Star Trek reboots to give us simple stories, the cartoons we like.

Summary:  Films show who we are, our dreams and fears. Today Locke Peterseim compares Star Trek Into Darkness to the original TV show, showing how we’ve changed during the past 5 decades. We want simpler plots, cardboard villains, more emphasis on emotional behavior and beating up bad guys. And above all, ignoring the disturbing deeper questions that made the original show so interesting.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness Spoilers and Geekery Ahead!

By Locke Peterseim.
Posted at the film blog of Open Letters Monthly, 24 May 2013.
Reposted here with his generous permission.

This explains why I’m disappointed in Star Trek Into Darkness. Spoilers!

In my previous piece about why I felt a deeper disconnect with J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek film, I spoke primarily about the larger problems I have with how Abrams and his Trek co-writers Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof approach Star Trek and their emphasis on empty escapism and popcorn thrills to the near-exclusion of any deeper ideas or meaning.

… As I said in my earlier piece, part of me enjoyed the majority of Into Darkness because of all its obvious whoosh-whoosh zip bang action adventure and character humor. I won’t deny that the Trek franchise needed a little warp boost in that area — it’s just that after the 2009 reboot, I deluded myself a bit into thinking the new series would eventually get around to doing more than just action adventure.

I’m not going to sit here and nitpick the film to pieces over the sort of “but wait, why in the hell would this character do that?” plot-logic questions you can use these days to take apart most any big-budget Hollywood film. But there were several major points in Into Darkness where missed opportunities or plain old script laziness worked to undermine my overall enjoyment of the film.

And remember, SPOILERS! In case you missed the big ‘ol headline above, this is going to be full of Into Darkness spoilers… and Star Trek geekery…

 

Leonard Nimoy as Spock

The Return of Old Spock

Two thirds of the way through Into Darkness, Old Spock (the venerable Leonard Nimoy) once again appears deux ex Vulcania and bluntly tells Young Spock (Zachary Quinto) that Khan (The Great Benedict Cumberbatch) is a genocidal maniac, plain and simple.

What makes this repeat of the 2009 Star Trek Obi-Wan Kenobi shtick (where Old Spock wandered in and out of the plot as a sort of Vulcan Ambassador of Plot Exposition) feel so cheap is that from a narrative perspective it’s not only completely unnecessary, but weakens the film. Old Spock doesn’t tell Young Spock anything that Kirk (Chris Pine) and Young Spock aren’t going to figure out on their own in a few minutes anyway: Khan is Bad News. Nimoy is here only because Abrams thinks it was a neat cameo in his first film, so by all means let’s do it again and toss an appeasing bone to those pesky old-school Trekkies.

But by having Old Spock pop up and declare Khan a “genocidal maniac,” Abrams and the writers lazily cut off any opportunity to genuinely “show not tell” who Khan is and why he’s acting as he does. Earlier, Khan explains his motives to Kirk, giving the villain some vaguely interesting depth and complexity, and raising thorny issues about the nature of terrorism. But then Old Spock comes along, tells the Enterprise crew and the audience that Khan is Bad, and from there on Khan behaves like an automatic movie villain, acting “bad” because he “is bad.”

Leonard Nimoy and Nichelle Nichols
Leonard Nimoy and Nichelle Nichols.

And never mind that Old Spock is mostly describing to Young Spock the post-Alpha Seti V Khan from Wrath of Khan who’s actions led to Old Spock’s death in that 1982 film — an older, more unhinged Khan driven to further madness by the death of his lady love and his placing of the blame on William Shatner’s Kirk.

But Abrams and his writers like to make clear that in their newly rebooted “alternate timeline” Trekverse, characters can be and often are different from their earlier TV and film incarnations. (Actually, “later” if we’re speaking strictly temporally, but let’s not go there because thinking about time travel will make our noses spurt out blood.) Cumberbatch’s Khan is not Ricardo Montalbán’s Khan and, in keeping with the volatile, “all bets are off, anything goes” nature of this new “parallel timeline” he may never be exactly. Except Old Spock says he’s bad. So end of discussion.

More on the wasted opportunities with Khan near the end, but for now — speaking of the Old and Young Spocks…

Zachary Pinto as an angry Spock
Zachary Pinto as an angry Spock.

Why Must You be Such an Angry Young Spock?

Of all Abrams’ updates and “new timeline” tweaks to the Star Trek ‘verse, Quinto’s Young Spock remains the most insidiously troubling to me. Nimoy’s Spock in the Original Timeline/Universe was not just the brains, but the statesman of the ship and the series — in later years and TV series, he is an ambassador; a diplomat striving, risking all for peace. Granted, the new franchise features a “younger” Spock and gives him a few youthful indiscretions, but the superfluous, pandering romance with Uhura aside, Into Darkness makes it two films in a row now where personal loss has driven Young Spock to the sort of hot-headed, out-of-character vengeance that was always more Jim Kirk’s bailiwick.

