The Final Frontier, pt. 1 of 2

Originally posted on Aug. 18, 2016

Television programming did its work. After bingeing on Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, my husband and I decided to pay $25, plus $5 for a small Coke, to go see Star Trek Beyond. It was everything Star Trek could be. Meaningful relationships. Irreparable damage to the USS Enterprise. Creepy humanoid aliens that you would accept as normal if you were a loving person. 

[Warning: there are some Star Trek and Star Wars spoilers below]

I’m not a Trekkie. I was too young to watch the original episodes, but I have seen some reruns. I was just the right age to have a crush on Jean-Luc Picard. I was old enough to feel nostalgic over Star Trek: Generations. Now, along with everybody else, I’m enjoying this new series with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto.

Star Trek the franchise has enjoyed many iterations, but one thing that hasn’t changed is its famous tagline, “Space: The Final Frontier." Space, that last threshold that man needs to cross. Space, an infinite opportunity for infinite discovery that might just result in infinite monotony. Captain Kirk points out this possibility in the beginning of Star Trek Beyond. His five-year mission is starting to get a little tedious, because the final frontier just keeps going and going and going. What James T. Kirk needs is adventure, and with adventure often comes the prospect of imminent, painful death.

Adventure and imminent death are a part of almost every Star Trek production, a combination that produces a strange and contradictory message: space is not the final frontier. There is another threshold that every individual in every race in the Federation must cross. Jim is terrified to explore it at the end of Star Trek Into Darkness. Spock gets near it a few times. And hundreds of unnamed extras are hurled into it on a regular basis. The final frontier is not space. It's death.  

Evidence of this is everywhere in the series. Consider a scene in Star Trek Beyond where Spock is injured, and Bones is trailing after him, saying things like "Damn it, man, take care of yourself." At one point, as Spock is resting, they begin to discuss the older, ambassador Spock (see Star Trek, 2009). Spock observes that after living so many lives, Ambassador Spock should not fear death. Bones's response is typically human: "It's the fear of death that helps us survive."

What an interesting observation, Dr. Bones. The fear of death helps us survive. From a strictly evolutionary viewpoint, you're right. If we did not have a healthy fear of death, our species would expire. Fear is a survival skill. So, Spock, since your planet is destroyed and your race is endangered, fear is the most logical reaction in the face of death.

Somehow, even in the world of Spock and Bones, the idea that we're right to fear death does not make it more palatable.  Switching to another star theme, when Hans Solo dies, it is logically a sad and scary moment.  But the audience is not upset because Solo’s progeny or species is threatened, especially since his progeny is the one killing him. The audience is upset because Han is gone. We love Han, and now he's gone.  

Magnify that grief a thousand times for the death of a loved one. If our parents die of old age, we don't grieve the damage it does to the species; we are proof that the species is alive and well. We grieve the loss of them. Of Dad, who had that circular scar on his hand you'll never see again. Of Mom, whose “What’s wrong, honey?” can make her grown daughter cry. The loss of an individual soul causes irreparable damage to the fabric of the universe, and we are right to grieve it. 

Yet according to the evolutionary model, death is simply a part of life. We know from our own experience that everywhere life goes, death follows. We should be used to it by now. But we will never get used to death. It is the final frontier we all must cross, and all evidence indicates that we must cross it alone. 

At the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, Jim is dying of radiation exposure. He is on the opposite side of a glass window from Spock, who cannot reach him. In his final breath, Jim says "Spock, I'm scared. Help me not to be." But Spock is not an angel or a prophet. He can't offer Jim anything except his grief. It’s a powerful scene. I cried when I watched it the other day. 

Perhaps only a nerd would cry over Star Trek, but I say in my defense: that scene touches a fear that reality and fantasy share. For all of its technology and special effects and alien planets, Star Trek knows there is something beyond space. It does not presume to have answers for the ultimate frontier. It describes it, avoids it, brings characters back from it, but can't eliminate it. For the most part, our entertainment industry knows its limits: when characters die, Hollywood has no idea where they go. 

To be cont'd in part 2.