What does personhood look like in the Star Trek reboot films?
In 2016’s Star Trek Beyond (STB) there is an awful lot of bodies -, spaceship-bodies, alien bodies, and these two types of bodies being implicitly compared to one another. Spaceships are a colonizing force, and therefore so are alien bodies – something to be utilized for the greater good of the Federation. Human bodies are often supplemented by technology: in the reboot films, Spock’s mind-melding and extreme strength, Ensign Syl’s head, and Keenser’s toxic, lock-melting sneeze are all utilized. For example, in the 2009 Star Trek film, Spock’s mind-melding – ostensibly a sacred and closely-guarded part of Vulcan culture – is used to quickly ascertain the whereabouts of Captain Pike, in order to keep the fight scenes fast-paced and the plot moving along. Moments like these suggest that alien bodies are somehow less authentic than human bodies because of their parallels with machinery, and can therefore be utilized in a similar way. However, the Enterprise functions best when it allows its alien crew members to break free of mere ‘purpose’, and become more than a cog in the machine. When Spock can love poetry and music, or Worf can ruminate upon the traumatic events of his childhood, then they become more than machines, and resists being treated as such by the plot.
Despite this, generally, spaceship bodies – mechanical bodies – have a purity that alien bodies cannot attain. Alien bodies in STB are lesser than, and secondary to, the spaceships: Kirk’s great love is the Enterprise, and it is the Enterprise that is rebuilt and resuscitated, not any of the aliens who perish during the movie. And this is a big problem, especially when we are considering the race analogies implicit within almost all extra-terrestrial science-fiction.
STB focuses on keeping the Enterprise’s body whole: abandoning ship is a desperate last act, and the USS Enterprise must be replaced by the USS Franklin in order for the crew to be unified, the narrative to continue, and victory to be found. The Enterprise is broken up, attacked, and ultimately blown up – but, at the very end, we see that perfect smoothness being rebuilt. The reassembly of the Enterprise is time-lapsed, transcending normal temporal confines.The Enterprise is open to mythologizing, because of its constant reassembly, its rebirth shown to the sound of TOS’ iconic opening titles, making way for Star Trek as modern-day mythic formulation. The Enterprise will last forever. The alien bodies will not.
Even so, despite all the fanfare at the end of the movie, STB appears to somewhat undercut this hopeful focus on the Enterprise. The whole point of the Federation – encapsulated in miniature with our heroes on the Enterprise – is that it is a single, unified body, comprised of the multiple, diverse bodies of its crews. After the Enterprise is attacked by alien ships, Kirk, representing the Federation, demands Ensign Syl holds the weapon in her head, exploiting her alien biology. She complies, and she is murdered – not something that is asked of any of the named human characters in this movie. A perfect machine body has been corrupted by the alien attackers, so an alien body – an alien body who is merely that, barely a character – must pay the price.
In STB the Enterprise is destroyed and the crew scattered, in a scene symbolically calling into question the possibility of the continued unity of the Federation. The Enterprise, among other things, is a container for alien bodies – a container in which the diverse aliens of the crew are adopted but also assimilated, wearing uniforms and conforming to set ethical codes, the former being something that Jaylah brings up – proud of her individuality, she is not keen on wearing the Starfleet uniform. The swarms of alien ships smash the Enterprise, physically dismembering it, the monolithic symbol of the Federation in-universe, and one of the most iconic symbols of the franchise as a whole. However, their rallying consists in finding another, almost identical, older spaceship-body, the ancient USS Franklin, pointing to a continuity of ideology – and narratively reclaiming that spaceship from its associations with bad-guy Krall. Krall, hell-bent on war and destruction, exists in a black-and-white world of clear answers, but Star Trek, and particularly STB, is built on an ideology that allows for questioning, for our hero to sometimes be a little bit unsure. This is something that the current Star Trek TV series – Star Trek Discovery – is really keen on, with a central character who commits mutiny in the very first episode.There is a marked distinction between teamwork resulting in unity, and a unity that allows no room for difference at all. Discovery is a prequel, intent on demonstrating that the shiny, golden myth of the Federation we see in TOS didn’t appear out of nowhere – that it required bloodshed and uncertainty to get there, something also seen in the massacre at the end of the Star Wars film Rogue One, where, in contrast to the original films, none of our heroes escape.
STB is a film about the beauty of unified diversity, as exemplified by the space station Yorktown, a gleaming beacon of diversity suspended in space. Yorktown is explicitly a neutral space, not based on any one Federation planet. It is also the site where we first see Sulu’s husband, the first explicitly LGBT character in the series. It is a place where diversity flourishes. However, within the Federation’s colonizing imperatives, there is a danger of over-unifying, of reducing everything to just another example of the Federation myth. Director Justin Lin wanted to “try to deconstruct the federation […] And then build it back up so that by the end we reaffirm why we love Star Trek so much.” STB is very explicitly about the power and importance of diversity and unity under the Federation banner, with crew members banding together under repeated uses of “we”. The things that are posited as threats – Krall’s fleet, namely hundreds of thousands of one-person spaceships – are swarms. They have the same multiplicity as the Federation but none of the (nominal!) diversity – the spaceships are identical, and contain only one passenger, communicating with each other through subspace signals that are eventually disrupted by the chaos and disparate cultural innovations of the Beastie Boys.
This delightfully ridiculous, tongue-in-cheek moment –a fond nod back to baby Kirk’s joyriding adventure in 2009 — is also significant. The Beastie Boys heralded from the counter-cultural punk and hip-hop movements. The music is an antithesis to the swarms, but also to the Federation. Kirk, in both incarnations, is a Federation hero but still, a maverick, willing to risk Federation ideals for love of his crew. He acts as a possible mitigation of the Federation’s most problematic policies, and, in STB, he ultimately refuses a promotion that would take him away from the field.
“Star Trek Beyond is a film about the beauty of unified diversity.”
The status of the franchise itself as part of Western cultural story is important here, in that this moment asks the audience to reconfigure the myth in their own minds. Star Trek fans have an immense sense of ownership over the franchise. This is our story, how we are thinking about the world, and it is necessary, in the face of the current resurgence of white nationalist rhetoric, to consider how we are telling that story, how that myth is being spread, especially given that Star Trek’s mythology was written and created almost entirely by white North American men. The crewmembers in STB are scattered to the winds, with everyone employing their diverse talents, but they then find another Federation ship in the jungle, co-opted by an alien who has learned to speak their language, from their symbol, and can therefore become part of the crew with ease. Their use of this ship means that the iconography – albeit patched together and rickety – can persist, because of this alien, a sort of immigrant narrative that aligns with American myth, but that requires Jaylah to integrate fully into the Federation.
Star Trek is at its best when it gives us people – no matter what form those people take. When it gives us characters who invite empathy and nuance. When we grant aliens an understanding and depth we enable richer storytelling, and storytelling that moves the myth along, rather than holding it static. •
All images © Paramount
Alfie Coates works in TV and theatre in London, and continues to have far too many thoughts and feelings about space, storytelling, and gender. You can find them on twitter at @beccaccoates