A warning – below the dividing line is a long series of massive spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness, the latest film in the franchise, currently in cinemas worldwide.
During the last week I’ve watched the first 7 Star Trek films starring the original characters, as part of a review for Ann Arbor Review. This weekend I saw Star Trek Into Darkness in the cinema.
For those with only a superficial understanding of the Star Trek franchise, the first 6 films followed the original characters – Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and all. There were then 4 film starring the The Next Generation cast – Picard, Data, Worf. The 11th film, directed by JJ Abrams has a time-travel/history-changing central idea, and stars the original characters at a younger age, played by different actors.
Into Darkness is the 12th film in the Star Trek franchise overall, following directly on from the 11th.
Star Trek Into Darkness is exciting, fast-paced, filled with obvious references to previous parts of the franchise, but there were a few times that made me laugh at how little skill the material was handled with.
I didn’t find Final Frontier, a notorious mess, as bad as Into Darkness. I’m pretty certain I laughed more at The Voyage Home, but that’s actually meant to be a comedy.
I’ve been thinking about what I liked and didn’t like in each, and have come up with 4 components to doing Star Trek right. It should be
- Superficially exciting
- Have strong character definition and interaction
- Have meaty moral or philosophical arguments
- Take place in a well-structured universe with understandable scientific and political rules, even if the science differs from what we know to be true.
Most versions of Star Trek don’t meet all four – for example the first film (The Motion Picture) is incredibly slow, failing the first requirement. First Contact doesn’t have much in the way or moral arguments, and there are notorious episodes that fail all four, even from the classic series, such as Spock’s Brain, where aliens steal… Spock’s brain.
Into Darkness certainly meets the first requirement – being up there with the best of Star Trek in excitement, and achieves a pass on the second requirement, even though it’s a mixed success.
The third and fourth it fails miserably.
I’ve been thinking, both while watching and reviewing the first 7 films, and after seeing Into Darkness, about what I like and dislike about Into Darkness. I’m going to put a few thoughts down.
As a warning, the following is going to be absolutely packed with spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness. Read on at your own peril.
The Good Stuff
I’ll start with the things Into Darkness does well – despite the film’s stupidity, I did enjoy large sections of it. The set pieces are fantastic, some of the best I’ve seen in Star Trek, across 12 films and well over 500 hours of television.
I don’t want to talk about them in too much detail, but that’s just because I don’t want to spoil the things that are actually good about the film. Besides, this post should be pretty long just talking about the things Into Darkness does badly.
In brief, the universe Abrams creates looks fantastic, absolutely stylish and believable as both a utopian future and an outgrowth of the modern world.
The set pieces – particularly the opening escape, the helicopter scene and the ship to ship spacesuit travelling scene – are pretty fantastic.
And the terrorist attack is carried out with a strong sense of pathos.
If you just want a dumb popcorn movie that looks great, those may be enough for you. Even though I want something a bit more intelligent from Star Trek, the first act took me along with it, engaging me completely and helping me get lost in the story.
Simon Pegg is great as Scotty, as is Karl Urban as McCoy. Zachary Quinto’s Spock handles the film’s only emotional complexity well, and Chris Pine is charismatic and compelling as Kirk, even if he’s written as just about the most egotistical jerk imaginable.
I won’t go into too much detail on those parts, suffice to say I appreciate Into Darkness does have good elements.
A final warning, this post is going to get very spoilery from here on.
John Harrison’s Super-Transporter
After John Harrison (Bennedict Cumbernach) carries out his second attack, he uses a portable transporter to beam to Kronos,* the Klingon homeworld.
Earlier in the film, it’s established that a volcano interferes with Starfleet’s transporters, meaning that the Enterprise has to be hidden underwater on an alien planet, rather than in orbit, to be able to get a strong transporter lock.
And yet, Harrison’s transporter can beam him not only outside of Earth’s solar system, but across Federation space (which Earth is the central base of), to a planet right at the heart of an alien empire, landing him at a specific area of that planet.
Are there no stars or black holes along this path that interfere with the teleportation pattern, no nebulae with gases that interfere with the transporter in the same way the volcano does?
(It’s revealed that Harrison has a stronger version of the transporter, but it seems that his dwarves the normal transporters in range, accuracy and safety to an extent that a top of the range Ferrari dwarves the first stone wheel.)
When a character (I’m not sure which) said that Harrison had beamed to Kronos, I initially assumed it was a lie – it clashed so strongly with both established Star Trek rules and the idea established earlier in the same film, that volcanoes interfere with Starfleet transporters from in orbit of the same planet.
* Generally the spelling used is ‘Qo’nos’. Given that Klingonese (I know, it sounds dumb) uses a different lettering system, it could be that both are acceptable translations, as Gaddafi and Qadaffi are. Were it not part of a larger pattern of making needless changes for the worse, I don’t think I’d really notice it.
