I am not a huge Star Trek nerd. Growing up, I was one of those kids who was firmly in the camp of “Star Wars or go home.” Trek always seemed like a series that was too wrapped up in boring old talking with lots of pseudo-military imagery that amounted to hardly any action at all. Star Wars had a giant walking fuzzball who used a crossbow that shot lasers.
Clearly Star Wars was the superior series.
Of course, then I grew up and realized that nerdery has no limits. I could find room in my heart for both Star Wars and Star Trek (also, the prequel trilogy was pretty awful, so I wasn’t feeling so well-disposed towards my beloved Wars). Consequently, I’ve sampled three of the five television series (though I’ve only watched a couple of episodes from the original series), and I’ve seen most of the movies.
I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore fan, but I enjoy the basic premise of Star Trek. It’s wonderfully optimistic about the future in a way that most mainstream sci-fi doesn’t seem to be. As someone who finds myself more often than not complaining about how dour everyone is about the singularity, a show like Star Trek that supposes there is a responsible and hopeful way to implement new technologies to better the quality of life for all sentients appeals to me.
Then again, you have the new Star Trek movies.
There’s just something really strange about the Abrams reboot, and I have a pretty hard time placing it. I think, on a stylistic level, these new Star Trek movies are going for something more akin to Star Wars (I’m not the first person to make that comparison, and I doubt I’ll be the last) in the sense that they’re telling stories that revolve around swashbuckling adventures and actiony heroics. Abrams Trek is way more about flashy brawn than brains all the way through. And I don’t really know how I feel about that.
I mean, I love Star Wars. It’s exciting and fun, and the backdrop of the whole galaxy in various states of turmoil (it wouldn’t be Star Wars if there weren’t someone or something messing with the peace) makes for great adventures. I’m just not sure if it’s what I want to see in Star Trek.
Anyway, let’s talk about Star Trek: Into Darkness specifically. This movie’s a follow up story that continues the emotional arc set up in the previous film exploring the relationship between Kirk and Spock and all those other largely irrelevant crew members that we care about because we still remember and like the original versions of them pretty well. Kirk’s still brash, Spock’s still absurdly by-the-book, and everyone else is a younger, prettier version of the rest of the crew. The main emotional conflict comes in from the opening set piece where Kirk breaks the Prime Directive in order to save Spock from an erupting volcano, thereby causing some locals to worship the Enterprise as their new god and getting Kirk stripped of his command (very temporarily). Kirk’s mad at Spock for snitching on him, and Spock’s perplexed by Kirk’s anger over him doing what he’s supposed to do. From there, throw in a bit of Benedict Cumberbatch, a plot to militarize Starfleet, add a twist of a new female crew member who’s extraneous to the plot except for the fact that she literally comes between Kirk and Spock as they set out on their mission (even that bit of tension doesn’t last very long), and shake vigorously for a story that has pretty much nil to do with traditional Star Trek themes.
Don’t get me wrong here: I thought Into Darkness was a very compelling movie while I was watching it. I think one of Abrams’s strongest suits as a director is that he’s good at getting the viewers swept up in the story he’s telling (whether we still think it’s a good story once it’s over is another matter). I just don’t think it was really very Star Trek.
That’s not to say that there aren’t interesting themes that do get explored, although they don’t have much of anything to do with futurism. The Kirk/Spock relationship is a fascinating one because it’s been present in the public consciousness for nearly fifty years now. It’s one of those great iconic friendships in pop culture that for not-so-inexplicable reasons often gets read with homosexual overtones (not because Kirk and Spock are ever actually gay for each other in canon, but because we’ve socialized ourselves to read intimate male friendships as inherently gay; it’s likely a side effect of the spread of overt homophobia that’s come about in the last century with the gradual social recognition of homosexuality). Abrams, for not being a big Star Trek fan, seems aware of this, and he’s invested in exploring that relationship. The meatiest parts of the movie really are when Kirk and Spock are hashing out their issues (lame “Spock screams in anguish” scene notwithstanding). The fact that this usually comes at the expense of developing any other characters or using the women in the story to reassure the audience that our two heroes really aren’t actually gay for each other (seriously, even though Uhura gets to negotiate with Klingons, she and Dr. Marcus are really just there to, respectively, make out with Spock and give Kirk some eye candy in the middle of a mission) is mildly annoying, but more something that I think occurs to a person after they’ve finished watching the movie.
If you haven’t seen it, Into Darkness is worth a watch since it’s available on Netflix now (the great equalizer for movies that I just can’t bring myself to pay specifically to see), but don’t expect there to be anything really great about it that sticks with you after the credits roll.