Magazine article The Christian Century

Galactic Hopes

Magazine article The Christian Century

Galactic Hopes

Article excerpt

You are writing about Star Trek for a religious magazine?" My friend's question was not antireligious. He just knew that the Star Trek TV and film series have long been insistently nonreligious.

Part of the hope assumed in Gene Roddenberry's original campy space series was that technology and intergalactic tolerance would triumph over parochialisms such as nationalism and religion. There were holdouts, of course --the Klingons and the Romulans and other primitives opposed the UN of the 23rd century. But they could be subdued by Captain Kirk's hot-blooded American know-how, by First Officer Spock's cold-blooded Vulcan logic and by the Enterprise's phasers, photon torpedoes and warp speed. In the end Star Trek has not replaced religion, however, just repurposed it.

The opening sequence in the most recent installment, Star Trek: Into Darkness, proves my point about the religious importance of Trek, although it borrows more from Indiana Jones than Gene Roddenberry. A planet of primitives armed with bows and arrows is threatened by a volcano. The Enterprise is stopping the planet's apocalypse by using the primitives' superstition about a sacred text to lead them away from the volcano and then stopping the volcano's eruption using "cold fusion" (the science is always pliable and nonspecific). A turn of events forces the Enterprise to violate the Prime Directive and reveal itself to a people who are not ready for such technology. As the opening comes to an end, the primitives have discarded their scroll in the dirt and drawn an image of the Enterprise. They proceed to gather around it for worship.

The film proceeds with cliched themes. A terrorist bombing in London leads to two further terrorist attacks on Starfleet Command in San Francisco. The architect of these attacks is a genetically engineered superhuman from the past (Benedict Cumberbatch) who was once frozen with his comrades but has now resurfaced. His goal is to release his comrades and take revenge on Starfleet in a way that's more pernicious than any we could have imagined in the 1960s or in the subsequent Star Trek movies. Eventually, however, one bad guy winds up working against another bad guy until the Enterprise has been nearly destroyed multiple times and every good character beaten within an inch of his or her life or dangled from some unimaginable precipice. That's Star Trek boilerplate.

Still, this film exceeds the quality of many of its predecessors. It features the best of Star Trek: The Next Generation, with computers that are in the Apple age, wall-sized touch screens and invisible, malleable prison walls. The new cast is much prettier, younger and hipper than the original. The outfits, strangely, are more military. The action is crisper, the dialogue funnier and the metaphysical questions more substantial: In fighting terrorism do we become what we fear? Even if time is altered in some way, don't things still repeat themselves? What is more worth living and fighting for than friendship?

Into Darkness tips its hat repeatedly to the best of the Star Trek franchise. Producer J. J. Abrams seems to have a special soft spot for The Wrath of Khan, and no one can accuse him of insufficient homage to his sources. Trek nerds everywhere should celebrate: our ur-text is deferred to here and in some cases improved. …

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