Four years since J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot. If you couldn't tell, I was not entirely pleased.
After four years of discussing, debating, and speculating, I finally have the resolution I've so desperately craved—I finally have a sequel. It's called Star Trek Into Darkness, and it's allowed me to sort out these conflicting emotions and make peace with my beloved entertainment franchise.
If you're familiar with my work at Exfanding Your Horizons, you know I've written about this at length. No need to click on all of these, but they're here if you'd like a refresher or some background on the matter. Plus, I really like some of these titles.
- Star Trek RIP, Part 1
- Star Trek RIP, Part 2
- Reconnecting with the World
- Abandon Fandom!
- J.J. Abrams, Please Stop Killing People
- Star Trek by the Minute
- (Re)Star(t) Trek
- New York Comic-Con / Anime Festival 2011 Recap: Part Two (scroll down a ways)
- Star Trek Into Darkness of the Movie Theater Again
- Lastly, from this blog: A New Hopelessness
Now, brace for impact, kiddos; sensors are detecting spoilers on a collision course.
First off, let's review my predictions for Star Trek Into Darkness, based on what transpired in the first movie (discussed in the penultimate post above):
Things We'll Probably See:
Nurse Chapel, whose only function is to scream at scary things, and give McCoy somebody to talk to, 'cuz he really doesn't seem that tight with Kirk - Close! We got Carol Marcus, who screams at scary things and has her biggest scene together with McCoy. And she mentions Nurse Chapel, so there you go.
An impromptu Gorn battle that completely interrupts the flow of the story - There's a brief moment at the beginning where Kirk shoots a big animal that appears out of nowhere, and they do mention the Gorn...so I'd say that's close enough.
Vulcans behaving completely out of character - Actually, I think the writers understand Spock better than anyone else, and Spock's the only Vulcan I saw...so I guess I whiffed on this one. Blame it on the scuttlebutt I'd been hearing about the videogame tie-in.
A reference to a classic Trek scene or quote, which inadvertently devalues the scene or quote if you think about it too hard - "Reference" is putting it lightly. Half the film was a remake of Wrath of Khan, though that devalues this film, and not the one it's referencing. More on that later.
LENS FLARE - PROBABLY. MAYBE I MISSED IT.
An incredibly important plot point that's barely explained and/or makes absolutely no sense if you think about it too hard - If you want to avoid detection by the indigenous people of a planet, why fly your starship into their ocean instead of staying in high orbit and sending down a shuttle? Why did Kirk steal that scroll that got everybody chasing after him? And let's not even start on haphazardly promoting crew members (seriously, your tactical officer who has been shadowing the chief engineer is a better candidate for a replacement than anyone else who works in engineering?), Marcus loading cryofrozen war criminals into torpedoes, plotting to sabotage the Enterprise, and escalating to wanton murder of Kirk and his crew in a matter of moments.
Adults who are absolutely useless in crisis situations, leaving the young'uns to take matters into their own hands - I'm pretty sure Kirk was the only person at that staff meeting who didn't stand there and wait to get shot.
Petty bickering over a woman (I'm already blaming Uhura) - What? A lovers' quarrel between Spock and Uhura? Couldn't be!
Someone getting killed off for plot convenience and/or a cheap emotional response - We didn't need Pike anymore, right?
No Klingons, or worse yet, pointless Klingons - Or, worse yet...actual Klingons. But they all died like punks.
Really awesome action sequences that make you forget about everything I just mentioned - The Enterprise rose out of the ocean! Stuff blew up real good! Lots of punching! ...What were we talking about?
Needless to say, Star Trek Into Darkness was very much what I expected it to be. The original press release was a bit misleading, talking about someone "from within their own organization" (not really) who "has detonated the fleet" (not really), but I still laid my money on Khan as the villain well before the speculation took off. As a side note, the teaser trailers were misleading as well; try watching any of the later ones after seeing the movie, and note how cleverly they took scenes out of context and out of order, showing you just enough to make you think you know what will happen.
So I've gotten pretty good at figuring out how an Abrams/Orci/Kurtzman production is gonna pan out. The question is, how does Into Darkness compare with its predecessor?
Let me put it this way: I might be inclined to watch this one again. It's been four years, and I have yet to rewatch the first one.
