Star Trek Beyond: Multicultural community

Star Trek: Beyond, produced by J.J. Abrams and directed by Justin Lin, is the third film in the re-booted sci-fi series. It delivers awesome audio-visual spectacle and gripping action whilst retaining a welcome focus on character interaction, a dash of humour, and a thematic seriousness reminiscent of the original TV series at its best.

In this fiftieth anniversary production we are finally set free from re-treading and twisting previous plots, as it recreates the essence of the original, whilst also providing audiences something new to consider.

It is three years into their five-year mission to explore ‘strange new worlds…’, and the crew of the star ship Enterprise are suffering from some existential angst. Spock (Zachary Quinto) is having relationship difficulties and learns of the death of a father figure – one that pays tribute to the real world passing of actor Leonard Nimoy. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is contemplating a desk job in the Admiralty at the new star base Yorktown, plagued by doubts about whether he is achieving anything by exploring space if that space is infinite, and whether he can live up to the legacy of his father.

At one point Kirk says ‘my Dad joined Starfleet because he believed in it, I joined on a dare’, and this line sets up the main theme of the film: testing the multi-cultural ideal of Starfleet, an organization composed of many races, genders and even species of people, all working together for the peaceful advance of civilization. That civilization is symbolized by the epic and idyllic Yorktown space station and is threatened by the scheming of a new baddie, the vampiric Krall (played by Idris Elba).

Questions about the extent and limits of community have an obvious resonance with aspects of the political climate in America, Europe and the post-Brexit debate in the UK today. Any community must have something in common if they are to commune together. The Federation unites around a common set of goals and ideals that reflect a multicultural political philosophy summed up by Professor Sir Bernard Crick when he stated that ‘integration is the co-existence of communities and unimpeded movement between them, it is not assimilation.’

Krall knows the Federation inside out, but takes issue with its philosophy of multicultural community. ‘Unity is not your strength’ he says, ‘it is your weakness.’ This assertion is pressed home by Krall’s isolation. He has one sidekick and an army of robots co-opted from a long dead alien civilization. Krall is the Queen Bee to his alien drones. These baddies are very much one, even though they are many. They have the unity of an imposed will, and at first that will proves overwhelming.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Enterprise is split into various parings that show diverse individuals collaborating with a common goal. At one point, an injured Spock does tell Doctor McCoy (Karl Urban) that ‘leaving me behind will significantly increase your chances of survival’, but of course McCoy doesn’t leave him behind. Our Federation heroes and heroines (and it is notable how well Beyond serves its female protagonists) exhibit a freely chosen unity that celebrates both diversity within the common ground provided by the federation ideal, and self-sacrifice for the greater good. As Kirk, re-gaining his sense of purpose, tells Krall: ‘It is better to die saving lives than to live taking them.’

Accepting praise from an Admiral, Kirk’s character growth is seen in his unusually humble reply: ‘It wasn’t just me, it never is.’ In other words, no man is an island and we all owe at least part of our individual achievements to other people without whom we would not be who we are, or where we are. Kirk’s reply reflects a collectivist view of human nature that contrasts with the rugged individualism of Krall.

And so, scriptwriter Simon Pegg (who also plays Enterprise engineer Montgomery Scott) gives himself a key line in the film: ‘My wee granny used to say: “You cannae break a stick in a bundle.”’ That’s an aphorism that not only cleverly sums up the collectivist and multicultural philosophy that defeats the cinematic challenge of Krall, but also gives something for all of us to ponder as we reflect on the real-life challenges in today’s world.

Peter S Williams is Assistant Professor in Communication and Worldviews at Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communication, Norway. He is the author of many books, most notably A Faithful Guide to Philosophy