May 09

Kirk Should Buy A Lottery Ticket (MASSIVE SPOILERS)

FT11 comments • 536 views

I would say I am loathe to nitpick the science and plot of Star Trek, but anyone who knows me would say its not true. I love to nitpick, even though I often keep it to myself. Because nitpicking does not normally reduce my enjoyment of a film, I can happily accept outrageous coincidences and remarkable magical science. I just wish I didn’t have to.

So Star Trek is Star Trek, so I start with a basic boatload of premises from the original series. Warp Speed. Transporters which only work when they don’t spoil the plot. Alien civilizations all living within a mile of each other on their home planet. I can get that Vulcan, say, is just one city on a planet (which since Earth is only ever represented as San Francisco* is I suppose only fair). All of this I knew before I walked through the door, so instead my nitpicks are more based on the STAGGERING CONSPICUOUS COINCIDENCES which occur from the already established conveniently coincidence heavy Star Trek universe.

So lets play with a bit of probability here. Let’s say that each of the staggering coincidences that occur have a probability of one half. This clearly is not the case, the likelihood of Kirk being abandoned on a planet less than a mile away from Spock, is so staggeringly huge that assigning it a probability of a half is insulting. But lets do it anyway, just to show how unlikely the the storyline is, even if all the coincidences have the same probability of turning up a head in a coin toss. Ever coincidence/unlikely event in the plot shall be marked with a C or a U.

Note, to discuss this requires spoilering the ENTIRE FILM.

Start: Romulus star going supernova (not a coincidence, this is the films motivating factor). Spock is assigned to help (C and U – because assigning a really old admiral rather than anyone who may be better suited seem unlikely). Spock is late, Romulus is destroyed, Spock makes a black hole to eat the supernova, Nero and Spock get sent back in time (C/U – and no-one else?). Nero arrives at the exact place in space and time where the USS Kelvin is (C), and Kirk’s Dad is first officer (C) and the precise instance Kirk is being born (C). Birth takes place without complications and he is born fine as his Dad and the ship is blown up for no good reason (U!!!!)

Kirk and Spock grow up without dying (possibly a U in Kirk’s case!). Kirk goes to a bar – OK that bit is likely as is cracking on Uhura (but its Uhura so its a C) and bumps into Captain Pike, who was an ensign on the Kelvin (C). Kirk joins up to Star Fleet, FIRST PERSON HE MEETS IS MCCOY (C). Three years later he is shagging Uhura’s room-mate (C – especially when he hears her talking about the Klingon distress signals). Cheating on the Kobiashi Maru is neither a coincidence or unlikely, however Spock’s time-travel appearance in space on EXACTLY THE SAME DAY certainly is (C) as is Nero being able to predict when and where it will happen (U). And then the biggie: McCoy being assigned to the Enterprise (C), with Sulu (C), Captain Pike (C) and Chekov (C). I’ll give Uhura a bye here because she forced her way on cos she was shagging Spock. And then there is the slightly unlikihood of the Enterprise making it to the battlefield last with the key information from Uhuru who up until this point had kept the Klingon distress signals to herself (U). And thus it is Enterprise with Spock and Kirk on board that Nero does not instantly blow out of the sky (U) and realises he can do something with.

I will allow the entire samurai space battle on the drilling platform a pass here, as whilst it is unlikely that such a battle or scenario could take place, it is an action film and it is a given that our heroes will survive (and indeed the red shirt will die). However it is hugely unlikely that Chekov could beam two plummeting people off of the planet, since it NEVER HAPPENED IN THE SERIES AND THIS IS SET WELL BEFORE (U). It is also a pretty big coincidence that the only people Spock can save are the council of Vulcan’s, but since he doesn’t save his milfy mum, we’ll spare his the pain of a C here. It is not unlikely that Kirk and Spock argue about what to do next, but it was hugely unlikely that Captain Pike made Kirk first officer in the first place, so that causes the problem (U). It is also unlikely that rather than courtmartial and put Kirk in the brig, Spock would jettison Kirk at Warp speed on to a dangerous planet (U). A mile away from Old Spock (U). another mile away from Scotty (U). It is also a huge coincidence that the two people Kirk would be stranded with would be the inventor on a technique to beam on to a ship at warp speed, and someone from the future who can remember all the science of how to do it (I could barely invent a radio!) (C). It is also hugely unlikely that it would work as successfully as it does without any testing, that both participants survive AND THAT THEY COULD DO THIS OVER A FAIR FEW LIGHT YEARS. There is almost certainly some sort of prime directive nonsense going on here too.

