in defense of darkness

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I spent most of the day yesterday reading fan and critical reactions to Into Darkness and some of the negative ones sent me into a little bit of a funk. There have been some very pointed critiques of the movie, and I felt the need to shore myself up in the face of them. So this is me hammering out my headcanon by contrasting what reviewers saw with what I saw, or how I’m choosing to interpret/justify/connect the events without blinding ignoring any potentially problematic aspects. I should probably be waiting to do this until after I’ve see the movie a second time, but I’m impatient. Maybe there will be more meta posts like this in the future after I do get another viewing under my belt and find more bloggers and columnists to argue with.

This is just all my own blather, guys. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything, just setting it straight in my head. And I’m only picking on public reviews here, not private fan reactions.

The post got gigantic, so I’ve broken it down by subject: Starfleet and philosophy, then and now; Kirk, Spock, and their antagonist; McCoy and Kirk/McCoy. Feel free to just scroll through to your relevant header. And there are, of course, gobs of spoilers after the jump.

Starfleet and philosophy, then and now

There is some intermittent complaining, in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” about the militarization of the Federation’s Starfleet. You may recall that the historic mission of the starship Enterprise was “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations.” While the crew on the first television series found its way into plenty of fights, the show itself always tried to stay true to the ideals of peaceful intergalactic ethnography. . . . Maybe it is too late to lament the militarization of “Star Trek,” but in his pursuit of blockbuster currency, Mr. Abrams has sacrificed a lot of its idiosyncrasy and, worse, the large-spirited humanism that sustained it. — A. O. Scott, NY Times [x]

Okay. Thing is? Fan(girl)s have already accounted for the militarization of Starfleet in our conception of this alternate universe. It makes sense that this Starfleet would have more guns and be less shy about using them, given the unprecedented attack on Kelvin. That would certainly change the organization’s strategic mission some, and adds plausibility to Admiral Marcus’s violent pursuits (even if the movie itself did a hack job of introducing his motives and goals, and probably should’ve just stuck to Harrison’s terrorism as a theme). Post-9/11 for us is the post-Nero for them. Does the militaristic bent in the reboot reflect our own times and concept of our national defense forces? Yes. Is this Trek the humanist cooperative dream of Roddenberry’s time? No. And I too lament that loss of idealism. But you know what we haven’t faced that Roddenberry and first-generation Trekkers had? WORLD WAR II. His utopian vision grew out of severe dystopic experience, which is paralleled in the original Trek timeline by the mention of Eugenics Wars and WWIII, events that were catalysts for the future adherence to peace, tolerance, and protection/exploration of cultures. Which isn’t to say it’s not a lovely vision of the future—it is, it really is. But it’s not one that (non-Trek) audiences today would necessarily find believable or palatable. Whereas that first war-weary generation sought refuge in an extremely peaceful, cooperative alternate reality, our war-weary generation barely believes in cross-cultural cooperation and I don’t think many of us see world peace as an attainable option any time in the next century or two. Like it or not, this conception of Trek almost has to have some militarization of Starfleet and overtones of terrorism in order to resonate with today’s audience.

It’s a point Scott acknowledges (even as he backhands Abrams) when he says, “I hope we never tire of Kirk, Spock and the others. I also hope that they stick around long enough to find a new civilization, since the one we have now does not fully appreciate their gifts.” Ouch, man. We appreciate these gifts, we just recognize they’re a little harder won and more difficult to execute than original Trek led us to believe. Into Darkness was all over this, actually. Albeit, most of the discussion took place in rapid-fire dialogue, but the principles of integrity, fundamental human rights, and jus ad bellum were all touched on. It was a (hurried) ode to international human rights law and the Geneva Conventions, and a prohibitive against revenge fantasy vigilante justice. (The movie could be read a straight-up rebuttal to the Bush administration, ffs.) So I think plenty humanist spirit was retained, even if it skated by quickly.

