This post is nothing but spoilers about Star Trek II (1982), Star Trek III (1984), Star Trek IV (1986), and the fabric of reality. You have been warned.
“I never took the Kobayashi Maru test until now. What do you think of my solution?”
This is Captain Spock at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, reflecting on the exam he was inflicting on his student in the opening scene. The Kobayashi Maru is Starfleet’s infamous no-win scenario: ignore the distress call, condemn the stranded; answer the distress call, condemn your own ship. Nobody ever beats the Kobayashi Maru. Admiral James T. Kirk only passed it by cheating.
Throughout the original series and the films thus far, Spock has been the exemplar of detached logic. The wheels in his head turn ever smoothly. In the face of danger, he’s dispassionately curious. Whether good or bad is offered him, he doesn’t get hung up about it.
In the original-series episode Mirror, Mirror, for instance, a parallel-universe Captain Kirk threatens Spock with torture and death. “Extremely interesting,” Spock levelly replies.
“What is it that will buy you?” the evil Kirk demands. “Power? I can get that for you!”
“Fascinating,” says Spock, walking calmly away.
In Wrath of Khan, the Enterprise starts out on a “little training cruise.” Due to the unexpected intersection of the mad pirate Khan with the dangerously powerful Genesis project, the training cruise turns into a real-life Kobayashi Maru scenario.
At the film’s opening, Spock commands the Enterprise. When things begin to get complicated, Kirk finds him deep in meditation, sitting before a large frieze of his people’s infinity symbol. Spock readily surrenders control to his more combat-ready colleague. “Remember, I am a Vulcan,” he says graciously. “I have no ego to bruise.”
While it’s an exaggeration to say that Spock has no ego – he has an identity and maintains a consistent personal image – he clearly does not suffer from the sort of needy, clinging me-me-me that balks at deferring to others. The implication is that years of meditation on Vulcan philosophy, infinity and logic, have given him exactly this kind of equanimity.
His equanimity is perfect enough to inflame Dr. Leonard McCoy, especially in a discussion of the Genesis project’s potential for both life and death. “Logic?! We’re talking about universal Armageddon, you inhuman, bloodless—!”
As ever before, Kirk’s tough creativity and Spock’s clever dependability set up the Enterprise to save the day and escape Khan’s revenge. Khan’s dying act, however, catches the ship with its warp engines down in the midst of an imminent gigantic explosion. “I need warp speed in three minutes or we’re all dead,” Kirk urges.
Spock calmly evaluates the crisis. Then he rises from his station on the bridge and efficiently, unhurriedly, takes the turbolift down to the engines. He steps into the ship’s radioactive warp core to restart it manually.
Commander Scott and Dr. McCoy scream and fight to stop him, then watch in horrified helplessness as he methodically saves the ship and dooms himself.
As Spock himself tells it, what moves him to give his life is…math.
“Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.”
With his last breath, Spock adds, “I have been, and always shall be, your friend.”
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
– John 15:13
After her Kobayashi Maru test at the beginning, Spock’s star student Saavik gripes about its unfairness. It was not a test of her leadership abilities, she says, because there was no way to win. At Spock’s funeral, we see Saavik understanding for the first time the meaning of true leadership and of all their people’s logic.
The Kobayashi Maru cannot be beaten. It can only be embraced.
Kirk says, “It should be noted that in the midst of our sorrow, this death takes place in the shadow of new life, the sunrise of a new world. The world that our beloved comrade gave his life to protect and nourish. He did not feel this sacrifice a vain or empty one, and we will not debate his wisdom in these proceedings.”
“Yet in the midst of suffering
Love proceeds like a millstone,
hard-surfaced and straight forward.”
– Rumi, translated by Kabir Helminski
As Star Trek II closes, the Genesis project, built by mother and son Carol and David Marcus, terraforms a lifeless planet, tossing off millions of years of evolution in minutes. The bereaved Enterprisers look out over the beautiful new world that’s the collateral damage of the wrath of Khan. “He’s really not dead,” McCoy muses of Spock, “as long as we remember him.”
Bones would be right, in a philosophical sense, even if the story ended there. But this is one of the great sci-fi franchises, so the story doesn’t end there.
Spock has quietly snuck his katra, “his essence…everything not of the body,” into Dr. McCoy’s brain. Meanwhile, the Genesis effect, run wild on a previously dead spacerock, has rebuilt his physical form. In Star Trek III, Kirk and Co. literally re-collect Spock.
“The Kobayashi Maru has set sail for the promised land,” Kirk declares as he steals the Enterprise and her doctor and takes off once again for the Genesis planet. “You’re taking me to the promised land?” katra-addled McCoy exclaims. “What are friends for?” smirks Kirk.
