Film Discussion

Star Trek Into Darkness – Throwback 10

If you love Star Trek, then 2023 has probably never been a better time to be a fan. The franchise is undergoing a real purple patch just now, with almost year round rolling Trek available on Paramount+, the third season of Picard having garnered strong critical and audience acclaim, and Oscar-winning Michelle Yeoh having recently been announced to return in a Section 31 TV movie event.

Go back a decade, however, and the landscape was markedly different. Trek as a TV property had appeared to be at an end, with Enterprise having limped its way to a very ignominious cancellation in early 2005, drawing to a close an 18-year run for the franchise across four separate series. Paramount+ (or CBS All Access, as it was initially known on inception) would not be announced until October 2014, and another year was to pass before it was revealed to the world that Star Trek was returning to the small screen in a new show made exclusively for streaming, entitled Star Trek: Discovery.

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One of Discovery’s co-creators – and ultimate supremo over the revived nu-Trek – was Alex Kurtzman, who jointly wrote 2009’s Star Trek reboot film with Roberto Orci for director J.J. Abrams. At that time, it appeared that Trek’s future was on the silver screen, the pendulum having swung firmly back the other way, after the success of the motion pictures with The Original Series cast during the 1980s had given rise to a return of the saga to television. Now, with Star Trek seen as being a rather tired property, the notion of going back to the days of Kirk, Spock, et al, but setting the films in an alternate timeline, seemed to give just the boost required.

Taking more than $385 million at the global box office, Star Trek (2009) showed that there was still some life in the old dog yet, and by not only going back to the very early days of the show before it spawned a franchise, but also managing to jettison much of the then 40+ years’ worth of continuity which had been accrued, it seemed that Trek could now be more accessible to a wider audience, not just die-hards and ardent devotees. Setting things in a parallel reality, it meant that nothing was sacrosanct, and there was no requirement to be slavish and simply follow what had boldly gone before with William Shatner and his co-stars.

Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal – © 2013 Paramount Pictures.

It provided the opportunity to reimagine stories from The Original Series, and 2011 gave the launch of a new comic book range from IDW Publishing, which saw new takes on classic TV episodes from the 1960s, set in what is known as the ‘Kelvin timeline’ (due to history diverging following an incident involving the USS Kelvin). The path to crafting a big screen sequel, however, proved to be a far trickier one than perhaps was anticipated, as the original plan – to have the follow-up in cinemas by 2011 – had to be pushed back more than once, resulting in the eventual release slot ending up in May 2013, and materialising as Star Trek Into Darkness.

Although they initially tried to resist it, the 2009 team of Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman, along with producer Damon Lindelof, eventually decided that the obvious choice as the focus for the second movie was the character Khan Noonien Singh, firmly established in popular culture by 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. The publicity for the film would avoid any mention of Khan, in order to try and maintain an element of surprise, with the character initially appearing under a pseudonym: John Harrison. However, it proved to be one of the worst-kept secrets, and was widely known before the film’s release.

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Khan’s name certainly carries a lot of weight with it, as well as recognition amongst casual viewers, given the popularity of The Wrath Of Khan. In fact, the franchise to this day has a fascination with the genetically-enhanced superhuman, one which it seems unable to shake. Nicolas Meyer – writer and director of Star Trek IIannounced in 2022 that he would be behind a podcast which would tell the story of Khan and his followers in the years between their appearances on TV and then later film. The current prequel series Strange New Worlds also has a crew member of the USS Enterprise named La’an Noonien-Singh, who is a descendant of Khan.

Given the character was originally of Indian descent (with Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban cast in the role for TV, dispensing with the problematic ‘browning up’ make-up when he returned for The Wrath Of Khan), Abrams’ choice for his Khan Noonien Singh was a surprise. After initially talking with Benicio del Toro and Demián Bichir about the role, Abrams ultimately went for Benedict Cumberbatch, the British actor whose star power was most definitely in its ascendancy, having portrayed the lead in Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s literary detective for the 21st Century.

