When a recent Star Trek Creation convention voted J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek Into Darkness the worst film in the franchise, some industry people (including the film’s screenwriter) shook their heads. The movie made good money (though not the breakaway box office that some predicted) and notched generally favorable reviews. So what’s the problem? Is this just a case of some Trekkers and fanboys being overly critical? Or does it point to larger, long term problems? After all, while the new Trek films have been built to be general audience pleasers, they still rely on the fanboys to be their backbone. What happens to Star Trek if the Trekkers start to abandon it?
Maybe the best way to answer that is to look at ways the franchise could right itself. Here then are some suggestions...
Have Kirk Grow Up Already
The biggest change in the new series of films has been to make James T. Kirk an emotional hothead. That worked fine in the first movie, with young Kirk becoming a kind of early career Tom Cruise character—the Maverick of Starfleet, if you will. But in STID Kirk is still a screw up, still a hothead, and still the kind of a dumbass who needs to be reminded, yet again, that the rules apply to him. But a movie story has to work within the logic that it constructs, and it’s getting really hard to buy that this guy is a commander of anything. If you're going to shoot a bazillion-dollar piece of technology into the farthest reaches of space with hundreds of human beings inside it, you don't put a horny frat boy in charge. (If this was a war movie, say, you would never believe this callow youngster would be placed in charge of a submarine.) Chris Pine is a charismatic actor, but his Kirk is in danger of becoming a dramatic redundancy. Maybe next time around he will have learned his lesson and finally gotten his shit together? Let's hope so.
Quit Trying So Hard To Be Sexy
Let’s talk about the three-way with the cat girls. Hey, we all know Captain Kirk loves the ladies. [Oh...cat girls...I get it...] But here's a study in contrast. The original Kirk was a James Bond-type ladies man. He was a charmer. He was smooth, damn it. This Kirk acts a little too much like a dude who just attended a Frank TJ Mackey seminar on how to pick up insecure sorority girls. I mean, this Kirk harasses random women on the street... Not too smooth. Ditto the widely mocked scene where Kirk ogles Carol Marcus—a scene that is neither sexy nor funny, and does nothing to establish their eventual love story. It’s just a particularly ham-fisted attempt to sex up Star Trek. The filmmakers should just relax, develop the characters, and let the talented and attractive young cast deliver the erotic charge.
Come Up With A Plot That Isn’t About Some Guy Seeking Revenge
Here’s an interesting point to ponder: all four of the last four Star Trek movies (Insurrection, Nemesis, Star Trek, and STID) have been about revenge. The reason for this, I think, is that everyone wants to recapture the Khan magic. Here’s the problem: in and of themselves, revenge plots suck. They’re simplistic and derivative. That’s not to say that they can’t be the springboard for greatness (see everything from Hamlet to Kill Bill), but revenge itself is just a lazy trope. Take, once again, STID: one of the key weaknesses of the film is the shift in the motivation for Khan's revenge. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan he's out to kill Captain Kirk because he blames Kirk for the death of his wife. The simple genius of that plot line is that, at least on one level, we're sorta on Khan's side. He's motivated by a rage that in some contexts would cast him as the protagonist. In the new film, Khan's wrath is based on...what again? He's insulted by something the evil Admiral did back when he thawed out Khan and put him to work developing weapons to battle Klingons in case there's a war with Klingons...I think. That long, winding explanation doesn't exactly have the cold fire of “You killed my wife” does it? After flubbing a recreation of Khan in this film (despite Cumberbatch’s fierce efforts to breath fire into the character) and giving us the instantly forgettable Romulan played by Eric Bana in the first film, perhaps the filmmakers could try something beyond “I’m-gonna-get-you” as a motivation of the next film’s antagonist?
Try Something New
Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is one of the greatest pop sci-fi movies ever made. It’s exciting, it’s funny, and it’s unexpectedly moving. But we have it already. It’s here. I own it. Let’s move on. In fact, I hope the new Trek team is done directly quoting the first films. Take for instance the death of Kirk in STID, which of course is a reworking of the death of Spock in Wrath Of Khan. I guess this scene is supposed to show us some kind of growth in Kirk's character—although, since his bravery was never in doubt, I'm not sure how it actually does this. Still, to be fair, the scene is well done; Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are good actors. The dialog at the end, where Kirk admits to be being afraid to die, is moving. But then he dies...and Spock screams “Khan!!!” as a direct quote from Shatner's screamed “Khan!!!” in the earlier film, and the whole thing (the pivotal point of the movie) stops working as a dramatic scene and just becomes about the reference. And that, my friends, is when you know a piece of pop culture has turned around on itself and started to devour its own tail.
Discover Strange New Worlds
Somewhere along the way with the new Trek films, someone fixed on the idea that Star Trek is an action franchise. It’s not. It never was. It’s a science-fiction franchise. While action has always been an essential element of the series—Shatner spent half his time on TOS punching guys in the face—it wasn’t the element that predominated. Star Trek hasn’t lasted fifty years because of action scenes. It lasted fifty years because it created a universe of wonder and intrigue. It mixed fun pulpy elements (fist fights and laser guns and make-out sessions with green slave girls) with fascinating ideas and flights of fancy. If the special effects and stunt work from the 60s looked dated today, we can be sure that future generations will say same the same thing about our CGI. The stuff that will last is the intellectual and emotional architecture of the universe and its characters.
Despite all I’ve said so far, Abrams actually did a lot of good work with his Trek films. He established a great creative team, assembled a talented cast, and he set some interesting plates spinning. Now that he's moved on to Star Wars, I guess someone new will be —ahem—taking the helm. Hopefully, that person will build on all the good work here and take us into something fresh, something that is truly inventing new Trek material, rather than just reheating the old.
Jake Hinkson is the author of the novels Hell On Church Street and The Posthumous Man. He blogs at The Night Editor.