On the loss of courtesy, or, moral relativism and tribalism in the movies.
This is, primarily, a second stab at the recent "Trek" movie. I did enjoy it while I was watching it (at least, until I began muttering "This is stupid" at the denouement – something I might reasonably have done much earlier!) I was initially annoyed simply at the contrived plot, the bad science, and the casual destruction of both Vulcan and Romulus. But, as I thought about it more, and read more critical comments on it, it struck me that the new "Trek has some very particular flaws. One of these flaws is also obvious in a far better film – Peter Jackson's "Return of the King". Throughout the trilogy, but especially in this last film, Jackson (though he does a fine job of conveying Tolkien's story in most respects), falsifies the book in a couple of key ways. I'd sum up his failure by saying that he is completely blind and deaf to the virtue of courtesy, something Tolkien's good characters understand in the very marrow of their bones.
Here are some examples of what I mean. These are incidents that happen in the movies, but do not happen in the books.
In "Fellowship", when Pippin complains about not stopping to eat, Aragorn tosses an apple at him. In the book, it was Sam who flung the apple, not at a friend, but at an enemy, the sneering Bill Ferny.
Also in "Fellowship", in the extended edition, Aragorn strikes the snoring Gimli.
In "Two Towers", the distraught king Theoden flings his treacherous counselor, Grima, down the steps and threatens him. This does not happen in the book; Grima spits at the king and runs down the steps on his own, and the king – though he has been quite clear that there will be consequences if Grima chooses the wrong side – responds with dignity. He does not lose his temper at the insult of an inferior, or even at the grave harm Grima has actually done him. He offers him, instead, a genuine chance to redeem himself, which Grima refuses to take. It's a brief scene, but not insignificant.
Again in "Two Towers", there is a brief fight scene when Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli come into the king's hall. This, too, does not happen in the book, which relies instead on psychological drama and understatement. The three warriors are unhappy at leaving their weapons at the door, but do so as a courtesy to the king. Theoden – counseled by Grima – is angry that the doorkeeper has left Gandalf his staff, but he chooses to listen to Gandalf rather than Grima The courtesy of the heroes is contrasted quite deliberately with the discourtesy of the traitor.
I was initially most upset at the character assassination practiced on Faramir and his father Denethor in the films. Faramir, in the end, is not far from the young man we meet in the books. But still, he kicks over the body of the dead Harad warrior even while making a sympathetic speech about him. He is shown torturing Gollum, and he tries to take the ring. None of this is in the book.
What is done to Denethor is worse. In the book, he gives way to despair and pride, true, and he does send Faramir out on a hopeless mission. But – even though it may be good cinema – in the book, he does not sit callously eating a feast while his son rides to probable death. On the contrary, he shares the short rations of his subjects. He does not abandon the defense of the city – not till the attack is actually under way and Faramir is apparently dying. In the book, Denethor sends away most of the women and children to keep them safe, In the movie, we see that he has done nothing to defend his city or subjects and does not seem to care about his younger son at all.
But most egregious to me was a scene in the extended edition of "Return of the King". Aragorn beheads the Mouth of Sauron when he rides out to boast of Frodo's capture and demand the surrender of the men of the West. Again, this does not happen in the book. In the book, the messenger is clearly discourteous, cruel and duplicitous, and Gandalf and Aragorn rebuke him and reject his message. But they act with perfect courtesy. No noble person – indeed, no decent person with any training at all – would ever kill a messenger in Tolkien's world. Those who do such things are the bad guys – at least, in the books. Fine as the films generally are, Jackson doesn't understand this. He does not understand that courtesy, in Tolkien's world, is a virtue, a sign of self-discipline and even compassion. As such, it is something the "good guys" (whether guys or women) exhibit pretty consistently, and always strive for. Those who fail in courtesy also fail in morality. And Tolkien's world is not ours – not entirely. It was a mistake for Jackson to diminish the heroes and have them fail in courtesy in order to make them – perhaps – more comprehensible to a modern audience.
Needless to say, the recent "Trek" film does the same thing. Courtesy simply isn't a virtue any of the characters understand, with the possible exception of Sarek. (Spock might get there, but, imho, he's not there yet) I grant you that the original "Trek", being a modern American creation, never put the emphasis on courtesy that Tolkien does, but, all the same, I do think there was something like it visible in the best episodes of the TV show.
I do not mean to say that Rodenberry's "Trek" was ever as morally coherent as Tolkien's universe. It was, from the outset, a rather brash American show that did not really question some of its assumptions. As fans of the new film have pointed out, the acceptance and expression of emotion was almost always seen as a good thing. Kirk, as often as not, triumphed through instinct and action, not rational thought. A common trope in the original show was the person (usually Kirk, not Spock) driving a computer to destruction by presenting it with a paradox – or, more simply, blowing up the thinking machine with a phaser. So, even in the original "Trek", emotions and instinct ruled and violence could be a solution. In those respects, the new film seems to follow in the footsteps of the original show pretty closely. But there are still some key differences.
