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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Medical Ethics in the 23rd Century

WARNING! This post contains SPOILERS for Star Trek Into Darkness
If you haven't seen the film, don't read this post! 

In my review of Star Trek Into Darkness, I alluded to problems with the film's story logic. My friend Steve emailed me to discuss the issue further, and in the course of that discussion I realized the film had two more glaring problems.

Near the end of the film, Kirk dies in the exact same way Spock died in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. In a truly cringe-worthy moment, Spock screams "KHHHAANNNN!" and runs off to have his vengeance, beaming down to chase Khan across San Fransisco. But Doctor McCoy realizes that Khan's genetically engineered blood could be used to revive Kirk. In a bit of hit-you-over-the-head foreshadowing, earlier in the film McCoy injected Khan's blood into a dead tribble. Why? That's never clearly explained. Just as Kirk's cold corpse reaches sickbay, the formerly dead tribble, sensing a dramatic moment, begins to coo, miraculously revived. McCoy calls Spock and says "We need Khan alive! He's Kirk's only chance!"

So instead of killing Khan, Spock and Uhura knock out the bad guy, bring him back to the Enterprise and Kirk is saved.

Earlier in the film, Spock serves as Kirk's conscience, reminding the captain that it is immoral to assassinate suspects, that they must be brought to justice to stand trial. Spock's morals suddenly fly out the window when his best friend is killed, and only when he learns that Khan's blood is useful does he quell his thirst for blood...well, sort of, because he brings Khan back to the ship for a transfusion.

We don't see the medical procedure that saves Kirk. But given that Khan was unconscious when he was beamed to the Enterprise, we're left wondering if McCoy just took the blood right then and there and performed the transfusion without asking. Time was of the essence, after all, and having just tried to kill everyone on the Enterprise it seems unlikely Khan was in a giving mood. This may be why the filmmakers glossed over the actual procedure.

But consider this. Minutes ago, Spock had saved all of Khan's followers. Khan admitted earlier that Kirk seems to have a conscience, so the stage had already been set for what might have been a pretty cool scene: McCoy refuses to perform the procedure without Khan's permission. Spock orders McCoy to wake up Khan. McCoy asks for permission, Khan refuses, Spock notes that he saved all of Khan's friends and further notes that Khan must have had at least some respect for Starfleet and the Federation at some point, having worked for them for months. Khan begrudgingly agrees, saving Kirk. He's still a mass murderer, but at least this way his character gets a tiny bit more nuance and the audience isn't left wondering if their heroes only have ethics and morals when it's convenient.

Would this have messed up the film's pacing? Maybe, but the last third was such a mess that I hardly think yet another scene would have made it significantly worse. At the very least the tradeoff helps cement the point that the filmmakers tried and failed to make with this film - that good people are supposed to do the right thing even when it's hard.


susan_rn92 said...

I am just catching up on your two Star Trek entries now. From your first entry, I would like to point out that I believe Earl is viewing original Kirk through rose coloured glasses. I remember him as a womanizer (often seen putting on his boots, even if we don't see him in bed), using his fists to solve arguments and being reigned in morally by his discussions with his buddies McCoy and Spock. Many times Kirk was seen with women much too young for him, and he also had a bastard son.
I have recently been working with some younger colleagues, and we easily forget the depth of enthusiasm youth can carry. We were originally introduced to Kirk after he had matured somewhat. His walk through the courtyard of Starfleet with Spock in "Darkness" reflects his optimism and eagerness. "Hi girls, I am Jim Kirk!" In the face of darkness, their hope for the future is all pervasive. They will accept the reality of the world and look for the future they are about to make.
Who can say what twists in time fate says we have to make. For instance in the original run, Tribbles were not discovered until they were on their five year mission. I thought it was amusing that it was meant to be that Spock and Kirk had to experience the moment of touching through the window while at the moment of death. Not exactly Groundhog Day, but close.
When I was watching the movie I didn't think about the medical ethics of saving Kirk. I figured they would have used the serum from the Tribble. Now I see that you are right, Spock was trying to catch Khan to help save Kirk.
At the time, McCoy was hurriedly putting Kirk into a freezer chamber. This would have given them the luxury of taking time to catch Khan, bring him to justice and allow him to plea bargain to pay for his crimes by donating blood for a serum to help the all people he injured in his assaults and then being returned to stasis along with his people. We just see the result of the character we care about, Kirk.
That being said, I still can't get used to the overuse of lens flares.

Totty said...

Warning, long rant ahead.

