Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Star Trek, old and new

I saw Into Darkness a few weeks ago and just never got around to writing about it. Just before, I re-watched Wrath of Khan. Just after, I watched First Contact. So, having finally found the time to write something, I want to write about it it relation to the second iteration of each of the other two Star Trek movie franchises.

I liked Into Darkness, and I liked it for largely the same reason that I liked Abrams' first Star Trek: it was a really good Star Wars movie. Lots of stuff blew up, it was really exciting, and Cumberbatch's voice boomed with deep, sexy authority. I left wanting to jump from flying car to flying car like some genetically-modified superman. And that's just about all the response that it inspired.

This is actually from Star Trek: Insurrection, but I thought it looked hilarious.

Now, you might be thinking that my Wars/Trek distinction is splitting-hairs. And, sure, there's a lot of overlap between the franchises, especially the pre-1987 versions of each that seem to be the most resonant versions. Both imagine outer space as a basically lawless Wild West frontier, and imagine that cowboys and Zen masters are probably the archetypes best-suited to wrangle it.

But there's still a difference, and I'll go to Star Trek itself to help put a name to it. When, in The Next Generation, Jean Luc Picard locates an AWOL Ambassador Spock behind enemy lines, he refers to his actions (and, implicitly, that of the original Star Trek crew) as "cowboy diplomacy [that] will not easily be tolerated anymore". In Star Wars, cowboy stuff is the subject of the series - though, admittedly, it does cowboy stuff really well. But in the original Star Trek (TOS), "cowboy" is just an adjective, dressing for the deeper political and philosophical questions that it's trying to raise. It often asked the wrong questions or raised them in cheesy ways, sure, but the cowboy stuff was largely a vehicle to sell that higher purpose.

Anyway, and TL;DR: Star Trek Into Darkness is not really a Star Trek movie.

And not only is it not a Star Trek movie, but, contrary to the buzz on the internets, it's not even the best Khan movie. And among the Into Darkness, Wrath of Khan, and First Contact trifecta of Star Trek sequels, it's not even the second-best of the bunch.

In no particular order, then, here are the things about Into Darkness that give me pause. I'll elaborate more afterward.
  1. Like Wrath of Khan, it tries to build its emotional center on the Kirk-Spock friendship. It doesn't work.
  2. There's paying homage, and then there's just straight-up repetition...
  3. ...and when it does something that a previous Trek also did, it does it worse.
  4. When it acknowledges the post-TOS franchises, it misunderstands and mangles them.
  5. When it tries to show us growth and change, it fails.
  6. Khan is white.  Khan should not be white.

*     *     *

1. "You are my friend"

Kirk and Spock weren't friends in the first film. They don't seem to particularly like one another in this one, either. And where the friendship is forced to work... well, it's forced and doesn't work.

Take the scene where Spock looks shocked that Kirk has requested that the former be re-assigned as first officer under the latter. He should be. The movie has given us absolutely no reason to think Kirk should trust Spock, much less like him. The motivating force for their friendship seems to be destiny - they should be good friends because they were best friends in the original series, and Kirk knows this. That's weak. The movie wants that emotional pay-off when Kirk dies, but it hasn't done the work and doesn't earn the right.

2. Homage/repetition

I've been involved in a lot of arguments about the usefulness of homage and repetition in serial storytelling. I don't think I'm alone in suggesting that there's something lazy about reboots, though that doesn't necessarily mean that they're boring. The same rule applies to remakes, though I think these edge closer to being boring by default and need to work hard to prove they're not a waste of time. Because I think that either - the reboot or the remake - can be perfectly enjoyable things. They can be fun, even if they don't cover any new ground and, so, aren't anything more than that. But fun could be enough.

But while Star Trek seemed to pay homage, to wink at the old stuff, while establishing some new story, this film simply repeats a lot of their plot points. The most egregious moment is probably the reversed death scene, where Kirk fixes the warp engine and dies of radiation poisoning while Spock watches, and Spock gets to yell the "KHAAAAAAAN!" line. It a do-over, really, but with the roles reversed, and it doesn't add to or improve the original scene.

3. The same, but worse

In fact, I'd argue that the new radiation death scene is the weaker version. There are a couple of reasons I'm claiming this, so I'll do a simple bullet-list:
  •  In Khan, the death scene follows Khan's defeat. It is the sole occupant of our attention, and its placement in the story is a textbook demonstration of how you tell the story of a pyrrhic victory - the dizzying high, the devastating low. But Kirk's "death" in Into Darkness lacks the emotional weight because we know he isn't actually dead. It also has to be timed to happen before Khan's defeat, so we can't even linger on the moment.
  • In Khan, Spock calmly enters a clean, white, and eerily 2001-esque engine core room and seals himself behind a glass door while the engineering team watches in horror. It's a slow, banal exercise that grows slower and visibly painful as he starts to die. And it's almost totally silent. By comparison, Into Darkness's version shows that less is, indeed, more. The engine room is hilariously monstrous and inaccessible, and Kirk's attempts to climb the tubes/pipes to reach the engine is the real source of drama, here. Kirk's subsequent efforts to re-align the engine by hurling himself against it thusly becomes an apt metaphor for what his movie is trying to do with the source material - hit it really hard and hope everything falls into place.

