have we come?  Well in my opinion, much of that rests with Nyota Uhura who is black, female, logical and emotional, and an Amazon warrior all in one: Beam me down on that flying unmanned space craft and let me at that super-human villain who’s after my man!  Let me go out there and talk reason to an uncivilized group of angry Klingons!  This is the character I most want to reflect my nation state.  And Uhura, she is also one sure sign that our national narrative has changed in the last fifty years.  Still, Star Trek Into Darkness carries the storyline that Roddenberry envisioned into a new age: a post Cold War, postcolonial, and postmodern twenty-first century—unfortunately with most of its original questions about war and ethics still intact.


 Works Cited:

“Star Trek: Klingons and Commies.”  BBC, 1 July 2013. Web. 1 July 2013.

Franklin, H. Bruce. “Star Trek in the Vietnam Era.”  Science Fiction Studies, 62.21

     (1994). Web. 30 June 2013. 

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