Star Trek Into Darkness: Able-Bodied Angst and Abrams’ Anti-Intellectualism

Warning: this post contains discussion of genocide and spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness.

Compared to most popular film franchises, the Star Trek fandom has waited a long time to see the Enterprise take to open skies again. In an industry where popularity and success are capitalized on as quickly as possible, four years was an unusually long gap between a blockbuster summer film and its sequel. During the four year wait, some fans (especially those of the Prime universe) grew increasingly cynical about the second reboot film’s ability to move beyond the flashy origin story of its predecessor and mature into a more contemplative series about the intragalactic, ethical repercussions of one ship’s actions. This subset of fans grew ever more disheartened each time the director, writers, and producers opened their mouths, typically to comment on how they weren’t making a movie for Star Trek fans, why a female character needed to be shown in her undies while an accidental shot of Chris Pine’s clothed butt needed to be edited out in post-production, or how the Captain Kirk of TOS was a womanizer uninterested in love.

I have to admit, I was one of those fans. I tried to be optimistic, but once the details of Benedict Cumberbatch’s role were spoiled, I became a Trekkie fatalist. I may have spent an evening listening to “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Mis on repeat while cursing J.J. Abrams’ name for killing the dream I dreamed of a faithful reinvigoration of the Star Trek franchise.

Yet, even before my descent “into darkness” caused by casting spoilers, I knew that the film was going to fail me from disability perspective. I knew it would fall into one of the most egregious ableist tropes in film and television. As soon I saw the promo stills, I knew what was going to happen.

Christopher Pike was going to die.

And that’s precisely what happened.

In a prime example of Type 2 of Bury Your Disabled, Pike is murdered by Khan (aka John Harrison aka Beelzebub Candygram aka Why is This White Dude Playing a Guy From Northern India?) in a terrorist attack on Starfleet in the first act of the film. After the initial explosion, Pike tries to drag himself out of the line of fire, but the combination of his impairment, his injuries, and not having his cane leaves him struggling on the floor until Spock carries him to semi-safety. He dies soon after. But not before Spock performs a non-consensual mind meld on Pike, perhaps trying to comfort him in his dying moments a la Stark from Farscape. The telepathic contact gives Spock insight into human emotion and enables him to empathize with people facing death (this proves important later in the film). Kirk arrives in time to watch Pike die, which prompts him to do a bit of manly ugly-crying, also perhaps a la Stark from Farscape. Pike’s death spurs Kirk to volunteer to capture and/or kill the man responsible, which is where the movie truly starts.

And so Pike joins the legions of disabled characters who die to inflict anguish on their able-bodied friends and family. Darth Vader, Adelaide Langdon, Ariana Dumbledore, and Mad-Eye Moody all welcome Christopher Pike into Space Crip heaven with open arms and a muttered, “We’ve all been there, pal.”

I ranted about Pike’s death to my sister perhaps three minutes after the credits rolled and she responded, “He had to die. He’s the father figure.” And we both knew what she was talking about. Kirk can’t mature into the captain willing to sacrifice himself for his crew (to face that no-win scenario head-on) without letting go of that one remaining vestige of his childhood: father-figure Pike, who always cleaned up his messes and looked out for him. In order for the son to grow up, the disabled father must die. The next stage of Kirk’s life for Pike’s death.

In many ways, Pike’s death is not his own. It serves to further the development of able-bodied characters much in the same way manpain caused by female characters getting fridged furthers the development of male characters.

Worse than that, Pike’s experience of dying is mined by Spock to help him understand mortality. Which is pretty fucked up given how the able-bodied view disabled people as synonymous with death—to the point where they murder, institutionalize, and generally keep disabled people out of view because they remind the able-bodied of their own mortality and that is scary. But when visibly disabled people are in public view, the able-bodied can’t seem to look away. They have to gawk and stare and ask invasive questions to learn as much as they can from ~Death Incarnate~ sitting across from them on BART. Just like the able-bodied public mines disabled people for info on their disabilities, Spock invades a disabled man’s mind for the firsthand, emotional experience of death. How we live and how we die is a matter of public information to be dispersed to the morbidly curious. Welcome to the freak show, Spock.

It’s obvious I’m a little pissed with Pike dying mainly so other characters can have feelings about it, but that being said there is one character whose reaction to Pike’s death in particular would’ve added a great deal to the film.

I’m talking about Khan Noonien Singh.

As the Quixotic Autistic notes, one of the biggest barriers to Into Darkness being a true Star Trek film is its fondness for briefly mentioning ethical quagmires (i.e., extrajudicial assassination, military drones, militarization of Starfleet), but never actually taking the time to discuss them the way previous Star Trek films dealt with issues, like interspecies racism (ST VI: the Undiscovered Country), the ethical responsibilities of scientists (ST II: the Wrath of Khan), and the idea of progress (ST IX: Insurrection). One of the big hot-button issues the film fleetingly mentions and then runs away from as quickly as possible is eugenics.

Khan is, as we know, a genetically-engineered superman who ruled a quarter of the world with an iron fist, committing acts of genocide against the people he saw as unfit to live and breed. This facet of Khan’s history and personality is largely swept under the rug to make Khan a more sympathetic villain. (The simultaneity of Khan being whitewashed and rendered more sympathetic is highly fucking suspect.)

The film never takes the time to consider how little thought Khan would’ve given to killing Pike, a disabled person. Khan likely believes that all disabled people deserve to die for the good of humanity. Hell, he probably had an extermination program against disabled people during his heyday. By ignoring Khan’s eugenicist ableism, the film loses a good deal of the moral complexity found in Star Trek.

