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Thursday, May 23, 2013

"The Needs of the Many": Is "Star Trek Into Darkness" an Anti-Bush Movie? (Updated)

Update: Some additional reflection led me to add to the title.  See below for why.

Okay so last weekend I went to see the latest Star Trek.  Mostly I just wanted to have a good time with some escapist entertainment (and my wife is a notorious sci-fi fan).  But before I went in I was warned by Breitbart’s Christian Toto that it was an anti-Bush or anti-war-on-terror movie.  And then I saw it and realized, intentionally or not, the movie actually ended up playing as a vindication of Bush’s approach to the War on Terror.

But to make this point, I am going to have to be pretty spoilerific.  I will have to give away pretty much the entire plot to make my argument.  So the discussion will go below the fold.

So… SPOILER ALERT!  Proceed below the fold at your own risk.

Okay, still with me?

So the movie starts out with a series of attacks by the terrorist John Harrison played very well with an oddly “royal” sense of savage menace by Benedict Cumberbatch.  He blows up what seems to be an ordinary library and then manages to attack Starfleet Command in the middle of a meeting discussing how to deal with him.  After murdering someone important to Kirk (not everything will be spoiled), Harrison flees onto the Klingon homeworld of Kronos (or “Qo’nos” if you want to get really geeky).  At this point in time the Kingons are not enemies yet, but people in Starfleet reasonably anticipate that we will have it out with them soon.

So then Peter Weller (as Admiral Marcus) introduces himself as an important figure in Section 31.  Fans of the shows will recognize this as a secret organization within Starfleet.  They sell themselves as the people who do the dirty work that keeps Starfleet safe, without the restraints of Starfleet’s morality.  They get their hands dirty to that the rest of Starfleet can feel safe and morally superior.  They were first introduced in the darker-themed Deep Space Nine.

And Marcus has a dirty job for Kirk to do.  He gives him super-long range photon torpedos and instructs him to go to the edge of Klingon space, launch a torpedo at Harrison’s position on Kronos and then leave.  It short, it was like sending a cruise missile into enemy territory.  And just to make the issue more clean, they claim that no other sentient being is anywhere near Harrison.  They would kill him and him alone.

This leads us to the assertion of liberal values Toto mentioned above.  It is wrong to just kill him, Spock argues.  And further, he argues, launching the strike might trigger a war with the Klingons if it is traced back to them.  Harrison should be given a trial and so on.  At first Kirk, in his anger, is not interested.  But eventually he comes around and decides that the correct course of action is to try to capture Harrison.

This is supposed to be the great liberal message of the movie.  The good guys try to capture the terrorists and try them in criminal court, rather than just killing them.  Sure, the bad guys are bad, but you should not become as bad as them, or so the argument goes.  That is certainly what Mr. Toto read into this.

Now, first, this misunderstands the conservative argument in the War on Terror entirely.  Few if any conservatives, for instance, were opposed to a criminal trial for Tim McVeigh.  Why?  Because he was, as best as we can tell, a lone wolf (I am open to the idea that he was actualy working with al Qaeda, but that has never been proven).  On the other hand, we didn’t think al Qaeda deserved that kind of gentleness because they were an entire organization that had declared war on us.  Thus they fit into the Lincolnian paradigm of being a “combination[] too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings justifying the use of the powers of war against them.

But in Into Darkness, Harrison is just one guy.  Now the situation is complicated by the fact that he was hiding in another planet ruled by a nation that might not be willing to turn him over to us.  On the other hand, if they understood enough about the Klingons to appeal to their love of honor, and pointed out that Harrison had dishonorably attacked Starfleet, they might have been persuaded to do so.  Terrorism is characterized by cowardly and dishonorable tactics.  But this diplomatic appeal is an avenue I don’t believe the movie even mentioned as a possibility.

So it doesn’t even quite fit into the al Qaeda paradigm.  He looks more like McVeigh than bin Laden, because he is one guy rather than the head of an organization.  So if it is intended as a swipe at the conservative approach to the War on Terror, it’s a swing and a miss right there.  Or to use a more classic metaphor, they are attacking a straw man.

But even more than that, the events of the film rebut this liberal view.  Yes, Kirk chooses to try to capture Harrison alive and it sets off a series of events that would cause any reasonable person to regret that decision not to just kill Harrison outright.  Or at the very least, you have to argue that Harrison should have been captured despite a frightful cost in terms of human life that this entailed.

