Before we continue, I need to issue the obligatory spoiler warning. In order to really get at what’s going on in this film, I’ll have to talk about its plot. So if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want it spoiled, stop reading now.
It’s become something of an adage about movie franchises that the first film’s job is to cleanse the audience’s palate, set up characters, and make them cool; the second film, freed of these obligations, can then let loose.
That’s how many understood Bryan Singer’s X-Men, released when few thought Marvel characters could make bankable films; it was followed by X2 — which was, incidentally, inspired to a great deal by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Similarly, many understand Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins as cleansing the audience’s palate of the likes of Batman and Robin, setting the stage for The Dark Knight.
2009′s Star Trek fits this pattern well. The Star Trek franchise was, for all intents and purposes, dead. J. J. Abrams made it sexy, with a beautiful Enterprise and a new, young cast. In the process, he turned Star Trek into blockbuster material for the first time.
Ostensibly, Star Trek into Darkness follows this same pattern. The movie’s posters echoed those for The Dark Knight, and Khan is clearly intended to be a memorable, bad-ass villain not unlike Heath Ledger’s Joker. But it doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work because Abrams, turned loose, isn’t interested in any of the things that made his first film rise above it superficial veneer.
Abrams has made no secret about his preference for Star Wars; he didn’t grow up liking Star Trek. And he made a Star Trek that was filled with action and drama, barely giving the viewer a moment to pause. Along the way, there were plot twists that strained credibility, recalling the spectacular faux drama of the Millennium Falcon fleeing a completely unnecessary and nonsensical space worm in The Empire Strikes Back. Such “twists” make no sense, but they add drama, making every moment seem exciting. So when Kirk and Scotty beam back onto the Enterprise, in the 2009 film, Scotty materializes inside a fluid-filled conduit. If you can think of a complication that would provide a little extra drama, the movie probably takes it.
Yet the key to the first film’s success was its intelligence. Sure, it was Star Trek recast as a beautiful and sexy action movie, but the film accomplished this with great smarts. Okay, so it ignores the fact that no one’s supposed to know what Romulans look like. But it’s filled with Easter eggs for fans, right down to referencing Archer’s beagle from Enterprise. It honors the old continuity by having Spock from The Next Generation era and the villain Nero come from that other universe. You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the film — in fact, it takes pains to be approachable to a new audience, which was kind of the point. But the movie’s filled with cleverness. It’s not a perfect movie, and it’s not interested in the kind of social commentary that characterized much of Star Trek (and the original series in particular). But it’s hard not to feel that it’s a lot smarter a version of a Star Trek reboot than anyone had a right to expect.
In many ways, Star Trek into Darkness keeps everything that was troubling about the original while violently ditching its intelligence. And if this represents Abrams turning loose, now that he’d established his new Trek, it’s extremely troubling about both Abrams and what it bodes for the future of Star Trek.
This seems to suggest that all the intelligence that elevated the 2009 film above a bit of flashy and senseless drama was simply an attempt to appeal to to existing Trek fans, during the tenuous attempt to relaunch the film franchise. Now that this has been accomplished, that intelligence is simply detritus with which the second film is “free” not to concern itself.
In Abrams’s first film, none of his credibility-straining plot twists are all that central to the plot. In the worst one, Kirk just happens to be stranded where the old Spock is also stranded. And yes, Scotty’s conveniently nearby with a formula that would allow them to beam back onto the Enterprise while it’s at warp — despite this technology not existing in the old continuity, even as late as the Next Generation era. But lots of films have coincidences, and Scotty’s technology needn’t upset how Trek works on a fundamental level. And the central plot, involving Nero’s vengeance for his homeworld’s destruction, is exceedingly well-done. The movie’s sins are forgivable, because the whole works so well.
In Star Trek into Darkness, the central plot is riddled with these absurdities.
There’s No Need for Spaceships Anymore
First, John Harrison beams to the Klingon homeworld — using, we’re told, a modification of Scotty’s technology from the first. That’s an enormous distance — a lot further than teleporting onto the nearby Enterprise in the 2009 film. And no one seems particularly surprised at this. Apparently, Starfleet now has the technology to simply teleport to distant planets, without fear of materializing into a solid object or miles off the ground.
This kind of invalidates the entire point of Starfleet. Want to go to a distant planet? You don’t need a starship. You just teleport there, instantly. Even if you want to explore an uncharted region of space, all you have to do is teleport there in a spacesuit. This isn’t simply a plot contrivance; it’s the end of Star Trek as we know it. The entire formula of Star Trek doesn’t make any more sense.
Maybe you could guess that this technology won’t be widely deployed. It certainly hasn’t yet, despite clearly being perfected and surprising no one, by the time of Star Trek into Darkness. But part of the point of this technology is that it’s extrapolated from Scotty’s formula; Scotty even laments this, later in the movie. This teleportation thus only makes sense in the context of extrapolating from technological development. Since this technology is so clearly perfected, it doesn’t make any sense for it to stop. Yet its very existence is an assault on Star Trek as we know it. If you can teleport anywhere in the galaxy instantly, Star Trek ceases to make sense.
