My two favorite Star Trek movies (one from the original cast and one from the reboot) are thematically linked. It’s sort of a subtle link if you’re not well acquainted with the soul of science fiction, but they are undoubtedly connected.
At its height science fiction presents a reflection of some aspect of our world through the fantastical looking glass of a future existence. Simply put, we’re talking about metaphor. Once I became old enough to appreciate the historical context of a science fiction film I fell in love with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. At the start of the film an environmental catastrophe all but cripples the Klingon economy. Left unaided, Klingon society will undergo a complete collapse within decades. With no other option the Klingon government asks the United Federation of Planets for peace negotiations. They can no longer afford a state of constant war. When Star Trek first aired during the Cold War, the Klingon and Romulan species both represented different aspects of the Soviet Union. Star Trek VI premiered in 1991 and at the time the Soviet Union had been in a state of decline for a few years. Ironically, its complete collapse would occur within weeks of the film’s theatrical release!
Star Trek VI is all about change amid great political upheaval. When the Starfleet admiralty is discussing options going forward one member asks if they’re “talking about mothballing the Starfleet,” to which an admiral responds that Starfleet’s exploration mission will remain. This line always struck me because the Original Series made it clear that the primary purpose of Starfleet was exploration (an idea that we’ll come back to when we discuss the other Star Trek movie). This short exchange is pure metaphor. Without the Soviet Union what is the need for the military industrial complex? Well, there are still peacekeeping needs.
The Enterprise is ordered to personally escort the Chancellor of the Klingon government to the peace accords, when the Chancellor is assassinated aboard his own ship with Kirk and McCoy framed for the crime. Though not guilty, Kirk is not entirely innocent in all this. Kirk privately tells Spock that the smart move is to “let them die” because he carries racial hate against the Klingons for killing his son (Star Trek III). He’s not the only one. We learn that a lot of the crew hate the Klingons, in particular Scotty who is apparently a racist bastard. In the end, the Enterprise crew save the day and peace is made with the Klingon Empire, Kirk having been inspired by the words of the Klingon Chancellor who desired peace even with his dying breath.
The Chancellor quoted Shakespeare when referring to “the undiscovered country,” which in the film is little more than a code word for “the future.” What does the future hold after centuries of fighting the Klingons (or decades of hostilities with the Soviet Union)? What does such a world even look like? There are those that are entirely unprepared and unwilling to face it. Kirk has every reason to hate the Klingons, and through the events of the film comes to realize that he can no longer carry the hate he has inside him. He comes to this conclusion after seeing the hate of those like him reflected in a massive conspiracy that he was a partial victim of. The idea is that if Kirk can accept this change then most should be able to, though it won’t be easy.
Thematically this is similar to Star Trek Beyond, the third installment of the rebooted franchise staring Chris Pine as Captain Kirk. Rejoining the crew of the Enterprise three years into their iconic five year mission we find a listless Kirk struggling to find meaning in the “episodic” exploration of space. One day bleeds into another as stability gives the impression of a lack of adventure. Kirk has applied for command of a massive star base, looking to leave behind the life of a starship captain. Fundamentally, he struggles to see his place in the Universe.
Unexpectedly the Enterprise comes into conflict with a powerful army led by a man named Krall who seeks to destroy the Federation in order to return the galaxy to a period of chaos, ideologically believing that only chaos breads strength. Through fortuitous circumstances the crew discovers that Krall is actually a hundred plus year old human Starfleet captain mutated by the ancient alien technology that has kept him alive. Krall (formerly Captain Edison) was made a captain and given one of the first ships after the Federation was formed. Before that he was a highly decorated MACO, a member of a tactical response unit in Earth’s military (first introduced in Star Trek Enterprise). He fought in both the Xindi and Romulan wars and felt he was discarded by the Federation and asked to “break bread with the enemy.”
Star Trek VI was a film of its time, reflecting a fear of the future that was very real to those living through it. Star Trek Beyond is the same, working through a fear of globalization.
Globalization has brought about an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity in our world, but at the same time that stability has resulted in a loss of identity for some. For those of us that have grown up in this period of stability it is easy to forget the old warhorses that helped make it possible. Institutions like NATO and the EU have brought about the longest periods of sustained peace in human history, and as a direct consequence we now question what use they are because for us they seem to do nothing but rob each nation of its sovereignty. While globalization ensures peace by bringing all peoples closer to one another it simultaneously blurs cultural lines. Societies mix and blend into new flavors. Depending on ones perspective this blending can appear to be contamination, infiltration, or corruption.
When Krall launches his terrorist attack on the star base Yorktown we see Federations citizens running in fear. We see many races but a single people. The United Federation of Planets is the utopian vision of liberalism, its society a homogeneous blend of all cultures of the member worlds; an interstellar melting pot. Krall sees humans and aliens working side-by-side and can’t stand what that does to his vision of humanity, but more importantly he can’t reconcile what that means for his understanding of himself.
Krall is a veteran, having fought to protect the human race. He feels he was discarded and disrespected by the Federation. Out of “respect” they made him a Starfleet captain, dressing up a soldier as an explorer. Kirk tries to explain that the wars were won and the prize is peace, but Krall will hear none of it. He can’t let go of his hate for the alien.
Just like Star Trek VI, Beyond is about change in our world. Both films are about those that can’t move beyond the ways of the past. They would rather prevent forward motion and drag society backwards to what they consider “the good old days.” The only good thing about those days is that they felt they understood the world order. Where we are now, and where we are going, is confusing to them. When a personal value system is based on superiority and opposition, understanding and acceptance are hostile concepts.
Great science fiction is steeped in metaphor, and these two films explore important aspects of our culture in entertaining ways. Plus that Beastie Boys number is solid.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a multiple award winning scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.