Okay, This Is Interesting…
It was shortly after Harrison’s attack and escape that Into Darkness introduces its most obscure piece of Trek knowledge, and in retrospect, it’s dumbest character decision.
Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller/Robocop), a very high-ranking figure within the Starfleet hierarchy, brings Kirk into the loop, telling him that the first target Harrison struck was not a library as was officially stated, but a base of operations for Section 31.
If you’re not a fan of the Star Trek franchise, that term probably means nothing to you.
During Deep Space Nine, a recurring subplot was that there was a secret organisation within the Federation, dedicated to doing ‘what must be done’ in order to protect the Federation from their enemies. As a contrast to Starfleet’s idealism, Section 31 operated secretly – without the knowledge of even high-ranking Starfleet officers – plotting to frame unhelpful politicians from alien nations, and, during a war, they infected an entire enemy race with a deadly virus.
This was far from an iconic part of Trek, but it was a powerful one – with Deep Space Nine’s Julian Bashir in particular arguing about how achieving victory S31’s way undermined the principles the Federation stood for. The S31 plots in DS9 allowed for some great ‘who can you trust’ spy plots, and moral discussions about the cost of survival.
It was established within Deep Space Nine that, although it was a hidden organisation, S31 had always been at the heart of the Federation. (DS9 is set in the 24th century, the Federation was founded in the 22nd century, Kirk’s era is in the 23rd century.)
The idea that Into Darkness was able to pick out an obscure but intellectually and emotionally powerful idea from the Trek universe excited me. I’m more than willing to overlook technical matters like the transporter, if the film picks out and uses lesser known ideas to make moral points in an intelligent way.
Admiral Marcus Trusts No-one, Apart From The Kid He’s Just Met
Onto the dumbest character decision.
You may remember that in the previous film, Future Spock gave Scotty an algorithm that he’d invented in the future, to increase the power of the transporter. This was how Kirk got back onto the Enterprise after being stranded on the ice planet, and how Scotty got stuck inside the water tubes.
This forms the basis of Harrison’s transporter, but it’s stated that the reason all Starfleet ships don’t have super-powerful transporters is that the Federation ‘confiscated his algorithm’. (Is it possible to confiscate an idea, particularly one that Future Spock was able to memorise when he travelled back in time?)
It seems odd to me, but I’ll assume it is possible – effectively Scotty’s been ordered not to act on his knowledge.
But seeing as the advanced transporter Harrison uses is Section 31 technology, surely the choice is to transport an elite and loyal team after Harrison, to hunt him down and either bring him to justice or kill him?
Well, for Admiral Marcus, the choice is to give orders to Kirk, who he barely knows, to kill Harrison. And at this point Kirk is being disciplined for doing what he thinks is morally right, against orders.
Why use a loose cannon that he barely knows, rather than his own men, or at least people he knows from his long career, who he knows share his morality?
Given that Kirk had, right at the beginning of the film, broken the Prime Directive (the number one rule for Starfleet officers, as you may have worked out), he’s precisely the kind of man Marcus should be keeping on the outside of his super-secret conspiracy.
I have no idea why he does what he does, and apparently the writers don’t either.
Who Wants to Play With the Antimatter?
There is actually another character decision almost as dumb as Marcus’, which happens shortly after.
Under Marcus’ orders, the Enterprise is to travel to the edge of Klingon space, and fire an ultra-advanced torpedo that can travel very long distances undetected, and lock onto Harrison’s position.
Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Scotty (Simon Pegg) collectively act as the moral heart of the film, with Scotty delivering the only really humanistic, warm and empathic argument, which the TV series was known for, in the whole film.
Spock objects to the idea of execution without due process; Scotty objects to the militarisation of what’s essentially a fleet of scientific explorers. Scotty also makes the practical objection that taking on board torpedoes with a payload he doesn’t understand will throw off the mass of the ship – an uncharacteristically intelligent bit of writing. In fact, I’m now starting to wonder if Simon Pegg added that himself.
Scotty refuses to compromise, and offers his resignation rather than go along with this mission… which Kirk accepts.
Now comes the really dumb decision, in two parts.
Chekov, the ship’s navigator, is eighteen at this point. (The previous film, set in 2258 mentions he’s seventeen, this film is set in 2259.) Rather than appointing the next most experienced engineer, or requesting a new chief engineer from Earth on a temporary assignment, Kirk puts the kid in charge of a department he’s not properly trained for, on the basis that he’s been ‘shadowing’ Scotty.
Then, I think before leaving the solar system, Kirk changes his mind, announcing that they will take Harrison alive. Having come round to Scotty’s point of view, Kirk then goes back… sorry, no, he leaves without him.
