Baker Academic

Monday, May 20, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness and Religion - Le Donne

I saw the latest Star Trek offering yesterday (thanks to Pastor Phil who used his gift card to pay my way).

For the self-aware and un-geeky, here is the premise: This movie is a reboot of the original Star Trek story and characters—imagining that they are all young, living in a parallel universe and more attractive.  It also turns out that tinkering with the time-space continuum can turn you into a better actor.

I’ve always been sort of nerdy, but I’ve never been a Comic Con-nerd. I did, however, watch Star Trek regularly in my youth. It was a father-son thing. On the Star Trek nerd scale, I’m somewhere between comparing The Next Generation to Greek mythology and not knowing (or caring) what the Klingon word for “honor” is.  And I have indeed kissed a girl.

I really liked Into Darkness. These reboot films have been heavy on character development (rare in action/adventure flicks) and have brought in some interesting twists to a franchise that looked to have sung it’s swan song decades ago. Both this film and the last one haven’t taken themselves too seriously either. In case you’re interested, you might enjoy this latest film a bit better if you reacquaint yourself with The Wrath of Khan first.

The reason for this post—and what makes it relevant for religious studies—is that Into Darkness reminded me that I’ve never been impressed with the Star Trek treatment of religion. I’m not offended by a naturalist worldview, I just think that the writers have tended toward a superficial understanding of what makes religions tick. This is a severe limitation for any science-fiction mythology.

*** SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to detail the first five minutes of the film here. ***

In the opening scene Kirk and McCoy have stolen a scroll from some pasty-white aboriginals on a pre-modern alien planet. They’re running away from a temple situated near an active and erupting volcano. The reason why they’ve stolen the scroll is unimportant at present, but suffice it to say that the scroll is sacred to these primitive worshipers. The aliens are in hot pursuit of our heroes and intend to kill them. Kirk—in an attempt to distract them—posts the scroll on a tree. The aliens fall prostrate and worship the scroll.

Kirk and McCoy then jump off a cliff into the ocean. Erstwhile, Mr. Spock has been working inside the volcano (where else would he be?).  In a last-ditch effort to save Spock’s life, the Starship Enterprise emerges out of the ocean in clear view of the aforementioned aboriginal albinos.

What happens next is what reminded me of my previous misgivings.

The aboriginals are awestruck by the spaceship and immediately shift their worship from the scroll to the UFO. After looking skyward to see this:

They stoop to sketch this image in the dirt. The implication here is that the aboriginal simpletons are about to create a new religion based on this close encounter.  The most telling moment of this sequence is that one of these worshipers turns to admire the sketched image and drops the scroll behind him as he does. This is the scroll that had been sacred enough to worship and kill for only moments earlier.


The dropping of that sacred scroll in favor a new object of worship is the most fictiony part of this science fiction.  This ruins an otherwise thought-provoking (and fun) element.

***WARNING: If this post has seemed geeky to you so far, you might want to quit now because it’s going to get embarrassing.***

If you’re a science fiction fan, you already know that it’s really fun to imagine new religions resulting from close encounters with aliens. If you’re not a science fiction fan, let me tell you: it’s really fun to imagine new religions resulting from close encounters with aliens. Cataclysmic events and radical perceptions of the novum can (and do) result in religious explanation.

What ruins the anthropological fun about the Star Trek scene is this: new religious experience almost always incorporates previously held religious ideology. There is no way that claymation-faced white dude would have dropped that scroll.  If the aboriginal did indeed believe that the scroll was sacred, the perception of a new deity would have been incorporated into the same religion that had infused that scroll with meaning. Cultural artifacts of sacred significance are fused with new meaning when juxtaposed with new religious experience.  We humanoids are capable of radically reinterpreting our sacred traditions, but we rarely chuck them in favor of new models.

Finally, I was entertained by the suggestion that Star Trek might become a religion for simpletons. That much—as this post has proven in irony—is an anthropological realty.


  1. Huh, I hadn't thought of that. Good point. But now that I think about it, that kind of simplistic anthropological thinking has always been a stock-in-trade of Star Trek: for example, the original series episode where an entire society models itself on Chicago mobsters after an errant Starfleet officer leaves behind a book on the subject.

    The only thing that really annoyed me about the film was the way the writers (mis)used the character of Carol Marcus, who seemed to be present solely to frivolously strip down to her underwear for a few seconds for no apparent reason.

  2. You have read "A Canticle for Leibowitz"? One of my favorite books of all time, science fiction, and about as sensitive and positive a portrayal of religion as I've ever read.