A flurry of new information regarding the highly-anticipated Star Trek Into Darkness has come to light in the past few weeks: two trailers, a full 9 minutes from the beginning of the film, the supposed reveal of who Cumberbatch is playing, the actual reveal of who Alice Eve is playing, and various interviews.
Aside from the broad strokes (i.e. lots of ‘splosions) we still don’t really know what’s going to happen in Into Darkness. It might be Wrath of Khan? It might be a sequel to “Where No Man Has Gone Before” or a prequel to “Space Seed”? We don’t know.
Except... I think we do.
First off, Into Darkness is not going to be Wrath of Khan, but it’s going to borrow heavily from the conflicts and themes that inform it. The crew of the Enterprise is going to find itself up against an embodiment of genetic perfection as played by Benedict Cumberbatch. We see him smack enough people around in the trailers to know that he’s strong, fast, and able to best others in one-to-one fights. (And geez... those cheekbones...)
We also know that this embodiment has an all-encompassing grudge against the Federation and Starfleet in particular. He’s been described in interviews and press materials as a “homegrown terrorist,” he’s outright spoken of his vengeance in trailers, we’ve seen Starfleet Academy come under attack, we’ve seen (very quickly) the fleet in ruins, and we know from his uniform that Cumberbatch’s character is or was in Starfleet. And that he most likely was under Kirk’s command.
We don’t actually know if Cumberbatch was an Enterprise crew member, but nothing else makes sense from a dramatic standpoint. He can’t just show up out of nowhere. The conflict of the movie has to stem from the actions of our characters so we feel like there are legitimate stakes at play. It’s one thing to fight a terrorist who wants to blow up Starfleet. It’s quite another to fight a terrorist who wants to blow up Starfleet because of a mistake you personally made. A mistake Kirk himself most likely made, echoing the Gary Mitchell conflict from “Where No One Has Gone Before.”
Visually, the trailers make a point of matching Cumberbatch’s villain up with Kirk, giving the impression that Cumberbatch’s vengeance is personally motivated by Kirk’s actions. The second trailer furthers this by having Pike underscore the flaws in Kirk’s character that would have led him to cause such a mistake:
“You have greatness in you. But there’s not an ounce of humility. You think that you can’t make mistakes. But there’s going to come a moment where you realize you’re wrong about that. And you’re going to get yourself and everyone under your command killed.”
Whereas 2009’s Star Trek was largely about Spock finding his place and our crew coming together, Into Darkness has a dramatic imperative to put the spotlight on Kirk, to establish Chris Pine’s version as worthy in a way that is separate from William Shatner’s beloved version.
This movie is about Kirk accepting that he is capable of mistakes. And if this is the predominant aspect of Kirk’s character that we’re exploring, that then makes Cumberbatch’s antagonist the result of a mistake Kirk made, or a result of a mistake Kirk is going to make in the movie. Kirk will learn humility and grow as a leader as a result of the events in Star Trek Into Darkness.
And that means he’s most likely going to face, or even create for himself, a no-win scenario.
Pike’s speech about Kirk learning humility can be tied to this, but what really makes this theme clear are the events that take place in the first 9 minutes of the film. For the majority of this footage we watch the Enterprise crew as they try to save an indigenous, pre-warp species from a massive volcanic eruption. Spock heroically dives into the erupting volcano in order to implement the solution, citing that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
Kirk panics and runs through every option he can think of to pull Spock from the volcano. They have one option open to them, but it’s a massive violation of the Prime Directive. Out loud, he wonders what Spock would do if Kirk were the one in the volcano and McCoy intones, “He’d let you die.” Both of them know that McCoy is right. Spock would accept Kirk’s death, accept a no-win scenario, in service of duty and the greater good. As the last few seconds of the footage spool out, we see Spock actively applying this attitude, coming to peace with his fate as the lava rises to consume him.
We don’t know if Spock dies. But if the planet Vulcan can be eaten by a black hole in the first movie, it’s safe to assume that all bets are off in regards to previously untouchable plot elements. Spock can certainly die, even if it's not during this opening scene.
But if he does, what does Kirk do then? Does he tear the universe asunder looking for a way to bring Spock back? Does he challenge death? Is this not itself a journey into darkness? Who could possibly help him return Spock to life?
Possibly Dr. Carol Marcus, Alive Eve’s character and creator of the Genesis effect?
Possibly Cumberbatch’s character who, in the very first scene of the movie, offers to give a little girl a second chance at life?
You can spin a lot of possible plots from what we know of the movie, but overall it seems that death, Kirk’s arrogance, the vengeance that inspires, and no-win scenarios are key elements in Star Into Darkness, just as they were in Wrath of Khan. We’ll get the same situation, just not in quite the same order, and not quite with the same people.
In fact, this is most likely the ultimate point to Star Trek Into Darkness; that a key element of Captain James T. Kirk is his arrogance in the face of impossibility. That while this makes him a legendary captain, it also inspires powerful vengeance from those he fails.
Kirk will always create “Khan,” regardless of the timeline we’re in, because he wouldn’t be Kirk if he didn’t.
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com. He is going to wreak a terrible vengeance on this sandwich. You just watch.