Now the complicated thing, here, is I suspect that Abrams and company really believed that this movie would serve as a rebuttal to the idea of treating the war on terror as a matter of war and not just a criminal matter.  But the events of the film, regardless of whatever message was supposed to be conveyed, sends a very different message: Kirk, the crew of Enterprise, the otherwise patriotic members of Section 31, and several thousand random innocent civilians would have been 100% better off, if Kirk just flat out murdered Harrison when he had the chance.

So the original plan was to go to the edge of Klingon space, launch the photon torpedos, and then leave.  Instead Kirk decides to actually go into Klingon space in order to capture Harrison.  Immediately when they do, their warp engines go off line, trapping them close to Kronos, increasing the danger that they would be detected, leading to an international incident.  Then they decided to fly down in a civilian ship taken from Harry Mudd, in the hopes of capturing Harrison.  The civilian ship was used to avoid implicating Starfleet but still several federation officers were caught on the planet by Klingons, which couldn’t have helped matters, especially when they started fighting.  And just when it looked pretty hopeless for the Federation types, guess who saves them from hordes of Klingons?  Harrison.

You see, Harrison is genetically enhanced, which fans of the franchise would recognize as being a feature of Khan and his crew on the Botany Bay and generally a recurring problem in their universe.  If all you know about Khan is from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, you might not have picked up this detail.  Mostly the fight between Kirk and Khan in that movie is cerebral, a fight between two evenly-matched ships and their minds.  The only hint that you get that Khan is not just a regular (albeit brilliant and evil) human is when he lifts Chekov off the ground with one hand.

This is not the case in Into Darkness.  Harrison is genetically enhanced and the movie never lets you forget it, Harrison regularly acting almost like a supervillain  slaughtering enemies by the dozen and taking abuse no ordinary human could stand without serious damage.  Thus he takes on several dozen Klingons alone and kicks their behinds, saving Kirk and his away team.  And then he surrenders to Kirk.

And then the big reveal.  You see Harrison is not really Harrison.  That is just the name he was given when he was unfrozen and made to integrate into modern society.  He is actually Khan.  Which means he went from being played by a Spaniard pretending to be a Sikh, to now being a British man who has a name more typical of a Sikh.  Weird, but oh well.

When I first heard rumors that Khan was the villain in this one, I had severe doubts about whether it would be a good idea.  The reality is The Wrath of Khan worked in significant part because of the wrath part.  Khan had a run in with Kirk before and had been bested by him and further Khan blamed him for marooning him on what became a deserted planet that even killed his wife.  Khan was pissed and that contributed significantly to the awesomeness of that movie.

This contrasts sharply to the first appearance of Khan.  In the first appearance in the original show, Khan was a jerk, but it was not personal.  And indeed that episode, Space Seed reads as a pretty harsh indictment of the liberal tendency to minimize evil (season 1, episode 23 for reference).  At one point in the episode, Spock discussed the history of Khan and his reign of terror in the far off years of 1992-1996...  So okay, it’s a little weird to watch it today, but their failure to predict our future aside, they explain that he was a dictator over much of the earth.

And what then happens is that the humans on the crew admit to having an admiration for him.  Kirk says, “he was the best of tyrants and the most dangerous.  They were supermen of a sort.  Stronger, braver, certainly more ambitious, more daring.”  Spock can barely believe what he was hearing, calmly reminding his crew that the man was an evil dictator, resulting in this exchange:

Kirk: Mr. Spock, you misunderstand us.  We can be against him and admire him, all at the same time.

Spock: Illogical.

Kirk: Totally.

It was only Spock, with his uncomplicated logic and morality, who fully understood the danger that Khan posed.  And it was Kirk (and other illogical humans) who didn’t appreciate the danger of this man.  And while it’s hard to argue Kirk’s illogical failure to recognize the danger contributed to the threat Khan posed to the ship, the same couldn’t be said for ship’s historian Maria McGivers (Madlyn Rhue).  While she doesn’t guess his identity before anyone else (which, um, doesn’t exactly speak well to her abilities as a historian), she does figure out that he is a dictator in waiting and she, like, totally digs it.  Now some of this can be chalked up to the casual sexism of the 1960’s, but she also represents the willingness to be seduced by evil and supposedly “great men,” to think that something other than freedom and democracy is the right answer, a view that has haunted much of liberalism for decades.

The idea that some liberals are easily seduced by evil is reflected in the current Star Trek movie albeit in a different way. Once Harrison reveals he is actually Khan, he also goes on to try to justify his conduct.  Khan reveals that Section 31 have found his ship and revived him some years ago (remember, the previous movie established that the timeline had been altered so this is an example of how Niro had altered the timeline we know and love).  Section 31 felt that war with the Klingons was inevitable, so they wanted to tap his savage genius to help them prepare to fight the Klingons, making him build advanced weapons for them.  Khan reveals that in fact the library he blew up was actually a Section 31 data center in some kind of convoluted way of trying to get at the rest of his crew so they would be revived.  He then appeals to the captain by saying something to the effect that he did all of this for his crew, and gee, wouldn’t he do just as much for his?