Is the point meant to be that Kirk’s so childish he won’t go back and admit to Scotty he was wrong, even when he’s announced this to his entire crew? We later see Kirk talking to Scotty, who’s in a bar using a communicator, from thousands of light years away. He could literally have just called him up and apologised, and got him quickly back on board. If necessary, using Section 31’s super-transporters to beam Scotty to whatever part of the solar system the Enterprise was in.
In terms of the structure of the film, the reason Scotty is left behind is that he needs to do something in Earth’s solar system later on – essentially Kirk makes the decision he makes because the writers want him to. Either that or because he’s very childish/forgetful – whichever works best for you.
(A slight side-track. Apparently Marcus says he’ll give Kirk six dozen torpedoes, not six as I’d thought. Later Spock tells Khan that there are 72 torpedoes – I thought he was bluffing. When there turned out to be 72 torpedoes from that point in the film, I genuinely thought the film-makers had been inconsistent with themselves on that basic a level. This was my mistake, not the film’s, but it shows how little esteem I have for the story-telling of Into Darkness.)
A Small Neighbourhood Squabble
If there’s a strong storytelling reason or benefit to increasing the transporter range so drastically, then I’m all for it. But the effect is that everything in the Trek universe feels pressed together.
Rather than two great nations on the verge of interstellar war, the ease of movement makes the conflict feel more like two neighbours squabbling, one of whom needs to go into the other’s back garden to get their football back without the other seeing.
More than that, everything in this film feels very compact, very close together.
Star Trek has always been about going out, to the edge of civilisation, but no-one seems to get more than a few hours away from home.
There were some mind-blowingly bold creative choices in the previous JJ Abrams helmed Star Trek, Star Trek XI. The destruction of Vulcan was a choice I didn’t see coming, and had amazing shock value, and emotional power, as a result.
If they’ve made the choice to increase the range of transporters and warp drive so drastically, that’s a similarly brave storytelling choice, which could theoretically pay off. It gives them the opportunity to be really bold about the story they want to tell. Have the Enterprise travel to another galaxy, where they encounter the aliens who upgraded V’Ger, the creators of the Planet Killer, or move into a galaxy where thought takes physical form, or tell an entirely new story. Instead, for the second film in a row, everything is based either on Earth, or very close to Earth.
One of the main appeals of Star Trek is that their commitment to ‘seek out new life and new civilisation, to boldly go where no man has gone before’. This isn’t an obscure line hidden away in a single episode of the fourth spinoff, it’s right there in the titles. If the creators watch one episode of the Original Series as part of the research – any one episode – they should pick up that this is important. If you’re going to call the movie Star Trek, it’d be a good idea to understand the central appeal.
Space Is Big
I’m going to get quite geeky here, so you may want to roll your eyes.
In Star Trek: Voyager, the central conceit of which is that the ship is stuck on the other side of the galaxy, it’s well established that it takes roughly a year to travel 1,000 light years. (It varies a bit, but essentially, from their starting point, they expect a 70,000 light year journey to take 70-75 years, not including short cuts.)
I’m currently rewatching Deep Space Nine, set on a space station in deep space. An episode I’ve seen recently mentions that Bajor, the main planet in the solar system DS9 is based in, takes five hours to travel to. (Though this is partially because it’s dangerous to use warp drive inside a solar system.)
You may consider all that quite dull, but essentially it’s about world-building (universe-building, I suppose) – there are rules about the size and travel distance between various places, and, even when the characters don’t overtly state how far travel takes, there should be a sense that some things are close, other things very far apart. For instance, despite being an important outpost, DS9 largely feels cut off from Starfleet, with ships only occasionally making it to the station in the first two series.
And, just to be clear, it’s not the fact that Into Darkness doesn’t obey the same rules that I’m used to that I object to, but the fact that the rules that it does sort of obey make everything feel small and insubstantial.
I should probably use a non-Star Trek example as well. I’ve recently been rewatching the first two series of Game of Thrones.
About halfway through series 2, Daenerys Targaryen, a former royal in exile from Westeros, receives news of a major character’s death, which occurred towards the end of the previous series.
By contrast, when characters send messages to each other by raven, they usually arrive within the same episode.
It makes the various parts of Westeros feel close together, and underlines how cut off Daenerys is.
It’s a nice world-building detail, important not because the books say it should be that way, but because the tiny detail underlines the story detail.
I assume the story in Into Darkness is meant to be that the Federation and the Klingon Empire are great, large, powerful nations – the speed of travel works against this.
What’s a Background Check?
Onto Carol Marcus.
First of all, I have no problem with a character from the classic universe being reinterpreted. In The Wrath of Khan, Carol Marcus is a civilian scientist, working on an ultra-advanced biology project, who has a romantic history with Kirk; here she’s a Starfleet weapons expert.