One of the things that defines Star Trek, especially in comparison to Star Wars, is that Star Wars is science fantasy, with no significant consideration of actual science. Star Trek fans can tell you how warp technology or teleportation work in great detail. Books and scholarly papers have been written on such subjects. How these technologies work have implications within the Star Trek stories. Sure, lots of stories aren’t entirely consistent, and they still require you to believe that most life’s remarkably similar to humans throughout the galaxy — and it’s hard to make sense of how the Enterprise could get from one location to another, between episodes. But Trek at least attempts to be scientific — which is to say it’s science fiction, not science fantasy.
Teleporting around the galaxy instantly, without fear of materializing inside something or miles above the planet’s surface, would feel at home in Star Wars. But it makes no sense in Star Trek, where ships that travel faster than light have warp theory to explain them. How does this teleportation technology allow people to move faster than light? That’s a problem in the 2009 film too, but it’s a whole lot more apparent when you’re told that the villain’s just faxed himself to the Klingon homeworld because, you know, we can do that now.
And if you think about it, this by itself makes the entire plot of Star Trek into Darkness collapse. In John Harrison has this technology, why didn’t he just teleport a bomb into the conference room, instead of attacking it with a flying craft? Surely, if the Federation goes to war with the Klingons, it would be carried out primarily by means of teleporting bombs. If John Harrison can just zap himself to the Klingon homeworld, why can’t the Federation just zap bombs over there?
And if this is the case, why is Admiral Marcus trying to create an interstellar incident with a complicated plot involving stranding the Enterprise in space? Just blow up some Klingon buildings, and let them figure out where these bombs came from. Admiral Marcus can blame it on whomever he wants, the same way he intends to blame war on Kirk.
Of course, we know why this plot development exists: because it gets John Harrison to the Klingon homeworld, and damn the consequences or implications. But even this makes no sense. Since he worked with Admiral Marcus, he probably knows all sorts of secret installations, all of which he could go to instantly. So why is John Harrison hiding out, of all places, on the Klingon homeworld? Does he have some secret Klingon friends? Not that the move reveals. It’s just more dramatic that way, so let’s just put it in!
It’s also not necessary for the plot. Yes, that plot involves a potential war with the Klingons, but that doesn’t require Harrison to be hiding out on their planet. The Enterprise is stranded outside Klingon space, but Klingons never arrive — and even the threat of their arrival doesn’t affect the plot. So there’s no need for the Klingon homeworld to be used at all — except that it’s more dramatic. And never mind that the device that allows Harrison to get there kind of invalidates all of Star Trek in the process.
But how does the Federation know that this is an uninhabited area of the Klingon homeworld? When we see this section of the planet, it’s filled with massive structures. What was all this built for? On Earth, almost no section of the planet is uninhabited, even today. Why is this section of Kronos, the Klingon homeworld, apparently uninhabited? And how would anyone in the Federation know this? It doesn’t matter, because that landscape is cool.
And it lets Harrison jump around and fight in a sequence that’s supposed to make Harrison seem like he’s a badass, but that only looks like a poor imitation of similar “badass” sequences in what’s about a hundred movies at this point. We’re supposed to be impressed, but I can’t imagine anyone who’s seen many action movies since The Matrix registering much more than a yawn. But it’s action, and that’s what this movie is about.
It’s worth mentioning here that the original Khan was above all a supremely intellectual villain. Yes, we were told that he was physically superior, but he didn’t perform feats of strength, let alone slow-motion jumps in which he mowed down scores of people. Khan was scary not because he was Hawkeye from the Avengers. Khan was scary because he was calculating and ruthless. He was a force to be reckoned with because of his intelligence. But that’s an attribute this film is profoundly hostile towards.
The Entire Plot Makes No Sense in Any Way
So far, these aren’t necessarily fatal flaws. The movie could have recovered from its absurd interplanetary teleporter nonsense, albeit with some major flaws in its plot. Instead, we soon learn that John Harrison is Khan.
The story, as the movie would have us believe, goes like this: Admiral Marcus found Khan’s ship, during increased patrols in the aftermath of Vulcan’s destruction. Marcus only woke up Khan but kept the villain for himself, establishing the fake identity of John Harrison to cover his tracks, and using Khan to develop weapons and plans for war with the Klingons. Marcus never woke up the 72 others on board Khan’s ship. When Khan believed those 72 had been killed, he turned against Marcus, beginning the terrorist attacks seen earlier in the movie. But the 72 others are really alive, hidden inside the experimental torpedoes that Marcus has given Kirk to fire at Khan on Kronos. Marcus has sabotaged the Enterprise, and his plan is to have Kirk kill Khan and the other 72, then be discovered adrift in space by the Klingons.
