Only an Allusion?: Star Trek Into Darkness and the Death of Literary Literacy

I don’t get to see that many movies in the theater, although I do serve as our Hogwarts Film-Fancier in Chief. Now that we’re done with new Harry Potters and Twilight films (at least until the inevitable re-boots), I’m patiently waiting for Catching Fire this fall, but I did recently get to catch Star Trek into Darkness. I am an unabashed Star Trek fancier as well, having really enjoyed writing “Shakespeare (and the Rest of the Great Books) in the Original Klingon” for the newly released Star Trek and History. Though I enjoyed the film very much, I noticed that it was loaded with plenty of wonderful allusions to other pieces of the Star Trek universe, but somewhere along the way, had lost one of the most important features of that universe: its deft use of literary allusions. So join me in the transporter room as we beam around the beautiful and complex world of literary allusions and think about why it’s so troubling that we see them less and less these days, in both books and films, or that people don’t recognize them when they see them. Energize!

Why Allusions Matter (or Anti-Matter, if you prefer)
When I was in high school English classes, I used to get in trouble for my Hermione-ish tendency to express my knowledge and options a little too strongly (shocking, I know). One of my frequent transgressions was pointing out to the class (and, let’s be honest, usually the teacher, too, who hadn’t noticed it) how a text we were reading had been alluded to in some popular culture form, such as a film or television show. My two favorites were Star Trek (there was just the one series then, and the movies) and Beauty and the Beast, both fantastic sources of literary connections. Although this habit annoyed anyone around me, it actually laid the foundation for much of the literary scholarship I do today; many of my studies focus on connections between popular texts and the sources upon which they draw in both subtle and overt ways. In addition, the allusive touch is one of the elements that sets apart the books we discuss here from the great morass of other printed stuff, so it seems quite obvious that this connectivity, or allusiveness, is, in fact, one of the main indicators of a text’s worth. A book that has no connection to its literary past is far less engaging than one that is clearly tied in to the materials lying about in what J. K. Rowling calls the “compost heap” of stuff the author has read over the years. After all, that is why good authors are usually good readers first.

It is meaningful and valuable scholarship for us to probe into the way an author like Rowling draws on Austen or Hugo (two of her favorites), for a variety of reasons. For one, seeing those connections indicates that the author is, indeed, part of a long and complex literary tradition. It is important for us to see all literature as beautifully and intricately connected, part of a complex and rich network or web. This is not just so we can smile self-importantly and say to ourselves, “Ah, I know where that came from!” Rather, it places literature in context and gives us, as readers, respect for the tradition behind what we enjoy. We can’t have Narnia without Edmund Spenser’s Faerieland, which we can’t have without Chaucer, and so on. Without a sense of literary lineage, we may be as ignorant as the woman I knew who said she wasn’t interested in The Lord of the Rings because it was a “Harry Potter rip off.” Seriously.

Allusions also deepen our experience as readers, providing, like other literary techniques such as symbolism and figurative language, a way for authors to enrich even a single word in subtle and complex ways. One of my favorites: Rowling’s use of the name “Merope” for Tom Riddle’s ill-fated mother. In addition to its lovely “mopey” sound, her name comes from the name of the adopted mother of the also ill-fated Oedipus. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the title character, like Voldemort, allows himself to be manipulated by a misunderstood prophecy, killing his father and poisoning the lives of everyone around him. So, when “Merope” shows up in Half-Blood Prince, Rowling is telling us that, like Oedipus, Riddle/Voldemort will be destroyed by a combination of bad circumstances and tragic choices that set him on a path that is both fated and chosen. Likewise, understanding that many of the Roman names in The Hunger Games trilogy come from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar can deepen a reader’s experience (and make that last arrow shot even more appropriate and poignant).

In addition, allusions help readers to become better readers of good books. Sometimes literary elements are a little like Aslan, whom we can know better in our own world if we’ve met Him in Narnia. So, having met an element in a book we love, we may understand or enjoy it better in a work of great literature. I love teaching a story like Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path,” with its protagonist Phoenix; thanks to Fawkes, most of my students know a few features of the Phoenix as a symbol of resurrection, features that help them understand and enjoy the story. By the same token, recognizing an allusion can help us appreciate the artistry of the author doing the alluding. We can better appreciate, for example, the love story of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen when we see how it is closely structured on that of Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester.

Beam me to the library! Spoiler Alerts set to Stun!

