Film · Movies · Star Trek · Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Is In Star Trek Into Darkness

Written John Tenuto

movies_star-trek-into-darkness_posterWhy Star Trek Into Darkness is Good Star Trek

Determining what qualifies as “good” or “truly” Star Trek is a daunting task, comparative to the debate about whether to put olive oil in water when you cook pasta or not.  It really is a matter of personal taste and not some scientific process.  With that in mind, my thesis is that Star Trek Into Darkness has all the trappings that make for good Star Trek, acknowledging that fellow fans may disagree with reasoned and appreciated cause.

1)      Star Trek is About Something

One of the many reasons to love Star Trek is that when it is at its best, it is about something, from social problems to cultural concerns.  Indeed, good science fiction is good sociology disguised by metaphor and analogy.  “The Enemy Within” dealt with human nature, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home dealt with how humans treat nature.  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan dealt with the dangers of hubris and the power of sacrifice.  Even “The Trouble With Tribbles” has an ecological lesson amongst the laughs.

Star Trek Into Darkness is also about something.  Actually, it is about numerous somethings.  Its chief message is about how societies change because of terrorism, symbolized by James Kirk almost letting revenge substitute for justice.  Unfortunately, recent events in the United States and London make STID more relevant than we would like.

star-trek-into-darkness-benedict-cumberbatch-chris-pine1STID is also about family, and how best to protect family.  Kirk and Khan are mirrors to each other, represented by the film’s fascination with glass (Kirk and Khan first see each other through glass, they communicate in the brig through glass, both Kirk and Scotty’s glasses are prominently featured in the bars, the father Thomas Harewood uses a glass to detonate his ring, we see the parents through the glass of their hover car, Kirk’s glass almost breaks on his Buck Rogers like space suit, the Klingon trap is revealed through glass of Mudd’s ship…all perhaps referencing, either deliberately or by accidental coincidence, the eye glasses of James Kirk so symbolically utilized in The Wrath of Khan).  And while Khan talks a good game, the difference is that he is willing to sacrifice others for his family, while Kirk is willing to sacrifice himself to save his.  A big difference worth considering.  Kirk’s hubris is tempered and abated by his compassion and his conscience.

Other family threads in the film include Spock and Uhura’s relationship, the Marcuses, and most importantly, how both Pike and Marcus call Kirk son.  Pike earns that right and it means something to Kirk that he is called his symbolic son.  Pike loves Kirk, and Kirk loves Pike, that much is evident.  Marcus, like some kind of pathetic father figure, calls Kirk “son” without earning it.  However, he does represent a very genuine danger to Kirk because the anger he feels could drive Kirk to become like Marcus instead of becoming like Pike.

Add to that the messages about noninterference with other cultures that the opening adventure details (which feels very much like an episode of the original show), and there are many motifs and ideas in STID that make it belong easily to the pantheon of worthwhile Star Trek metaphorical adventures.

2)      Characterization

Star_Trek_final_trailer_tests_Kirk_article_story_mainA second consideration for my list of reasons why STID is good Trek is the generally consistent characterizations with the original conceptualizations of the characters.  I disagree with some of the characterizations in STID, but none of my reservations are enough to negate the point that the writers and actors are trying their best to preserve the essence and heart of these iconic characters.  Some may, with good cause, argue that this is so because some of the lines from this film are verbatim from previous Treks.  That could be either defined as a curse (lazy writing) or homage (a respect for the greatness of the original versions).  I prefer to think of it as the latter.  However, looking at the purely original lines and interactions, there is much to admire.  When Kirk decides not to utilize the torpedoes, I cheered.  He allowed himself to be open to the advice of others, especially Scotty and Spock.  That is true leadership.  And when Spock and Kirk have the discussion about Spock being happy to help, I could easily see Shatner and Nimoy playing that scene.  When Scotty calls Kirk “Jim” for the first time it reminds us of “Mirror Mirror” when the great James Doohan’s version did the same thing.

Indeed, it could be argued that Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and company are much more closely related to their original versions than the First Contact versions of Picard and company were to their television versions.  Picard obsessed with revenge and killing his own crew without trying to save them when he himself was brought back from the Borg?  Worf threatening Picard?  And yet, for many fans, First Contact is a favorite despite these radical character departures.

This is not to say that STID is perfect.  I have always rejected the idea that Kirk was ever a Space Age Lothario.  In fact, it is established in the original show that he was bit of a bookworm at the Academy.  There is no example in the original show of him casually sleeping with or using a woman for his own designs.  When he did have these kinds of interactions of charm and sexuality, it was usually necessary to save his ship and crew.  In fact, in almost every encounter with a former lover, with the exception of Janice Lester who had obvious mental and emotional concerns, the women of Kirk’s past showed nothing but respect for Kirk because he had shown nothing but respect for them.  The STID Kirk has the Lothario vibe and it’s unwelcomed.  The scene with the two cat women was puerile and childish, not serving any story purpose.  If the scene was meant to show that Kirk was arrogant, and that his willingness to be casual with two people at a time is meant to be symbolic of that, the sequence as filmed has none of that evident and does not resonate in the film at all other than a joke.

