Thursday, July 2, 2009

STbtM 023: Starfleet Wants Felons

Previous: Leap Without Looking

Captain Pike asks whether Kirk feels he was meant "for something special", pauses and then commands: "Enlist in Starfleet." Oops: "enlist", according to Merriam Webster, means "to enroll oneself in the armed forces". It occurs to me that this entire film should have been set in "mirror universe", and Pike should have said "Enlist in the forces of the Star Empire" because to enter Starfleet, one has to apply, pass tests, get recommendations, etc. Look at Wesley Crusher: grew up on the Enterprise, served as acting ensign for years, saved hundreds of lives, was an inventor, genius, and had recommendations up the wazoo, and the best he was able to do was get a chance to test for entry into Starfleet. Abrams' Starfleet is now a place for young, violent and destructive scumbags with senior officers who advocate deliberately blinding oneself from the consequences of one's actions? Incredible.

Kirk replies "Enlist? You guys must be really down on your recruiting quota for the month!" This entire exchange and the film itself seems like it could have had some real military recruiting consulting in on it.

I agree with Kirk that Pike sounds like an underperforming military recruiter, and in apparent confirmation Pike tries the old "McFly 'Chicken' Challenge": "If you're half the man your father was, Jim, Starfleet could use you." But that might not be enough, Pike seems to think and offers a typical bribe that: "You can be an officer in 4 years;" which doesn't seem to be impressing Kirk, so Pike ups the ante: "You can have your own ship in eight!" Kirk still isn't responding, so Pike tries to appeal to, well, what I guess he thinks might appeal to this criminal's "nobler" character with the nonsensical, rhetorical, and inaccurate: "You understand what the Federation is doncha? It's important; it's a peace keeping and humanitarian armada." Another amazing goof by an increasingly unbelievable captain, written by guys who couldn't seem to spent 10 seconds with wiktionary on terms they used but did not understand. I'm almost feeling a need to use really small words to explain, in the event the writing team ever sees this: The fleet of ships tasked in Star Trek with exploration and humanitarian missions is different than the administration of federated planets assigning those missions. To avoid any confusion, the fleet is called "Starfleet", and federated planets' administration is called the "Federation". This should not be difficult.

Actually, maybe this isn't difficult and what we are really seeing is a more accurate image of military recruiting than intended: where an impressive looking authority figure targets a disadvantaged youth. The kid is on his way to multiple felony convictions and hard prison time, and currently drunk, which would help Pike "have his way" with the guy, who is probably without much in the way of career prospects, either – also very accurate. In a 1996 study to confirm how best to prey upon and enlist members of the public, the Navy Recruiting Command found family income and education was the most important predictor for success, summarized as: "Enlistment rates are much higher when income is lowest and college enrollment rates are low."

Kirk asks, "Are we done?" Pike says "I'm done," but as we are starting to suspect, Starfleet captains in the "new" Star Trek can't keep their word and Pike, true to form continues: "Riverside shipyard, the shuttle for new recruits leaves tomorrow at oh-eight-hundred." Kirk raises his nearly finished beer. Another miracle! He was previously able to order a beer from the guy cleaning the floor behind him and was thanking that guy for already having it in front of him 10 seconds later. I'd be thanking the guy too, and wondering why he wasn't doing the illusion circuit in Vegas…

Pike gets up to leave, but stops and tries another McFly dare, "You know, your father was captain of a starship for twelve minutes. He save eight hundred lives, including your mother's and yours. I dare you to do better."

