In recent weeks, much has been made of how many longtime Star Trek fans dislike the franchise’s most recent outing, Into Darkness. Some claim it was the worst film in the series. For example, writer Joseph Dickerson of TrekMovie.com has taken up the cause and, in a series of online posts, called the franchise “broken.” In response to many negative comments, screenwriter Robert Orci has fired back with simple critiques like “F*** off.”
Well, perhaps Into Darkness isn’t destined for many Academy Awards, but the worst film of them all? Anyone remember Nemesis?
During the run of the first six Star Trek films starring the original cast, one truism was widely agreed on, that the even numbered films were far superior to the odd. Then and now, most critics say Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) was mainly a Robert Wise special effects fest with few characteristics of the beloved TV show. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) was so widely reviled that comedian Dennis Miller said the next film should be called “Star Trek: The Apology.” True, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) wasn’t the strongest chapter in the epic, but it told a needed story. It got Mr. Spock back on his feet again with most of his marbles intact. But how is Into Darkness worse than films I and V?
For my money, Star Trek VII: Generations (1994) not only broke the odd/even “Curse,” it stands close to the top of the heap. What didn’t it have? Likewise, Star Trek VIII: First Contact (1996) was very much an important event in the Star Trek universe, even though some detractors saw it as too much a Picard/Data show. I often wonder what movie those folks saw. They didn’t enjoy the Riker/Troy interplay on planet Earth?
In light of subsequent events, however, it was becoming clear the trajectory of “Next Generation” films wasn’t odd/even, it was a steady decline. In 1998, the forgettable Star Trek IX: Insurrection was, by design, a deliberate attempt not to produce an “event” picture. They succeeded. By all accounts, its merely a lightweight extended TV episode.
Then came 2002 and Nemesis.
What was wrong with Nemesis? Let me count the ways. First, how producer Rick Berman, who should have known better, director Stuart Baird, and writer John Logan could have completely disregarded past events in the Star Trek universe is beyond forgivable. I’m not the first to observe this. LeVar Burton (Geordi La Forge) and Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi) have publically criticized Baird for apparently never watching any episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It seems no one watched Star Trek: Deep Space Nine either. In that series’ grand finale, when the assembled forces of the Federation finally defeat the Dominion and the Cardassians, Warf has not only risen in the ranks to become a First Officer, he’s now Ambassador to the Klingon Empire. So why is an Ambassador suddenly inexplicably demoted to standing at Tactical again?
Speaking of other Star Trek series, it also seems strange Captain Picard gets his marching orders in Nemesis from Vice Admiral Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), late of Star Trek: Voyager. The Captain of the Enterprise is reporting to a superior officer who was a captain with less tenure than he and has spent five years in the Delta quadrant? Oh well, I presume this was another attempt to weave together the Star Trek universe tapestries with a mere if inexplicable cameo.
According to DVD features and posted interviews, there could have been more character development in Nemesis if not for the need to give screen time to all the space battles. The film opened with a promising note, the wedding of Riker and Counselor Troi, but that relationship isn’t explored. Was Dr. Crusher even in the movie? I forget. At one point, it seems Will Wheaton’s Wesley Crusher was to have a few scenes, but he was squeezed out to the point he is only seen once—sitting at the wedding. Even then, you see him only in widescreen versions.
The one participant who was apparently pleased was Brent Spiner who was involved in crafting the story. He likely pushed the idea of Data’s fatal sacrifice but leaving room for a new Data in the form of B-4, the android his father created, well, B-4 Data. A bit of a very bad joke there, seems to me. It was an obvious homage to Spock’s similar sacrifice in The Wrath of Khan (1982), which brings us to Into Darkness.
Into Darkness is, of course, the sequel to 2009′s Star Trek which is numbered either 0 or 11, depending on your desire to distance the reboot from the original. Trekkers and Trekkies were divided on the reboot, largely on how the new alternate reality differed from the original. Complaints centered around such factors as Zoe Saldana’s Nyota Uhura having a romance with Zachary Quinto’sMr. Spock. Uhura with Mr. Spock! Heresy! Sacrilege! Personally, my only complaint was that Uhura was having a romance with someone other than me. After all, back in the day, the original Uhura, Nichelle Nichols, along with Grace Lee Whitney as Yeoman Janice Rand, were the two best models for why miniskirts should always be standard issue on deep space missions. Like good student essays, the skirts were short enough to be very interesting, long enough to cover the subject. But I digress.
So what was supposedly wrong with Into Darkness? Some say a lack of character development. Huh? In both the 2009 story and Into Darkness, we get genuine character arcs. We see how Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk evolves from a headstrong young man into a stable starship captain. We see Quinto’s Spock not only deal with his dual human/Vulcan nature(s), but we see the relationship between Kirk and Spock develop.
Likewise, we learn much about the supporting players including Karl Urban as “Bones” McCoy and Simon Pegg as “Scotty.” I admit, seeing Scott questioning Kirk to the point of being fired seemed a bit of a stretch, but a plot point had to be made.
Some have complained about the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan Noonian Singh. I admit he suffers a bit in comparison with the original genetically-engineered madman played by Ricardo Montalban back in Wrath of Khan. However, the major gripe is that his character was “whitewashed,” that Khan should have been Indian as in the original stories. However, Orci has responded that he wanted to avoid any hints of racism in the script, not wanting anyone demonizing a character based on modern prejudices. Now, that’s a choice worth debating considering Star Trek‘s long history with social issues.
Perhaps the most arguable point is that it’s hard to come up with anything new in the Star Trek franchise. After five series, 11 movies, and countless novels over the past 40 years, it’s hard to be fresh using and reusing the same characters. Despite this, as of September 2013, Into Darkness has earned over $228 million in North America and over $462 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing film of the series. Amazon reviews are numerous and mostly glowing. This is a “broken” franchise?
Well, it is true not all is well in Trekdom. As Joseph Dickerson has pointed out, Paramount is trying to milk its cash cow for all it’s worth. He advises fans not to buy the DVD or Blu-ray editions coming out this week as no single release contains all the extras you’d expect. Commentary tracks and bonus features are not available in any one single package. To be a completest, you need to buy at least six different versions. Paramount, this is ice planet cold. Is Quark now in charge of marketing?
Back to the criticism of the movie itself, I suspect some diehard fans just aren’t ready to pass on the torch just yet. While Nemesis failed, in large part, because it was too careless with established characters, Into Darkness has strived to reinvigorate the epic by keeping true to the spirit, if far from the letter, of the original cast. They’re making these movies for the children and their children of those of us who spent too many hours in all those conventions. While it might seem strange for some of us to see Quinto’s Spock becoming a bona fide action hero, he’s the Spock my granddaughter lusts for. She’s like my grandson who doesn’t care for any James Bond before Daniel Craig. The new casts are their casts. The next generation, and many of their elders, don’t see Into Darkness as being anywhere close to the bottom of the Star Trek pile. Instead, as Pine and Quinto are only contracted for one more film, they fear it all might be coming to the end. It could be, if they produce another Nemesis. That would be a fate worse than being beamed into a dungeon full of carnivorous tribbles.