Thursday, January 24th, 2013

I’ve been slowly trying to catch up on podcasts since I took my commute-less holiday vacation and have finally hit Episode 120 of The Incomparable. In this episode, the geeks do sort of a preview of 2013 geeky movies by talking about the trailers for upcoming films.

One of those films was, of course, Star Trek Into Darkness. Though the producers are keeping a tight lid on most details of this film, it seems to be accepted that Benedict Cumberbatch is playing a villain who is seeking revenge (against either Jim Kirk or The Federation; I’m not sure).

I’m a big fan of Cumberbatch, so I think it will work out. But “a guy is seeking vengeance in a big action movie” is basically the plot of the last Star Trek film. Don’t get me wrong. I really like that movie. So repeating some of its major plot beats may not be a sin. It worked once after all, so it could work again.

But I think there’s room in Star Trek for more than that. Roddenberry’s world offers a big playground to explore different sorts of ideas and, through those ideas, to offer a lens on our own lives and times.

There’s little argument that The Wrath of Khan is the best of the Trek films. And though this film does feature the “madman seeking vengeance” plot, it’s not about that. Khan is about getting older and it’s about the mistakes of your past coming back to haunt you.

J. J. Abram’s first Trek film is about a bunch of attractive young people trying to stop Nero from blowing up Earth (while failing to stop him from blowing up Vulcan). I suppose it’s also about a new team gelling and I think it tries to be about leadership but largely fails at that (since ultimately, Kirk gets the gold shirt because he’s Kirk and basically had to). But I think that’s okay. I think that this was exactly the sort of movie that was needed to bring new fans into a post-Berman Star Trek franchise.

But I’m concerned that the sequel will follow that same trend and be about Chris Pine trying to stop Benedict Cumberbatch. It will undoubtedly be fun and it will make a lot of money but it won’t reach the heights that Star Trek should be capable of.

That unabashed action piece was exactly what Abram’s first Trek movie needed to be. His second will need to find something a little deeper. At least, it will need to do that in an artistic sense if not a business sense.

If Khan is the best Star Trek movie, I think Undiscovered Country is the second best. These are both about getting older (in Khan, it’s about facing up to your past; in Undiscovered Country, it’s about moving out of the way to let a newer generation take on the world unimpeded) and not so much about the actual action movie conflicts that the story appears to revolve around.

If Abrams can tell that kind of story in Into Darkness, he will probably cement his legacy as the rebirth of the Great Bird of the Galaxy. If not, we’re in for a long run of profitable sci-fi popcorn movies while we cling to our Deep Space Nine DVDs for the sort of thoughtful stories that have always drawn us into this universe. I have hopes that soar above my expectations. I think Abrams can absolutely do that sort of film-making. I just don’t know if it ever occurred to him to try.

For fun, I’ve created a table listing the primary antongists in each Star Trek film. The first signs of a worrisome trend can be seen at the bottom of this table.

Film Antagonist
Star Trek The Motion Picture Giant, unknowable entity searching for its origins
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Individual madman seeking vengeance
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock Individual seeking political and military power
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Giant, unknowable entity searching for its friends
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier Individual madman, seeking religious experience. Also, God.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country Political enemies working together to maintain the status quo. Also, Communism.
Star Trek: Generations Individual madman seeking paradise
Star Trek: First Contact Giant, unknowable hivemind seeking the destruction or assimilation of everything else
Star Trek: Insurrection I don’t know. Old age? The West’s unbridled capitalism and exploitation of the planet? Looten Plunder?
Star Trek: Nemesis Rick Berman
Star Trek (2009) Individual madman seeking vengeance
Star Trek Into Darkness Individual madman seeking vengeance (allegedly)
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