So, and this is key, Kirk decides that Khan is not as bad as Section 31.  Indeed Section 31 created his Khan problem, echoing how liberals claim (incorrectly) that we created bin Laden.  And it is revealed that Section 31 had sabotaged the ship so that they would be stuck in Klingon space in a hope that they would go there and be caught there and start the war with the Klingons that Marcus and Section 31 think is inevitable.

But Admiral Marcus decides to personally destroy the Enterprise to cover up all of this mess and so he shows up in the giant black starship you see in the previews, with all kinds of superior weapons.  This site calls it the Killerprise.  Fair enough.

(Although this site calls the “Killerprise” the Vengence.)

So the Killerprise pretty much kicks the crud out of the Enterprise and is about to do them in when convenient (but well explained) sabotage saves them from the killing blow.  Kirk then decides that the greater evil is Admiral Marcus and not Khan and does a space jump with Khan into the Killerprise.  With Scotty’s help (long story) the three pretty much take the whole ship, mostly because Khan is so bada__, and genetically enhanced and whatnot.

Kirk realizes that he is playing with fire by letting Khan loose, so he instructs Scotty to stun him when they take over the ship.  Not kill him, mind you, but stun him.  This would be the second time that they could have killed Khan, and they didn’t and they would come to regret it.  Or more precisely any reasonable person would regret it.

See, because Khan is genetically enhanced, a stun charge is not enough to really put him down reliably.  He goes down, knocked out, but a few seconds later he opens his eyes and takes over the Killerprise.

By then they were close to Earth and the final fighting leaves the Enterprise badly damaged but Kirk brilliantly outsmarts Khan. This leaves the Killerprise and the Enterprise crippled.  There is a long sequence when the Enterprise is falling out of the sky toward destruction on the Earth and is rescued.  I don’t want to say too much how they save themselves, but let’s just leave it that they borrowed from The Wrath of Khan in a way that left a bad taste in my mouth.

Star Trek Into Darkness trailer USS Vengeance crashAnd then just when they felt safe, the Killerprise dives past them crashing toward San Francisco.  The picture on the right is from that sequence.  

See, every time Khan seems like he is about to die or just lose, he tries to kill everyone else around him, out of spite.  (He did this in the original “Space Seed,” too, trying to overload the ship’s engines.)  And in this case that meant crashing this massive behemoth of a starship—much larger than the Enterprise—right into San Francisco.

Now, stop and think about this for a second.  Because Kirk didn’t just straight up kill Khan on two occasions, he set off a series of events that led a starship to crash into a bunch of buildings.  Yes, in the previews you see it crashing into the ocean near San Francisco, but then the ship continues forward until it destroys a great deal of the futuristic city, knocking down skycrapers and the like.  Now, what does that sound like, folks?

Yes, it sounds like a Sci-fi September 11.  Only it is probably much worse, because that ship is large enough to knock down several buildings.  So to repeat for emphasis, because Kirk didn’t kill Khan when he had the chance (twice!), thousands of innocent people in San Francisco died.  And for that matter, so did lots of people on the Killerprise. (Or do we think that 100% of the people are on the Killerprise were bad people, so screw them?)  And lots of good people on the Enterprise died too.

So contrary to what this article in the Atlantic says, Kirk isn’t George W. Bush, but instead he is Bill Clinton.  That is, Kirk is a leader with a zipper problem who due to liberal values missed repeated opportunities to neutralize a terrorist leading directly to the death of thousands of innocents.  And this is supposed to be an argument against the conservative approach to the war on terror?  This is supposed to be an argument against just killing the bad guys when you have the chance?

Or maybe I am selling the creative team behind the movie short.  Maybe their terrorism metaphors are more from the Ron Moore camp.  In the most recent Battlestar Galactica series, Moore presented an allegory to the War on Terror, without making it clear the liberal approach or the conservative approach was right.  Instead the story was character driven, showing how people would behave leaving it to the audience to decide if they were right or wrong.  And most importantly, they made sure that the evidence was not stacked one way or the other.  When they would show the humans getting paranoid, for instance, they would show you they (the Cylons) were really after them, arguably justifying their paranoia.

