If you haven’t seen Star Trek: Generations, this post is not for you. If you have, you know these words from Captain Kirk: “Oh, my…” Though it appears some people responded positively to the scene, most Star Trek fans are still smacking their heads in bewilderment, wondering why this line exists. Public opinion skews so much in this direction that, speaking at the Paley Center for Media in 2004, the Shat himself felt compelled to offer an impassioned defense of the improvised moment. In so doing, he hit on the underlying spiritual nature of Star Trek‘s quest.
He didn’t remember the line correctly (“Oh, yeah?”), but you can see something of what he means in the film. For the record, here’s the moment in question from Star Trek: Generations.
Maybe if the line had been “Oh, yeah,” that “mixture of awe and wonderment” Shatner was looking for would have come across better. Whatever the case, what we’re seeing here is one of the closest things to a spiritual moment – or, more precisely a truly supernatural moment – in the history of Star Trek. “What happens,” Shatner asks, “on that marginal area before you lose consciousness, before you die? What are you thinking? Are you afraid? Are you resigned? Are you conscious? And is the mystery of life and death revealed?”
In his description of his process as an actor approaching this scene, Shatner illuminates something essential about the Star Trek universe: One of its driving forces is curiosity. The quest of Star Trek is about the mysteries of our existence. For all the seeming scientific certainty at the basis of its worldview, the Enterprise crew and those of her sister ships and space stations are constantly encountering things they do not understand and cannot explain.
In the Original Series, these things were often never explained in the slightest. Aliens had incredible powers with no basis in even wildly theoretical physics. Next Generation continued this trend with the character Q. These constant encounters with unexplained phenomena hint at a larger quest for the unknown that moves through the whole of the Trek universe. The men and women of Starfleet are constantly drawn by curiosity. They seem compelled by the desire for an encounter with the unknown expressed by Captain Picard in the closing line of the Next Generation episode “Encounter at Farpoint,” “Let’s see what’s out there.” Ultimately, curiosity is the primary engine that drives the quest in Star Trek.
It is perhaps no wonder, then, that Shatner would see the death of Kirk as a moment when, at least for the character, the quest comes to a cosmic conclusion. Throughout his time as Captain, Kirk – like all Star Trek Captains – served as humanity’s primary representative. So the end of his quest is, in that sense, symbolic of the end of the human quest. Shatner was very right, then, to conclude that the death of Kirk must necessarily include a reference to the ultimate revelation of knowledge that is the ultimate fulfillment of the human quest.
For all Star Trek‘s anti-religious foundations, its unwavering optimism about the destiny of humanity ultimately demands that the human journey resolve in understanding and fulfillment. As the journey of the individual in Star Trek (and in particular the journey of the Captain) is inexorably intertwined with and symbolic of the journey of the human community, the individual human quest must necessarily have the same end as the collective one.
The idea of the mysteries of life and death being revealed when one dies is a Biblical concept. “For now we see in a mirror indirectly,” Paul writes in I Corinthians 13:12, “but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known.” (NET) At the same time, though, the desire to know and understand the mysteries of our own existence is universal. It is this universal curiosity and hope upon which Star Trek is based and which the Gospel directly addresses.
In Shatner’s words in the Paley Center clip above, it becomes immediately clear that the questions at the core of Star Trek, while they are thoroughly human, cannot help but also be ultimately cosmic. “Where is the soul?” Shatner asks, among other things, echoing questions about Lt. Commander Data’s soul in the TNG episode, “The Measure of a Man.” Ultimately, for all its staunch opposition to religion and to the supernatural, Star Trek continually reaffirms (as it must, for its humanistic philosophy to remain hopeful) that there is a greater dimension to human existence than our mere DNA.
The very fact that a concept so plainly supernatural can exist in the undercurrents of a fictional world that supposedly dispels supernatural ideas simply reinforces the fact that these truths, these issues of the human condition are inescapable. We must hope that while we are, as Shatner puts it, “plagued” by these questions, we will ultimately know fully, even as we are fully known. We will ultimately be brought to completion and the fullness of understanding, struck by “awe and wonderment” and perhaps able to utter little more than, “Oh, my…”