Over the years, many things have been said about the Star Trek films of the Kelvin Timeline. Debates still rage on over whether they are “true” Star Trek stories or just popcorn flick fun. However, one of the things I rarely ever see addressed in any discussion of the Kelvin films is the core theme of trauma and recovery, specifically “collective trauma”.
In fact, the stories of trauma are so pervasive and ingrained across its three film instalments, I am often perplexed that such a fundamental part of these films are overlooked. And in the times that we are all currently living in with everything that has been happening, I think it’s now more important than ever to discuss how the Kelvin Timeline films teach us about how to recover from collective trauma through compassion, unity, and love.
What is Collective Trauma?
Collective Trauma refers to the impact or effect of a traumatic experience involving entire groups of people, communities, and societies. This type of trauma doesn’t just bring distress and negative consequences to individuals but can also change a society’s culture, governmental policies, and mass actions.
Throughout human history, there have been numerous cases of collective trauma. But the events of September 11, 2001, clearly reverberate through the core of the Kelvin Timeline films. And perhaps that is not a surprising one. After all, the main production team behind the new films like JJ Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman were in their late 20s and early 30s when the attacks took place. They would have been at an age to be able to recognize and process the trauma of the events and felt the effects of the fallout in the years to come when the US became embroiled in wars and systemic government changes.
Just 6 years after the attacks as they start production on a new Star Trek film, the shadow of 9/11 would have still loomed over them.
Star Trek 2009: A Traumatic Beginning
The Kelvin Timeline is a world born out of trauma. The film even begins with the attack on the U.S.S. Kelvin, resulting in a dramatic split between this timeline and the Prime Timeline of previous Star Trek stories. And our protagonist, James T. Kirk, is born amid this collective trauma, a survivor of something he doesn’t remember yet still has irrevocably changed his life with the death of his father. In fact, the attack on the Kelvin changed more than just Kirk’s life, it affected how Starfleet would operate. Captain Pike speaks to Starfleet losing that instinct to leap without looking and we see the Enterprise much larger in size than her Prime counterpart. These are all legacies of the Narada’s attack on the Kelvin, leading the Federation to grow weary of the world around them and trying to bulk up its ships to compensate for enemies with much larger ships and weapons than they had before. Even before the destruction of Vulcan, we see a galaxy that is already reacting to collective trauma, trying to protect itself in the same ways that we have seen reflected in our real world.
And it isn’t only the destruction of Vulcan later that changes the status of the galaxy with the massive loss of Vulcan lives, nearly an entire graduating class of young Starfleet cadets are wiped out during the battle at Vulcan too. Millions of futures that could play big parts in the Federation are gone, their potentials unrealized. And left behind to deal with that reality are what amounts of a group of “children”, the survivors of a generation now forced to face the trials of combat that they are not entirely prepared for. Numerous times throughout the movie, the command of the bridge is handed to Chekov, a 17-year-old young Ensign. And while Chekov is smart and capable, it doesn’t change the fact that this is a child thrust into the theatre of war, something that should not be Starfleet’s prerogative. When you look at this, it is hard to not see a reflection of the reality that the bulk of wars fought post 9/11 had been by young people believing in the rhetoric of defending their homeland.
But how does all of this address the themes of trauma and recovery, you may ask? To look at that, we must examine the three tales of trauma that this film explores, as it is through the individual stories, we see the message that the film is trying to tell us on a grander scale.
Nero’s backstory is one of a negative response to trauma after facing the destruction of his home planet Romulus and the death of his wife and child. His single-minded determination for revenge not only pulled him away from his timeline but in many ways doomed himself and his crew. He walks the path of the cycle of violence that leads to no catharsis, as nothing he does to Spock would bring back his home or his wife and child. And as he dictatorially controls everything on his ship, giving commands instead of listening to the people around him, he removes from himself the chance for empathy and connection. His inability to imagine a future, to build a new narrative and identity to manage the trauma, leads to his eventual downfall. Even as he is defeated, he refuses to accept the help offered, he refuses to rehabilitate his present by reconciling with his past. Responding to trauma isn’t just about restoring one’s self to the way it was before because healing demands for there to be a complete sense of reinvention. Something that Nero adamantly refuses to do.
