Those who know me are aware I’m something of a sampler fan: I enjoy bits and pieces of a variety of different genres but I’m not married to any one particular fandom. Unless, of course, you’re counting Star Trek, in which case I am not so much married as I am indentured for life. Star Trek was a fundamental pillar of my childhood, the cast of The Next Generation in particular filling in for my lack of real-life friends and setting the stage for my imaginative play with the few friends I did have. Since then I’ve remained a devout fan of the universe Gene Roddenberry built in its various incarnations despite the best efforts of certain executive producers (who shall remain Rick Berman) to piledrive the whole franchise into the ground.
That little dig illustrates part of the reason I was baffled as to why so many people seemed so opposed to the new direction J.J. Abrams has decided to take in his films – and boy oh boy, are they ever opposed. So this piece isn’t going to be so much a review of Star Trek: Into Darkness as a critical defense of ideas in an era dominated by safe choices.
Good science fiction is primarily about people. The futuristic settings, the fancy technology: these things are set pieces designed to provide a backdrop to tell human stories that are relevant in the here and now. Star Trek, for all its much-touted “reverse the polarity” Treknobabble plot fixes, has always been pretty good about exploring the Big Ideas using the final frontier and all its glamorous trappings to further a story that is ultimately character-driven. In the early years of the franchise, this was pretty easy to do: there was a great big universe out there, waiting to be explored by our heroes (and exploited for convenient Big Idea plot devices by the writers). Of course, the original series aired almost fifty years ago, and since then (if you’ll forgive me mixing my metaphors) it’s gotten awfully crowded in our sky.
What was once a vast expanse of unexplored territory has been pretty well charted, mapped and annotated by the time Riker finally takes his own command at the end of Nemesis. We’ve delved deep into the backstories of the major races, we understand how Starfleet and the Federation mirror (and don’t mirror) modern-day governmental agencies. Thanks to Deep Space Nine we examined what all-out war does to a peaceful organization and discussed the implications of large-scale religion, and thanks to Voyager we’ve even traveled well beyond the feasible scope of where our technology is supposed to be able to take us, only to discover that life on the other side of the galaxy is much the same as it is right here.
So where do you go for more stories? Well, Enterprise showed us that boldly retreading ground isn’t such a great idea unless you handle it very carefully, so a reboot is problematic out of the box. Presumably, this is why J.J. and crew went with the “alternate timeline” approach for 2009’s Trek: it releases creators from the vast tome of what has come before but still allows them to play in a somewhat familiar universe. Some call this laziness; I call it saving a franchise from irrelevance, and I was the first person to applaud injecting new blood into a universe that was starting to sag under the weight of its own belly.
It also allows those character-driven stories I mentioned before to be revisited and reimagined. Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk is still the lovable womanizing hero-type we expect him to be, but he’s also deeply flawed, inexperienced, and trying to make his way in a universe that has been rendered profoundly different than the one Shatner’s commander came up in. Similarly, Zachary Quinto’s Spock still exhibits the characteristics we’ve come to expect of a green-blooded science officer with a troublesome human half, but he’s also dealing with a universe that – in a very personal way – is different for him as well.
The thrust of my point is illustrated thusly: any similarities Abrams’ universe had with what fans are calling the Prime timeline can be readily ignored or traded out because of Nero’s interference with the timeline and the destruction of Vulcan. It’s a bit pithy to make the obvious post-9/11 allusion, but it’s also more than a little accurate, and that’s perhaps the Big Idea Into Darkness is chasing after. J.J.’s Starfleet exists in the aftermath of a monumental tragedy that should rightly shake the Federation to its very core, and as a result every single subsequent event must be coloured by the power and influence of that initial event.
It’s a primary plot point in Into Darkness that I’ll admit gets a bit mishandled, but part of what makes Star Trek great is the fact that they even try to wrestle with these concepts rather than just caving to box office pressure and making the “popcorn movie” people are accusing Into Darkness of being. The man behind the overarching conflict throughout the movie isn’t Benedict Cumberbatch, as expected – it’s the man pulling his strings, and it’s there the movie throws off the fluff accusations and makes its stand. While the character portrayal comes off a bit Saturday-morning-cartoon-villain for my liking, his motivations are uncomfortably familiar to anyone with even a cursory interest in international foreign policy over the last twelve years.
It doesn’t give anything away to mention that Section 31 is given a nod in Into Darkness. I expected it going in, because more than anything else in the existing Trek universe, Section 31 embodies a dark pragmatism festering at the heart of an otherwise idealistic organization. It’s not an element I liked in Deep Space Nine but it makes sense in the new film, because as I said before, a post-Vulcan galaxy is far more open to the kind of cynicism and fear required for an organization like 31 to thrive. In many ways, the destruction first of the USS Kelvin and later of Vulcan paves the way for a new kind of storytelling in the Trek universe. It’s not just an Uncanny Valley effect we’re seeing in this new timeline – it’s an opportunity to radically change the way these stories are told and the way these characters will interact with them.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that Into Darkness was a perfect film based on these criteria. It wasn’t. There were a lot of fanboy moments I think soured the experience for some people – I’ve chosen to take them as a sincere attempt to honour the original, since I think Abrams and the writers are legitimate fans of the franchise (far more than the aforementioned Rick Berman was, anyway), but I can see why they would stick in the collective craw of a certain class of purists. There were also places the story could have gone that failed to be realized because to a certain degree, yes – fine – it is kind of a popcorn movie. But frankly, it has to be. Are you going to turn around and tell me that The Avengers had something profound to say? No, and you’re going to argue that The Avengers isn’t Star Trek and therefore isn’t held to the same standard Trek fans have come to expect (somehow forgetting about the execrable Next Generation films in the process, I’ll note).
But films exist to make money, packaging is everything, and nobody is going to go see a summer blockbuster about Big Ideas. That’s precisely why they turned Captain Picard into John McClane, and I’d argue it’s a far more serious violation to monkey with an existing character than it is to start from scratch and do something different. More to the point, it’s a far greater risk to tear down and start from scratch than it is to just fiddle with the settings on established characters, because you run the risk of everyone hating your unique take on it, rather than just being baffled as to why a famous diplomat is suddenly an action hero.
So what Into Darkness is trying to do is meet us halfway. Dress up a Big Idea in impressive visuals and lens flares and callbacks to the franchise’s storied history in an effort to ease the transition. Honestly I think it does a pretty good job on that front. But nerds never agree with me about anything.
Ultimately, you can’t have it both ways: you can’t complain on one hand that Abrams essentially remade Star Trek II, and then on the other hand moan about how his conception of Trek is “not the same”. Box sets exist for a reason. If nothing will ever convince you that anything could possibly be better than Wrath of Khan, go watch Wrath of Khan. In the meantime, I continue to applaud Abrams’ halting steps into what is now effectively his franchise, because he is stepping into big shoes and he’s doing his best to fill them. I applaud him because he is, like me, a fan of what Trek has always been about, even if a cursory observation doesn’t illustrate that as clearly as some people might like. Most of all, I applaud him for telling the story he wants to tell, rather than trying to please what might be the least-pleasable audience in all of fandom (and I can say that, because I’m one of you). I’m not saying he’s done it; I’m saying he’s doing it, or at least attempting to, and that deserves to be recognized and encouraged.
I look eagerly forward to the next installment of this series, because for all its failings, Into Darkness bodes well as an interesting and welcome new take on a fifty-year-old idea that’s been experiencing critical malfunctions for far too long, and it’s high time somebody had the qajunpaQ to reverse the polarity.
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