There’s a scene at the end of the movie—and I don’t think this is a spoiler, the movie has been building to this point the whole time—where Kirk has the bad guy on the main bridge viewscreen. The bad guy is defeated, his ship crippled, and Kirk offers amnesty. The bad guy proudly refuses, and instead dies with his ship.
Spock approaches Kirk afterward and asks if Kirk was really going to help the bad guy out. And Kirk smirks and says, no, of course not. Spock is happy about that.
It seems to me that one scene spits in the face of one of the greatest things about the original Trek. The show was primarily an action-adventure program, with plenty of fistfights and stirring ship-to-ship battle. But in the end, Gene Roddenberry and the rest of the people who created Trek were espousing a philosophy of peace and forgiveness. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise extended forgiveness to enemies many times, including the very first time they encountered the Romulans, in a sequence that the movie echoes.
The message of Trek: It’s better to talk than to fight. It’s better to forgive your enemies.
When I was in my teens and 20s I thought that was sappy, but now that we’re a decade into the Never-Ending War On Terror, I think it’s lovely. It’s even more lovely because the original creators of Trek were themselves warriors, in real life. The older ones, at least, were part of the generation that served in World War II. Gene Roddenberry was a decorated bomber pilot who flew 89 missions. He crashed one of them. He later became a cop.
James Doohan fought at Normandy on D-Day. He shot two snipers, led his men to higher ground through a field of land mines, and got hit with friendly fire and lost a finger, an injury which he tried to conceal as an actor. A bullet to his chest was stopped by a silver cigarette case. Doohan also trained as a pilot.
Leonard Nimoy served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army 1953-55. DeForest Kelley served as an enlisted man during World War II.
These men who knew war, evangelized peace, a message which the creators of the current Trek movie laugh at.
One of the scenes in the original series where Kirk grants clemency to a defeated enemy is “Arena.” That’s the one where Kirk is forced by the god-like alien Metrons to fight a man-sized lizard Gorn, played of course by a guy in a rubber lizard suit, making breath sounds like he has asthma and a problem with uncontrollable salivation. Kirk incapacitates the Gorn enemy and, as described by Eugene Myers:
[Kirk] snatches the alien’s dagger and is about to finish [the Gorn] with it when he relents:
No. No, I won’t kill you. Maybe you thought you were protecting yourself when you attacked the outpost.
He yells to the Metrons that he won’t kill the Gorn and his felled opponent disappears. A young boy materializes, which makes Kirk wary, considering his track record with powerful children these days, but no worries: the Metron is actually 1500 years old. He congratulates Kirk for showing “the advanced trait of mercy” and tells him the Enterprise won’t be destroyed. He offers to destroy the Gorn instead, but Kirk declines (perhaps realizing they’re still testing him), and suggests that maybe they can talk through their conflict. The Metron seems pleased:
Very good, Captain. There is hope for you. Perhaps in several thousand years, your people and mine shall meet to reach an agreement. You are still half savage, but there is hope. We will contact you when we are ready.
But that was in another timeline. The Kirk in this timeline will fail the Metrons’ test, if he encounters it.
I take this seriously because I think pop culture both leads and reflects cultural sentiment, and apparently we’re now a culture that thinks mercy for one’s enemies is a big joke.
Mitch Wagner is an science fiction fan, Twitter and Facebook addict, Second Life enthusiast, Internet marketing consultant, technology journalist, husband, and co-owner of a cat who holds him in disdain. He hides from the sun in San Diego, blogs at Mitch Wagner's Blog podcasts at Copper Robot, and tweets far too often at @MitchWagner.