Benedict Cumberbatch Star Trek Into Darkness 4More concerning is that Khan is presented as having some kind of savage streak to him that enjoys violence.  In fact, he is presented as being possibly genocidal.  Some of that savagery is part of the original proposals for “Space Seed” by writer Carey Wilber back from August of 1966.  However, that was when Khan was Harald Ericcson, a common criminal frozen in time due to population problems on Earth of the 21st Century.  The Montalban/Coon/Roddenberry/Meyer version of Khan has none of this savage quality, not even in his more erratic and vengeful state of TWOK.  Not explaining the change in Khan’s physicality is also a concern.

That all being said, for most of the film, the characters act believable as their younger counterparts would have.  That Kirk makes mistakes is okay because this is both a younger version of the character, and also an alternative version at that.  However, the heart of the characters is there, and that is what matters.

3)      Fan Nods

There are many nods to Star Trek fans in this film, showing more respect for the original and its sequel shows.  Some of these include:

  •  Tribbles being in the film
  • Praxis possibly being shown
  • 1361445770_star-trek-into-darkness-harry-mudd-womanThe reference to Mudd for both comic book and TOS fans
  • The inclusion of Prime Spock
  • A Prime Directive debate
  • Christine Chapel being mentioned
  • The five year mission
  • Section 31
  • The NX01 being among Marcus’ models
  • A most frequent and consistent usage of the original TV show theme, and not just the fanfare


This list of ideas does not exhaust the reasons why Star Trek Into Darkness is good Star Trek, but hopefully presents enough data to show why it is okay to mix a little olive oil in the pasta once in awhile.

Biography of John Tenuto:

John Tenuto is a professor of sociology at the College of Lake County, in Grayslake, Illinois.  For the past six years, he and his wife and fellow sociology professor Maria Jose Tenuto have been studying the Nicholas Meyer Paper Collection at the University of Iowa and the Gene Roddenberry archives at UCLA, exploring the making of Star Trek’s “Space Seed” andStar Trek: The Wrath of Khan.  The duo have uncovered more than 800 previously unseen photographs and discovered many new revelations about the making of these classic Trek adventures.  John was named one of Star Trek’s influential fans by New York magazine’s in 2012, and his work has been featured on WGN News, in the Chicago Sun Times, SFX Magazine, the official Star Trek website, on WGN Radio, BBC Radio, and he contributed some of the photos included in the recent Wrath of Khan expanded soundtrack.  John and Maria Jose are committed to telling stories about the making of Star Trek and helping to celebrate all the behind the scene artists who created the amazing adventures of Trek.  John has been nominated eight times for Outstanding Teacher of the Year by the students of his college, winning twice, once in 2006 and again in 2013, and he is the coauthor of Social Movement Theory and Research: An Annotated Bibliographic Guide.  John and Maria Jose have been married for 15 years and have a 11 year old son Nicholas Jose. He is on Twitter @JTenuto 

Star Trek Into Darkness Review

Star Trek Into Darkness: Point by Point 

20 thoughts on “Star Trek Is In Star Trek Into Darkness

  1. My thanks to John for being my first guest blogger. I am honored to have him and this article here. I think that John has nailed what I believe about this film, it is Star Trek through and through! I hope that fans will continue to go back to the theater and support Star Trek so that it’s popularity continues to grow for years to come!

      1. As an expert on “Space Seed” from its earliest forms, I’d enjoy seeing or hearing you talk at some length sometime about “Khan Prime” and (or versus) Cumberbatch’s character. I felt like not enough time was (or could be, in a 2-hour film) devoted to this Khan’s backstory to really make us invested in him. I don’t think I’m just talking as an “old school” Trek fan; I really feel “Khan” in STID could’ve been just about any villain.

      2. Good news is that we are going to get a 4 part comic mini series in the fall all about Harrison. I am really looking forward to this pack story.

      3. Man, IDW is doing all it can to make me start picking up that comic book…! I was so disappointed in the adaptation of “Where No Man…” – it felt so slavish to the original – but comments on the Ready Room lead me to believe it’s gotten more interesting and fun? I wish the trades weren’t so slim – only 6 issues per volume? Is that standard?

        I still wish they weren’t relegating so much of the Abramsverse-building to the comics, but I’ll probably end up coming aboard…!

      4. I think that they are completely worth reading, they added a lot of background to the movie, fleshing out the universe. This is the only place that they can do this, since CBS works with TV and Paramount does the movies, JJ does not have control of the whole franchise right now (a double-edged sword). So, the comics are making the JJ-verse very rich and more expansive.

