Monday, May 20, 2013

How STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS gives us the Kirk we deserve

It's no accident that the opening sequence of Star Trek Into Darkness involves Captain Kirk doing something he's done time and again in earlier incarnations - breaking the rules to get the job done.  What IS surprising is that this time, the event is used as a catalyst to provoke some real character work in the young captain.

William Shatner's Captain Kirk was a product of the Kennedy era, a charismatic leader who inspired those around him to greater things by taking chances that no one else would have taken.  He broke the rules in an era where that was celebrated, and displayed wisdom that salvaged calamities that might have gone horribly wrong under another leader.  Yes, Shatner's Kirk had swagger, but it was tempered by experience.

Chris Pine's Kirk is - by design - very different in some respects.  He's got the strut, but its unearned.  Where Shatner's Kirk rose through the ranks and (presumably) got knocked down enough to temper his cockiness, Pine's Kirk lacks that experience.  Instead, he was arguably rewarded for it, being accelerated straight to captain out of the Academy.  It's easy to understand the logic at work there - Kirk saved Earth from a madman who devastated an entire fleet and destroyed Vulcan.  His leadership - doing what no one else could have done - is the reason Starfleet and the human race survive.  It's not hard to imagine Starfleet heads recognizing the PR value of their new golden boy.

Into Darkness feels partly like an effort to address critics who felt that Kirk wasn't ready for the captain's chair at the end of the first film.  It's a tense thrill-ride designed to knock the ego out of the man with the devil-may-care attitude and put him on the path to being the leader he's meant to be, and viewed through that lens, it's largely effective.

The opening scene I alluded to earlier involves the Enterprise crew trying to stop an volcano from erupting and destroying all life on this planet.  Problem: the civilization there is very primitive, so the Prime Directive applies - Starfleet cannot interfere in the natural order.  Spock executes a daring plan to set off a device inside the volcano that will stop the magma, but in the process he's stranded inside.  To save him, Kirk will have to order the Enterprise to leave its hiding spot in the ocean, thus exposing the primitive inhabitants of the planet to evidence of life - or a higher power - beyond their own world.  This, of course, is a direct violation of one of Starfleet's most sacred principles.

So naturally Kirk exposes the ship and saves Spock, despite his first officer's own reminder that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."  This lands him in hot water back at Starfleet, exacerbated by the fact that he filed a false report omitting the offending details, only to be busted when Spock's report details the truth in full.  Kirk's threatened with being sent back to the Academy, but Admiral Pike steps in and manages to get that reduced to a mere reduction in rank to first officer of the Enterprise.

(I want to underline something here - Kirk is disciplined not only for exposing the ship to save Spock, but for taking on the rescue mission in the first place.  Yes, Starfleet orders dictated that even if the mission had gone undetected, Kirk was in the wrong for saving a civilization that would have otherwise died.  As out of whack as those priorities sound, it's consistent with how the Prime Directive was applied in two TNG eps, "Pen Pals" and "Homeward."  Though Kirk may have too much passion, Starfleet's rigidity has its own failings too.)

The first film might have been about Kirk getting the captain's char, but this film is about him truly earning the seat, and he starts as soon as he's busted down in rank.  One of Kirk's traits is that he's too easily governed by his passions.  He acts before he thinks.  Following a terrorist attack on a Starfleet installation in London, and emergency meeting of ranking officers is called.  Kirk is the only one to figure out - just in time to be too late - that immediately reacting this way according to procedure is exactly what their adversary is counting on.  And indeed, the meeting is attacked, with most of the officers killed, including Admiral Pike.

Though Kirk doesn't prevent the attack, it's notable that it's the first time we see him really thinking about a situation and not intuitively reacting to it.  Right after that, Admiral Marcus gives Kirk the Enterprise back and sends him after the terrorist on a mission of revenge. This is complicated by the fact they've traced the terrorist into Klingon space and tensions with everyone's favorite bumpy-foreheaded race are so high that war seems inevitable.

So to that end, Marcus has the Enterprise equipped with long-range torpedoes and gives Kirk orders to fire them from outside Klingon space. The terrorist is not to be taken alive.  Kirk's too blinded by revenge to question the unprincipled nature of these orders - or more likely, they give him an excuse to do what he wants to do any way.  Others around him aren't so swayed.  Scotty resigns in protest, and both McCoy and Spock push back so hard that Kirk embraces a more difficult plan to make an incursion into Klingon space and bring the terrorist into custody.