I get that Abrams and screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof feel like they’re creating neat-o character symmetry: The reckless, emotion-driven Kirk learns to temper his impulses while logical, cold-blooded Spock gets to cut loose. And I get that this Young Spock has the loss of his mother, his home planet, and almost his entire race weighing on him, but I worry about this tilt from Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s admirable idealism toward a more cynical, blood-thirsty view of humanity, a move seemingly aimed at a “modern audience” that wants to see its embittered, pain-wracked “heroes” beat the shit out of the bad guys.

In a way, Abrams et al’s emphasis on the yin and yang relationship between Kirk and Spock gets at another reboot trend that doesn’t sit well with long-time Trek fans and helps to weaken the new series: the reduction of Dr. Leonard McCoy to comic relief.

Dammit Jim, He’s Not Just a Doctor, He’s Your Soul

Karl Urban as McCoy
Karl Urban as McCoy.

Karl Urban has done a fine job of perfectly capturing the mannerisms and demeanor of DeForest Kelly’s Leonard “Bones” McCoy, but so far the two films mostly use him as a running “in-joke,” as if McCoy’s character can be boiled down to a couple well-worn catch phrases. Character-wise, these new films have focused almost entirely on the formation of the legendary Kirk-Spock friendship because, thanks to Shatner and Nimoy in the ‘70s and ‘80s (and in part to Kelly’s increasing age and infirmary), Kirk and Spock became the poster boys of Star Trek, the faces of the franchise.

But it wasn’t always so: on The Original Series, Kirk and McCoy were as close as Kirk and Spock, with McCoy providing more than just irascible Southern Doctor humor; he was Kirk’s human conscience, a counter-balance to Spock’s sometimes cold logic. We don’t see any of that in the new films, where things have to continually move far too fast for characters to ever just sit down and talk. And while McCoy is sent off to disarm bombs, it’s left to Scotty (Simon Pegg) to raise moral concerns with Kirk.

Into Darkness does find time for Spock and Uhura to stop and talk about their love affair, as Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has taken up most of McCoy’s potential screen time in the new series. (Promotional materials for the 2009 film tended to focus on the Trio of Kirk, Spock, and… Uhura, not McCoy.) No one’s saying we don’t always need a lot more strong, independent female characters in sci-fi, fantasy, and action films. But the majority of what Uhura does in the new film is worry, bicker, and make out with Spock, as part of what I feel is a misguided need to “humanize” the Vulcan science officer.

Madlyn Rhue as Marla McGivers and Ricardo Montalbán as Khan
Madlyn Rhue as Marla McGivers and Ricardo Montalbán as Khan.

The Wrath of Khan “Homage”

As I said last weekend, in its third act, Into Darkness swipes so many scenes and lines of dialogue from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that Khan writer-director Nicolas Meyer deserved a screen credit.

I’m sure if you called Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof on the thievery, they’d defend it as not just homage, but a clever “alternate timeline” echo. You see, they might say, by playing out the same events only with the Kirk and Spock roles reversed, they’re commenting on the new nature of Kirk and Spock’s relationships, on the idea that across timelines and alternate universes, not just themes, but certain events remain constant, if somewhat altered.

I call bullshit. The “The Wrath of Khan” sequence in Into Darkness feels more like plain old screenwriting laziness — yet another pandering wink and nod to fans that metastasizes into a large, completely unnecessary waste of time and cinematic energy, taking up most of the new film’s third act. Here’s an idea: You’ve been charged with rebooting an entire science-fiction universe. How about coming up with your own damn ideas?

Especially when the thievery is not just lazy but offensive in its cheap, pointless emotional manipulation …

Spock and Kirk: Death Scene

Kirk’s Moot “Death”

Spock’s death in The Wrath of Khan was one of the most emotionally charged, momentous occasions in the Star Trek franchise, possibly all of modern sci-fi filmdom. Though Leonard Nimoy and the character soon returned to the franchise in the next feature film, that summer of ’82, the actor had publically stated he was done with playing Spock. (He wanted to direct, of course.) So the character’s on-screen death felt final. Glimmering, hopeful last shot of Spock’s torpedo coffin aside, there was no guarantee Nimoy, long weary of the role, could be convinced to return.

But when the Into Darkness film makers swipe that death wholesale — with Kirk this time — every single person in the theater — Trek fan or not — knows it will be neither permanent nor important. No one ever dies forever in comics or action film franchises, but this time around there was no real pretense that this one would “count.” We know Chris Pine isn’t going anywhere this soon. We know there’s not going to be an ongoing Star Trek film franchise without James Kirk after just two films.

