Saturday, 15 June 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: Mis-use of the Original Canon

Having now seen Star Trek Into Darkness twice, one of those times being an IMAX showing, it's safe to say that my feelings remain decidedly mixed.

Above all else the movie is pure unaltered spectacle, a thrilling experience that I'd happily recommend to anyone non–Trek fans looking for a couple hours of well produced escapist entertainment. Don't ask too many questions and you'll certainly be rewarded with space battles, humour, tension and even the odd dramatic moment.

For Star Trek fans however, it's far more of a mixed bag. The general consensus from the first 'rebooted' film in 2009 was that while playing fast and loose with Trek conventions, it was an excellent film that stood apart from the rest of the canon. While not feeling particularly like a Star Trek film in terms of pacing, themes or focus, the clever use of the alternate timeline gambit and pitch perfect performances, especially Spock and McCoy, gave it more than enough goodwill from the fanbase.

For me, Star Trek Into Darkness has taken that plentiful goodwill and gleefully tossed it away, seemingly without even realizing. There is a lot to take apart, from a technical standpoint and from its horrific plundering of The Wrath Of Khan. The plot is rife with baffling questions, from how exactly the Enterprise was planning on discreetly emerging from its underwater hiding place in the event Spock failed to the odd use of planet–to–planet transporting as a plot device that made very little coherent sense in the established universe. The insistence of characters on running literally everywhere quickly becomes ludicrous, the scenes where I outright laughed came when Kirk is shown running to find out what clue has been uncovered in the investigation of the attack on Starfleet command and running from the bridge to the transporter room to check on Spock instead of simply, and far more quickly, using the communicator. Khan stands out wonderfully because he appears to be the only person capable of walking normally.

Instead of doing a review of the film itself, I've decided instead to look at the statements by the screenwriters and examine the end result against their justifications for including various nods and references to the original canon. This use, or more acturrately misuse, forms the core of what dissatisfaction I have as a fan of Star Trek, and also lays bare the major structural flaws of film itself.


Kurtzman: “The choice to play in that sandbox [Khan as expressed by the original Trek canon] is really complicated because when a character was as beloved as Khan, you really have to have a reason to do it.  Part of our thinking at first was designing a story that existed as its own solid story. If we could take that and then incorporate Khan into the mix in a way that felt reverent and appropriate for that story, we would do it. Without that standard, we wouldn’t.”

The statement above evidences as complete mis-use of Khan from the very beginning of the creative process, in my opinion. The screenwriters were clearly intent of fitting Khan into an independent story, regardless of it's 'reverence' or 'appropriateness'. With Khan being such a recognizable and powerful figure in the mythos, the notion of fitting him into a story that wasn't build around him seems, frankly, stupid. The screenwriters could have chosen to base an original and unique story around a re-imagining of the charector, something that had the potential to feel both fresh and loyal to the core of the character, but instead chose to do the opposite. The result was a original and new story with Khan shoe-horned into the plot in a way which massively diminished the benefits of having such a powerful character in the first place.

Could we imagine a re-imagining of Batman where the story is centered around a new original villain and where the Joker is reduced to either a plot-driving machine or secondary character? Would fans applaud the 'homage' or question why another original character could not fulfilled his role without needing to misuse such an icon villain? Is this not the equivalent of taking Bane, a much loved figure in the comic canon, and reducing him to Poison Ivy's muscular manservant? In both 'Space Seed' and 'Wrath of Khan' itself, Khan is clearly a character with massive potential, who serves as secondary foil in the 'In Darkness' screenplay to the wider situation and the primary villain rather than the clean focused rivalry of his previous incarnations.

Kurtzman: “Ultimately, I think we felt that we found a reason and a way to do it that was all of the things we needed it to be, and yet really different. I think the mistake that we could have made, that we didn’t want to make, was to do a version of what Ricardo Montalban had done so brilliantly, and then fall short of that. We all loved the ‘Space Seed’ back story, the idea that he was a man who loved his crew as his family — that was the understandable and relatable agenda. And then we built outward from there. There are things about Khan that are very familiar, and there are things that are entirely different, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.”

I would agree without hesitation that the charectar itself is built extremely well, from the motivations that Kurtzman ascribs him to the superb performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, Khan shines whenever the film allows him to. But I seriously question the value of 'building outwards' when the plot as a whole has already been built, leaving only the question of how to shove Khan into the mix, as the screenwriters have already admitted.

Kurtzman on including the icon KHAAAAAN line: "We knew that if we could get to the point we wanted to get to, and it felt like it was a natural and organic reaction, a real reaction to the moment, then that would be a wonderful plus. But we didn’t go into it trying to shoehorn it in.”

