philena: (pie)
philena ([personal profile] philena) wrote2013-05-27 12:03 pm

Star Trek

The most recent Star Trek movie was, I confess, a disappointment. It was extremely entertaining, but as [personal profile] summercomfort 's husband said, it was sort of a fanfiction of classic Trek. One reason fanfiction works so well is that everyone writing and reading it all share a common background. You don't need to waste time describing Kirk's previous romances, for example, when an expression like "The woman in the soup kitchen" would evoke all the tragedy that more traditional fiction would need to have set up with pages and pages of possibly superfluous backstory. When this shared frame of reference is used well, it can make even very short stories much more powerful than stand-alone fiction, because very small references are pre-loaded with emotional punch. The problem arises when writers depend on the shared background to carry the emotional weight of the story, rather than writing it in themselves, and that's what JJ Abrams has done.

One reason why the original Wrath of Khan (henceforth TWOK) worked so well was that it took a magnificent bastard from the original series and brought him back, magnificenter than ever (excellent use of shared background), and then put him in an independently excellent story: Khan has a believable motivation for revenge on Kirk that goes beyond "I am evil," the Genesis device is written into the story well enough to be more than just a MacGuffin, and Kirk's concern about aging while taking a ship full of cadets on a shakedown cruise adds its own source of emotional depth to the story. Certainly, Spock's death is tragic because we all know him and love him, but the movie is well enough written that it would be tragic independently of the shared reference (I can attest to this; it was the first Star Trek I ever saw, (I was maybe ten) and I cried). The shared reference enhances what is already there; it does not replace it.

JJ Abrams, unfortunately, depends on the shared reference to replace the depth of his story. First of all, everything is about Khan. There is no other story line to twine around the main storyline. There are a few attempts at character development: the sparring between Kirk and Spock, and Kirk's need for revenge after Pike's death, but these are awfully shallow, and anything that hints at a more sophisticated plot development gets folded into the Khan storyline and cheapened by it. Kirk's much-needed official smackdown for being a callow twerp is abandoned after the first explosion*, Scotty's resignation is just an excuse for him to be in the right place to rescue people later, and Admiral Marcus, instead of being an interesting adversary, a representative of a darker and more dangerous Starfleet in a very different timeline, is simply another villain in need of killing. Also, the whole scene with the tribble just screams "I'M GOING TO BE IMPORTANT LATER! REMEMBER ME!", which is very different from that much subtler, mysterious mind-meld at the end of TWOK.

And that brings me to Kirk's "death." Of course: if you're redoing TWOK, someone needs to die, and it's a very fanfictiony type decision to flip a classic scene like that and have the other guy do it. The problem is that there is no real sense that these two are friends: they've been squabbling with each other the whole movie, with some genuine bad feeling behind it (at least on Kirk's part).** They have not become a perfect unit; they are simply colleagues who don't work together particularly well. What does work well is the final discussion about how to decide not to feel, and that works well because that particular theme was set up earlier in the movie, and we know from the first movie that the inability to block off all emotions has already given Spock trouble. What has not been adequately set up is the friendship between Kirk and Spock. Abrams is depending on the shared reference to supply that, but in this case it's not enough: this is a different universe*** and their relationship is much more like the Spock McCoy relationship from the original series. Spock would certainly be upset if McCoy died in the original universe (we see this in two separate episodes), and he would certainly be upset in this universe if Kirk died, but he would not go berserk. The KHAAAAAAAAN is a cute reference to TWOK, but remember why Kirk originally screamed that: it was not at Spock's death, and if I remember correctly, it was all an act anyway. And if Abrams is depending on shared reference to supply the Kirk Spock friendship, then he should know that the original series shows us how Spock behaves when he thinks Kirk is dead. He goes cold. He goes stony. He is perfectly controlled. He does not lose control until after Kirk is alive again. (Although, to be fair, Spock does have control issues in this universe, so perhaps this criticism is more a disagreement with Abrams's characterization of Spock as slightly unstable, rather than another example of the fanficification of the movie.)

The movie is disappointing not only because it depends too much on the shared reference for depth, but also because it has quite a lot of good stuff that is simply not used to its potential. Let's start with Benedict Cumberbatch. He's great! He's a very different Khan from Ricardo Montalban's: magnificently controlled, rather than magnificently barbaric; fiercely devoted to his sleeping crew, rather than obsessed with revenge on Kirk; and operating by subterfuge and trickery, rather than straightforward conquest. Yet a lot of his screen time was rather tedious: when he's not shooting all the things, he's punching all the things. He could have made things a lot more interesting than he did, but Abrams was too delighted with Khan's superhuman strength (he's immune to the neck pinch!) to make use of Khan's superhuman mind.

