What a Piece of Work is Star Trek? Star Trek Into Darkness Forgot to be Literary

There’s a lot that has been written and said about the inspirational power of Star Trek. From astronauts to social workers, engineers and beyond, do-gooders galore have been borne out of Trek. Good for them! Surely, aspects of Star Trek may have taught me how to be a better person, but that’s not the most profound impact on my adult life. Instead, Star Trek is partially responsible in inspiring me to read great books and become a writer.

And it did this by sneaking classic literature into my silly sci-fi any chance it got. So, it is with a heavy heart I complain about the biggest oversight that I saw in Star Trek Into Darkness: it’s not literary!    

Spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness.

Before we go any further, let’s get something out of the way. Is this essay snobby? Check. Pretentious? Right. Not to burst anyone’s warp bubble but Star Trek at its best is snobby and pretentious and that’s partially of why some people just can’t get into it. This may sound sarcastically counterintuitive, but there is something pervasive and exciting about a thing which arrogantly asserts itself as correct. Star Trek is a fictional playground where the good guys monologue almost as much as the bad guys, making its aesthetic inherently operatic and theatrical. Even a dose of Shakespeare can make a poorly paced Star Trek episode better.

Take The Next Generation’s Hide & Q,” an episode where everyone’s favorite creepo—Commander Riker—is tempted with God-like powers. The flippantly omnipotent Q taunts Captain Picard about the fragility and pointlessness of human beings, which Picard uses as an opportunity to channel Hamlet’s “what a piece of work is man?” speech into a heroic rebuttal.    

This, oddly, is what is at the core of Star Trek’s successful relationship with literature; it doesn’t copy or homage poorly, it translates the themes and references them in a future context. The spin Trek puts on literature is inherently a pop one, not entirely dissimilar from a rapper “sampling” a line from another (usually older) artist. When Puff Daddy appropriated the melody of the Police’s “I’ll Be Watching You,” for “I’ll Be Missing You,” the meaning of the original song was changed. While this is fairly radical change I don’t think it’s that different from Picard turning Hamlet’s sad sack speech into something of a galvanizing cry for why humans rock.    

Um. Khan had TWO copies of PARADISE LOST

Um. Khan had TWO copies of PARADISE LOST

While he’s initially all about Milton’s Paradise Lost in “Space Seed,” Khan constantly quotes from Melville in The Wrath of Khan. (You could actually simply retitle this movie as Star Trek II: Dickens Versus Melville, as Kirk and Spock are all about A Tale of Two Cities, while Khan is all about Moby Dick.) Spoiler alert for 1982: Khan dies, but when he dies, he does Ahab’s “From hell’s heart, I stab at thee!” speech, which to me actually comes across as more delusional and tragic than in the original text.

Here’s why: Kirk is not The White Whale, he did not wound Khan specifically the way Moby Dick wounded Ahab. In this way, Khan is a lot less sympathetic than Captain Ahab, and yet, we oddly feel more sorry for him because he considers his White Whale to be Captain Kirk, a person we know to be kind of an asshole. By making “The White Whale” a person, and “Ahab” more delusional, these words from Moby Dick take on a new meaning, and impact in a different way, while at the same time using the same awesome themes from the source material to drive home a specific emotional aesthetic.

Is it just because both things (The Wrath & Moby Dick) are about revenge? Did writer/director of The Wrath—Nicholas Meyer— just pull the most off-the-rack revenge monologue they could find in Moby Dick? It may feel like lazy writing, but Star Trek has consistently figured out how to link its literary references with its characters without having those characters and themes simply be analogs for the literature they’re referencing.

Speaking of Nicholas Meyer, in The Undiscovered Country, he famously had Spock quote Sherlock Holmes’s maxim: “If you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” BUT, Spock prefaces this by claiming “an ancestor of mine maintained,” making Spock both literally and literarily the descendent of Sherlock Holmes. (He’s half human on his mom’s side after all, so who knows?) The point is, the reference is more than just a reference because it plays with the reality of Spock’s character for a second and the viewer gets to imagine a fictional world in which an offspring of Sherlock Holmes eventually begat Spock’s mom. Is this fan fiction? Well, Sherlock Holmes fans practically invented the practice, possibly making it, if viewed a certain way, the ultimate act of praise and appreciation.    

That’s where Into Darkness stumbled for me. No one quotes from any literature! Why not have the new Cumberbatch/Khan start quoting some Dickens? The screenwriters were already interested in inverting various relationships from what we’re used to, so why not have Kirk and Spock be on the side of Melville, with Cumberbatch taunting them with, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Imagine this said in a menacing tone, a reappropriation of a famous literary line that gets double points for referencing previous Star Trek, too! I always got the sense Khan was quoting Melville to justify his own actions. He misunderstood Melville’s intent, but that’s not the point. The act of referencing a story shows the character thinks they are playing a part in the story, which makes them (in their minds) less responsible.

So, if you wanted to get really far down the literary rabbithole, why not acknowledge the zeitgeist of Cumberbatch himself and have him quote Moriarty? Imagine Cumberbatch/Khan saying some version of this taunt from Doyle’s “The Final Problem.”  

“That is not danger. It is inevitable destruction. You stand in the way not merely of an individual, but of a mighty organization, the full extent of which you, with all your cleverness, have been unable to realize. You must stand clear, Mr. Holmes Captain Kirk, or be trodden underfoot.”

Come on! These lines were practically written for the new Khan to utter. If Khan sees himself as Moriarty, then his true delusional nature makes more sense. Part of what doesn’t work with Cumberbatch’s Khan is his seeming lack of intelligence. Sure, you can demonstrate that he’s smart by having him scheme and plan, but intelligence also equals someone who is well-read. At least on Star Trek. (It’s also possible the only literary reference in Star Trek Into Darkness is the existence of someone named Chekov. Or as Gary Shteyngart once said, “Guy from Star Trek writes books now?”)

As a kid, I might not have understood Khan as a “brilliant tactician,” but I did understand that he’d committed entire plays and novels to memory and could recall those passages exactly when he needed to. That’s smart!

I also recognized Kirk and Spock, and Picard and all the other good Trek folks had read way more books than me. And guess what? I wanted to be just like them.


Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and is most like Tuvix.

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