(Fair warning: spoilers GALORE)
In Star Trek (2009), Spock briefly addresses the staggering implications of the alternate universe the movie creates:
Spock: …Nero’s very presence has altered the flow of history, beginning with the attack on the U.S.S. Kelvin, culminating in the events of today, thereby creating an entire new chain of incidents that cannot be anticipated by either party.
Uhura: An alternate reality.
Spock: Precisely. Whatever our lives might have been, if the time continuum was disrupted, our destinies have changed.
For the rest of the movie, however, the crew of the Enterprise is a little too focused on “kicking Romulan arse” (RIP Engineer Olson, gone too soon) to properly consider what being in an alternate universe really means for them. Star Trek Beyond, on the other hand, is pretty much all about this subject. The movie explores the ramifications of alternate universes, particularly with regards to identity and selfhood, through two intertwining motifs–mirrors/reflections and mortality. Ultimately, it puts forth a definition of identity that, in true Star Trek fashion, is not individualistic but rather communal. Unity, as Uhura tells Krall at one point in STB, really is strength.
The entire concept of alternate universes, of mirror selves, in Rebootverse is linked strongly with life and death. Obviously, as I alluded to above, Rebootverse is ushered into existence not just by George Kirk’s death but also by Jim Kirk’s simultaneous birth. In that moment, George and Jim mirror each other in a way, balance each other out. Simon Pegg and Doug Jung set up the ways in which the mirrors and mortality motifs interact with the first few minutes of STB. The first few seconds of STB are strikingly similar to the first few seconds of Star Trek: a generous sweeping shot over the body of the ship, that particular beeping sound (just once this time around, but once is all it takes). Our first shot of Kirk is one of him staring morosely into a mirror. All his command shirts are freakishly identical, too, so his closet looks like one of those infinite mirrors. There’s Kirk’s “episodic” comment, as well–every day on the Enterprise, the way he sees it, is a mirror of the day before.
All of that culminates in the bar scene with McCoy and Kirk. Kirk’s got mortality on the brain–he comments that his upcoming birthday will make him older than his father ever was–but in the ensuing conversation, he holds himself up as an imperfect reflection of his father. McCoy’s subsequent comment cements the question that will anchor the rest of the movie:
You spent all this time trying to be George Kirk, and now you’re wondering just what it means to be Jim.
Who is Jim Kirk, really? Is he a concrete person, or is he just a distorted reflection of… of something? That’s an especially relevant question to be asking on a metatextual level, too: reboot!Kirk is already a reflection of TOS!Kirk, both in-story and out-of-story. The new crew will always be thought of alongside the old crew, even if the two groups aren’t necessarily being directly compared.
So are reboot!Kirk and TOS!Kirk the same person? Have circumstances changed them too much, or is there some core Kirk essence there, deep down? When there are God only knows how many versions of you running around in alternate planes of reality, how much claim do you really have on being you? Pegg and Jung mainly explore this question through three characters: Kirk (obviously), Krall/Balthazar, and Spock.
At first, it seems as if Kirk might never escape his father’s shadow, escape the feeling that he’s nothing more than a messy, flawed reflection of George Kirk. The destruction of the Enterprise is an almost agonizingly extended callback to the opening of Star Trek. Kirk follows in his father’s footsteps in a few big ways. He tries his best to fight off the invading force, despite the ship’s rapidly failing systems. He gives the order to evacuate and stays on the ship while his crew leaves. But then his path diverges–he’s able to get in a Kelvin pod (side note, ouch, that hurts my heart) and escape his dying ship, rather than going down with it. The camera angle used here is particularly poignant; we only see Kirk’s face reflected, translucent and a little distorted, in the Kelvin pod’s window, overlaid first with the Enterprise’s bridge and then with the saucer as it falls to the ground. And he thought he was an imperfect reflection of his father before? That’s nothing compared to this moment. Once he crash-lands on Altamid, though, he’s basically free of his father’s shadow. Repeating his father’s trauma brought things full circle, in a way, and he’s no longer reflecting on or reflected by his own past. Instead, the movie shifts and shows Kirk what he could become, in the form of Krall AKA Balthazar Edison.