This isn’t simply used to justify a needless sequence on Kronos. This is the heart of the movie. If this doesn’t make sense, the central plot of Star Trek into Darkness doesn’t make sense.
And nothing about this story makes any sense.
The idea that Khan was found during stepped-up patrols in the wake of Vulcan’s destruction is intended to explain why Khan was found years before he was in the original timeline. But it’s not really necessary: all you need is to get a ship going on a different path, and it can find Khan’s ship. I’m not sure why there would be stepped-up patrols after Vulcan’s destruction. The culprit was someone from the future, who’s dead by the end of the first film. And given the tensions with the Klingons in this film, either there are ships to conduct patrols or there aren’t. Why would Vulcan’s destruction cause patrols but pending interstellar war not?
Moreover, why would Admiral Marcus be on one of these patrols, putting him in the position of confiscating Khan for himself? And whether Marcus was on board or not, how would anyone (1) figure out who Khan was and (2) decide to use his brain as part of a sinister scheme?
In the original episode “Space Seed,” which introduced Khan, he and his crew are already revived before his identity is understood. And if Star Trek into Darkness is careful to provide an explanation as to why Khan would be discovered early, why is it not careful on this far more important point?
More importantly, who responds to the discovery of genetically advanced humans by deciding to only revive their leader and use his brain as part of a secret scheme? Khan might be smart and a ruthless warrior, but it’s not like he’s so smart and ruthless that anyone would naturally respond to him by thinking, “Man, I gotta tap that guy’s ideas!” Admiral Marcus probably has scores of Albert Einsteins available to him, as head of Starfleet, and he’s already got people employed on secret plans. Moreover, why would Khan be working on weapons — which use technology 300 years more advanced than what he’s familiar with? He might be Albert Einstein, but he’s Albert Einstein adjusting to technology centuries more advanced than what he was on the cutting edge of.
And if you know who Khan is — which is central to the entire conceit — why doesn’t Marcus also know that Khan isn’t to be trusted? In the original timeline, he participated in something called the eugenics wars. He helped throw all of Earth into turmoil. He’s infamous. Reviving Khan is a little like reviving Hitler — and then giving him access to all the best weapons. Wouldn’t you think that Marcus might at least implement a failsafe of some sort, confining Khan to a certain space or putting an explosive into his body?
It strains credibility that Marcus could get a hold of Khan secretly and privately in the first place. But even if he did, it would be far more reasonable for Marcus to use Khan and crew as guinea pigs, trying to perfect the eugenics process that created them. Rather than, you know, reviving Khan and then trusting that you can control him while giving him access to interstellar teleportation and all the newest weapons.
What makes this really silly is that it could have been addressed fairly easily in the film itself. Remember how the 2009 film opened with the destruction of the Kelvin, years before the main plot? Star Trek into Darkness could have opened with the discovery of Khan’s ship, in the aftermath of the first film — and we could actually see how all of this might have happened, instead of giving viewers the impossible task of making Khan’s dialogue make any kind of actual sense as a plot. If this sequence were done at the opening of the movie, it would make everything that follows feel like a consequence of that one scene. It would, however, prohibit the revelation that John Harrison is Khan — but that doesn’t work anyway. If that matters, the discovery of Khan’s ship could be shown in flashback.
Khan’s explanation of his revival is parallel to Spock-Prime explaining the backstory of the first film. Both are clunky bits of exposition, but it’s these two scenes that explain their respective movie’s plot. Without them, nothing going on in either movie would ever be explained in the slightest. That’s not good storytelling. But comparing these two sequences helps demonstrate the total failure of Star Trek into Darkness.
In the 2009 film, we actually get flashbacks to the events Spock describes. Yes, it’s still a clunky device; it’s hard not to be painfully aware that this is a “here’s the backstory” informational dump. And we have to buy a bit of silliness about “red matter,” which has never been seen in any Star Trek story before. But that’s a relatively minor business, and we can envision this backstory because we’ve actually seen it. If we only had Spock’s words, it would all sound absurd, as exploding suns and black holes and planetary destruction and time travel pile atop one another in quick succession.
And that’s just how Khan’s exposition functions in Star Trek into Darkness. Step by step, none of it actually makes sense, and no subsequent step can make sense — nor carry any narrative weight or power — unless the previous one does. If you don’t buy this, Khan’s just there to jump around and look vaguely menacing, like he did on Kronos — without any real explanation. How easy it would have been, to show Admiral Marcus finding Khan! Instead, we’re left to wonder how Marcus could have possibly secreted Khan away from deep space for himself — or why Marcus would have put Khan to work on a weapons program.
Yes, I know Khan tries to say that he’s got a brutal mind. That’s supposed to make Khan seem menacing — to establish him as a villain who can do more than jump around ninja-style. Instead, it just sounds like self-aggrandizing nonsense. It’s no different than showing that Khan’s a Klingon-killing ninja — it’s a cliche, signifying nothing.
