“Chuck Klosterman wrote that science fiction is philosophy for stupid people. He’s right. But in a room full of philosophy lightweights, the guy who watches Star Trek is a fucking philosophy genius.” – The Mindless Philosopher
I am a fan of science fiction.
If that’s an indication that I’m stupid, I’d be the last person to figure that out.
Like many sci-fi fans, I eagerly awaited the theatrical reboot of the Star Trek franchise. When it was announced that J.J. Abrams would be helming the reboot I nearly soiled my drawers in anticipation.
After all, I thought. A Star Trek reboot directed by the guy who did Lost and staring the guy who played Sylar on Heroes could not go wrong.
Apparently my assumption was incorrect.
If you asked the die-hard Trekker crowd, plenty did believe that there was something terribly wrong with a J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek reboot.
Worse than a mining disaster on Praxis wrong.
The “wrong” was that for the first time in Star Trek history, a Star Trek movie based on the original characters created by Gene Roddenberry would not feature the original actors.
This was and is (still) very upsetting to some Star Trek fans.
I don’t see how they could have been angry. William Shatner may be a thoroughly entertaining actor, but there is no way Shatner could pull off playing a young, Starfleet Academy-aged James Kirk.
Not to mention DeForest Kelley and James Doohan are dead.
That alone would complicate getting them to play their original roles.
However, I, unlike many Star Trek purists, enjoyed the 2009 reboot. But then, I liked Star Trek: Nemesis. So there you go.
So when the Star Trek prequel/sequel came out, I bought a fresh pack of Tena and bought a ticket to see the movie.
Ok, I admit it. I’m an action fan. I was raised on Star Wars. There I said it. I said Star Wars.
Those movies had Jedi, and Wookies, and lightsabers, planet battles, the Force and stuff.
This is Han Solo. He is a Corellian badass. Where he goes, action follows.
This is Surak. He is a Vulcan philosopher. He convinced Vulcans to ditch their emotions.
Notice the difference between the two?
I expect a certain amount of excitement in films, especially in science fiction. And honestly, the past few Star Trek films hadn’t been delivering much on the action front. Captain James T. Kirk used to fight the Gorn. The Star Trek: The Next Generation films just had bunch of Captain Jean-Luc Picard talking… and talking… and talking.
Kirk fought enemies like this:
Picard fought enemies like this:
That’s right. Captain Picard fought an old man.
Of course, the purists hated all the action.
What the purists wanted from the Star Trek reboot was the one thing that set the original Star Trek apart from the standard 1960s science fiction of its day: Star Trek, unlike its predecessors (and most of its descendents), was chock-full of philosophy. Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek was a thinking man’s science fiction.
I don’t recall thinking too much while watching the reboot.
That may be (in part) due to the fact that the 2009 Star Trek reboot is a pretty straight forward (actually kind of cliché) sci-fi fare about time travel: an unintentional time rift sends bad guy into past intent on destroying the future. It’s hardly an original plot.
It’s not even an original plot for a Star Trek film.
The last time a time traveling bad guy was in a Star Trek movie, the bad guy looked like this:
Time travel movies usually don’t require the viewer to do much heavy mental lifting, other than the occasional bitch at the newly rearranged plot line not keeping with established canon.
I’m guessing this is what happened when most die-hard Trekkers watched the Abrams’ reboot.
If that’s what they felt while watching the reboot, they were really missing out.
What they failed to realize is, if you could get past the lens flare, they would have noticed a little bit of philosophy going on.
Listen: If those angry Trekkers hadn’t thrown off their Star Trek philosopher’s hats in angry protest, they would have noticed that any time you discuss time travel you automatically bring in the idea of possible worlds.
And any time you bring up possible worlds, you inevitably address philosophical ideas like free will and determinism.
AND THAT, MY FRIENDS, IS HEAVY DUTY PHILOSOPHY.
So let’s get down to the philosophy, shall we?
But first, some plot:
In the 2009 reboot, Ambassador Spock and the Romulan bad guy Nero are sucked through a wormhole after Spock attempts (and fails) to prevent the destruction of Romulus by a star gone supernova. When Nero arrives at the other end of the wormhole, he discovers he’s been transported 20-something years into the past. Nero (for reasons that are fairly mystifying and never adequately explained) immediately fires on the USS Kelvin, a Federation starship carrying the parents of the future Captain James T. Kirk. During the attack, Kirk’s father, Commander George Kirk, is killed – an event, as we are told later in the film, that did not happen in the original Star Trek timeline.