We never see Admiral Marcus weigh the options of aligning with a genocidal murderer in the name of Federation security. If Khan advised him to implement a eugenics policy to save the Federation, would Marcus do it? Who would Marcus kill to protect the many? Would he go for Pike, one of his own officers?

We also never see Kirk truly consider the ethical implications of teaming up with Khan for the infiltration of Marcus’ starship. Is Kirk just as bad as Marcus now? By partnering with a man who would want Pike exterminated, does Kirk betray his memory? Is stopping Marcus worth the risk of Khan escaping and conquering Earth again?

But none of these kind of questions get asked in the film because the J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek is more interested in gunfights and girls in their underwear than the hard questions that need to be debated to build a better future for life on this planet and far beyond. That’s what all that ~philosophical~ shit Abrams couldn’t understand as a kid was about: building the world where Star Trek exists. As someone who isn’t a Star Trek fan, Abrams has little interest in building that world and assumes general audiences feel the same. Rather than using his position as a bit of an outsider to create a film that can be understood and enjoyed by Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike, Abrams condescends to his audience by assuming that all Trekkies want in a film is brief shout-outs to the Prime universe and that general audiences aren’t interested in or capable of understanding more nuanced world-building and debate between characters.

And that’s how we get a movie where a disabled man’s death is used as angst fodder for able-bodied characters, but is never discussed in the context of the eugenicist world view of his murderer. Once again, the suffering of a disabled person inspires strong emotional reactions (pity, anguish, disgust) in the able-bodied that serve as a distraction from considering critically why and how a society perpetuates the suffering (e.g., oppression) or perceived suffering (e.g., ableist belief that disabled people are always in terrible emotional and physical pain) of disabled people.

That’s not to say that the previous incarnations of Star Trek were immune to problematic and oppressive storytelling by dint of their more critical view of society. Classic Trek had its faults. A lot them. A whole fucking lot. Admitting that those faults exist puts me in the unenviable position of considering whether Christopher Pike’s treatment in TOS is any better than his treatment in Into Darkness. Is Pike’s disability serving as motivation for Spock’s self-sacrifice better or worse Pike’s death serving as motivation for Kirk’s self-sacrifice? Is being kidnapped by Spock better or worse than being non-consensually mind melded by Spock? Is being left on an unvisitable planet better or worse than dying? These thoughts have been swimming in my head since I saw the film on Thursday and the only salient statement I’ve come up with comparing Pike’s treatment in TOS and Into Darkness is this: TOS portrayed Pike as being better off dead; Into Darkness killed him.

Talk about no-win scenarios.

12 Responses to “Star Trek Into Darkness: Able-Bodied Angst and Abrams’ Anti-Intellectualism”

  1. May 20, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    Excellent read, with some things I’d not considered.

    I thought the idea at the end of the previous film, that Pike being confined to a wheelchair meant he couldn’t captain a ship any more, was bizarre – Picard rarely left the bridge or went on away missions, Pike could have commanded from the bridge in the same way.

    The eugenisist – disabled captain dynamic is a fantastic idea – one more reason why I’m disappointed with a bizarrely dumb film.

  2. 2 Sarah
    May 20, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    I will say this about your discussion at the end about Pike’s treatment in 1966 and in 2013: there’s almost 50 years of difference in there. If you can’t decide which one is better, that’s a problem, because the writing SHOULD take into account 50 years of progress towards treating everyone better. And it doesn’t.

  3. May 20, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    Outstanding analysis! Thank you.

  4. May 20, 2013 at 7:38 pm

    Very interesting read as always, Space Crip. I do agree about the white-washing of Khan’s character, but I am not sure that I totally agree with you about his motivations, considering that he helped the sick little girl at the beginning. It would depend on whether you believe that Kahn’s offer to help was purely utilitarian. Considering the myriad of ways that he might have accomplished blowing up the repository, I think there was more to it.

    Even with weak writing, I think Cumberbatch played Khan with a brooding sadness at his supposed superiority, like he felt great disdain for his abilities and what he became.

    • 5 ritz
      August 23, 2016 at 2:51 pm

      I’m starting to think that Khan got the girl sick to take advantage of her father’s position. Wouldn’t put it past him…

  5. May 21, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    Fabulous analysis! Thank you!

  6. May 23, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    Terrific post.

    I liked the movie quite a bit, but I would still rather have seen the movie it could’ve been that you describe. (Someone — either Kirk or Khan himself — made one offhand reference to Khan’s dictatorship, and his mass extermination of everyone he considered unworthy. There was nothing else about it — Khan’s actions seemed more directed at killing as many Starfleet honchos as possible than at trying to grab power for himself and the other 72 super-people. He seemed mostly just there to be Admiral Marcus’s Nemesis, rather than to try and re-establish his dictatorship or anything.)

  7. July 16, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    This is some pretty interesting stuff. Although I liked Into Darkness, I definitely had the feeling that Abrams wanted to mix Star Wars and Star Trek together in a bit of a weird way. There’s a bit less depth and more stereotypical TV stuff mixed in.

  8. 9 M.L.
    March 15, 2017 at 8:54 am

    The original Khan was not supposed tibhsce been a committer of genocide; quite the contrary, it is specifically pointed out that he was the most benevolent of the ‘super human’ dictators, notable for having committed no massacres.

    As far as ‘white washing’ is concerned, Ricardo Montalban wasn’t exactly ‘brown’. He was a European looking Latino (he was never regarded as non-white) who could perhaps pass for Middle Eastern but sure as hell didn’t look like a South Asian.

    It’s all moot anyway because Star Trek sucks anyway.

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Space Crip

People with disabilities? In my sci-fi? It's more likely than you think.

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