The timelines diverged when a giant alien ship destroyed Kirk’s ship on the day he was born, Carol Marcus is roughly the same age as Kirk, and in this timeline is revealed to be the daughter of an admiral. It’s entirely possible that the events at the start of Star Trek XI caused Admiral Marcus to be more concerned about the threat of alien empires. If Carol picked up on that, she could have applied her intelligence in a different way.
Or, in the original timeline, she might have had a background as a Starfleet weapons expert, which she hasn’t yet grown disillusioned with by this earlier point.
Either way, I don’t care about her being changed into a Starfleet officer – that’s the interpretation the creators chose to go with, and I’m fine with it.
Despite a recent terrorist attack on a Starfleet facility in London by an inside man, as well as an armed helicopter attack on a gathering of the Captains and First Officers on Earth at the time, Carol Marcus is allowed on board without anyone seeming to check she’s allowed there. As far as I could tell, she just lied her way on board, despite knowing no-one on the ship at the time, and giving a false name.
Surely, as a standard procedure, a craft which carries advanced weapons and is going into enemy territory should have some sort of paper trail, an administrator who checks that everyone on board is authorised to be on board? I don’t think Marcus even fakes her orders – she just steps onto a shuttle and says she’s authorised to be there – pointing out to the captain and first officer that she’s smart enough to be chief science officer. Surely it’d be smarter to pretend to be some random member of the support staff?
The point of all this is, a work of fiction, in any medium or genre, should lead the audience down a path, lead them into thinking something, then either playing into or subvert that expectation. For a twist to work, for example, the audience has to believe one thing is the case, only to realise afterward they were wrong all along.
Here, I thought that path was that Carol Marcus was either being used by Harrison – because I’d wrongly assumed that there was a good reason for her to lie to our heroes.
Meet Me Halfway
I’m going to take a brief pause at this point. I’m starting to feel like I’m nit-picking; there are so many objections I have. But each of these were ‘in the cinema’ objections – not things I thought about as I was walking out, but things that came to mind while watching the film.
I’m aware that ‘it’s only a film’ and I understand the concept of suspension of disbelief.
To make clear once more, I don’t object that the film doesn’t obey all the rules of the version of the Star Trek universe I prefer, but because it often doesn’t obey the rules of coherent, clear storytelling. I’ll suspend my disbelief, but I need to be met halfway, by a story that sort of makes sense.
With Carol Marcus, for instance, I thought she was going to be another member of John Harrison’s terrorist cell, who like the first bomber, was manipulated into doing something against their will.
Fast! Boom! Quick!
There was one main objection that I didn’t think of in the cinema – the film never leaves the audience time to think.
I’ll use The Wrath of Khan as a comparison. After a dramatic opening, we get scenes of Kirk with Spock then McCoy – feeling down about his birthday, as it’s a reminder that he’s getting old, and that he’s stuck behind a desk rather than doing the job he loves.
Later, Kirk shows Spock and McCoy classified files on The Genesis Project, a device with the ability to create life. They debate this – it’s intended as a terraforming tool, McCoy sees the destructive potential.
Both of these are ‘slow’ scenes, allowing the audience to get inside the characters’ head and build up empathy, and contemplate the power of the weapon at the heart of the film, respectively.
In Into Darkness, everything is fast.
The journey into Klingon space would be a perfect opportunity for a slow scene – to either get into the characters’ heads, or discuss the moral implications of trying to take a dangerous and devious man alive.
They could explore the Spock-Uhura scene they use later; have Kirk be afraid of losing some of his people because Harrison won’t hold back; have Kirk and Spock, previously antagonistic, bond over the death of their mutual mentor Admiral Pike; or maybe have Kirk and Uhura discuss how the ‘no-win scenario’ they’re in compares to the one Kirk reprogrammed in the previous film, underlining how much more serious he now needs to be.
The slow sections of a film not only give a deeper meaning to the fast scenes, but make the fast scenes feel faster by comparison.
But, for unclear reasons, warp drive is also now super-advanced, so moving from the heart of the Federation to the heart of Klingon space doesn’t take very long.
There’s a Time and a Place
At the start of the film, the crew interfere with a primitive world, working to stop a supervolcano erupting, destroying all life on that planet. Spock is willing to sacrifice himself to save the planet, and Uhura, his serious girlfriend at this point, is angry at his lack of consideration of how those around him would mourn his loss.
This would work as a private argument in their quarters, or while checking over something routine as the ship warps towards Klingon space. Instead, these unprofessional idiots lay into each other after they leave the Enterprise, and are flying down to the Klingon planet on a secret mission, rather than watch the controls for signs that the Klingons could have spotted them.
This argument is interrupted by a blast from a Klingon ship, throwing them straight into an action sequence, because of course it is. That’s the kind of film this is.
The two action sequences that follow are well carried out and look pretty great – at the end of the second, Harrison is captured, and put in the Enterprise brig.
It’s possible to be too obvious and not clear enough in a dramatic reveal; it’s difficult to make sure to fall into neither trap. The ‘Harrison is captured’ sequences somehow manages to fall into both.
