Arts & Culture

Jew Trek

As seems de rigeur for this sort of post, let me prove my Star Trek bona fides (or lack thereof) before going forward. I was a child of Star Trek: The Next Generation, only three years old when it premiered, … Read More

By / May 19, 2009

As seems de rigeur for this sort of post, let me prove my Star Trek bona fides (or lack thereof) before going forward. I was a child of Star Trek: The Next Generation, only three years old when it premiered, but ten when it concluded and old enough to remember the season finale broadcast. I later caught up on every episode of that series. I have also seen more than a handful of the original series, and about two to three dozen episodes of Deep Space 9. So I’m not trekkie, as it goes. But I’m familiar with the shows, and if my knowledge is not encyclopedic, it is viable. I may not be able to recall the exact science-fiction hook used in season 4, episode seven offhand, but if you hum a few bars, I think I could sing along.              

Once said, let’s put that to rest. If my credentials aren’t enough to discuss the new film with any depth, please skip ahead. I won’t be offended. I understand fandom, and if someone wanted to write about the X-Men without an encyclopedic background, I’d thank them kindly to their face and say bad things about them behind their backs. So go ahead. Say bad things.              

What struck me about the film was the role of the Jew, or the lack thereof. The Original Series always had Leonard Nimoy as Spock. He was not simply the intellectual rationalist to Kirk’s fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants adventurer, as a number of critics have suggested. What is clear from those earliest episodes is that Spock was an equal partner in the great adventure. He may have brought a cooler head from time to time, but the mission was equally his. As such, he was something of a philosopher-warrior, a Jewish archetype rare in contemporary society, but rich in our history; from the Biblical Joshua, King David, to Franz Rosenzweig writing The Star of Redemption "in the Macedonian trenches," or maybe David Ben-Gurion.              

The Next Generation took the Jew in Star Trek one step further. Despite not having as public a Jewish identity as Nimoy in a main role, one could say TNG was even more Jewish than the Original Series. Watch them argue about the Prime Directive, debate subtleties of ethical and intellectual dilemmas, or entirely forgo physical confrontation in favor of multiculturalism and empathy. Hell, the crew was so neurotic, they kept a full-time therapist on the ship. The greatest triumphs were not the defeat of an adversary, but the breaching of borders, the comprehension of foreign language. Watch "Darmok," in my most humble opinion the greatest episode of The Next Generation. It is moving beyond words.

I mean, they might as well have called it Star Trek: The Great Jew Extravaganza. The central themes of the Star Trek shows – exploring new worlds, making contact with new civilizations, doing mitzvoth and good deeds throughout the universe – are central tenets of Judaism. Would a Michael Lerner luncheon have been out of place on The Next Generation? Picard was already, always doing birur nitzutzot (elevating the sparks of the universe) and performing tikkun on the galaxies.              

I have no doubt the Jew in Star Trek has been explored and interrogated at greater lengths than I could do justice to. Certainly, if there were no Jews in Star Trek, there was still plenty of locations for a Jew to find himself in the show. And yet, now, we have J.J. Abram’s new Star Trek and, despite enjoying the spectacle, I find myself wondering: Where has the Jew gone? At first, the obvious issues; there is no exploration, no new worlds to discover. If anything, there’s the collapse of old worlds – the destruction of Vulcan. There’s a political agenda; sometimes terrorists can’t be negotiated with (Spoiler alert: Eric Bana’s villain chooses to die rather than accept Kirk’s compassion).

Spock is no longer played by a Jew, but by Zachary Quinto (whom I know as the villain Sylar on Heroes). That itself is not a problem, but coupled with the character’s transformation makes him into a non-Jewish figure. He is now quick to rush to anger and violence, not to fight based on logic but based on emotional betrayal. He is vindictive against Kirk, and he now embarks on a fairly public love affair with Uhura. In other words, he is an arrogant bore, and he lacks wisdom, possessing only intellect.

This move is made all the more evident by the inclusion of the old Spock, Leonard Nimoy, in the film. Nimoy is everything that Quinto’s Spock is not. He is thoughtful, caring, and wise. When he calls the young Kirk his longtime friend, the scene is poignant and moving. Tellingly, the character is a man literally caught out of time – a refugee from a future time – much as the ethos he once represented are too caught out of time. This new Star Trek has no place for deliberation over ethics, or warm human contact. Compare Nimoy’s brief moments with Kirk to Quinto’s moments. One is deeply connected to the human. The other, no matter how many times the film may argue otherwise, is deeply alienated from the human experience. No, this Spock is no Jew. He truly is alien. 

This would bother me far less if the movie didn’t hold the promise of future installments. The film is doing well in release and I have no doubt a sequel is already in the works. But can they possibly use Nimoy again? It seems unlikely – his role here was as intermediary, ferrying the series from the Roddenberry vision to the Abrams’ vision. I imagine he’ll be gone in the next film and then we’ll be left with no Jew at all, just a bunch of very entertaining goyim canvassing the universe. Maybe they’ll decide to explore strange new worlds, but I doubt it. Abram’s likes his monsters. There’ll be a new villain, a new world-ending catastrophe, another distended-anus snow creature. There isn’t a lot of time for tikkun ha’olem when you’re reacting against terrorists and psychopaths. Or rather, there should be time made, but who will make it? Our only hope, I fear, is that Chris Pine’s Kirk grows into the role Spock once held. He does seem to have sensitivity and a thoughtfulness hiding just behind his impetuousness and impulsiveness. Maybe he’ll cultivate it. 

The narrative itself addressed this. Nimoy-Spock tells Quinto-Spock in one of the final moments that he’ll hide out of sight, working on the preservation of Vulcan cultural heritage. And that, finally, is what the Jew of Star Trek has been reduced to: A cultural heritage, a memory of a series long past. Now, we look to the future. Too bad J.J. Abrams is such a goy.