In fact, such a radical change of appearance – given Khan’s heritage – was the circle which was only squared in an IDW comic book sequel mini-series, Star Trek: Khan, in which it was revealed his appearance and memories had been altered by the actual villain of the piece – Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) – in order to make Khan believe he was in fact the fabricated persona of John Harrison. Abrams has rather a track record for leaving important backstory information out of his movies which is only explained in expanded media: for example, the explanation of Emperor Palpatine’s return only being given in the novelisation of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker.

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One of the criticisms levelled at Star Trek Into Darkness is its cheapening of The Wrath Of Khan via its appropriation not just of characters such as Carol Marcus (who would be introduced in Star Trek II as the mother of Kirk’s estranged son), but also set pieces, like the sacrifice of one of the crew to save the Enterprise. However, the movie does attempt to try something different, rather than it being purely a carbon copy of its predecessor, and it does so by making use of the point in which this story occurs within the characters’ chronology.

When The Wrath Of Khan takes place, Kirk and Spock have known each other for decades, and you see two people who have a long established friendship and deep affection. Into Darkness is set far earlier, and in this alternate timeline Kirk and Spock have not yet had a chance to begin forming those bonds, as events have happened prematurely in this version of history. There is still a wariness between the two, as well as an absence of the abiding trust which the audience knows to exist between them in the ‘Prime timeline’, meaning their relationship is in a very different place to the one that we are used to.

Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal – © 2013 Paramount Pictures.

At the climax of The Wrath Of Khan, Kirk mourns for the loss of a dear friend of many years’ long standing, as he comes to terms with his own mortality. With Into Darkness, inverting that moment and switching the roles here means that Spock (Zachary Quinto) realises exactly why Kirk (Chris Pine) had ended up risking his own career to save his First Officer’s life right at the start of the movie. The dawning comprehension of how much Kirk actually thinks of him, combined with the blow of thinking that Khan’s actions have now robbed him of a lifetime’s friendship, is enough to trigger Spock to become emotionally compromised, and to take his own journey into darkness as he sets out for brutal revenge.

For Kirk, the movie is also a sharp learning curve, as he finds his previously impermeable sense of self-assuredness being breached. In the ‘Kelvin timeline’, Kirk has been accelerated to rank of Captain far more quickly, meaning that his rough edges and the cockiness of youth have yet to be rounded off. Through his actions, Kirk ends up losing his surrogate father figure, Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) – who is a character seemingly destined not to have an easy ride in any reality – and ends up intent upon retribution at all costs. The motif of the damage caused by such a course of action is emphasised by the presence of the USS Vengeance, a vessel which has been designed specifically as a warship, instead of for peaceful exploration.

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Yes, the movie does have its fair share of flaws, including the knack of writing itself into a corner by essentially coming up with a cure for death, and not finding a way to rid itself of the MacGuffin, essentially leaving the series open to erasing any sense of jeopardy in future instalments. It also has one of the most stunning examples of sexism in a modern blockbuster, its treatment of Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus as being little more than a piece of meat to be ogled at one point in proceedings. In addition, it just criminally wastes Leonard Nimoy as the ‘Prime timeline’ Spock – having made him a key part of the 2009 movie, here he is reduced to a ‘cough and a spit’ cameo for a galactic FaceTime session. It seems particularly galling, as it would prove to be Nimoy’s last return to the role before his passing in 2015.

Also, the less said about trying to make Star Trek into a verb by removing punctuation from the movie’s title, the better. Furthermore, Cumberbatch’s scenery chewing turn makes Ricardo Montalban seem almost minimalist. However, Into Darkness was at least bold enough to try taking on such a highly-regarded entry in the canon – The Wrath Of Khan – and do something which was not a mere duplicate. It was also received by cinema audiences well enough to rack up $467 million at the box office, doing sufficient business to secure the future of Star Trek by showing there was still an appetite for it, and making it a centrepiece of CBS All Access’ streaming plans. For that – if nothing else – it does warrant recognition.

Star Trek Into Darkness was released in the UK on 9th May 2013.

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