There’s a lot to like about Star Trek Beyond — the stellar cast, all of whom have grown into their roles since the franchise rebooted in 2009; the exuberantly staged action scenes from first-time Trek director Justin Lin, who previously rebooted the Fast and the Furious franchise so effectively; the effortless way the script, by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, balances character, comedy, and conflict.
But as a longtime fan of the Star Trek series, what I appreciated most about the new film was that it represented a return of sorts to the big ideas that drove the series in its earliest incarnations.
It’s the first Star Trek movie since that 2009 reboot that actually feels like Star Trek.
The original TV series was a stirring defense of 1960s political values
The original Star Trek TV series, which aired for three seasons on NBC starting in 1966, was a vehicle for social and political commentary, with many of its episodes working as overt metaphors for contemporary issues.
As Timothy Sandefur wrote last year in The Claremont Review of Books, series creator Gene Roddenberry was a World War II veteran deeply concerned about the rise of totalitarian governments. Thus, the series often functioned as a sci-fi-flavored defense of liberal internationalism and humanist individualism.
Those values were built into the show’s essential concept: Hundreds of years in the future, the galaxy is largely united under the banner of the United Federation of Planets, a kind of interstellar United Nations designed to unify human and alien species in a peaceful and prosperous order.
The Federation works through Starfleet, a spacefaring navy used for a combination of diplomacy, research, and — when necessary — defense against those that might threaten Federation values and interests. The series followed one of Starfleet’s starships, the Enterprise, and a diverse (especially for its time) crew that reflected the show’s commitment to inclusion, peace, and individualism.
Many of the series’ episodes pitted the crew of the Enterprise against groups and societies that didn’t share the Federation’s liberal values.
Often, those stories forced its characters to contend with twisted versions of themselves: In "Mirror, Mirror," one of the series’ best episodes, Kirk, Dr. McCoy, Uhura, and Scotty find themselves in a parallel timeline where the Federation is a cruel empire and the Enterprise is its enforcer. In "Balance of Terror," the crew encounters the Romulans — an alien race that began as a violent offshoot of the logical, peaceful Vulcans with whom the Federation is aligned. The show’s chief antagonist came in the form of the Klingons, a rival power that prioritizes strength and domination and is often presented as a negative image of the Federation.
Perhaps more than anything else, Star Trek was a show about the clash of cultures, an extended argument for individual diversity bound together by shared values. It was a spacefaring adventure, yes, with phaser weapons and aliens and starship shootouts. But it existed first and foremost as a forum for exploring big ideas about society and morality through science fiction metaphor.
Star Trek’s values existed across its many different versions
It’s true, of course, that the series’ metaphors could sometimes be a little too obvious.
In the season three episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," the crew of the Enterprise encountered the last two survivors of a civilization ravaged by a war fought between two peoples whose faces are split between black and white. The battle lines are drawn between those whose faces are black on the right side and white on the left, and those whose facial colors are reversed. In the end, after attempting to drag the crew of the Enterprise into their deadly squabble, the pair of warring aliens are doomed by their mutual, all-consuming hate.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, the whole thing was an extended, not-very-subtle riff on race relations. But even with stories this hokey, the series retained an essential charm, because of the durability of its cast and characters, and because both its head and its heart were always in the right place.
"Let That Be Your Battlefield," for example, includes a mini monologue by Kirk to the ship’s visitors warning that violence and the use of force are relics of the past and will not be tolerated aboard his ship.
"You’re new to this part of the galaxy," Kirk says, "which is governed by the United Federation of Planets. We live in peace, with full exercise of individual rights." The original was full of moments like this; it was a show that knew what it stood for, and it wore its values on its gold-ringed uniform sleeves.
Clashes of ideas and values remained part of the Star Trek franchise throughout its various incarnations.
Star Trek: The Next Generation forced its crew to face down out-of-control collectivism and capitalism, respectively, in the form of alien societies the Borg and the Ferengi. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine grappled with terrorism and religious fundamentalism. Star Trek: Voyager stranded its crew far from Federation space, challenging them to see how their ideals held up without a support network.
The movie versions of Star Trek were driven more by action spectacle than the TV shows but never lost sight of Roddenberry’s original vision. In 1991, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country gave the original crew a fitting sendoff with a story about the end of the Klingon empire that worked as a parallel to the end of the USSR and the Cold War.
Star Trek Beyond once again pits the Enterprise against those who oppose its values
But when the franchise rebooted in 2009 under director J.J. Abrams, that all went away. Abrams transformed Trek into a modern blockbuster franchise, rapid-fire and action-heavy, with little time for social and political engagement. His focus was on the characters themselves and their personal and emotional journeys, rather than on the context and ideology of the world in which they lived.
Abrams borrowed all the visual trappings of the franchise, and connected his films to the original series via a variety of fan-friendly Easter eggs — but stripped the story of its reason for being. Yes, his update was fast and frenetic and full of sci-fi spectacle in a way the series had never managed before, but it felt deeply hollow: The Abrams vision of Star Trek had no ideology except nostalgia.
It’s fitting, then, that as Star Trek Beyond opens, Captain Kirk (now played by Chris Pine) and the crew of the Enterprise feel like they’re drifting, struggling to find a purpose. Life, Kirk says in a winking nod to the 50-year-old franchise’s history, has begun to feel "episodic."
Turns out that’s not such a bad thing: The movie feels more like an episode of the original Star Trek than either of Abrams’s outings, because it once again pits the crew of the Enterprise against a foe driven by a warped ideology that runs counter to their own.
(Warning: major plot spoilers ahead.)
The villain in Beyond is an outlaw alien named Krall (Idris Elba), who sets the action in motion when he uses a fantastically destructive swarm attack to chew apart the Enterprise and strand the crew on an alien planet.
Krall, a ridge-faced alien of a type the crew have never seen before, turns out to have a vendetta against the Federation and all it stands for. "Federation is an act of war," he barks at one point, "Federation has taught you that conflict should never exist." He boasts of having grown up in a place where he "knew pain" and where "struggle made us strong — not peace, not unity."
As it turns out, Krall is actually a former soldier and Federation ship captain whose body has been warped by alien technology. He grew up fighting the wars that led to the Federation’s creation and, after struggling to fit in to a peaceful era, eventually went insane.
"You won the war!" Kirk shouts during the movie’s climactic battle. "You gave us peace!" Krall, a soldier who never bought into the Federation’s ideals, was a victim of that peace — a person left without a purpose.
Krall’s motivation and background are not as fleshed out as they could be — it’s still a big summer action movie, after all — but they’re very much in keeping with the spirit of the original series, where the villains were often mirror images of the heroes who simply took a different path, and the Federation’s particular ideas were central to the conflict.
It’s a callback to classic Trek that’s far more effective than any of Abrams’s empty nostalgia ploys, because it delivers what both Kirk and Krall are searching for: a reason for being.