I'll break this down the same way I did with Oblivion: by reviewing the lessons that subsequent films in this new Star Trek continuity could stand to learn from Into Darkness—and from any other Star Trek, for that matter.
Lesson #1: You've got 40+ years of continuity. Make references.
Carol Marcus. Christine Chapel. The Gorn. A tribble. The NX-01 amongst the model ships lined up in Admiral Marcus' office. Uniforms in the style of Star Trek: The Motion Picture's. Klingons. Adaptations of the main TOS and TNG themes in the end credits music. Section 31. The destruction of Vulcan. "The Mudd incident." Star Trek Into Darkness makes references of all sizes, some more obvious than others, and they help form meaningful connections with the franchise as a whole. A well-placed reference can be a rewarding treat for attentive viewers, and it's an acknowledgement that there's more to Star Trek than just this film.
However, some discretion is required, lest we forget the quotes and references that were ham-fistedly crammed into the first movie: the Kobayashi Maru scene trivialized one of Star Trek's best untold stories for cheap comedic effect, some random planet nowhere near Delta Vega was called Delta Vega just to reference "Where No Man Has Gone Before," and Spock Prime's first interaction with Kirk was peppered with familiar sayings that ring hollow without the emotional context originally associated with them. Simply dropping a reference isn't good enough; it needs to fit with the story, regardless of whether there's an audience watching.
Lesson #2: You've got 40+ years of continuity. Treat it with respect.
One of the reasons I got so angry at Star Trek (2009) was the lack of reverence for the source material. With such a long and rich history, you'd think there'd be no shortage of plot threads to follow and new aspects of the galaxy to explore...but instead of building on the foundation already in place, the film proceeded to destroy everything from Romulus to the core personalities of some of Star Trek's most memorable characters, merely to have a fresh slate to tell a (mediocre) story.
Uhura went from a strong, subtly sensual communications officer to a floozie who probably served some function on the ship (my guess: Flirts Officer. Ha ha.). Sarek, a true Vulcan of commanding presence and profound wisdom, was relegated to a generic fatherly role. McCoy's nickname of "Bones," previously derived from "sawbones" (old slang for a surgeon), lost its meaning when Kirk picked it up from McCoy's passing comment of being nothing but "a bag of bones" after his divorce. The list goes on. The names are the same, but they're not entirely the same people.
Perhaps because the film is only accountable to its predecessor, which did all the dirty work of introducing characters and severing almost all ties with the previous continuity, Into Darkness has some breathing room to (a) insert references without trying so hard to appease any dubious diehard fans, and (b) let these versions of the characters develop more naturally.
Scotty has gone from "happy comic relief Scotsman" to "friendly, expert engineer who cares deeply about his ship," for example. However, I still have no sense of this Uhura's personality other than that she's Spock's girlfriend, and that she speaks Klingon more fluently than she did in Undiscovered Country, where she was condemning food, things, and supplies. (That has to change.) There's certainly room for interpretation when a new actor or director is working with a character, but especially when dealing with an alternate timeline, that core personality should remain intact—after all, as far as the story's concerned, it's only the appearance and aftermath of Nero that should account for any differences in a character's character.
Into Darkness does a better job than its predecessor of respecting Star Trek continuity because it works within the boundaries of what the previous movie established. Instead of bulldozing the foundations and framework to make way for something new, it fleshes out what's already there—and because it pulls so much of the story from "Space Seed" and Wrath of Khan, Into Darkness naturally feels more like Star Trek than last time.
That's the kicker: It's not just adherence to canon, but embracing what it means to be Star Trek. It's the interplay between characters. It's the strange, new worlds. It's the new life and new civilizations. It's the thought-provoking questions about social issues and human nature that arise from combining all of the above. Into Darkness seems to get more of its details straight about who these characters are and what their universe is like, but it's still missing the heart—or the brain, if you will—that elevates Star Trek above any other sci-fi action movie. We're getting there, but we're not there yet.
Lesson #3: You've got 40+ years of continuity. Boldly go where no one has gone before, for cryin' out loud.
The purpose of a reboot, as I see it, is to do things differently—or better. To its credit, Into Darkness features some great action sequences, turns Spock's iconic death scene on its head with a clever role reversal, and utilizes the full potential of Khan's genetic enhancements (something I've always felt Wrath of Khan skimped on a bit—"Khan, I'm laughing at the superior intellect!"). There's a lot of good in this movie, and a lot we haven't seen before...but not enough.