It turns out that John Harrison, weapons designer for Section 31, is actually Khan Noonien Singh. In the Original Series, he was a war criminal, a genetically engineered superman who, after being overthrown from power, along with his followers, escaped Earth on a sleeper ship. The Enterprise then found him, and removed him and his followers from cryogenic suspension.
In the new timeline, it’s revealed, Admiral Marcus sought out and moved these people to Earth, unfreezing Khan to design new weapons.
Some people have been critical of the ‘whitewashing’ of Khan – casting a white actor in a role not previously considered white. But Benecio del Toro was previously chased to play the role, and I think, one or two others, so I don’t hold this against the film.
But sometimes, a problem can also be an opportunity.
Quick question – if you wanted to recruit someone to build innovative new weapons, would you recruit Winston Churchill, or Barnes Wallis?
Apparently Admiral Marcus would have stuck a wrench in Churchill’s hands – the idea that a central character is an idiot generally isn’t a good one in a high-stakes action film, but it helps explain some of his other actions as well.
Now, perhaps instead of unfreezing Khan, Marcus unfroze another of his crew, who historical records or the ship’s manifesto show to be an engineer.
Based on previous appearances in the Original Series and Enterprise, the Augments seem to be engineered with an increased sense of ambition and deviousness. If the Engineer is under-estimated as a result of being an engineer, but out-thinks Starfleet’s finest tacticians, while insisting that Khan is a far better strategist than him… well, that make Khan, the unseen threat who the villain tells us has abilities beyond his own, even more threatening. It would also make for a more sensible story. And as they didn’t use Khan in the marketing, why not do this?
There’s nothing in the way Harrison/Khan acts that links the character to Ricardo Moltaban’s interpretation – he’s angry, intense, and will do anything to protect his family of Augments. It could well be that his year of being forced to design weapons for a man he has contempt for would change him in some way, but the character would actually make more sense as a totally different person.
Based on what’s shown in the film, I don’t think it’s clear that Khan was genetically engineered to be physically and mentally superior. In fact, given that he only mentions being a ‘savage’ from an earlier era, I’m not completely sure that non-Trek members of the audience wouldn’t think he was meant to be Genghis Khan.
Anyway, Marcus unfroze one of history’s greatest tacticians and monsters in order to develop new weapons, and that tactician, surprisingly enough, manipulated events to his benefit. This includes smuggling his crew inside the 72 torpedoes now on the Enterprise.
(There are a few problems with how he managed to do this, but I’m willing to buy that he operated some sort of long plan to manipulate others into helping him.)
As another brief diversion, the reveal of this involves a tense action sequence with Carol Marcus and McCoy, which I thought was well executed.
Admiral Marcus is Evil
Before revealing the content of the missiles, Kirk calls up Scotty, and sends him to co-ordinates Harrison had given him – in orbit of Jupiter. He finds a secret Starfleet base here, which he flies his ship into without anyone trying to stop him.
I think the Federation is meant to have about 150 different species in it, as well as numerous outposts, colonies, space stations, and so on.
But Admiral Marcus sets up his top secret base right at the heart of the Federation. Not hidden away in the solar system of a smaller world, or near a planet which would be difficult to terraform, and need resources sent to it (which could then in fact look after his secret base).
Instead, he hides his base in a location where there are presumably civilians occasionally flying past, not to mention scientists studying Jupiter’s atmosphere. It’ll probably be possible for telescopes on Earth to zoom in on Jupiter close enough to see the base by this point in time.
The film makes more sense if you assume that the top secret conspiracy is organised by an idiot. Seriously, it really does.
Shortly after this, the Enterprise is stopped on their way back home by a gigantic starship, captained by Admiral Marcus.
He talks about the need to militarise Starfleet to protect against the Klingon Empire, who we don’t see engaging in any attacks, taking over any worlds, or doing anything other than protect their home planet from what might look like an invasion.
Is he right about the Klingon threat, and operating pragmatically to deal with a very real danger?
Is he overestimating the warrior nature of the Klingons, when peace is very possible?
Is he using the threat of the Klingons as a cover for a coup d’état that would overthrow the civilian government and put him in place as emperor?
Based on what the film shows us, any of these are equally possible.
Maybe the Klingons are a threat; maybe Marcus is terrified by Nero’s attack on Earth and destruction of Vulcan a year previously. We don’t even get a line or two to establish Marcus’ reasons for wanting a more militarised Starfleet, other than that he considers it necessary.
And anyway, rather than building a giant starship, wouldn’t it make sense to use the Federation’s new super-transporters to beam explosives or operatives to key parts of the Klingon Empire?
Marcus decides to destroy the Enterprise, saying he’ll use the excuse that Kirk went rogue. (The excuse that Harrison/Khan took over the Enterprise seems a smarter excuse to me, but I’m not a big name Hollywood scriptwriter.)