First up, pedantry: Scotty did not quit in protest of the assassination plot, he quit because he was unable to inspect the incoming torpedoes.

Like Susan, I think you are mis-remembering Kirk of old, he was definitely a womanizer.

As for this film, as you said in your review, the first half if alright, and I appreciated that the reveal of Khan was a surprise, though it continues the fine tradition of casting white men as Indians/South Asians. Is that brownface?

I can't remember who first made the comment I saw before the movie about them running out of plot ideas, but coming back to Khan and playing it so similarly in the dramatic "Is the ship safe" part went from homage/reference to parody for me as soon as Kirk had to go into the irradiated chamber. Khan is a good villain character, but try to do something different, please. Paul & Pete didn't find it a problem until around the lying-by-the-glass part. And the laboured scream of Khan! was just embarrassing.

And the lens flare, so much lens flare. And frankly I could do with a lot less unnecessary wacky camera angles.

And now, to the content of this post:
I can't say thought of the involuntary blood draw struck me as particularly problematic ethically but perhaps a doctor would disagree. My issues with this part of the plot were:

1. Telegraphed this so far ahead. As soon as Kirk had to go in the chamber I knew where this part was going. And I'm not usually that bright in movies.

2. They didn't need Khan alive to be able to draw his blood.

3. Couldn't they just have taken the blood from any of the 72 corpsicles they had on hand? Once you're past the ethical point of drawing the blood, I don't see the difference.

For the second time in this young blockbuster season (out of 2 movies I've seen) a potentially dramatic (possible) death is totally drama-less due to "miracle" item which was telegraphed. Not that I would have believed Kirk dying anyway but at least Pepper I could have believed. That's just lazy attempt at emotional manipulation. In Serenity (returning to Scotiabank theatre in August, by the way) it provoked a genuine reaction.

Regarding the gratuitous "Carol Marcus in her underwear" scene, for which Damon Lindelhoff has even apologized, all I can say is that it started me thinking "why is this character even here?" and frankly by the end of the movie I still couldn't justify her existence beyond the callback (forward?) to the original Khan. Are they setting up a wedding for the next movie? Has the series already jumped the shark? Will they have the baby on the ship too? Who's turn is it to sleep with each other? Oh wait, this isn't Friends ... yet.

Ok, I may have jumped ahead a bit.

A little more pedantry, this time to the writer: how did Enterprise suddently get "caught in Earth's gravitational field" when it was fighting the Dreadnought by the moon? It was already in it, why did it suddently start falling? And why so quickly? Experience tells us it takes a couple of days to "fall" from the moon to Earth. At least they did a good job of running around the hallways (literally) during the fall.

How was Chekov, who beams two men out of free fall to Vulcan unable to beam two guys fighting on a steadily moving ship?

Finally: too many call backs/forwards. Suddenly they've encountered Tribbles, Gorn, & Harry Mudd already? At least the Mudd reference was subtle. The Gorn & Tribble seemed forced.

On the positive side, I liked the fake out of using the crash of the Dreadnought in the trailer to make me think they were destroying the Enterprise (again). So that one gets double points since I was grumpy about going to that well again too.

I think I'm becoming a grump in my old age, but overall this movie bothered me enough that I didn't really enjoy it, maybe I need to let some of that stuff go, but there seemed to be a lot of it. Maybe I went in with the wrong attitude.

Totty said...

Oh, and I forgot, what a totally useless cameo for Nimoy-Spock, just to tell them how badass Khan is.

Totty said...

As usual, Mr. Plinket/Red Letter Media/Half in the Bag have a good review/analysis of the movie here.

Totty said...

And then Mr. Plinkett just tears down all the references here.

Earl J. Woods said...

I like Susan's "plea bargain" scenario; that would have worked better for me.

I'm still not so sure that the idea of original Kirk as womanizer really holds up if you analyze the text rather than the myth that's built up over the years, but given McCoy's "What is it with you, anyway?" in Star Trek VI I suppose the reputation must stand as canon. I still think it's somewhat overblown, and at the very least pushed into parody in the reboot films.

Like Mike, the falling to Earth climax really bothered me, as did the telegraphing of Kirk's death and resurrection. As noted, Serenity pulled off this trick much more convincingly - toward the end of the film I really, honestly believed that Whedon was going to kill off the entire crew. That's the difference between great screenwriting and direction and the by-the-numbers work seen in Into Darkness.

I reiterate that I did not hate the film; I'm just very disappointed by its many shortcomings. It should have been much better than it was, but the filmmakers just didn't put in enough effort to deliver a great film.