I like this a lot for what it does with Kirk's character.  Shatner's Kirk was more or less fully formed and the original films rarely tried to achieve any real growth in his character.  The lone exception might be his hatred of the Klingons in Star Trek VI and how he's forced to get past that.  Even there, Shatner's Kirk handles things maturely despite finding his mission repugnant.  Put Pine's Kirk in that film and he'd have openly insulted the Klingon Chancellor before the salad course was served at their dinner.

By the end of the film, Kirk has become a wiser, more mature commander.  I like the note that the film ends on, essentially bringing Kirk's characterization more in line with the TV series-era Shatner.  I feel like some of that is getting lost amid the nitpicking and arguments about canon.

I guess I can't get out of this without addressing some of the more hot-button issues in the film, so I'll touch on them in brief.  Bigger spoilers await below, so don't say you weren't warned.

The Admiral's plot - It's one of the bigger weak points for me.  We're never really given reason to understand why Admiral Marcus so badly wants a war with the Klingons.  The province that Kirk's attack is supposed to target is uninhabited, so unless the torpedoes were secretly programmed with other targets, I don't see this working as a Pearl Harbor-like first-strike to cripple the enemy.  Maybe a better solution would have been to make it appear that the Klingons were working in collusion with John Harrison, thus giving Starfleet apparent justification for a real preemptive strike.

The Klingons - Some fans argued that the marketing should have played up the Klingons.  Having seen the film, I understand why they didn't.  Their screentime is very limited and is little more than a plot device.  If they had played up the Klingons in the trailers, those same fans would be arguing that J.J. Abrams mislead everyone into thinking the Klingons were a major part of the story.  Having said that, I would have liked a little more depth to the background of the Klingon conflict.

John Harrison - I liked the Khan reveal and I like that he was used in an entirely different way here.  It makes total sense to me that Section 31 would become more aggressive following the death of Vulcan.  The fact that they tried to recruit Bashir in an episode of DS9 also suggests they see the value in genetically-enhanced operatives.  Them seeking out Khan makes sense to me under those terms.  They're arrogant enough to think they can control him, and Khan's smart enough to outmaneuver that.  It's a good use of the character without merely retreading his two previous appearances.

The in-jokes and allusions to other Trek - I liked seeing Sulu get to play Captain briefly.  Arguably that laid more groundwork for the character's eventual path to command than anything the original series did.  The scene that invoked "New Vulcan" was a nice touch too.  And hey, it was fun to see a Tribble, even if their appearance here is yet another divergence from the old timeline.  But I guess this is also the most appropriate place to discuss one of the climactic moments....

Even with spoiler warnings, I'm loathe to get too in-depth here.  I think the sequence I'm alluding to does a nice job of reinventing a moment from an earlier film and making it relevant to the journeys of all involved characters.  A more superficial viewer might call it a ripoff, but here it's put into a context that gives the scene a different meaning that allows it to stand on its own.  The emotional impact almost certainly is deepened by recognizing the callback, but I don't believe it's essential.

Basically, it's an homage done with purpose and for me, that elevates it beyond being a rip-off or in-joke.  (That said, the line spoken - or rather, shouted - at the end of the scene might be a case of pushing things too far. I'm not sure it's totally earned.)

Bottom line: I liked the film a lot and I'll be eager to see it again.  My wife is a near-total stranger to Trek and she loved the first Abrams film, so I'm hoping to coax her into being my "control group" for this one.


  1. Hey,

    Love the blog but I would like to hear from you on the topics of:

    - Why is friendship only limited to men in the movie? Its such a bromance all through out the film.
    - Do you not react to the fact that as a woman, the only thing you can be in the movie " a mans daughter" or "the girlfriend". This really bugs me, even when they give Uhura och Admirals Daugher cool education and scenes, it just feel like they are "the token girls".

    Im just wandering if someone else then me noticed these things!

    1. My take - Kirk and Spock are the core of Trek. The story has GOT to revolve around them. As you build outward from that, there's only so much screentime to go around. The issue you note is sort of exacerbated by the fact that Uhura is the only main cast female character among the main crew.

      Ironically, I see them making Uhura "the girlfriend" as their attempt to give her more to do and to offer a more interesting dynamic to her relationship with Spock. On the old series, Uhura wasn't romantically involved with ANY of the crew and was little more than a background button-pusher. And when all is said and done, she probably still had more to do in this movie than Checkov, Sulu and about on par with Scotty.

      (If this was an ongoing TV series, I have no doubt that every character would get their due over the course of a TV season. But this is a Star Trek movie, so people are paying to see Kirk and Spock take center stage.)

