A Star Trek “ring theory”

In recent weeks, I have become increasingly fascinated by Star Wars prequel contrarianism — the growing body of literature arguing that, far from being the boring disasters most believe them to be, the prequels are well-wrought pieces of art. Truly the pinnacle of the genre is the ring theory developed in exquisite, exhausting detail by Mike Klimo.

This theory argues that the two trilogies are structured through an elaborate series of visual and thematic call-backs that establish overlapping layers of connection. The overarching structure is one of a chiasmus, so that Episode 1 corresponds to 6, 2 to 5, and 3 to 4 — tracing a path from Anakin’s initial innocence to his fall from grace and then back to his redemption at the end of the original trilogy. Each of the two trilogies also have their own “ring” structure, where the third entry recapitulates themes from its two predecessors, and this produces an additional layer of correspondence whereby 1 correponds to 4, 2 to 5, and 3 to 6. (There’s also a lot of Campbell and Jung mixed in there, together with some Eastern spirituality, but I’ll leave all that aside for the purposes of this post.)

After I read through the ring theory over my morning coffee, my mind began churning as to whether a similar reading of the Star Trek films was possible. This may initially seem implausible, since the Star Trek films were the work of many different hands — and if there is a “trilogy” it’s surely 2-4 (Wrath of Khan, Search for Spock, and Voyage Home), which throws off the scheme. Nevertheless, I believe it is possible to detect a broad “ring” structure among the 6 original cast films with two internal trilogies. What’s more, I detect an attempt to open out a new cycle in the first three TNG films, though the second trilogy is cut short.

It is this bold theory that I propose to share with you in this ground-breaking post. (And as the sarcastic tone of my proceeding sentence illustrates, I’m not exactly sure how seriously I take this theory.) To begin, though, let’s review the sequence of original cast (TOS) and Next Generation (TNG) films:

TOS1: The Motion Picture
TOS2: Wrath of Khan
TOS3: The Search for Spock
TOS4: The Voyage Home
TOS5: The Final Frontier
TOS6: The Undiscovered Country
TNG1: Generations
TNG2: First Contact
TNG3: Insurrection
TNG4: Nemesis

The three “trilogies” in this sequence are TOS1-3 (not 2-4), TOS4-6, and TNG1-3, with TNG4 as an outlier. Within the TOS sequence, we would expect a fundamental correspondence to exist between 1 and 6, 2 and 5, and 3 and 4, with the dynamics within each trilogy producing a supplemental correspondence between 1 and 4, 2 and 5, and 3 and 6. Without the benefit of detailed screencaps or depth psychology, I propose to indicate that such correspondences do indeed exist.

To begin, though, I think it’s helpful to lay out the overall dynamic I see within the 6-film sequence. It is not fundamentally the story of one man (Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader), but two: Kirk and Spock. Kirk’s arc initially finds him given an unexpected chance to return to the captain’s chair after he ill-advisedly accepted a promotion to admiral. Gradually he is able to regain his place as captain, which paves the way for him to gracefully accept his retirement by the end of the sequence. Spock’s trajectory opens with him coming out of ascetic isolation on Vulcan to rejoin Kirk. He grows more and more conscious of the importance of friendship over cold utilitarian logic, ending his trajectory with a bold attempt to bring about friendship between the Federation and its old enemies, the Klingons.

There is a chiasmus between the two trajectory, as Spock comes out of a premature retirement and ultimately winds up taking on Federation-wide responsibilities as ambassador, while Kirk gradually sheds his premature Federation-wide responsibilities as admiral and accepts retirement. The two dynamics combined also serve as a reflection on the franchise, which initially needs to prove its continued viability and then must make peace with the fact that Star Trek is no longer just the original crew and can expand to include a new generation of heroes.