I mean, the timeline where Nero doesn’t go back in time through a wormhole created by Ambassador Spock in an attempt to thwart the destruction of Romulus and destroy the planet Vulcan by creating a black hole with red matter and – whatever. You get the idea.
An elderly, from-the-future Ambassador Spock informs the young Kirk that in his timeline, Kirk’s father lived long enough to see his son graduate from Starfleet Academy.
Here are a few more things that didn’t happen in Ambassador Spock’s (original) timeline:
- The planet Vulcan did not receive the Alderaan treatment (i.e. it wasn’t destroyed).
- Lt. Uhura and Spock are not (and never were) romantically involved.
- Spock’s mother was not killed during an attack on Vulcan.
- Kirk did not serve on the USS Enterprise with Captain Christopher Pike.
- Humans did not know what Romulans looked like until the TOS (the original series) episode “Balance of Terror”.
If we learn anything about the philosophy of time travel (yes, I nabbed that from Donnie Darko) from J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, it is that events are not static. The past and future can be changed by a seemingly insignificant and/or random event as a Romulan war bird becoming unstuck in time.
That is to say, events, past and present, are not on an inevitably determined path; events can vary drastically from one timeline to the next. Events in one timeline do not necessarily happen in another timeline. Events are not determined. That explains why it would be totally useless for the Enterprise crew to speculate or base any predictions of events in their time line on information from Ambassador Spock’s timeline.
But, if determinism is defined as the theory that some or all events and human actions are ordained to happen; that every thing, event or action is the inevitable result of a prior chain of causes, the fact that Nero’s appearance has thrown events a wrench into the timeline suggests determinism is false.
That means all events in the universe are manifestations of free will.
So far, there’s no problem, right?
If you think that, you are as delusional as Chekov after a fall off the deck of the USS Enterprise.
You see, in Star Trek IV, Chekov and Uhura were on the U.S. Naval ship USS Enterprise to get – oh, never mind.
Ok. A common complaint with Star Wars fans is about George Lucas’ apparent disregard for continuity. It’s quite a nuisance, but by no means is discontinuity just a Star Wars problem. Star Trek has its fair share of continuity “errors”.
Even philosophical continuity errors.
Remember what I just said about determinism?
That according to the philosophy of Star Trek time travel it’s false, right?
In the 2012’s Star Trek Into Darkness (the sequel to the 2009 reboot), the crew of the Enterprise encounters new bad guy, the genetically-altered, super-human, Khan Noonien Singh, a character originally played by Ricardo Montalban in the TOS episode “Space Seed”.
This time, Khan (as he is called) is played by Benedict Cumberbatch.*
In the movie, Star Trek Into Darkness, reboot Spock asks Ambassador (original timeline) Spock if he had ever dealt with a man named Khan Noonien Singh.
Because Khan has become a bit of a problem. A homicidal kind of problem.
You can see the determinism problem coming, right?
Just so you know, this is what the German philosopher (and determinist), Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789), had to say about determinism and what people do:
… he is connected to universal nature, and submitted to the necessary and immutable laws that she imposes on all beings she contains…Man’s life is a line that nature commands to describe upon the surface of the earth, without his ever being able to swerve from it, even for an instant.
Holbach also says:
In short, the actions of man are never free; they are a necessary consequence of his temperament, of the received ideas… by education and by daily experience… Man then, is not s free agent in any one instant of his life.
In the 2009 Star Trek reboot, reboot Spock declares Nero’s appearance in the reboot timeline so altered the course of history, that any event in the original timeline (Ambassador Spock’s timeline) is not applicable to the new timeline. Therefore, one cannot assume continuity between both timelines.
In case you missed it, the dialogue about Nero and predicting the future goes as follows:
You say he’s from the future, knows what’s gonna happen. Then the logical thing is to be unpredictable.
You’re assuming Nero knows how events as predicted unfold. The contrary. Nero’s very presence has altered the flow of history beginning with the attack on the USS Kelvin, cumulating in the events of today, thereby creating an entire new chain of incidents that cannot be anticipated by either party.
An alternate reality.
Precisely. Whatever our lives might have been if the continuum wasn’t disrupted, our destinies have changed.