The rest of the film oddly relies on very few coincidences, and is only unlikely in the way action movie endings are. Perhaps the chances of Kirk in charge and his first officer deciding to do all the work in beating up the baddies is pretty unlikely, but it happened all the time in original Star Trek so no quibbles here. I’ll give Nero a (C) for drilling right next to the Golden Gate Bridge, which as previously noted is the only landmark left on Earth, but the whole chase and pursuit is de riguer in space opera. Again I could give Scotty an U for working out how to escape the black hole but he used to do stuff like that all the time in the TV series so he gets a pass. I will say that it is hugely unlikely that Kirk would be given the USS Enterprise, with exactly the same crew ever again however, since the film seems to be predicated on the destiny of this crew getting together, ten years before it would have happened normally.

So lets do the maths. Bearing in mind I have been generous in a number of places, and very generous in the case of the actual probability (the Kirk / Spock / Scotty planet coincidence must be of an order of winning the lottery). But if all of these things had a probability of only a half, we have TWENTY FIVE COINCIDENCES / HIGHLY UNLIKELY EVENTS. Which makes the events of Star Trek, even within the confines of an action movie / Star Trek movie having the eventual probability of 0.0000000298, or two in a billion.

Considering that the likelihood of Star Trek turning out to be a good movie is almost IDENTICAL TO THIS, it is incredible that despite all of this, I really, really enjoyed it!

*We actually get a bit of Iowa in this one too, but luckily Iowa appears to be a generic one bar desert kind of place, so could easily be the planet Luke Skywalker is from.


  1. 1
    Mark M on 16 May 2009 #

    For me it was rather like the “what if” episodes of Friends, where it starts off with big-haired Rachel married to the dentist, Ross still with his wife, Phoebe as a big corporate player etc… and then by the end of the two-parter Ross is sort of with Rachel (even though she was after Joey), Chandler is with Monica and Phoebe is a kooky singer-songwriter. Why? Because these are things that must be in the Friends universe.*
    Likewise, I read [SPOILERS] Kirk landing on the planet where Scotty and (Old) Spock are as destiny, things that have to happen to bring as the point where the voyages of the Starship Enterprise can start.

    *Also, in something that prides itself on its brutal realism etc, the first couple of episodes of series two of The Wire.

  2. 2
    Mark M on 16 May 2009 #

    Oh, just to mention I thought it was terrific: big, big fun. Can’t remember the last blockbuster I enjoyed anywhere near as much.

  3. 3
    Pete on 16 May 2009 #

    I can. The last blockbuster I enjoyed this much was X-Men 2! Which also has a massive coincidence in it (their plane crashes exactly where Magneto is hiding, so he can save them) – which I didn’t notice til after the fact.

    You’re right about the “this is the way it must be in the Star Trek Universe” setting up of all the pieces, which I wouldn’t begrudge so much if it wasn’t for the fact that Star Trek is one of the few SF epics about people doing their job. Because it started as a TV series they only save the Universe a couple of times, and people get promoted in or out of the various positions (Chekov wasn’t in the first series if I remember right). I am a little against destiny.

    But all this aside, it is tremendous, tremendous FUN.

