Star Trek Into Darkness was about as mediocre as I expected

So I saw Star Trek Into Darkness Thursday, partly because I was visiting family for the week and it was something to do with them, and partly because I was just curious. I intensely hated Abrams’ first Star Trek movie, by now my offense at the “we need younger actors to appeal to the younger generation” thing had worn off and I was expecting it to be at least mildly enjoyable. And it was in fact mildly enjoyable.

I left the theater with a vague feeling of “whatever” but without any really big problems with the movie I could put my finger on. But, well…


A comment on my last post on Star Trek and transhumanism said, quote, “Jesus Christ Chris… the New Star Trek came out this weekend… thanks for the spoiler dick.” Which made me go, “wait, the identity of the villain was supposed to be a spoiler?” I mean, I knew J. J. Abrams was trying to keep it hush-hush, so I was a bit surprised when I saw it revealed, on the day of the US opening, in the third sentence of the Wikipedia page for “Khan Noonien Singh.” But seriously, who the fuck makes the identity of their villain a major spoiler?

I’d basically figured it out before reading the Wikipedia article, given that (1) a trailer had Benedict Cumberbatch saying “I am better… at everything” (2) theoretically this could have referred not just to genetic enhancements, but godlike (or Q-like) powers, but there seemed to be some indications that Abrams wasn’t going the Q-like route; in particular initial rumors that the villain would be Gary Mitchell had been disconfirmed (3) Abrams said it would be an established Trek villain and (4) Khan was the villain of what is generally regarded as the best Trek movie, so of course Abrams would want to use him.

So I was kinda excited to see how Abrams would do Khan, and probably would have been more excited if I hadn’t hated Abrams’ first Trek movie so much. And getting people excited about Bennedict Cumberbatch’s Khan is the obvious thing for Abrams to have done with the movie’s marketing, the same way Nolan made a bajillion dollars getting people excited about Heath Ledger’s Joker. In retrospect I can see that the revelation of Khan’s identity was meant to be a WHAM line. But it’s a set up that only works if (1) you know a lot about the Trek ‘verse but (2) your knowledge of the Trek verse has not allowed you to figure out the spoiler in advance.

On (1), I’m pretty sure the movie made no fucking sense to anyone who wasn’t already a Trek buff. I was definitely explaining some things to my mom afterwards. That included having to explain the scene where young!Spock talked to the Spock who had traveled back in time in the previous movie. More importantly, though, the movie failed to explain who the heck Khan was; bizarrely, no one on the Enterprise crew even acted like they had heard of him even after he told them.

That’s weird from the point of view of the original Trek continuity, where Kirk not knowing who Khan was would be kind of like a modern person not knowing who Napoleon was. Of course, with the original Trek continuity contradicting the way history actually turned out, it’s understandable why Abrams might not want to go with that… so all we get is a reference to him being a 300 year old superman, which I think non-Trekie viewers were intended to not think to hard about, because if all you know about Star Trek is that it takes place in the 23rd century and you do the math, you’re going to be thinking, “what, we didn’t have supermen in the 20rd century!”

In a way, the movie ends up less being a movie than a series of action scenes strung together by references to Trek lore that will only make sense to fans. Another example of this: it’s briefly mentioned that in this continuity, it was Section 31 who was responsible for reviving Khan. If you’ve seen Deep Space 9, Section 31 is an organization within the Federation which is basically the CIA, only more evil to the point that its very existence was hidden from most of the Federation from the day it was founded. But none of that was explained.

Heck, even the Klingons got this treatment to an extent: the anticipated war with the Klingons is actually the justification for reviving Khan, but the movie itself never really conveys why they’re a threat. It certainly doesn’t convey why they’re enough of a threat to justify reviving a genetically enhanced former dictator in order to fight them. They only briefly show up as a minor obstacle in the fight against Khan.