The original Khan didn’t have to talk about how ruthless he was. His writers knew to show not tell.
Then there’s the problem of the 72 others in suspended animation with Khan. We’re supposed to believe that, while Marcus found military value in Khan’s brain, he didn’t see anything to be gained by reviving these others — who might not be as smart as Khan but who are still genetically superior human beings.
Maybe Marcus feared reviving so many, knowing their threat. But if so, why has he taken no apparent measures to neutralize the threat of Khan himself? After all, Marcus knows Khan’s the most ruthless of them all. If Marcus wanted a weapon-building braintrust, couldn’t he have revived everyone, put them inside an asteroid rigged to detonate if anyone left, and told them to get to work?
Maybe Marcus kept the 72 others on ice to retain leverage against Khan. But if so, why did he let Khan believe the others had been killed? Surely, Marcus knew how ruthless Khan was. Yet we’re supposed to believe that Marcus casually let Khan think the 72 others were dead, without ever considering the consequences.
And if Khan’s so smart, why hasn’t he figured out that the 72 others are alive? Why has he believed Marcus, whom he knows is a liar? Here, we’re supposed to believe that Khan, upon hearing this news, never decided to confirm it and instead went right to being a terrorist. That’s so stupid, so thoughtless, that it makes Khan seem far more comically pathetic than threatening.
Sure, he’s powerful and angry, but he’s not exactly smart. He’s basically the Hulk, only one who thinks he’s smart and has a knowing, sinister smile. But if you think about him for a minute, it’s all show. The movie wants you to think he’s calculating, but he’s really just an angry child with super-powers who’s easily manipulated.
Then we learn that the 72 torpedoes put on board the Enterprise are really… Khan’s crew!
It’s hard to overstate just how stupid this is. It has to be in any list of the stupidest twists in cinematic history.
First, Marcus had these 72 people in his sole custody. Also, Marcus is able to keep the most terrible things — including Khan’s revival and a military installation involving thousands of people — completely secret. And Marcus is more than willing to kill innocent people, including everyone on board the Enterprise! So why wouldn’t Marcus simply kill these 72 people?
Instead, he apparently allows Khan to secret these 72 people into a new kind of photon torpedoes. Why would Khan put his precious people into explosive weapons? Was this really the simplest solution? And how would Khan even have this opportunity? Were the 72 cryogenic pods left lying next to the photon torpedo factory? And if Khan could do all of this, why couldn’t he protect the torpedoes, in which he’d fit his precious people, from simply being taken from Marcus?
We have to believe that (1) Marcus could keep Khan, these other 72 people, and his weapons program secret; (2) despite this, Marcus couldn’t monitor Khan sufficiently to detect that Khan was putting frozen people (who probably weren’t even nearby) inside Marcus’s top-secret torpedoes; and (3) Khan could do all this but couldn’t protect or hide or transport those torpedoes without Marcus noticing.
You know, if I wanted to protect 72 people who mattered more to me than anything, I‘d probably put them inside explosive weapons and let someone else take them.
Keep in mind that the original cryogenic containers and all their supporting equipment weren’t neatly so compressed as to fit inside these very narrow torpedoes. Khan probably would have had to involve lots of people to make entirely new cryogenic modules, custom-designed to fit inside torpedoes, and to transfer these 72 people into them. This is no small operation.
How do these photon torpedoes even function when 95% of their mass is taken up by human bodies and the equipment to support those bodies’ cryogenic sleep?
This is even more absurd when we realize that these photon torpedoes are supposed to be some special new kind of photon torpedo — which somehow has almost no working mechanisms at all. Yet we know they’re functioning, because they’re used as actual torpedoes and blow up later in the film.
What makes these torpedoes so special that Marcus wants Kirk to use them? Why wouldn’t normal torpedoes do? Why did Marcus happen to give Kirk every single one of these 72 new torpedoes? Did Khan not build any others, without people inside? Wouldn’t Marcus want to hold any of them back? Why would he give Kirk any of these, let alone all 72? None of this makes any sense.
Also, didn’t Marcus notice that these 72 people had gone missing? Even if they’re not all as smart as Khan supposedly is — but fails to demonstrate throughout the movie — they’re still a resource. Even if Marcus is so uninventive that he thinks they’re only good for weapons development and military strategy, these 72 people surely pose some potential benefit. He could revive one after another, tell them how he worked with Khan until Khan was killed by the Klingons — or whatever he wants. Instead, he doesn’t so much as notice they’re missing — despite controlling everything else to an absurd degree.
Wasn’t there anyone else working on the program who could open them to notice that they were almost entirely hollow with cyronic technology hidden inside? Before, you know, inexplicably giving all of them to Kirk?
