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The Happy Ending Singularity

The Kobayashi Maru is--in the fictional Star Trek universe--the ultimate test for students at the Starfleet academy, testing their ability, character and poise in a no-win, certain death situation. The Star Trek wiki Memory Alpha describes the test:

“In the scenario, a cadet was placed in command of a starship on patrol near the Klingon Neutral Zone. The starship would receive a distress signal from the Kobayashi Maru, a civilian freighter that had been disabled in the zone after having struck a gravitic mine. If the cadet chose to enter the neutral zone in violation of treaties, the starship would be confronted by three Klingon K't'inga-class battle cruisers. The test was considered a no-win scenario because it was impossible for the cadet to simultaneously save the Kobayashi Maru, avoid a fight with the Klingons and escape from the neutral zone with the starship intact.“

Captain Kirk, as any Trekkie knows (we’re not Trekkies, but contributor Matty P is) cheated on the test, reprogramming the computer to allow him to win. This pisses me off, on a number of levels.

The first is the logical one: it’s a test you can’t beat. If you beat it, by dint of that accomplishment, clearly you cheated. So why would the Starfleet Academy, in the new Star Trek reboot, bother to hold a trial? Res ipsa loquitor, the guy cheated.

My larger point is bigger. As I wrote in “We Can’t Handle the Truth,” modern American cinema can’t handle bad endings. If it isn’t a happy ending, that movie isn’t made. As the producer asks at the end of Robert Altman’s The Player, “Can you guarantee me a happy ending?” ‘Cause if you can’t, the film won’t get made.

Hollywood, America, and the general public are so obsessed with happy endings that the heroes of our movies cheat on tests to avoid sad endings. Captain Kirk is literally incapable of failing, even in a test that you can’t win. It’s like Hollywood has reached some sort of happy ending singularity, the nexus point at which falsely optimistic cinema has taken over the world. We can’t fail on tests designed for failure.

Which is ironic, because, from another point of view, Kirk is ultimately a loser, because he failed to learn how to lose.

This brings me to a short clip from To The Best of our Knowledge. Scientists are working on games that simulate, using real data and examples, how to perform surgery on someone with cancer. The interviewer asks the obvious question, about whether you can win or lose the game. But this game is based on real life; in some cancer cases, you can’t win.

This is a good thing, as the game designer explains, “It can have a really strong emotional impact on the player, particularly if they are really trying to save this [patient]. Sometimes they realize no matter what they do there is nothing they can do to save them...We’ve worried...is this going to be too emotional? We think that’s a good thing. We think having people emotionally invested in their learning and caring...is a good thing.”

In real life, students flunk out. Soldiers die in IED explosions. Companies fail. Patients die. And for teachers, officers, CEOs and doctors, learning how to fail gracefully is a lesson we all need to learn. You can’t always win. In the game of life, there are good endings and tragic endings. Kirk never learned that lesson, neither will the general public.

eleven comments

As America inevitably moves towards its over-exaggerated decline, we’ll need to learn how to fail gracefully. Movies like this don’t help.

Also, note to On V readers, this was supposed to go out on Friday, but Starbuck’s internet was going slow, so I thought I posted it.

There is nothing wrong with simply making things that are sustainable. One does not need to be first now at the expense of falling later. It pays to win, but it also really pays to be consistent, something America as a nation simply is not doing.

American cinema is just anesthetic for the masses. Stop legitimate thought and keep us all dumb and distracted. The systems are everywhere because if they weren’t we already would have radically changed things.

Kirk is the same misguided hero archtype that so many have beleived in only to find out later that it’s all BS.

Sustainability is critical. Realism is necessesary and a move to true practicality is a must have.

Great post.

Let me first state that I am not a fan of the newest star trek. Retconning the entire history for the reboot was not necessary and even insulting as a life-long fan. That said, I agree with your point. The Kobayashi Maru is not a test of skill or knowledge but of character.

From another sci-fi fiction I enjoy: “Live with a man forty years. Share his house, his meals… speak on every subject… then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.”

The test is supposed to measure and assess how you deal with failure. More specifically, catastrophic failure. But if everyone knows it’s unbeatable, the question is then whether anyone should bother to participate.

By the third time, Kirk reveals his true character. Not that he’s a cheater, because he can’t win. He showed he doesn’t believe in no win situation. By fixing the game he still loses because by definition the test is unwinnable but he doesn’t win by his way rather than theirs.

“he doesn’t believe in the no win situation”

Exactly. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in no win situations; they exist anyway. Not believing in them, not dealing with them, is a character flaw.

