What Does God Need With A Starship?

star-trek-into-darkness-posterSpoiler Alert Warning: If you’ve been paying attention for the past two years, it’s not that big a spoiler, but if you have been avoiding the spoilers you may want to avoid this post until after you see Star Trek Into Darkness.
Like Captain Janeway, I’ve known fear and I agree, “It’s a very healthy thing, most of the time. [It] warn[s] us of danger, remind[s] us of our limits, protect[s] us from carelessness.” Like Picard, I like my Earl Grey hot. And like Kirk, I’ve wondered what God might want with a starship.
On the one hand, the integrity of Star Trek resonates with me. Each Star Trek era is a composite of stories, and yet taken as a whole Star Trek becomes a complete and cohesive universe that rewrites social, philosophical, and religious rules and has Jewish themes and concepts that run throughout. On the other hand, I just love and am invested in the characters, the banter, and the play between the futuristic science and philosophy-with-a-touch-of-theology. And since I’m Jewish and therefore have three hands, I admit I am also entertained by visually impressive and agile science-fiction action epics.
Watching Into Darkness was thrilling for me.
I’ve been waiting since 2009 to see this movie, and if you’ve read other posts from me you have some idea that for me the promise of seeing this 2013 movie was more about coming out of darkness than going into it. Playing out ideas of life and death and – yes it’s really in there – blood transfusion and transplant, one might think today I would still be mulling over the significance of those aspects of the film.
I am disappointed to say, as much as I enjoyed watching it and would gladly do so again, what I saw in those scenes was not so much a thoughtful exploration of new worlds and new ideas, but rather a future that is fast and furious in which someone is always running from someone, shooting at someone, or being shot by someone.
And yet, in May I read Zachary Quinto’s (young Spock) words in the Huffington Post, “I think Gene Roddenberry was a visionary and used the forum of ‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ as an avenue to present society with allegorical stories that allowed them to generate dialogue about things that people weren’t talking about at the time. . . . Interracial relationships and just the diversity of the crew of the Enterprise is indicative of that. . . . This movie obviously goes into some darker territory, and I think that’s because it’s reflective of the time we live in.”
Thinking about that territory, Benedict Cumberbatch made for a truly fantastic villain engaged as much in a psychological drama with Kirk and Spock as with taking over the world and committing genocide. Watching the movie, it didn’t immediately strike me that what I saw was a blue-eyed man with a European accent committing atrocities and plotting more and claiming genetic superiority. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was not Jewish. His early co-writers, Bob Justman and Herb Solow, were. The experience of the Holocaust influenced the storyline in several original 1960s episodes. Leonard Nimoy’s parents were first-generation Orthodox immigrants from Ukraine. William Shatner grew up a Conservative Jew, going to Hebrew School, and attending Jewish summer camps.
Upon further reflection, it occurs to me now that Benedict’s character is Khan. Khan. That is not, perhaps, the first name an author would pick for a white, British character. Of course, Khan was originally played by the Latino actor Ricardo Montalban. As fans know, or could discover in an easy search, Khan Noonien Singh is actually neither English nor Latino but Asian. Well, vaguely. In the episode that introduced him back in 1967, he was described as both “probably a Sikh” and as “absolute ruler of more than a quarter of your world, from Asia through the Middle East.” It seems Kahn could also –vaguely – be Muslim. However, the superhuman, genetically superior beings who followed Khan were a fairly multicultural group. In one episode Khan tries in vain to make contact with followers named Rodriguez, Ling and McPherson.
In the original series and Wrath of Khan the ultimate representation of eugenics was a vaguely Asian and maybe Muslim or Sikh villain played by familiar and well-liked Latino actor with a multicultural and multiracial following. Interesting choice. As we Jewfolk know all too well, eugenics is often synonymous with white superiority, and the people celebrating it usually don’t include us as “white.”  Khan’s existence in Into Darkness further defies the concept of superiority and could demonstrate all the more effectively that any claim to superiority devalues all of humanity. Not only that, it does so without giving us a swarthy, bearded villain. (And yes, I know, “swarthy” is linguistically related to “schwartz” and is of Germanic origin.)
In this movie, the deeper conversation feels frustratingly buried amidst the drama of torpedoes and explosions and ships being ripped apart and almost lost in the Iron-Man-meets-Captain-Kirk fight scenes, but this is precisely why I think God needs a starship. Gene Roddenberry, who died in 1991, was a Secular Humanist. However, in a letter to his cousin in 1984 he wrote, “I’ve elected to believe in a God which is so far beyond our conception and real understanding that it would be nonsense to do anything in its name other than perhaps to revere all life as being part of that unfathomable greatness.” I believe God needs a starship because we need allegorical stories that allow us to generate dialogue about things we find challenging to talk about across religious traditions, philosophical backgrounds, and political affiliations. Sometimes it takes a starship to go boldly toward the conversations we at times avoid and often fear.
Perhaps we would do well to engage in them over a cup of tea.