Initially, I wasn’t even clear that Khan put the people into the torpedoes. I thought Marcus did. In what’s a very sad sign for the movie’s coherence, I wasn’t alone. In fact, understanding this relies on a single line of Khan’s dialogue — and we don’t know whether he’s trustworthy or not. Still, according to the film’s co-writer Damon Lindelof, Marcus did at some point realize the people were inside the torpedoes. And instead of taking them out, he decided to give them to Kirk to dispose of the evidence. Trusting someone who had just disobeyed orders to do so. Which Kirk predictably doesn’t do. If we take Lindelof’s explanation as gospel, this is kind of the worst of both worlds: Khan has to inexplicably decide to put his cherished people into torpedos (and succeed in doing so), and Marcus also has to give them to Kirk, instead of simply taking those people out or giving Kirk other torpedoes.
There’s a lot to outrage one’s intelligence in Star Trek into Darkness. But none more than the “there are people hidden inside those torpedoes” revelation. It’s so mind-boggling, you need some Medieval theologians to force it to make sense after the fact. I cannot imagine a high-school creative writing class where this would have been allowed to stand. That a movie got made with a reported $190-million budget with this kind of nonsense is appalling beyond words.
The torpedo “twist” also isn’t done well in the movie. To open up a torpedo, Bones and Carol Marcus fly out to a convenient “planetoid” — that apparently has breathable air. It’s got stark black rocks for land, but it certainly doesn’t look very alien. And like the trip to Kronos (or Carol Marcus’s bra scene), this serves no real purpose. Bones and Carol don’t want to open a torpedo inside the ship, but they could have taken a shuttlecraft. There’s no reason the plot requires this convenient planetoid. But it’s not supposed to matter, because this isn’t really Star Trek; it’s Star Wars, where convenient planetoids aren’t a problem because the story’s science fantasy, with no more adherence to the reality of outer space than Lord of the Rings.
To make this worse, while Bones and Carol Marcus are working, the torpedo seizes up, trapping Bones and counting down to an explosion. There’s a lot of screaming. But really, it’s just another case of the movie making everything as dramatic as possible. There’s no dramatic twist the movie won’t take; if characters are opening a missile, it’s a safe bet that it’s going to almost explode. It’s just too bad the level of attention used to come up with such twists wasn’t lavished on the basic plot itself, since without Khan’s story making sense, nothing in Star Trek into Darkness means anything.
Starfleet Must be Destroyed
If there’s one thing Star Trek into Darkness does well, it’s reflecting real-world issues –something the original series was known for, but which 2009 original failed to do.
Kirk listens to Spock and decides that it’s wrong to kill Harrison with a photon torpedo, without even trying to take Harrison alive. This reflects Obama’s reliance upon drones to blow people up without due process, but it also reflects the more general suspension of civil liberties (such as illegally detaining suspects indefinitely without trial) that began under Bush. And I was blissfully relieved to see Spock make such a simple, moral argument that this is simply wrong. It feels like something out of the original series, and it’s an important message — one with obvious relevancy to our times.
The movie deserves immense kudos for this. Rarely have I heard such an impassioned, coherent argument for why killing people without trial, without even an attempt to capture them, goes against our values. (Of course, the reality of such situations are far more complex, and while there’s no reason not to put people on trial if you’ve already captured them, there may well be situations in which blowing someone up from above is preferable to putting troops on the ground — although even this can be done with accountability to civilian courts, and there are ways to make such decisions as transparent as possible, while also assuring that what needs to be kept secret is.) Still, such an impassioned defense for old-school values is decidedly unfashionable these days, probably to our profound shame. It’s the one thing that really makes me feel bad to have to condemn the film’s stupidity.
But there’s a second, wider way in which the film reflects real-world politics: Marcus is trying to start a war with the Klingons. Indeed, he thinks that war’s already begun. And he’s willing to rig an incident, in order to spark this war.
This might seem like it reflects the calls for war with Iran, or the consciously manipulated intelligence that the United States used to go to war with Iraq. But there’s a much longer history here, from the sinking of the Maine (under mysterious and disputed circumstances) that sparked the 1898 Spanish-American War, to the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident (completely faked) that was used to justify escalating the disastrous Vietnam War. During the Cold War, some within the Pentagon deliberately tried to provoke the Soviet Union into war.
This too is good to include, especially in a Star Trek movie, which has a historic responsibility to reflect social themes.
Except that the culprit here isn’t on some alien planet. Nor is it really rogue elements within Starfleet. Nor is it even Admiral Marcus. It’s Starfleet itself.
I’m not complaining that someone of a high position in Starfleet would do such things. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was against that, the same way he was against in-fighting within the ship’s crew. But Roddenberry’s word wasn’t law even while he was alive, and he’s been gone for a long time now. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country also revolved around corruption within the Federation — also with the goal of causing war with the Klingons. Such corruption was also fairly central to Deep Space Nine, from which Star Trek into Darkness borrows Section 31. So let’s not pretend that the Federation can’t have corrupt elements, even if they should be handled with care.
