This essay contains spoilers and unbridled nerdery.
Let me begin by saying that I thought Star Trek Into Darkness was enjoyable as all hell. I first saw it with my friend Alex, and as the movie went on we must have exchanged half a dozen looks of “holy shit, that was awesome!” It was the most exciting Star Trek movie by far, even more so than its predecessor, the first of the Abrams reboot. The action was almost nonstop, Benedict Cumberbatch was a great villain, and there were even a bunch of references in there to try to please the hardcore Trek fans.
You know what would have made them even happier, though? An honest-to-God Star Trek movie.
I realize that a reboot is a chance for a fresh start, an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past while creating something new that will be untarnished by those mistakes. It wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect J.J. Abrams to reboot the franchise while hewing exactly to the old canon. (What would that even mean?)
It was a brilliant decision in the 2009 movie to effect the reboot by having a “prime-universe” character accidentally create an alternate timeline. This told the fans two important things: that the reboot universe was exactly the same as the original up until Kirk’s birth — the approximate point at which the timelines diverged — and that after that point, the Federation and others would be able to “cheat” technologically by examining Spock and Nero’s ships.
This second point is kind of the linchpin of Abrams’s reboot, in the sense that it’s a story-internal explanation of why the new movies are so much shinier than the original Star Trek series from 1966. The events of the movie itself are significant enough to justify any subsequent change in the timeline,1 and the presence of the new ships explains the advancement of technology in particular.
(So how can we explain the first scene of the film, when we see a U.S.S. Kelvin that is decidedly newer-looking than what the prime-universe Starfleet had in 2233? At that point the timelines had already diverged slightly due to Nero’s arrival, but not enough to explain why a Starfleet ship would have looked any different. If Abrams really wanted to wow the Trekkies, that first scene should have looked just like the original TV series, with the lens flare and holographic viewscreens waiting until later. As it stands, the 2009 movie managed to shoot itself in the foot by providing an airtight explanation for the timeline differences but then subverting it in the very first scene.)
So, fine. It wasn’t executed perfectly, but the first reboot movie gave us a satisfying reason for looking different and telling a new story; it also implicitly promised that despite these changes, we were dealing with essentially the same people and places and kinds of stories as before. Which brings us to Star Trek Into Darkness. This film is rife with references aimed at old-guard Trek fans: Section 31, tribbles, “I’m a doctor, not a…”, Carol Marcus, and even the casting of Peter Weller as a villain. There’s one much larger callback, too: as in the first second Star Trek film, the main villain is Khan Noonien Singh.
The Wrath of Khan is an emotional rollercoaster for Kirk: he begins the movie in the midst of a full-bore midlife crisis. Compelled to leave his desk job to command the Enterprise again, he is targeted by a genetically-engineered superman with a vendetta against him. This superman uses a device created by an old flame of Kirk’s — with whom, it turns out, he has a son — to disable the Enterprise, requiring Spock to give his life to save everyone. At the end of the movie, Kirk has lost his closest friend, but he still manages to tell McCoy, “I feel young.”
Unfortunately, the writers of Into Darkness gave it none of the emotional impact of its antecedent. There was no character development to be seen. There was, again, a heroic act of self-sacrifice by one of the main characters, but this time we were never worried that Kirk would be able to make a comeback: we saw an injection of Khan’s blood heal the little girl at the beginning of the movie, and later McCoy hopes to revive a dead tribble the same way, saying that Khan’s blood “heals like nothing I’ve ever seen.” When I watch movies I don’t make any effort to predict what will happen next — if I think that hard I’ll miss something, and maybe get a nosebleed — but this foreshadowing felt hamfisted even to me. As a result, Kirk’s death meant nothing, because we knew he’d be back in a few minutes.2
It was right after Kirk died, though, that this movie reached its low point. Spock, overwhelmed by grief and no longer able to restrain his human emotions, screams “KHAN!” It’s a well-known reference to The Wrath of Khan, but coming right after a death with no emotional impact, that scream felt almost like slapstick. The writers just pretended to kill off the main character and then followed it up with a reference that mostly evoked laughter?
This, to me, is the offensive thing about Star Trek Into Darkness. For all of its callbacks to the Star Trek canon, it lacked the thoughtful soul of Star Trek,3 and many of these references (like shouting “Khan!” and including a Leonard Nimoy cameo) felt cynical and superficial — attempts to pander to the fans that betrayed an ignorance of why the fans were there in the first place. It was an exciting action movie, but it had no character development. It paid only the briefest bit of attention to the question of whether we should break our laws in order to uphold them;4 other issues that are timely in the real world, like what constitutes an overreaction to terrorism, were ignored completely. All in all, there was less social commentary in this film than there was in the typical captain’s-office discussion at the end of one of the TV episodes.
In this context, the writers’ many references to other Trek movies and shows begins to feel not just superficial, but actually exploitative. They’re using the people and places we all know and love, but they’re not using them to tell an interesting story, and they don’t even seem to care about making them resonate emotionally. Star Trek at its best is all about using fantastical situations to make us examine our own real fears, hopes, and dreams. Star Trek Into Darkness includes plenty of the former but seems to forget that this franchise is built on the latter.
Thanks to chaos theory, even the smallest change in the timeline — and Nero’s appearance was not a small change — can have unpredictable and far-reaching effects. ↩︎
Kirk’s death is followed by a shot where we see the Enterprise falling down below a layer of clouds and then, without the camera moving, the ship rises back up, finally moving under its own power again. It’s a trite and predictable moment that mirrors the similarly predictable death and revival of Kirk. ↩︎
I want to be clear that “the soul of Star Trek” is a different thing from “the first ten Star Trek movies”. I’m not trying to argue that Into Darkness was the worst Star Trek movie (it wasn’t). I’m also not trying to argue that it wasn’t a “real” Star Trek movie, because then I would have to make a bunch of “no true Scotsman” arguments. I’m just arguing that Into Darkness doesn’t exemplify Star Trek and that — worse — it doesn’t even seem to try. ↩︎
For a more detailed examination of this issue, watch “In the Pale Moonlight” or “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges” or anything else with Section 31 in it. ↩︎