Heroes and Villains: A Review of Star Trek into Darkness

by Gary Westfahl

J. J. Abrams’s Star Trek into Darkness is such a superb piece of cinematic entertainment that it seems a shame to say anything critical about it; yet after the adrenalin rush dies down, and one begins to think about the film in the context of the entire Star Trek franchise it is so triumphantly sustaining, certain misgivings do begin to emerge. For despite Abrams’s energetic, and largely successful, efforts to perfectly recreate the ambiance and dynamics of the original series, there remains a definite tension between what this film does, and what Gene Roddenberry originally sought to do, which emerges even more strongly in this film than in its equally accomplished predecessor, Star Trek (2009) (review here). What is heartening about Star Trek into Darkness, however, is that Abrams himself appears to be aware of the problem, and he effectively announces his determination to correct it in the next Star Trek film.

Before my extended complaint about the film’s story, I should praise the film for all of the things that it does so well. After watching both of his Star Trek films, one can see that Abrams has not only replicated, but improved upon, the cast of the original series. For the characters who were most interesting (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scott, Chekov), he found actors who looked and talked like them (Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Carl Urban, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin); for the characters who were not particularly interesting (Sulu and Uhuru), Abrams found very different actors (John Cho, Zoe Saldana) and provided them with new, more intriguing personalities. And, for the most part, both sets of characters seem better the second time around: Kirk is finally maturing beyond the overgrown child persona introduced in the previous film; Spock, McCoy, and Scott deliver more of the distinctive dialogue that made the original series so amusing; and Uhura is establishing herself as a new element in the Enterprise crew, its woman warrior. Only Chekov and Sulu still seem like works in progress. Fans will appreciate the film’s numerous references to the original series: there is a cameo appearance by the first Spock, Leonard Nimoy, and it is mentioned that Christine Chapel transferred to become a nurse; as in the previous film, the series’ introductory narration and theme song are included; McCoy talks about once delivering octuplets from a “pregnant Gorn,” referring to the reptilian alien of “Arena” (1967), and performs an experiment on a tribble, the alien furball from “The Trouble with Tribbles” (1967); and on one mission, two characters are told to “lose the red shirts,” officially to prevent their being identified as Star Fleet personnel, but unofficially to knowingly comment on the well-known tendency of red-shirted individuals in the original series to get killed. Viewers unfamiliar with the original series can enjoy the film as well, since it offers everything that they have enjoyed in other well-crafted science fiction adventures: heroes to root for, villains to despise, and lots of action-packed scenes, rendered with impeccable special effects, featuring the heroes fighting against the villains. Yet that, I will argue, also represents what is problematic about this film: in all respects other than its beloved characters, it strongly recalls other contemporary films, but not the original Star Trek.

Admittedly, there is much to criticize about the world-view that Roddenberry brought to Star Trek, particularly when an excessive devotion to his own philosophy spawned the lamentably lifeless first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation; but at its core was an appealing idea that unquestionably inspired many fans of the original series. Essentially, Roddenberry envisioned a future universe in which everybody could get along; intelligent beings might have their differences, but they could still respect each other and strive to resolve their conflicts without resorting to all-out war. Thus, the Klingons and the Romulans might have been adversaries of Captain Kirk’s Federation of Planets, but episodes foregrounded individual Klingons and Romulans as sympathetic, even likable characters. Various aliens might threaten or bedevil the Enterprise, but they did so only while pursuing their own agendas, which were often presented as quite understandable; even in “The Man Trap” (1966), a rare episode about an inimical alien that must be tracked down and killed, the homicidal salt vampire was driven by its desperate desire to survive, not an implacable hatred of the human race. A few episodes were largely focused on lovable rogues, comic misunderstandings, or diplomatic intrigues, featuring no characters who seemed particularly dangerous or sinister.