"Star Trek", in the 1960s, had an optimism and good humor completely missing in the new film. And, to me, it seems that this upbeat feeling and camaraderie – which are present, to a greater or lesser extent, in all the TV Treks I watched (TOS, TNG, DS9) - are based on something very like Tolkien's concept of courtesy.
For one thing, the show was always about intellectual and moral, not just physical, exploration. The Federation represented a fairly coherent ethos – acceptance, tolerance, knowledge, and the freedom to build and explore. More powerful civilizations – Earth and Vulcan – were strictly pledged not to interfere with more "primitive" peoples, but to let them live in their own ways and choose how much, or little, they wanted from the Federation. Of course, the Federation was consistently shown as "good" and other civilizations as "bad" (the Romulans and Klingons, for example, or the Orion slavers). But there are two things to note about this.
First, as much as C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, Trek up to the 21st century understood the concept of a noble enemy. The best example is our first introduction to the Romulans, who are shown as courageous and disciplined. The Romulan captain who gives up his life in this episode is clearly meant to be an admirable character, someone who, in different circumstances, might have been Kirk's friend.
Second, we see enemies become friends throughout the course of the show. One of my favorite episodes (and one of the best aliens Trek ever did) is "Devil in the Dark". Terrified miners wound a fierce alien creature that has been attacking and killing them – and Spock discovers that she is intelligent, the last survivor of her generation, and a mother who has been protecting her eggs. Once communication has been established, forgiveness is possible, and the Horta even becomes willing to dig for the miners, provided her children are safe. Later, in the animated series, we see a young Horta in Starfleet*.
The Klingons, too, are initially shown as enemies, with some truly barbaric practices (torture and mindrape) to their credit. But, in the very episode where they are introduced, we also see that they are actually very similar to humans. The advanced aliens who enforce a peace between the Federation and the Klingon empire state that the two civilizations will become allies. At first, both captains reject this idea, but Kirk, at least, seems aware of how immature his belligerence makes him seem. And the audience cannot help but notice that the two captains have identical reactions to alien interference – a reaction the audience might well share. This is actually quite sophisticated; the audience members are being asked to evaluate their own moral priorities as they see themselves in the thwarted captains who had been preparing for war. As a child, I found this thrilling, even though the Organians, who controlled the situation, seemed paternalistic. But, going still deeper, if the Organians seem paternalistic and overly controlling, perhaps that is because they understand that the surest way to unite Humans and Klingons is to give them a common "enemy" to rebel against! So we are asked, as viewers, to decide what "freedom" and "civilization" really mean. Are Kirk and his counterpart, Kor, really less free because the Organians have prevented them from fighting each other?
This brings me to the ethos of TOS, and of all the Treks that followed it (at least up to early Voyager). The theme of Trek is exploration, and the ideals it expresses are community, understanding, knowledge and freedom. It is by living well in community, growing in understanding and knowledge, and acting as an aware, ethical being that one becomes free. Gene Rodenberry was an atheist, and apparently quite prejudiced against religion, but his humanist message is in no way alien to any moral or philosophical system or religion that I know about. It certainly isn't to mine! On the contrary, I see it as a clear expression of a universal moral law that C.S. Lewis called the Tao. Like Lewis, Rodenberry affirmed that there was such a thing as adult, ethical behavior, and that it was something all people could agree on. What's more, through Trek, Rodenberry expressed his belief that human beings (and other sentient, rational creatures) could actually get there – become truly free and build just and prosperous societies.
For all his flaws, Captain Kirk, in TOS, is a citizen of such a society. He has, at key moments, self-discipline and self-knowledge enough to renounce violence, and he is aware that virtue requires watchfulness, discipline, and continuing effort. The captain's capacity for self-discipline and moral growth are shown very well in an episode called "Arena". Captain Kirk and an alien captain are set down in a hostile landscape by powerful aliens. They are told they must fight to the death, and that the victor will save his crew, while the crew and ship of the loser will be destroyed when he dies. The crew members watch helplessly from above while the two captains struggle.
The Gorn captain is in most respects superior to Kirk – physically more powerful, harder to hurt and harder to kill. But Kirk is quicker. It is his quickness, in particular, his quick thinking, that enables him to make a weapon and injure the Gorn. But, when he has the other captain at his mercy, Kirk refuses to buy into the aliens' evil game and kill him. "I will not kill today," he proclaims. As a result, he saves both his ship and the Gorn captain's, and the alien who appears tells him that his species shows promise. It isn't his intelligence, courage or ferocity that brings Kirk these victories. It's his integrity and strong moral sense. Of course, the intelligence, courage and ferocity do get him to the point where he can spare the Gorn captain's life. TOS isn't a show that truly celebrates pacifism. But, though "Trek" sees that aggression can have positive sides, it also sees war as a failure, and peace and compassion as victories – here, just as much as in "The Devil in the Dark".
