Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Star Trek into Mediocrity

If you want to avoid spoilers, head on out of here at maximum warp.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is widely regarded as the best of all Star Trek films, an assessment I agree with. So, to the surprise of no one except people who took Paramount at their word in the lead-up to the film’s release, it was only natural that the second installment of the J.J. Abrams Trek reboot involved everybody’s favorite villain, Khan Noonien Singh. But, as you could probably guess from the title of this piece, I have… opinions about it. I’m no fan of Abrams’ reboot in general, but I think that this debacle particularly warrants discussion. I’ll try to explain.

An appropriate facial expression for viewers. (source)
For those who don’t know, here’s a simplified rundown. In the Prime timeline, Khan Noonien Singh was a genetic augment and relic from sometime around the year 2000 who had had a run-in with the Enterprise during the original series’ run. Kirk ended up leaving them on Ceti Alpha IV in the wreck of the Botany Bay and promptly forgot about them. In Star Trek II, Khan and his cohort return to seek revenge upon Kirk for this slight. When the Federation somehow manages not to realize they’re on the wrong planet, Chekov and his fellow officer get their brains hijacked by space bugs reminiscent of the parasites from the Next Generation episode “Contagion” and basically lure the Enterprise into a trap with the Regula II space station. Along the way, one of Kirk’s old flames and his son join the party. Khan is charismatic, smart, and brutal, and for a while it looks like he might get the better of Kirk, quoting classic literature all the while. Eventually, Scotty’s nephew and Spock die, the former rather needlessly as a plot device and the latter in a genuinely shocking moment, before Khan is eventually outwitted by our heroes, activates the Genesis Device, and blows himself up.

And with suitably ‘80s hair, too. (source)
The above paragraph may read somewhat caustic in parts, but I think that serves to underscore just how good The Wrath of Khan is—the plot holes and hiccups are more than forgivable. (It’s like a superior Equilibrium in that respect.)

Not so with Star Trek Into Darkness. To be sure, it has its high points—the opening gambit is, for the most part, fantastic, following the footsteps of the original series; Benedict Cumberbatch is, as always, a joy to watch; and (gasp) bringing Section 31 into the canon at this early juncture had promise. But on balance, I think the problems outweigh the successes, and that is in no small part due to the fact that The Wrath of Khan left such massive boots to fill.

You weren’t expecting a picture of Genghis Khan, were you? Good—because this is actually his son Ögedei. (source)
One of the most salient points, I feel, is that Into Darkness took a middle-of-the-road approach with respect to The Wrath of Khan. On the one hand, they could’ve gone for a substantially more faithful retelling—whether this would’ve resulted in a good film is debatable, but with a few subtle, well-placed tweaks, who knows. On the other, Abrams’ reboot is exactly that—both his story to tell and a reboot of the continuity—and there’s a whole Alpha Quadrant of new stories that he could’ve explored. (Heck, they could’ve even done something with the Sphere Builders or the Suliban.) Instead, we get this story that starts out looking like it’s its own thing and then, halfway through, switches to a warmed-over Wrath of Khan that doesn’t even really try to live up to the original.

Part of what made Khan such a great villain in the original was his thirst for vengeance. Kirk, through gallivanting off into the sunset and then not sending so much as a postcard asking the group about their situation afterward, wronged him—personally (or so he feels)—and he wants to even the score. In Into Darkness, this note to his character is missing. Sure, both Khans have a contingent of fellow augments that they want to care for in their own fashion, but with Cumberbatch’s Khan, it’s strictly business. There’s no bone to pick with Kirk specifically, he’s just a resource to be discarded when he’s done. There’s no personal investment and, consequently, less of a reason why we should care.

It follows from this that a good deal of the conflict in the original film was picking that bone. The rest of the Enterprise was fallout—Khan wanted to make Kirk suffer. He even boasts as much in the scene with the infamous scream:

I've done far worse than kill you. I've hurt you. And I wish to go on hurting you. I shall leave you as you left me. As you left her. Marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet, buried alive… buried alive.
Instead, in this film, we end up with a Khan whose motivation is basically “get my crew and rule the world,” Kirk having an implausibly rapid change of character, and Spock going off the rails and physically beating up Khan.

This is not the Spock we know and love. (source)
Speaking of Kirk’s change of character… yes, it was driven by input from his crew, but it seemed like an extraordinarily short turnaround time for his persona. Heck, even the head of Section 31 was fully expecting Kirk to give the finger to protocol and start a war with the Klingons. Instead, it came across to me like someone flipped a switch. If a character isn’t written to be a leaf in the wind, I expect that their worldviews have inertia and that on really hefty topics, opinions don’t change instantly. (If they do, maybe they’ve secretly been kidnapped and replaced by a Founder, but nobody has to worry about that until the Deep Space Nine era, so the point remains).