Since one of the main reasons I like Star Trek is its use of literature familiar to us in our own century, I was delighted to have the chance to explore the use of historical literature in Star Trek and History (this is part of Wiley’s Popular Culture and history series, which also includes Twilight and History and Harry Potter and History). In addition to noting that Shakespeare is more important than Einstein in the creation of this fictitious future, I really enjoyed analyzing the way in the which Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan linked up the protagonist and antagonist with particular literary texts. While in the original series episode that introduced Kahn, “Space Seed,” he quotes Milton’s Satan and the famous declaration that it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven, in the film, the bitter, revenge-fueled Khan has traded Paradise Lost for Moby Dick; Admiral James T. Kirk receives a copy of A Tale of Two Cities as a birthday gift from his friend Spock at the beginning of the film. These two great books dictate the entire arc of the film with quotations, plot elements, and the pivotal final choices of the main characters.

I hope I am not letting the Tribble out of the bag to reveal that Star Trek into Darkness is a reboot-universe version of the events in Wrath of Khan. Of course, since our reboot universe has put our characters onto some very different paths, we are not surprised to find that some elements are very different, while, at the same time, hauntingly similar, most notably the last bit of the film. Along the way, there are nice nods to the Prime Star Trek Universe, my favorite being the bar in which a just-fired Scotty in drowning his frustrations: it looks just like the bar in “The Wolf in the Fold,” an episode in which Scotty is accused of a murder actually committed by Jack the Ripper. However, Ahab and Charles Darnay/Syndey Carton are gone. While Kirk still loves his antiques, including a hi-fi system that he cranks up when he is entertaining ladies of questionable moral virtues and species, his book is gone. Unless I missed it (possible; those alien girlfriends pretty much steal the scene) I didn’t even see a book under glass (like Picard’s Shakespeare in his office) or on a shelf. Though the film is well done, entertaining, and usually satisfying, I am deeply troubled by the lack of literary allusions. While Kirk has kept his sass, swagger, and little black book, he has lost his tendency to quote literature, no longer telling Sulu to aim for the second star to the right and straight on ’til morning or asking for a tall ship and a star to steer her by. At one point in the new film, Kirk warns Dr. McCoy to lay off his habit of funny figures of speech (“You don’t rob a bank if your getaway car has a flat tire!” etc.). He says, “No more metaphors, Bones, that’s an order.” Unfortunately, it’s an order than appears to have been issued to the entire crew.

So, my question is, why? Why have filmmakers changed this particular aspect of the Star Trek story? Unfortunately, this is not the only place where allusion is being neglected. I made very brief attempt to check out the half-hearted re-boot of the Beauty and the Beast series, but it has also lost its literary joie de vivre. When literary allusions are allowed in, sometimes they are misused: I sometimes use this video of Taylor Swift performing “Love Story,” since it includes both an illusion (magic trck) and allusions, to help my students distinguish the words, but her line about The Scarlet Letter makes hardly any sense at all in the context of the song. Any time a book with allusions gets film treatment, it seems the allusions are one of the first things to go, making me wonder about the Star Squad’s 451 designation in Mockingjay or the amazing use of poetry in Ally Condie’s Matched, sure to be a feature film soon. Do popular culture creators think we as viewers and readers are too thick to get the allusions? Or is it that these media Gamemakers don’t actually read themselves? I’ve always found the re-ordering of the Chronicles of Narnia troubling because the original order mimicked Paradise Lost, and I think the new one, though vaguely suggested by Lewis to a child reader to encourage him to enjoy the books in any order than was meaningful to that individual, was done mostly because publishers didn’t “get it.” Any time I see something that shows the creators are readers, I am delighted, but that sensation is not as common as I would like.

Can’t We just Have our Popcorn without the Allusions?

Of course, there is no reason we can’t just enjoy a book or a movie without picking up on the allusions. I am not a literary snob, so I don’t mind if someone just thought Ricardo Montalban was over-the-top amazing as the original Khan without realizing that some of those great lines originated in a hunt for white whale, rather than for a starship. In fact, that’s part of the fun. Sometimes we unconsciously pick up on allusions, only to later match them up or discover the book from when they hail. In Star Trek: First Contact, Lily plays the Ahab card to shock Picard into realizing that his actions are a “whale hunt” as irrational as Ahab’s, but then, when he quotes the novel, she admits, “I’ve never read it.”

We don’t have to have read the original texts to enjoy being part of books and films rich in allusion; in fact, those little gems may be all the more delightful when we find them later: “Oh! So that is where that came from! Neat!” Part of my joy in teaching literature is those moments, including my son’s now-endless quest for the use of Beowulf-imagery in his LOTR re-read, which almost trumps his realization of the Jekyll/Hyde connection with Banner/Hulk!