I’ll start in the middle of each trilogy (2 and 5), because I believe the correspondences are clearer there. Both Wrath of Khan and Final Frontier are about unexpected visitors from the past, for Kirk and Spock, respectively. In WK, Kirk must face the consequences of his short-sighted decision to maroon Khan and is also brought face-to-face with the consequences of his casual approach to relationships, in the form of an unexpected son. In FF, the figures of Khan and Kirk’s son are condensed into one as Spock encounters an unexpected (at least from the fans’ perspective) relative in Sybok, who displays a similar magnetism and obsessiveness to Khan. Khan and Sybok wind up bringing Kirk and Spock into contact with something primal — the Genesis planet in WK and the supposed “God” of FF, which obviously have opposing moral valuations. The moral reversal is echoed in the chiasmus between Khan (who initially fools Kirk by hijacking a Starfleet ship before revealing himself as the villain he is) and Sybok (who initially appears to be a Khan-like villain but is ultimately revealed to be well-intentioned). To defeat the obsessive antagonist, both heroes must suffer loss (Kirk losing Spock, Spock losing his brother), and that loss leads to growth and self-revelation (Kirk “feels young” after finally confronting death and Spock realizes that the Enterprise crew is his truest family). Obviously WK is much better done than FF, but the parallels are there (and it’s plausible that Shatner would ape the most successful film when given the chance to take the helm).

Next let’s move inward, to Search for Spock and Voyage Home (3 and 4). Both involve a resurrection that makes up for the consequences of a previous mistake but leads to its own loss in turn. In SS, Spock is resurrected after Kirk’s recklessness with Khan led to his death, but getting him back leads to the loss of both the Enterprise and Kirk’s son. In VH, the same dynamic is repeated in a more optimistic key: Kirk is able to retrive humanity’s collective mistake by bringing the whales back and get the Enterprise back, but he has to suffer demotion back to captain — so two resurrections and one “loss,” vs. one resurrection and two very real losses. This shift to a more optimistic key corresponds to a shift from the purely personal (hijacking the Enterprise to save a friend) to a broader perspective (taking charge of the situation to save the planet).

Now to the outer rim, which is probably the hardest to render convincingly. The Motion Picture opens with a disaster that affects the Klingons marginally (blowing up one ship) while threatening to destroy Earth (the V’ger probe). Similarly, The Undiscovered Country is premised on a disaster that threatens to destroy the Klingon homeworld — and the attempt to thwart peace negotiations very nearly ends in the destruction of the Enterprise, or at least Kirk’s career and reputation. Spock gains crucial information through mind-melds in both (the only mind-melds in the films). The apparently fraught relationship between Spock and his female protégé also recalls the bond between Decker and Ilia. Yet the lack of any parallel to Decker’s union with Decker highlights the fact that the stakes are very different — less grandiose and workaday on the one hand, but less individualistic and more socially-minded on the other. In TMP, Spock threatens to become distracted by V’ger’s “fascinating” knowledge, while in UC we are meant to understand that he would never undertake this mind-meld (which comes across almost as a rape and which I have always considered an unforgivable plot point) if not for his need for urgently actionable information. And of course there is the most poignant bookend between the two films: Kirk being brought in for “one last mission” after “retiring” from the captain’s chair to become admiral, then going on “one last journey” before accepting his retirement.

Now that we have the chiasmic structure in place, I will briefly sketch the other expected structures. The conclusion of the first trilogy (Search for Spock) obviously recapitulates many themes from Wrath of Khan (the Genesis planet, Kirk’s son, Spock’s relationship with Saavik) and is also villain-driven like Khan, but it also brings in the motif of “getting the gang back together” and the sense of cosmic awe from The Motion Picture. Undiscovered Country repeats The Voyage Home‘s gesture of trying out an unexpected new genre (the romantic comedy for VH and murder mystery for UD) and the theme of environmental disaster (for Klingons in UD) as well as the elements of moral ambiguity and finding oneself in the squalid corners of space from Final Frontier (the Planet of Galactic Peace and Rura Penthe). So both trilogies have the recapitulatory structure internally.

