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The Vulcan with a Thousand Faces: Joseph Campbell and the New Star Trek

Mr. Spock

Just returned from watching the new Star Trek, and I can only echo the awe and wonder at experiencing such a technically miraculous script come to life under such able direction. I haven’t read any reviews as of this moment, but I hope people are giving it credit for pioneering the idea of a series reboot that keeps the series in the same universe. (Sheer brilliance.)

As a screenwriter dwarfed by the talents of these two, I can only be thankful and humbled. But one thing I did notice from all my studies is the unequivocal role Joseph Campbell had in building the foundation for this movie. Of course, who else can you trust but Campbell when (re)inventing a mythology for a generation? Apparently they agreed- I haven’t seen any movie wed to Campbell’s structure like this since… well, a quick explanation first.

The monomyth, often referred to as the Hero’s Journey, refers to a pattern found in narratives throughout the world, throughout history. At its core it’s comprised of seventeen stages heroes in stories pass through on their epic journeys. (For a quick explanation, hit the wikipedia article here.) The movie that took Campbell’s theory out of classrooms and into the arms of every aspiring screenwriter was Star Wars, and since then we’ve seen it rear its gorgeous head in The Matrix, Donnie Darko, and dozens of epic movies and books. (And MILLIONS of film school movies worldwide.)

But none since Star Wars seems to have embraced Campbell so fully as the new Star Trek. Here’s a quick outline of how faithful the writers were to the monomyth- and, I would argue, why the movie succeeded so brilliantly. [One note- Campbell says that no myth sticks to all the events, and they are rarely in perfect sequence. Though this comes close.]

The Monomyth: Star Trek 2.0 Edition


The Call to Adventure: Kirk is loudly and obviously called to adventure by Pike…

The Refusal of the Call: …and just as loudly refuses… just like Luke, just like Neo.

Supernatural Aid (Guide Figure): Ben Kenobi- er, Pike, aids him throughout the adventure, starting early. Just like Star Wars, Kirk refuses the call given by the Guide Figure.

Crossing of the First Threshhold: I’d argue this is Kirk leaving Earth for Starfleet, and literally leaving his world.

Meets Threshold Guardian: Take your pick on this one- I’d argue that in this case the Threshold is getting onto the Enterprise and the guardian is all of Starfleet indirectly, Spock directly. But there are plenty of options.

Hero Finds Companions: The Enterprise crew, all young and lovely, are introduced more or less at once.

The Road of Trials: Nero being the burr under Tiberuis’ saddle, paves the road.

The Belly of the Whale: This one is visually obvious – Kirk, in that tiny ship jettisoned into the hole on the ice planet of, er… Hoth 2? And then once more in the ‘belly’ of Senior Spock’s cave. Doesn’t get much more bellyish than that…

Meeting with the Goddess: Yes, Leonard Nimoy is in this case The Goddess.

Atonement with the Father: This (like many other events) happens to both Kirk and Spock throughout the movie- though they both have specific moments when they atone with their respective dads.

Apotheosis: Senior Spock reveals Kirk’s destiny, and grants his expansion of consciousness.

Ultimate Boon: What could be more ultimate than command of The Enterprise? Or the knowledge that he has an epic destiny ahead of him?

Refusal of the Return: Again, I think the screenwriters played Kirk/Spock as two sides of the same character- here Spock refuses, Kirk accepts.

The Magic Flight: And away the Enterprise boldy goes…

Master of Two Worlds: Kirk, now a Captain, at a coronation ceremony reminiscent of another sci-fi epic…

And there you have it. I tip my hat to Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman- you built this marvel on the most solid foundation out there. Especially for epic movies. Huzzah.

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