Damn it Jim, I'm a SPOILER!
Okay, with that out of the way, I would like to discourse about Star Trek Into Darkness, Trek in general, and, of course, me (my blog and all).
Bottom line first: I liked the new movie.
It is clever and exciting. I think they have a solid cast for the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and the supporting cast, particularly Peter Weller and (break out performer soon to be starring in everything) Benedict Cumberbatch, were outstanding.
Still, I have problems with the movie, and even moreso for what it says about the future of Star Trek as a franchise and cultural phenomenon.
This history of Trek is well know and covered by pop cultural historians and science fiction gurus of much greater brain than me. However, I have my own personal take.
Star Trek was first broadcast in 1966, the year before I was born. Before I was two, the show was off the air. But the phenomenon was just starting.
I don't remember when my father first introduced me to Star Trek, but I was probably fairly young. Until I was in middle school, we only had a black and white TV, so my memories of Star Trek start without color, though I have mostly overwritten those memories with having seen all the episodes in color, and many of them remastered and enhanced. Still, my father, who had worked in the aerospace industry and contributed to the development of the Saturn V rocket (one of thousands of engineers, but still, SATURN V!), introduced me to science fiction, first with Star Trek, and later with books like Ringworld.
As a little kid, I not only got to get acquainted with the Original Series, but I also saw quite a few episodes of the Animate Series, which, despite mediocre animation, actually holds up with pretty good writing for a lot of the episodes. I absorbed a lot of Trek.
When I was in fourth grade, my dad spent a semester back as a visting professor at his alma mater, University of Utah, teaching in the math deparment. This would have been 1977 and I was 10 years old. I remember owning a Star Trek uniform shirt with the insignia patch (blue, though I think the patch had the "Command" insignia, because it was just some off the rack novelty shirt). I also had bought the plastic model kit that let me build my own phaser, communicator and tricorder. I was a firm fan. And one magical night in Salt Lake City, my dad took me to a Star Trek presentation. I wore my shirt. It was not really a convention, as far as I can remember. We went to an auditorium, and Gene Roddenberry was there, and gave a talk, and then showed "The Cage" and then a blooper reel, and it was really cool. And my dad gave me the Star Trek Concordance, by Bjo Trimble, which I devoured.
So, I have to say I have a fundamentally emotional connection to Star Trek, which starts with my childhood and my dad, and continues to present.
Along the way, there have been other notable connections. In 1979, when the Star Trek movies launched with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I went on my first date with a girl to see the movie.
I'm not sure whether she thought the movie or me was more boring, but I mildly enjoyed the movie. They had successfully got the crew back togeher. The film is ponderous, a script and production that was neither in touch with the old series, nor with the cinematic zeitgeist that had seen the revolutionary change wrought by Star Wars. Star Trek TMP harkens back to films like 2001 A Space Odyssey in its shots of space and space ships, and that was rendered a dead language by the fast flight of the Millenium Falcon and the run of Luke's X-Wing down the trench on the Death Star. It did, however, manage some of the character work decently, especially the critical relationship between Kirk and Spock. Still, the movie is hard to watch.
However, without The Motion Picture, and its modest box office success, you would not have had the next movie.
I saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with my family in Monterey California in 1982. Everything that had been wrong with the first movie got corrected. The writers and the director understood the series, the characters, and understood the cinematic language needed to tell a story of the 23rd Century as envisioned in the Original Series. I was on board for almost anything they would feed me.
I enjoyed Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, despite some flaws. I loved Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. It's focus on the characters, especially Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the humor, and the setting (some of which was filmed in my home town) all hooked me. Also, it came out on my birthday in 1986, and I managed to make it home from college and to the theater just in time to join other high school friends to see it.
Also, by this time, I was not only watching Star Trek, but playing a role playing game, run by a friend, with my own captain and ship. We were not content to just watch Star Trek, we were making our own memories and adventures with our imagination, using the tools Trek had given us.