Would it be awesome if our media presented us with characters and universes we could hold up as a paragons of morality and intelligence that could act as templates for intercultural cooperation? Sure. (In fact, I see similar arguments all the time lately in the advocacy for queer representation.) But there’s a reason a lot of people look at Star Trek TOS as hokey and outdated, and it doesn’t all have to do with the dude in a lizard suit. Our social mindset and outlook is darker these days and (short of our own WWIII, and I’d still say postwar cooperation there is a longshot) there may be no going back. Entropy’s a bitch, man. Could this Trek have done better? Sure. Every single one of our media products could do and be better—everything’s corrupted and cheapened by external demands of all kinds lately, it seems. But I still saw it trying, and acknowledging difficulty is never a bad thing in my book.

Kirk, Spock, and their antagonist

To be clear, Khan and Kirk aren’t life-long enemies. Khan appears in “Space Seed”, Wrath of Khan, and that’s it. The reason for making him the antagonist in the second feature film is because the story is about Kirk coming to grips with his lost youth. So Wrath of Khan brings him a deadly nemesis from his past, who then forces Kirk to learn a harsh lesson, and lose his closest friend. . . .

The filmmakers should have gone ahead and created a new antagonist (or at least one who wasn’t as well known), which was the opportunity the alternate universe presented in the first place. . . . Instead, they continue to rip off Wrath of Khan without having any understanding of why that movie works. They plagiarize Spock’s famous death scene but instead decide to “kill” Kirk. There’s no weight to this death because A) These characters haven’t built a decades-long friendship; B) We’ve only seen them together in two movies . . . . Abrams and his writers pat themselves on the back for reversing the roles, even though that role reversal doesn’t tie into any earlier conflict. Kirk didn’t need to learn the merit of self-sacrifice, and Spock doesn’t have to cope with Kirk’s death since the Vulcan immediately goes to hunt down a fleeing Khan. — Matt Goldberg, Collider [x]

It’s so funny to me how this reviewer can, in the same breath, claim that the point of the AOS was to have new adventures and then shake his fist at the innovation Into Darkness is introducing.

Okay, so, Khan. I would never go so far as to say that Benedict Cumberbatch himself is a mistake—that’s heresy in this media moment—but I 100% agree that reintroducing Khan was a mistake. I was hoping against it since the day the rumor first circulated because there was no way to do Kahn without pissing a lot of people off, and ta-da! I wish the writing team had shown better judgment there. That said, Khan is who we have and, as much as we may not like it, we have to work with him. (What’s that thing about life imitating art? It happens sometimes, I hear.)

The Collider review is not unique in accusing Abrams, et al. of making Into Darkness a “rip off” TWOK, but I don’t see it that way. It’s not a rip off, it’s a remix. The innovative thing about reboot is where/when we’re meeting Kirk and Spock in their relationship. I feel like this is a thing a lot of critics are overlooking. The reboot is not so much about new/other/completely different adventures as it is about the new trajectory for Kirk and Spock’s development together. They are younger in the reboot than they were in TOS, both more selfish and stubborn, so although their life experiences have the potential to bring them closer, they instead find themselves clinging to their differences in their working relationship, putting them at odds with each other. What we’re witnessing is their growing pains as they become the BFFs they already were in TWOK. We’re using a old villain to facilitate their bond rather than reaffirm it.

And far from having “no weight,” Kirk’s death is the final catalyst for cementing Kirk and Spock’s epic romance devoted friendship, which will help them both grow into more mature leaders by understanding and utilizing each other’s strengths. While Spock’s “KHHAAAAANN!” was over-the-top and maybe unwarranted (because, admittedly, extreme frustration with a wily villain for stealing your only-just-acknowledged boyfriend best friend =/= the destruction of decades of friendship while staring down a mid-life crisis), I think it can read as indicative of Spock’s extreme experience of emotion. He screams in grief, maybe not just for Jim but for his mother and his lost homeworld. This is the tearful catharsis of the anger that fueled the beatdown he dealt Jim on the bridge during the Narada incursion. I can buy that. Because the point was never for Spock to “have to cope” with Kirk’s death, but rather to learn to react to Kirk’s death.

