Star Trek Beyond

I was pleasantly surprised. I have been going into these reboot Trek showings with mixed feelings; there are many story elements in them that are extremely implausible (even by Trek standards), and the previous installments have been more generic action movies than either Star Trek or science fiction. But Star Trek Beyond (and I like how the titles have no colons!) is the most Trek of them all, and a fairly decent one at that.

I should note that I saw the 2D version; I’ve learned I get sick in 3D movies and so cannot comment on the third dimension.

What is Trek in this movie is an extensive acknowledgement of the Enterprise’s five-year mission of exploration, and the rescue nature of the mission that starts the main plotline of this movie. There is also an explicit and plot-relevant acknowledgment of Starfleet’s nonmilitary primary mission.

What is not Trek in this movie is just about everything else. The main conflict is (with a nontrivial science fiction twist) standard fare for action thrillers. Despite Starfleet being nonmilitary, there is an awful amount of military action by and against Starfleet in this movie. The solutions to plot problems are (to the extent they are not just technobabbled away) physical action in nature; there is no deep thinking or diplomacy involved. There are no big ideas involving the human condition.

I liked how the movie made a plot point of the Enterprise’s military weaknesses in a way that all other Trek tends to ignore (though I fear they will forget the lesson in future movies). I liked the nature of the key antagonist. I liked how there was a tasteful acknowledgement of the death of Leonard Nimoy (and, doubtless added in the last minute during post-production, of the death of Anton Yelchin). I especially liked how they did not do any overt homages to the previous Trek incarnations (though I did notice several tiny nods). And I liked quite a bit how they portrayed the universal translator.

Yet, there was a lot of things wrong in the movie. The science was appalling (even by Star Trek standards). The career of James Kirk in this timeline remains ridiculously meteoric, and treating a vice-admiralship as a realistic notion at this stage of his career just compounds the error. I could go on, but that would be too depressing.

I am too immersed in Trek to be able to see whether this movie would work for the uninitiated, but I suspect it works better for a newcomer than for a Trek fan (as long as one does not expect anything more than a typical action movie). Speaking as a fan, I find this to be the strongest offering in a rather weak Trek series. I hereby rate Star Trek Beyond at 3/5.

Beware of unnecessary commitment

The most elementary and valuable statement in science, the beginning of wisdom is, “I do not know”.

It may seem strange for me to open a blog post on the philosophy of knowledge and science with a video clip and a quotation from a rather cheesy episode of Star Trek The Next Generation (Where Silence Has Lease), a science fiction show not celebrated for its scientific accuracy. However, that quotation hit me like a ton of bricks when I saw that episode the first time more than twenty years ago. It has the same kind of wisdom as the ancient pronouncement, attributed to the god in Delphi by Socrates:

Human beings, he among you is wisest who knows like Socrates that he is actually worthless with respect to wisdom.

(This quote is at 23b of Socrates’ Defense [traditionally translated under the misleading title “Apology”] by Plato, as translated by Cathal Woods and Ryan Pack.)

The great teaching of these two quotes is, in my view, that one must keep an open mind: it is folly to think, mistakenly, that one knows something, and one should always be very careful committing to a particular position.

Of course, not all commitments are of equal importance. Most commitments to a position are limited: one might commit to a position only briefly or tentatively, for the sake of the argument and for the purposes of testing that position (these recent blog posts of mine on philosophy are of just this kind), or one might commit to a position in an entrance exam, for the purpose of gaining entry to a school. Some commitments are permanent: for example, knowingly allowing surgery to remove one’s colon is a powerful and irreversible commitment, but then, so is the decision not to take the surgery if one has a diagnosed colorectal cancer (although that decision may be reversible for a while, but not indefinitely).

The key thing, in my view, is to make only necessary commitments. Remember my previous post, where I argued that life is a big gamble? A commitment is necessary, in my view, if it follows from making a real-life bet with real-life consequences. For example, if one acquiesces to the removal of one’s colon as a treatment for colorectal cancer, one is betting one’s life on that decision, and thus the implied commitment to its superiority as a treatment (compared to, say, just eating healthily) is necessary. Conversely, a commitment is unnecessary if it is not connected to any real-life decision with significant stakes.

One thing that bothers me about the current paradigm of science (in all disciplines I am familiar with) is a fetish for unnecessary commitment. A researcher is expected to commit to an answer to their research question in their report, even though, most times, all they manage to do is provide evidence that will slightly alter a person’s probability assignment regarding that question. In most cases, this commitment is unnecessary, in that the researcher does not bet anything on the result (though there are significant exceptions). This fetish has the unfortunate consequence that statistical methodology is routinely misused to produce convincing-sounding justifications for such commitments. Even more unfortunate is that most studies pronounce their judgments based only on their own data, however meager, and all but ignore all other studies on the same question (technically speaking, they fail to establish the prior). Many other methodological issues arise similarly from the fetish to unnecessary commitment.

Of course, necessary commitments based on science occur all the time. If I step on a bridge, I am committing myself to the soundness of brige building science, among other things. We, the humanity, have collectively already committed ourselves to the belief that global climate change is not such a big deal (otherwise, we would have been much more aggressive about dealing with it in the decades past). Every day, we commit ourself to the belief that Newtonian and Einsteinian physics are sound enough that they correctly predict that the sun rises tomorrow.

But it is unnecessary for me to commit to any particular theory as to why MH370 vanished without trace, since it is only, pardon the expression, of academic interest to me.

Star Trek

It is curious to see that the eleventh movie in a series is the first to bear the series name with no adornment. It is apt, however: Star Trek is a clear attempt at rebooting the universe and basically forgetting most of the decades-heavy baggage. It seems to me that the reboot was fairly well done, too.

The movie opens with the birth of James Tiberius Kirk, and follows his development into the Captain of the Enterprise. Along the way, we also see the growth of Spock from adolescence into Kirk’s trusted sidekick and also into … well. Despite the fact that the action plot macguffins are time travel and planet-killer weaponry, it is mainly a story of personal vengeance, personal tragedy, and personal growth. Curiously enough, although Kirk gets a lot of screen time, it is really the personal story of Spock.

Besides Kirk and Spock, we also get to meet reimagined versions of Uhura (I like!), McCoy, Sulu, Chekov and Scott. And Christopher Pike, the first Captain of the Enterprise. The appearance of Leonard Nimoy as the pre-reboot Spock merits a special mention and a special thanks.

I overheard someone say in the theatre, after the movie ended, that the movie was a ripoff and had nothing to do with anything that had gone before. I respectfully disagree. The old Star Trek continuum had been weighed down by all the history into being a 600-pound elderly man who is unable to leave the couch on his own. This movie provided a clearn reboot, ripping out most of the baggage, retaining the essence of classic Star Trek and giving a healthy, new platform for good new stories. One just hopes Paramount is wise enough not to foul it up again.

It was worth it, I thought.