So yeah: less a movie than a series of action scenes strung together by references to Trek lore. Abrams probably thought he was doing fans a favor with all those references, but as a fan I don’t just want to see references, I want to see the movie do something interesting with the source material, which Abrams failed to do.

On the other hand… to take this in a direction I completely didn’t expect to be going, maybe the movie’s plot looked fine to non-fans. I’m much less of a Marvel comics fan than Russell Blackford is, and as a result I’ve been at a loss to understand his dislike of Thor and Iron Man 3. Any non-fans who’ve seen the movie want to fill me in?

One problem I see from a non-fan’s perspective is that if you’re not already familiar with Star Trek, it’s not actually clear why we should regard either the Klingons or Khan as the villains. From the Klingons’ perspective, the sole thing they do in the movie is respond to a very illegal incursion by an extraterrestrial military organization onto their planet. And Khan doesn’t seem very interested in conquering, he’s just taking revenge on the Federation for coercing him into working for them by threatening the lives of his crew.

Granted, Khan kills Starfleet personnel who weren’t directly responsible for what was done to him, but given the military nature of Starfleet, he has a pretty good case that they were legitimate targets. I guess that was the reason for the the scene with future!Spock that so confused my mother, to make sure the audience knows Khan a bad guy, but probably my mother wasn’t alone in her confusion. Minus knowing that Khan would probably want to use his fellow supermen to try to go off and do some conquering, there’d have been no clear reason for Khan and the Enterprise’s crew to fight after teaming up to defeat Section 31.

Note that unlike the Klingons and Khan, Section 31 doesn’t suffer from Designated Villain status if you don’t know who they are. In fact, if you don’t know much about Star Trek, not knowing who the Klingons are will make Section 31′s actions look even more insane.

At least, these are my best guesses about how the movie will look to non-fans. Any non-fans who’ve seen the movie want to fill me in on their perspective?

ETA: Okay, so apparently this version of Khan, unlike other versions, was portrayed as not just wanting to conquer but exterminate those he deemed “inferior.” But how the hell did anyone know that in this version of the story?

Edit #2: Wait, apparently the “Khan wants exterminate those he deems inferior” claim came from Admiral Marcus, who isn’t exactly trustworthy. So basically Khan is looking pretty good here.

  • Feminerd

    I’m … sort of a fan. I’ve seen most of DS:9, much of TNG, and scattered episodes of the original. I’ve seen the famous movies, but not all of the movies. I like the series, but I’m fuzzy on the minutia.


    So I have enough background to know who the Klingons are, and why they’re a threat. Most people who know anything at all about Star Trek (which, honestly, is going to be most of the people going to see the movie) know about the Klingons. I recognized Khan as “villain” for more than just terrorist acts, but as a major-league bad guy. I thought they got that across at the end, though, when they talked about him being a genocidal superbeing whose mission was to kill everyone he deemed inferior. That seems a good enough reason to be very wary of him.

    As for Section 31, I honestly don’t remember it from DS:9. Even without that, I picked up that it was a secret research/military arm of Starfleet whose leader had gone off the deep end. I think non-fans could pick that much up and don’t need to know more for the purposes of the movie.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Wait, I totally remember the bit about Khan wanting to kill anyone he deemed inferior. But who said that? That actually seems inconsistent with his previous characterization as someone who wanted to rule over those he deemed inferior–and had previously ruled over a large empire whose populace was presumably mostly unenhanced. According to Memory Alpha, “his reign was an exception to similar circumstances in Earth history, lacking massacres or internal war.”

      • Feminerd

        I think it was the Starfleet officer who went power-mad (Adm. Marcus?) who said that. So it might or might not be true, but it does give the audience a reason to dislike Khan and see him as a major villain. Maybe his centuries of hibernation made him more genocidal and less tyrannical? Or possibly losing the Eugenics Wars made him want to destroy inferior beings who had dared interfere with his plans? It’s hard to get into the mind of a fictional, genetically enhanced, poorly characterized movie character …

        • Chris Hallquist

          “It’s hard to get into the mind of a fictional, genetically enhanced, poorly characterized movie character…”

          Haha. Emphasis on “poorly characterized.”