The year Star Trek: The Next Generation came out, I was studying abroad and missed the first run of the season. However, my friend and Trek RPG game master, sent me a huge care package for my birthday with included posters of some of the cast, the novelization of the first episode, and also hilarious "radio drama" he had made with friends at college, which was all about the crew of my starship in the game going in search of their lost captain. In my friend's letters, I got an overview of how the series was developing, the positives and setbacks.
Then, when I got back, my mom had a friend who had video taped all the episodes, so I had my first experience with binge watching a series in 1988, as I caught up on the entire season.
My fandome was firmly renewed.
Then Star Trek V came out and my fandome was sorely tested.
Still, I stuck with it for seven seasons of TNG.
I loved Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (actually, I think I cried a bit when they did the sign off at the end.
I stuck with Deep Space 9 for all seven seasons.
I enjoyed Star Trek Generations.
Star Trek Voyager lost me in season 4 or so.
Star Trek First Contact was a revelation, and I saw it on a day that was one of my best and then became a nightmare of one of the worst times in my whole life. Through it all, the fictional heroism, sacrifice and friendship of the crew of the starship Enterprise shadowed me and help hold me together just a bit.
I terribly disappointed with Insurrection and Nemesis.
I never watched Star Trek Enterprise (though riding a wave of nostalgia, I watched the pilot: Broken Bow, this past weekend, and it was actually pretty good).
So, in 2009, when they were leading up to the JJ Abrams reboot/What If? version of Trek, I had not been watching a regular show since 1999, and the last movie I had seen in the theater was First Contact in 1996.
I was skeptical. Very skeptical.
It seemed to be taking one of the worst rejected ideas of rumored Trek development "Starfleet Academy," which would recast the main crew with new, young and more attractive actors, and running with it. Also, by doing a kind of reboot, it put the creators in the position of taking the pieces of what made the Orignal Series great, and just cherry picking from them rather than doing much new. I wasn't sure how it would work out.
However, the first movie in 2009 was a lot of fun. They did play with the elements of canon and character to recombined them in new, but interesting, ways. Sure, in some ways it was a revenge movie akin to Star Trek II, madman Nero and all. Also, it rehashed some of Star Trek The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home with giant space probes coming to destroy Earth. It also had a dash of the time travel timeline change elements of Trek IV and Star Trek First Contact. The changed a great deal about the technology and they rode roughshod over a lot of logic. They left the timeline "polluted," but all in the name of a "fresh" start. Yet it all worked. It made me interested in what they would do next.
So fast foward four years. In that time, many things had been tossed around as being what was "next."
The thing I was certain would be a terrible idea would be to bring in Khan Noonian Singh. TOS episode Space Seed and Star Trek II are pretty sacred objects in the Trek pantheon. It seemed like there would be so much room to screw it up, and, in a limitless universe, it seemed like you could find some other stories to tell. Besides, the whole reason for the reboot was in order to escape the shackles of the canon. Take the characters, with some twists, and do them afresh with new adventures and new developments.
So, what did Star Trek Into Darkness bring us?
Now, I have to concede that they were extremely clever with the "What if?" scenario. In the wake of the last movie, including the total destruction of the planet Vulcan and the majority of the Vulcan race, we are in a darker, more frightened Federation.
So, in a timeline that fractured off from the old timeline when the Narada (a Borg enhanced Romulan supership) crossed back into this period, destroyed the U.S.S. Kelvan and set Kirk on his divergent path, you get Khan, but a Khan who makes a different entrance into the Federation.
He is not encounted on the Botany Bay by the Enterprise, but instead by some other ship, and he and his crew are not revived, but instead, brought back to earth. Admiral Marcus wakes Khan up and employs him as a special advisor on weapons and tactical developments because it is a darker and scarier universe out there. Marcus is eying war with the Klingons, Khan is biding his time to free his fellow Botany Bay exiles to return to his dreams of conquest and rule.
Clever. Well done.
But . . .
Like the last movie, there are more than a few holes.
Why is Khan paler than the paint on the Enterprise hull?