Yet Abrams et al still milk Kirk’s “death” for every cheap tear and overwrought drop of melodrama. It’s the shabbiest of empty gimmicks, tossed willy nilly into the Into Darkness script not so much to put the characters through their paces, but rather to give a “higher-stakes” goose to the third act of an already over-stuffed summer blockbuster. Instead, a large part of the film’s driving force toward its finale is ginned up on a faux emotional beat that both the film makers and the audience know from the start is a sham.

Khan & Star Fleet logo
Which is more evil?

Into a Brightly Colored Darkness

The first Star Trek feature franchise with Shatner, Nimoy, et al quickly learned after the debacle of The Motion Picture, that the same lofty, mind-twisting sci-fi concepts and imaginative explorations that make The Original Series so compelling to a generation of geeks didn’t translate well to big screen action blockbusters. Which is why the best of the franchise — The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered Country — focused primarily on emotional connections between the characters and the villains they faced.

(The Shatner-directed The Final Frontier arrogantly forgot that wisdom, and both the film and its audience suffered mightily. One of the few Star Trek films that managed to deftly balance both character drama and slightly headier science-fiction conceits was First Contact, the best of the Next Generation films.)

So it’s no surprise that Abrams and his reboot crew have chosen to stick closely to the character angles and have, so far, forgone much in the way of exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, and boldly going where no one has gone before. True, Into Darkness opens on a strange new (to us) world with a new civilization, but the film only uses it as a brief action beat to give the crew of the Enterprise a scare, let us drool over how cool the Enterprise looks rising up out of an ocean bed (where it was resting for no logical reason other than it looks so cool), and lay down some interpersonal stuff between Kirk and Spock (and Spock and Uhura).

Abrams would prefer to focus on the often-rocky beginnings of the friendship between Kirk and Spock while tossing out fairly boiler-plate bits about facing death and risk and recklessness versus rationality and reason, which is fine. But Into Darkness doesn’t really have a lot of time or patience for all that “sharing our feelings” stuff — it gets in the way of the fighting and the shooting and the running and jumping and hanging off the edges of things. So the new film blithely ignores and wastes several potentially interesting themes. Ironically, it seems, because they might be “too dark” for a summer popcorn film titled “Into Darkness.”

Starfleet uniforms

For starters, Abrams clearly wants us to have suspicions about the nature of Starfleet. No one could miss the fact that in Into Darkness everyone at Starfleet headquarters is suddenly wearing grey uniforms straight out of The Wehrmacht, even as Peter Weller’s hawkish Admiral Marcus tries to “Tonkin Gulf” Starfleet into a Klingon war. (Using a ship crew we’re pointedly told are not Star Fleet personnel but security contractors. BlackStar? So it’s okay for our “good guys” to kill them.)

That Marcus plotline raises plenty of interesting questions about the nature of Starfleet (formed, it should be noted, in the century after World War III nearly destroyed the human race). As the exploratory, research, and defense branch of The United Federation of Planets, Starfleet is not supposed to be a strictly military service, but over decades of Star Trek, it’s Starfleet’s clashes with other empires’ space fleets (the Klingons, the Romulans, the Borg, the Cardassians, the Dominion, the Tribbles) that tend to provide the series’ most thrilling moments.

This was a fine opportunity to ask some of those questions — the kind that fascinated Roddenberry — about how a civilization balances peaceful, altruistic exploration and research with militaristic and defensive realities. And about how we as audiences are drawn toward combat-heavy “escapist” entertainment. (Notice that original teaser poster above, showing Khan standing amid rubble shaped like the Starfleet badge: a clear visual metaphor for how Khan intended to “blow apart” the myth of Starfleet’s noble mission and expose its militaristic rot. Sadly, that poster is about as close as Into Darkness wants to get to exploring that theme.)

Are Kirk and his crew explorers or warriors? If the answer is obviously “both,” then how is that balance maintained both within the characters and the Star Trek franchise? Add to that a very timely and relevant terrorism threat from Khan, and Into Darkness — with a title that strongly echoes Nietzsche’s famous aphorism about abysses — has the makings of a sci-fi action film that could also have been about something.

Of course it isn’t. Admiral Marcus is presented as a lone bloodthirsty loon — once he’s dead and Khan is back in the deep freeze, it seems Starfleet can instantly, easily revert back to its heroic, noble, boldly goings —  the film ends with the Enterprise taking off on it’s new “Five Year Mission” of exploration. As with so much in Abrams’ films and summer action films in general, no time is spent pondering any of these headier issues.

