Why Star Trek Into Darkness Has Disappointed Me

So, I have just returned from watching the new Star Trek Into Darkness film, and if there is one word that sums up my current feelings it is “disappointment” – a very complex frustrated type of disappointment. This film should by all means, in all respects, be brilliant. And it is brilliant. Visually, thematically, plot-wise, character-wise – it is amazing; a great sequel to the first film and a great addition to the enormous franchise that is Star Trek. Because of this I want to talk first about why this film is so amazing, and why, without a doubt, it is even superior to the first one. [I apologize in advance for any and all bad grammar, misspellings and dyslexic mistakes in the following rant, as I have written this in the spur of the moment with little regard for the proper conventions of language and expression.] Also MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.

The Good Bits:

In-universe character growth – I was quite pleased by how they managed to maintain the same rapport that had begun to be established in the first film, and develop it further in this one. I’m glad that they didn’t make Kirk into an instantly ‘great’ captain; he is still growing, still making trouble and terrible mistakes due to his stubbornness and cocksure attitude. While I’m sad that Admiral Pike had to die, I think it was the perfect wake-up call for Kirk to do some self-analysis. I appreciate how he isn’t sure of himself throughout the film, and how he admits this to Spock at the beginning of the third act. This marks a noticeable departure from Shatner’s Kirk, who believes he can do anything, to perhaps a more humble, thoughtful version of the character.

Most of the characters, in fact, could be said to have been given some level of growth in some form or another, though some more than others, clearly. Spock’s continual battle between his Vulcan and Human sides, his relationship with Uhura, their evident problems and the friendship between Spock and Kirk are touched upon. Other characters like McCoy, Scotty, Chekov and Sulu aren’t overly developed, but it’s nice to see that they are nonetheless essential and part of the crew – they don’t become unnoticeable. I particularly like how Bones continues to evolve into an ever-more crotchety character, although I must express my worry that he is too close to becoming a parody of DeForrest Kelly. I like that Scotty is a lot more gutsy, and will stand up to Kirk, even resign, on account of his morals and conscience. I also enjoyed seeing Sulu take command – a reference to his future career as captain of the Excelsior. The most underdeveloped, perhaps, is Chekov, who although he is assigned to engineering while Scotty is absent, seems to still be little more than a walking-stereotype.

I suppose that what I like the best is that, although there are plenty of nods and allusions to the original, the characters seem to be changing and growing according to their universe, and not the original’s universe. I can’t see this Kirk telling Spock to ‘let the Klingons die’, for example.

Expansion of the universe – they have really expanded the universe that they began, and it is distinct from the 23rd century of the original series, while maintaining a similar and familiar futuristic feel, and even a familiar sense of campiness. Just like the original was an attempt to portray the then vision of the future, as foreseen in the 60s, this Earth looks like something we might get from our current point of view. I enjoyed the versions of London and San Francisco, although I might criticize it for being ‘too futuristic looking’. The set designers and cinematographers might have taken a page out of TNG, DS9 or VOY, as even their versions of the 24th century don’t look like this [this film reminded me of that futuristic vision as seen in Minority Report or I Robot]. Still, the inclusions of things like the Daystrom Institute and Qo’noS [which they spelled wrong, btw!] was also nice.

Talking about the expansion of these films’ universe, I am undecidedly torn on whether I like the character of Carol Marcus or not. Essentially, she does very little except spout exposition and get unnecessarily hurt, but the character is not entirely annoying, to her credit. She lacks the matureness of the original, but seeing as she is younger and has not really known Kirk very long, I cannot form an accurate opinion of her yet. Will she and Kirk have a child? Will she leave and go on to continue her research? Anything is possible at this point, which is something that, as a Trekkie, I always welcome.

The respect for the source material – Overall, the reason why I enjoyed this film was because I could detect an apparent real love, or at least appreciation for the source material. The clever references in the form of throwaway jokes, background allusions, and reversal of quotes and characters were, for the most part, well done; only occasionally was it cringe-worthy. I wish I had gone in with pen and paper so I could jot down my favorite allusions, for they were numerous, but I did not go in thinking I would be ranting an hour later on my blog. Some of the references I have already made mention of; I think one of my favorites was Marcus’ comment about Nurse Chapel, who any fan will easily recognize [it’s always nice to hear the First Lady of Star Trek being mentioned].

