On Treks into Heroism and Reclaiming Ashes: Star Trek and the Heroic Journey

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Let me open with the non-Spoilery part of this here essay -- and I do indeed plan to spoil heavily in this here first post in a billion years. I really, really liked the new Star Trek movie.

Let me elaborate with an anecdote on one of the few times I've seen a movie more than once in a theater, and just about the only time I've seen a movie in a theater twice in a short amount of time.

It was early 1987, and I was a young tyro at Boston University. I was still new to post-high school life and a bit drunk with the power of a T Pass. I got a stipend from the United States Government as part of an early -- and unfortunate -- flirtation with the United States Navy. And I had a piece of plastic that let me ride the Boston T wherever and whenever I wanted.

And so in January of 1987, I took a ride on the T on an unseasonably warm day to the Government Center stop, just to tool around and see the sights. And I noticed that Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was still playing in a theater. I hadn't yet seen this movie, because... well, I have no idea why I hadn't seen it yet. My friends had, and they liked it. Still, I didn't have much to do and hey, the theater was almost empty -- it was the middle of the day and Trek had been out for weeks at that point. So I went. Why not.

Two hours later, I marched out of the theater on an absolute high. I was charged -- no, I was supercharged. The last thing I wanted to do was go back to my room. So I turned around, and walked right back in, and proceeded to watch the film for a second time.

I'd never done that before. I haven't done that specific thing since. I've seen movies more than once in the theater since then -- but that was always because I had seen it with one group of friends and then a different group of friends wanted to see it too. It was group activity, in other words, not "oh my God I need to see that movie again." And certainly in recent years I've felt no need to be a repeat film watcher. The DVD will be out soon enough, after all. And there's always way more to watch.

On Thursday at 7 pm, Wednesday, a mutual friend and I all went to see Star Trek, at the first possible showing.

On Sunday, Wednesday and I saw it again. I couldn't imagine waiting for the DVD release -- I had to see this movie again.

So, taking it for what it's worth, I liked the movie.

We're about to move into the main part of this essay, so I'm going to bring back the ancient art of the Cut For Spoilers. Don't continue unless you're okay with them

Seriously, I'm going to reveal everything and its brother about this film.

Up to and including stuff that was misleading in the trailer.

Okay, not a lot of that, but a bit.

Okay, a bit involving hot chicks and underwear.

Right. Last chance.

(RSS readers -- click the link to the main entry on the site, or just click here to continue.

Still here? Then let's spoil ho.

Looking around the blogosphereic mass, I notice that-- wait, what?

Oh, I mentioned hot chicks in their underwear and spoilers? Well, that's true enough. Right. Let me get through that really quickly before we move on. See, in the trailer, we see Uhura stripping out of her uniform, cross-cut with a fast shot of Kirk sliding atop a chick in her underwear in shadows. There is more than a little implication that Kirk was nailing Uhura. Only Weds didn't believe it, because she noticed the hot chick had curlier hair. And she was also certain she was green. So we went frame by frame, and while I was willing to accept that the jury was still out on whether or not that was Uhura (we had only seen her with her hair pulled back, so it was possible they'd go with a glamour shot when it was down), I proved conclusively to her that no, the woman was dark skinned and not green.

So, yeah. The woman was green. Kirk was nailing an Orion chick. A red haired Orion chick. In her underwear. Frankly, I'm surprised that wasn't the tagline of the movie. Star Trek: Red Haired Orion Chick in her Underwear.

But that's not why I'm telling the story. I'm telling it because Weds was happy A) to be right about the Orion chick, but B) because of a detail she thought was amazing. "That Orion chick's red hair is a dye job," she said as we left the film. "That's fantastic. I can totally accept that an Orion chick joining starfleet would dye her hair red. They did that really well."

Well, it was a dye job, but it wasn't a detail the producers threw in. It's just that actress playing the Orion chick had to get ready for her day job. Say what you want -- that actress (Ms. Rachel Nichols of my home state of Maine) has her Geek Movie Cred sewn up for the next decade or so.

But enough exploitation. (Especially since Uhura was a pretty great character this time out). I want to talk about storytelling.

See, there's a popular blog out there that's really impressed with Star Trek, in part because they were so happy to see stock scriptwriting thrown out the window. In particular, they were glad to see the myth theory of the Hero's Journey tossed, and a different story style employed instead.

For those who aren't familiar, the Hero's Journey (technically called the monomyth) was detailed by Joseph Campbell in the 1949 book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It suggests that, as predicted by mythopoeic critical theory, that the structure of almost all heroic myths -- myths about heroes, in other words -- is generally the same and predictable. From this, we derived the concept of the heroic archetype (as well as the concept of the failed hero, or ectype). In the '80's, Bill Moyers had a surprisingly well received and popular PBS series The Power of Myth, which brought the heroic journey and Campbell to the forefront of thought. Screenweiter Christopher Vogler adapted this into the now-nigh-ubiquitous The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, highlighting many popular movies and showing how they fit the structure. As a result, Hollywood is lousy with heroic journey based screenplays.