There’s some generic family drama between the Admiral and Carol, but as we don’t hear the foundation of this, or any insight into either of their characters, the only effect on me was recognising the pair of them ticking off the generic drama lines.
Honestly, looking beyond their jobs, their physical appearance and their history, all I can tell you about either character is that Admiral Marcus distrusts the Klingons, for reasons that aren’t established, and Carol Marcus… Well, she strips down to her underwear for unexplained reasons. Maybe she’s an exhibitionist; that could be a character quirk?
It’s All Been Done
Just about every intellectual idea that Into Darkness hints at dealing with has been done better numerous times elsewhere in the Star Trek franchise.
DS9’s head of Section 31, Sloan, is a warmer, more patient, sympathetic character than Admiral Marcus, who actually makes a decent case for his approach. Sloan’s approach includes the idea that genocide is sometimes necessary, and he makes his case. Marcus’ approach is that a military could be helpful to defend the Federation, and he isn’t given the opportunity to sell that straightforward argument.
As well as the Original Series’ Space Seed and The Wrath of Khan, the subject of genetically engineered humans (or ‘Augments’) was dealt with interestingly in a multi-part Enterprise episode, in which their leader looked down on other Humans and had to face off the ambition of those under him.
I’m not sure about the ‘even bad people deserve due process’ idea (perhaps DS9’s Duet, where the presence of an accused Cardassian war criminal comes close to causing a riot outside the jail?) but the other ideas have been used far, far, better elsewhere.
Moral Exploration Versus Lip Service
Having recently rewatched all seven previous films with the original Star Trek characters, I’d say that The Undiscovered Country is my favourite.
Set in an era when the destruction of a source of energy has encouraged the Klingon Empire to reach out for peace, and end the cold war with the Federation, and released into the cinema 2 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, The Undiscovered Country works as an action movie and an allegory for the era.
Uhura seems physically repulsed by the Klingons’ eating habits, and Kirk at one point says that it hadn’t occurred to him that the Klingon chancellor might have been telling the truth about wanting peace.
It’s a film that shows people whose experiences have trained them to hate Klingons, trying to overcome that prejudice to solve a murder mystery that could cause war between the two.
In Into Darkness, Admiral Marcus says that a militarised Starfleet is necessary as war with the Klingons is inevitable, and that’s pretty much it.
The Undiscovered Country has some great points about how even good people can have negative preconceived notions of others, and about the difficulty of moving from an era of hatred and distrust to an era of co-operation.
I think Into Darkness wants to say things about the Bush and Obama administrations’ habit of taking away the right of ‘enemy combatants’ to trial, and possibly about drone strikes on foreign soil. But It doesn’t get round to saying anything of intellectual substance, other than that they happen.
A Strange Alliance
Admiral Marcus’ ship, the Vengeance nearly obliterates the Enterprise, then Scotty’s sabotage to the more powerful ship leaves both needing to make repairs, resulting in a standoff.
(It’s a small criticism by comparison, but after nearly tearing apart the Enterprise with conventional weapons, the Vengeance activates its super-weapon to finish the job – fortunately sending energy into the super-weapon is the key to bring Scotty’s sabotage into effect. It’s convenient that Marcus decided to obey that unnecessary cliché.)
At this point Kirk decides to make an alliance with Khan, to defeat Admiral Marcus.
Even assuming that they have no historic record of the tyranny of Khan and his Augments (which I’m pretty sure they had in Space Seed, Khan’s first appearance), Harrison/Khan has deliberately killed people, including the totally innocent Admiral Pike. He is a dangerous anarchist.
Marcus has secretly developed weapons and ships – that’s a political scandal, to be solved through government or legal channels. It’s less of a scandal than Oliver North’s part in the Iran-Contra scandal.
But Kirk allies with Khan, possibly the most dangerous man in the Federation, seemingly out of self-interest.
As soon as Khan and Kirk are on the Vengeance, when it’s too late to turn back, Spock calls up Future Spock (Leonard Nimoy) who is now living on Neo Vulcan and, I swear, Nimoy tells his younger/alternate self that Khan really is a big deal. That’s how people not familiar with the history of Star Trek are informed that Khan’s not to be trusted. Not a reveal of some atrocity he’s committed, or his indifference to the lives of others – this is a script that takes the unconventional storytelling choice of telling, instead of showing.
Kirk, Scotty and Khan take the Vengeance, which, conveniently for Khan, is designed to be able to be piloted by one man. A smaller crew, fine, I can buy that, but how many large ships have been specifically designed to be piloted by a single crewmember?
And, shock horror, Khan betrays them.
I Swear I’m Not Making This Bit Up
There’s a space battle with Khan, then a bit of the film that seems like it’s either sarcastically mocking the concept of fan service, or deliberately trying to be camp.