Praising done, time for the negative bits:

As I have stated, the film is, with the exception of its big, unavoidable problem, fantastic. That said, it does have its logic-bending, laws-of-physics-defying problems that were evident and noticeable as I was watching the film! It wasn’t even after that I went ‘Hang on a minute’, but during, and those are the type of plot-holes and mistakes that the screenwriter should really be on top of. Other more careful, devoted fans will list all of the major inconsistencies, and there are many, but here I’ll name four of the ones that made me involuntarily exclaim in the middle of the film:

–          Gravity, what’s that, or a reference to STIV? –  The ship being underwater at the beginning of the film, then rising and flying away. I wonder whether the filmmakers forgot that Constitution-Class Starships [which I assume this one is as well] aren’t exactly aerodynamic, and that while they can fly through the upper atmosphere of a planet, this is normally reserved for extreme emergencies. Remember, escaping the Earth’s gravity has always been the major obstacle in space-travel.

–          The famous floating act (I’m naming it this in honor of Spike Spiegel) or the “do you know how much space-dust there is in space?!” scene – Not only would Kirk’s visor be cracked, his spacesuit would be pockmarked with hundreds of holes. Why do you think spaceships have deflector dishes? When I saw Kirk and Khan about to do this I instantly thought “wait, you’re going to be ejected at what must be an incredible speed in order to reach the other ship (which is pretty far away), and you expect to go through the debris field and come out largely intact on the other side? What the what now?” There’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s just disregarding all logic and common sense.

–          Klingons, just, what?  When Admiral Marcus started mentioning Klingons I admit I got a bit excited, since we didn’t get to see them on the first film [as their scenes got cut], so imagine my surprise and confusion at seeing this ‘universe’s’ version. Admittedly, we only got to see one, and I guess he might have somewhat resembled General Chang’s type of Klingon, but it doesn’t resemble what we all recognize as Klingons today. It didn’t even look like the Klingons from the original series [see Augment-virus retcon if you are confused]. Also, what was wrong with Qo’nos? Why did it look like that? Did I miss something? What was that moon-thing exploding on top of it? I don’t get it.

–          Warp Reactor Core schematics or “whoever wrote this episode should die” – Watching Kirk climb his way up the Warp Core brought this Galaxy Quest quote to mind; why, in the name of M.C. Escher, was it designed that way? What is it?! What’s that chamber with the tubes and the giant ball things and a light being shone into another light? What?! What drunk engineer designed that? And did no one think to invest in ladders or handholds? Is it because the ship was sort of spinning about? Was that supposed to be the ceiling or the sides or something? Who would come up with such a hard-to-get, inconvenient design? Really, this is just unnecessarily goofy!

–          Holy Magic-Deus-Ex-Machina-MacGuffin Blood! – Fine, I’m willing to buy that Khan’s blood is infused with magic DNA; it makes little sense medically, genetically, scientifically, but whatever. Sure, it can bring the dead back to life, why the hell not?! But is it only his blood that does that? Surely the other 70+!! super-soldiers have the same super-blood!! Why do they need Khan in order to save Kirk? McCoy even tells Marcus to take out one of the frozen guys in order to put Kirk in. Couldn’t he have extracted some blood from him as well? Wouldn’t this be better than placing Kirk’s only chance of survival into the hands of Spock, who is clearly outmatched?

But of course, the greatest problem, the one I have been avoiding, the one that trumps all of the other ones, and that manages to obscure all of the great and wonderful things the rest of the film achieves: Benedict Cumberbatch’s character being Khan Noonien Singh. Do I even have to say it? Does it need explaining why this is not only a ridiculous idea, but downright insulting? This is such a betrayal from J.J. Abrams, such a middle finger to the fans, and the worst part is that it is clear he doesn’t realize this.

It is like someone being unintentionally racist or misogynistic without knowing it, completely innocently making a horrible remark, and what can you do but forgive them. It’s like a child saying a swear word without knowing its implications. This is what this is, but the insult remains.

I will explain.

The original Khan was introduced on the episode of Space Seed, episode number 24 from the first season of the original Star Trek (1967), and the character was played superbly by the late Ricardo Montalban. In the episode, the crew of the Enterprise find an ancient ship from Earth’s 20th century adrift in a remote part of space, the Botany Bay. Inside it is a group of super-soldiers, remnants of the Eugenics Wars that devastated 20th century Earth, led by the ruthless Khan Noonien Singh. I won’t spoil the episode, go watch it for yourself. The character was so memorable that in 1982 he was brought back as the titular villain of Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan, going down in Star Trek history as the greatest villain, one of the greatest villains in science fiction and film, and undoubtedly the best ST film of the entire franchise. The film is so popular that even many non-Star Trek film goers know and recognize the film, and acknowledge its impressive visuals, but most importantly, its poignant portrayal of the madness of revenge.