For starters, it would've been brilliant to have Khan, defeated on the bridge of the USS Vengeance, shouting "KIIIRRRRKKK!!!" at the top of his lungs.
I wanted to see any other antagonist—Gary Mitchell, those mind-control parasites from "Conspiracy," the Suliban, Trelane, the Borg (Kirk versus a female foe, particularly the Borg Queen, would've been interesting...), even Gary Seven could've somehow been worked in as a villain in this alternate timeline. A reboot offers the freedom of choice, and they chose a bad guy and a situation that led to all the same major plot points that were hit before. Nemesis already rehashed Wrath of Khan to a certain degree; now we're doing it again?
How was it that Khan put it? "You should have let me sleep"?
Reuse villains. Recycle familiar plotlines. But do so in a way that's worthy of a reboot. Take the story in wildly unexpected directions; combine elements that couldn't possibly have been combined before; give the old stories and characters the kind of depth and complexity they've never had. Into Darkness offers some of that, but it squanders the opportunity to offer something truly novel to the Star Trek universe, opting instead to flesh out and fudge some of the details of an existing story.
There's an excellent comic miniseries called Star Trek: The Last Generation. It plays out a "What if?" scenario, wondering how TNG might've looked if, at the climax of The Undiscovered Country, Kirk and his crew had failed to foil the assassination attempt at the Khitomer conference. It's a rough-and-tumble, post-apocalyptic kind of setting in which the Klingons have conquered Earth, and the Federation looks more like the Rebel Alliance. Due to the situation, certain characters find themselves in very different roles, and interacting with very different people—Worf is a villain; Sulu is an almost mythical freedom fighter; Ro Laren and a decidedly not-dead Tasha Yar are a couple—yet they are the same people. Picard is Picard, Troi is Troi, and Data is Data, just in radically different circumstances. Their universe is almost unrecognizable, but it still feels like Star Trek because the characters, technology, and flow of history stay true to their roots.
Compare this to a bunch of irresponsible brats who get their own starship and redo Wrath of Khan.
Lesson #4: You are not Star Wars.
Lobot doesn't belong on the bridge. And only Imperial officers are allowed to wear those doofy hats. Knock it off.
Lesson #5: Separate your heroes from time to time.
One of my favorite seasons of Deep Space Nine allows something to happen that I'd never seen before on a television show: the heroes go off to war, and they don't immediately come back! For the majority of the season, half the main characters are on opposite sides of the quadrant, and it's fascinating to watch the story and character development when everyone is so far removed from each other, and from the space station they call home.
Into Darkness has the guts to kick Scotty off the ship before it leaves Earth, yet he remains as involved in the story as anyone else, ultimately being in a unique position to save the day because he was separated from the rest of the crew. Uhura faces a group of armed Klingons with no one beside her as backup. Spock finds himself trapped in an active volcano. Being alone is one thing; being separated is another entirely—there's dramatic potential that's difficult to tap any other way.
Lesson #6: Blend the comedy and action into the story.
Star Trek (2009), like most any Star Trek movie, has its moments of levity. Unlike any other Star Trek movie, the flow of the action grinds to a halt as neon signs light up, saying, "THIS IS THE FUNNY PART! TIME OUT FOR COMEDY!" and/or, "HERE'S THIS COOL THING WE WANTED TO DO! LOOK! HERE IT IS!" Scotty getting stuck in the tube in engineering. Random monster battles in the snow. Kirk's anatomy inflating. (Side note: I should probably be more specific; that could be misconstrued.) Into Darkness works the humor and whiz-bangery into the story, smoothing out the edges so there isn't an abrupt shift between storytelling and technically unnecessary digressions. The movie as a whole flows much better this way.
Lesson #7: Big ships are cool. Don't overdo them.
The Scimitar was a big ol' beastie of a ship. The Narada was a big ol' beastie of a ship. The Vengeance is a big ol' beastie of a ship. Impossible odds are easy enough to find; be careful not to fall into a rut, no matter how cool that rut may be.
Lesson #8: Make sense.
