Star Trek: The (Re-)Wrap of Khan

UnknownBlockbusters just aren’t what they used to be.

I’ve been a Trekkie since forever. Well, not forever: when the first season aired in 1966, I was ten years old. This was before cable, when the only way to pick up a Denver station was to put a big aluminum aerial on top of your house, and my parents were not sufficiently impressed by television to spend the money. So we only got the local station through a pair of rabbit-ears on top of the television, and I’m pretty sure it didn’t run Star Trek. At least, I don’t recall watching it when I was in fifth grade.

But reruns were insanely popular a decade later, when I was in college. Trekkies were as common as Jesus Freaks, and I actually met and shook hands with Leonard Nimoy at a very small convention in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He struck me as a private man who wasn’t much into the adulation. Or perhaps Cheyenne had just sucked the life out of him.

I was thrilled with the idea that they would turn Star Trek into a feature length movie in 1979, and was equally disappointed with the outcome: I’d never liked The Changeling episode as a story, and the screenplay dragged something awful, though Persis Khambatta with a shaved head was hot, hot, hot. I’ve since watched each of the movies as they came out, and complained along with everyone else about how good the even-numbered films were, and how bad the odd-numbered films. I’ve speculated that there must be some marketing advantage to that pattern, since Microsoft does exactly the same thing with its OS releases.

I was skeptical about, and then very pleasantly surprised by the 2009 reboot of the series with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. I was looking forward to Into Darkness.

The effects and the acting were all excellent. But the story…. Ah, the story.

Star Trek was always about our Bright Future as a species: that was Gene Roddenberry’s original vision, which he talked about often in interviews. The series began in the mid-1960’s, a time of rapid change and great hope for the Progressive mindset, and equal consternation for the Conservative mindset. We’d been shaken by John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but the Warren Commission had deemed it a freak accident caused by an unbalanced individual, “acting alone,” and most people believed them. The psychedelic counterculture was just blooming, with Timothy Leary’s famous “Turn on, tune in, drop out” quote issued in San Francisco in 1967, right the middle of the Star Trek series — an expression of a Utopian ideal every bit as compelling as any apocalyptic vision of Heaven in the previous two thousand years; more compelling, in fact, because LSD provided a chemical method — a scientific means — to directly address the baser human instincts such as greed and power-lust. The atom bomb had been leashed to the public good as atomic energy, clean and limitless: science and technology were advancing faster than experts could keep up, and we were headed to the moon! The American middle class was at its height, American influence throughout the world was at a peak, and the American Dream seemed within touching distance for everyone.

The original Star Trek series was set in a futuristic 1960’s America, after a presumed few centuries of working out the bumps and rough edges of human society according to the 1960’s vision. The Enterprise was not a warship bent on conquest, nor a slave ship, nor a predatory merchant vessel of the East Indian Trading Company — it was a band of psychonauts, exploring the nature of reality in an antimatter-fueled Yellow Submarine.

Four decades later, the US is a different place.

We’ve seen the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., also by “lone gunmen.” We’ve seen the body bags shipped home from Vietnam, built and touched the Memorial Wall. We’ve watched the drug counterculture implode into squalor, and become the legal excuse for obliterating most of our rights as citizens. The base instincts it was supposed to address — greed, selfishness, cruelty, brutality — have been embraced as virtues. We’ve spent trillions on a war machine that has continued to lose wars. Atomic energy turned into a curse; technology development has slowed; the American Dream is rapidly fading from view as the wealth-gap increases without limit.

The original Star Trek now comes across as fatally dated: it no longer plays well with audiences, because the future it depicted is no longer even remotely plausible.

The Star Trek movies were still fun to watch, however, so long as they kept everything “out there” in Space, The Final Frontier, or they were time-traveling to an Earth that predates their civilization. In the earlier films, we see only vignettes of Federation Earth, if anything at all — flying cars, shining cities: backdrops that played little or no role in the story, other than the usual role of Starfleet as a kind of leaden ballast for Kirk to kick against, disobey, and thereby save the galaxy.

