…And I loved it. In general, since The Next Generation, the movies have been beautiful to look at, but somehow shallower than most of the episodes. Seeing Captain Picard, for instance, running around with a big Uzi or driving a convertible jeep (as in Nemesis) doesn’t do anything for me, and it demeans him. The characters of James Kirk and Spock, other other hand, come off as full and intelligent in Star Trek into Darkness.
So why do I like STID? Essentially, it got the Star Trek: The Next Generation penchant for developing a storyline around philosophical and moral issues fundamentally right. It also met and surpassed the expectation for excitement. James Kirk may still be the playboy of the galaxy–we see him getting out a bed with two absolutely gorgeous women–but he has in STID a serious side.
The opening scene has him at is best-intentioned and most impulsive: breaking the Prime Directive, as well as risking his First Officer’s life to save from extinction a culture “that had barely invented the wheel,” as his mentor and senior Starfleet officer complains. Shortly after this, Kirk and other senior commanding officers are attacked by a rogue Section 31 officer named John Harrison, a “super-being” who was employed by Section 31 to arm Starfleet for future attacks from an apparently hostile Klingon Empire. Kirk’s mentor, along with most others in the room, are killed by Harrison, and in a fit of vengeance, Kirk vows to pursue him and kill him–his exact orders, as it turns out.
The orders are given by the head of Section 31, which is the Federation equivalent of the CIA, and a unit where murky debates over ethics can have far-reaching implications–as in a number of Deep Space Nine episodes, in which Section 31 participates in torture and even attempted genocide in an effort to save the embattled Federation.
In contrast to the machinations of Section 31 stands the young idealistic Spock, who points out that hunting down a Federation citizen and assassinating him is contrary to Federation Law and to ordinary ethics. Spock’s quietly stubborn ways win over the young Kirk, who decides to violate his orders and capture Harrison, who turns out to be none other than Khan Noonien Singh himself. In the process, the warped leader of Section 31, who had intended to have both Khan and Kirk and all the Enterprise crew destroyed, is himself killed by Khan. Khan then takes possession of the Section 31 combat ship and promises to release Kirk, who is now his prisoner, if Spock (who is commanding the Enterprise) will give him back his 72 crew members who have been frozen in stasis and placed in torpedoes since before the beginning of the movie. Spock tricks Khan into accepting the torpedoes, which detonate after Khan fires on the Enterprise. (“Vulcans do not lie,” Spock tells Khan, “the torpedoes are yours.” But Spocks’s respect for sentient life is highlighted in this episode when we find out, via “Bones,” that all 72 “human popsicles” are safely stowed on board the Enterprise, still in stasis! )
Ethics and morality are deeply personal, though. After Kirk appears to have died rescuing the Enterprise from a still-ravaging Khan, Spock goes after him in an uncharacteristic act of vengeance, with tears in his eyes and blood in his heart. Spock and Khan are only saved when the beautiful and wholly enchanting Dr. Leah Marcus beams down to where they are locked in a life-and-death struggle and informs Spock that Kirk can be saved by Khan’s blood–if Khan is captured alive.
But the ethics of saving a loved one’s life are not allowed at any cost. At the beginning of the movie, Khan manipulates a fellow Section 31 officer into committing a suicide bombing that takes many lives in order to save his own daughter from a rare disease. The building he is in explodes, with many dying, within sight of his now healthy daughter’s window. In a world in which terrorism and even suicide bombing are rife, the ethics of this scene could be parsed very fruitfully. Similar comments could be of Kirk’s decision to spare Khan in a world in which CIA drones hunt down Islamist terrorist and destroy them–which isn’t to say that I’m necessarily opposed to this practice. But it’s a practice fraught with moral problems, which should be approached carefully and seriously.
Today, governments of western democracies have moved away from the traditions of the Enterprise captains, Kirk and Picard, and are much closer towards the policies of the shadowy officers of Section 31. Whether the enemy is Islamic terrorism, Klingons, or Cardassians, the question remains: if we save ourselves in this way, what have we become? It’s a question that more than one Starfleet captain would have a perceptive answer for.
Addendum: I really enjoyed the performance of Zachary Quinto as Spock. I had been afraid that no one would be able to do Leonard Nimoy’s Spock justice, but Quinto did–a fact more than evident where he meets his aged other self (played by Nimoy) in a brief scene. Chris Pine’s rendition of Captain Kirk was at least as worthy as William Shatner’s, while Benedict Cumberbatch’s ambiguous portrayal of Khan, a man who not only hates, but genuinely loves–was positively mesmerizing–and not only because of his highly acclaimed, darkly resonant voice.