This is what I’m trying to make clear – Wrath of Khan is the best Star Trek film, and it is one of the most worthy, and even influential film, in cinema as it is. Can you see why trying to copy, remake, echo or imitate it and its character is so fundamentally wrong?

Who would dare remake Citizen Kane? Casablanca? Schindler’s List? Gone With the Wind? No one, and for several reasons. These films are perfect as they are; by this I do not mean they are ‘perfect films’, I mean that they are complete in themselves, partly because of the achievements they represent, but in great part by the impact they had. To try to remake them, to have anyone other than Orson Welles play Kane, of Bogart play Rick, is to diminish something wonderful and spectacular. It should not be attempted because there is no need.

And that is what J.J. Abrams has utterly failed to understand, and in doing so has diminished both the original and his villain. Here he had an amazing opportunity to create someone memorable, someone who might be spoken of in the same sentence as Khan, General Chang, the Borg Queen, or Gul Dukat – adversaries who have gone head to head against Starfleet captains and almost won, and who still inspire a thrilling sense of fear and dread. But no, he has opted to rehash.

I don’t know whether he was it as a dare, or perhaps as something he had to do seeing as how this was the second Star Trek film in the new series, but it is a disservice to everyone involved. I didn’t see him trying to remake The Motion Picture, which, honestly, could do with a makeover. If the argument is to reimagine the entire universe anew, why not start from the beginning? Heck, why not do Where No Man Has Gone Before? Cumberbatch would have made a terrific Gary Mitchell. Why do against the most recognized, and most importantly, beloved of the original stories? Was there no one at any point of the production who raised a hand to say “Really, Abrams? Should we, really?”

The only thing I can think of, and yet that I dread and hesitate to consider, is that it was done purposefully – an intentional attempt to divide fans, to weed out who is here as a Trekkie, and who is here as a fan of the new material. I don’t know why anyone would do that; it is vindictive and hurtful.

And that’s what it boils down to: I am hurt. As a life-long fan – Star Trek has truly existed in my life since I have my first memories, it has shaped the way in which I see the world, and storytelling, family and friends – I am hurt that this film is so insensitive toward us. It shows that J.J. Abrams just doesn’t understand; he doesn’t get why Star Trek is such a phenomenon: that it is more than an exciting story, cool visuals and ships flying through space. Star Trek means a lot to millions of people who grew up with it, and I get as emotionally invested in it as I would listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony or seeing a painting by Van Gogh.

I am mostly sorry for Mr. Cumberbatch as he will forever be remembered as the guy who tried to copy a masterpiece. His portrayal was flawless, under the circumstances, and I cannot fault him in any way. But it is a disservice to him, who will always be compared to the original, and it is a disservice to Montalban. His villain has little meat to it; what is his motivation? For Montalban’s Khan, his actions were driven entirely by revenge against what he perceived to have been a terrible wrong done to him, his family and crew. He hunted Kirk and the Enterprise; he orchestrated a master plan, manipulated, plotted, cheated and murdered his way through, and in the end, he died believing he might have still won. What has this new Khan done by comparison? He committed an act of terrorism, and he coldly and calculatedly tries to kill Kirk and crew. There’s little passion to his motivations, and the small inkling we get of it, the apparent ‘devotion to his crew’, is minimized by his grander goals – to rid the galaxy of inferior beings. This is not only preposterous but it is dropped and forgotten so quickly as to make it a completely unnecessary piece of information. In the end, the great Khan Noonien Singh is reduced to a petty, unmemorable, predictable, two-bit villain.

People will likely tell me that I am too emotional about this, that it is just a show, and that “why can’t new actors play the same old roles”, and I will tell them that they just don’t get it.

The reason why Chris Pine, Zach Quinto, et al, work is because they have been successfully distanced from their original counterparts, and haven’t been made to imitate or compare themselves to them. Even then, it is hard to view them as these characters I grew up caring for so much. I had hoped that Abrams would continue to distance this new series from the original in order to allow these wonderful actors the opportunity to find their own places in the franchise, but it is clear that this is not Abrams’ concern. Why else would he stick so close to the original?

This rant has gone long enough, and in the end I am left feeling slightly betrayed. My frustrated disappointment has dwindled down to resigned disappointment, and my anger has turned to sadness. Sadness at what could have been; sadness at the amount of potential utterly squandered; sadness at the lack of understanding.

Live Long and Prosper, my friends, in spite of it all.

AR

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