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Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) is, in part, an exercise in nostalgia for me since I watched the original run of the television show. To see the same space vehicle boldly going more than forty-five years later is somewhat remarkable given the obsolescence of culture. For the most part, what we found interesting and exciting back in the 1960s is dull and dreary today. Having a crew with the same names and adjacent accents still sitting on the bridge of a starship and commanding a worldwide audience puts the franchise into an elite group of long-life products. Only the comic book heroes like Batman and Superman who also had their television versions featuring Adam West and George Reeves respectively, have had longer runs. Indeed, Star Trek is one of a few original television shows to have maintained its reputation — matched by Doctor Who which was first screened in 1963.

My reason for starting this review in this way is because one of the two essential questions at the heart of this film rehearses the same argument we had been having since the end of World War II. In the 1960s, we were just finishing rebuilding after the devastation caused by the German bombing and my generation was all for peace by bringing people together in co-operative ventures. It was therefore heartening to see the message of the original Star Trek as a united Earth going off to explore and, wherever possible, make friends. We’d seen only too clearly what happened when petty nationalism got out of hand and militarism prevailed. Although the Enterprise had weaponry such as phasers and photon torpedoes, these were not often used and, for the most part, only in self-defence, The hand-held weapons had the virtue of being able to stun rather than kill. So this film encapsulates the debate by having two key ships on display. There’s the USS Enterprise in its Constitution Class form and the USS Vengeance which is a Dreadnought Class vessel developed by Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch): a straight military vessel designed to fight the Klingon Empire. So here comes the question. When people sign up as recruits into the Starfleet Academy, are they going to learn the words of Kumbaya (a song associated with the notion of spiritual unity) and put the Prime Directive into action wherever possible, or are they going to boldly go with photon torpedoes at the ready and shoot down anything that stands in their way of conquest? The answer, of course, is the Federation that emerges in the unfolding television series would be impossible if everyone operated on a shoot first and ask questions afterward basis. Although the Klingons and the Romulans have warrior-based cultures, they both fight for the Federation in the Dominion Wars although the Romulans are resistant to the end.

The Enterprise meets USS Vengeance

The Enterprise meets USS Vengeance

The point of this film is that if Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) gets his way, Earth will follow the Romulan path of expansion through conquest, starting with the Klingons. This is not an unreasonable perspective. It would be naive to assume the space-going races we might meet will all be welcoming. In a competition for planets on which to seed colonies, any races that share the same environmental needs could elect to fight over the prime real estate. Only if there’s a balance of power is there an incentive to negotiate. Thus, on a precautionary basis, Earth should always have a strong military capacity so that we can demonstrate fighting capacity if diplomacy fails. The dividing line between offensive and defensive power is a narrow one and I suspect this film rather oversimplifies the debate. Scotty (Simon Pegg) is very quick to object to the new torpedoes. He’s apparently been quite happy with the old torpedoes and for him to get all high-and-mighty is nothing more than a plot device to get him off the Enterprise. The views of the other characters who comment on the issue are also superficial. I think this an opportunity missed to explore the issue with our “modern” sensibilities.

The second essential question featured is hypocrisy. This is at the heart of the relationship between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), and between the do-gooders of the Enterprise and the political machinery of Earth. Starting with the one-to-one relationship, Spock is only half Vulcan and therefore has some understanding of human psychology. Even if this were not the case, his logic could predict how Kirk will react in different situations. So when Kirk defies the Prime Directive and rescues Spock, it’s entirely foreseeable that Kirk will cover up his infraction. Spock is therefore magnificently stupid to put in a complete report. To claim an inability to lie as the excuse is the height of hypocrisy. He’s perfectly capable of lying if the needs of the many require it. The film therefore charts the emotional arc as Spock resolves an internal debate on the nature of friendship and the need for accommodating emotions. After all, his own father married a human and, with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) very much in play, he has a similar decision to make about that relationship.

Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris Pine size each other up

Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris Pine size each other up

This version of Kirk is interestingly monomaniacal and phenomenally lucky. In other circumstances without Bones (Karl Urban) to protect him, he would probably be locked up as a danger to himself and others around him. He can’t even remember who he’s slept with let alone how many other people he’s dealt with over the years. All you can say about him is that he’s fixated by the needs of command and loyal, in the abstract sense, to the crew of whichever ship he happens to be on. So even though it puts everyone else at risk of being caught in the exploding volcano, he rescues Spock. This is the musketeer approach to command, “All for one, and one for all.” Similarly in the relationship with the political and military structure of Earth’s government, Admiral Marcus can’t be acting alone. This scale of investment could only be sanctioned by a powerful subset of Earth’s command. The ending where that same Earth government sends Kirk and the Enterprise out of the way on a five year mission is also preparing the ground for continuing its own militarism without anyone high-profile and inconvenient around. All Kirk has done is kick the can down the road and he should not be looking so pleased with himself as he warps away from Earth at the end. He’s actually giving up the political fight and running away. When he gets back, he’ll find a fleet of Dreadnought Class vessels and the Klingons beaten into submission.

So where does this leave us? At two hours and twelve minutes, this is too long. There are endless examples of scenes inserted or dragged out to add in extra minutes when what we have is a potentially brilliant script if we left not less than twenty minutes on the cutting-room floor, e.g. cutting down the chase on Kronus, the transfer between the starships, the gratuitous sex scenes, kicking the warp engine, and the fight in San Francisco at the end. So this looks great with some genuinely impressive CGI. The ideas are good albeit not properly developed. Benedict Cumberbatch lights up the screen as the villain of the piece. Zachary Quinto is also impressive. The result is the second-best blockbuster in what has been, to date, a lackluster 2013. J J Abrams is to be congratulated. He got enough right to justify a third in the series. Star Trek Into Darkness is worth seeing.

  1. May 21, 2013 at 5:48 am

    Abrams is one of my favorite directors working right now and after seeing this movie, I can almost guarantee that he won’t make a movie I won’t like. Nice review David.

    • May 21, 2013 at 10:38 am

      He has interesting ideas which is more than you can say for most working in television and film right now.

  2. May 24, 2013 at 6:32 am

    Good review; agreed and disagree, but the disagreement is only on a couple of character beats.

    1.) Scotty wasn’t objecting to the long-range “stealth” function of the new torpedoes–he was objecting to the fact that the torpedoes incorporated a new drive unit. He wasn’t going to sign off on something that, if fired, might BLOW UP HIS SHIP. Overly cautious? Maybe. Hypocritical, no.

    2.) Yes, Spock prevaricated when he said he couldn’t lie; he has and can lie to save others. But as an principled Starfleet officer he won’t lie to save his or anyone’s career. When Pike reamed Kirk out, he lasered right on past the whole Don’t Save A Life If It Might Traumatize The Natives thing; he agreed with Kirk (to quote a ship’s captain from another blockbuster movie “And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”). He hammered Kirk for falsifying an official report; a cardinal sin in any military or government organization. (As Spock admitted, he did goof by not taking into account that Kirk would falsify his own report, and so didn’t warn him against it.)

    Agreed on most of the rest. Kirk has a dangerous God Complex (hopefully a bit of that got knocked off when he found himself staring down the torpedo tubes of a ship about to destroy them and couldn’t do a thing to stop it). It’s nice that, in this show/episode Scotty got the coolest rabbit-from-the-hat save. Yes, there had to be a conspiracy in the Admiralty, I mean come on, who names a ship the USS Vengeance? Nobody, that’s who–but if we’re doing names then in the spirit of things I vote for the USS Look At What You Made Me Do and the USS Collateral Damage.

