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Space for Anthropology: the new Star Trek movie

I have no qualms in stating that I love Star Trek.

I’m a fan of rambling summer blockbusters generally, but Star Trek–Star Trek is a whole universe.

And my favorite thing about the Star Trek universe is that it is founded on an idea of learning.  More than that: Starfleet, at the heart of Star Trek, is on a humanitarian mission to go learn about everything there is to know in the universe–specifically about new civilizations and cultures.

The new movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness, explores some of the challenges of this mission.  One of the most interesting conflicts explored in this film was how to keep an organization that is so massive and highly structured from becoming a military operation: the temptation of having weaponry is to use it, to willingly invoke combat, or to punish.  Especially when faced with terrible things, with frightening things.

Benedict Cumberbatch does an excellent job of playing the dark foil known initially as John Harrison to Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk.  It is the realization that they are but two sides of a single coin, that Harrison is acting out of loyalty and grief and wrath–emotions with which the Captain is very familiar–that ultimately make Kirk step back and realize that a noble impetus does not necessarily result in an act of grace.  Sometimes the very feelings that make us human also cause us to do inhuman things; this film is playing with the edges of what it means to be human.

At its best this is what Star Trek is always about: in a pluralistic and ever-globalizing world, how do we deal with differences in people?  How do we learn to interpret the nuances of others, to understand the context of their actions, to achieve empathy when the world is just so very full?   How can we possibly know that which is beyond ourselves?  Is it not too much to ask?  Or are we courageous enough to seek the best in others, and in ourselves?

At its very, very best, this is what anthropology is about, too.  If there were a real Starfleet academy, I would already be in line.  (Me and thousands of other people wearing pointy ears stuck on with spirit gum, no doubt.)

Zachary Quinto is continuing to develop his human side as Spock, and Leonard Nimoy makes a brief but enjoyable cameo.  (He used to do the introduction for the Mugar Omni Theatre at the Science Museum in Boston.  I wonder if they’ll show Star Trek.  That would be cool.)  Zoe Saldana as Uhura brings some serious fireworks to the screen this time.  And I can’t imagine anyone managed to get through a single scene with Simon Pegg without hysterically laughing.  Watch out for John Cho’s Sulu, as well. No swords this time, but an equally impressive show of steel.

So until there is a Starfleet where I can go to have wacky multicultural adventures in distant galaxies, you’ll excuse me while I quietly hum the Star Trek aria to myself.