In the science fiction films of the past three decades, however, an entirely different attitude toward the future has come to the forefront. Now, we are advised, humanity’s future is going to be dominated by evil people, and evil aliens, and our principal avocation will be constantly battling relentless adversaries who must be slaughtered before they can slaughter us. Three forthcoming science fiction films previewed before Star Trek into Darkness illustrate the us-versus-them mentality that now dominates the genre, following three common patterns: humans versus aliens (Ender’s Game), humans versus zombies (World War Z), and humans versus ruthless totalitarian dictators (Elysium). One might explain the ubiquity of this grim vision in various ways, but one factor in its emergence, surprisingly, may have been the fates of the first two Star Trek films. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was completely congruent with the spirit of the original series: an enormous alien construct approaches Earth and threatens to destroy humanity, but investigation reveals that it is merely being motivated by a confused recollection of instructions that the machine absorbed when it merged with the space probe Voyager, and when it then combines with a human partner, it peacefully leaves Earth to pursue new goals. All of this contrasted sharply with the enormously successful film that inspired the revival of the Star Trek franchise, Star Wars (1977), wherein apparently evil foes turn out to be actually evil, and the rousing conclusion was the spectacular destruction of a huge alien vehicle. Since Star Trek: The Motion Picture was derided as dull, and was not especially profitable, producers apparently decided that their next Star Trek film should resemble Star Wars more than Star Trek. As their source material, they chose a typical episode of the series, “Space Seed” (1967), featuring Khan, a ruthless but admirable superhuman from Earth’s past who seizes control of the Enterprise; though he is defeated, Captain Kirk appreciates the determination to dominate his surroundings that drove his actions and, instead of killing or punishing him, provides Khan and his comrades with an uninhabited planet that can become their new home. For the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), though, Khan was refashioned as a thoroughly evil villain, determined to kill Kirk and his crew, and the easily anticipated happy ending was his explosive death. And this proved to be the Star Trek film that truly revived the franchise, as its enormous popularity led to additional films and a new television series.

Now, one never knows precisely what studio executives are thinking, but it is reasonable to assume that, since 1982, whenever they considered a script about a generally harmonious future in which conflicts are resolved peacefully, they recalled the failure of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and said no; and whenever they considered a script about a future visibly divided into good guys and bad guys which concludes with the violent defeat of the bad guys, they recalled the success of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and gave it the green light. Such a decision-making process would also explain why, after presumably pondering other possibilities, they approved the story of Star Trek into Darkness; for it revives the character of Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) – not the sympathetic Khan of the television series, of course, but rather the sinister Khan of the popular film. True, there is a moment in the film when Robert Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof’s script seems to flirt with the notion of inviting audiences to relate to Khan’s point of view, and perhaps set up a reconciliation, but Khan’s efforts to justify his actions are only a ploy, as he reverts to pure villainy, while Kirk and Spock come to hate him more and more, just like their audience.

At this point, some might say that there’s nothing wrong with good old-fashioned melodrama, which can be traced back in America to nineteenth-century plays about moustache-twirling villains tying hapless heroines to the railroad tracks, and if such stories don’t exactly gibe with Roddenberry’s impulse to bring everybody together for a group hug, well, the biases of a dead creator should not be allowed to forever dictate how a franchise evolves, and nobody wants to sound like a fanboy, obsessively devoted to a familiar story and bitterly opposed to even the slightest deviation from the sacred text. But there are broader reasons to be concerned about Star Trek into Darkness and the innumerable films with similar stories. After all, if there is one complaint that is repeatedly made about contemporary American society, it is that we are all becoming too polarized; people with different beliefs cannot work together to achieve a compromise, and the airwaves are filled with people reflexively denouncing their perceived opponents. But consider this: virtually every weekend, millions of Americans go to movie theatres; they are shown a figure and instructed that this man/woman/creature is evil and should be hated; as they watch this figure do one despicable thing after another, their hatred grows more and more intense; and at the end of the film, they are expected to stand up and cheer when the hated figure is brutally executed, which is just what he/she/it deserves. Is it fanciful to assume that these repeated experiences in group-hating might be having an effect on the ways people think outside of the theatres? That is, when people are doing something that someone doesn’t like, the person should be thinking, “hmmm, I should try to understand why they’re doing that, and maybe we can work something out.” Instead, they are being trained by contemporary action films to respond quite differently: “these people are my enemies, and I must oppose them with all my heart.” Perhaps, just perhaps, some shift in the patterns of contemporary films might have a beneficial effect.