In terms of the parallel structure between the two sequences (1 to 4, 2 to 5, 3 to 6), we see the planet-destroying threat in 1 and 4, the unexpected villain from the past in 2 and 5, and the conflict between Kirk and Klingons in 3 and 6 (with Kirk standing trial for his “crimes” from 3 in 6). I’m sure we could do more here, but I’ve already written so much.

Okay, so now let’s do the TNG films. If Generations is reopening the cycle, we’d expect it to pull from both The Motion Picture and The Undiscovered Country. In a weird way, it’s an inversion of both. There’s conflict with Klingons (the Duras sisters), but it’s a purely personal conflict between those individuals and the Enterprise crew — the Federation is still at peace with the Klingons globally, and in fact the 24th-century portion of the film opens with the promotion of Worf, who is the clearest symbol of that peace. A weapon threatens to destroy a planet, but it’s a primitive planet that will be “collateral damage” in Soran’s plot. There’s a cosmic phenomenon parallel to V’ger (the Nexus), and Kirk comes out of retirement twice (once to take charge on the Enterprise-B and then when Picard pulls him out of the Nexus) — so he gets the thrill of “one last mission” as in TMP but, in a parallel to UD, must accept the ultimate retirement: death.

Picard and Data take up the trajectories of Kirk and Spock, respectively, but they are inverted. We can see this reversal clearly if we compare Generations to TMP. Where Kirk is depressed that he has given up the captain’s chair, Picard is shattered to learn that he can never retire because he has nothing to retire to — his family’s vineyard has burned down, killing all his living relatives — and meanwhile there seems to be no prospect of a promotion to admiral on the horizon. Meanwhile, in contrast to Spock’s attempt to extinguish all emotion, Data has finally been granted the opportunity to experience emotion (with his emotion chip) and is humiliated when he is overwhelmed by fear and allows his best friend to be kidnapped.

The reversal continues in First Contact, when Picard must confront not a mistake he made, but an experience of being victimized (his assimilation by the Borg) — and furthering this inversion, it is he who becomes the Captain Ahab figure parallel to Khan. Khan seeks his personal vengeance against Kirk by seizing the Genesis project, whereas the Borg seek their collective vengeance against humanity by striking at the moment they became a space-faring civilization (the eponymous First Contact, with the Vulcans). At the same time, Data does not face the necessity to logically sacrifice himself, parallel with Spock, but rather the temptation of betraying his friends for the sake of becoming a fleshly human — though after a split-second of hesitation, he does sacrifice his individual good for the good of the many. Meanwhile, the subplot about building the warp engine could be seen as parallel to WK’s subplot about work on the Genesis project.

Finally, in Insurrection, the Enterprise must go to an uncannily life-producing planet (parallel to the Genesis planet) to rescue a damaged Data — and once there, our heroes must defy Starfleet’s orders, not to rescue a friend, but to save another (only apparently) primitive non-Federation society. Like The Search for Spock, they must face a villain intent on taking control of the wondrous planet, this time for its life-producing powers rather than its destructive potential (another reversal). And Data, like Spock, experiences childhood, though in a different way and with a very different valence. And these parallels to The Search for Spock include a recapitulation of its predecessors’ themes: from Generations, the willingness to make great sacrifices to save a previously unknown race, Picard’s desire for family and connection, and Data’s exploration of emotion; from First Contact the villain-driven plot.

So the initial TNG trilogy can be read as a recapitulation of the first TOS trilogy, albeit in a more public-spirited key and with an inverted trajectory for its two primary characters (Picard and Data). Unfortunately for our theory, though perhaps not for film audiences, TNG did not get a chance to complete its own cycle. As the spin-off era franchise lost steam, they were only able to squeeze out one last TNG film, Nemesis. This initially seems to break the pattern, insofar as Nemesis is most obviously an attempted echo of Wrath of Khan. Yet I think it is possible to read it as an effort to cram the whole second trilogy into one film — and though I find Nemesis very unsatisfying as a conclusion to the TNG arc, it does make a certain sense thematically.

