If you haven’t seen Star Trek Into Darkness yet, this isn’t for you. This post contains spoilers, and you owe it to yourself to go into this movie unspoilt. (This goes especially for you, Liz.) You can go here for my spoiler-free observations.
Again, spoilers lie ahead! If you haven’t seen the movie, go away.
Everyone who hasn’t seen the movie gone yet? Please?
If you turn another page, we’ll get closer to the end of this book, and there is a monster at the end of this book.
Seriously, last chance. Stop reading NOW if you haven’t seen the film.
Okay. As you may know about me, I am a massive Star Trek fan. I had pretty much given up on the franchise after Voyager, Enterprise and the post-First Contact movies, though. This is one of those “tale as old as time” things, pretty much every Trekkie with a modicum of taste would tell you the same thing.
I’m young enough that the Next Generation was probably my first Star Trek, and I know why many consider it the best series. (Note, none of those reasons is “the second season.”) But even though TNG was my first love, it’s never been my deepest. The original series, although it was dated even when I first ran across it as a kid catching late-night reruns on KLJB Fox 18 whenever my parents would let me stay up late enough to do so. And I fell in love with the crew of the Enterprise — with Captain Kirk, Mister Spock, Bones, Scotty, the whole lot of them.
And I think this is one point where people who aren’t Trekkies fail to understand the show. Part of it is the label of science fiction, which Star Trek has never worn particularly well — partly because Star Trek has always sat on the very, very soft end of the Moh’s Scale Of Science Fiction Hardness, partly because Star Trek (especially the original series) has always been unafraid to pilfer (if not outright steal) from any other genre it could lay its grubby little mitts on. The original series would do a legal drama one episode, the next the Enterprise would be acting out a submarine drama, another it would be following a plot gently dusted off from an old story set in the age of sail. It borrowed from the Western, from Shakespeare, it told vampire stories and stories about witches and Jack the Ripper and it told actual science fiction stories about truly alien creatures like the Horta.
In a sense, Star Trek owed much to the idea of the anthology show and the pulp tradition, borrowing and mixing liberally. It never stopped being science fiction (that would have to wait for The Next Generation’s holodeck abuse), but it didn’t mind being something else at the same time. The thread running between all of these disparate episodes was the ship and her crew. The Enterprise of that time can be an acquired taste, particularly the interior (the reboot has pretty much abandoned most ties with the set design of the original series, which I can’t honestly say I mind), but especially from the outside she’s still a wonder and a beauty, if you’re into that sort of thing. (And I am. Oh, do I love you, pretty pretty spaceships.)
But for those of us who fell in love with the show, what we really fell in love with were the characters. Kirk was handsome, charismatic, got all the girls and was still pretty damn smart. Spock was pretty much the role model for every high school nerd to felt ostracized. Bones, Uhura, Chekov, Sulu, Scotty… they all had their faults, but they all had their glories, and they always felt like a family, and a family you’d want to be a part of.
And I remember vividly the first time I saw The Wrath of Khan, and Spock, well, Spock died. And I cried, and I think my mother had to rush out to the video rental store (yes, kids, those were a thing) to pick up The Search For Spock to convince me that everything was going to be okay.
And… you did see the movie first, right? You paid attention to my warning up top, right? Good. So they do that scene again, only with Kirk dying from radiation poisoning and Spock outside the chamber. And it… I mean, rationally, I can think of a dozen reasons the scene shouldn’t work. It’s transparently manipulative, and it plays directly on our recollection of the original scene. It’s deliberately playing with one of the most iconic moments in Star Trek history in a rather subversive way. And the plot twist, unlike the method for Spock’s miraculous resurection that my mom had to run out and fetch for me, it was telegraphed well in advance. (I’m just shooting this Tribble up with Khan blood, it won’t be important later.) Plus, y’know, Paramount isn’t going to let them kill off Kirk two films into the gravy train.
But, but I still cried again.
And what’s interesting is how Spock cries, too. In the original, he didn’t cry. He was stoic in the face of his own death. What grieved him so was the prospect of losing a friend to tragedy, and knowing (they even point this out, in case we missed it) that he would have done the same as his friend, had their places been switched.
Which I think is what’s most misunderstood about this new Trek series. It is undeniably a big dumb summer tentpole movie, something even the the original series never was even in its movie adaptations (the TNG movies sometimes listed in this direction, often disasterously). But the original Star Trek was constantly reinventing itself, both in genre and in medium. It can survive one more transition, to summer popcorn flick, if it keeps the core intact, and that core is the characters.
And there are so many moments, large and small, where this film really gets these characters. Scotty’s moments of wholly-justified insubordination against Kirk, and his refusal to back down even when it means losing his place in Starfleet, are very true to the character from the original, and show a much deeper and broader understanding of the characters than the caricatures they’d become over the past few decades. It’s real easy to capture the “I cannae do it, Captain, I dinnae have the power” moments for Mister Scott. It takes a deeper understanding of the character to embody everything else about him. The Scotty in this movie reminded me of him in “A Taste of Armageddon,” for instance, where when left in command of the Enterprise in a hostile situation and being second-guessed by a Federation big-wig, he managed to pull off some impressive feats that not even Kirk would have come to on his own.
The genius of this new series is that the characters are preserved and then used. The actors all do an extraordinary job of embodying the characters while making them their own; there are moments that strongly evoke the original performances, but never do the actors resort to outright mimickry or parody. And so it is with how the characters are written — they aren’t preserved, they aren’t props and museum pieces, they’re brought back to life. The situations are different (if often more than a little familiar), and now we get to see how these characters react to the changes.
The film ends up being a love letter to the old Star Trek and a successful big dumb action movie at the same time. (Although the new Trek isn’t as dumb as its detractors like to say; there is some social commentary, although at times it does veer towards the Stock Social Commentary For Post-9/11 Films With Large Explosions, it’s a bit smarter than that.) It’s like seeing one of your favorite current bands cover some of your favorite songs from years ago — they’re still great tunes, and they’re great performances and everyone involve clearly loves performing them as much as you love hearing them. I couldn’t ask for more.