So applied to this movie, it makes sense that some in the Star Trek universe would prefer to take Khan alive, and it even makes sense that Kirk would be persuaded to that view, whether you agree with that view or not.  And likewise, it makes equal sense that Khan would cause that kind of destruction—as I noted above, it’s what he always does when he looks like he is going to die or just lose.  So maybe in the end Abrams was being character-driven, showing the natural consequences of the decisions, rather than trying to be preachy.

But I get the feeling that Abrams was not being so subtle in his thinking.  For one several lines in the movie set Khan up as the savage we should fear becoming in the face of savage enemies.  Further, that September 11-type disaster in the end is given virtually no attention.  There isn’t a single mention of the thousands of civilians who were likely in those buildings.  There is no acknowledgement of the terrible price they paid in their fight with Khan.

On the other hand, the movie is dedicated to post 9-11 veterans and features a few of them in a scene toward the end.  So maybe this was more in the Ron Moore camp after all.

But I suspect the truth is more like this.  I have long argued, for instance, that comic books tended to make people support the death penalty while the economics of comics tended to make the characters choose not to kill.  Let me take that apart for a second.  First, in comics good villains are hard to come by.  Seriously, there have been some really lame ones over the years.  So if your hero kills a “good villain” then you have to come up with a new one for next month’s issue.  Maybe the next one will be awesome, or maybe the next one will be something lame.  The point is in the economics of comic books, it’s better on balance if your hero doesn’t kill the bad guys so if they are “good villains” they can be recurring characters.  Seriously, where would Batman be if he killed the Joker in the 1930’s?

But on the other hand, the reader can’t help but think, “why the hell doesn’t he just kill this guy?”  Think about it.  In order to keep the Joker credible as a threat he has to cause tons of death and destruction.  He has to paralyze Bat-girl.  He has to kill random innocents.  And after around eighty years, Batman has a familiar pattern with him.  He captures the Joker, puts him in Arkham Asylum, and then the Joker escapes and kills again.  After eight decades of this, Batman has to know that Arkham is not going to hold the Joker, that it will be only a matter of time before the Joker will escape and kill again.  He has to know that by not killing the Joker, he is virtually ensuring the death of someone else.  And even if Batman is not willing to kill him, you wonder why on earth the government doesn’t.  Yes, yes, give him a fair trial and all that, but why not finally execute him and ensure he will never kill again?  So even as comic book heroes tend to be anti-death, the events in the comic books argue eloquently for the death penalty, at the very least.  And indeed it makes you wonder why instead you don’t just see this?

(Yes, that is Superman's hand going through Joker's chest in alternate universe comic.)

So maybe it is as simple as that Abrams doesn’t want to kill Khan because he wants him back for a sequel, so Kirk and Spock decide not to try to kill him although they had multiple chances to do so.  That decision causes lots of death and destruction because it would be a boring movie if that kind of stuff didn’t happen, and by accident Abrams and company make us wonder why Kirk didn’t just kill him when he got the chance just as you wonder why Batman (or at least the government of whatever state Gotham is in) doesn’t just finally kill Joker.

So it’s hard to say what Abrams’ intent was, but whatever message he meant to convey, it is hard to argue that the movie makes a clean case against treating terrorism as a matter of war rather than as a criminal matter—not when it is clear that many lives would have been saved if they just killed Khan without the niceties of a trial when they had the chance.

Update: I added the reference to the “Needs of the Many” to the title, to reflect an additional thought I would share here.  The phrase of course refers to Spock’s simple philosophy: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”

Now taken too far, this can be downright oppressive.  It could lead to suppressing speech because it might lead to violence because after all the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few and so on.

But of course, it most directly led to this.

That would be the iconic scene when Spock dies at the end of Khan.  The ship and everyone on it was going to be destroyed unless someone went in to the reactor chamber and sacrificed him or herself to get the warp engines back online.  So there was a mathematical logic to it.  His life was not more important than the hundreds who made up the crew.  It was that simple.

And further in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Kirk with intentional illogic, turned it around.  The many, his crew (albeit mainly just the main characters) risked their lives for one.  Kirk even lost his only son in one of the more effective acting performances by Shatner.  But he was willing to put all of them in danger on the chance he might save his friend, Spock.

Similarly Into Darkness also turns that Khan logic on its head on its head.  Thousands of innocent civilians were surely killed and for what?  To save the life of Khan, so he could be tried by a criminal court.  And even if you don’t want to pin the deaths of those people in San Francisco on that decision—even if you want to say that Kirk and crew couldn’t have reasonably anticipated that outcome—Kirk still put his entire crew and the crew of the “Killerprise” in danger just to save one criminal.  And it wasn’t even like as if Kirk was unsure Khan was a murderer.  He personally saw him gunning down several people including one person very important to him.  So thousands of innocent people on the ground in San Francisco, hundreds of people on board the Killerprise, and hundreds more in the Enterprise, all were either killed or had their lives seriously endangered by Kirk’s decision to save one confirmed killer.  The needs of one killer outweighs the needs of the many?

