When Captain Picard and Indiana Jones met Gilbert and Sullivan
A British tar is a soaring soul
As free as a mountain bird
His energetic fist should be ready to resist
A dictatorial word
Thus intoned the doughty sailors of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. So sang Sala, Egyptian fixer, after American archeologists Indiana Jones and Marion Ravenwood escaped Nazi clutches. And then there were Jean-Luc Picard, Lieutenant Commander Worf, and Data: a spacefaring philosopher, a conflicted Klingon, and an android.
There are layers of explanation for the long, strange, blockbuster-friendly life of “A British Tar.” Let’s start with the simplest. The aria dates to 1878, so Sala (John Rhys-Davies) could sing it in 1936 without being anachronistic. Moreover it is British, as was Egypt in the 1930s. Captain Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise is not British, but Patrick Stewart, who plays him, is. (So is Rhys-Davies.) Stewart is also a theatrically-minded thespian well-versed in comedic roles, and he suggested using a Gilbert and Sullivan number for the wacky opening to Star Trek: Insurrection.
So “A British Tar” works chronologically and tonally. It also works thematically, even when it is transplanted from a 19th-century Royal Navy ship to a 20th-century pier and a 24th-century starship. Naturally each of these three uses of the song pertains to ship travel. Gilbert and Sullivan’s vessel is a tall ship of the line at the height of British sea supremacy. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the boat Indy and Marion board is a dingy fishing vessel from the age of coal. In Star Trek, ships ply the space between the stars, but the organizational structure and the spirit of the Navy have survived the transition.
A more surprising explanation for the aria’s appearance in two modern franchise films concerns its lyrical content. The social and political messages of H.M.S. Pinafore still fit the kinds of stories screenwriters were telling over a century later. The opera mocks the British class structure and parodies the image of a British sailor (a.k.a. a “tar”). Though Captain Picard has a patrician bearing, and though Starfleet has a clear hierarchy of rank, the Star Trek universe characterizes its utopian future as egalitarian and meritocratic.
Worf (Michael Dorn)’s relation to the libretto is even more specific: if the British tar described in the song is a cartoon, an impossible ideal, so too is the traditional Klingon culture on which he tries to model his life. These lyrics could have been written for Klingons (especially the “brow should furl” line):
His nose should pant,
and his lip should curl,
His cheeks should flame
and his brow should furl,
His bosom should heave,
and his heart should glow,
And his fist be ever ready for a knock-down blow!
Klingons get the look right, and Worf even delivers a crushing fist from time to time. Yet, particularly in the Next Generation era, the Klingon Empire is a tattered web of hypocrisy and intrigue, their actions falling consistently short of their rhetoric. Compare with this analysis from the author of a Gilbert and Sullivan history: “[H.M.S. Pinafore] satirizes the… sort of patriotism which consists in shouting a platitude, striking an attitude, and doing little or nothing to help one’s country.”
The Next Generation’s rich character work is seldom the focus of its crew’s movies (for example, Worf’s reluctance to sing in this scene may contradict his well-established love of Klingon opera), but fans of the TV show know that Worf is defined more by his hybridized and compromised identity than by his authentic Klingon-ness. In his case, though, the gap between tradition and reality is a consequence of his painful assimilation into humanistic Federation society rather than a symptom of insincerity.
Cultural ambiguity is also evident in the character of Data (Brent Spiner), an android who strives to be less robotic and more human. The Gilbert and Sullivan scene in Insurrection derives its comedy from the juxtaposition of Data’s ambition (to appreciate all things human, in this case operatic performance) and his programming (which, in this scene, has suffered a malfunction.)
Sala does not get as far into the aria as the Enterprise crew. But “A British Tar” is the second H.M.S. Pinafore number in the film; earlier Sala sings a bar from “I Am the Monarch of the Sea.” In both instances, Sala’s outbursts of song are his reactions to recent triumphs. Yet one may wonder whether this Egyptian character’s love of English musical comedy is to be expected, given the imperialistic nature of the two countries’ relationship. Perhaps Sala is an Anglophile, or maybe he just appreciates a good tune and a good story. The satirical nature of the opera also leaves open the possibility that he enjoys seeing British culture parodied. Or maybe he is keenly aware that, at this moment, the British presence in Egypt is the only thing (other than Dr. Jones) preventing the Nazis from overrunning the continent. In the fascist-infested world of Indiana Jones, having an “energetic fist… ready to resist a dictatorial word” is not just good advice – it ranks with a whip and a fedora on the list of must-haves.
Flickcharters rank Raiders of the Lost Ark at #4 globally, while Star Trek: Insurrection is a relatively disliked entry in the Trek canon at #3904. Ask yourself this, though: which movie does a better H.M.S. Pinafore?