Ethnic criminals and colour-blind casting

Warning: This post will reveal one of the key spoilers in Star Trek into Darkness. It’s not that big a spoiler, especially if you’ve been paying any attention to the buzz around that film for the past two years, but, if by any chance you have been avoiding the spoilers around that film, you may want to avoid this post, too.

Two films in theatres right now feature significant characters who happen to be (1) villainous, or at the very least somewhat shady, and (2) members of an ethnic group that has sometimes been subject to stereotyping. In both films, the characters in question are played by members of an entirely different ethnic group — and this has puzzled some observers, who have asked if the films could have found a more creative but authentic way to navigate the issues raised by their source material.

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Star Trek into Darkness — first impressions (spoilers!)

This post has taken a lot longer to write than I expected. I saw Star Trek into Darkness on Wednesday night (the studio, in its wisdom, decided to hold this film back from most critics until the last possible second) and began writing this post on Thursday morning, but life got in the way and I couldn’t finish it all in one sitting — and then, whenever I came back to this post, I found that I had more things to say, or different ways of saying what I had already said, and so on, and so on. But here we are now, on Monday, and the film has finished its first weekend in North America (where it slightly underperformed at the box office), and I am finally going to force myself to finish this thing.

So. Here’s the thing about the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies: He throws so many things at you, so quickly, that you cannot help but miss some details that are actually fairly important, at least on first viewing.

For example, it wasn’t until the second time that I saw his 2009 “reboot” of Star Trek that I realized virtually all of Kirk’s fellow Starfleet cadets had been killed by Nero, except for the ones who were on Kirk’s ship. As you may recall, Starfleet gets a distress call from Vulcan while Kirk is in the middle of being reprimanded by Starfleet authorities — and the disciplinary hearing is put on hold so that all of the recent graduates can board their ships and fly to Vulcan. When all of the ships go to warp speed, the Enterprise accidentally stays behind, because of an error on Sulu’s part — and when the Enterprise finally gets to Vulcan, it finds nothing but a debris field orbiting the planet. Which, when you think about it, means that everyone on all those other ships — including the green alien roommate of Uhura’s that Kirk slept with — is dead, dead, dead. But by that point, the film has forgotten them and moved on to other things; and then, at the film’s conclusion, everyone at Starfleet Academy cheers when Kirk is promoted to captain. Do they make at least a token nod to the fact that they just lost dozens, if not hundreds, of their classmates? Nope.

So, take anything I say in this post with a grain of salt. I have only seen the new film once, and I may have missed all sorts of stuff that won’t register until a second viewing. (One e-pal has already informed me that the movie refers to an incident from the comic-book prequel Countdown to Darkness, but I completely missed that reference as I was watching the film. And I’ve actually read that comic!)

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Music for Klingons, part three: Eidelman + Giacchino

The Klingons have been featured one way or another in every Star Trek movie produced to date — whether as actual characters or as starships on a monitor — but there is only one film in which the Klingons truly took centre stage. And that film happens to be one of the few Star Trek movies that was not scored by Jerry Goldsmith or James Horner, the subjects of the first two parts of this series.

The film in question is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), which served as a bridge of sorts between the original Star Trek TV series (1966-1969) and its follow-up, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). The latter series had shown that the Federation and the Klingons would one day get along, more or less, so this film — the last one to feature the entire cast of the original series, and the first one to feature an actor from the later series (though not any of its characters) — aimed to show exactly how the Cold War between these two powers had ended.

And one of the striking features about the soundtrack for this film, composed by Cliff Eidelman, is how up-front it is about its Klingon elements — to the point where it is the only film in the entire series that does not begin with one of the standard Star Trek themes but, instead, begins with a theme that was written for the Klingons.

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James T. Kirk and the mind-body-spirit relationship

“Kirk is a man of passion and emotion and follows his gut.” So says Chris Pine in a new featurette for Star Trek into Darkness. And to a certain extent, Kirk does indeed have these characteristics. But I wonder if that summary is as accurate as it could be; and I wonder if it reflects one of the subtle but significant changes that the new Star Trek films have made to the franchise’s original characters.

The way Pine speaks of Kirk’s “passion” and his “gut” reminds me of a point that John Granger made in his book The Hidden Key to Harry Potter, regarding how a number of successful franchises have revolved around three characters who represent the classic division of the human being into body, mind and spirit.

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“We’ve tried to get away from the Trekkiness of it all.”

I’ve made this point before, but it bears repeating: For most of their history, the Star Trek movies have tended to be formulaic action-oriented good-guy-vs.-bad-guy flicks, and have not reflected the wide range of stories that characterized the original TV series.

The TV show had its villains and action-oriented episodes too, of course, and sometimes the movies made in that vein have been very good, as was the case with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982).

But at other times the action has seemed forced and rote, as it did in Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), where it was fairly clear that at least some of the creative personnel wanted to do something different from the last few movies — something lighter, funnier, more romantic, etc. — but, as producer Rick Berman said at the time, “of course” the movie still had a fair bit of running and shooting and so on.

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Star Trek sequel villain rumours: sifting the evidence

First, let’s get what should be obvious out of the way: you don’t need a villain to make a good Star Trek story. Indeed, the top-grossing entry in the franchise ever, prior to J.J. Abrams’ reboot a few years ago, was Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and there were no villains in that film unless you count the human race, which had hunted humpback whales to extinction.

Likewise with the original TV series, in which some of the best-loved episodes, such as ‘City on the Edge of Forever’, didn’t have any villains whatsoever, while others — such as ‘The Naked Time’, ‘The Enemy Within’ and ‘Amok Time’ — were primarily concerned with the conflicting passions within our heroes and not with any external antagonists that they might face. (You could even toss ‘Mirror, Mirror’ into that last list; the Mirror Universe counterparts to our heroes might be villains in some sense, but they also suggest something about our heroes’ darker sides, and the episode itself is primarily concerned with getting each set of characters back to the universe in which they belong, not unlike how Kirk’s better and darker halves are restored to their proper balanced relationship to one another in ‘The Enemy Within’.)

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