Defending the Abrams Star Trek Films

This is taken from a comment I made on John C. Wright’s blog. The quotes are from this article (which, despite my criticisms, is worth reading).

I don’t think the author of the article is being fair to either of the new Trek movies.

He says this:

By the time Khan reappears under Abrams’s direction, the fixed moral stars by which the franchise once steered have been almost entirely obscured. No longer the thoughtful, bold captain, the young Kirk (Chris Pine) is now all rashness and violence, taking and breaking everything around him. He confesses that he has no idea what he is doing. But these are not vices he outgrows. Instead, the other characters come to recognize these traits as proof of his entitlement to command. When, in Abrams’s first film, Kirk’s recklessness briefly costs him his ship, his reign is restored by the intercession of an older version of Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, who journeys across the dimensions to counsel Kirk that it is still his “destiny” to lead. “[T]his is the one rule you cannot break,” Nimoy intones, without further explanation. Kirk proceeds to retake control of the Enterprise in brutal fashion. Abrams thus grounds Kirk’s authority not on practical wisdom or merit, which he expressly disclaims, but on a version of the swaggering pretension to inherent superiority that “Space Seed” had repudiated. The new Enterprise is governed more by what The Federalist calls “accident and force” than by “reflection and choice.”

This is such an unfair interpretation of events I can’t imagine the writer doesn’t realize it. He is stretching to make his point.

The reason Kirk uses force to retake the ship is not because force is better than wisdom or merit, but because Nimoy’s Spock had pointed out that Kirk is a better leader than Spock. The reason we do not need to be told why it is Kirk’s destiny to lead is because we already KNOW Kirk. He’s Captain freakin’ Kirk, one of the greatest heroes in the history of the Federation. Of course he’s a great leader. We’ve seen it ourselves. Nimoy’s Spock is not going off of a vague feeling of “destiny” here, but personal experience. It’s entirely rational.

So Kirk uses force to retake the ship because it’s an emergency and that’s the fastest way for him to take over. It’s not meant to be a substitute for real leadership ability.

Cause and effect have been flipped. Kirk isn’t given the right to lead by Nimoy’s Spock, designating him as superior, but is instead recognized as the best possible leader by Spock, and thus told that because he will be the best, he should lead.

Kirk is only accepted by the crew by default. He only becomes respected after coming up with a daring plan to rescue Pike and volunteering himself for the most dangerous part of the job. The plan is cowboy, of course, but it is not reckless. Rather, it is the only possible way any of them could come up with to save Pike, and indirectly the Federation. He is actually awarded the ship only after his plan succeeds and Pike is rescued.

What’s telling is that this analysis belies its own point: Kirk’s recklessness DOES cost him the ship, and he’s only recognized as the rightful Captain (as awarded by Pike himself) after coming up with a plan to rescue Pike, working on the plan with people he formerly considered enemies, and finally, when he has Nero on the ropes, he does not blast away with abandon but offers Nero asylum in exchange for his surrender.

The film acknowledges the similarities between the two, and even enlists the audience’s sympathy for Khan’s terrorism—but it never answers this question, except in terms of personal loyalty and betrayal. In an effort at ratio ex machina, Nimoy is once again brought in as Spock, to tell the crew that Khan is “dangerous”—but even he gives the audience no reason to consider Khan a villain. Ultimately, Khan is presented as evil not because he wars against equality and freedom, but because he isn’t one of us, while Kirk is—and because he loses, while Kirk wins.

This analysis is downright farcial.

The movie is smart in portraying the similarities between Kirk and Khan. The difference, however, is obvious. Khan is attempting to use subterfuge to start an intergalactic war, and has been responsible for terrorist acts in several U.S. cities. Kirk is…much, much better than that.

What they are calling vague “superiority” is in fact “meritocracy”, and the obvious answer to the question of who we should have sympathy for is “The guy NOT attempting to start a war, who in fact restrained from giving in to his hot-headed impulses due to the advice of his crew, and who hasn’t engaged in mass terrorist attacks the world over”.

I have no opinion on his analysis of the TNG series, and even most of TOS (having only seen a handful of episodes and one movie), but I am very much unimpressed with his analyses of the two Abrams films. The writer is either unobservant or dishonest (or both), because the movies simply are not presented the way he thinks they are, and I submit that it is, in fact, obvious that this is the case.

You can make the argument that the movies are badly written. You can make the argument that Kirk’s characterization is inconsistent with his characterization from the original series and movies. But you absolutely cannot make the argument that the Abrams movies are nihilistic. It requires an interpretation of the movies so obviously twisted that the only way to believe it is if you’ve already come up with your conclusions before you attempt to establish your premises. It’s just not true.

(By the way – I think the Abrams films are fun and entertaining, but I have no quarrel with those who argue that objectively the writing is quite poor.)