Look, I know Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor, and his performance was terrific. It was a great way to make a counterpoint to the way that Ricardo Montalban owned the role. However, while you could almost believe that the Mexican Montalban could be a Punjabi Sikh, I can't for a minute see Cumberbatch in a beard and turban and being at all convincing. Of course, the selection, beyond the intensity and capability of the acting, served another purpose. It is hard to guess that Cumberbatch is Khan because it is so ludicrous that the Sikh Khan Noonian Singh could be played by the very English Cumberbatch. Further, Cumberbatch is a decade younger in his portrayal of Khan than Montalban was for the filming of Space Seed. So, it serves the deception.
JJ Abrams could have cast someone who knew and trusted as a much more believable Khan, Naveen Andrews, who is of Indian heritage, who played a Sikh in The English Patient, and who worked with Abrams on Lost. He is also in his 40s, just a Montalban was. Of course, if he had been cast, it would have ruined the surprise. Everyone could have guessed that he would play Khan, because it is an obvious choice.
They had to preserve the gimmick. As much as I loved Cumberbatch in the role, I think Andrews would have been better casting.
That aside, the other BIG THING, is the death scene for Kik. Now, on the whole, I thought they handled things well. They made the dialog between the dying Kirk and Spock a similar, but different conversation than the reversed situation in Star Trek II. It was clever.
But it was not earned.
Between the Chris Pine Kirk and Zachary Quinto Spock we have hardly any relationship built. The 2009 movie started it, but then we had a four year hiatus, and then this movie. While we can accept that off screen they built the relationsip that brings Spock to tears as Kirk dies, all the work, all the heavy lifting is done by the work done by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in three seasons of The Orignal Series and five movies (okay, there were six, but I really want to forget one of them). The emotional depth is there because we know not this Kirk and Spock, but because we know the REAL Kirk and Spock (or at least the original versions).
I mean no slight to Pine and Quinto. They nail the scene, but they had to come to that scene with little groundwork for their portrayals of the characters, not to mentione them just being younger men and actors than Shatner and Nimoy were when they played their version of the scene. They just don't have the mileage in the relationship on and off screen.
For this accelerated, streamlined version of Trek, this has to happen, not after decades of service together, but after just a few years. Further, it continues the trend of sidelining McCoy. DeForest Kelley was at the center of the dynamic that made The Original Series work. While Karl Urban is doing a fine job with what he's been given, this version of Trek has him sidelined. While the Kirk-Spock relationship is key, where it is not leavened with McCoy, it just is not working as well as it could be. It seems to have been replaced, in some ways, with the Three being Kirk, Spock and Uhura. There is some interesting dynamics there, and I am not opposed to widening the roles of other characters, but McCoy either is a central part of balancing Kirk as a leader, or we are not balancing the characters in a way that I think is needed.
And finally, as we are moving at Warp speed through the highlights of the Trek universe in the new version, we already know from not one, but two BIG HINTS, that Kirk won't be dead for more than a few minutes of screen time. For Spock, there was a funeral and a whole other movie. For new Kirk, we know before he went into the warp core that he would be back on top before the movie was over.
Some other obsevations I had that nagged me from the movie. The second half is choppy.
We get the battle, Kirk's death, but then KHAN!!!! and we are having a huge mass casualty crash of the Dreadnought (another old Trek concept) into San Francisco, then a foot chase between Spock and Khan, then Uhura is beaming down and shooting Khan and calming Spock, then Kirk is waking up Alive! (what a surprise!) and then he is making a speech a year after the events. Then they start the 5-year mission.
That was a bumpy road to the ending. They tried to do a lot. It was all exciting and all, but it did really give me a little mental whiplash. Not a smooth conclusion.
Okay, and a year later and . . . why aren't we at war with the Klingons? Kirk and Khan beat, kiled, and exploded a bunch of them and their ships. How is it that there are absolutely no reprecussions? Well, in our accelerated Treknoverse, either 1) the just didn't notice because it would be an inconvenient plot development, or 2) it all got resolved off screen before Kirk made his speech.
Either way, a little cheap there.