It’s one of the oddities of the Abrams universe that Starfleet seems to operate in a bizarrely feudal way. In the first film, Captain Pike seems able to have the personal prerogative to reward his ship to the almost completely untrained Kirk. One shudders to think of the many talented people passed over. But Kirk’s saved Earth, and we know he’s going to be captain anyway, so it’s easy to ignore this.
In Star Trek into Darkness, Pike seems capable of being overruled about who captains the Enterprise. But it’s only because someone above him rules with this same kind of feudal authority: Admiral Marcus, who seems to run Starfleet with almost no oversight. He’s able to revive Khan, keep him a secret, keep 72 others in suspended animation, and build a gigantic ship with entirely new technologies in a secret facility near Jupiter. He is Starfleet.
This kind of feudal authority also smacks of Star Wars, more than Star Trek. Even in the original series, in which Kirk and crew routinely violated orders, the Enterprise was just as routinely ferrying ambassadors and acting frustrated at having to follow other orders. Starfleet is a bureaucracy, for better and for worse.
While Marcus effectively is Starfleet, he’s also far more evil than Khan. Even those historical villains, who really did try to start wars, didn’t kill their own people. Marcus not only tries to orchestrate the Enterprise’s destruction but is shockingly content to do so himself. And while a lot of villains might try to destroy the Enterprise, Marcus is a member of Starfleet. It’s a lot more forgivable for a Romulan to try to destroy the Enterprise than a Federation Admiral.
The only one Marcus shows any concern for is his own daughter, and he doesn’t even play the good guy for her sake; he simply kidnaps her like she’s his property. Presumably, he’ll end up secreting her away, the way he did Khan, unless she agrees he was right.
Marcus is the face of an unfathomable evil. He’s done worse than any villain in Star Trek history. The Borg might assimilate the Earth. It’s what they do. But Marcus has betrayed the Federation and destroyed it from within. In fact, he’s already effectively destroyed it.
To wit, what the hell is the crew of Marcus’s ship thinking? It’s one thing for people to work on a secret weapon. It’s quite another to fire on the Enterprise. Real-life soldiers have often obeyed orders, when asked to commit most war crimes, including the slaughter of civilians. But they’ll usually stop short of deliberately killing their own men. Unfortunately, we aren’t shown Marcus’s crew. But they seem quite content to obey Marcus, even once he’s already a worse villain than Khan ever was.
But it’s not only Marcus’s crew that’s at fault here. It’s everyone who’s allowed Marcus to rise to power and to hold it so completely. Where are the checks and balances? Starfleet’s apparently a dictatorship. How could this happen? Surely, Pike and many others had indications that Marcus was seizing such power. Surely, in a free society, there had to be reports about Marcus’s authoritarian control of Starfleet. Yet Earth’s civilians are apparently completely passive, even while their own space fleet — the equivalent of their entire military — plans a war that could decimate their entire civilization.
Khan’s not the real villain; Admiral Marcus is. But deeper than that, the entire system that allowed Marcus to have such unchecked power is at fault. It’s not only Starfleet that’s corrupt; it’s any society that would allow him to occupy such a position.
If the Klingons were to threaten Earth with occupation, could humans in this universe possibly complain that their freedoms were being taken?
At the end of the movie, Admiral Marcus is dead, and we flash forward a year. We’re supposed to think that everything’s been righted. But nothing’s been righted. Starfleet needs to be disassembled. It needs to be completely reorganized with massive civilian oversight, so this can never happen again. Only a systemic corruption could allow Marcus to rise to power, and only a systemic solution can fix this problem. Yet the movie gives no indication of this.
In the movie, authoritarian rule over Starfleet apparently isn’t the problem. It’s only one bad dictator who’s the problem. And he’s dead, so… yay!
Since it won’t reform itself, Starfleet needs to be destroyed.
In telling a story of Starfleet corruption, Star Trek into Darkness goes too far. In the process, it creates a situation in which the corrupt Starfleet official couldn’t exist without a widespread authoritarian culture. As a result, Marcus’s evil bleeds into Starfleet — and even into the wider society of Earth.
This also makes Khan remarkably sympathetic. Gone is the villain of The Wrath of Khan, who spent the entire film playing a chess game with Kirk, in which both men turn the tables on one another again and again, in one brilliant maneuver after another. He was motivated by revenge too. But that’s all this new Khan has, besides a bit of confidence — and those cliched super-powers. And a penchant for exploding heads.
Star Trek into Darkness clearly wants Khan to come off like the Joker in The Dark Knight. Like the Joker, Khan acts like a terrorist, then lets himself get captured, only to escape. But Benedict Cumberbatch is no Heath Ledger. Too much of the time, Cumberbatch looks — and dresses — like a posing model, rather than conveying any actual ruthless intensity. He’s more like something out of The Matrix than the classic Khan.
As a villain, Khan’s a pawn from start to finish. Marcus is the real villain. Khan doesn’t plot evil schemes. He simply reacts against his vastly more evil overlord who he believes murdered his people.