No one is saying a summer blockbuster has to feel like a philosophy and morality classroom lecture, but good writers and film makers (for instance, Peter Jackson and his Lord of the Rings team) know how to weave and finesse meaning and character complexity into the entertainment. But as I said in my earlier piece, Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof are not good writers.

Khan vs Kirk
Alike yet different.

The Waste of Khan

Okay, let’s say the whole “is Starfleet a force for right?” question is a little too thorny for a summer popcorn movie. (Though it should be noted that popcorn movies like Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and the upcoming Captain America: The Winter Soldier raise similar issues about the nature of S.HI.E.L.D.) On a strictly character level, Into Darkness still had a tremendous opportunity to do more with the connections between Khan and Kirk.

Khan is not one of Star Trek’s best villains because he gives good maniacal speeches. In fact, just the opposite — despite his delusions of grandeur and genocidal, totalitarian leanings, Khan believes in what he’s doing, that the ends justify the means, that sacrifices must be made for the greater “good” — including one’s own morality. And that is exactly what makes him a perfect nemesis for James Kirk.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a wonderful actor and he does a fine post/pre- Montalbán job with Khan in the film, but despite some interesting back and forth with Kirk in the first half of the film, in the second half, most of Khan’s depth and complexity is quickly jettisoned, leaving yet another stereotypical Super Villain with a British accent. (Apparently Nero’s villainous time-traveling incursion into the Trek timeline in the previous film created a viral outbreak of British accents among secondary characters who didn’t have them in the previous films.)

Star Trek Into Darkness

At the end of the film, McCoy asks a revived, returned-from-the-dead Kirk if the transfusion of Khan’s blood has left him feeling like “a homicidal manic” — to which Kirk replies, “No more than usual.” That right there should have been the driving theme of the whole damn film: Kirk and Khan as dark and light sides of the same coin, and the ways in which heroes since Gilgamesh, Beowulf, Achilles, and Odysseus have had to struggle with their ego and more tyrannical, bloodthirsty, and vengeful impulses.

Khan says he’s waging his terrorist war against Star Fleet on behalf of his abducted crew/family, and Kirk takes off to execute the terrorist because Khan killed his mentor Admiral Pike. Likewise, Kirk is always up for a “good fight,” and the film might have delved into how that headstrong conflict-addicted nature could lead Kirk to end up like Admiral Marcus, trapped in Cheney-esque, war-hawk paranoia. But again, the film doesn’t bother. Into Darkness puts these parallels nicely in place, and yet when push literally comes to shove, Abrams always abandons exploring them for more scenes in which someone frantically races against the clock to disarm something.

Like too many of its action/fantasy/sci-fi counterparts, Abrams’ Into Darkness has no problem tossing out interesting, complex character issues and thematic questions but then considers the cases “closed” once the Good Guy’s beaten or blown up the Bad Guy.

Click here to buy the DVD of “Star Trek Into Darkness”.

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About the author

Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves — and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.

Some of his other reviews:

  1. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution.
  2. Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America.
  3. 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War.
  4. “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again.
  5. A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman.
  6. “The Lone Ranger” shows Hollywood’s new paradigm, since films were too deep for us.
  7. Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien.
  8. Interstellar’s Quantum Love and Other Cosmic Horses#*t.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  You might enjoy other posts about Book and film reviews and Art, myth, and literature.

To understand Star Trek I highly recommend The Making of Star Trek (1970), explaining Roddenberry’s ideas — and the trade-offs that went into putting it on TV. Also, here are other posts about Star Trek:

The Trailer

 

 

29 thoughts on “Star Trek reboots to give us simple stories, the cartoons we like.

  1. I can sum up Locke Peterson’s complaints about “Into Darkness” in a single sentence: “Abrams changed Star Trek to better fit with the current times.” To which I respond, “Yes, what else could he have done?”

    Where Locke Peterson and I differ is that he views the original Star Trek as a classic that lifted the soul of a nation during a dark time (the 1960’s). Being something of an amateur historian and an amateur futurist, I can agree with some of what he says. Having a multi-national crew (Vulcans, Americans, Africans, Russians, and women to name a few) was a masterstroke, especially for the very nationalist time. A few of the episodes were extremely good, especially for their time (an era filled with TV programming in all senses of the word). The overall tone of hope and high expectations for the future was valuable to young people in a time when things seemed to be coming apart at the seams (we knew so little back then).

    But let us not kid ourselves about the original Star Trek. At its bones, it was a nonsensical space Western that featured the leaders of one of the most powerful ships in the Federation continually violating their own rules, exposing themselves to unnecessary danger, and confronting the monster/issue of the week and defeating it in less than 60 minutes. In short, it was decent escapist entertainment. Leslie Fish has written a large number of excellent loving parodies of the logical consequences of the original series including Kirk spawning a large number of paternity suits.

