Where Star Trek went wrong

Many years ago, I wrote an article for the University of Waterloo’s student newspaper, The Imprint, where I laid into Star Trek: Generations (page 24) as a not-so-great adaptation of a television show to a movie. To say that I was a tad harsh is to characterise me as a tad off-beat. The fact that I referred to William Shatner as a “carpet head” is now thoroughly embarrasing (I have significantly more respect for him than I did 15 years ago).

I considered this a bit of a coup, myself. Not the lambasting of the movie — the fact that I managed to get the article into the school’s newspaper which, at the time, had a policy of first-received, first-published. For those of you who won’t know, the University of Waterloo once held the lofty position of Geek Central. (It’s now a trendy school, apparently. I’m having trouble coming to terms with that.) There were more Trekkies per capita at that University than for 1,000 kms in any direction.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I’d actually missed something extremely significant about the movie, that would come back to haunt Trekkies and Trekkers alike many years later. Something so important not only to Star Trek, but to the genre as well, that there’s a serious need to retcon that movie.

Kirk shouldn’t have died.

At least, not in the way he ended up dying. He died because, effectively, a bridge fell on him. A pretty lousy way to go, if you ask me. Maybe if he were trying to hold up the Golden Gate Bridge, then at least we’re talking something more impressive. But a flimsy catwalk? C’mon, this is not the way you end a legend.

Yes, legend. Kirk was — and is — legendary. Within the world of Star Trek, he was The Man. Everyone either wanted to be him, be with him, do him (c’mon, you’ve seen the Original Series, admit it), was awed by him, or was afraid of him. Kirk did the things no-one else had the cojones to do, and never thought twice about doing something potentially stupid. The entire Klingon race was scared of him, for crying out loud!

This is not how you treat a legend, killing him with a bridge in a barely so-so movie.

Yes, I’m a Trekkie. Actually, a “reformed” Trekkie. I used to know a lot about Trekdom, but have long since given it up — I needed the space in my brain for other nonsense (like all these damned passwords I have to remember). I went to the conventions (two of them), and I own most of the Star Trek movies (I refuse to own Star Trek V or Star Trek: Nemesis). I know the Star Trek universe enough to know when it went wrong.

This is about mythology, and as silly as it might sound, Star Trek is every bit mythological as it is scientific. It plays upon myth and the mythic style of story-telling, and creates characters and situations that play exactly into mythic tale-telling. The heros are not just bigger-than-life, they’re epic. Their actions are bold and decisive. Their conquests are immense and impossible. Their foes are terrifying and strong.

How should a hero die? In mystery. How they died should be completely unknown, only that they’re no longer around. As if to suggest that it’s possible they might one day return. (Or at the very least rise from the dead, become omnipotent, and then disappear.) This is how legend and myth are created: by deliberately avoiding the details that would otherwise ground the story in fact. Which as we all know is gloriously dull.

Want a great example of how a hero should walk off stage? Luke Skywalker. Not the one from the movies — the one that’s lived on in books and comics. That Luke Skywalker goes on to found a new Jedi order, turns to the dark side (and back), defeats a clone of himself, saves the galaxy a few times over, and so forth. By the time his storyline runs out, he’s over 150 (a fary cry from Yoda, but pretty good for a human). How does he die? No idea. And George Lucas refuses to let anyone write it. That’s the way it should be — without detail.

Babylon 5, long maligned as a “wannabe” against Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (though I consider B5 a much tighter story-teller) had a perfect ending for its central hero, John Sheridan. Knowing he had only days left to live went off to say goodbye to the galaxy and waited for the First Ones (basically near-omnipotent beings) to find him. All anyone found was his ship floating adrift in deep space. Heck, even DS9 ended with its principle character, Benjamin Sisko, disappearing into a supposedly firey death only to be rescued by the wormhole entities … and told he’d return when the time was right (which could be anytime, or never).

Best death in all of science-fiction? Spock. (Some people say Lorne Greene’s Adama. I say no way.) Spock realises that over 200 people will die if the Enterprise’s badly damaged warp core isn’t fixed. Knowing he can do it, rushes into the reactor chamber and does it himself, exposing himself to a fatal dosage of radiation in the process. The needs of the many must outweigh the needs of the few … or the one.

Best. Death. Ever.

Kirk? Felled by a stray piece of metal.

This is not the way James Tiberius Kirk should go out. Kirk’s death should be more dramatic. He should go out in a major battle, delivering the great final blow that leads to victory — but himself mortally wounded like Wolfe at the Plains of Abraham. (And no, I in no way compare the ending of Generations to even close.) Or vanish while doing what he did best: exploring. The only decent line in Star Trek V (which although I hate as Star Trek canon, brings one good aspect to Kirk):

I’ve always known I’ll die alone.

Kirk was never meant to be an old man. Spock lived to a very old age (Vulcans do that). Scotty hid himself in a transporter and survived to 80-odd years in the future. Bones lived to the point where he was practically walking dust. (Who knows what happened to the rest of the original crew.) But Kirk? Kirk shouldn’t have lived much longer past Star Trek VI, and he shouldn’t have met Picard.

So I choose to ignore the fact that Kirk died in Generations. Wasn’t him. A clone, maybe. The real Kirk? He found an unknown planet populated by beautiful women and life goes on forever.

And he’s in no hurry to come back.