The highly anticipated 7 May 2009 release of Star Trek, directed by J. J. Abrams and written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, has received much praise by fans and critics alike. Popularly hailed as a “reboot,” this prequel attempted to reintroduce the characters from the original 1966–1969 television series to a new generation of fans. Much of the previous success of the Star Trek franchise can be attributed to the vision of creator Gene Roddenberry. In the world of Star Trek, Enlightenment humanism meets science fiction on the screen. Roddenberry, a self-professed philosopher, claimed that through television and films he could reach a mass audience while a traditional philosopher might reach only a few readers (Alexander, 18). In other words, the Star Trek universe stands as Roddenberry’s opus, in which he explored his trust in the power of reason, belief in the gradual progress of humanity, and the eventual elimination of poverty, racism, cultural conflict, and superstition (Ibid., 14). Unfortunately, while the new film is fast-paced, visually stunning, sexy, and fun, it lacks the depth and moral center of the previous series and films. More importantly, Star Trek (2009) marks a sea-change for the franchise. It not only subverts Roddenberry’s optimistic vision, but replaces it with a pessimistic attitude that is more a reflection of recent history than of a Great Society-era hope for the future.
Although Roddenberry’s exact philosophical influences are difficult to pinpoint, it is no stretch of the imagination to understand the original Star Trek as a fictional recreation of Immanuel Kant’s celebrated 1784 essay, “What is Enlightenment?” The foundation of Kant’s understanding of enlightenment rests on the free use of reason coupled with the faculty of self-improvement given to humans by their creator. Kant further stressed the need for humans to act according to an inherent sense of duty. One is not surprised, therefore, that Roddenberry’s two favorite Star Trek characters are Mr. Spock, the logical half-human, half-Vulcan of the original series (STOS) and the unemotional android Mr. Data of Star Trek the Next Generation (STNG) (Ibid., 19). Spock, in particular, reflects the possibility that humanity, through philosophical commitments and adherence to duty, might lay the foundation for future progress. In the episode “Journey to Babel” (STOS 1967), Spock is unwilling to relinquish his command of Enterprise at a moment of crisis so that he could give blood for a transfusion that would save his father’s life. Although his human mother is outraged, he replies that it is inconceivable to disregard his duty or to relinquish his philosophical precepts for personal gain. In other words, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
The essence of the Enlightenment, according to Kant, could be summed up in a simple phrase: “Sapere aude” (dare to know)! Each man (and, sadly, for Kant this was a sport open only to men) had the duty to learn and actually understand who he was, what kind of world he lived in, and how best he could live in this world. Such an exploration would lead individuals to solve the problems they faced and would give them the skills necessary to eventually solve problems that they were currently incapable of even imagining (cf. Kant, 3–10). Roddenberry expanded Kant’s vision by including all beings regardless of race, gender, ethnic identity, and even species. To put it in terms more familiar to fans of Star Trek in all its formulations, Roddenberry embraced a Kantian paradigm that envisaged humankind’s mission to boldly know where no one has known before.
In other historical essays, Kant elaborated how the quest for enlightenment would shape a future society, a society that closely mirrors the Star Trek universe depicted by Roddenberry. Kant’s view of humanity’s place in the universe is fundamentally optimistic, as we can see in a phrase from his “Idea for a Universal History”: “Thanks be to Nature, for the incompatibility, for heartless competitive vanity, for the insatiable desire to possess and to rule! Without them, all the excellent natural capacities of humanity would forever sleep, undeveloped. Man wishes concord; but Nature knows better what is good for the race; she wills discord” (Ibid., 16). While this discord may be harmful to the individual, it forces humanity as a whole to expand its vision, develop its capacities, and realize its potential. The result is progress in all areas that leads to victory in struggle, and, for all intents and purposes, to a kind of victory over struggle. In fact, Kant argued that the personal peace and harmony for which men struggled within a nation could only be guaranteed by what he called a “league of nations” (Ibid., 19) that would regulate the relationships between states in a way analogous to the way laws regulate relationships between individuals within a state. As the number of states within a league grows, one finds more and more relationships governed by law (and thus by reason) rather than by violent struggle. This construct of a peaceful government born out of struggle, a fundamentally peaceful body, which nonetheless prepares avidly for its own defense, finds its near-perfect fictional equivalent in the United Federation of Planets.
The rules Kant set down in his 1795 essay “Perpetual Peace,” written in the early stages of the generation-spanning wars of the French Revolution, include such Star Trek values as a general rule of non-interference (the “Prime Directive” in Star Trek lingo), the absolute prohibition on war crimes, and the sensible realization that one can find peace neither through armed truce nor through the use of savagery in war (Ibid., 85–90). Although Roddenberry often develops these themes in STOS and STNG, the episode, “The Devil in the Dark” (STOS 1967) provides a particularly apt example. In this episode human miners inadvertently slaughter the children of a sentient lava beast, a Horta, while digging. Out of mutual fear, the two species seek to destroy one another but to no avail. Only once Mr. Spock is able to establish that humans and Hortas share a common sentient spirit, what on Earth we call “humanity,” are the two groups able to coexist with mutual benefit. Reason and compassion accomplish what violence and fear could not.
In Star Trek (2009) one only sees the shell of Roddenberry’s vision. The film begins with Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) rushing to save the galaxy from a supernova by using “red matter,” which creates a small artificial black hole meant to contain the explosive energy of the star. While Spock saves most of the galaxy, the planet Romulus is destroyed, and the black hole accidentally drags both a Romulan mining ship and Spock’s smaller craft back in time. Nero (Eric Bana), the captain of the mining ship, blames Spock for the destruction of Romulus and the death of his family, and he is bent on revenge. Nero’s first encounter with the Federation of the past is to destroy the USS Kelvin, killing James T. Kirk’s father, changing the Star Trek timeline.