    Every flavor of Star Trek since has meddled with the original flavor to feel consistent with the current times and Abrams version is no exception.

    My review of both Star Trek movies is much shorter and runs something like this:
    Abrams is overly ambitious in these movies, he tries to cram at least 4-5 episodes each of original series into each movie. This forces him to cut corners and only give nods to things that will attract viewer instead of exploring issues in depth. It also forces him to reduce his villains (and plots to a lesser extent) to cardboard cut-outs, which he attempts to overcome by hiring some outstanding actors.

    For me at least, the movies look better after multiple viewings, which gives me time to understand everything the shows are throwing at me. The original Wrath of Khan was a very dark philosophical adventure flick that ended in a major character’s heroic death. Into Darkness is similar but treats us to different set of fears and outcomes and leaves us with a much more ambiguous view of ourselves, which is much more appropriate to the current times than the original series.

    It also gives us hope that we can skip the execrable “Search for Spock” whose sole redeeming feature is that it wasn’t as bad as “The Final Frontier.”

    1. Pluto,

      We’re looking at fiction, a magic mirror in which we each see something different. But first a point of fact: “he views the original Star Trek as a classic that lifted the soul of a nation during a dark time (the 1960’s).” I don’t know if he believes that, but it’s false. The original series had low ratings, which fell over time. It became only popular in the early 1970s.

      “At its bones, it was a nonsensical space Western that featured the leaders of one of the most powerful ships in the Federation continually violating their own rules, exposing themselves to unnecessary danger, and confronting the monster/issue of the week and defeating it in less than 60 minutes”

      1. Yes, it was a space western. “A Wagon Train” to the stars” was his original pitch to CBS. If you consider westerns “nonsensical”, then that’s how you’ll see Star Trek. These things are matters of taste. Every genre can be mocked, from Greek drama to existentialist literature.
      2. The crew of the Enterprise are explorers and peace-keepers; exposing themselves to danger is the job. That’s foreign to many modern Americans, as seen how the later Treks changed the formula (the last, Enterprise, was the equivalent of exploring your living room).
      3. Kirk did not break the rules. Much as we do in real life, he balanced conflicting goals — the text of the rules, the spirit of the rules, and the lives of his crew. It’s more complex than the cartoon black-white that we favor now, and seen in the later Treks.
      4. As for “defeating it in 60 minutes”, that’s confusing your experience with the story. If I watch a 60 minute documentary of WWI, does that mean that WWI was a small thing wrapped up in 60 minutes?
    2. > It also gives us hope that we can skip the execrable “Search for Spock” whose sole redeeming feature is that it wasn’t as bad as “The Final Frontier.”

      THANK YOU. Terrible movie. BTW you can’t get more 1 dimensional than pre TNG Klingons.

      > As for “defeating it in 60 minutes”, that’s confusing your experience with the story.

      He may be talking about the episodic nature of the show. No character growth. No extended story arcs. No long lasting consequences. A show that does a much better job at this is Babylon 5.

    3. Johnny,

      The episodic nature of TOS Star Trek was SOP on US TV until the 1980s (excluding the soap opera ghetto), with little or no character development over time. “Hill Street Blues” is usually considered to have introduced the concept; the term came from the show “Wiseguys”.

      Like everything, it has its advantages and disadvantages. Character evolution adds depth, but redeploying the show time imo tends to lead to shallower plots. The Trek shows after TOS showed this, imo.

    4. FM: “The crew of the Enterprise are explorers and peace-keepers; exposing themselves to danger is the job”

      Agreed, but sending the leaders of the ship down to the planet every single week makes no sense. Next Gen handled that concept a lot better.

      FM: “3.Kirk did not break the rules”

      Eh, we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one. I will agree with you that he worked to stay within the spirit of the rules but he violated the letter so frequently he should have been court martialed.

      When I said that the show finished everything in 60 minutes, I meant that all loose ends had to be tied up by the end of the episode. You are correct that was the standard for the time but it chafed me then and chafes me even more now.

      Character growth is another thing we will have to amicably disagree on. You don’t like it because it crowds out the central issue of the episode, I like it because I cannot suspend disbelief that experiences shown in the episodes would NOT cause major changes to the characters and I want to see how they change. Every major experience can lead towards more positive and more negative social behavior and interactions and changes the nature of the relationship of the crew towards each other. Babylon 5 is how I measure a good show, certain individuals started off allied and became enemies, others started as enemies and became friends of a sort because of their experiences. G’Kar was always my favorite character.