Balthazar is a better reflection of Jim Kirk than even George Kirk was. His one-liner during the climactic fight–“Peace is not what I was born into”–perfectly describes Kirk, who in this universe was born amidst a lightning storm and a giant battle. Like Kirk, Balthazar is a captain who got lost in space (forgive me) and lost himself, physically and spiritually. The funny thing about Balthazar, and the thing that makes this comparison to Kirk work so well, is that he’s a nearly perfect embodiment of the Ship of Theseus paradox. Plutarch puts this question forth in Plutarch’s Lives, and I’m paraphrasing here: if you have a ship and then slowly replace each of its parts with new parts, does it stop being the original ship? Where’s the tipping point? Is there some essence to it that makes it the original ship, even if none of the components are original to the ship? To see how Balthazar embodies this paradox, we’ve got to bring the life/death motif back into the equation. He uses a technology he found on Altamid to extend his own life, and the lives of just two of his crewmates, by draining other people of their life force. As Sulu and Uhura are unfortunate enough to witness, every time Krall drains somebody, the process of transferring their life to his makes his appearance shift. The implication, once it’s revealed that Krall was Balthazar Edison once upon a time, is that he’s done this time and again, and it’s distorted him a little bit more every time. Balthazar may be prolonging his life, but he seems to lose more of himself each go-around. He cheats death by becoming death, in a way.
Balthazar’s status as Kirk’s mirror image turns more literal near the end of the movie, when he sees his own reflection in a shard of glass in the maintenance chamber. It calls back to Kirk’s own staring-in-a-mirror moment at the start of the movie, and it’s also visually significant in a couple other ways. For one thing, Balthazar doesn’t even see his whole face reflected in that shard, and for another, the face that he does see isn’t his original self. He’s lost too much of himself, and he can never go back, not completely. In that sense, he provides half an answer to the Ship of Theseus paradox: there was a tipping point for him somewhere. He’s not the ship he used to be, and he can never be that ship again.
So if Balthazar has lost himself forever, whatever himself was, where does that leave Kirk?
Well, Kirk has to get lost a little more before he can find everything again–physically this time, not just emotionally. For a while, he only has two other crew members with him, first Chekov and then Scotty, similar to how Balthazar eventually only had Manus/Anderson and Kalara/Jessica left with him. But he finds his people again, little by little, and only with their help is he able to get everybody out of trouble. The ensuing shenanigans, while very much in the nail-biting action movie tradition, don’t lack symbolic fodder either. Jaylah’s astral projection technology, in particular, plays a significant role in Kirk’s arc. When Kirk uses the tech to duplicate himself God knows how many times, in order to create the diversion for the prison break, it makes the general idea of infinite parallel selves, as I mentioned briefly above, physical rather than just theoretical. What’s more, it hearkens back to the moment when Kirk looked into his closet and saw all his identical command shirts, bringing that bit of symbolism full circle, closing one set of parentheses in this equation.
Only when the crew escapes Altamid, though, can Kirk’s arc truly conclude. Kirk takes the exact opposite of Balthazar’s path during their final battle in Yorktown (in which, ha, the world turns upside down. Sorry, I absolutely could not pass that up). He chooses more-than-probable death when he goes up into that chamber to get the Abronath out into space. Instead of sucking out other people’s lives to extend his own, he’s ready to give his life to save others (and he even says as much to Balthazar’s face). His fate and Balthazar’s are opposites, as well; Kirk lives, not by his own machinations but because Spock and McCoy save him just in time, and Balthazar dies alone in space, consumed by his own weapon.
That’s the funny thing about mirrors: they reflect, but they don’t duplicate.
