Edit: Reposted with a new date so that people can comment on it and stuff.
Note: This post is spoilerific. It will completely ruin any surprises that might exist in the upcoming movie Star Trek Into Darkness. If in fact you decide to continue reading past this point, I’m not going to take any responsibility for your nerd rage at being spoiled.
The entire post will be ROT13ed until the movie’s release date at which point I will unROT13 it but keep the “read more” section intact.
You have been warned. REPEATEDLY WARNED.
If you are still reading, then by now you’re aware that the villain of the new Star Trek movie is in fact not some featureless white dude with generic name John Harrison, but in fact Khan Noonien Singh. Let’s completely ignore the whole problem with a lily white englishman playing a supposedly sikh genetically engineered super soldier and let’s move on to the real problem with the film.
Fan wankery like making the villain actually be Khan, the stupid little references to Wrath of Khan as a deus ex machina ending, and the magical revival of Jim Kirk are all part of a broader problem with the more recent incarnations of Star Trek writers. Specifically they confuse throwing in bits and pieces of pointless minutia from older pieces of Star Trek lore (which I will refer to as Fan Wankery) with things that improve the work itself. We saw this problem most notably in the awful finale of Star Trek: Enterprise, “These Are the Voyages”, where a completely gratuitous and unnecessary insertion of Commander Riker and Counselor Troi (circa season 7 of The Next Generation during the episode “The Pegasus”) as observing the events as part of a holodeck program not only stealing the thunder from the actual cast and characters, but in the process cheapening the entire episode. Yet right until the very end the producers and writers claimed the episode itself was a “Love Letter to the Fans”. Bull-fucking-shit.
While “These are the Voyages” was an unfortunate case of fan wankery, Into Darkness takes it to the point where, in my opinion it ruins what could have been a fantastic Star Trek movie storyline.
At its heart, Into Darkness is a story about whether or not the ideals of the Federation and Starfleet can survive the trauma inflicted upon it by the events in the 2009 Star Trek movie.
As a brief recap: let’s remember that not only did the genocidal Romulan Nero kill George Samuel Kirk well before his time (and thus spawning Jim Kirk’s constant pining for a father figure and daddy issues) but he also went and annihilated one of the founding member planets of the Federation (killing billions and leaving Vulcans on the brink of extinction), destroyed a large number of Starfleet ships (along with what appears to be most of an entire Academy cohort) and nearly followed up with a repeat performance on Earth itself.
In presenting the clash between the idealism of Starfleet (personified brashly by Chris Pine’s version of Captain Kirk) and the collective trauma, overreaction and need for security felt by many people in the Federation (personified here by Admiral Marcus) we get both a great setup for a Star Trek movie, but also a fantastic allegory for the War on Terror.
The Nero Incident is essentially the Federation’s 9/11 to the tenth power. With Klingons breathing down their necks, you can imagine why certain factions of Starfleet would be interested in not simply bending, but flat out breaking the ethical foundations of the Federation in order to keep them safe.
Much like how Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country explored the (then) contemporary issues surrounding man-made natural disasters (Praxis = Cherynobl) and the end to a long hostile relationship between two great powers and how elements within the military might react to the prospect of losing their identity and the familiar (if dangerous) world of mutual antagonism, Into Darkness could have explored (and ultimately and cheesily had our Starfleet heroes affirm) that certain trade offs for security were not worth it. The setup of the movie, the plotline, the parallels including things like suicide bombing as a tactic, the need to build up a new enemy with which to go to war all build into that direction.
Then we’re given a surprise reveal. The faceless bad guy, a super soldier with a grudge on the Federation is none other than Khan Noonien Singh. This reveal is of course meaningless to 90% of the audience. At most the casual movie goer might recall Bill Shatner screaming the name KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN over and over and over again as an internet meme. The reveal is just…well flat. For fans of the show it means something. For everyone else? Okay we’re swapping a generic white guy name for one that sounds more ethnic! Hurray!…and of course this helps to derail the basic premise (which is still part of the movie) that Marcus is a bad guy but the true villain is a guy from the past who is out for revenge after failing to take over the world. Got it?
Why was this even necessary? They could have very well let the film stand on its own (and avoid the unnecessary Wrath of Khan comparisons and even criticisms of stealing scenes) by leaving Cumberbatch’s character the product of a rogue Starfleet officer’s attempt to secure the Federation at all costs. Hell if they wanted to work a Khan reference into it, they could have simply stated that the dude was given genetic enhancements like the ones that set off the Eugenics Wars. (Which in expository fashion could have explained was one of those epochal events in Earth history that helped shape the Federation into the direction it wound up in…you know a “last time we messed with super men and tried to keep ourselves safe, they tried to wipe out all ‘inferior life’ on Earth in exchange….” type line. Corny sure, but works fine without having to resort to wankery).
We know that because of his history as someone who tried to do a genocidal war against ‘inferior’ people, that Khan is an absolute monster. With Khan’s menacing little tirade of course, he becomes the central villain and while he could have also been a victim of overzealous Starfleet officers, well his presentation in the movie just doesn’t allow that amount of nuance.
Better I think if the Khan reference had been just that, a reference, and the character remained one of those poor saps who got roped into being a bad guy, is out for revenge against those who wronged him, without him having been a genocidal dictator in the past….the added ambiguity would have bettered that plot element. (Also the misdirection/reveal has an unfortunate overlap with how Iron Man 3 treats the Mandarin. I mean, yes, it’s likely to be a brief mention, but the fact that the movies are released basically a week apart in the US is going to make people bring that comparison more to mind)
Then there’s the additional fan wankery from everything from magical Khan blood reviving Kirk who takes a lethal dose of radiation doing the same thing Spock does in Wrath of Khan to the completely unnecessary appearance of Nimoy’s Spock Prime and you get the feeling that maybe Abrams wasn’t as confident in his story telling ability to retain the interest of Star Trek’s fanbase and decided he needed to pepper the story with fan wankery. It’s complete hog wash and completely unnecessary.
In the end the movie’s still probably going to do well at the box office, and the non-fan reviews (and even some of the fan reviews…*sigh*) have been pretty positive. But I think as the movie ages, we’ll start seeing the story that could have been. A Star Trek reinvented in 2009 that could have continued to address issues relevant to our modern societal concerns being completely undermined by the stupid nods to the past. What was the point of doing a full on reboot if pieces of the movie just end up seeming like bad fanfic?
There’s some question as to whether this will be Abram’s last Star Trek film. I don’t know if the fan wankery was a lack of confidence or simply Abrams thinking he was being clever along with the writing team, but while proclaiming to have started fresh, all they’ve done is burn away the good will from the 2009 movie and keep themselves firmly rooted in the old cliches and stupid in references that often make the series difficult for newcomers to the franchise. And that’s a damned, crying shame….