Okay, this is simple fallacy. Nothing in the previous Star Trek reboot movie or this one leads us to believe that Spock would bellow that line, contrasted to the established Shatner incarnation of Kirk in 'The Wrath of Khan'. I simply fail to see how it was natural or organic in any way, shape or form.

Old Spock

Orci: “We wanted to address the question that some fans have: would Leonard Nimoy’s Spock tell everyone everything he could in order to prepare everyone for everything? It was interesting for us to articulate the idea that he vowed not to tell anyone much of anything because he wants the universe to develop naturally, as it should. But in this one instance, when it comes to the greatest villain they ever faced, he makes an exception.”

I fail to understand this reasoning at all. Spock, the beloved Vulcan, would make an exception for the greatest villain he had faced? When we've already seen NewSpock's willingness to die to preserve the Prime Directive in the opening of the movie and OldSpock's unbending logic with regards to time-travel and affecting the time-line in the classic 'The City On The Edge Of Forever'? Since Genesis is completely absent here, and OldSpock would have been aware that the Project was decades away, there is no ultimate super-weapon on the line, but rather just Khan himself. Is Khan singularly dangerous in logical terms, far more so than everything else that OldSpock remembers? I fail to see how that holds up.

Far more likely, the brief cameo fulfilled two requirements. Firstly, the pleasure of seeing Leonard Nimoy back on screen briefly, and secondly, a quick short-cut to establish how frightening and dangerous Khan was. This is both somewhat unnecessary as Cumberbatch's performance establishes this pretty well, and also insulting to the audience, as the presumption of 'telling' rather than 'showing' is usually the sign of a lazy screenwriter/director. It also has unfortunate implications for NewSpock, diminishing his ingenuity and quick-thinking in his torpedo gambit, reducing it to being a consequence of the information he has gained from OldSpock when there is no logical necessity or requirement that prevents the gambit standing alone as a testament to NewSpock's qualities.

Kirk Dying

Orci: “We came to that because again, as Alex was saying, you can’t just do that and then make it for no reason — it has to have a context. In The Wrath of Khan, the death of Spock and their last moment together is a punctuation and an acknowledgement of a friendship that has been fortified through years and years of their journey together. Our [Kirk and Spock] haven’t known each other that long, so in our movie, that moment is a revelation for Spock that Kirk is his friend. It’s the beginning of Spock recognizing, Oh my god, this guy is my friend, and just as I figured it out, I lose him.”

Okay, so on one hand we have the death of a character as culmination of a friendship that is very much at the heart of 3 years of TV and 2 movies. A death which at the time is both meant by the creative staff and received by the audience as a permanent and meaningful death.

On the other hand, you have a rocky relationship through 2 movies and the 'revelation' of a friendship. A death which occurs mid-way through the finale and is neither meant to signify a permanent death nor is understood by the audience to mean anything but a temporary 'death', to be reversed by the credits role.

I simply do not believe Kirk's death is earned, and there is extremely little 'context' that Orci can call upon to justify it. This is far more akin to a ham-fisted homage which can overtaken the plot. In fat, it has overtaken the plot and introduced a ludicrous situation where the blood of 73 individuals contained in stasis chambers controlled by the authorities could well cure every known illness and even already dead individuals, not only humans but possibly non-human species going by the health of the tribble.

Orci is right, you can't just do something like this for no reason, it does need to have a context. Unfortunately, this has very little context and disproves the point, the creative staff of Into Darkness proved that you can do it for no reason, as they have.

Carol Marcus

Kurtzman: “The idea with Carol was that she was a character that obviously the audience has an association with from The Wrath of Khan. So you’re immediately inheriting enormous implications having her in the movie. What we didn’t want to do was rush it in a way that felt too familiar and too predictable. The idea with Carol was introduce a character that implies a lot of things, but leave it open enough that anything could happen in the next movie.”

The naming of the character was clearly a nod to the fans, but since there was very little for her to do except to sprout some relatively minor plot-details that could have been given to some of the under-used regular cast, a minor plot function (momentarily delaying the destruction of the Enterprise in a single scene) and stripping down to her underwear for a few seconds, I'm not sure that the value of dropping the name was worthwhile. Some nods are certainly enjoyable, Nurse Chapel references and the 'Mudd' incident for example, but this is stretched into a full role rather than a passing reference and pulled me out of the movie, both because of the unnecessary and gratuitous underwear shot and the transparent attempt to give Kirk a stable love-interest in the future, a plot-device that the Original Series and movie series that followed wisely avoided.


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