      (And as other fans have pointed out, linking her with Spock has resulted in her partially usurping McCoy's spot in the traditional Kirk/Spock/McCoy triumvirate.)

      I wish that more could have been done with Carol Marcus given her significance to the canon, but there's only so much screentime in two hours and making her the Admiral's daughter was the most efficient way of getting her into the story. (And frankly, I had a strong sense that some of her story was left on the cutting room floor. It's odd they go to the trouble of bringing in Carol and not have her get involved with Kirk.)

    2. Yeah, of course they are the core of Star Trek, hence things revolve around them. I just wish the female roles could have been more prominent . And as a person who has never watched Star Trek, I dont have any expectations of how the characters should be etc.

      For me the movie was extremely stylish, the 3D-effects finally made sense in a movie. But my biggest problem was that the whole movie was very predictable. And to cast Benedict Cumberbatch as the villan is both genius and dangerous, as a non-trekkie I rooted for Khan the whole movie and not for Kirk :)

    3. Re: female characters - I agree that Kirk, Spock and the iconic characters are the core of ST, but there was nothing stopping Admiral Marcus from being a woman. In fact, as much as I loved Benedict Cumberbatch's performance, there's nothing stopping Khan being female in this continuity...

      Re: rooting for Khan - a couple of hours in the editing suite, minimal ADR, and you could create a cut of this movie that's about noble and misused Khan getting his just revenge on Starfleet with the aid of a cocky young sidekick called Kirk... Which to me is one of the most interesting things about the movie. Morally, there's a hair's breadth between hero and villain.

    4. Well, if they're sticking with the pretense that this is merely an alternate timeline that branched off at the point of Kirk's birth, they're kinda stuck with the fact that Khan is male. He hails from at least 200 years before the divergence in the timeline. (In other words Cumberbatch-Khan and Montalban-Khan are essentially the same people until near the end of his deep-freeze.

      Admiral Marcus COULD have been a woman, but the cynic in me suspects that the creators would then be attacked for the fact that the most prominent female character in the script is a deranged bad guy. (Because let's face it - Marcus's plot is pretty deranged.)

      I admit I never felt the sympathy for Khan that others have professed to. He's a terrorist and a megalomaniac. Even putting aside the bombing and the attack on Starfleet headquarters, while hiding out on the Klingon homeworld he straight-up murders a whole squad of Klingons. (The Starfleet team merely has their phasers set to stun.) There's also the fact that even when he has the Enterprise outgunned, he shows no mercy and intends to execute them all.

      Cumberbatch was great, don't get me wrong, but I didn't really sympathize with him.

  2. Good points all, and adds more discussion to the back and forth currently going on with my writers group. Some old school Trek fans adore the movie, some hate it. I'm about two-thirds over to loving it, but be interested to hear your take on my issues with it from a storytelling/plotting perspective.

    I loved the shizz out of the movie until around the time Marcus showed up in the Vengeance. After that point, the plot seems to run out of steam and feels like a series of wasted opportunities.

    Recalling the tense, submarine-warfare style showdown between Kirk and Khan in TWOK, both with damaged ships trying to find that one critical strike, Into Darkness doesn't really do anything with the Vengeance once it appears. It knackers the Enterprise then gets put out of action. Khan takes it over, but it's immediately badly damaged by the exploding torpedoes. Khan then nosedives it into the SF Bay but doesn't seem to hit many actual buildings with it, let alone Starfleet Command. So why make such a threatening ship and then do eff all with it?

    That's when the niggles started to turn into full blown nerd rage for me - what point was there in Spock calling up Spock Prime for advice? Couldn't Spock have devised the torpedo switcheroo on his own? And more to the point, why does nobody on the bridge bat a dang eyelid that Spock calls up his own alternate future self for advice? Wasn't that meant to be a big secret?

    Kirk's death felt like a genuinely surprising turn for a second, then that badly signposted moment earlier with the Tribble popped in (why is Bones jabbing a needle into a dead Tribble in the middle of an emergency situation with a gods damn superpowered psycopath sitting two feet away?), and the Reset Button Alarm totally broke the whole scene. Spock trying to do the iconic KHAAAN! felt like fan service, as you said - fun, yes, but a touch forced. The death of Spock in Khan was a true game changer - I don't think anybody in the audience believed for a second Kirk was going to stay dead long.

