For the Narcissist Lover in You…

Robocop Was Right! The 5 Awesomest (Unnoticed) Things About “Star Trek Into Darkness”

I just got around to seeing Star Trek Into Darkness.  I loved it.  A lot of people seem to love it– it has a nearly 90% rating on Rottentomatoes.  But I’ve noticed that a lot of what I really enjoyed about the movie seems to have been lost on the average viewer (possibly YOU!)

Fortunately, I am here to illuminate you, servant of pop culture that I am.  Assuming you’ve seen the movie (and are therefore IMMUNE TO SPOILERS) buckle up your captain’s chair and mind-link with the following, because I can almost guarantee that some of the coolest things about this movie (especially the LAST ONE, so stick around!) slipped under most people’s radar.  Things like:

5) It’s Still a Morality Play

Every trekkie knows that Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek to be two things: 1) “Wagon Train in Space”, which is a pretty amusing reminder of the state of entertainment back in the day.  And 2) a morality play– an exploration of social issues, ethics, and philosophy.  It’s easy to miss, what with all the green alien babes and papier mache rocks and exceptionally high caliber acting (cough!) but Trek was always just an excuse to tackle hopefully meaningful underlying topics.  This, in fact, is what gave the series its staying power long after it was cancelled.

That, and interspecies lust.

Star Trek Into Darkness, despite being a modern sci-fi blockbuster and not in the least Wagon Train in Space, manages to continue the theme of exploring surprisingly meaningful moral/ethical issues.  For example– mild spoiler– Kirk and the Enterprise are sent off to the Klingon homeworld to blast the bejeebus out of a rogue murderer, no trial, no questions, no bloody Rules of Engagement.  This is just fine by Kirk himself, whose father figure was killed by the villain they’re off to murderize, but both Spock and Scotty balk at the obvious (but unwelcome) ethical issues of such a mission.

And Kirk, eventually, relents.  He decides to forego exploding a good chunk of another planet just to wipe out one baddie, and instead goes down to take him alive.  Moral conundrum!  Because the guy turns out to be the hyper-intelligent super-dude Khan Noonien Singh.  Was Kirk’s decision, forced by Spock’s and Scotty’s nagging, the right one?  Stick around for number 1 on this list.

4) It’s Still About Kirk and Spock

I went to see Star Trek Into Darkness with a friend who is not, by her own admission, a huge Trek fan.  She loved the movie, and explained that much of her enjoyment stemmed from the interplay of Kirk’s rash humanity and Spock’s calculating Vulcanness.  This, of course, was a hallmark of the original series.  Kirk is Calvin to Spock’s Hobbes (without the cuddliness).  They are the classic Ego and Id, only really complete when they work together, which (in Abrams’ Trekiverse, they only rarely do).

Although the new versions seem to lend themselves much more easily to Spock/Kirk slash fiction.

This relational equation would have been easy to screw up in the new films– or to jettison entirely.  Fortunately, however, it is still the primary interpersonal heart of Star Trek.

Granted, New Spock is a somewhat less rigidly logical and unemotional than Old Spock.  But the guy’s entire planet (and human mother) got exploded from beneath him.  He has excuses to be a somewhat different Spock than we remember.

3) Khan Revisited

Granted, the die-hard trekkies of decades past are talking about this one, but if you haven’t watched the original Star Trek 2, the Wrath of Khan (as my viewing partner had not), then you are missing out on a majorly enjoyable meta-layer of Star Trek Into Darkness.  I won’t spoil it for you, but think back to the bit where Kirk is dying in the radiation chamber while Spock looks on.  Remember when Kirk says “It’s what you would’ve done?”

That’s because it’s what Spock already did!  This isn’t just a reboot, remember.  It’s an alternate universe; an entirely new branch from a diverging point in Trek history.  They aren’t called “parallel universes” for nothing.  Really, if you haven’t seen Wrath of Khan, stop reading this now and get over to Netflix.  It’ll be worth it.  I mean, Ricardo Montalban plays Khan!  Trust me, you only think that’s funny until you see it.

“It’s a good thing this reality doesn’t make me look like a British poindexter.”

2) “The World of Tomorrow”

In sci-fi speak, developing your environment– all the vehicles and people and currencies and governments, everything that makes your future/alien society work– is called worldbuilding.  It’s one thing to create entire societies whole cloth, like Star Wars.  If you want to make a whole desert planet populated with giant gangster slugs, no problem.  We’ve never been there.  How should we know what to expect?