Look, we're talking about a science fiction franchise that once had Spock's brain telling McCoy how to do surgery on it. Suspension of disbelief is a necessity. But there's a fine line between "makes sense in Star Trek," and, "buh...WHA!?" With the first ten films, you were supposed to think about them long after the credits rolled—give those Big Ideas time to simmer. With these new films, the pacing is such that you don't have the chance to think about what's going on; consequently, the writers aren't held as accountable to craft a coherent plot. As long as it's entertaining, who cares whether anything gets a proper explanation?
I'm not saying the films are completely unintelligible; I'm saying they don't seem to stand up to scrutiny as well as most of the other films. "Because it's cool" is a better explanation for much of what happens than, "because it makes sense within the context of the story." Refer to any of the items mentioned in my one prediction above.
"Because it's cool" is not inherently a problem for me—after all, I've run plenty of D&D campaigns where logic was relegated to the corner just so I could drop an ethereal filcher on the party—but it's a concern when it becomes the primary explanation, especially in a Star Trek film. Deliberately masking incomplete or incoherent plot points with grand set pieces and special effects is tantamount to lying to the audience; inadvertently doing so is a demonstration of carelessness or incompetence. When a franchise is defined by the intelligence and integrity of its characters, it's not unreasonable to want the storytelling to share those traits.
Lesson #9: Get the dialogue right.
There's a Next Generation comic miniseries called Atonement. I don't remember much about the story—something having to do with the inventor of transporter technology being a man out of time—but I do remember the dialogue. At least, the style of the dialogue. Throughout the entire story, something felt "off," and I couldn't put my finger on it...until I realized the lines Picard and Data were saying were written for Kirk and Spock. Star Trek feels inauthentic when the dialogue doesn't fit with the characters; voice is just as crucial as plot when it comes to a character-driven story.
All throughout Into Darkness, I tried to imagine what these lines would sound like as spoken by Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, Doohan, Nichols, Takei, and Koenig. (I gave up with Besch and Montalban, as they themselves sound nothing like Eve and Cumberbatch.) Sometimes, the lines felt right. Sometimes, I had flashbacks to my high school English classes. The words got the point across in those cases, but the characters didn't own them.
Example: If memory serves, Scotty calls Kirk "Jim" at least twice in the film. I've heard Scotty refer to him as "Jim Kirk" when talking about him, but when talking to him, it's always been "Captain." It's that lack of nuance that's making it harder for me to buy into the assertion that these are the same characters I grew up watching. The preponderance of modern vernacular doesn't make these characters sound more relatable; it makes them sound like they've got script writers who planned out all the action sequences and a couple of quotable lines before realizing they needed more dialogue to pad the empty space between them.
That's all for now. I have no doubt I'll continue to ruminate on the new movie, and the old movie, and all the movies—this is merely my first stab at putting my thoughts down on virtual paper. Ultimately, I enjoyed Star Trek Into Darkness. It's fun, it's a neat twist on a familiar story, it's a visual spectacle. It's almost Star Trek. I still have my misgivings about the film and the new continuity as a whole, but I've mellowed considerably since I first saw the trailer that heralded a new era of the franchise I hold so dear.
Having seen more of Abrams, Orci, and Kurtzman's films in the past four years, I've come to understand how they operate. Abrams doesn't make the kinds of movies I like, plain and simple—but he keeps attaching his name to films that sound right up my alley until I find out he's involved. Orci and Kurtzman write movies like they're comic books; like George Lucas, they need somebody to act as a creative filter to translate their ideas into something more cinematically structured. I see Damon Lindelof's name in the writing credits; knowing absolutely nothing about him, I'm already attributing the more cohesive and Trek-like feel of Into Darkness to his influence.
As a side note, I'm noticing an alarming trend in the movie and TV previews I've seen in theaters recently. See if you can detect a theme here: Defiance. Olympus Has Fallen. White House Down. After Earth. Oblivion. Elysium. World War Z. There's only so much "fall of civilization as we know it" I can handle, you guys.
So anyhow. Star Trek Into Darkness. Better than the last one. Good enough to want to see the next one. Still hasn't convinced me this reboot was necessary, though. Kick off the training wheels, take off the parking brake, and make the next one the best one.
Boldly go, Star Trek. I'm looking forward to welcoming you back into the family next time.