The Same Old Frontier


cumber-batch-star-trek-into-darkness

The ever-secretive J.J. Abrams has been keeping his cards pretty close to the vest when it comes to telling us exactly who the villain in Star Trek Into Darkness is.  We know Benedict Cumberbatch is playing him, but that’s about all anyone has been willing to let on.  Even the trailer that debuted today doesn’t really pin down anything beyond Cumberbatch’s character really, really wanting revenge on Kirk.  So fans have been excitedly speculating that it’s Gary Mitchell from “Where No Man Has Gone Before” or Khan himself or even Kirk’s Academy tormentor Finnegan from “Shore Leave.”

Am I the only one who finds any of those options incredibly disappointing?

All the temporal gymnastics of the first film seemed designed to create a blank slate.  There was no longer the burden of forty years of continuity.  They even blew up Vulcan, a fairly profound change from the status quo.  Abrams had the opportunity to look at Trek from a fresh perspective, and to tell us new stories using recognizable characters tweaked in interesting ways.  Instead, that opportunity has seemingly turned into a chance to simply re-tell old Trek stories with pretty new faces.  Time was re-written not to blaze a new trail, but to follow the old one in a slightly different way.

And if you’ve seen the Japanese edit of the new trailer, it’s painfully obvious which trail they’re going down.  There’s a quick shot of two hands separated by a pane of glass, one of them posed in the Vulcan salute.  It’s a clear evocation of Spock’s death in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  And although there are rumors that it is in fact Kirk who dies in this scene and not Spock, it’s pretty obvious they’re mimicking the arc and beats of Khan in Into Darkness.  Which, if you know anything about Trek, makes absolutely zero sense at this point in the proceedings.

What made Khan work so well, aside from being just a flat-out great space opera, is that it traded so heavily on the ideas of age and regret and choices.  Kirk feels like an aging relic, no longer of any real use, and he’s suddenly confronted not only with his choices when it came to dealing with Khan, but when it came to dealing with his son as well.  It’s a story that’s given depth thanks to the maturity of the characters and the actors who played them.  By 1982, we’d had nearly twenty years invested in Kirk, and William Shatner as Kirk.  Bringing in a villain from the original series traded heavily in that sense of history, and of age, that was so crucial to the story’s resonance.

Into Darkness will have none of that.  We’ll have barely known this Kirk and Spock.  They’ll have barely had any history of their own, hardly any choices to regret.  Whoever Cumberbatch is will simply be an opponent, whatever backstory connection they give him.  An incredibly well-acted opponent, to be sure, but without the years of anger and resentment that so invested Ricardo Montalban’s Khan.  It’ll be another flashy turn as an over-the-top villain in a big blockbuster.  We don’t need the Trek mantle to give us that.  In fact, we expect more than that from Trek.

But unfortunately, we’re at a point in the geek culture where the majority wants to see something they find familiar dressed up in pretty new clothes as opposed to something original.  It’s the same mentality that led to Star Wars fans immediately discussing which Expanded Universe novels were going to be adapted into the new films.  They don’t want their franchises to challenge them, to try something new.  They want to know that, if they go through the drive-thru, they’re going to get the same Big Mac they always have.  That they’re applying that frame of mind to a franchise known for its originality and intelligence — and that Abrams and company seem content to give them just what they’re asking for — is more than a little disappointing.

For decades, the mantra of Trek has been, “To boldly go where no man has gone before.”  Now, it seems like it should be, “To only go where the franchise has been before.”

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