Star Trek Into Frustration

Well, despite my initial intentions to not see the new Star Trek movie until the DVD came out, a number of factors intervened: the fact that we went on vacation (and seeing a movie on vacation is always fun), and The Daughter’s crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. So, off we went to see the movie. I expected that my reaction would be similar to that I had for the first one, and sure enough, it was. I loved watching it. It’s a tremendously entertaining movie, expertly paced, wonderfully shot, beautifully acted. It scratched my ever-present itch for Explodey Spaceshippy Goodness, just like the last one.

And it frustrated the hell out of me on the script end, just like the last one.

On the design end, this bunch of filmmakers is getting so much right. I love the look of the world they’re in; I love that it’s not ‘dystopia as far as the eye can see’, as is so often the case in SF these days. I love the look of the ships, and I don’t even mind JJ Abrams’s somewhat-infamous lens flares. This movie, as much as the last one, looks the part, and it does a really nice way of bringing those old 1960s-era costume designs into a future in a way that doesn’t look completely ridiculous.

Also, the cast continues to be superb. About the only weak link I’ve found thus far is the fellow who plays Sulu, and really, how could you tell, given how little he has to do? This group has real honest-to-God chemistry, and watching them interact is most of the fun.

So why is the script so maddening?

Let’s just get my little “Star Trek fanboy” complaints out of the way first. I know, I know, “This ain’t your daddy’s Star Trek!” But the producers keep saying that basically, yes, it is; it’s the exact same universe, but time went in a different direction, so different stuff happens. So as nifty as the visual is, I can’t get behind the Enterprise hiding at the bottom of an ocean. I can’t get behind starships going to warp speed while in a planetary atmosphere. (They did this in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home as well, and yes, it bugged me then, too.) And I can’t get behind two starships having a firefight while in warp.


I really don’t know what the whole purpose of using Khan in this movie was, except to use Khan in a movie. It’s very strange. Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a frankly wonderful performance of the scenery-chewing villain (although he’s so flamboyantly chewing the scenery that I was disappointed that the film put him in an all-black costume, instead of clothing him more interestingly). But the script – but Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof – does absolutely none of its own heavy lifting. When we finally get to Cumberbatch’s big reveal – “My name is KHAN!”, complete with rumble in the soundtrack’s bass – it’s clear that Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof aren’t interested in creating their own emotional space here. What they’re after is mining the original. We’re meant to feel something, some kind of dread, when we learn that we’re dealing with KHAN here. But the script doesn’t bother to earn that moment. The proper response there would be for Kirk to blink and say, “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

Ultimately, the script for this movie is really lazy. It’s lazy in the way it brings Khan in for no real reason other than that he comes with a built-in story that doesn’t need to be explained or elucidated, and it’s lazy in the way it converts Khan into a mad killing machine. The original Khan was a charismatic leader, almost a genetically-enhanced Hitler. He was megalomaniacal and wanted to rule a world that he made in his own image; we see none of that in this movie’s Khan. He pays very brief lip service to his followers, but as they all spend the entire movie in suspended animation, that’s all we know of that. There’s no real sense to what, if anything, really drives Khan to do the things he does, other than a vague “I’m mad at the world!” kind of thing, which is pretty much what Eric Bana had as the bad guy in the last Trek movie. Of course, Cumberbatch is leaps-and-bounds better than Bana as an actor, so he’s able to imbue his Khan with menace that Nero never had, but ultimately, it’s a case of “So what?”

(Brief pause here to note that I’ve always had problems with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on kind of the same basis. Yes, it’s a great movie – although I do not think it the best of the Original Series movies, even though popular culture insists that it is – but I’ve always had trouble with the way it takes the interesting set-up of the original “Space Seed” episode, which ends with Khan and friends being left on a wild and untamed planet, and reduces it to, “Nothing came of that and now Khan is furious and insane”. More interesting, I think, to see what kind of society Khan would have built if he’d had the chance. Wrath does pay lip service to this, when one of Khan’s underlings tries to talk him out of his “Hunt down Jim Kirk” plan – “You have a ship! You have Genesis! You can have whatever you want!” – but that goes nowhere. Wrath uses a great villain to great effect, and yet I always feel that it was a wasted opportunity. Of course, this is hindsight, when back in 1982, if Wrath didn’t do well, Trek as a whole would have likely died on the vine.)

I’ve heard Into Darkness praised for its subplot about the militarization of society and the rise of a security state, but I’m wondering – just what is the justification for all this? In the real world, real events happen that jolt society in those directions. Where is the 9-11 event in Star Trek Into Darkness? We don’t know, so Admiral Marcus’s plot ultimately boils down to more scenery-chewing villainy. Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof give us yet more villains whose motivations are barely enough to motivate them to get out of bed in the morning, much less wreak galactic havoc.

“This ain’t your daddy’s Star Trek!” Well, if that’s the case, then why is the entire movie little more than a giant re-creation and inversion of the emotional beats at the end of The Wrath of Khan? Because that’s what this movie is, to the point of recycling dialogue and visual cues. It’s incredibly lazy writing, and it wastes all the strengths in this production. There’s this odd air surrounding the Trek reboot that longtime Trek fans shouldn’t criticize it because it’s a reboot, because it’s new, because it’s made for people now who don’t know anything about Trek as it was. That’s pretty stupid and insulting, though; if not for all those years of Trek fans, there wouldn’t be anything to reboot in the first place, and since these two films are so hell-bent on offering fan service that is almost entirely derived from The Wrath of Khan, it’s extremely disingenuous for the producers to then claim “But it’s a reboot!” Because it’s not a reboot.

