Alex Kurtzman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Christopher Eccleston, Doctor Who, film criticism, J.J. Abrams, movie review, Roberto Orci, Russell T. Davies, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Steven Moffat, Television
“Fascinating,” Mr. Spock, the one you and I grew up with, the one played by Leonard Nimoy, would have said after watching J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the classic science-fiction television series “Star Trek” and its recently released sequel “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Although I don’t actually need to imagine his reaction: Nimoy himself praised the sequel on his Twitter account by declaring it an “accomplishment”. Not exactly an unbiased opinion considering that his character (as played by both Zachary Quinto and Nimoy) plays a pivotal role in both films.
Even though it’s not as strong a film as “Star Trek”, there is a lot to like about “Star Trek Into Darkness”: Quinto’s performance as the emotionally conflicted Vulcan as well as Simon Pegg’s rowdy and indignant take on Scotty; Benedict Cumberbatch’s ice cold villain and Peter Weller’s equally ruthless Starfleet admiral; the snappy dialogue; and the action sequences. But, and please bear with my fanboyishness for a second, had Mr. Spock sat down to watch the seventh season finale of “Doctor Who” a couple of hours after watching “Star Trek Into Darkness” (like I did), I think he would have summarized the experience with the same word: fascinating.
For we have here two cultural icons that have been transformed and reinvented by writers, directors and even actors who grew up watching both series and who, upon being handed the keys to these two kingdoms, found themselves playing a very delicate balancing act: to deliver stories that would appeal to a broad base while keeping the hardcore fans happy. Abrams and scriptwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman accomplished that feat with their first film and were well on their way to striking another homerun with the sequel alongside co-scriptwriter Damon Lindelof when, for the third act of “Star Trek Into Darkness,” they decided to play to the peanut gallery by giving us an inverted version of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” still the best film of the entire series.
The original series was a product of its time as both Orci and Kurtzman acknowledged in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal. It held a mirror to the 60s using science-fictional conceits as allegories to the Cold War, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. So it should come as no surprise that “Star Trek Into Darkness” tackles such topical themes as the war on terror and how far the government should go in undermining its own constitution to fight this so-called war. The characters’ constant violation of the non-interventionist Prime Directive (decried by many critics of the film) makes sense if you consider the series’ original vision.
But “Star Trek Into Darkness” is also a byproduct of our blockbuster-driven cinematic times. Whereas in the television series and past movies Kirk, Spock and McCoy spent a good five to ten minutes discussing the political and philosophical ramifications of their potential actions, such talk is kept to a minimum here and is immediately followed by a huge action set piece.
This time around the crew of the starship Enterprise is sent out not to boldly go where no man has gone before, but to fly incognito into the Klingon home world of Kronos in search of one-man Al-Qaeda John Harrison (Cumberbatch). Harrison has blown Starfleet’s London offices and attacked its San Francisco headquarters killing Kirk’s commanding officer and mentor, Captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Kirk soon discovers that there is more to this mission than meets the eye and that Harrison is not the only one with an agenda. If you haven’t figured Harrison’s true identity by now you either have not been paying attention or have willfully disconnected yourself from the web. Needless to say, if you saw “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” and the “Star Trek” episode “Space Seed,” you will be able to put all the pieces together.
And therein lies my big problem with “Star Trek Into Darkness”: it plays to its fan base by picking up bits and pieces of the old iterations without bringing anything new to the table. The prequel pulled the rug from beneath our feet by revealing that the action was taking place in a parallel universe to the one from the original series (even though the idea was itself explored in the 1967 episode “Mirror Mirror” where, due to a transporter malfunction, Kirk, McCoy and Uhura meet the evil counterparts in a parallel universe). Abrams turned the concept of the origin story on its head: the characters may look and sound like the ones we grew up with but the storytelling potential was enormous. And the first two acts of “Star Trek Into Darkness” take full advantage of that potential until it falls apart on Act Three.
Here’s where the comparison with the new series of “Doctor Who” becomes relevant. When Russell T. Davies took on the series’ relaunch as its showrunner and head writer more than eight years ago and brought onboard writers and producers who grew up watching “Doctor Who” in the 60s, 70s and 80s like Mark Gatiss, Steven Moffat and Phil Collinson, he was determined to correct the mistakes that led to its demise in the late 80s, and develop new stories while staying true to its spirit. No longer studio-bound, “Doctor Who” would now follow on the footsteps of more contemporary series as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and even “The X Files”. Davies would also reintroduce the season long-arc, a narrative structure that had not been used since 1986’s “The Trial of a Time Lord.”
Davies added to the mythology by introducing a ninth incarnation of the character, played by Christopher Eccleston, shellshocked by a Time War between his people and the Daleks that left both civilizations destroyed. Worst, The Doctor is responsible for their demise. He is guilty of genocide.
His female companions would be more hands-on, braver than some of their whiny, defenseless 1980s counterparts. More Zoe and Sarah Jane Smith than Tegan Jovanka and Peri. Old villains like the Daleks and the Cybermen would be back but new antagonists like the Weeping Angels and the Nashta Varada (both created by Moffat) would be introduced. Yes, the series had its share of what-the-fuck moments and episodes (“Fear Her” and “Love and Monsters”). But it also had the guts, under current showrunner Steven Moffat’s stewardship, to kill off the Doctor in the very first episode of the sixth season to then bring him back to life in the cleverest of ways while adding to his mythology.
A mythology that may now be turned upside down after this season finale: a cliffhanger leading to the 50th anniversary special that will most probably air on November 23rd, the day the series premiered in Great Britain. SPOILER: The cliffhanger involves the Doctor’s name, one of his incarnations and, quite possibly, his actions during the Time War.
Moffat is clearly laying the groundwork for the series’ future, one that builds on its legacy and full potential and may actually have some of the series more hardcore fans climbing up the walls. But that’s the best thing about this current revival: Davies, Moffat and their writers are not afraid of taking risks and pissing people off. As fans, they love the show too much to let it stagnate.
Granted, J.J. Abrams and his team not only have to deal with fan expectations but with economic ones as well. They are part of a system that does not reward ingenuity or originality, that sees in these franchise films the cinematic equivalent of sausages. And yet, the rebooted “Star Trek” as well as the last three James Bond films and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy prove that you can successfully deliver exciting, original, respectful, and well written and produced variations on beloved characters without pandering to the fan base. Hopefully, the next “Star Trek” movie will take us to where no moviegoer or television viewer has gone before.