Highly Illogical: ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ And the Perils of the Reboot
by Ross Crawford
WARNING: Spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness.
Seriously, I give away all the plot twists. Go watch the film first.
I would actually recommend you give it a miss but then you won’t read this article.
Let’s be straight here, no messing around. Star Trek Into Darkness is a shambles. The plot is almost entirely incoherent, with character motivations at the mercy of bombastic action scenes. Make no mistake, it is explosions first and character development later (or not at all). Instead of focusing directly on the garbled narrative, we will instead assess the problems of rebooting a franchise so ingrained in popular culture, like Star Trek.
In order to fully elucidate on the failings of this new Star Trek universe, we will compare it to probably the most successful (both financially and critically) reboot of recent times, Christopher Nolan’s, The Dark Knight series. This may not be the most natural or obvious comparison in the world but there are some similarities. Both are helmed by hip, young directors, whose aim was to revive a flatlining, yet still prominent, franchise. Both feature impressive action sequences, yet one is decidedly more thoughtful and mature than the other. The reboot of Star Trek was undoubtedly influenced by the dual-success of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Yet unfortunately, as we shall see, it fell hard into one of the main pitfalls of the reboot: indulgent, illogical fan-service.
We will use two aspects of these two franchises as case studies of sorts: the relationship between Kirk/Spock and Bruce Wayne/Alfred, and the respective villains, Khan and The Joker.
First off, why exactly are Kirk and Spock best friends in Into Darkness? In 2009’s Star Trek, they have a suitably antagonistic relationship, as their polar-opposite personalities would obviously suggest. Yes, they eventually put aside their differences for the greater good at the end of the film but it would be a stretch to say they had become firm friends! More like reluctant comrades.
Yet in Into Darkness, we are expected to accept that Kirk and Spock are now best buds. Why? What has changed in the interim? Well, nothing, they still seem to get on each other’s nerves and there’s little indication of any kind of affection between the two. But if there’s one thing people know about Star Trek as a wider franchise, it’s the unlikely friendship between Kirk and Spock. This is rendered even more pertinent by the fact this new film is based on, or takes heavy inspiration from, The Wrath of Khan. Khan is a thoughtful treatise on death, ageing and uncompromising ethics, disguised as a sci-fi action film. And the lynchpin to the film is the friendship between Kirk and Spock which famously culminates in Spock’s emotional self-sacrifice at the climax.
So, this new rebooted film which follows many of the same beats, or sometimes outright plagiarises, from Khan needs to establish a similar emotional connection between the two leads, and fast. How does it do this? By relying on the audience’s knowledge of wider Trek canon and indeed, Khan specifically. Within Into Darkness itself, there is next to nothing that would suggest any kind of bond between the two Star Fleet officers, perhaps apart from mutual dislike. When Kirk sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise, in a role switcheroo from The Wrath of Khan, Spock’s outpouring of emotion is completely over-the-top and incongruous. It’s just hard to believe he would care.
As outlined earlier, we will look at The Dark Knight series by way of comparison here. Even before this series exploded his popularity into the mainstream, Batman’s origin story was widely known. Yet these films took none of this foreknowledge for granted and followed a consistent internal logic. Yes, most of us know Alfred Pennyworth cares for Bruce Wayne/Batman. Yet each film took time with this relationship, adding layers of emotional resonance which finally reached a tearful apex in The Dark Knight Rises, with Alfred leaving Wayne Manor, powerless to help Bruce and wracked with guilt. This kind of story-telling is much more satisfying for both the seasoned fan and the cinema goer unfamiliar with Batman lore. It develops the characters and takes them into interesting places, rather than leaving them as overly familiar caricatures.
Moving on, as mentioned, Star Trek Into Darkness is burdened with horribly misjudged fan-service: from Leonard Nimoy’s appearance as Old Spock (again!) to the random Tribble to Spock’s artificially anguished scream of ‘KHAANN’. (The latter only succeeded in evoking a laugh of disbelief from this viewer). The very inclusion of Khan as the villain is evidence of such pandering to fans. Instead of being a clever ploy, all it actually achieves is reminding the audience how much better 1982’s, The Wrath of Khan really is. For example, the first we see of our antagonist in Into Darkness, he is standing about in London, looking grim, and wearing a high-collar coat. Not exactly a thrilling unveiling.
Later on, when he finally reveals he is not actually John Harrison but *pause for effect* Khan, for some reason we are supposed to care. But when you think about it, who exactly would be excited by this revelation? The savvy Trek fan would have deduced or assumed this long ago–the pre-release denials by cast and crew was a clear case of ‘The lady doth protest too much’. Furthermore, do the fans really want to see a rehash of an old film, regarded by many as the pinnacle of the film franchise? How could it hope to better it? And surely the reaction of the average audience member to this reveal would be simply, ‘Huh?’.
By drawing so much attention to his false-identity, the film almost breaks the fourth wall. It’s totally reliant on the audience’s fore-knowledge of who Khan is. The film itself does little to make us regard New Khan as a worthy adversary for the Enterprise. The film-makers may have realised this late on, thereby explaining why Leonard Nimoy is wheeled on to tell us, to tell the audience, that Khan is the deadliest foe the Old Enterprise ever faced. So you know, you’d better be worried, guys!
Basic story-telling 101: ‘Show, don’t tell’. Into Darkness fails this big-time.
In comparison, nobody ever forgets the reveal of The Joker in The Dark Knight. Unlike Khan, everybody knew beforehand that The Joker was the main villain, yet the film uses a long, masterful prologue to introduce him. This established The Joker as a credible threat for Batman, rather than just having Commissioner Gordon hold a press conference stating, ‘The Joker is really, super-dangerous everybody, believe me, honest!’. In the varied pantheon of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, The Joker is easily the most prominent. The Dark Knight reminded us why. Similarly, Khan is probably the most well-known Star Trek villain, yet Into Darkness makes us wonder why anyone revered him in the first place.
If you strip away the decades of Trek lore and leave Star Trek Into Darkness to stand on its own, it would surely fall down. It uses fan-service as a crutch and is utterly reliant upon it to tell its story. Yet even with an understanding of all of its many references, it barely manages to tell a coherent narrative. And if you don’t understand them, then heaven help you. In 2009’s Star Trek, there was an over-reliance on Old Trek, yet going forward there was the hope of a bold new direction for the franchise. With Into Darkness, the series has ground to a halt. Or more fittingly, it has crash-landed to Earth.