Battlestar Galactica is a reboot. You can argue about whether it’s done well or not – I think it is, but I know others who aren’t fans of it and prefer the original – but there is no connection at all between the 1978 show and the 2004 one. They aren’t different timelines in the same universe, they’re completely different shows, and they are about completely different things. Yes, the latter does have a few bits of fanservice here and there (the original theme of the 1978 show being the Caprica National Anthem, for example), but that’s it. That’s how you do a reboot. What Trek is doing is lazy tribute, which isn’t the same thing.

And since they’re not doing reboot but rather tribute, I can criticize them on getting so much stuff wrong. Like starships firing at warp or hiding underwater. And like continuing to get the central relationships of Trek completely wrong by once again insisting that it’s “Kirk and Spock” and not “Kirk, Spock, and McCoy“. God, that annoys the hell out of me. Dr. McCoy is just a supporting player this time around, only there to pop in with a useful plot bit a few times, such as his utterly inexplicable “Hmmm, I think I’ll inject this dead tribble with this guy’s blood!” experiment.

Which brings me to my biggest frustration: Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof don’t seem to grasp for one second the implications of the science fiction world they are creating. Consider that at the end of this movie, we can (a) use the transporter to beam ourselves across thousands of light years (so why do we need ships anymore?), and (b) we can bring people back from the dead by injecting them with Khan’s genetically-engineered blood. Either one of these would be a leap forward for our species in a way that would be like cavemen skipping over fire and the wheel and going straight to medieval architecture. But here, these are just plot points. (Yes, original Trek made similar mistakes – say, even if the Genesis project failed, there was still some awfully interesting stuff learned in the R&D phase, right? – but we’re not talking about the sins of original Trek right now.)

So I guess I fall once again into the position of hoping that Trek continues with different writers. Damon Lindelof is a terrible writer, anyway – Prometheus was embarrassing, and Lindelof clearly has gone all-in with his belief that if you just never explain anything logically at all, lots of folks will take that as profundity – and Orci and Kurtzman aren’t a hell of a lot better. Maybe they can be around for a dialog polish, but they continue to fail to understand their own characters and the universe they’re working in, and they write plots more than character-driven stories.

I want a Trek where James T. Kirk has some agency, where he figures things out and takes control. I want a Trek where Spock doesn’t take advantage of a guy’s moment of death to give himself the ultimate snuff film. (Watch the scene where Pike dies and tell me that’s not what’s going on when Spock mind-melds with him, especially later on when Spock admits it. God, that was a skeevy moment.) I want a Trek where Vulcans aren’t just a bunch of people repressing their emotions. I want a Trek where things happen in logical sequence arising out of what’s gone before, as opposed to things happening because that’s what’s gotta happen next. I want a Trek where things like this don’t happen:

KIRK dies. MCCOY is sad.

But then, in the best bit of resurrectional timing since Jesus himself, the dead tribble purrs.

MCCOY realizes how to bring KIRK back to life!

As much as I think Chris Pine does a great job with what he’s given, I want an end to this idea of Kirk as adolescent screw-up with loads of potential if he could just realize it. I have seen that story literally hundreds of times. What was always interesting to me about James T. Kirk was that he excelled as a young man because he was more competent than anyone else. He wasn’t some renegade maverick disregarding the rules; Jim Kirk was a genius who always figured out ways to make the rules work for him. These writers seem to think we need to see Kirk grow into his role, whereas the fact is, he was always there. I’m not sure I can see Chris Pine’s Kirk ever giving this speech, and you know whose fault that is? It’s not Chris Pine’s.

Again: I love the cast, love the look, love the music. I even loved a lot of the dialog, and I find Spock’s relationship with Uhura an intriguing element. Scotty was terrific this time out. There are a lot of elements in place on this version of Trek that are wonderful, so I pray that next time out, the script lives up to them instead of just putting them through the paces of a plot that basically boils down to fanservice.

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4 Responses to Star Trek Into Frustration

  1. mylittlegeekery says:

    I agree with almost everything as posted, and would like to add two more things. "Bones" McCoy isn't utilized nearly as well as he should be. You mentioned Sulu not getting enough love, but my favorite character of the whole series (even into the new films) is Bones.

    And honestly I am not a fan of the Spock/Uhura thing. Just… not. No. Nope. Ut uh.

  2. Gregory says:

    Ultimately, the script for this movie is really lazy.

    The script for the movie provided just enough for them to hang an effects-heavy tentpole movie on. I agree with your comments about the movie, and it's sad how blatantly cynical Hollywood is about being able to get away with, if not outright celebrating, bad screenwriting. With the kind of budget STiD had, it'd have been nice if they'd hired someone with the professional pride to write a decent script.

  3. Justin Whitaker says:

    Thank goodness they are NOT writing Episode VII. (Still can't get over saying that "title.") Haven't seen ST:ID yet but am disappointed the villain is named Khan. Feels tagged on for nostalgia. Ah well, doesn't take away from ST2. 🙂

  4. Roger Owen Green says:

    I think the original Wrath of Khan (which is my my favorite, but I only saw the first five films) is so loved because the first film was so damn boring when I saw it in the theater that I almost didn't see II.

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