First of all, on the subject of “falsely optimistic cinema,” I have to admit that there are plenty of films with unfortunate endings. “No Country for Old Men” comes to mind, among a host of foreign flicks. But, conversely, isn’t a story about someone defying all odds to reach a particular goal, or survive, or perform some great deed more compelling than simply showcasing a character who meets a predictably mundane end? Maybe it depends on why you watch movies: you either want to abandon reality and become absorbed in a bit of magic, or you want the film to connect you further to your own personal existence of rules and probabilities.

Also, about that video game. It would be interesting research to discover that if a player knows there are lose-lose situations, if it would then affect the amount of effort one would exert compared to a player who is convinced that each and every problem is solvable.

Is it really so foolish to reach for the unobtainable, as long as we give it our best? Or is it better to simply accept the futility that is inherent in the human experience?

(Must contain rage)

Okay, I’m going to assume that your displeasure with the “Kobyashi Maru” test comes from a recent viewing of Star Trek (the 2009 version).

The scene with Kirk and the Kobyashi Maru test was inserted for nostalgic purposes. Long-time fans remember it from Star Trek II, where it takes on greater significance, and speaks to one of Kirk’s flaws: that he never faced real tragedy.

The Kobyashi Maru test is the classic no-win scenario. But by subjecting academy cadets to the stress of the test, students invariably learn something about themselves. Kirk, having reprogrammed the test, never challenged his assumptions. In nearly every single Star Trek episode, he and the crew escape with nary a scratch (unless you’re a redshirt)

However, the ending of Star Trek II presents us with the classic Kobyashi Maru scenario. The Enterprise must escape at warp power, but she’s been badly crippled in a fight, limping along at impulse power. Spock sacrifices himself for the crew, entering the ship’s reactor room and repairing the warp drive. Of course, in the process, he’s been exposed to so much radiation, he’s practically dead.

Kirk says his final goodbye to Spock through a plexiglass wall. Spock gives us a rare moment of humor.

“I finally faced my Kobyashi Maru test. What do you think of my solution?”

Finally, we’re exposed to an unhappy ending in the Star Trek universe. Kirk’s miraculous string of luck has finally run out (and will get even worse in the next movie).

I’d recommend watching Star Trek II. It’s by far the most watchable of the Trek films.

And in real life:
[LTG Paul Van Riper]“He gained notoriety after the Millennium Challenge 2002 wargame.He played the opposing force commander, and easily sunk a whole carrier battle group in the simulation with an inferior Middle-Eastern “red” team in the first two days. After the simulation was restarted with different parameters, he claimed that the wargame had been “fixed” to falsely validate current doctrine of the US Army.”

Lest anyone think there’s something new here:
On WW2 Tank Destroyer doctrine: “The first nine units were deployed during the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941, equipped with towed 37 mm anti-tank guns and 75 mm guns mounted on half-tracks (the M3 GMC), and again in the Carolinas maneuvers that November. Their employment was judged a success—though not without some disgruntled voices in the armored branch arguing that the umpires had rigged the results….”


Following that through to source – The Evolution and Demise of U.S. Tank Destroyer Doctrine in the Second World War, by Bryan E. Denny. (There’s a pdf link at the bottom of the wiki page)- the substance of the complaint is that the Red Team felt the rules had been rewritten disallowing the destruction of the Tank Destroyers by direct fire, giving unfair advantage to the TD’s in terms of firepower and survivability.

The goal was to support the TD doctrine of BG Lesley McNair that was based on a rather upside down theory he’d developed about combating Blitzkrieg (not taking into account that the US was to go on the offensive against German troops, rather defend France against them:).

I spent a very fulfilling afternoon exploring this issue on behalf of a military historian friend.

Just in case the point is missed: the first case was an unheeded questioning of the advisability of invading a medium sized middle-eastern country and the second a contributory factor in the difficulties the allied forces had in breaking out of Normandy. At some point, believing there’s no such thing as no-win becomes nothing more exalted than criminal hubris.

@ Starbuck – Exactly. Exactly, exactly, exactly. My complaint was with the new movie, which treated the test as a joke (I didn’t clarify this enough in the post) as opposed to Star Trek II, which I’ll check if its on Netflix streaming, because I’ll have to watch and write a follow up post.

I knew I liked you Starbuck.

Two nit-picks, if I may be excused for trolling a bit.

First, that Kirk passed the test does not speak for itself as absolute evidence to his guilt. I’m sure the programming skills of even the great Vulcan aren’t fault-proof.

Second, new Kirk hasn’t learned how to fail yet. Seems a lot to expect a single film to simultaneously reboot an institution, erase enough of the camp so it can garner modern appeal, and also be Zen and the Art of Spaceship Flying.

I definitely support the article’s point, however. A parallel anecdote would be the increase in the number of JV and Freshman basketball teams in high schools versus you “happy ending singularity” emerging. Even in sports, where someone has to do better than someone else, we can’t let Timmy be disappointed about not being good enough to get on the team…