Often, it is when we return to a film or other experience later on that we discover deeper treasures of allusion. In my research for my chapter in Star Trek and History, I re-watched films and episodes, catching allusions I had not noticed before, and there are probably still more I have not noticed yet, but that have caught others’ attention. While it isn’t necessary to spot the allusions, it does make the experience more meaningful: my family and I recently watched some of the old Buck Rogers serials, and we enjoyed seeing how the editing cuts, among many other things, clearly inspired George Lucas in the creation of Star Wars as well as the folks behind books like Leviathan and movies like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

It isn’t the missing of subtle allusions that bothers me (unless it causes readers and viewers to dismiss a text’s worth, as happens so often with Twilight readers who don’t “get it.”). Rather, it is the loss of such allusions in our popular entertainments. If popular culture continues its retreat from the use of literary allusions, we may be susceptible to the charms of a megalomaniac like Khan, whose only remaining obvious literary connections now come in the fact that the actor also plays Sherlock Holmes and voices Smaug the Dragon.

I am not sure how (if at all) we can campaign for the use of literary allusion to stick around, other than praising it when we see it, as we so often do here. For my part, I plan to keep pointing out allusions to my students, even if I have to use old episodes of Star Trek. My high school teachers would be so proud.


  1. I loved this post and, of course all the allusions. The original Star Trek writers were particularly fond of Shakespeare.

    Who can ever forget The Conscience of a King featuring a troop of traveling players (c. Stardate 2817) headed by mass-murderer Anton Karidian? The players get a seemingly great deal — free passage on the Enterprise in return for performing Hamlet for a (rather meager) audience of officers. I loved Karidian doing the Hamlet’s father’s ghost’s soliloquy that starts: I am thy father’s spirit/Doomed for a certain term to walk the night. And mad daughter Lenore rolling her eyes and chanting ‘The play’s the thing/wherein we’ll catch that conscience of a king’.

    Okay, some people (see ) thought it was the worst written of any of the original Star Trek episodes, but I still get a kick out of it — and out of the ‘re-purposed shag rug’ outfit Lenore wears when she boards the Enterprise.

  2. Elizabeth says

    I like that one, too, Hana (and golly, anything beats Spock’s Brain, right?)! I also love the holodeck Shakespeare in Next Generation, which allows Data to explore the Bard as a way to become more human.

  3. Steve Morrison says

    There seem to have been several Meropes in Greek mythology. In fact, I always assumed Voldemort’s mother was named for the Lost Pleiad, who (in some versions) dimmed her light in shame after her family shunned her for marrying a mortal. But the character from the Oedipus cycle works as well.

  4. What a great reflection. I agree that it is shame that literary allusions are thinner in films (and television) than they used to be, and I join you in wondering why. My immediate response is “they think audiences won’t get them,” but I think your other suggestion is at least as possible — if the people making the films aren’t readers themselves, then there is less fertile soil in the mental compost.

    I confess that I so totally enjoyed the Star Trek: Into Darkness ride that it didn’t really occur to me to think through the loss of literary allusions, especially in comparison to the earlier Khan film (though it’s been a few years since I’ve seen that). I mostly found myself happy that they were alluding so well to the original Star Trek universe. And I wonder if that could not be a small part of the issue? When a film is a re-boot of an entire fictional universe, a lot of energy must get expended to make sure that creative and imaginative “connect the dots” are happening with the original take on the story, perhaps leading to the exclusion of a third, deeper layer of connections.

    It would be interesting to see them come up with new literary allusions (even beyond Shakespeare or Moby Dick) that suited the re-booted characters as well as the original allusions suited the original characters. Shatner played Kirk with a grandiose, dramatic gravitas that seemed to work well with Shakespearean themes, but Pine brings a younger, more boyish and vulnerable take to the role (though he’s still a strong leader) that makes me wish the writers would come up with a new shelf of favorite books for the captain’s quarters. With the story set in the 23rd century, anything would be fair game. Even Harry Potter…

  5. Wonderful article, Elizabeth. Really enjoyed it.

    For me, my big awakening that allusions-are-not-illusions, and were deliberately put there for people in-the-know (like the grown-up jokes in Bugs Bunny cartoons, as I understood it then), was in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” with Wonka’s frequent poetic asides, e.g., “We are the music-makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams,” while pinching Veruca’s face over her snozberry comment.

    I was like, “Wait, those are real quotes?!”

    So, the next step was to become a person in-the-know…

    As it happens, still working on Step #2, and enjoying the journey. Thanks again for the article!

  6. Late to the post, but it occurs to me that the reason there are no more allusions in our illusions is because the writers of the original series were authors first and screenwriters second. The writers of the current series are mere screenwriters. Bad luck for us.

Speak Your Mind