What a waste of a previously iconic villain. Part of the whole point of using Khan was that Star Trek lacked good villains, outside of Khan. But what’s the point of using Khan, if you’re not going to tell a remotely interesting Khan story?
And because of the way Marcus is painted, Khan’s right to do most of what he does. The phony archive in London that he blows up is actually a secret military base — and thus a legitimate target. Khan might have blown up innocents in the process, but it was Marcus and those who must have conspired with him who put a target on those innocents’ head.
And the point of this attack was to lure Marcus into a specific location, which Khan could then attack. Starfleet’s also a legitimate target, given what it’s done. Even if others, like Pike, aren’t aware of what Marcus is doing, they’ve got to be aware of the vast powers and resources that Marcus is able to tap. The Jupiter base alone probably represents a huge percentage of Starfleet’s entire budget. If others, at this high level of Starfleet, don’t know what Marcus is doing, they’re willfully ignorant. At the very least, there’s a culture of authoritarianism at Starfleet. As a military organization, Starfleet is already a legitimate target. But Khan’s to be commended for targeting its commanding officers and not its low-ranking minions. Given what’s been done to Khan, it’s hard to blame him.
At the end, Khan mows down skyscrapers in San Francisco using Marcus’s ship, killing untold civilians (who sadly aren’t shown) in the process. Those civilians are ostensibly innocent, and such destruction is indeed terrible. But it’s hard not to see them as having some culpability for allowing Starfleet, headquartered in their city, to amass such unchecked power that it could produce a Marcus. And it’s hard not to sympathize with Khan, who once again falsely believes his people to have been slaughtered.
After all, both Abrams films have Spock freaking out — first about his homeworld being destroyed, then about Kirk’s death. We don’t think less of Spock for doing so. And he’s the series’s representative of logic! In fact, the previous film trained us to understand that even the calmest and most rational of people can do crazy things when they loose their entire people. Which is exactly what’s happened to Khan.
Now, you can say this is the most remarkable thing: not only is the film against killing terrorists without trials, and has as its villain someone from an ostensibly free society trying to provoke a war, but the film gets you to sympathize with terrorists.
That’s pretty transgressive, especially for a big-budget movie. It doesn’t make the movie any smarter, but it’s remarkable nonetheless.
But it does real damage to the Star Trek franchise. Because there can be no simple going back. Dictatorships aren’t usually fixed by one dictator’s death. When you make the head of Starfleet the villain, who’s running a massive off-the-books weapons program, something’s seriously rotten in Starfleet. Something far worse than one guy.
Scotty’s absolutely right, of course, to resign. The real question is why he would rejoin Starfleet, after what’s happened. His technology has been stolen by a corrupt regime, and if anything’s been proven by the story, it’s that Starfleet can’t be trusted and Kirk can’t prevent such wide abuses. There’s no sign of systemic change within Starfleet — and indeed the government of Earth that would allow Starfleet to do such things. Instead of Scotty rejoining the crew, everyone else should have resigned and joined Scotty.
Remember how Kirk was going to nobly take Khan to Earth to stand trial? Did this actually happen? Is it possible to imagine such a trial ending with a court imposing the punishment of cryogenic stasis? How could a court not demand the other 72 be brought back to life? Wouldn’t such a trial inevitably entail Marcus’s cimes — leading to the exposure of his massive corruption and a public outcry to structurally reform Starfleet?
Ah, but this doesn’t happen. For all its liberal feel-good courage, Star Trek into Darkness conveniently forgets everything. There’s no sign Khan gets a trial; indeed, it’s impossible to imagine he did, given all that would expose and what would follow from that exposure. Instead, he’s put back on ice, which is evidence enough that Starfleet’s authoritarianism is alive and well at the movie’s end.
While we’re at it, if Kirk got busted for violating the Prime Directive, is there any consequence to hitting Khan over and over on Kronos, despite his already being taken into custody? No, because Kirk can do no wrong, at the end of the day. Just as Marcus could do no wrong. There’s zero accountability. That old-fashioned morality, commendable as it is, is really just window dressing. If there’s no accountability for Kirk, Khan, or the many who participated and aided Marcus’s massive covert (and, one hopes, illegal) programs, the Starfleet at the end of the movie is just as corrupt as the one at the beginning.
Nothing’s changed. The biggest enemy of them all is still out there, and its name is Starfleet.
Everyone’s Immortal Now
The movie has one final, illogical twist: Kirk, having died from radiation poisoning, is revived by an injection of Khan’s blood.
It’s a twist that’s hard not to see coming. Earlier, the film shows us a Tribble brought back to life with Khan’s blood. This doesn’t dramatize how Khan’s more of a threat. Its only conceivable purpose is to set something up for later.
So after the obligatory pastiche of Wrath of Khan, with Kirk dying in space of Spock and all the emotional resonance removed, and with Spock screaming “Khan!”, we get Kirk’s revival, courtesy of Khan’s blood.