Well, as I said, the popular Kung Fu Monkey blog had a post raving about Star Trek, and more to the point complimenting it on entirely eschewing the heroic journey and indeed the concept of the character arc. It was well thought out, supported its thesis, and had tons of comments by intelligent people debating elements of the discussion and only occasionally being marred by mouth breathing moronic trolls. On the whole, a successful essay.

And now, as a card carrying critic well trained in the theories in question and understanding perfectly that the beauty of criticism is we can all be right, I'm going to go ahead and call bullshit on Rogers and his thesis. Because Star Trek and in particular James T. Kirk perfectly follows the archetype of the Heroic Journey.

Stepping around the incredibly emotional (and stunningly well done) prologue, where heroic ectype George Kirk sacrifices himself so his son -- and wife and 800 other people -- can live, we open the journey with James T. Kirk, who we see established in the Norm as a troublemaking kid without respect for authority or other peoples' stuff. He is on a dead end path -- the path of, in Pike's words, becoming the only Genius-level repeat offender in the Midwest.

Kirk receives the Call to Adventure -- he encounters Uhura in a bar, and has a rather unfortunate encounter with a pile of Academy recruits. But, he Refuses the Call initially. Christopher Pike is the first elder figure on Kirk's path, and he provides both the motivation to answer the Call of Adventure and the initial Challenge of the Paternal. Kirk is the way he is because he didn't have his father to look up to. Pike takes the theory of his father and makes it actual -- an example of a Hero (in this case, the truest form of Hero in this world, a Starship Captain). But he doesn't challenge Kirk to live up to his father's example. He challenges Kirk to exceed it. "Your father had command of a starship for twelve minutes," he says, more or less. "In that time, he saved 800 lives. Including your mother's. Including yours. I dare you to do better."

Kirk accepts the Call, giving up his old life (as symbolized by his giving away his motorcycle) and crossing the threshold into the shuttle -- and meets the next significant elder figure on his journey. In this case, the neurotic but loyal Leonard McCoy, older and more grizzled, and ready to accept Kirk immediately. The pair move on together. McCoy's role in the myth will become apparent when we reach the Crossing of the First Threshold, in the very next paragraph.

Kirk has embraced his path, but he cannot truly step into the new world. He is held by his own ego -- he has failed the Kobayashi Maru and indeed taken it twice. That everyone fails this test is not enough for Kirk. Kirk's ego can't permit him to continue until he conquers the test. He does so on the third try, but there meets with the real Threshold Guardian he must overcome -- Commander Spock, the officer who programmed the test. Kirk is brought up on charges and grounded -- right when an emergency forces the immediate commissioning of his graduating class so they can step out into adventure. But Kirk is grounded and unable to continue.

This is where McCoy steps into his place on the Mythic Structure, providing the Supernatural Aid to allow Kirk to pass beyond the first threshold. The weapon or amulet he gives Kirk is a vaccination that will make Kirk seem sick, and give the Doctor an excuse to bring him with him to the Enterprise. Once there, Kirk realizes the true nature of their mission (and its dangers), using what he had already heard from Uhura. He goes to the bridge, confronting his threshold guardian directly -- Commander Spock continuing to act as his obstacle and indeed his antagonist -- and is triumphant, convincing all (including Pike and Spock himself) that he is correct, and allowing them to arm against the coming storm. After the ship has its first encounter with the Narada, Captain Pike is forced to leave. Spock -- the obstacle -- becomes Acting Captain. But before he goes, Pike makes Kirk Acting First Officer. He has made Kirk a real part of the crew, letting him pass the threshold and enter the Belly of the Whale -- represented here by his plunge onto Vulcan to disable the drill to restore the ship's magical powers (in this case communication and transportation). He does so, taking two leaps of faith in the process -- one to the battle, and one to save Sulu.

He emerges, but is torn apart, as one must be on the Heroic path. He is still headstrong and ego driven, and he confronts his recurring obstacle, Spock, once more. He is certain he is right, but is being blocked. He tries to argue, to yell, and ultimately to fight, but fails and is ejected. He has not yet conquered his essential ego, and not yet gained the inner mastery he needs to truly achieve his destiny.