  4. 4

    even ignoring destiny surely SOME of the “what are the chances that these people encountered one another?” plot-points get a pass simply because the one thing we know in advance is that they DID meet

    (ie the given is that they know each other, and they must have met SOMEHOW , and i don’t understand: timetravel here creates as extra misleading layer of unlikeliness where a past and given fact — they met and here’s how, probability assigned 1 as it’s a given — gets inserted into the story as a future plot-reveal it feels like coincidence when it’s actually bound up in the given)

    (scientific postulate: there is a massive authorial-observer’s-effect quantum tendency — re wormholes and the like — for the characters we’re interested in to be squirted out somewhere narrative-relevant because otherwise why would we be telling THIS story — to put it the other way round, conincidence-rich stories self-select as stories worth telling, as they do in eg the fortean times when it’s about separated twins meeting each other by chance, we never hear all the stories about the many many more separated twins who don’t ever meet each other because the story is boring)

  5. 5

    “it’s a big world” is the motto of those othe stories, courtesy miles na gopaleen

  6. 6
    Pete Baran on 17 May 2009 #

    Oh, agreed: just think of how many coincidences DON’T HAPPEN every day.

    The problem with introducing parallel universes is the tiptoing into “infinite” (shuuder) parallel universes. Because then there really will be one universe where all these unlikely things DO happen, which is the one the choose to film. Which means there are millions of other universes where it didn’t happen and those stories would be rubbish. Thus: filmed story = one where everything goes right = lack of narrative excitement as we know it most all go well.

    WRT them all meeting: In timeline 1: all the enterprise crew end up as enterprise crew due to normal promotion within a military organisation. In timeline 2 (of film Star Trek) they get together in unlikely ways well before they would have done because DESTINY sort of mandates it.

    I have no problem with coincidence rich stories. I have problems with coincidence billionaires!

  7. 7
    o sobek! on 17 May 2009 #

    lol the whole thing’s kinda ‘outliers: the movie’ isn’t it – kirk and spock both have the relentless drive and anger that fosters success but ultimately are both put in position for opportunity due to their lineage – spock’s father a very prominent vulcan but his biracial heritage limiting his prospects on vulcan -> hello starfleet, kirk’s being recruited and to a certain extent made first officer due to his father’s honor. they make the most of it due to their own merits (kirk esp – his will being so strong you almost overlook that his mind’s as sharp as spock’s albeit in a much different manner). throw in battlefield commissions and really scotty’s the only one that’s a bit of a stretch. “destiny”‘s just a way of attributing significance to or explaining anything that happens so long as it actually happens. it explains fdr or robert e lee as well as it explains harry truman or us grant. we don’t notice when it fails because we don’t keep a record of things that don’t happen.

  8. 8
    o sobek! on 17 May 2009 #

    cf what are the odds lou gehrig would get lou gehrig’s disease?

  9. 9
    Andrew Farrell on 18 May 2009 #

    I think there is an extra (U) or two regarding the meathead that interrupts Kirk’s wooing of Uhura being both assigned to the Enterprise and one of the first on the scene when Kirk and Scotty beam back aboard.

    But then I’d try to take the (U) off Chekov’s presence twice: once because it is Chekov – if it was ensign Beckett there, he’d be the one in the main series (and Kirk and Sulu would be stains on the stain of Vulcan) – and once because they underline that the Enterprise is the pride of the fleet, and if they only have kids to staff it with, then they’ll be the best kids in Starfleet (gritting my teeth at the fact that Uhura is dual-classed as a phenomenal radio operator and pretty little thing).

    But! I don’t think any of these co-incidences matter, as the formulation of the Montgomery Scott theory of beaming live humans onto warping space vessels indicates that the story holds to a higher standard: That of the Bill and Ted movies.

  10. 10
    Pete on 19 May 2009 #

    Bill and Ted theory would be nice, however it is clear that this version of time travel has created a parallel universe (which does not happen in Bill and Ted) so the causality issues about who invented the long distance beaming never ever used in proper Star Trek do not strictly occur.

    It has been noted elsewhere though that a lot of JJ Abrams stuff seems inordinately predicated of time travel and alternate worlds which are thrown up (and/or big red balls).

    *Bearing in mind that it would appear to be a much quicker form of interstellar travel than actually going in a starship, beaming instantaneously a few light years ahead this is an invention that changed EVEYTHING in the Star Trek universe. Or not.

  11. 11
    Lennie on 15 Jun 2009 #

    Obviously not a believe in predestination.

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