Kirk and Spock, however, represent the other side of the coin. Both start their respective stories alone, standing apart. Their trauma pushing them away from letting others in. Kirk was a brash arrogant lone wolf. Spock was refusing to recognize his own emotions. Yet through a strong support system, they are repeatedly inundated with empathy and compassion. Pike not giving up on Kirk. McCoy not leaving Kirk behind. Uhura being there for Spock to lean on. Sarek admitting the truth of his love for Amanda. And Prime Spock sharing the mind-meld with Kirk. We see how empathy and compassion break through the darkness of trauma. We see how the crew standing together as a team gave them ideas that they never could stand alone. We see the values and ideals of the Federation play out in clear and effective ways as our heroes are time and time again saved through their abilities to connect with others and work together. Whereas Nero refused to reconcile with the past, Kirk and Spock both did. They didn’t simply restore themselves to who they were before, they reinvented their identities, they built a new future and new narrative for themselves to operate in.
Even as Nero accepts his fate in his final moments, he still did not recognize how his anger and desire for retribution doomed himself and his people. But as Spock and Kirk stood on that bridge together, we see a crew bonded through blood and fire, building a relationship that will define all of them.
However, while the characters themselves have learned the importance of empathy and unity as a response to trauma, Kirk being given the Captaincy as just a barely graduated cadet with only battle experience speaks to what is the beginning for the Federation and Starfleet’s slide into militarization. An ominous sign of things to come.
Star Trek Into Darkness: How Trauma Compromises Our Values
While Star Trek 2009 showed us more individual responses to collective trauma, this second film tackles the question of how we respond to a world and an institution still marked by that trauma, especially when the morality of our leaders start to waver from stated ideals.
Once again, we see villains motivated by trauma. Admiral Marcus would not have found Khan if Starfleet hadn’t responded to the destruction of Vulcan by aggressively searching distant quadrants of space. Khan wouldn’t have attacked if he hadn’t thought Marcus killed his crew. Pike’s death becomes the collateral damage between two men’s angry responses to traumatic events and is later used by Marcus to manipulate and exploit Kirk. Khan himself even exploits the health of a Starfleet officer’s daughter to attack a Starfleet data archive. People’s trauma becomes a weapon to be wielded by an institution that allowed compromises of values to satisfy a desire a safety. A mirror to our real world where we were told our safety justified a war, justified persecution of innocent minorities, and justified vast changes to government policies.
We even see Kirk falling into the rhetoric of safety over values as he struggles to maintain a grip on what kind of person he should be and what kind of Starfleet officer he should be. The things he had learned from the previous film about unity and empathy are clouded by grief at the loss of Pike. He dangerously skids the lines of dictatorship that we saw in Nero, that we see in Marcus and Khan. We see him clashing with his crew, who try to remind him of his morality. Scotty flat out refuses to sign for the torpedoes, pointing out how Starfleet confiscated his transwarp equation to only end up being used by a murderer and how they are explorers, not soldiers. Spock consistently tries to inform Kirk about the regulations and values that Starfleet deems to uphold.
It is because of the morality of the people around him who can speak sense through his trauma, that Kirk doesn’t simply do what Marcus asked of him and just fire the torpedoes and inevitably start a war. And it is because of Kirk’s capacity to listen, to reconcile with the past and build a new narrative, that he isn’t lost to trauma the way Marcus and Khan are. They are two men stuck in the past, but Kirk isn’t. He uses that past to remind and teach himself of who and what he can be, reconciling with it to find new identity and meaning.
Anger and fear can be blinding, we start to think the ends justify the means. Marcus sees an inevitable war. Fears that their way of life will be decimated. Yet because he doesn’t reconcile with his past to build a new narrative, he cannot imagine a future where war would not be inevitable. And because he’s decided war is inevitable, he is destroying the Federation’s way of life without even recognizing it. Khan’s anger and arrogance refuse to allow him to accept change and reinvention, much like Nero before him, Khan’s decided he knows best and that’s it. Both Marcus and Khan are two men who resolutely think they are right, mired in their respective solo agenda, and never exercising empathy and connection with others.
When our institutions fail, when our leaders fail, we must all stand up and say no. We must hold to our moral fortitude and help others keep theirs when they stumble. After all, even real-life soldiers must disobey unlawful orders. Kirk would not succeed if he did not listen to his people if he didn’t have empathy, trust, openness, and awareness that morality still has to matter. In fact, Kirk would not even be alive if the people around him hadn’t all worked together to ensure his survival because of that love and trust. We are not an island; unity is our strength. Our heroes win the day not because they were busy getting revenge, but because saving lives and holding onto their values are more important.
Yes, there will always be those who wish to do us harm, who causes trauma and makes us question our values. And to stop them, we risk awakening that same darkness and evil within ourselves. Our first instinct is to seek revenge when the people we love are taken from us but that’s not who are. Star Trek tells us of a future where our morality and our ideals matter, where we live up to the best of who we are. And this film shows that in our darkest times, it’s when we must hold onto our ideals most of all and remember who we are.