It’s been a few days since I saw the film, and every time I recall this section, I’m convinced I must have dreamt it – it’s such a clear mix of two things that don’t fit.
Imagine I’m playing a game of charades, acting out a famous scene from a film.
I’m in a large engine room.
I’ve knocked Scotty unconscious.
I’ve gone into a sealed area, to fix a damaged part of the engines. Kicking things into place is a form of repair, right?
The ship’s working, so I’m back at the glass door, but I’m in pain. I’ve been burned by radiation. No, you can’t see it on my skin; this is the kind of radiation that burns internally.
What do you mean the scene would have more emotional power if you could see a physical representation of my pain? Kirk wasn’t covered in scars in the scene we’re copying.
There are two of us now, both with hands against the glass, two friends who can’t physically touch because of the radiation. We’re making the ‘Live long and prosper’ hand gesture.
Still not got the scene we’re copying? Fuck it, Spock, stare upwards and yell “Khaaaaaan” as loudly as you can. I know that’s not from the scene we’re copying, but I don’t care anymore.
I swear, all of this was copied from The Wrath of Khan into Into Darkness. The characters are reversed, but otherwise it’s identical. (I can’t find a longer clip of the death, including Spock giving Scotty a nerve pinch in The Wrath of Khan, but even the idea of the heroic sacrificer knocking out Scotty is the same.)
At least, I remember all of this being in Into Darkness, but the more logical explanation is that the film traumatised me into creating a false memory.
I am flabbergasted that this actually made its way onto the screen in a movie made by professionals.
The fact that everything here is so familiar gives the scene a sense of emotional distance. Whereas I should have been affected by the fact Kirk was willing to make this sacrifice, and probably die, I was imagining this as the scriptwriters’ way of saying to the audience – “See? We have done our research and watched the original films! At least one of them, at least once – you can’t deny that we have!”
Put in the context of fan familiarity with the scene and the suspension of disbelief destroying effect that repeating a familiar scene has, I think this might actually be the dumbest bit of scriptwriting ever committed to screen.
The aim of storytelling is to have an effect on the audience – the intent here was presumably to move the audience emotionally. I can’t think of a film that fails so spectacularly to meet its intent as this scene. At least notorious messes like The Room and Plan Nine from Outer Space are merely a mess, but this… Wow.
I get that, in theory this is the culmination of Kirk’s character arc, to show that he’s willing to sacrifice himself for something more than himself, as Spock was at the beginning of the movie.
But even in that sense, it’s a reminder that the film’s designated hero is far less worthy of the captain’s chair than his smarter, braver, more humble, emotionally stable second in command. There’s a lot to like in Star Trek XI, but the modern version of Kirk doesn’t have the original’s sense of self-control, intelligence and empathy.
Just A Bit More…
So Kirk’s dead, killed off in a way that would fit in the Scary Movie franchise.
Into Darkness is almost out of dumb, but there’s still a bit left in the tank.
Earlier in the film, McCoy had taken a blood sample from Khan, which he injected into a dead tribble. I assume that he uses tribbles in a similar way that we use lab-rats – it’s an addition I like, and makes more sense than the traditional Trek solution of scanning something with a tricorder and being able to work out precisely what it does.
After failing to save Kirk, McCoy notices the tribble come back to life.
I’ve no problem with the idea that Khan’s blood is semi-magical in this way – the mainstream Star Trek universe has been guilty of far worse pseudoscience. I think the intent is that viewers will have been emotional at Kirk’s death, and given a lift at the revelation that Khan’s blood has turned death into a fighting chance to live.
Spock, after yelling Khan’s name where no-one could hear him, has pursued him through the streets of San Francisco, where Khan has crashed the Vengeance, to yell at him in person. The Vengeance knocks down numerous skyscrapers, and sends pedestrians running, but there’s never any hint that anyone’s died, so that’s okay.
McCoy tells Spock that he needs to bring in Khan alive, not bothering to check if the blood of any of the other 72 Augments could revive Kirk. Of course, they may be genetically altered in different ways, and as their leader, it may be that Khan is the most superhuman of the superhumans. But it feels conceivable that one of the 72 shares this reviving property – but the idea doesn’t seem to occur to McCoy.
Instead, he orders that one of the Augments is taken out of stasis and put into an induced coma, so Kirk can be frozen until they’ve got Khan’s blood – he doesn’t seem to think of even taking a look at a sample of the blood of any of the 72. This isn’t a matter of feeling the franchise has been betrayed – the lack of logical thinking from the character is astonishing.
Has it been established that the McCoy in the new timeline is actually a real doctor, with a grounding in the basics of medical science?
Anyway, Kirk is brought back from the dead, and a year later gives a speech. No-one appears to have been killed by the madman Kirk helped take over Starfleet’s most powerful ship, and the Klingons appear to have no problem with the surface of their planet being invaded and a squadron of their men killed, so the Enterprise is sent out into deep space on a five year mission, the end.