This new timeline, in which we meet the new James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), is the antithesis of Roddenberry’s world. The optimistic vision of STOS is replaced by a fearful world (reminiscent of a post 9/11 America) in which the unwinnable “Kobayashi Maru” scenario of Star Fleet Academy’s simulator has become the expected norm, rather than the dramatic exception. Even the logical world of Vulcan seems affected, as the young Spock is tormented between studies of logic by classmates who easily incite him to violence. This is a markedly different reaction from his reaction in “Journey to Babel,” in which Spock’s mother reveals that he was unwilling to display human emotion in response to the taunts of his Vulcan classmates. We find Kirk an arrogant young man who shows no willingness to learn from or listen to anyone and whose brooding nature apparently signals complexity of character. Eventually, Nero captures the Spock of the original timeline and forces him to watch the destruction of Vulcan and with it the genocide of his own people.
At the film’s end, as Nero’s ship finds itself a victim of the red matter he used to destroy Vulcan and with which he tried to destroy Earth, the young Kirk (now in command of the Enterprise) chides the young Spock for not realizing that it is logical to offer help to Nero and his Romulan crew. While Kirk momentarily reaches back to Rodenberry’s vision, stating that offering to save Nero and his crew is an opportunity to put into practice the foundational morality of the Federation, Spock scoffs and demands the destruction of the vanquished enemy. When Nero predictably refuses all help, Kirk responds, “That’s what I hoped you would say,” and recklessly (for it almost destroys Enterprise) unleashes all the weapons of the ship upon the already doomed Romulan vessel. The foundational morality of the Federation is replaced with a vengeance that satisfies dark human emotion but cuts off the possibility of any peace other than the grave. The audience receives the final message of the movie when the Spock of the original timeline converses with his younger self. “Do yourself a favor,” he advises, “put aside logic and do what feels right.” Such advice is admittedly a step up from Kirk’s inclination to destroy anyone unwilling to accept his help; nonetheless, one can hardly imagine a less Kantian message to crown the brave new timeline of Star Trek than Spock’s new therapeutic mantra.
The divergences of Star Trek (2009) from Roddenberry’s original television series must be further contextualized to understand its significance for the universe of Star Trek. Several academic studies have explored the quasi-religious character of Star Trek fandom (cf. Porter and McLaren). The five Star Trek television series and twelve films have mythologized Roddenberry’s original Kantian vision of the future. Not only does fan behavior make this clear, but many writers of the show have acknowledged the power of a developing Star Trek mythology (Cf. Braga). In fact, Star Trek fans even speak in terms of a “canon” of the mythology based upon the television episodes and the films, as opposed to animations, novels, fan fiction, or comics. Star Trek (2009) by virtue of its canonical status as a film ultimately subverts the very mythology of which it is now a part. Rather than simply creating a prequel exploring the youth of the characters from the original series, the writers have called the very philosophical vision of Roddenberry into question. It is important to recognize that the subversion comes not from testing previous assumptions or exploring their limits, something both Kant and Roddenberry would have appreciated. For example, the Prime Directive, that key Federation (Kantian) ethic, has been put to the test or developed in several episodes, such as “Justice” (STNG 1987) and “Dear Doctor” (Star Trek Enterprise 2002). Instead, Star Trek (2009)’s device of a parallel universe places within the canon a story line that erases the need to contend with Rodenberry’s vision at all. Even more subversive than the parallel universe theme (a device employed routinely in the television series) is the casting of Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in STOS, in this film. The original Spock connects the two worlds and leaves a canonical imprimatur on the film’s new direction. Spock’s advice to put aside logic and to follow feelings, therefore, makes the subversion complete. Roddenberry’s character who most represents Kantian hopes for human reason and progress rejects his rational, Vulcan side. He becomes a convert to a new world, in which rationality ceases to be a guiding principle or goal. The implication is clear: the old Spock will rebuild and shape the remnants of Vulcan society in a new image that embraces the therapeutic over the rational.
In the final analysis, the new edgier characters in the reboot are merely reminiscent of the characters of STOS. They embody new ideals that do not reflect Rodenberry’s hope for human progress based on reason. Star Trek (2009) depicts a dangerous world, a world that pulses with demands for justice based upon feelings rather than universal rationality. It is a world in which error has no rights and vengeance is taken for granted. Perhaps, it is simply the case that Roddenberry’s Star Trek no longer resonates with audiences of a post-9/11 world. However, given all the possible parallel universes to which the original Spock could have returned, it is lamentable that it was to a post-Roddenberry universe that the creators of Star Trek (2009) chose to send him.
Robert H. Blackman is Elliott Associate Professor of History and J. Michael Utzinger (’90) is Elliott Associate Professor of Religion at Hampden-Sydney College, Virginia.
Alexander, David. “The Roddenberry Interview”. The Humanist 51:2 (March/April 1991): 5–30, 38.
Braga, Brannon. “Every Religion Has a Mythology” (2006). http://sidmennt.is/2006/08/16/every-religion-has-a-mythology.
Kant, Immanuel. On History, Lewis White Beck, ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing, 1963.
Porter, Jennifer E. & Darcee L. McLaren, eds. Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion and American Culture. Albany: SUNY Press, 1999.