Then there's this new Starfleet. One of the founding worlds of the Federation has been destroyed, and most of the fleet was destroyed with it. There are not enough trained Starfleet people or enough ships to protect the Federation, and everyone's scared and thinking about defense and military capability, rather than exploration. The images of the new, dark warship next to the Enterprise were quite effective. I'd like to see more of this Starfleet: it almost has echoes of the original series's mirror universe. But then Khan offs Admiral Marcus, Kirk offs Khan, and suddenly everything's all happy again, and off goes the Enterprise on a five-year exploratory mission. For crying out loud, most of the fleet has been destroyed, most of the senior brass were killed by Khan's attack, and the newest, fastest starship crashed into San Francisco, killing probably quite a few future officers at Starfleet Academy, and now you can spare one of the few remaining ships and crews to go off and explore? If anything, this most recent event should make Starfleet even more cautious and military-minded, but Abrams wants to have everything hunky-dorey at the end of the movie, and that means leaving some of the most interesting (and believable) avenues unexplored.

And let's talk about sparing one of the best ships to go off and explore, commanded by Kirk. Why does he get command? At the beginning, he's relieved of command because he doesn't follow regulations, and is lucky enough that nothing bad happens, so he thinks that it's okay to do whatever the hell he wants. This is not a good characteristic of a starship captain, so Starfleet Command smacks him down hard. Good!  But then Khan comes, and what does Kirk do? He's put in command of the Enterprise, where he ignores Admiral Marcus's orders and, once again, does what he wants to do. Sure, Marcus is evil and things work out better Kirk's way, but nothing has changed about his attitude or behavior from the beginning of the movie. So why is he now rewarded? Starfleet Command is not a stupid bureaucracy that just needs to recognize Kirk's genius. Starfleet Command is an effective organization, responsible for exploration, defense, and diplomacy. If it goes bad, it could make things very bad very quickly, because it is good at what it does. It is not the silly high school principal who needs to be taught a lesson by the smarter 14-year-olds.

You know what would have been a good movie? I would have liked to see this:  
  1. Kirk is separated from Spock and put aboard another ship, where he must serve a Starfleet that is going bad--maybe by working too much with Khan. (Really, the beginning of the movie would have set this up quite well.) He sees things going wrong, and Spock, on a separate ship, sees things going wrong, but Kirk's captain and Spock are disciplined and obedient, and obey orders.
  2. Friction between Kirk and Spock (maybe they're serving in a military squadron together, so they have to interact in their capacities as first officer). They share values about what Starfleet should be, but they disagree about what they should do to further those values. Their friendship can grow, deeply rooted, but the surface friction prevents them from realizing it.
  3. Starfleet rots. Khan manipulates everyone, and eventually frees the rest of his frozen crew. They begin to take over.
  4. Starfleet splits into factions: Khan controls one, but the contrary faction wants to get rid of him. Civil war!
  5. Naturally, Kirk and Spock's squadron supports the contrary faction. Space battles ensue, because Abrams really does do them quite well. One of the ships is damaged, so Kirk and Spock end up on the same ship together. Maybe this is the time for papa Pike to die, and for Kirk to take command, wiser and very mad.
  6. The rest of the movie can proceed now. Space fights, Kirk's heroic sacrifice, Spock's pursuit after Khan (in cold control), Kirk's revival, and when they're reunited does Spock lose control. I can't quite figure out how it would work for Kirk to come back to life, since Spock's rebirth in STIII depended on both the Genesis device and Vulcan mysticism, but perhaps Khan's superblood would still serve, as long as it's not such an obvious set-up. Perhaps Khan set up a revival system that means his side of the fighting is even more dangerous, since the dead don't stay dead. 
See what's happening here? Individually good people serving a rotting institution. This is a classic conflict and, importantly, it fits very well in the new universe. Kirk's disciplinary demotion sticks, and Kirk grows by having to serve under someone else. Kirk and Spock's relationship grows more believably, so that Spock's grief at Kirk's death makes sense. And civil war makes for much better space battles than two rogue starships. Kirk's revival grows from independently motivated plot-elements, and at the end, it would make more sense for Kirk to be rewarded for his service, and he could even go off exploring because Khan's period of control has helped rebuild Starfleet faster than would otherwise have happened. This is a good core, I think, that holds together well, and could be very well supplemented by nods to the original series, but it would have its own depth and emotional core that grow independently. I would love to see this movie.

*Actually, it's second, but since the movie starts with an anti-explosion in a volcano, the first explosion is cancelled out and doesn't count.

**Compare the Spock McCoy squabbling in The Immunity Syndrome, which has a similar amount of squabbling and a significant amount of bad feeling, which is not (really) serious, but which is strong enough to have real repercussions when McCoy thinks that Spock is dead, and never heard him wish him luck. That one is a really great episode.

***And, indeed, some fanfiction has played with the idea that Kirk and Spock are simply not the epic friends in this timeline that they were in the original one.