Into Darkness, however, has pulled back the cover on Federation Earth to an unprecedented degree, and what we see is — surprise! — a futuristic 2010’s America, not a futuristic 1960’s America. In particular, we see Starfleet building secret weapons beneath the streets of London. Starfleet is run — ruled rather — by Admiral Alexander Markus (Peter Weller), who has decided on his own that war with the Klingons is inevitable. So Markus sets out to unilaterally and illegally provoke that war, using Kirk as an unwitting agent provocateur. Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) is originally blackmailed by and in the employ of Markus; Khan turns against Markus, destroys the underground weapons lab in London, and thus becomes a terrorist threat that must be eliminated, providing a convenient excuse to start the war with the Klingons.

Does any of this sound vaguely familiar? Replace Khan with Osama bin Ladin, Adm. Markus with George W. Bush (or Dick Cheney, take your pick), and the Klingons with the Iraqis. And, by the way, not many people ask why bin Ladin had such an obsession with the World Trade Center in the first place. No, they weren’t building secret weapons there — not exactly.

Just to make sure no one missed the point, there’s an explicit dedication during the final credits of the film to the freedom fighters who have served the US in the post-9/11 world. So I’m not entirely making this up.

The film isn’t allegory; I’m not claiming it has any particular message about what really happened in the mess of the last decade. What I am saying is that this film was dark in ways that that make perfect sense in 2013, but which would never have occurred to writers working with Roddenberry’s vision in the 1960’s.

Much of the film just made me sad. Starfleet is officious, ossified, and corrupt. The bars of 2259 are as glittering, noisy, and alienating as the club scene in 2013, and people still haven’t found anything better to do with their time. The hospitals are as sterile, mechanical, and discomfiting, and they still can’t cure little girls with rare diseases. The Enterprise keeps getting bigger and uglier inside: engineering now looks like a super-clean oil refinery, painted white.

Worst, the mano a mano violence of the final fight scenes are choreographed by the same guys who do all of these fight scenes, and they are always ridiculous: one guy always waits for the other guy to get up and face him, rather than just breaking his fingers while he’s clinging to the edge and kicking him off into empty space. That Marquis-of-Queensbury club-style fighting is always coupled with a glorified blind rage, and the battle always goes to whomever has the most uncontrolled righteous fury. It’s become utterly predictable and tiresome.

Spock, in particular, never used to give in to that. He never got angry. He was a stickler for bending the rules completely out of shape without breaking them, or ignoring them completely when they didn’t make logical sense. That’s what made him Spock. Now, he’s just a head-case: an inferior James Kirk, crippled by too many regulations and too much thinking and not enough emotion; at least until his Vulcan cool is seriously stressed, and then he loses it and gives in to wrath, just like Kirk. Spock is no longer Spock.

Now, I’d like to see a fight where they actually use their technology appropriately, and where Spock keeps his cool and wins because of it. Why stand there and let the other guy hit you, when you can throw yourself backward off the edge, and let Scotty catch you with the transporter and put you right back in place behind the other guy? Or how about  blowing the other guy over the edge with pressor-beam, then yanking him back with a tractor beam, and holding him there, six feet from the edge: turn him around so he can catch bugs with his teeth? Or how about just slapping a gravity pad on his head and dialing it up to, say, 20G? Or what about…?

I guess I’ve become one of those Star Trek curmudgeons, because Into Darkness is reportedly the highest-grossing film to date in the entire Star Trek franchise, though I wonder what that means in inflation-adjusted numbers. Regardless, it clearly speaks to contemporary moviegoers. And it’s a well-made film.

The original series is notable in retrospect for its casual Austin Powers-like sexual chauvinism, a common fixture of the 1960’s American culture, and that makes the old series both amusing and slightly offensive. The new films will be notable in retrospect for their glorification of mindless, impotent rage, a common fixture of the 2010’s American culture. We’ll see if that makes them mildly offensive forty years from now.

Pine and Quinto are allegedly lined up for a third film, and I’m sure I’ll see it. I just hope it doesn’t make me as sad as this one did.

This entry was posted in General.

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