As for the claim that the “role reversal doesn’t tie into any earlier conflict” I think that’s a sloppy reading. The connection is complex but clear. It’s true Kirk didn’t have to learn self-sacrifice. He had to learn humility, and in the face of an overwhelming threat he was responsible for exposing his crew to, he did his best to make sure no one else suffered the consequences of his poor decision, which resulted in self-sacrifice. Moreover, considering the way new young cocky, brash CPine Kirk is written, symbolically speaking he had to be the one to die in this story. It couldn’t be about the logical Vulcan dying—it had to be about that hothead, hotshot captain learning that so far he’d come out of some incredible circumstances unscathed because of luck, but luck runs out. And Jim’s “death” served a purpose for Spock, too. It revealed to him why Jim refused to accept his own attempted self-sacrifice in the volcano, and it forced him to confront the “human half” of himself Jim appealed to when trying to explain his objection. He understood the value of his presence to Jim (and, presumably, to Uhura), as well as the fear associated with loss.

Again, this was a formative, relationship-building event, and that’s why its important. Was it as tidy a turn as the Khan story in TOS? Perhaps not. But it did succeed in what it what it set out to do, and I’d actually argue it’s more complex than the typical hero-lesson arc, and complexity is always messy (especially when rushed). Plus it gives fanfic writers a shitton of emotional drama to draw on.

McCoy and Kirk/McCoy

The overfocus on the Spock-Kirk-Uhura love triangle also cuts into our time with the rest of the likeable crew, especially Karl Urban’s laconic Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who’s absent or sidelined for virtually all the film’s big dramatic moments. — Dana Stevens, Slate [x]

I agree that I wanted more McCoy. Of course I did. I always want ALL THE MCCOY and there were a specific couple scenes I thought could’ve been longer to let us get more sense of his presence. Another reviewer complaint is that McCoy was relegated to comedic relief, and although I found the metaphor lines groan-worthy, too (at least the second one; I think you’re allowed one extended character joke, but coming back to it was gratuitous), I actually walked out satisfied with McCoy’s treatment. I saw McCoy functioning as Jim’s sounding board and helpmeet—roles I’m very comfortable with for him—and he seemed a very essential as part of the crew to me, despite being missing from some of the big action or emotional moments. I liked seeing him on away missions—for me that was confirmation that, despite his grumbling, McCoy really is a willing member of Jim’s crew. That’s big for me. For as much eye-rolly affection McCoy seemed to have for Jim in the first movie, he definitely doubted Jim’s competence and judgment. Into Darkness gives us an even more reckless and cocky Jim who is even less justified in his actions, and McCoy questions Jim’s actions but never threatens disloyalty. Interesting, that. I also liked what this fan had to say about Jim’s reaction to McCoy’s near-death experience.

All of this is purely subjective, of course. The story I anticipated getting in Into Darkness had a lot more emotional animosity between Kirk and Spock, to the point where I was nearly convinced Kirk/McCoy would subsequently take center stage as the new Trek OTP. Obviously that is not what happened, but my personal speculation meant that the on-screen animosity between Kirk and Spock we did get was trivial by comparison and my inner Kirk/McCoy shipper was initially disappointed. But I had to concede that being disappointed that my favorite pairing to write isn’t eye-fucking in every scene is a pretty petty complaint. So I started looking for other things, other ways of making McKirk work, and I found them. Subtext, ftw. Not a lot, and not as much as I wanted, but it’s there.

One more kinda-McCoy related rebuttal? Some reviewers (I can only remember Collider here, because that one ticked me off so much) were all snotty like, “But why did they need Khans’ blood when McCoy’s got SEVENTY-TWO other super-human bodies on board, huh? INTERNAL CONSISTENCY!!!1!” Right. Soooo, you don’t remember that whole part where McCoy and Marcus were like, “Gosh, this cryo technology is super old!” and McCoy was all, “If I tried to defrost them I’d kill them,” then? Okay. Maybe you need to watch the movie again, too.

And now I’ve exhausted myself.

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