Star Trek Beyond: Recovering Who We Are
Recovering from trauma is not a linear line. Sometimes in the normalcy and mundaneness of our everyday lives, a blast from the past can come out of nowhere and make us unsteady again and question ourselves. One cannot run from trauma, in order to move on, we must confront it and work through it to reaffirm our recovery and our future.
But the villain of this story, Krall or Balthazar Edison, is very much a man living in the past, refusing to move on. Instead of learning to confront his past so that he could face a new future, he has decided to make the future fit his past. He cannot let go the feelings of abandonment, he cannot let go of the trauma of war and having to break bread with the enemy, and most of all, he sees the Federation’s unity with others as a lie and a weakness. And through him, this film tells a grander story of how a society can face the traumatic events of its past. To not ignore who we were, but to acknowledge how we have changed to make the world better.
Kirk and Spock also face their own pasts. Kirk, now a year older than his own father, wondering what it means to be Jim Kirk instead of his father. He even thinks that perhaps space is not where he belongs, but rather behind a desk. Spock is once again torn between his Vulcan side and his Human side, made more conflicted by the passing of Old Prime Spock. This leads him to even break off his relationship with Uhura. Yet unlike Krall, both Kirk and Spock do confront their past, and through compassion and unity, they find a way to move on. Kirk faces off with Krall, a man who also feels lost and without a sense of purpose, and through that confrontation, Kirk comes to realize his purpose, reaffirming his faith in the Federation, Starfleet, and his crew. Spock is reminded of how unity with others instead of him standing alone is what brings him fulfillment. And in a somber moment as he sees the picture of the Enterprise crew from another timeline’s future, he sees where that unity and love can lead him to build a new future with the crew and Uhura in his timeline.
Because of the way trauma can destroy a person’s relationship with time, causing an inability to imagine a future, it’s imperative that empathy, support, and care exist in a person’s environment. Collective Trauma must be recognized, our experiences validated and honoured. Grieving for that trauma takes time, organization, and vision in understanding how to respect the process of grieving and how to foster a sense of hope so that a community or a person can rebuild. And in this film, empathy is everywhere. Krall calls unity a weakness, yet the crew of the Enterprise shows time and time again that unity, empathy, and compassion are what makes them strong. Jaylah helps the crew because Scotty and the others extend their empathy and understanding towards her. When she’s afraid and withdrawn, they listen to her, and they make sure to let her know that she is a part of something bigger and that they won’t give up on her. Spock’s love and affection for Uhura, represented in a necklace that he gives her, ends up helping to find the location of the rest of the captured crew. And the crew’s refusal to give up on each other and their willingness to sacrifice themselves to protect each other’s lives all inch them ever closer to escape and saving Yorktown, the physical manifestation of that unity.
Krall says peace is not what he was born into. He lets his past define him and his crew, refusing to extend empathy and instead holding onto anger and violence. But James T. Kirk, a man born amidst trauma and violence, looks at his past and realizes the way to reinvent his future. Peace is not what he was born into either, but he was also born while his father saved lives, including his own, and that is the value he must carry forward.
This film asks us to look at our past trauma and confront it, to grow and change because we must, or else we will spend the rest of our lives fighting the same battles.
The Lessons We Must Continue To Learn
Some may say to forever let our stories live under the shadow of the trauma of 9/11 is tired and overdone. Yet when our real-life still have not let go of the past, when we still have not learned those lessons, then it’s important for our stories to continue to teach us how to move forward and recover who we really are.
The foundations laid in the Kelvin Timeline films are still felt in today’s modern Star Trek shows. We see it in Paul Stamets, defiant and angry that his spore drive research for exploration was co-opted for war. We see it in Michael Burnham and her crew, steadfastly holding Starfleet to its morality. We see it in Captain Christopher Pike calling out that giving up our values in the name of security is to lose the battle in advance. We see it in Jean-Luc Picard wisely reminding us that secrecy, fear, and anger is nothing against openness, compassion, empathy, and the spirit of curiosity.
The Kelvin Timeline films do not presume that trauma and violence will never reach us. Instead, they show us how unity, love, compassion, and empathy are important in the face of that traumatic violence. The world may get dark, but we can reach the light at the end of the tunnel when we hold onto our higher ideals and to each other. And with everything that is still going on in the world today, that is a valuable lesson for Star Trek to continue to teach us.