The Ethics of Mr. Spock

Review by Leonard Freeman

Star Trek: Into Darkness
Directed by J.J. Abrams. Paramount.

A couple of the lessons from Star Trek: Into Darkness, currently hitting good numbers at the box office: We think we’re God, and we get into trouble because we resist wise instruction, even from robots.

There are others, but those two will do for starters. God gets quiet, subtle mentions in this second film featuring Chris Pine (Capt. James T. Kirk) and Zachary Quinto (Mr. Spock) that functionally restarts the epic series. A virtual dynasty that first saw the light of day in 1966, the late Gene Rodenberry’s franchise has produced 726 television episodes through six series and 30 seasons, and now an even-dozen movies. The two newest (Star Trek, 2009, and Into Darkness) recapture the characters of Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Dr. McCoy, Lt. Uhura, and Messrs. Sulu and Chekov with uncanny accuracy and depth.

Newcomer Benedict Cumberbatch (of BBC’s Sherlock) comes aboard with a brilliantly murky, mysterious, villainous presence as John Harrison, a Starfleet operative who has supposedly turned rogue upon his masters. The head of Starfleet, Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller of Robocop), commissions young Kirk to go after Harrison in a classic “deniable black op.” He is to enter Klingon planetary space with a small crew and assassinate Harrison with a bank of new special torpedoes, but to get out fast lest the Klingons discover the incursion and start an all-out war.

The young, impetuous Kirk is brought up short by his “ethics lessons from a robot” — Spock — who reminds him repeatedly that the mission is basically immoral: “We do not execute people without a trial.” And after a firefight with Klingon scouts, in which the super-warrior Harrison saves all their lives, Kirk decides to bring the traitor back to Earth for a trial instead of summary execution.

It is a fateful decision, because the admiral sabotaged the Enterprise, intending the mission to be discovered so as to initiate war with the Klingons. Harrison is much more than he appears (Trekkers take note): a superior genetic mutant, whom the admiral awoke from cryonic sleep to take advantage of his intelligence for forging new weapon systems, and, as Harrison chillingly says, “for my savagery.”

Who is using whom for what purposes spins wheels within wheels in a wonderfully intricate plot.

Star Trek has always marked a cultural touchstone, reflecting upon the issues of its day while supposedly exploring space “to boldly go where no one has gone,” and Into Darkness is no exception. The dangers of a culture that forgets broader, rational and moral — and, even theological — positions, appears from the film’s beginning when a young Kirk violates the prime directive. They are supposed to explore, but not interfere with, other civilizations. But the crew has stumbled upon planet Nibiru, where they intercede to stop a volcano from blowing up, leave virtual “scriptures” behind for the natives, and then compound the error by letting them see the Enterprise.

Dressed down for “not listening, thinking you always know better … playing God,” Kirk has no real defense. He has in fact been awfully lucky, rather than always right, and in this Trek it is the other crew members — notably Spock and Scotty (Simon Pegg) — who again and again save the Captain from the consequences of his rash decisions.

Kirk might well be seen as a virtual stand-in for a boomer, and post-boomer, age that too often seems to have walked away from tradition and its moral principles to rely almost solely upon gut feelings and intuition. The value of those “soft” guides for human interaction is not debased, but their limitation is clearly noted.

Kirk is willing to lay down his life for his crew, and Spock knows that Kirk has saved him because “you are my friend.” But at the same time the gut reaction to vengeance as a motivator is held up to the moral beam. “There will always be people who wish to harm us,” Kirk tells a Starfleet graduating class at film’s close, “but to take up their same tactics to stop them, we risk awaking the same evil within ourselves.”

It is a prime moral lesson of Into Darkness: in a post-9/11, marathon-bombings world, we need to take care lest we fall “into darkness” ourselves. “You should have let me sleep!” rages Harrison, as he crushes an enemy’s skull.

That we all could use a step back to balance the inner voices of our human reactions with the more objective and reasoned moral teachings of other ages is not a bad plot line for a major summer blockbuster. Talk about boldly going where others have not gone.

The Rev. Leonard Freeman writes at the weblog Poems Per Day.

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