This does look like a military recruitment effort, albeit heavily sanitized but then again, so does the entire film. The war industry need portrayals of the enemies, as crazed monsters absolutely dedicated to violent destruction of "us" good guys for patently absurd reasons. Recruiters act like Pike in dangling future carrots of status, power, and other rewards, while leaving out the part about killing others, dying painfully, or living with physical scars that make children cry in fear. Perhaps worse is watching best friends who have risked their life to save yours descend into depression, addiction and too often: suicide. Care for victims isn't profitable, and when you can reach them, recruiters who seemed like best friends feign helplessness and senior command dismisses pleas for aid with apathy, interested more in polishing decorative jewelry for their uniforms. Obviously, there are big incentives for recruiters to lie about risks, rewards and conditions of service, but also incentives to condone lying by fellow service persons, and encourage recruits lie about their histories regarding health, criminal background, or anything else that might reduce enlistment. When this malfeasance is exposed for some reason, the recruits get thrown to the wolves with a dishonorable discharge while officers who encourage deceit are given a non-punitive LoC: letter of caution. Recruiters have illegally threatened kids for "failure" to enlist, and in New York they have been caught bragging about how many felony charges they've been able to have dropped in exchange for the young man or woman "volunteering" for military enlistment.

Like the portrayal of idealized technology, this film portrays an idealized military similar to the ultimate recruiting movie of the '80s: Top Gun, which actually had recruiters in the theaters to sign up kids who dreamed of flying jets, seducing supermodels, and saving honest, freedom loving people of the world from "the evil empire". It's the kind of fairy tale told in societies where anything spent on the majority of citizens like health and education which strengthens society is considered wasteful big government, but no expense is spared for weapons of destruction & violence, or advertising for manipulation and deceit. Yikes!

Next: Bike Ride


Steamblade said...

I didn't mean to jump the gun on the "armada" thing. I should have known you'd address it.

Flashman85 said...

To be fair, the meaning of a word can change in a few hundred years. Due to popular parlance, "enlist" could very easily have changed to simply mean "join."

I only watched the film once, when it was in the theater, but I saw this scene as Pike's attempt to save Kirk from himself, and the only option he had to give Kirk was the possibility of joining Starfleet. Kirk had the potential of his father, but no discipline; an organization like Starfleet supposedly promotes and requires discipline. People often have strong reactions when they see someone else with potential wasting their lives on something trivial or "below them," and it seemed to me like Pike was offering the chance that Kirk never had.

BurntSynapse said...

Hi Flash,

I would tend to reject any "meanings of words changed" arguments in that it negates any standard for assessing the quality of the dialog.

Every objection to a stupid and transparent lie X, or an obvious contradiction Y opposing clearly presented premises in a film could be answered with "the meanings of X or Y might have changed".

Of course, if one were to make such an argument, it isn't really an argument because we can choose to interpret the advocate's words to mean almost anything.

A similar, but not identical issue has been addressed in philosophy where criticism of a position based on its "offensiveness" or "lack of sensitivity" commits a sort of reverse to the fallacy of the stolen concept. It levels a criticism, based on a rule which it violates.

Flashman85 said...

Hi BurntSynapse,

Given the quality (whatever we may interpret "quality" to mean) of the script so far, it seems much more likely that the use of the word "enlist" here was writer error due to a misunderstanding of what Starfleet is supposed to be. I should also note that the dictionary link you provide above also offers a few non-military alternative meanings for "enlist" that could just as easily be what the writers were going for.

In either case, I'm not suggesting that "enlist" might change to mean "make thousands of ice cream sundaes" in a few hundred years, but "join a military group" versus just plain "join a group" seems like a plausible shift in meaning that wouldn't make the meaning of the whole script a matter of interpretation if other key vocabulary words underwent similarly minor changes.

I'm not advocating that we pick and choose what words we want to define for ourselves; I'm just suggesting that, at least in the hands of a very deliberate writer (most likely not the case here), words don't have to be bound by their dictionary definitions.

BurntSynapse said...

Hi Flash,

Good points, and I agree. It is regrettable that this conceptualization of Starfleet as a military organization is the opposite of Roddenberry's explicit intent, which was clearly and unequivocally stated by Picard and verified by Riker in TNG:Peak Performance.

In this case, my ire is do to the cheapening of Trek, so I must admit that "enlist" is at least consistent with Abram's whored-out version of the Federation.

Flashman85 said...

Quick note about using the term "enlist"--I just exposed someone to STIV for the first time last weekend, and Sarek says to Spock at one point, "As I recall, I opposed your enlistment in Starfleet..." Turns out Abrams and Co. weren't the first to use the term!

BurntSynapse said...

Great catch!