“This is clearly a military operation. Is that what we are now? ‘Cause I thought we were explorers.”
One of the reasons why Star Trek has remained an important cultural phenomenon, spanning several TV shows and films over the past 50 years, is that it's boundlessly optimistic about the potential of where humans can go. It envisions a better future where humanity is joined together in a non-capitalist, creative society of equality and exploration. As Captain Picard says in Star Trek: First Contact: "The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity." It's a utopia that Trek fans like me want to believe in.
But it's not a perfect utopia. It wouldn't be a very interesting show/film if there wasn't conflict. Star Trek, on its best days, wrestles directly with the perennial problems humanity and society face. It's science fiction as both fun entertainment AND social commentary. Just look at the three years that the original Star Trek aired: 1966-1969, three of the most volatile, radical, exciting times in modern American history. The Civil Rights and the anti-war movements were in full swing, and there was this sense that a new world was being born. That new world hasn't, so far, matched the hopes and splendor of Star Trek, but the show gives us a vision worth striving for, a vision of what we might become.
The latest installment in the Trek universe, Star Trek: Into Darkness, continues this tradition of optimistic social commentary. The central conflict of this film is the very identity of Star Fleet. Given the potential threats the Federation faces, should Star Fleet become a military force, or should they remain essentially space explorers and scientists? After all, the mission statement of the Enterprise is "To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before." In Star Trek: Into Darkness, the crew of the Enterprise find that mission statement tested by a couple villains who are hell-bent on militarizing Star Fleet.
While the "official" villain is the super-human Khan, I feel that the real villain is Admiral Markus, who awoke Khan from cryo-sleep for the purpose of building weapons of mass destruction. Markus is convinced that Star Fleet must become primarily a military force, and he, with Khan's help, builds weapons and ships for that expressed purpose. In contrast to the Enterprise, whose purpose is exploration, Markus's ship is made for combat.
When Khan "goes rogue" and commits a terrorist attack on a major city, Markus sees this as the perfect opportunity to unleash the full power of his new militarized, and privatized, Star Fleet, with frightening parallels to the United States' military-industrial complex, and our current status as the world's military power. Captain Kirk and the Enterprise find themselves in a crisis of their own identity, as they are swept up into this conflict. They feel a desire for vengeance against Khan, but just how far will this vengeance and fear take them? Will it transform them, like Markus, into the very villains they intend to stop? Will it drive them, so to speak, "into darkness"?
Ultimately, the crew of the Enterprise choose to be their better selves. The speech Kirk gives at the end sums this up rather well: "There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves. Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that's not who we are... When Christopher Pike first gave me his ship, he had me recite the Captain's Oath. Words I didn't appreciate at the time. But now I see them as a call for us to remember who we once were and who we must be again. And those words: Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before."
As with all good Trek, there are clear parallels to our contemporary, real world. Who do we choose to be, as a nation, and as a society? Will we choose to act on fear and reactionary politics, stock-piling weapons and creating a militarized world? Or will we choose the brighter path, the path of exploration, creativity, and wonder? This latter path is the one the crew of the Enterprise chooses. The film ends with the crew embarking on a new and unprecedented 5-year voyage into space, not to colonize or fight, but to explore. That is the kind of society I want to be a part of. A society not based on fear, but wonder. As it has done for the past 50 years, the starship Enterprise leads the way out of darkness, and into a bright new future.