    Let's not mention the fact they put the body of a man killed by a massive dose of radiation in the middle of sickbay. It felt like a huge, huge cop out and killed any drama the moment of Kirk's attempt at a redemptive sacrifice might have created. Kirk getting a lethal dose of poisoning and being saved by Khan's blood before succumbing to it - that I could have followed. Threaten him with actual death and the stakes are still there for Spock's (admittedly cool) chase down of Khan through SF.

    That whole final sequence also didn't seem to get rolling - after knackering the Vengeance, Enterprise starts to spiral towards Earth but the narrative just forgets about Khan until he comes rocketing past a few minutes later. He crashes into SF but despite the Vengeance tumbling through the city, what was he aiming for? Did he do much damage? Given that his opening attack on the Starfleet council pointed to a deep-seated hatred of Starfleet later undone by naming Marcus as the sole conspirator, Khan didn't really have much of a reason to attack once Marcus was dead.

    How about this - get to the showdown with Vengeance a bit sooner, but have Khan get his crew back, populate the ship and then cripple the Enterprise, racing off for Earth to destroy Starfleet with its own superweapon. Cue Kirk and crew racing to get Enterprise rolling again (maybe this is when you have Kirk get a fatal dose of radiation), leading to a showdown with Vengeance in the skies over SF. Spock outsmarts Khan and downs the Vengeance, chases Harrison down and resists the urge to kill him so his blood can be used to save Kirk.

    Or maybe I'm letting nerd rage get to me here. I could always just blame Damon Lindelof again. That usually works :)

    1. "Couldn't Spock have devised the torpedo switcheroo on his own?"

      I've seen this protestation elsewhere. I saw nothing in that exchange that implied Spock Prime gave Spock the idea.

      Rather, it would seem to me that Spock had this idea -- which was risky in a way that stretched his character in a Kirkly direction -- and he consulted his future self to confirm his distrust of Khan in making the decidedly un-Vulcan decision.

    2. That's a fair point actually, well put :)

  3. I'm wondering a couple things, do people ask these questions about the place for women in these movies because they want to spark debate; but already know the answer? or are they actually asking the question in terms of it's reality?

    i think it's very important to understand that while there is a small, loud minority that accepts gender equality, movies are made for the 80% schlock of the bigots, racists, uninformed, chauvinists who actually pay to go see these movies and their needs are 'always' considered in the final product and what we get is stereotypes consistent with the ignorance of this majority.

    I would have loved to have a spoiler warning on this. Ba-dump.

    1. I can only speak for myself, but I do truly wonder If I am one of few who thinks about this. And I do think the 80 % schlocks (never heard the term before, but do love it) wouldnt "mind" if the female part would be more "real" than just there to serve a quota. I dont believe it has to be made in to a big deal if we saw more developed female characters.

      And of course, the scene where Carol Marcus decides to change her outfit in a middle of a conversation with Kirk is completely normal. Girls do that all the time :)

  4. Well, the body was safe because there was a decontamination cycle running in the engineering compartment. Scotty told Spock that's why they couldn't open the door.

  5. In my theater, when Spock shouted that famous line, people laughed. I don't think they were supposed to. So yeah, I think they may have been blinded by their own cleverness on that one.

    Over all, I thought it was great, but I do feel like you could have yanked Carol out of the movie and nothing would have changed. She had zero effect on the story, so it seemed like her purpose was to get another hot girl in the movie since they didn't have Rachel Nicholls this time.

    1. And now you've just made me sad that there was no Rachel Nichols. Oh well, there's hope for the third film, I guess.

      Yeah, it's surprisingly easy to remove Carol from the film as released. I was kind of expecting that one subplot would have shown Kirk growing from being the cocky playboy to being capable of a more mature relationship with her. But then, I guess that would have been too much to fit into the film with everything else going on.

      (I would not be surprised if at one point in development, that was the intent and when it didn't come together, the necessity of Carol's role never got revisited.)

      Still, I would have liked to have seen hints of an eventual Jim/Carol coupling. Heck, even BONES flirted with her more than Kirk did.

  6. Great article. Totally agreed on the journey of Kirk.

    As to the bit about the Admiral: For my money, the broadness with which his motivations are painted is what allows for a certain degree of contemporary allegory to be grafted onto the situation surrounding his character. A more defined motivation may have extinguished the immediate inclination I feel it gives in it's current form to draw contemporary parallels.

  7. Not a Trekkie. TWOK is my favorite film of the series. Loved STID. Found this a thoughtful and balanced defense of the latter. Well done, sir.

  8. Read for a very nice explanation as to why moviegoers liked The Wrath of Khan.