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Star Trek Into Darkness: “Greater love has no one than this…”

June 4, 2013 One Comment


[Note: Spoilers follow.]

by Ted Giese

A crew member says, “It’s a miracle!” Spock responds, “There are no such things.”

Star Trek Into Darkness is a big budget blockbuster film, chalk full of explosions and intrigue, but it doesn’t have the luxury of existing in a bubble: it’s a film that’s deeply connected to all things Trek. It has a pop cultural context that it’s working within. In fact, this year’s Star Trek film is the twelfth in the franchise.

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the alien crew member Spock sacrifices himself to save his friends and the entire crew of the Starship Enterprise, believing that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” He is given a funeral with “Amazing Grace” played throughout the Ship and his body is torpedoed onto the face of a planet recently renamed Genesis (because it was turned into a paradise from a hunk of lifeless rock by clever science).

Earlier in that film, McCoy, the Ship’s doctor, is bemused when he is shown the report about this new scientific discovery. In a conversation about the moral implications of using this new device, McCoy worries, “According to myth, the Earth was created in six days. Now, watch out! Here comes Genesis! We’ll do it for you in six minutes!” In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the same alien science officer who sacrificed himself to save others is brought back to life from the dead and is rescued by the help of his friends.

Star Trek, to a certain extent, has always had religious themes and content; even some of its broader existential questions are reactionary investigations driven by a materialistic worldview. Star Trek has always had a complicated relationship with religion. Christianity in particular hasn’t always fared well in the almost four decades of Star Trek stories. Whether it’s films or television, Star Trek tends to favour a pluralistic and inclusive view of religion while bristling at the key aspect of Christianity—namely Jesus’ exclusive statement about Himself [“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).]

Star Trek has always had religious themes and content; even some of its broader existential questions are reactionary investigations driven by a materialistic worldview.

Gene Roddenberry, the original creator of the popular series, was a humanist and an agnostic, and he envisioned a future where humans had no boundaries of any kind. Where there would be no gender or class or race or religious impediments to the development of humanity in the universe. His conception of a” Federation of Planets” and “Starfleet” are more akin to the United Nations and the Peace Corps than the American Republic and its armed forces.

Spock and Kirk.

Spock and Kirk.

It is at this juncture where the ideological and philosophical tensions are found in the new film Star Trek: Into Darkness. In the last film, the Star Trek franchise went back to the familiar characters of the original series, while creating an alternate time line for these same characters to follow. In this way, the series original films and this new one can cover some similar events and characters from original Trek while not being bound to the original storyline—a very post-modern approach to storytelling. So while in The Wrath of Khan it was Mr. Spock who sacrificed himself for the crew and his friend Captain James T. Kirk, the new film reverses the event: it’s now Kirk who makes the sacrifice, giving up his life for the lives of others, for the lives of his friends.

The Christian watching this new film will be reminded of the Gospel of John where Jesus says to His disciples not long before His crucifixion, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This theme of sacrifice stands at the core of the new film.

It also brings us back to that initial exchange from the beginning of this review where a crew member, not knowing that Kirk has died but discovering that they have all been saved from certain death, says “It’s a miracle!” Spock responds, “There are no such things.” In Christianity the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus is the greatest of the miracles. No other miracle has the salvation of all mankind wrapped up in it. That Jesus died not just for his friends the disciples, but that He died for everyone who ever existed or would exist is miraculous. That one death would produce life for everyone is the central miracle of Christianity.

The response of Spock to the “miracle” of the salvation of the Enterprise and her crew is in keeping with the general response of the series’ materialist worldview to an unpredictable and unrepeatable event. The death and ‘resurrection’ of Kirk is a plot point that the Christian will recognize as an allusion to Jesus and His sacrificial death and resurrection. Indeed, the film presents a number of characters, including the villain, risking their own death for the lives of their friends. As a result the film ends up asking the question, “Are you willing to die for your friends? Are you willing to sacrifice yourself so others might live?”

The death and ‘resurrection’ of Kirk is a plot point that the Christian will recognize as an allusion to Jesus and His sacrificial death and resurrection.

It’s important to note that Director J.J. Abrams isn’t a Christian (he’s married to one but he considers himself to be Jewish). His writing team on this film Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof often weave religious themes and allusions into their work, so it isn’t surprising to see Christian elements in this film. But again there is a complex relationship at work in the writing. The film opens with Kirk breaking the Starfleet Prime Directive, and in the process accidentally creating a new religion when the technologically primitive inhabitants of the planet view his spaceship.

This kind of thing is in keeping with Roddenberry’s negative view of religion. But then we get lines of dialogue that casually refer to God, like when an Admiral reprimanding Captain Kirk says “You think the rules don’t apply to you because you don’t agree with them. Worse, you’ve used dumb luck to justify playing God. You’re not ready for the chair because you don’t respect it.” And Chief Engineer Scott says to Kirk, “For the love of God, don’t use those torpedoes.” In the previous film, Star Fleet Academy Students upon receiving their commissions and assignments in the midst of an emergency are blessed with the parting phrase “Welcome to Starfleet. Godspeed.” Likewise there are repeated mentions of “christening” the starship Enterprise.

This later idea comes up again in Star Trek: Into Darkness. The naval tradition of christening ships is drawn from the sacrament of Baptism where the Christian is baptised into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. It’s hard to say how comfortable the agnostic Rodenberry would have been with the christening language in the recent Star Trek films.

As a film, Star Trek: Into Darkness is bigger faster and more complex than other Star Trek films. It does revisit classic Trek questions concerning the crew’s role in fulfilling their mission; are they to only be explorers or are they invested with military responsibilities? If both, how do these competing responsibilities resolve themselves in the story? This is the reason for the film’s subtitle “Into Darkness.” The question is whether the crew will match the terrorism of the enemy with terrorism of its own, and in so doing be tempted into the same darkness inhabited by the villain of the film. Will they give up their soul for revenge or is vengeance part of their work?

The villain in this film is both literally and figuratively stronger than villains in previous Trek films. Kirk is written with amoral blind spots and character faults in keeping with the history of this fictional character, and these provide some of content that makes this film inappropriate for young viewers. He is however a character who is shown learning from his mistakes, but it’s safe to say he’s a slow learner. If you’re a Star Trek fan, there’s lots to love in this film. Alternately, if you’re just looking for a compelling summer blockbuster with a bit of intrigue and some hard hitting action, you won’t be disappointed either.


Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Regina, Saskatchewan.


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