And then, somewhat far removed from all the Kirk and Balthazar drama, there’s Spock. He deals with both of the main motifs near the beginning of the movie, when they arrive at Yorktown and he learns that Spock Prime has died. When he looks at that tablet, with the image of Spock Prime and his lifespan right below it, he’s face to face with his own mortality, both metaphorically and literally. That’s the open-parens of his arc. The close-parens of his arc is what really hammers home the central thesis of the movie, though. When the crew is back at Yorktown, Spock looks through Spock Prime’s belongings in a room walled with little diamond-shaped mirrors. That’s the very first angle we get on that scene, and a visual connection to Kirk’s earlier astral projection moment is easy to draw. In the mirror chamber, once again Spock is confronted with his own reflection in the form of an image of Spock Prime–but it’s not just him in the picture. The camera starts out focusing on Spock Prime, but then it pulls out to show the picture of the whole crew.* The implication is that this picture is just as much a reflection of Spock as the tablet was, that the other crewmembers are part of his self, his identity as well.
There are so many other moments in the movie that work to support this conclusion. When the crew splits up, a lot of the pairs are mirrors for each other in some way, shape, or form:
- McCoy and Spock: they’re more like their normal diametrically opposed selves when they first end up stuck together, but in that scene when they’re sitting side by side in the temple thing, they take on each other’s best qualities. Spock opens up emotionally, and god, never let it be said that McCoy doesn’t say what he feels. McCoy, meanwhile, gets calmer, more philosophical, and he really cuts to the quick of human nature when he says “fear of death is what keeps us alive.”
- Kirk and Chekov: both of them were/are whiz kids. We never learn much about Chekov’s background, but he strikes me as a fresher, younger, less burdened version of Kirk. Maybe that’s what Kirk Prime was like in his younger days.
- Scotty and Jaylah: aside from the obvious mechanical genius parallel, both of them were abandoned in a sense. Going back to the first reboot movie, Scotty was left all alone in that Starfleet base on the Arctic wasteland Delta Vega. In general, Scotty’s never quite been part of the Three Musketeers, in TOS or in the reboot movies, and he’s usually off in engineering rather than on the bridge with the rest of the main crewmembers. Jaylah has obviously spent a lot of time alone as well, what with her Tragic Backstory.**
Furthermore, each pair of crewmates wouldn’t be able to do as much without the other. Spock is injured and needs McCoy, but Spock is also the one who figures out the Abronath came from Altamid, probably in no small part because he was the one who logged it in the ship’s computer. Kirk wouldn’t have been able to trick Kalara without Chekov as backup. Jaylah wouldn’t have been able to fix the Franklin without Scotty’s help, but by the same token, she’s lived in the Franklin so long that she knows it like the back of her hand, and they might not have found Kirk and Chekov without her traps. Sulu and Uhura each might have been able to come to the conclusion that Krall had hacked Yorktown on their own, but it would have taken them twice the time. The prison break works so well precisely because so much of the crew is able to help execute the plan. They’re able to get almost the whole rest of the crew to safety, as well; the only casualties (seen on screen, anyway) are poor Ensign Syl and the two crewmembers Krall drains. The penultimate scene of the movie, the crew reunited at Kirk’s surprise party, underscores this message as well, as does the ending voiceover. Every single main character reads part of Space, the final frontier…, which, to the best of my knowledge, is unprecedented for a Star Trek movie.
Star Trek was never just about Kirk, about the individual. From its conception, it was a show about facing the unknown hand in hand with allies, with friends. That’s ultimately what it means to be Jim Kirk, to answer the question McCoy posed at the movie’s outset: to be part of a crew, one of many on the Enterprise. There is strength in unity, as Uhura said, and that’s the very DNA of this movie. For that reason and so many others, Star Trek Beyond feels like the reboot movie we’ve deserved all along.
*I cannot be the only one who almost screamed aloud when that happened.
**Side note, can we appreciate that for once a female character got a Tragic Backstory that doesn’t involve losing her boyfriend or husband, losing her kid, or being on the victim end of some form of sexual violence?