The TNG trilogy is ultimately more optimistic than the rather somber and dark initial TOS trilogy, and as I’ve noted, it’s also more public-spirited as opposed to the more purely personal focus of the first TOS trilogy. Hence it logically follows that Nemesis is both darker and more focused on the personal as both main characters find themselves confronted with a quite literal clone — the “Fountain of Youth” theme from Insurrection moved into a much creepier key. In Shinzon, the Picard clone, we get an echo of Khan (the villain obsessed with our captain), but as in First Contact, the cause isn’t any mistake Picard made but a form of victimization: being cloned against his will. And in a parallel to Sybok, the villain has captured and used Data’s unsuspected brother (B4). The diplomacy theme returns from Undiscovered Country, but it’s all a cover for Shinzon’s personal obsession with Picard.

Finally, parallel to Kirk’s acceptance of retirement and bookending with Generations‘ twist on that theme, Picard must face the loss of one of his most valued crewmembers when Data sacrifices himself. Everything is set up to evoke a Search for Data follow-up, insofar as B4 has been implanted with all of Data’s memories, but we know that resurrection will never come — the TNG movie franchise is over.

From this perspective, the abortive TNG cycle provides its own commentary on the state of the franchise. Where the TOS trilogy started out tentative and depended initially on the viewer’s attachment to particular characters, the TNG cycle starts by confidently asserting its supercession of the TOS era, resurrecting Kirk only to kill him. Just as Khan revived the franchise, so too does First Contact provide the inspiration for the remainder of Voyager (the introduction of Seven of Nine) and for the prequel series Enterprise. But where Search for Spock centered on the quest to revive a character fans cared passionately about, Insurrection was just… more Star Trek for Star Trek’s sake. And Nemesis leaves us with a story that is cut short but at the same time clearly coasting toward its end — a mournful finale as the most successful Star Trek crew watches the era it ushered in die with a whimper.

So that’s my theory. I leave the reboot films as an exercise for the reader.

8 Responses to “A Star Trek “ring theory””

  1. Hill Says:

    You are truly insane. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It was a fitting waste of time for my last day off before the semester starts.

  3. Daniel Says:

    Humpbacks, not sperm whales.

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Corrected. I regret the error.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’m not sure what you mean. The original Star Wars Ring Theory is based in part on Campbell, whom I mention in my post as well.

  6. Adam Roberts Says:

    This is a great post, obviously. The thing that strikes me in the comparison between ‘Star Wars’ ring-theory narratology and ‘Star Trek’ ring theory (although you’re not really making that comparison here) is the way the latter show incorporates a recurring death-and-rebirth thematic. The big example of this in the movies is Spock, of course; although Kirk also dies and is brought back to life and there are examples in the TV show (Chekov is shot dead in the ‘Spectre of a Gun’ episode, for instance, but comes back to life). Less literal-mindedly, storylines in Trek very often ‘articulate’ rebirth, or characters getting back to where they once belonged — Kirk should never have accepted his promotion and so on, and has to be reborn as the Captain he was always meant to be; or in a more meta way, the way the show is constantly rebooting and resetting itself, from TOS to TNG to all the other franchises and now to Abrams and new TV shows. We might want to put this down to the exigencies of serial drama, where a big dramatic climax like a character dying has to be rowed-back because the show has to air another episode the following week; or we might want to read more depth into it — for me, I’d see a structural quasi-Christian fascination in this ‘I live, I die, I live again’ business. My point is that I don’t think there’s a similar rebirth trope in Star Wars: a few Jedi come back as ghosts, but that’s not the same thing. (The big Star Trek counter-example is Tasha Yar from TNG, I suppose). Anyway, if we posit Trek as being in some core way ‘about’ death-and-rebirth, then a ‘ring’ narrative structure becomes exactly what we’d expect.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This is an interesting theory. It also works on the grand scale of the Star Trek mythos, where we learn that humanity had to bring itself to near-extinction before it could become the utopian space-faring civilization we all love.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Another note: I was planning to entitle this post “I feel young,” but didn’t feel like I could articulate why. Adam Roberts’ post helps me see why that struck me as a good title.


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