Carol Marcus. I have mixed feelings. Clever introduction. Good tie back and across to Star Trek II. She gets added to the crew, so, maybe they will try to realize some really different ideas, but I knind of think they are going to blow it. I did think it was interesting that in Star Trek II she was a total peacenik scientist, at odds with, but begrugingly cooperating with Starfleet (really a reflection of what was the zeitgeist of the early 1980s), but here she is a weapons expert who was only a few steps behind her crazy warmongering Admiral dad. But they have to go somewhere with the character or it is just a "look how clever we are" moment which is all sound a fury, signifying nothing.
They continue to make the galaxy feel very small. It takes seconds, seemingly, to travel to the Neutral Zone with the Klingons. And seconds to get back from there too. This is just like the seconds it took to get to Vulcan. True, there are explosions and chases and huge starship crashes that need to get on screen, so spending time getting from point A to point B is kind of a waste for what they wanted to do, but it does kind of take the Trek out of Star Trek. There is little sense of journey.
Finally, Old Spock. Okay, glad to see Nimoy and Quinto on screen besides a car commerical. It doesn't add much. Hey young Spock, as you guessed, Khan can't be trusted, he's a dangerous, and it might cost a lot to stop him. Of course, most of the cost is off screen. Kirk is less than temporarily dead. The thousands of people that would seem to be killed with a Dreadnought crashing into San Francisco, well, we don't even get to spare a thought for them. This is, after all, a BIG MOVIE.
And my really big but . . .
While we have been shown two movies where the writers and production staff have cleverly reimagined the Federation and the Enterprise crew, they have not reached escape velocity from the gravity of Trek Canon, which was something they had intended to do.
We are still telling the same stories. This movie, expertly made (with some issues), is a mash up of themes, events, ideas and characters from Star Trek II and Star Trek VI. It is bright, shiny, exciting, but it is essentially a retread. There is not much new here.
Now, maybe all the stories have been told. But then, that might mean trouble for Trek.
I don't believe all the stories have been told, but I think it is going to take a great deal more brain and imagination and a willingness to leave the clever twists behind.
I think they need something new.
Ironically, I think they could get there by going old school. JJ Abrams can't direct the next movie as he takes over the Star Wars franchise, though he will stay on as Executive Producer. Who should direct?
Paging Nicholas Meyer!
Really, I think it could work.
So, to bottom line it, again, I liked the movie.
But I fear for the future of Trek. I mean, it will never die. Fans proved that after it was cancelled. But, as a living franchise that can add ideas that appeal to people going forward. We are on the point of losing it, it seems to me.
First, with no episodic series, there is no journey, no long development of characters and relationships. The movie cast won't be coming to our small screen, and it is unclear if any other story vehicle for the new or old Trek universes ever will again. So, what we can look forward to is perhaps a few more New Trek movies, spaced out over many years. And, while they have achieved great success as spectacle and action, they are coasting on character. I don't mean to downplay the performances of the actors. I admire them, but much of the ensemble gets little to do, and so these alternate versions of the beloved characters are either coasting on the groundwork laid by other actors, or reduced to mere characatures. While there are fine moments for Kirk, Spock and Uhura, and a good portion for Scotty, McCoy, Sulu and Chekov don't do much. I've already commented about how we really don't have enough screen time with these characters to have had the new journey with them. So instead, we are forced to rely on what came before.
I think we need a movie that is less explody and chase filled, and one that explores some ideas, and most especially this crew and their relationships. If they can do that, they can trascend just cleverly reconstructing plots and reassembling characters from old Trek movies, and move really into a new universe.
If not, well, its been fun, and it probably will be fun. But it won't be the kind of Trek that Gene Roddenberry bequeathed us.
Maybe they will bring us the next Voyage Home or Undiscovered Country, in that they bring us original elements of character, humor, zeitgeist and an ineffable feeling of Trek, or maybe they are going to jump the shark and give us Insurrection or, gods forbid, Final Frontier.
Or maybe they will just bring us a big loud Transformers like Sci Fi movie, or some other pleasant enough actioner with Star Trek trappings, but the fact that it is Trek won't matter at all.
I am hoping that Nicholas Meyers or the next generational heir of his approach is coming to set a strong course for us.
But I just don't know.
Live long and prosper.