And, as Kirk remarks in this episode, peace and compassion must be worked for and won over and over. A one-time victory is not enough. Every day, day after day, we must proclaim, "I will not kill today". This vision of adult, ethical behavior is much more in line with Tolkien's Middle-Earth – where Aragorn and Sam are confirmed as rulers of their respective realms because of their power to heal, and where Aragorn frees slaves and offers peace and mercy to his defeated enemies – than anything we see in the new movie.
One very clever blogger has pointed out that the ethos of the new "Trek" is essentially militaristic. Thus, Pike's conversations with Kirk come across like those of a bad recruiter in a poor urban neighborhood. George Kirk is, in essence, a Kamikaze pilot or suicide bomber – and we are expected to celebrate his action, as, in fact, I did when watching the movie. We are constantly shown that violence is a solution, and never encouraged to question this idea. The most egregious example, to my mind, is when the bad guy, Nero, is trapped, with his ship and all his crew, inside the event horizon of a black hole. Kirk offers him rescue, which he refuses. When Spock questions Kirk, he says he is doing the logical thing. The two young men (human and Vulcan) then get the emotional satisfaction of cutting apart the helpless ship with rocket fire, and this is clearly something the audience is supposed to cheer.
I'd like to explain why I found this scene so disturbing. Kirk is simply mocking Nero when he offers rescue. It is not in his capacity to deliver; also, he knows full well that Nero will refuse. He can then take his revenge on his enemy with a clear conscience. He gets to kill his father's killer while appearing (but not actually being) mature and merciful. This echoes another scene in another extremely popular entertainment – Harry Potter's mockery of Voldemort in the climactic scene in Deathly Hallows. "Try for some remorse," the boy tells his enemy, knowing that Voldemort is completely incapable of even understanding the concept. Then he gets to destroy his father's killer without having to assume any guilt for the killing, since Voldemort, by trying to kill him, has essentially committed suicide. In both cases, we are asked to celebrate young men who have never had to learn the slightest discipline or grow up at all. They certainly do not have to face any consequences for their actions. At the end of the book, Harry – who has essentially been passive throughout – is celebrated as the savior of the Wizarding World. At the end of the movie, James Kirk, who has mutinied against Spock and acted on impulse throughout, is rewarded with a captaincy. Not only does he leap several ranks to become captain, he is given the top ship of the line. He never has to show the discipline or self- knowledge we see from Kirk in TOS to achieve this extraordinary reward. All he has to do is follow his impulses. In that respect, the new "Trek" has far more in common with "Harry Potter" than it does with the original show.
And there is one more thing the new "Trek" seems to have in common with "Harry Potter". That is racism. The "Potter" books, of course, posit anti-Muggleborn prejudice as the greatest possible evil, all the while showing pervasive anti-Muggle racism as something completely acceptable. Worse yet, Rowling compares her bad guys to Nazis, quite explicitly, while at the same time making use of dreadful anti-Semitic and classist stereotypes. The new "Trek" is similarly muddled. The classic "other" of TOS – like Tolkien's elves, a convincingly alien and fascinating people – are, of course, the Vulcans. The basic philosophy of TOS originated on Vulcan, and was called IDIC – infinite diversity in infinite combination. While original Trek posited a fruitful alliance between Earth and Vulcan, in which both peoples would learn from each other, the new Trek continually denies the value of Vulcan logic and philosophy, and ends by destroying the planet and almost all the people on it. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? For we have seen that Kirk's instinctual aggression is the best way of coming at problems in Abram's universe.
Summing up, the new Trek actually contradicts the vision of TOS in two ways. While TOS optimistically stated that, in spite of our flaws, we humans could learn to create a better society and become better people, the new show tells us that we do not have to learn. All we have to do is follow our instincts, and all will be well. And, while TOS showed peace as possible and desirable, even between bitter enemies, the new movie is focused on vengeance and militarism. This vision of humanity and the universe is diametrically opposed to what many of us viewers saw in Trek right through DS9, and even in some of Voyager. J.J. Abram's "Trek" could more properly be called the anti-Trek. While retaining the character names, some basic traits, and even some lines of dialogue, it utterly betrays all that I loved about "Trek" since childhood. It isn't really Trek at all, but something else – something much meaner and less generous. I enjoyed it while I was watching, true. The film was well made and well acted. But I think the ideas it conveys are toxic.
• I may be mixing up the animated series and a Duane novelization here. In any case, I do remember a scene with a young Horta in Starfleet. This would not be possible in the new "Trek".
About racism – it's quite clear that Nero, et al, are meant to be Al Qaeda, and that anything Kirk does to destroy them is therefore right. I find this disturbing, too – like the anti-Semitic stereotypes of Slytherins and Goblin bankers in the Potter books.