Written John Tenuto
Why 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.
STID 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.
A 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.
More 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
- The 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 Vulture.com 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