This moves him into Initiation. In this case, he is thrown to a world of ice. The underworld, as it were, where he encounters monsters and the Road of Trials. There too, he encounters the next important guidepost. In the land of the dead, he finds Spock Prime, who saves him, and then enlightens him. Spock Prime affirms his destiny, and speaks also of Kirk's father. In Spock Prime's version of history, Kirk did know his father, and his father was proud of him. Indeed, his father lived to see Kirk achieve his destiny -- to become the Captain of the Enterprise -- that brings Kirk's need for atonement with his father into relief. Spock Prime also brings Kirk into Apotheosis, giving him the mythical expansion of his consciousness by agency of an emotional mind-meld. Kirk sees the face of the menace they face, and learns the nature of the threat. He also learns that it is not his ego but the destiny of the world that he must serve -- and to do so, he must defeat Spock and assume his heroic place as Captain, not for himself but for the sake of all.

There is now the Magical Flight that allows our proto-hero to return to the regular world from the underworld, embodied by an outside agency -- in this case, the Trickster figure of Montgomery Scott. Scotty can return Kirk to the Enterprise (with the help of Spock Prime) and complete Kirk's arsenal all at the same time. Spock Prime gives Kirk the necessary weapons to fight his enemy -- embodied in Spock -- and become the Captain he must be. They fly out, and must cross the Return Threshold, blocked once more by Spock. This time, Kirk is able to confront Spock directly and defeat him, finally removing him as an obstacle and allowing Kirk to assume command. He is now Master of Two Worlds -- the mundane world of commanding the ship, and the divine world of his destiny as a hero -- and can act to stop the threat to Earth. Though the final battle is exciting, it is also a foregone conclusion. James T. Kirk is Captain of the Enterprise, and the Narada -- which was always a MacGuffin -- is no match for that.

Spock, in this interpretation, is relegated to a story-specific role as Antagonist. And indeed, Nero and the Narada are decried as a cypher, because that is what they are. Spock is the enemy Kirk must continually overcome, until he can finally be defeated and made part of Kirk's loyal crew -- only then can Spock take his own place on board the Enterprise and in Kirk's life.

Of course, one can also build a heroic journey for Spock, and indeed the movie does so. But that doesn't deny the Heroic journey Kirk has had to make in order to become the hero he must be.

In conclusion? There was a hot red haired Orion chick in her underwear. Who gives a crap about Kirk?

15 Comments

Great. I feel like I've seen the movie again.

Is this a good or a bad thing?

(As a side note? When I say 'Seriously, I'm going to reveal everything and its brother about this film,' I mean it. ;) )

Well done, although I'd have to say that Kirk's essentially passive nature undermines the argument somewhat -- all American movies are, in the end, about self-determination. But good on ya.

However, this opens up another element of discussion -- why is the Hero's Journey, which you perfectly describe, so misunderstood by Hollywood humans?

Well done, although I'd have to say that Kirk's essentially passive nature undermines the argument somewhat -- all American movies are, in the end, about self-determination. But good on ya.

However, this opens up another element of discussion -- why is the Hero's Journey, which you perfectly describe, so misunderstood by Hollywood humans?

That is, I'm discussing the Hero's Journey as Hollywood uses it in development, which is NOT how Campbell actually described it. How or why did the schism occur.

In short? Skimming.

When Vogler first started applying the Hero's Journey to screenwriting, Hollywood jumped on it. After all, the Heroic Journey could be easily applied to some of the biggest success stories out there. Hollywood deeply deeply loves proven winners.

However, the deeper, dare we say mythic elements that Campbell (and Vogler) describe in their works take time to understand. Surface definitions of the heroic journey are far faster. As a result, you have development executives asking dumbass questions -- "why now?" "What's the character arc?" And indeed, all the stuff that you complain about in your original essay.

Part of that problem stems back to Vogler's own literary journey. He didn't open with The Writer's Journey. He opened with "A Practical Guide to The Hero With a Thousand Faces," which was a seven page memo that summarized the Campbellian Hero's Journey. That's what galvanized the industry, and made Vogler's reputation.

In other words, Cliff's Notes.

Most development executives have read the seven page Cliff's Notes, but not read The Writer's Journey or The Hero With A Thousand Faces or even seen The Power of Myth. They have a surface understanding of the mechanics, but they lack the depth.

So, it's Vogler's fault, but to his credit he's been trying to atone. And to his benefit, he's made a comfortable living off of doing so. ;)

(As for Kirk's passivity -- the protohero is often passive until the end of initiation, in part because he doesn't have the tools to truly act until then. Kirk can't really act against Spock until he's given the weapons by Spock Prime. Once he has those weapons, he becomes active, first against Spock, and then against Hero.)

Nero. Neroneronero. Nero.

John: I can attest to Eric's grumble about the Cliffs Notes. When I was in storytelling 101 about three years ago out here, the seven-page outline was the only handbook to the Campbellian structure we got. We were then slapped on our aspiring technological-entertainer asses and sent forth to analyze movies of our choosing in accordance with the handout's sacred writ.