      You might even take our discussion to the next level and argue that I am following the individualism philosophy which is all about one individual and how the react to the environment vs. your interest in the organization and how people can contribute to it. I can understand and accept your point but I am strongly wired to watch the individual and their struggles to become more (or less) than they were.

    5. Pluto,

      “but sending the leaders of the ship down to the planet every single week makes no sense.”

      Roddenbury knew that; it’s discussed in the key to understanding the original series, The Making of Star Trek (1970). They operated under severe budgetary constraints, far tighter than current shows. Among other things, that meant a smaller cast of leading characters.

      I think these things are better understood if one doesn’t get mired in the production details. The best Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen was by the Boston Shakespeare Company. Ultra low budget, with almost no sets. It forced the audience to focus on the story, not the trappings.

      “you don’t like {character growth}”

      I didn’t say that. I said it was a matter of trade-offs, with advantages and disadvantages. Writers always operate under constraints. I doubt any specific format is the one. Greek drama operated under far more severe constraints than any generation of Star Trek, rigidly formated — yet some people think they turned out OK.

  2. One recurring theme of the TV version was to ask:
    What does it mean to be human?
    And by extension, if we found ourselves in a position to choose, i.e. to self engineer mankind, how might we blow it?
    Not one film adaptation to my knowledge ever took one step down that road. As Yoda would say, this is why they fail.

    1. “What does it mean to be human?”

      Yes, that was the intellectual soul of the TV original series and some of its successors, and is lacking in the movies.

      What interests me is that, nearly 50 years later, we would probably answer that question differently than we did then (most people back then, for example, would probably have troubles defining gay people as fully human) and 50 years from now the answer will probably be different again.

    2. Pluto,

      I totally agree.

      Hence the increased attention to psychology of other races, although usually doing so in simplistic terms — as exaggerations of human characteristics. Even more so, note the frequency of inter-species mating — which is quite daft. We’re genetically closer to orangutangs than any alien, yet there few people are attracted to them (the biological cues we’re attuned to are extremely specific).

      For more about the problematic aspects of inter-species mating see “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” by Larry Niven, All the Myriad Ways (1971 ).

  3. This is a very long column, but what ails Star Trek can be more easily summarized. Movies are trending towards brainlessness, visual emphasis over character or story, action for action’s sake, and big brand names that appeal to a global audience. Just look at the latest crapfest, a wholly unnecessary reboot of the Terminator franchise, predictably enough doing big box office.

    Meanwhile, TV is trending in the opposite direction, towards more character and story, intelligent themes, and approaches that appeal to grownups. This is because of the transition going on right now from broadcast/cable to streaming, which is a subscription-based business. To hang onto subscribers, you gotta do more than zap-pow-bang. You gotta actually rope them in with engaging characters and an ongoing story.

    So what’s wrong with Star Trek can be attributed to business and technology trends alone, and what can salvage it (CBS does a deal to put a new show on Netflix or Amazon, or maybe their own planned standalone Showtime service) also depends on business and technology. Cultural or political factors are really beside the point, although I guess they’re more fun to talk about.

  4. “Movies are trending towards brainlessness, visual emphasis over character or story, action for action’s sake, and big brand names that appeal to a global audience. … Meanwhile, TV is trending in the opposite direction, towards more character and story, intelligent themes, and approaches that appeal to grownups.”

    Probably not by coincidence, the branch of mass entertainment we refer to as politics has also split into the same two branches.

  5. Pluto said: A few of the episodes were extremely good, especially for their time (an era filled with TV programming in all senses of the word).

    Pluto,
    Thank you for being one of the few critics of TOS to make an attempt to compare the show to those of it’s time. For those of us who were there in 1966, Star Trek was a breath of fresh air. What did we have to compare to the intelligent dialog between Kirk and Spock — the cretinous fare of Gilligan’s Island or the Beverly Hillbillies hitting the same note on the piano every week.

    I did some online research into the initial reaction to the show. To give you an indication of what it was up against, a NYC tabloid critic said you might like it if you’re an egghead; an NBC executive declared the pilot “too cerebral.”

    I suspect that many of the show’s critics have not seen those extremely good episodes. If you like space battles and good military drama I would say that “Balance of Terror” and “The Doomsday Machine” would not be surpassed even by the excellent recent remake of Battlestar Galactica. I love “Mirror Mirror” in which Kirk takes steps to be ethical at great risk to himself. There’s little that matches the quality and intelligence of the best of TOS on mainstream TV today; who can remember an episode of CSI; who would want to? The good shows of today are mostly on cable and have niche audiences that are probably similar in size to that of the TOS.

    Thanks to all for the good discussion.

