Star Trek: There and Back Again

Captain Kirk and Dr. Carol Marcus
in Star Trek Into Darkness
“There and Back Again”
A Review of Star Trek Into Darkness by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
Reel Rating: Three Reels

            If you’re not in on the joke, Star Trek Into Darkness is a lot of fun. If you’re in on the joke, it’s even more. The film’s greatest strength lies in the fact that it’s essentially a flashy remake of a classic episode from the original series but with clever twists and turns that throws the story in a new and exciting direction. Yet even apart from its predecessors, this is a thrilling popcorn film designed to enthrall audiences with 3D special effects, witty dialogue, and poorly researched scientific explosions in space all with a cast of overly attractive actors. However, if you reach beneath the popcorn kernels at the bottom of the bucket, you will find that Into Darkness has remembered the central moral principles that made Gene Roddenberry’s original vision compelling: life is an objective good, love requires sacrifice, and the law was made for man, not man for the law.
            The story begins in a volcano, which is always a good place to start. Spock is attempting to deactivate it from the inside to save a primate civilization without being seen by the natives. When the plan goes awry, Kirk and the Enterprise swoop in to save him, breaking their cover in spectacular fashion. This whole adventure is a direct violation Starfleet’s Prime Directive, the guiding principle of non-intervention. Kirk would never hesitate to break the rules to rescue a friend; Spock would have gladly died to preserve order. This moral dynamic is at the center of the Star Trek universe. For Kirk, life is a universal moral that supersedes artificial laws, even if this means discomfort to the larger group. For Spock, the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
            As the film progresses, these philosophies are tested beyond what either of them could have dreamed. An act of terrorism sends the Enterprise deep into Klingon space where they are commanded to disobey the law by executing remotely rather than capturing the fugitive John Harrison. Now motivated by personal revenge, Kirk is more than willing to comply, even firing one of his closest friends who dares to challenge the mission’s motives. The audience suspects that not everything is what it seems; the clever Star Trek fan will begin to pick up clues the moment Kirk is given exactly seventy-two secret torpedoes. When the fugitive is finally confronted and revealed, well…it’s difficult to describe, but let’s say it left a big grin on my face for the rest of the movie.
This Star Trek adventure is both new and old, forward thinking and nostalgic. The fact that we know the story is a benefit, not a drawback, because each new adjustment gives a fresh meaning to old tales. The characters are still themselves: Scotty is brash and impatient, Bones is practical and wry, Chekhov doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose. Yet their relationships and destinies have been forever altered. Kirk makes crucial decision that doesn’t alter his personality but changes his character. It also gives Spock the best line in the film.
The Prime Directive for Kirk is not allowing alien self-determination but the preservation and promotion of life as an ultimate good. His heroic action echoes the affirmation that “there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend.” This does not negate social norms or government laws but affirms their purpose. It may be moral to go over the speed limit to get a dying passenger to the hospital. It is not moral when getting a hungry passenger to Burger King (even for the Double Stacker). This is why most previsions in canon law make exceptions for those who are close to death. The goal is holiness in this life and perfection in the next.
The best science fiction works are so far away they feel close to home. While Into Darkness is a flawed film in many ways, it is a good representation why this series has continued to be a part of our culture for fifty years. Kirk’s orders to kill Harrison without a trial eerily echoes Obama’s drone program; a genetic experiment similar to today’s agricultural practices has unexpected and disastrous consequences hundreds of years later.

While the 2009 reboot introduced these characters, Into Darkness ends with them tested and found worthy of the five year mission they will endeavor. They can now boldly go where no man has gone before because they have gone where every great man has gone before: into darkness and back again. They are better for it and ready to punch that warp drive. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on June 16th, 2013.