Abrams and his screenwriters, I believe, have come to a similar conclusion, providing Star Trek into Darkness with some understated but fascinating discord: throughout the film, the characters that Roddenberry created, representing his benevolent philosophy, repeatedly object to the story that they are being forced to participate in. Kirk is originally ordered to kill Khan, but when Spock points out that this is both illegal and immoral, he resolves to capture him instead. Another character, recognizing that this is a “military mission,” angrily asks, “Is this what we’ve become?” – the message being that the Enterprise should be exploring, not attacking. When new types of photon torpedoes are brought into the ship, Scott argues that they are too dangerous and resigns in protest; his final words to Kirk are “For the love of God, don’t use those torpedoes.” Asked to work on one of these devices, McCoy reluctantly does so while offering a characteristic complaint: “I’m a doctor, not a torpedo technician.” A character who emerges as a secondary villain is rejected by other characters because he allied himself with Khan in order to achieve his goal of a “militarized Star Fleet.” And (spoiler alert!) while Khan of course is defeated in the end, this superman, unlike his predecessor, is allowed to live (albeit for practical, not idealistic, reasons). It is also significant that the film’s opening sequence depicts an effort to save alien lives, not end them, and when a spacesuited Spock enters a volcano to suppress its impending eruption, he recalls the spacesuited Spock who made peaceful contact with V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In sum, Abrams may have felt obliged to tell a story about violent conflict, but he drops several hints that he is not particularly fond of it.

The most telling moment, however, comes at the end of the film, when Kirk makes a speech at a ceremony to rechristen the Enterprise. After noting that when battling evil, “we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves,” he recites the “captain’s oath” that opened the original series in order to urge everyone to “remember who we once were and who we must become again.” To me, the message could not be clearer: the stories of the last two films – both involving struggles against monomaniacal scoundrels intent upon killing everyone in their purview – do not represent the original purpose of Star Trek, which was to describe efforts “to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life, and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before”; and it is high time for the crew of the Enterprise to get back to their true mission. Accordingly, the film ends precisely as the original series begins: Kirk and his crewmates are beginning a five-year mission to explore the galaxy, with Kirk granted the freedom to go anywhere he wants.

Since a third Star Trek film featuring Abrams’s cast has been announced as a 2016 release, he may already be thinking about the sort of story that would logically follow such a conclusion. Given the mentality of the contemporary film industry, the question on everyone’s mind will be: this time, who’s going to be the villain? Yet it would be quite refreshing, and appropriate, for Abrams to respond: actually, this film is not going to have a villain. If one earlier film of this sort, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, is considered an unattractive model, he might take a look at Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, still the greatest Star Trek film, and another film without a villain, only a misunderstood alien probe that simply wants to hear the song of a humpback whale and some interfering officials who mistakenly believe that Kirk’s crewmates are enemy spies. Or, if such a story seems insufficiently focused on exploring new worlds and finding alien life, he might consider as his inspiration the two episodes of the original series that are referenced in this film: “Arena,” wherein Kirk is forced into a conflict he resists and ultimately refuses to kill his opponent, and “The Trouble with Tribbles,” a comedy involving benign but bothersome alien creatures and annoying bureaucrats. As the original series demonstrated again and again, it is possible to tell all sorts of interesting stories without aggressively splitting the universe into friends and foes; all it requires is a little creativity. And, if creativity remains something that the film industry fiercely resists, J. J. Abrams just might have achieved enough clout to insist, the next time around, on making a Star Trek film that imaginatively departs from the standard sci-fi template in order to better reflect the sentiments of its original creator.

Gary Westfahl’s 23 books include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and the three-volume Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two books on science fiction films, The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012) and A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and a forthcoming contribution to the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series, William Gibson.

2 thoughts on “Heroes and Villains: A Review of Star Trek into Darkness

  • May 19, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Best review I have read so far.

  • May 20, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Very thoughtful review. Wasn’t sure I was going to see the new Trek movie, but your analysis helped make sure I will.


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