    1. Support for Gloucon’s comment — Roddenberry originally offered Star Trek to CBS, who instead choose Lost in Space. Which was a wise choice, since it had higher rating (but, like Star Trek, high costs — so it too lasted only 3 seasons).

      After Lost in Space was cancelled the great actress June Lockhart went to lead in the show Petticoat Junction. So we’re talking TV wasteland with an occasional oasis.

      Only the other hand, I don’t watch TV (just a few via streaming), but from what I can tell the present fare seems similarly low quality. Countless reality TV shows, and even more crime and medical procedurals (most of which are to real drama like bacteria are to elephants).

      My guess is that we have difficulty comparing past levels to the present because our memories shed the dross of the past. We remember the great westerns of John Ford and not the legion of grade “b” tripe, and the wonderful dramas of John Huston and not the hundreds or thousands of silly tearjerkers of those same years. I suspect our children will look back on these years — the films and TV of their teens and early adulthood — with similar selective memory.

    2. I liked Trek (in reruns; I remember it during its initial run, but was too young to like it much), But looking back on it now, I think that it could have been much better had it borrowed from a show that **preceded** it: Twilight Zone. I can imagine having, say, a Federation and a Starfleet as a general premise, but with different starships and different characters appearing on different episodes. They could have recycled the sets and pointy ears to stay within budget. I’ve always considered “Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits” much more imaginative than Trek, in pretty much every way.

  6. Again, as I said before, I can’t stand the Abrams take on Trek. But then again, I’m not even a major fan of the original Trek. It had some good writing and stories, but its hokeyness and cheesiness just make it too hard to take seriously most of the time. The only character even likable is Spock. Obviously just my opinion, but there it is. The TNG/DS9 series are the only truly good series, both of which are very different from one another (TNG about exploration and human progress, DS9 a drama that turns the Trek universe on its head, in a good way), but I won’t get into some long nerdy paragraph why. Voyager is mostly a poor, with a few mildly entertaining episodes, and Enterprise mostly sucks, though the last season does start to get good, if only because it actually explores the prequel concept and deals with some mildly interesting issues.

    Then again, everything I say here is moot I guess because there’s at least one episode from each series I’d rank among my favorites.

    1. I’d also add that TOS, alongside its total cheesiness, had plenty of black and white, cartoonish stories, more so than its intelligent ones. The only Trek to totally rise about that IMO is DS9, which dealt with morality and ethics and politics in ways Trek never did. The TNG did a far better job exploring the human condition and space exploration. But again, this is my subjective opinion, I can’t prove anything. It’s just a TV franchise.

    2. Okay permit one one last comment before I come off as a spammer, I must admit, Bones was awesome. But for every “Balance of Terror” or “Ultimate Computer” there was five cheesy episodes. I don’t hate the TOS, I just think the format was done better in later incarnations. Others will disagree, but that’s the nature of subjective tastes.

  7. “But for every “Balance of Terror” or “Ultimate Computer” there was five cheesy episodes.”

    When they started landing on the Nazi planet, and the Roman planet, and the gangster planet, you could tell the thing was on life support and needed a mercy killing.

    1. Snake,

      Science fiction was foreign to US network TV in the 1960s. Once Roddenberry shifted his attention to other projects in season 2 Star Trek’s quality fell fast. He had even less involvement in season 3, which was worse.

      Sad, since nothing else he did was as successful.

  8. I also feel Roddenberry is kind of like George Lucas, in that often when he was directly in control of Trek, it sucked. TNG’s first season is terrible because of this reason, so is the original Trek movie (perhaps the most boring movie ever created). His ideas for Star Trek 2 are mind-blowingly awful, and so was his ideas for “Star Trek Phase 2”, thank god they never came to light.

  9. This review raises many fair criticisms; although as the author points out we critically dissect any film of this type and find all manner of things to complain about.

    I view the film in less black and white terms. On one side of the ledger are the negative complaints, which this article explores pretty exhaustively. But on the other side, the positives include for me the following:

    1) The following train of thought may be a bit complicated but it is ultimately a positive for me: in my humble opinion, the Star Trek TV series does not translate particularly well into the movie format (it worked much better as a series)–and for this reason I’m willing to forgive many changes. Especially given the market forces that currently hold sway (blockbuster style movies are mega-business), I accept that some sacrifices have to be made in terms of depth of content in order for the film to be produced. Not unlike the ways in which Peter Jackson modified The Hobbit in translating what was originally intended as a children’s tale to the silver screen, I accept a certain amount of change to the source material in Into Darkness. For example, to keep with the comparison with The Hobbit for a moment, both Tauriel and Uhura reflect the current cultural sensibility that women can be just as capable as men in dangerous and physically violent situations. (And I didn’t mind that Uhura argues with her boyfriend at critical moments–that added a nice whimsical touch of humor for me.)