“Desert planet, ice planet… water planet… er… desert planet…”

Star Trek Into Darkness, however, takes place on distant– but not TOO distant– future earth.  It visits cities we know (London, San Francisco).  It had to be familiar, but alien, all at the same time.  This, I happen to know from experience, is extraordinarily difficult to pull off.  Because progress is not holistic, every city on earth is made up of layers of decades– this year’s Toyota parked next to a forty-year-old Datsun,  gleaming skyscrapers overlooking decrepit ghettoes, people on iPhones waiting in line at a DMV that still runs on fax machines and human tears.

Creating a futuristic planet earth isn’t just a matter of scattering around a bunch of floating cars and immaculate white mega-skyscrapers.  A lot of OLD earth would still be lying around, stuck in the cracks, refusing to die.  Stuff we’d recognize– stuff we’d expect to see in any realistic representation of our own planet a few hundred years from now.

Star Trek Into Darkness gets this amazingly, awesomely right.  Near the beginning of the film we are introduced to a shot of London’s children’s hospital.  Rather than copping out and showing us some bland, futuristic Jetsons prop, we see a classical brick structure– probably a real place– fortified tastefully with a sprawling metal and glass structure in the rear.  That makes a lot of sense.  That’s how we’d do it today: keeping some of the comforting traditional “old”, but refreshing it with some efficient and new-fangled “modern”.

But by far the best example of this– and you have to be really looking for it– is near the film’s climax.  Spock is chasing Khan through futuristic San Francisco, dodging hovercars and flying busses, when what should come peeking– fleetingly!– over one of the cities’ hills but a traditional cable car, straight off a box of Rice-a-Roni!

That is the sort of detail that makes me want to watch this movie again in slow motion and just look around.    That is some good, good worldbuilding.

1) Robocop was Right

You’ve seen the movie, but let’s recap.  The whole plot revolves around a corrupt admiral (a Star Trek trope if there ever was one), played by Peter Weller (Robocop).  He unthawed Khan the uber-dude from his centuries’ long nap, not realizing just how much of a murderous, despotic supervillain he was going to turn out to be.  Determined to right this wrong, his mission is to kill Khan at any cost.  Why?  Because, as Khan has shown, he is single-handedly capable of destroying Starfleet and killing untold thousands of people.

“Don’t mess with me.  I used to be a cop in Detroit.”

Spock, Kirk, and all of our favorite Enterprise buddies, however, have decided this isn’t the way things get done in modern, enlightened society.  We just don’t go around killing people because they killed some of us.  Khan deserves a trial.  Thus, they disobey direct orders and bring him back to Earth.

Evil Admiral Robocop won’t have any of that, however.  If the Enterprise won’t hand Khan over to be killed, then he’ll just destroy the Enterprise and everyone on it.  Regrettable, but necessary, since Khan, under no circumstances, can be allowed to return to Earth and wreak the murderous havoc he is planning.

Clearly, Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew are the heroes here.  Fortunately, Scotty saves the day, disabling Evil Admiral Robocop’s ship.  Robocop gets summarily killed for his crimes (wait, I thought we didn’t do that?) and everybody lives happily ever after.

Except no they don’t, because Evil Admiral Robocop was right all along.

Khan double-crosses Kirk and the Enterprise, attempts to kill them all, then ends up crashing the Admiral’s deathship into San Francisco, killing untold thousands of people.

Just as Evil Admiral Robocop predicted he would.

Jump back a few steps.  Had Scotty not disabled Robocop’s ship, he would have successfully destroyed the Enterprise and Khan with it.  Granted, there’d be no sequels, and hundreds of innocent people would be dead, but that’s still a lot better then the tens or hundreds of thousands Khan ended up dropping a spaceship on later.  Not to mention the fact that everyone on board the Enterprise was an adult who had signed on for service in an inherently dangerous program.  Death was always an option for them (as evidenced by Dr. McCoy’s constant whinging).  The people Khan killed were just regular future joes– men, women, kids, thinking (apparently wrongly) that living in San Francisco made them safe from being crashed into by billion ton starships.

Remember point one on this list?  That Star Trek was always intended to be a morality play, tackling tough moral and ethical issues?  How about this one?  Kirk, Spock and all the other “enlightened” future humans on the Enterprise, while certainly well-meaning, were wrong.  By insisting on saving their own skeevy little lives (and that of mega-maniac Khan), they doomed untold thousands of innocent people.