  • JohnH2

    What I am wondering is about the temporal accords and the “time cops” that show up in TNG, DS9, and a whole lot in Enterprise; Presumably, Spock’s going back in time (as well as the destruction of key planets and etc) will continue changing things in the future. I suppose it is probably best if that whole thing is ignored in terms of movies.

    That said, if you are going to give warnings I vote for one on TV tropes links as it is very easy to get distracted for a long time on that site.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Oops. Good point about TVTropes.

  • Rain

    I don’t like the new Star Treks either. Christopher Nolan should do them. Hire some stars too dammit. Russell Crowe for Captain, Denzel Washington for First Science Officer. Penelope Cruz for Communications Officer. Maybe Al Pacino for villain since he likes yelling at everyone all the time. Anne Hathaway for the cute alien lady part. Natalie Portman as Natalie Portman (fallen into the future from a time warp or something.) Ricky Gervais as a Ferengi. Digital Audrey Hepburn as the wise hologram bartender lady.

  • hf

    I had the impression this version of Khan at least regards himself as a rational agent who never defects first. This would make Kirk’s nggrzcg gb fgha uvz a major mistake. And in fact it was a mistake, though I can’t tell if it was supposed to make a difference in the end. Khan had been wrong about (the extent of) someone’s defection before that point.

    Wait, weren’t we supposed to sympathize with super-Hitler as a smart guy who people kept using for their own purposes while treating him badly?

    (If you don’t speak shoggoth, go here to paste spoilers.)

    • Chris Hallquist

      Good point about Kirk’s mistake. Khan just starts looking better and better.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “we need younger actors to appeal to the younger generation”

    That’s about it; Star Fleet if it were run by horny teenagers rather than professionals. Rampant unprofessionalism, lover’s spats on an away mission. It’s like they made vampires sparkly or something.

  • Jimmy Cook

    What probably confuses me most about this reboot is the difference between the stated goal and actions. They wanted a new continuity to explore, yet almost slavishly repeat, not merely reference, the lore. The most significant difference is the characters are younger and working through more dramatic personal issues. Even occurrences like the Klingons blowing up their moon, Praxis, just happens a few decades earlier. The film then just treats the major event as a cool visual rather than important plot point.

    I watched the film with two fellow fans and one non-fan. The non-fan didn’t know what was special about Khan or how bad he really was. As you pointed out, the worst condemnation came from someone who wasn’t exactly a reliable source, and she didn’t know if Khan was really evil or just driven mad with grief. She thought Section 31 was just a secret weapons lab. She had watched the first film with us, so she did know humans were worried about Klingons but nothing more. She also thought Kirk was taking his time dying. Overall, she enjoyed the movie as a nice popcorn flick but didn’t really get the story beyond everyone wanted revenge on everyone else.

  • eric

    Cumberbatch’s performance was a bit over the top for me…and he was in fact one of the reasons I went to see the movie. I thought he was excellent in BBC’s latest Sherlock Holmes remakes (and I recommend those to anyone who liked him in Star Trek). IMO he did not really do as well as Montalban at pulling off the ‘super-mastermind yet homicidal maniac’ schtick – he came off too homicidal maniac and not enough super mastermind.

    Other than that…I had somewhat low expectations in terms of plot, other actors performances, etc. Those low expectations were exceeded so I generally enjoyed the movie. Funny how your expectations going in can color your thinking about it, isn’t it? Guilty pleasure: I did enjoy the parallelism. I know I probably shouldn’t, it was cheezy and mostly unnecessary…but I did. :)

  • Rain

    The Khan episode is one of my least favorite (original) Star Trek episodes. I liked it even less than the one with the hippies and Spock playing the harps and getting their feet burned or whatnot. So I don’t get the big deal at all.

  • Pingback: yellow october