Now, either Spock failed to watch the 2009 reboot, or even Spock does not believe that there is no continuity between both (or any possible) timelines.
Because he asks someone to make a prediction. Himself.
That’s right, in Star Trek Into Darkness, reboot Spock asks original timeline Spock for advice in dealing with Khan.
He asks the guy who said that we can’t use alternate timelines to predict events in other timelines.
Despite his prior statements, (reboot) Spock assumes that Ambassador Spock has knowledge of and/or knows how to deal with Khan.
Lucky for (reboot) Spock, Ambassador Spock’s advice works.
Of course, we the viewers, are left to assume one thing: whether Khan is played by Ricardo Montalban or Benedict Cumberbatch, Khan Noonien Singh, in any timeline, is the exact same guy.
At least psychologically so.
So psychological determinism is ok.
It’s not just Khan that is the same. There’s plenty of continuity between the two timelines.
Enough to tell yourself exactly what Khan will do.
We’re told that Nero’s appearance has thrown events into flux, however, given the predictability of Khan’s actions and psychology in both timelines, it seems that no matter what happens – whatever alternate course of action or possible outcome, some events necessarily happen in every timeline.
Here are a few examples:
- Despite the fact that the death of Kirk’s father has turned him off from joining Starfleet, Kirk still joins Starfleet.
- Kirk’s insatiable sexual appetite.
- Kirk and Spock’s friendship (despite a very bumpy start).
- Kirk Becomes captain of the Enterprise (assuming command from Captain Pike).
- Captain Pike is injured and paralyzed.
- Kirk cheats on the Kobayashi Maru test.
- Kirk meets and begins a romantic relationship with Dr. Carol Marcus (we may be free to assume that Carol Marcus will eventually give birth to a son, David, who will, in turn, be murdered by Klingons).
- Harry Mudd (and announcement about Mudd is made over the ship’s intercom in Star Trek Into Darkness)
- Khan meeting Kirk and the Enterprise crew.
- Khan’s crew and his willingness to kill to protect his crew.
- Khan’s grudge against the Federation/Starfleet.
- A “death” in the Enterprise engine room in an attempt to defeat Khan.
- The “dead” person coming back to life.
In the Star Trek universe, Kirk must join Starfleet, Kirk must cheat on the Kobayashi Maru, Kirk must meet Spock and they must become friends, Kirk must become captain of the Enterprise, Kirk must meet Carol Marcus, the Enterprise must encounter Khan, the Enterprise must have a problem with the fuel cells, and someone must “die“ realigning the dilithium crystals.
The similar dialogue between Kirk and Spock’s “death” scenes in the Enterprise engine room in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and in Star Trek Into Darkness not only suggests that some events are necessarily determined to happen in every timeline, but what characters say is determined as well.
Spock’s “death”, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Kirk’s “death”, Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.
So… what are we to think about philosophy and the rebooting of Star Trek?
Well, for starters, the philosophical continuity sucks.
But more importantly, despite the high action, new actors, and lens flare (really, they need to cut that crap out), the new Star Trek fits in quite nicely with its so obvious you’d have to have the vision of a mole to miss it philosophical predecessors.
The philosophical lesson we learn from J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, is that no matter what alternate reality they’re in, no matter what happens to Vulcan or what Khan looks like, the lives of the crew of the USS Enterprise are locked in an inexorable series of events.
No matter what they do, all roads will lead to the same point.
Star Trek is a determined universe.
It doesn’t matter how Kirk gets command of the Enterprise, he will always be captain of the Enterprise.
Kirk will always cheat on the Kobayashi Maru. Kirk and Spock will always be friends. Khan will always be defeated.
And Star Trek V: The Final Frontier will always suck.
*By the way, it is worth noting that neither Ricardo Montalban nor Benedict Cumberbatch is of Indian descent, as the name Khan Noonien Singh would indicate one’s likely national/ethnic origin to be. But hey, the French captain of the Enterprise-D, Jean-Luc Picard is played by English actor Patrick Stewart – who does not speak with a French accent – despite the fact that Picard was born and raised IN FRANCE.
Baron d’Holbach. “Are We Cogs In the Universe?”. Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. 1988. Eds. G. Lee Bowie, Meredith W. Michaels, Robert C. Solomon, and Robert J. Fogelin. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. p.681-2