Evil Admiral Robocop?  Sure he was vicious, and a bit bloodthirsty, not to mention callus and warmongering.  But in this instance, he was totally right.  His plan would have saved many, many more lives.

So how about THEM sci-fi apples?

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8 responses

  1. Hester

    Gawd… I LOVE your movie reviews! Have no tseen this yet but I surely will. Plus I am always up for some Trek bromance.

    June 3, 2013 at 9:51 pm

  2. Great review! But I must respectfully dispute your final assertion. Right and wrong isn’t about math. It is about right and wrong.

    Even if it were about numbers, let’s look at what would have happened if Admiral Marcus had won the day. Either this incident would have given him the war he wanted with the Klingons, or he would have continued to pursue that goal, newly unencumbered by anyone who knew his plans. And that war could have cost millions, perhaps billions of lives.

    But, like I said, to me, it’s really not about math. Remember the father at the beginning of the movie who murdered 42 of his co-workers in order to save his sick daughter? I can understand that impulse, completely, but I cannot excuse it.

    And neither could I excuse it if he had murdered one person to save his two children, despite the 50% reduction in lost life. Math is math, and wrong is wrong.

    June 4, 2013 at 2:04 am

    • You know Jane, I’ve never actually thought about it that way. Which shames me a bit.

      And yet, maybe I sorta did: on the way home from the movie, I said to my friend Kate that while Admiral Robocop was technically right, Kirk and crew made the right choice, despite the outcome.

      And yet again: this argument– that morality isn’t about numbers– is the same argument some people use to explain why we should never go Jack Bauer on terrorists, even if it means saving hundreds or thousands of lives. I’ve always rejected that argument, based in part on another Star Trek axiom: the good of the many outweighs the good of the few.

      So hmm! Conundrum city! My ethics do seem, if not based on numbers, certainly influenced by them. What say you? Do you carry the idea of morality not being about math to the extent illustrated in the terrorist example?

      No judgment. Truly curious.

      June 4, 2013 at 2:20 am

  3. Oh, gah, I don’t know. That’s a tough one for me. Mark would say it’s wrong. I would land somewhere between “wrong” and “necessary evil.” I know it’s not something I would scruple to do if I were alone in a room with someone who was threatening my loved ones. So maybe I shouldn’t scruple at our government doing it? But then, the government has resources I can’t bring to bear, and should perhaps be held to a higher standard?…

    That’s the thing about morality; it’s not easy. I can say something simple sounding like “wrong is wrong,” but that doesn’t mark figuring out what falls under that umbrella simple at all.

    I do think there are such things as inexcusable evils (stoning a young girl to death for the “crime” of being raped), necessary evils (torturing terrorists? er…MAYbe?), and evils that are so necessary they cease to be evil at all, and are in fact morally mandated (stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child).

    Figuring out what falls where? COMPLICATED.

    Back to math. During World War II, the American army would risk lives, perhaps many lives, rescuing one solitary soldier from behind enemy lines. There was a special rescue unit whose responsibility it was to retrieve these men, and their motto was (and I believe still is) “That others may live.” And the Japanese army used an exact opposite tactic, spending one life deliberately, through kamikaze warfare, with the intention of aiding the greater Japanese war effort. I don’t pretend to understand everything about right and wrong, but I know that the American system, mathematically unsound though it is, is the way that FEELS right to me.

    I don’t know that I can say that math NEVER enters the picture–but to me, it often seems like a distraction, and an insidious one. I think those who accommodate evil for the sake of expediency–even for the sake of saving lives–often wind up dealing with greater, stronger evil as their reward.

    June 4, 2013 at 3:37 am

  4. Now, that assertion I will not dispute. 🙂

    June 4, 2013 at 5:42 am

  5. Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I think you convinced me, but you still need to convince the script writers. Now I wish I’d have thought of that on our recent Star Trek Philosophy podcast episode.

    June 19, 2013 at 10:21 pm

  6. Anthony

    Is that why I don’t like Star Trek—because of the preaching? Maybe it’s just preaching I don’t like. I didn’t like it. It was mildly entertaining, I think—but a few things irked me story-wise. I think what I take from this review is that no matter how much I dislike a movie, I can always be challenged and entertained by your review!

    July 3, 2013 at 5:30 am

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