Sunday, May 31, 2009

Star Trek 2009: Illogical...but Fascinating...

 The J.J. Abram's reboot of Star Trek is, as they say, "not your father's Star Trek." And yet, "the more things change"...The facelift is certainly notable, with an Apple store esthetic that renders the little touches of nostalgia, such as the sound effects, out of place. The music doesn't reflect the original score until the closing credits, wisely, the old theme just didn't feel right in this version. The effects, of course, are stunning, but there is something to be said for the "feel" of the old show. Even some of the intimations of the earlier actors are subtly captured in the new version (or not so subtly, in the case of Dr. McCoy!). 

 So what is the common denominator between the old and the new that does work? The heroism, of which there is a lot on display. Captain Kirk, of course, remains the space cowboy that we remember, fearless and capable. The whole crew gets their chance to show their heroism in their own way as well, from the physical (Sulu's fencing abilities, Captain Pike's courage, and, of course, the ill-fated red shirt) to the mental (Chekov, Spock, Uhura and Scotty). The story itself doesn't have a lot of meat, but the action speaks volumes, and everyone steps up to the challenge, capturing the "can-do" attitude of the original series. In an age of pyscho-vigilantes like Rorschach of Watchmen or the ineffectualness of The Dark Knight, this is a nod to an earlier era that discards the camp and keeps the hero.

 The story, while thin, is interesting in one respect; many have pointed out the lack of a "message" that was often found in the original series. The creators, I believe, have said that would wait until the sequel, so I'm going to take them at their word for the following. I don't believe they intended to plant a "big message," and the message that I detected was inherited from the original series. It is a message that brings the original series to its, uh, "logical" conclusion. The message is in the tension between reason and emotion. 

 The battle between reason and emotion is a classic theme of literature and mythology, most notably captured in Nietzsche's use of the archetypes of Apollo and Dionysus in The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche proclaimed the logic of Apollo useful, but Dionysus the winner. And so does this incarnation of Star Trek. In the original series, the tension was symbolized by the Doctor and the Vulcan, the bleeding heart and the logical, emotionless alien. Kirk was the man in-between, who consulted both sides. Often, Spock, who after all, is half-human, would be the butt of Kirk's jokes, but still respected for his contribution. In this version, however, the message is clear: emotion is superior to logic. Though Spock is welcomed aboard, in the end, it is in the inferior role. Even Leonard Nimoy's appearance to his younger self confirms this, with the push to "feel, not think." (Spock even wishes him "luck" in place of the standard "Live Long and Prosper." 

 Now why am I harping on this? Is it not true that logic is only a tool of life, not the purpose? Well, at least they recognized the importance of logic, but my problem is with the suggestion and embracing of a dichotomy to begin with. It was Nietzsche who formalized the duality, but it was Ayn Rand who smashed it with a rejection of any dichotomy, embracing a symbiosis instead. This view is the basis of the album Hemispheres by the band Rush. At its best, the original Star Trek did the same. In this case, logic is reduced to the technical work of building and flying spaceships, leaving the ethical, political, and psychological realms to chance and emotion. What possible defense is their for this interpretation? Why is this dichotomy so persistent?

 Arthur Koestler, in his book The Ghost in the Machine, theorized that the human brain, besides having two hemispheres which we divide as the emotional right-brained and the logical left-brained, was also made up of three larger divisions: the reptilian, the mammalian, and the neo-cortex. The evolution of these parts was not smooth; the neo-cortex was "slapped on" to the others, and they don't always communicate in harmony. Thus, in extreme situations, logic gives way to the older, animal structures, and the amygdala "hijacks" the brain in to a flight-or-flight response. Spock, being half-human, is not immune to this, apparently, as demonstrated in his outburst. This is where the plot fails; Kirk goads Spock into an emotional reaction, prompting Spock to relinquish his temporary control of the ship, and Kirk takes over. But having proved that Spock was not impervious to emotional breakdowns, how does that make Kirk qualified? 

 On Kirk's first encounter with "Bones" McCoy, we find the good doctor fretting over space germs, personal matters, and everything else that humans find themselves dealing with on a daily basis. We find Spock conflicted over his half-human, half-Vulcan heritage. Kirk, on the other hand, we find with a fearless, can-do attitude, one that puts him at death's door on more than one occasion. But we do not encounter an idiot; he is portrayed as a genius-level mind. This is presented somewhat superficially, however. We don't see him studying, it's simply implied through a few verbal demonstrations and assertions from Captain Pike, who has "reviewed his file." Ayn Rand demonstrates a similar characterization when she pits the main character of Arrowsmith against The Fountainhead's Howard Roark. One is superficially depicted as a genius, the other is demonstrated. To paraphrase Rand, this movie's Kirk is depicted along the lines of "sorry babe, I can't go to the pizza joint tonight; I have to split the atom!". She argues that such a character is impossible; to really understand such things, it takes a certain kind of dedication...Whether one could be like this in real life is debatable, but it is of no coincidence that many Objectivist are characterized as "Vulcans." 

 And yet, we can draw on real-life leaders to see that not all successful leaders are Vulcan in approach, and not all scientists are fit to be leaders. Some leaders get so caught up in "thinking" that they over-think, or "rationalize."  To bring it back to Koestler's theory, Koestler ends his book with the suggestion that the solution to the dichotomy is to be found in pharmaceuticals. Star Trek presents another alternative: creativity. That is where the character of Kirk, at his best, succeeds. He acts on the information at hand, but is not bound by it. Whereas Spock is trained in logic, he is not trained to think creatively. McCoy, who would panic in an emergency, is urged by Kirk to be more grounded in reality and less in fear. Kirk is not bound by fear or logic; rather, he uses logic to his ends, to find creative solutions where others would admit defeat. Refusing to be beaten in an unbeatable computer simulation, which is meant to confront the cadet with fear and the possibility of loss, Kirk simply cheats by beating the program. In battle, the enemy will not be expected to play fair. This infuriates Spock, who is confronted by his own paradox: how can he design a program to expose cadets to fear when he, a half-Vulcan, is trained not to embrace emotion? That, ultimately, is why Kirk is captain: the "instinct" to survive, even when logic says otherwise. In that sense, Kirk is a trickster in the vein of Odysseus, one who will break the rules in order to get the job done. It is not the always the "smartest" who gets the job done. 

 In it's own, clunky way, the lesson of the movie that Spock learns is not to disown logic, but to be human; to be human is not to be an emotional animal, or a rational animal, but a creative animal, and not accept fate as a given. When Kirk is confronted to be "something greater," it is not the "greater good" that is being invoked, but greater as being something more than a determined plaything of fate. That is what Spock learns, he is not bound by the dictates of logic, but liberated by it, to be not determined by his heritage, but free from it, from tribalism or fate. But James T. Kirk is captain because he is able to combine the use of logic and the primal "instincts" of life to create new possibilities. Where Dr. McCoy would get emotional and fly off the handle, and where Spock would not be able to think "outside the box," Kirk represents the romantic realization of not what is, but "what could be." That is the shared and lasting legacy of all incarnations of Star Trek.