There’s a notorious script for a Spiderman film, written by James Cameron in a rush, which seems essentially like an attempt to meet a contractual requirement quickly on a project he didn’t care about. From what I know of it, it is unbelievably awful. Cracked.com have recorded a sketch based around the idea of that film being made – essentially that’s what Into Darkness is.
The indifference towards source material, the two-dimensional villains, the apparently sarcastic attempt at fan service, similar to a cat giving a dead bird to its owner as a present. Though many of the set pieces are very good, I can’t believe how silly and badly put together the overall film is.
Not Just a ‘Dumb Popcorn Movie’… A Badly Written, ‘Dumb Popcorn Movie’
Despite the above, I came out of the cinema smiling, having enjoyed the set pieces and felt a sense of awe at how overwhelmingly, mind boggingly inept the storytelling is. It’s life affirming, in a way.
The above might seem a bit obsessive, and definitely a bit geeky. But, despite being a Star Trek fan all my life, I’d consider myself a storytelling geek more than a Star Trek geek. I’m not too bothered that Star Trek gets the crew compliments of a ship right, or remains consistent about what a black hole or ‘spatial anomaly’ does in the Trek universe. The Star Trek universe is full of contradictions, and nonsensical pseudoscience put together to allow the writers to tell the story they want to tell. But I don’t think many of Star Trek’s hundreds of episodes are as badly constructed and full of internal contradictions and underdeveloped characters as Into Darkness is.
It’s the poor storytelling that irritates me. But even then it’s a kind of irritated amusement with a hint of sadness – imagine if you knew that a notorious mess, like Troll 2 or The Room, blocked the path for the kind of movie or TV series you’d have loved to have seen. I enjoyed Star Trek XI, albeit with reservations – it felt more superficial than my ideal version of Star Trek. I left Into Darkness both in awe at the film’s stupidity, and wishing Paramount had allowed The Untouchables and X-Men director Bryan Singer to develop his Star Trek: Federation idea.
If I seem angry at all it’s only for that reason.
Others have complained about the lack of strong female characters (Uhura’s main function is being Spock’s girlfriend, Carol Marcus is largely a damsel) and how Pike’s disability made his death inevitable. That second link is an excellent read, and gives some great ideas I’d love to see explored.
I’d say the problem is more fundamental – Into Darkness is a film which contradicts it’s own rules, has characters behave in ways that contradict their pursuit of their goals, and gives shout-outs to subjects that could theoretically be explored in a nuanced, intelligent way… then drops them.
I’m generally not a fan of the ‘dumb action movie’ genre that Star Trek Into Darkness is a part of. I’ve not seen any of the Fast and the Furious films; I enjoyed the first Expendables but wasn’t blown away by it, and was bored by the first Transformers film. (Incidentally, Transformers was written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the writers of Into Darkness.)
But I doubt any of those have as many plotholes, poor decision-making by characters, and lack of ‘slow’ moments to give the film the heart it needs.
If there’s any justice, the reputation of Star Trek Into Darkness will stand the test of time as an absolute masterpiece of poorly constructed storytelling.
Just to recap my objections in brief:
- Carol Marcus’ extreme behaviour in sneaking on board a ship on a dangerous mission led me to assume she was involved in something devious – my expectation was that she was being blackmailed by Harrison/Khan. Turned out she was just curious.
- It appears extremely easy to get to the heart of Klingon space, and they don’t react to a battle on their surface. Why are they to be feared?
- The ‘Khan reveal’ meant nothing in the context of the film. Imagine a Batman film, set in a timeline where the Joker hasn’t been seen, or mentioned previously. A character suddenly reveals they are the Joker. So what? It’d mean nothing in the context of that story.
- Carol Marcus has no character traits, Admiral Marcus and Harrison/Khan are pretty two-dimensional.
- When faced with a choice between allying with a known terrorist and a man whose political views he disagreed with, Kirk chose to side with the known terrorist.
- The Vengeance crashing through San Francisco should have killed hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions. Their deaths are all on Kirk’s hands, for making a choice which was stupid even with the information he had when making it.
- Events should have consequences. I was waiting for the blowback from the invasion onto Klingon soil being spotted, or the destruction of San Francisco. Neither came.
- The Wrath of Khan death scene ripoff felt to me like the film was being sarcastic.
- When McCoy announced that Khan had to be taken alive, I was wondering how he’d concluded that the blood of none of the other Augments would be useful. Had I missed something? I was trying to figure this out during the theoretically dramatic foot chase.
- I don’t care about Into Darkness having poor science, or being disloyal to the Star Trek franchise. But I want a film that doesn’t throw me out of the story, causing me to think ‘wait, why are they doing this?’ while I’m watching it.