Star Trek and the Art of Literary Allusion

I was watching the newest Star Trek (2009) film the other night with a friend and realized that there was an homage to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan toward the end. Kirk is fighting Nero toward the end of the film, when Spock manages to destroy the drill array that is threatening earth. In the midst of their battle, Nero looks up from Kirk’s prone form and shouts, “Spock! SPOCK!” with the same tone and pacing as Kirk shouts “Khan! KHAN!” in Star Trek II.

I mentioned this to my friend, practically giddy over catching this little allusion . . . and he didn’t believe me. He thought it was (if anything) purely accidental. We proceeded to completely forget about the film, engaging in a discussion/debate over the nature of literary allusion. We came down on different sides on the issue, which made me wonder suddenly – how is it that we know when there is a allusion and when you’re just seeing things.

In other words, how do you prove a connection between two films or two books, particularly when the span of years between them numbers in the triple decades? What is the nature of evidence and proof in literature?

This is a discussion that needs to be had, because it seems to be the largest hurdle to be overcome for most people. In my continuing, lengthy series of posts on the objectivity of symbolism, I have frequently pointed out that most people, literary, theological, and normal, all assume that symbolism and meaning are accidental to both form and content. They are tacked over the top of the work, pasted over, manufactured by the imagination of the critic. Intertextual criticism, then, becomes an exercise in seeing what you want to see, getting from the work what you want to get from it. Meaning, in this case, then becomes totally subjective, easily exchanged for any other meaning without violation of the text – because no one can deal with literature on the level of the text. We are all forced to believe that criticism exists on a plane all its own that doesn’t really ever reach the text itself.

So I want to briefly examine the way in which a literary critic might come to the conclusion that this thing is present in the work, but this other thing is not. In short, how do we determine a real allusion from a accidental one?

The first thing we must deal with is the myth of authorial intention. This myth claims that a text cannot have meaning outside of any meaning which the author intended to communicate. Like the related myth that all fiction is biographical (the film Becoming Jane is a good example of this myth, which assumes that an author must have gone through the events or emotions of their fiction in order to have written it), the myth of authorial intention depends upon the assumption that the author is more important than the text, or that the author’s intended meaning must take precedence over all other meanings.

Now, I’m not saying, like some have said, that the author is dead. The author is important, but artistry is a deeply subconscious act that cannot be constrained or limited to merely what the author intended to include. So much more gets revealed than that.

It was precisely this myth that hung my friend up in our discussion. He couldn’t see how such a trivial thing could have been intentionally included in the film as an allusion, and that if such a connection to Star Trek II really existed, it must have been an accident and therefore not really an allusion at all.

So what makes a connection or allusion likely? What is the nature of proof and evidence for such a thing?

Using this example from Star Trek is helpful in clarifying some things that will help us come to an understanding of how these things work. First typically comes the question; you’re watching the movie and notice the connection between two elements, and you wonder, “is this really a connection?” In this case, is Nero’s shout “Spock! SPOCK!” an allusion back to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? By itself, isolated from its context, this does not perhaps seem likely. So we must then consider whether the most recent Star Trek (2009) included moments or homages to previous films and elements in the franchise. This is important, because the more small homage elements to previous Star Trek films there are, the more the likelihood that this particular moment was included intentionally. As Plinkett has pointed out in his lengthy review, the film takes pains to include homage to previous Star Trek films (especially the original series), down into the specific details. Given the attention to detail the film has taken in other areas, we are on firmer ground to suggest that this moment too is intended as a direct allusion.

This alone is not all we can discuss, however. The connection does not have to be intended to be really there, as I have said. If we wanted to establish a genuine connection but did not think it was intended by J. J. Abrams or the writers, we can also examine the intertextual contexts of both quotes.

In the Wrath of Khan, Khan informs Kirk that his wife and son will be marooned on the planet just as he, Khan, had been marooned by Kirk. This prompts Kirk’s famous “Khan! KHAN!” line renown in Trekker circles. Later in the film, Spock will give his life to spare the Enterprise and everyone aboard.

In Star Trek (2009), Nero has Kirk at his mercy when he is informed that Spock has risked his life to destroy the laser drill he will use to destroy Earth. Within the broader context of the film, Nero’s entire agenda is to make Spock pay for failing to protect Romulus from destruction, and thus wants to destroy Vulcan (which he succeeds in doing) and Earth (which he fails to do). Nero is principally foiled in destroying Earth by Spock, and so he returns an echo of Kirk’s line by shouting “Spock! SPOCK!”

By drawing these contexts into consideration, we can see the connection even more clearly. Khan and Nero both desire revenge and want to make the principle person they blame pay for perceived wrongs, Khan for Kirk marooning him, and Nero for Spock failing to stop the supernova. They both attempt to do this by hurting those people that Kirk and Spock care about; Kirk’s family and the destruction of Vulcan and Earth (Spock considering himself to be “from” both worlds as a half-human, half-vulcan). In both films Spock risks his life to stop the plot, but here there is a contrast. In Wrath of Khan, Spock is killed; in Star Trek he is nearly killed, but beamed out of the ship in the nick of time as it rams into Nero’s ship with the antimatter. This is a typological inversion, which forms a mini-resurrection for Spock within the contrast.

With this parallel pairing between the events, it becomes even more likely that the connection between lines presents a real allusion. An intertextual comparison must move in both directions, informing the meaning of both events. It cannot simply be restrained to the specific moment or event, but spread into deeper parallels in both contexts. It must, in short, enhance the meaning of both events. Given all this, we can say with confidence, though never with absolute certainty, that there is an allusion between Wrath of Khan and Star Trek (2009) in this respect.

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