4. Misreading and mangling

I'll keep this one short. I though it was really cool when the Admiral made a reference to Section 31, the cloak-and-dagger department we were introduced to in Deep Space Nine. Existing outside the official command structure of Starfleet, 31 was so secret that only top-level admirals seemed to know that it was a real thing - and even Admiral Ross would only confirm this when it was a) absolutely clear that Captain Sisko knew 31 was real, b) he had no choice.

Anyway, the novelty of the reference is lost almost immediately, when you realize that Admiral Marcus a) shouldn't know why 31 was using Khan, b) shouldn't be involved in the command structure of 31, c) 31, itself, shouldn't have a command structure, and d) he sure as hell wouldn't be talking about any of this with Kirk.

So, basically, they wanted to drop the name that would earn them cred with the hardcore fans, but without actually making any effort to represent the organization accurately. Super. And par for the course, really.

5. When character growth isn't actually character growth

I'm losing patience as I write, so I'll try to be even shorter. In the supposed climax, where Spock should be demonstrating what he's learned in order to out-fox Khan, the screenwriters take the easy way out instead. He just asks Old Spock what he should do. And then, presumably, does it. Weak.

6. White Khan

I'm not the first to say this, but I'll say it anyway. Khan isn't white, he shouldn't be white, and this constitutes an epic failure on the part of the people who wrote, cast, and produced the film.  (It's telling that no one seemed to think it mattered until the casting decision started to get criticized. Star Trek, it seems, engenders post-racial delusions in the mind of people who don't experience racism.)

Ricardo Montalban played the original Khan. Montalban, it should be said, was a white Mexican - though he passes convincingly as a person of color, so much so that John Cho (Sulu) referred to him as such - and his Khan was styled so as to appear at least somewhat Aboriginal. But we're also told that he was a benevolent dictator who conquered Asia and the Middle East, so it may just be that the producers thought he was close enough to South Asian to pass. (That is, they assumed that 'not white' was good enough.)

Also, his name is Khan Singh. Let's not pretend otherwise: the dude was obviously supposed to be Indian. And for this film, they cast a white, blue-eyed, English guy. And never bothered to explain why. Um, no.

*     *     *

I just realized that I promised a discussion of First Contact - because I claimed it was a better Star Trek film - and that never happened. Next time...


Vivien said...

I never watched Star Trek growing up - so I enjoyed the new films are fun sci fi action films. The whole race thing is ridiculous though - they could have cast an Indian actor easily and if they wanted to tap into Cumberbatch's rising star, they could have made him one of the other dudes from Khan's original crew. I understand they probably wanted to parallel the two captains' journey etc etc.... but.... yeah. White blue eyed English guy.

James said...

Hi Neil – I agree with your engine room metaphor. Good point.
Rodenberry’s films definitely have a more psychedelic, Stanley Kubrick-esque feel than the Abrams ones. You mentioned how the engine room in Star Trek II resembled 2001 in your blog. I think there are a bunch of examples to draw from in those early films. You can even see it in the early seasons of TNG. In particular, I’m thinking about how Q was introduced to the series.
Rodenberry’s work, though great, falls too far outside of the mainstream for Hollywood to pay it serious homage so we have to settle for window dressing. If I have to choose, though, bad Star Trek is better than no Star Trek. And who knows – maybe a new movie or series will come along to recapture its original essence. My money is on Clooney in Gravity.

Anonymous said...

Star Trek's biggest problem is its fan's obsession with canon.

Canon really limits the capability of Star Trek to be novel and exciting. Often production teams force lore into Star Trek scripts. It's pandering, and it compromises the movie.

I posed this question to a friend...if you remove Khan from the movie completely, does this really affect the movie at all? My answer would be not much - John Harrison was an effective villain by himself. I actually laughed when the 'big reveal' occurred.

The shameful thing is I think Benedict Cumberbatch was outstanding in this film. Even if he didn't have to be there...

neilshyminsky said...

Anonymous wrote: "Canon really limits the capability of Star Trek to be novel and exciting. Often production teams force lore into Star Trek scripts. It's pandering, and it compromises the movie."

Well, what you call "pandering" I could just as well call "showing respect". (Likewise, I think Abrams could be accused of pandering by casting Cumberbatch instead of a South Asian actor.)

And it all depends, really. When you force Section 31 into a story where it doesn't work, then, yes, you have a point about using the canon. But when you misrepresent an existing character, no. Like any backstory, it both enables and inhibits - neither one of those things is necessarily good or bad, it just is.

Anonymous said...

I should have been more clear with my comment. I'm not out to defend the white Khan, which wasn't a great decision.

I was referring to Star Trek's tendency to shoehorn irrelevant details into stories - like Section 31, as you mentioned. These very visible references are never fully developed and don't enhance the narrative, even to those who get them.

My irritation with Star Trek sometimes is that it tries too hard to replicate its past successes and pay tributes to older stories. A little of this sort of behavior is great, a lot is damaging.

Star Trek on the whole doesn't take enough risks. It concerns me too, because if it's going to survive it's going to need a larger and younger fan base.