Well, first we get a ridiculous fight on board some flying platforms. For the kids at home, it’s important to note that even if you do make the jump onto the platform passing at high speed below you, the landing is probably going to break a bone, if your face doesn’t hit metal and rip open, knocking you unconscious and giving you a concussion in the process. I know it’s become a tradition that everyone in action movies have super-powers, but trust me when I say this isn’t reality.
In the movie, there’s a passing line of dialogue about how Bones doesn’t have any more of Khan’s blood — which is so absurdly powerful that it’s capable of reviving someone after death. But this doesn’t make any sense: Khan’s back on ice at the end of the movie, and his blood can be drawn at any time. So too can the other 72 members of Khan’s genetically superior crew; even if their blood is not as insanely powerful as Khan’s (and there’s no reason it wouldn’t be), it’s probably still capable of repairing most insuries or illnesses.
The strangest thing about this is that we’ve already seen how corrupt Starfleet is. It now has an immortality serum. But while Starfleet’s apparently glad to construct super-weapons and let its head operate with unchecked impugnity, Starfleet somehow doesn’t bother to reverse-engineer Khan, nor try to duplicate his blood. There’s no sign that any such tests are even done, despite the untold millions it could save. Instead, Khan’s simply put on ice. When it comes to evil and corruption, Starfleet excels and bends every rule. When it comes to saving lives, never mind.
Did Kirk even bother to try injecting a little bit of this miracle cure into his beloved Captain Pike? Or did he not think about that either?
Star Trek into Darkness Effectively Destroys Star Trek
Of course, there’s a lot more to comment upon. The film’s music is as strong as the 2009 original, and it’s hard not to feel something as those themes come on. Spock’s got an awful lot of good dialogue, this time around; for example, his explanation to Uhura of why he didn’t seem to think about her when he thought he was dying is quite excellent.
On the other hand, Marcus’s dreadnought-class ship is unnecessarily big, especially for such a small crew, and its ability to engage in combat at high warp is another big change to Trek physics. On that note, I’m sure plenty of people will object to the Enterprise comfortably entering planets’ atmosphere — or even hiding underwater. Abrams even gives the Enterprise seat belts, ending a long-standing joke in Trek. He makes lots of changes to Trek technology, but none that need change the very formula of the show, the way his interstellar teleportation does.
Still, there are other phenomenally stupid elements. The opening works rather well, but it also doesn’t make any sense. Why have Kirk and Bones stolen the sacred alien scrolls? We can guess that it’s to distract the aliens from the pending volcanic eruption, but we have to guess. Why is the Enterprise even underwater, except that it looks cool? It could have done everything from orbit, the way it normally does. In a movie in which you can beam yourself to Kronos, why couldn’t they simply beam Spock in and out of the volcano? We’re told it’s because they need visual contact — which they might have had from orbit, without submerging the Enterprise. And when we learn that Kirk’s been removed of command for this, Pike makes it clear that ending the threat of the volcano was as much a violation of the Prime Directive as revealing the ship to the locals. So why didn’t Spock object to that too, if he was willing to die to keep the Prime Directive from being broken?
Near the end, the way both ships fall into Earth’s atmosphere is completely unnecessary; it’s only yet another needless dramatic complication. It’s also quite poor in its execution. If the Enterprise were conveniently intercepted so close to Earth, despite being at high warp, why do no other ships intercept these two? Kirk could have used the help. And the setting is so poorly established that we would be forgiven for having no idea that the ships were even close to Earth when suddenly they’re falling into the atmosphere. That’s a pretty scathing statement, simply in terms of visual storytelling.
But really, none of this matters, because the central plot makes absolutely no sense. Unless, of course, narrative and logic aren’t important here, and all that matters is the drama and the explosions.
Of course, plenty of franchises have bad films somewhere along the way, with silly or illogical plots.
But Star Trek into Darkness leaves us with reliable interplanetary teleportation that makes starships largely irrelevant. And because that’s a development flowing from Scotty’s equation in the first film, to not show the demise of starships would be a failure to follow through on what’s already been shown.
The film also leaves us with a universe in which immortality is easily available, certainly to everyone in Starfleet but especially to the Enterprise and those of high status in Starfleet. If anyone dies, from here on, it’s only due to Starfleet’s willful negligence.
Speaking of which: Starfleet and the Earth government that tolerated it has now shown to be systemically corrupt. It’s the villain who escaped punishment in Star Trek into Darkness. And the fact that this hasn’t been addressed will hang over every other Star Trek adventure until this is corrected.
So this is what Star Trek into Darkness leaves us: with a Starfleet that’s so corrupt that working for it is immoral, and with perfected technologies that let people zap anywhere they want and revive the dead.
I’m sure there will be more Trek, and I’m grateful for it. But the franchise has been seriously and systemically damaged by this film.
For a conflicting point of view, see Mike Greear’s “John Harrison is the New Joker.”