More generally, there’s just a bunch of action scenes. This isn’t a revenge flick with a plot and a villain capable of pulling it off. This feels more like a beat-’em-up than Star Trek II. While beat-’em-ups aren’t necessarily bad films, when you’re trying to revamp The Wrath of Khan, people are going to come into the film with expectations informed by the original. We didn’t get a compelling tale, we got psycho!Spock.

You might make the argument that Spock’s change of character was a central point to the movie, but… why did they need to do that in the first place? Sure, he's had emotions, but Spock hasn’t lost control that much outside of circumstances like pon farr or getting pollen shot at him by a mind-controlling plant. Indeed, it’s following that streak of stoic logic that made him face certain death at the end of Wrath of Khan. It's like they decided to swap out Kirk and Spock's character traits, and while I can get, in some sense, why the writers might have tried to do that, it doesn't really work here. Like I said above, I expect most characters to have some sort of internal inertia.

Then there’s the death scenes (Spock in the original, Kirk in Into Darkness). There’s a bit of real-life subtext here: Leonard Nimoy originally wanted Spock to be killed off in the Wrath of Khan. Couple that with the fact that, given that Star Trek: The Motion Picture nosedived in theaters, there was no assurance that there would even be any more Star Trek after this. So, as far as everyone knew, this was it for everyone’s favorite half-Vulcan. When Spock goes into the radiation room, dies, and then gets shoved out the torpedo bay while Scotty plays the bagpipes, there was a sense of finality. Gravitas. Nobody had any idea that Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was going to happen. The bottom line is, the sacrifice actually meant something for the audience.

And it meant something to the characters, too. (source)
The opposite happens in Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s Kirk who goes into the radiation room and fixes the equipment. Then he (almost) dies, meaning Spock gets to shout “KHA[snip]AN!” this time around (q.v.). Of course, even Khan’s blood is superhuman, and by the end of the film, Kirk is back in action, ready to skipper the Enterprise on its five-year tour.

In fairness, I believe that part of the problem here is that Star Trek is such a megalithic media franchise nowadays. There’s an expectation that there's more to come down the Jeffries tube (though with the tragic death of Anton Yelchin, the future of the reboot is uncertain). As such, did anybody really think that Kirk, the captain of a ship that hasn’t even begun its famous five-year mission yet, would end up biting it for real in that scene? And that expectation, that knowledge that in another couple of years Paramount’s going to churn out a sequel, invalidates the impact of the sacrifice. Bones is going to fix Jim and by the end of the film it’ll be business as usual. Ho hum. (Not to mention that it didn't even come at the end of the film, further detracting from its impact. There was still a third act to get through in Into Darkness. In The Wrath of Khan, Spock dying took place at a point where it was clear nobody was going to press the reset button, at least not in this film—heck, they shot him out of the torpedo bay.)

An important aspect of a character is his flaws. In The Wrath of Khan, Khan’s was that his desire for revenge took him over and ended up destroying him, and he could be defeated with wits and guile—at great cost, certainly, but defeated nonetheless. In Into Darkness, they made Khan into more of a Mary Sue. As I mentioned above, even his blood has magical healing properties. He only loses because Spock pays $11.99 a month for Spock Prime, netting him insider info on Khan and free two-day delivery on select items. (Again, credit where credit is due—the whole exact-words ploy with the torpedoes was pretty cool.)

Perhaps this is petty, but you can’t do a Khan movie without the scream. (You know the one.) In the original, it was, admittedly, part of a bluff. But it worked. Contrast with Into Darkness, where they changed the context. Now Spock is reacting to Kirk’s (near-)death. This might have been passable if it weren’t for the facts that A) it felt very much like an afterthought that was shoehorned into the scene as a nod to the original and B) the way Zachary Quinto shouts it, it sounds like he wasn’t watching where he was going and fell down an elevator shaft. As it stands, Paramount fired off a squib and made an already ridiculous scene into a fiasco. On TV Tropes, that’s called “Narm”.

This scene is also all that remains of the “Spock passes a kidney stone” subplot. (source)
A footnote… the Klingons. Ugh, the Klingons in this movie. It would be remiss of me not to note that I’m a Klingon fanboy, so maybe I’m off my rocker here, but they came came off as just ridiculous. It’s not even the fact that the patrol goes down like a house of cards in a windstorm—Klingons were often used as punching bags to demonstrate how powerful this week’s antagonist was in previous Trek canon (there's a trope called “The Worf Effect” for this reason). It was in their presentation and the way they carried themselves. The ones in this film came across like a high school clique that happened to have bat'leths, as opposed to fierce warriors. (Credit where credit is due—if I’ve got my facts straight, Uhura mentions that her Klingon is “rusty” and then goes on to botch the verb prefixes. I wonder if they got Marc Okrand to do the Klingon language stuff again for this film.)

TL;DR: I think they would’ve been better off just not even bothering with the Khan angle here.

Am I right? Am I wrong? Let me know in the comments.


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