All of which makes you wonder if Spock really would be the one to argue that Khan deserved a trial.  It doesn’t seem very logical, in retrospect, does it?

(Please note, I also altered some of the text below mainly to make it clearly and to improve grammar.) 


And yes, I am skipping over some of the more questionable moments in the movie.  There is one that directly takes from The Wrath of Khan in a way I don’t think worked very well.  Big spoiler they have a death scene that intentionally parallels Spock’s death in Khan, only this time it is Kirk.

I think what makes the scene fail is this.  The original death scene worked and was powerful for several reasons, not the least because these guys had been friends in our living rooms for decades.  This new Kirk and Spock had only known each other for two movies, so Spock's emotionalism at Kirk’s death was just not earned.  It doesn’t ruin the movie (Kirk doesn’t even stay dead), but it was a weak moment when it was supposed to be powerful.

But it was not half as lame of Data dying at the end of Star Trek: Nemesis, only to be effectively resurrected minutes later.  But still came nowhere near capturing the power of Spock’s death in Khan.

The other irritation was the cameo by old Spock (Leonard Nimoy).  Someone, when reviewing the last Star Trek movie said that every scene with old Spock in it made the movie dumber.  This is definitely the case with this movie.  In that scene, young Spock asks old Spock if he knows anything about Khan and Spock says something to the effect that he can’t tell him anything because he doesn’t want to change the timeline and then proceeds to tell him something like that Khan is their most dangerous enemy and they could only defeat him at great sacrifice.  I wanted to throw something at the screen, it was so dumb.  The entire movie was taking place in a different timeline!  There was no timeline to preserve!  So the logical thing for Spock to do would be to tell young Spock everything he knows about all the dangerous crud they would encounter so young Spock would be better prepared, starting with, “be really careful around this Khan fellow.”  And maybe "look out for those Borg fellows. They will be pretty dangerous in a century or so."

That all being said, did I like the movie?  Yes.  It’s a flawed movie, just like the last one, but it was still good fun.


My wife and I have lost our jobs due to the harassment of convicted terrorist Brett Kimberlin, including an attempt to get us killed and to frame me for a crime carrying a sentence of up to ten years.  I know that claim sounds fantastic, but if you read starting here, you will see absolute proof of these claims using documentary and video evidence.  If you would like to help in the fight to hold Mr. Kimberlin accountable, please hit the Blogger’s Defense Team button on the right.  And thank you.

Follow me at Twitter @aaronworthing, mostly for snark and site updates.  And you can purchase my book (or borrow it for free if you have Amazon Prime), Archangel: A Novel of Alternate, Recent History here.  And you can read a little more about my novel, here.



I have accused some people, particularly Brett Kimberlin, of reprehensible conduct.  In some cases, the conduct is even criminal.  In all cases, the only justice I want is through the appropriate legal process—such as the criminal justice system.  I do not want to see vigilante violence against any person or any threat of such violence.  This kind of conduct is not only morally wrong, but it is counter-productive.

In the particular case of Brett Kimberlin, I do not want you to even contact him.  Do not call him.  Do not write him a letter.  Do not write him an email.  Do not text-message him.  Do not engage in any kind of directed communication.  I say this in part because under Maryland law, that can quickly become harassment and I don’t want that to happen to him.

And for that matter, don’t go on his property.  Don’t sneak around and try to photograph him.  Frankly try not to even be within his field of vision.  Your behavior could quickly cross the line into harassment in that way too (not to mention trespass and other concerns).

And do not contact his organizations, either.  And most of all, leave his family alone.

The only exception to all that is that if you are reporting on this, there is of course nothing wrong with contacting him for things like his official response to any stories you might report.  And even then if he tells you to stop contacting him, obey that request.  That this is a key element in making out a harassment claim under Maryland law—that a person asks you to stop and you refuse.

And let me say something else.  In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe that any person supporting me has done any of the above.  But if any of you have, stop it, and if you haven’t don’t start.

1 comment:

  1. I had a different feeling after watching this last week. It seemed their message was "look the noble Starfleet got all militarized and went looking to jump start a war and ended up creating their own terrorists". The worst character in the movie was Adm. Marcus with his stereotype "can't you see we must go to wah before they attack us and I'm the only guy who can do it and I'll run black ops to do it and kill lots of innocent people to cover it up."