For the record, Top Gun is harder than it looks to break out when all you're allowed to work from is that handout. It doesn't really cover ectypes, and the movie has a failed-Journey false open involving Cougar, which then becomes a revelatory arc about Maverick, which then crashes into Maverick's own Journey.

Also, your classmates will look at you funny for analyzing a wildly homoerotic piece of 1980s military recruiting propaganda as if it were Serious Myth, but that happens in film school/ VFX nerd school/ what have you.

I am now desperately tempted to do a myth analysis of Can't Stop the Music.

Will there be a quiz afterward, Professor Burns-White?

(And honestly, all I remember about Bill Moyer's interview with Joseph Campbell were the film/discussion/book about the boys at some Polynesian island who as a part of a coming of age ritual: each boy goes into a tent, fuck the girl in the tent. The last boy goes in, fucks the girl, and then the tent collapses on them killing them both and then everyone else in the tribe eats the dead couple who are (presumably) still attached at the genitals. I'm not making this up!

I'm going to have to read the book again.)

Great. I feel like I've seen the movie again.
Is this a good or a bad thing?

If I say I saw the film once each the first three days it was out, will that make up for not making the tone of my first comment clear? I love the film. The fanfiction on my LJ friendslist is giving me flashbacks to 1971, and twelve-year-olds didn't do drugs in those days.

Now that the initial, "Holy-shit-that-was-awesome!" effect has worn down (not off, mind -- just down) I'm having lots of fun looking for the prismatic story effects hidden behind the ridiculous lens flare.

And it's all there. Lots of multi-level story that bring the characters, who have become such cardboard cut-outs of themselves over the years, back into focus. There is fan service galore (both Trek and Abrams related). There are new development directions available (Chekov is wonderfully reborn as the awkward young proto-genius).

I actually want to see it again right away, and I don't say that about many movies. I'm also looking forward to what comes next for the new Trek; it has so much life now.

the lens flare was a bit much, but overall I liked it.
As for Checkov, I hope he gets a better break, as does sulu. if nothing else it'll 4srs appease some fans.
Now if they get a new bridge that's not so fully of bendy lights i'll be happy.
i can even explain away all the cannon-breaking things (klingons having cloak early, and warbirds, and no one being surprised that romulans are related to vulcans which iirc was *THE* big reveal in that episode where they were introduced)
I was highly entertained though. That's pretty much all that matters.
just..y'know...more 'splody next time. give me something that's in media res, shit blows up kirk makes a speach shit blows up, spoke makes a deep insight into the nature of man, mckoy says something bone chilling and humous and then BLOW SOME SHIT UP!

oh. and the ship is bristling with fast firing weapons now. I CAN HAZ PD!!!11elventyone
yes. i'm in full on fanboi high. leave me alone.

the lens flare was a bit much, but overall I liked it.
As for Checkov, I hope he gets a better break, as does sulu. if nothing else it'll 4srs appease some fans.
Now if they get a new bridge that's not so fully of bendy lights i'll be happy.
i can even explain away all the cannon-breaking things (klingons having cloak early, and warbirds, and no one being surprised that romulans are related to vulcans which iirc was *THE* big reveal in that episode where they were introduced)
I was highly entertained though. That's pretty much all that matters.
just..y'know...more 'splody next time. give me something that's in media res, shit blows up kirk makes a speach shit blows up, spoke makes a deep insight into the nature of man, mckoy says something bone chilling and humous and then BLOW SOME SHIT UP!

oh. and the ship is bristling with fast firing weapons now. I CAN HAZ PD!!!11elventyone
yes. i'm in full on fanboi high. leave me alone.

the lens flare was a bit much, but overall I liked it.
As for Checkov, I hope he gets a better break, as does sulu. if nothing else it'll 4srs appease some fans.
Now if they get a new bridge that's not so fully of bendy lights i'll be happy.
i can even explain away all the cannon-breaking things (klingons having cloak early, and warbirds, and no one being surprised that romulans are related to vulcans which iirc was *THE* big reveal in that episode where they were introduced)
I was highly entertained though. That's pretty much all that matters.
just..y'know...more 'splody next time. give me something that's in media res, shit blows up kirk makes a speach shit blows up, spoke makes a deep insight into the nature of man, mckoy says something bone chilling and humous and then BLOW SOME SHIT UP!

oh. and the ship is bristling with fast firing weapons now. I CAN HAZ PD!!!11elventyone
yes. i'm in full on fanboi high. leave me alone.

This explains a lot about what I liked about the Trek movie (what I didn't like? Where's Gary Mitchell?!?!?! Where's Finney?!?! Where's Decker and Professor Gill???).

You mentioned that a Heroic Journey can be spelled out for Spock... that indeed, the movie is about TWO heroes who must take the Journey to become who they are... so let's see a Spock version of this article. ;)

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