    You put your thumb squarely on one of the downsides to the movie–actually a continuation of a bad habit from the first Star Trek: Abrams cannot resist fighting on or hanging his characters off of ledges. He resisted temptation nicely in the first half, then made up for it with an orgy of ledge-hanging in the second half (and I would contend that the whole space-dive from the Enterprise to the Revenge was the ultimate cliff-hang). The final Spock/Khan fight went beyond reason and into Oh Come On territory.

    As to the whole political angle, that certainly explains why Starfleet gives this younger Kirk a crowning assignment like the Five Year Mission. Although considering that Khan rammed Starfleet Headquarters WITH A STARSHIP it’s an interesting question how many of the original conspirators are left.

    As a parting shot, of course you noticed how hard the Temporal Law of Narrative Inevitability is at work in this new timeline: not only is a newer younger crew all in their proper chairs, but Khan has reappeared and been duly beaten and Kirk saves the Enterprise with a sacrifice gambit mirroring Spock’s in the original timeline…

    I hope this doesn’t become another bad habit.

    • May 24, 2013 at 11:13 am

      On reflection, your analysis of Scotty is more right than mine. At the time, it just felt too convenient a plot manoeuvre to get him out of the way. It seemed he was on a ship with military potential and was unreasonably upset that command had given him something “experimental” that could blow up his ship. Ever since government first begin supplying soldiers with flint axe heads bound to unseasoned sticks with bits of vine rather than leather straps, line soldiers have been complaining about the desk-bound leaders who never have to use the latest damn things invented by boffins in combat. The SNAFU principle dictates that every new innovation has teething problems and the line soldiers look to people like Scotty to problem-solve on the hoof and keep then alive.

      In every organisation I’ve been involved with, almost everyone lies when they feel their positions are under threat. Captain Jack is a classic example of the phenomenon. In this case, even the Admirals are lying about their building a shadow fleet.

      Following in the footsteps of the Culture novels, we should start a competition to see who can come up with the most interesting names for the ships to fight the Klingons.

      Given the size of the USS Revenge, there must be an off-planet “yard” where she was built and fitted out. It must have taken thousands of people to produce the product we see. Killing off one or two heads to the hydra in Headquarters isn’t going to slow down production.

      I too worry about the future of the series. If this sociopathic Kirk hung around in our space, we could get into some very interesting dark political infighting as the military wing of the emerging Federation tries to provoke the Klingons into war. As it is, the commencement of the five year mission just looks like an excuse to modify ideas from the original storyline and make them fit into this new universe — not a recipe for success. What we should be aiming for is something more original.

  3. May 24, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    Not saying what Kirk’s falsifying a report was unforgivable–just that in most military organizations when a superior officer catches you doing it it’s a court-martial offense, and you wind up in the stockade or cashiered altogether.

    Come to think of it, I might have gotten the idea for the oddball ship names from a Culture book (it’s been so long I can’t remember).

    As to the USS Revenge, I don’t actually see a problem with its construction. Certainly keeping construction secret is an interesting security problem, but that would simply be a matter of building components off-site and having the assembly crews isolated till it’s done. Companies are used to building items to spec with no idea what they’re being used for.

    As to the conspiracy to start the war, that could be a very small, tight group–everybody under them is simply following orders that, taken separately from the triggering event, might seem perfectly innocuous. I guess what I’m trying to say is there doesn’t have to be a deep rot in Starfleet for this plot to have been carried out (even the construction of the Dreadnought class ship seems sensible as a precaution when dealing with Klingons).

    Really, the truth is that we have so little stellar-political context for this new Star Trek universe that all thoughts are really WAGS (wild-assed-guesses).

    • May 24, 2013 at 2:16 pm

      I see Alan Dean Foster has done the novelisation and, when he was younger, he was quite good at “filling in the blanks”. Unfortunately, it’s not so much the blanks in the context, it’s giant black holes so I don’t think it will be worth reading. What we really need is the scriptwriters’ bible to see how their assumptions evolved into the action we see.

      PS In my vernacular, WAGs means “wives and girlfriends” although I suppose, at a drunken party, it might be difficult to guess who was paired with whom.

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