    2) So I choose to embrace that the source material will be refreshed and reinterpreted. I enjoy seeing new actors in the now iconic roles of the original cast. I loved Into Darkness’ casting and performances. The core chemistry between Pine, Quinto, and Urban definitely clicks. I realize this is outright heresy to many die-hard Trekkies, but I actually like these newest characterizations just a little better than the originals. I think that trio has now become a quartet with Uhura joining the inner circle, actually. The first time I watched Into Darkness I didn’t care for the fact that I found Uhura to be such a departure from the original. But on the second viewing I began to appreciate her rewritten character much more. And I am not troubled that she and Spock have been has been ‘shipped’. For me it makes the story more interesting.

    3) This is a matter of personal taste, but what can be done with CGI now makes (for me) the original suffer badly in comparison. The way this cinematic universe can now be realized on screen unfortunately has me cringe a bit at earlier iterations (despite my immense fondness for the TV series; and I have never enjoyed the earlier original cast movies to begin with). The combination of the new actors and CGI have revitalized my experience of Star Trek such that I can get a little excited again to see them all in action once more. And of course to see what will be done to develop the characters in fresh ways.

    4) I’m impressed with how deftly the humor of this film is woven into the action narrative. The are many fun, humorous moments and one-liners that flow seamlessly throughout the film. That is now a convention of blockbuster action flicks of course. But during the second viewing I appreciated the film’s sense of humor much more. It manages to interject humor in a very endearing way.

    The main negative for me with Into Darkness is (in my view) the miscasting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan. Cumberbatch is a great actor. It is hard not to find him enjoyable in any performance he gives. But to my mind he is just not Khan!

    It has mostly to do with physical presence, I think. Khan is to me a proud and imperious lion. He has a regal air and physical gravitas. Benedict Cumberbatch has a deep, resonant voice, and he can readily adopt a Shakespearean tone; but his physical presence gives off a different vibe than a majestic lion. (Not sure what it is, but it doesn’t match my mental template for Khan.)

    Anyway, this casting mistake (imho) did not at all destroy the experience of the film for me. But I will say that it did pose the major obstacle to willing suspension of disbelief for me. As I watch the film I’m consciously thinking to myself “I just don’t buy this guy as Khan! He’s wrong for the part!” and that’s not what we want as a viewer. I realize that is idiosyncratic of me, but that was my experience.

    Anyway, I think most of Locke Peterseim’s criticisms are fair and well made. But the positives for me still far outweigh those negatives. Again, the criticisms are mostly reasonable. But regardless I still had a great fun watching Into Darkness. If we view the film as gray versus black and white, for me it is a fairly pale shade.

  10. The extravagant plethora of comments arguing over a 50-year-old TV show, as compared to the total dearth of comments on other FM columns dealing with substantive issues involving the decay of American democracy and the collapse of our constitution, illustrates beautifully the dysfunctions and pathologies of the American people.

    If what we’re passionately concerned about is a 50-year-old TV show, rather than the fate of our democracy, Americans deserve the tyranny and eternal war and panopticon surveillance we’re getting from our billionaire overlords.

    1. Thomas,

      I don’t mind the fun threads. They too have a place in the world. But there’s a more serious element here. Tom Leykis ran a radio show doing much the same schick as I. He started doing fun things about men & women. He did Leykis 101 offering advice about relationships (i.e., dealing with women). He encouraged women to participate in Flash Friday. He came a nationwide star.

      My son says I’m working the wrong lemonade stand, and I should switch to cultural commentary. As Tom did. The Republic is not my problem. If so few others care, why should I?

  11. The spock/uhura relationship and making Uhura at the level of the original trio is one of the best things the reboot did. It makes the characters more layered and interesting.
    Hardcore trek fans that have all the biographies and books will remember that Roddenberry wanted to end the series with Spock getting married if they hadn’t cancelled it in season 3. He wanted to show that there were families on the spaceships. Nimoy himself (who liked the romance in the reboot) knew that Gene never envisioned Spock as being asexual and incapable to love.
    Even Spock/Uhura was something he wanted to do in the series (hence the first episodes and flirting) but it wasn’t possible in the 60s to have an interracial couple on tv so it was just in subtext.

    1. nomad,

      I have never heard that a Spock/Uhura romance was even imagined by Roddenberry — or anyone — in the 1960s. The Kirk-Uhura kiss in “Plato’s Stepchildren” was a big deal in 1968, the first interracial kiss on US TV. A romance would have blown the network executives’ minds before they said “NO!”.

      The scene was originally written to be with Spock, perhaps the origin of the story that Roddenberry intended a larger story arc.

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