  2. Hi Matt and Michael, the comics are great! There is a great deal of this new Khan that is very much the same as Harald Ericsson/John Ericsson/Ragnar Thorwald as the character was originally thought of! Thanks!

  3. I loved this movie and agree that STID is characteristic of Star Trek in a multitude of different ways, not just those mentioned in this article. However, I do want to address the Kirk/Lothario issue. In ST09 we see that George Kirk is a very honorable man. It’s not a stretch to consider that, without his father to guide him, Kirk could have picked up a less than respectful attitude about women/sex. I don’t see him as malicious about it, just very misguided, and it feels, to me, a natural course for the inherent qualities of Prime Kirk to take given the circumstances nuKirk has faced.

    1. This is a very important point. Manhood is passed on, not learned. So Kirk, without a father would be searching for someway to fill that void. Sex is often where people turn. I am hoping to see Kirk move forward in this area in the next film and maybe even with Carol Marcus.

      1. Eh, I’m not even speaking of filling any voids. I just think Kirk has charm and, with his father’s influence, learned how to be responsible with it. Without his father, well, not so much. Like I said, not that he comes across as malicious about it, just that he doesn’t know any better.

      2. Well, I think it’s a deeper issue. We agree on the surface, but I think there is another reason that Kirk, sleeps around and that is because he is trying to fill his life with some meaning and purpose relationally. Easy, one night stands are what he uses because he has never had intimacy modeled for him by anyone. It goes back to not having a father to teach him and a family to model a better way. It’s hard to be a good man when all your father figures keep dying.

  4. Hi Mariel and Matt,

    Thank you for the ideas and reply. Unfortunately, JJ Abrams has in interviews, this week on Conan, for example, certainly implies that Kirk as a character is a Lothario. He sees this as a trait of the character, like Spock having pointy ears and being logical. It was not included in the films to show how different this Kirk is from the Shatner Kirk. It was included because the filmmakers buy into the meme that Kirk is a womanizer as an inherent trait. If it were there because it shows that he was young or what he would have been like without a father, great. As a sociologist, I would champion that. It is not there for that reason, though. It is there for the same reason that Spock has pointy ears: the filmmakers think that Kirk as a character on TOS was a Lothario. And in this instance, they are wrong. That being said, they get much about the characters and their traits, so it is one of the few things that needs work in the next film! Thanks again!


    1. The wonderful thing about the literary experience is that once a text is out of the hands of the creator, they have no control over the interpretation. Abrams can say whatever he wants about it, but the text itself doesn’t refute my interpretation. 🙂

      1. Ah, Mariel, now you are talking! One of the things I like about Nicholas Meyer is his idea that the audience’s interpretation is as valid as the artists. Star Trek fans have a great history of adding more, and sometimes better, ideas to those of the creators. I could not agree more! Thanks again!

    2. Good point. I have no problem granting that *this* Kirk is a Lothario. He is, after all, not the same character as the one Shatner plays (as is the case for all of them and their TOS counterparts) – something I have to frequently remind myself of while in the JJverse.

  5. Is is too late to join in this discussion? I am a Star Trek fan, having watched TOS in reruns and each subsequent series as they aired (Including the Animated Series). Although I am very happy that JJ has reignited public interest in Star Trek, I feel that it has been somewhat at the expense of what Star Trek has at its heart. Yes, I agree with John that STID has many things that its “about,” but what its really about, is action set pieces. Instead of using the action to bridge the story, it uses the story to bridge the action. Abrams is a declared Star Wars fan and has admitted that he didn’t like Trek and it shows quite obviously in both of his Trek films, unlike in Meyers. Another thing that Trek is supposed to be, is good Science Fiction. Abrams has no regards whatsoever for science. “Cold fusion device?” The moon Praxis shattered, without any gravitational effect to Qo’nos. Beaming from Earth to Qo’nos? (yes, I know they tried to explain that away, by saying he beamed to some other place, then to Qo’nos, but then Scotty couldn’t have read the coordinates for Qo’nos from the portable device, right?)
    There are many examples of lazy writing or sequences in the story included just because they would look “cool.” The Enterprise being underwater is just one of them. The story should not suffer, just so that the “coolness” factor can be raised. Or IF they MUST be included, a better reason must be given for them happening. This is NOT Star Wars, which is Science Fantasy. The points I am making are not niggles. They are just as important as good character development and good story telling.
    The problem is, since both films made alot of money, there is no reason for them to write any better. To make Star Trek with sound reasoning.
    Now, did I like Nemesis? No. But surely Star Trek can be done in a way that satisfies the Action fans AND the Trek fans?

    1. I think there are a lot of places in the film where more time for dialogue would help. There are plenty of places in the novelization that the scene is elongated with more explanation and it does wonders for the plot. Hopefully, they will not be afraid to let the next film breathe more; more space for dialogue to communicate some of these things better. That said, I still very much enjoy the JJ’verse, just think it needs some tweaking.

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