From his first inception, Spock was a personification of that Vulcan byword Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. He is the only one of his kind, born of an Earth woman and a Vulcan man. In the Genesis planet’s new Eden, he is reborn through a Vulcan woman – rescuer Saavik – and Earth men, mind-bearer Dr. McCoy and defender Dr. David Marcus.
Discussing Spock’s sacrifice, Kirk confesses, “I haven’t faced death. I’ve cheated death. I’ve tricked my way out of death, and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing.” David replies, “You knew enough to tell Saavik that how we face death is at least as important as how we face life….Good words.” David then lives out these good words, accepting the knife-blow aimed at his companions. From Spock’s sacrifice and Kirk’s reaction to it, both Saavik and David Marcus have learned to overcome their knee-jerk whining and lay life on the line. “David died most bravely,” Saavik later states. “He saved Spock. He saved us all.”
Similarly, the core Enterprise crew gamble their careers, their lives, and their ship to resurrect Spock. He has given his life for them, and they in return give theirs to him. Their profligate, wildly illogical generosity floors even Spock’s freeze-dried father. “What I have done, I had to do,” says Kirk. “But at what cost,” sighs Sarek. “Your ship. Your son.” “If I hadn’t tried,” Kirk confides, “the cost would’ve been my soul.”
Spock, finding himself in one piece again, marvels, “You came back for me….Why would you do this?” “Because the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many,” Kirk answers simply.
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly…I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”
– John 10:10-18
Spock’s wise Earthling mother, Amanda, talks the big picture. “Does the good of the many outweigh the need of the one?” she quizzes her son at the beginning of Star Trek IV. “Then you stand here alive because of a mistake made by your flawed, feeling human friends. They have sacrificed their futures because they believed that the good of the one—you—was more important to them.” “Humans make illogical decisions,” Spock dismisses. “They do indeed,” Amanda indulgently replies.
But it turns out that when the Enterprise folks dumped their livelihood and destroyed the ship in Spock’s cause, the divine math was still at work in them. An alien probe is headed for Earth, wiping out all in its path. Only a response from the dead will pacify it. The crew find themselves in the happily accidental position to save their own planet and all her billions of beings.
The scales tilt back: the needs of the many reassert themselves. “Spock, start your computations,” Kirk orders.
Miraculously, the many rescued will include the humpback whales George and Gracie, plus their unborn young. Whales had been on earth ten million years before humans. Spock unhesitatingly treats them as a dominant life-form, diving right into their pool at the 1980s Cetacean Institute to get their take on things.
In that age of the past, whales are persecuted; in the extant timeline, they’re extinct by the 22nd century. “It’s ironic,” says Kirk with vast understatement. “When man was killing these creatures, he was destroying his own future.”
With lifegiving logic broad enough to encompass even Spock’s best guess, our heroes bring the humpbacks home to the future Earth. “You and this crew have saved this planet from its own shortsightedness,” the Federation council praises them.
The needs of the many become the needs of the one become the needs of the many who are, together, one planet, one community. Spock’s death evolves into a new Genesis for Mother Earth. “Do you have a message for your mother?” Sarek asks his son. “Yes,” says Spock. “Tell her I feel fine.”
“The love of God creates in us such a oneing that, when it is truly seen, no person can separate themselves from another person,” wrote Julian of Norwich. “In the sight of God, all humans are oned, and one person is all people and all people are one person.”
In talking about God here, I’m not trying to make Star Trek into The Chronicles of Narnia. I’m suggesting something much bigger: that the cycle of birth, surrender, death, and resurrection is the fundamental shape of existence. Christians revere Jesus because he embodied that cycle. Spock’s friends defy all odds to find him because he does as well. Each sets off a chain reaction with the potential to bring life to the most unwinnable situation.
Pastor Rob Bell, in What Is the Bible?:
“Death is the engine of life. Think about what happens when someone dies doing something heroic, like rescuing someone in trouble or standing up to injustice. We say that their death was inspiring. What does it mean to inspire? It means to breathe in life, to give life.
Or take the seasons. In the winter everything dies. And then in the spring it comes back to life. It literally springs forth.
Or take your cells. You have many trillion cells in your body right now. They are constantly dying while your body is producing new ones to replace them. Around 300 million cells in your body die and are replaced every minute.
Death is the engine of life. All around us, all the time. This death-and-life rhythm is built in to the fabric of creation.
So when you read the Bible and it tells the story of a death that is somehow the engine of a new life in the world, this is not a new story. This is not a new truth. This is how the world has worked for a long, long time. This idea—this truth—did not come out of nowhere.”
“The Christ…is not a brand name, but a naming of How Reality Works,” Richard Rohr summarizes.
Or, as Gerald O’Collins put it in Christology, “[Christ is] everywhere present but in an infinite variety of ways.”
In sacrifice, death, and rebirth: here is the universe in infinity diversity, in infinite combinations.
Live long and prosper.
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