In 2009, J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman sacrificed the old Star Trek on an altar of reincarnation. Earlier this year, they took the carcass of the old Star Trek, butchered it, cooked it into a mélange, and served it up to the new Star Trek.
For the last four years, I have tried, with uneven success, to articulate precisely what so puts me off about the new Star Trek. Now a few months after seeing Into Darkness, and having had some time to contemplate, I still lack a grand unified theory to explain the colossal terribleness of Abrams-Orci-Kurtzman Star Trek, but I do have a decent emblem of unease: the reverse rehash of the beautiful death scene from The Wrath of Khan. (And I am not alone in that sentiment.)
The character Spock is a token of tension, a hybrid of human and Vulcan, and the proponent of logic against emotion. That has always made things difficult for Star Trek writers. Compelling stories for humans need characters with emotional drives to create conflicts and move a plot forward. And when those characters are embroiled in complex problems with great emotional gravity, a logical solution that keeps the characters engaged in the circumstances of the story is not usually available: people need emotional motivators, like loyalty or friendship.
For example, consider a critical event in another popular space opera. Remember when Han Solo figured he’d been paid, so he might as well abandon the rebels? That was pretty logical, wasn’t it? Why get further embroiled in a dangerous situation if you’ve been compensated for what you’ve already done? When he returns to clear the way for Luke to destroy the Death Star, the audience is thrilled because that surprise evokes Han’s friendship with Luke and Leia, which is an emotional attachment.
Plenty of scenes in the Star Trek universe feature Spock purporting to behave “logically,” when, if you think carefully about the circumstances, he must be exercising some extra-logical principle of decision. In reality, this was just a problem of writers not quite cutting it. (Julia Galef has covered this well with her concept of “The Straw Vulcan.”) But in The Wrath of Khan, that fault of previous writers becomes fodder not just for a brilliant character development, but for a nice meditation on apparently intractable problems, like the tension between reason and emotion. That’s why the movie opens with Saavik taking the Kobayashi Maru test, which is clearly designed to test the ability of Starfleet officers to take risks. Not until they decide to take a forbidden action are they able to learn that the action will be futile—and then, having “failed” the test, they learn the real lesson, which is, as Kirk puts it, that “how we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.” And the only way to do that is to really live, with emotion and reason tempering each other, all the way, until death. Aristotle might call it habituation.
The death of Spock in The Wrath of Khan worked so well, and remains so poignant for fans, because it melded the “logical” and “emotional” aspects of the character so successfully. For many years already, Spock had behaved as a friend. One could plausibly still wonder, however, whether Spock’s friendly loyalty was only the result of Starfleet command hierarchy. This is reflected early in the movie, when Spock says to Kirk: “You are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours.” In that moment, did Spock really understand friendship to be distinct from, or in addition to, loyalty under a command hierarchy? The structure of the statement is odd—not “I am your friend,” but “You are my friend, and I am yours.” He backs into it. For years, Spock had suffered gentle ribbing from his human comrades about his inability to explain friendship “logically,” but only a moment before admitting that Kirk was his friend, he articulated a principle: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Was this utilitarian ideal a burgeoning “logical” defense of friendship? Later in the movie, Spock sacrifices himself. In the moments before his death, he repeats the “needs” principle, with help from Kirk, and then echoes his earlier statement more directly: “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.” By a great struggle, after long years of habituation to loyalty within the Starfleet command hierarchy, Spock has resolved a fundamental tension in his character and grown—to the benefit of his comrades.
Contrast that process with the Abrams-Orci-Kurtzman version, in which the stubbornly violent self-sacrifice of Kirk is little more than a persuasive demonstration: This is what friends do Spock! They run off and sacrifice themselves to fix malfunctioning warp cores! Spock, meanwhile, is reduced to a bratty caricature of adolescent rationality, unable to resolve the classic tension of the character on his own steam. Freshly beaten over the head with a demonstration of friendship, Spock heads out for a frenetic fight scene with Khan. Maybe the characters learn something here, but none of them really grow. On the surface, this is just an empty reflection of the earlier story. But it also reveals that Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman fail to understand in general how satisfying stories work and specifically how the old Star Trek worked.
And the old Star Trek worked, when it did work, by using the tensions inherent in and between the characters to prompt thoughtfulness about more serious issues, like the meaning of life, the experience of being human, the malleability of culture, the struggle to remember history in the throes of progress, the roles of reason and emotion, and lots of other things. What does the Abrams-Orci-Kurtzman Star Trek make you think about? Maybe something interesting, but I’m betting it mostly just makes you think about the old Star Trek.