Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

To Boldly Go…Where We’ve Been Before

by Calvin Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Galactica/Caprica, Harry Potter and The Game of Thrones.

Single Crash

Last summer while staying with a friend, I watched reruns of the TV series Have Gun Will Travel, starring Richard Boone as Paladin, a mercenary gunslinger and “problem solver” in the Old West.  The series presented a classic example of the myth of redemptive violence: Paladin preferred to solve problems without violence but was handy with a gun or fisticuffs when forced, and by golly more episodes than not the bad guys would still pull a gun or a knife and poor Paladin would be forced, just forced to kill them.

Violence has been and always will be part of our cultural narratives and entertainment, but the myth of redemptive violence resonates strongly with Americans. This is not surprising, give the birth of the American nation and concept of liberty in a violent revolution, as well as our self-perception as coming to the rescue of the world in two world wars.  Redemptive violence, and in particular the image of villain lunging forward with a weapon forcing the hero to kill him or her (see, for example, Dirty Harry, Fatal Attraction, even Jody Foster’s Anna and the King, and many, many, many more movies and TV shows), has become a ubiquitous trope in American entertainment; no wonder we, as a nation, are puzzled when our attempts to solve political problems by violence backfire.

Nonetheless, I found Have Gun Will Travel interesting, in part because the series provided a training and testing ground for a generation of television directors, not least of whom was Gene Roddenberry, whose Have Gun Will Travel episodes strongly reminded me of the morality plays he would later create in Star Trek.

Although Captain James Tiberius Kirk threw a mean punch and knew how to fire a phaser, in Star Trek Roddenberry sought occasionally, though not always, to undermine the myth of redemptive violence. In multiple episodes it is revealed that malicious aliens manipulated characters into fights, whereupon Kirk highhandedly throws down his arms and refuses to go along with the narrative of violence.

I don’t mean to overpraise Roddenberry and Star Trek, but in many respects it (and the science fiction of the 1960’s and ’70’s) was a high point for science fiction television and media, attempting to thoughtfully probe culture and society. Unfortunately, the late 1970’s and early ’80’s brought forth Star Wars, Alien, and Terminator, movies with science fiction tropes which didn’t just embrace redemptive violence but pledged unending love for it, and made bucketloads of money.  Thereafter Hollywood came to accept science fiction = blowing stuff up as an axiom.

Therefore it was disappointing, though not surprising, that the 2009 reboot of Star Trek was all redemptive violence all the time. The explosions and the snarky banter entertained the younglings for whom the original series of Star Trek was a vague topic their aged forebears enjoyed, in the same category as morris dancing and landline phones; but for those of us who grew up on it, it felt like a cynical betrayal.

Despite my disappointment, I went to see Star Trek: Into Darkness, the next installment by J.J. “I’m not a fan of Star Trek” Abrams, on opening night. And I’ll confess, I enjoyed it, at least while I was watching it. It was only later, upon reflection, that it became clear this was cultural cannibalism, along with the attendant cultural kuru.

Much of the cleverness and delight was situated in off-hand references to well-known characters and incidents (Nurse Chapel, Harry Mudd), and the remainder in the reciting and reversal of classic lines, to the point where I could whisper to my wife the line before the actor said it–and this was my first viewing of the movie.

Spock is well-written and well-acted by Zachary Quinto, and his struggle with his dual heritage handled deftly; and Simon Pegg’s comedy chops have pushed him to the forefront as a major player in this film.  While Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has more screen time and more agency, she is still one-dimensional, as if the white male writers had decided “We’ll write a Strong Black Female” and thought that ended their job; she was actually better drawn in the 2009 movie.  McCoy, who had been a vital part of the triumvirate of the original series, has now been relegated to the position of Comic Series of Overblown Signature Lines, which wouldn’t have been bad if Uhura had been allowed to truly take his emotional place in the Kirk-Spock-X triad.

Worst of all, Chris Pine’s Kirk comes across not as a brash, flawed leader, the Bill Clinton of outer space as it were, but as a whiny, know-it-all teenaged horndog. It makes William Shatner’s performances, by comparison, look nuanced and subtle.

And then there is plenty of blowing stuff up.

The writers and the director seem dimly aware that a Star Trek movie ought to be about more than blowing stuff up: characters are restrained from killing other characters, not out of morality but out of necessity; the militarization of Starfleet is deplored; and the movie ends with a belated speech against revenge.  But this seems to have looped back to the days of Have Gun Will Travel, excuses for violence with a veneer of a morality play.

Interestingly, Star Trek: Into Darkness echoes closely a theme found in another current blow-em-up movie, Iron Man 3. In both films acts of terrorism are revealed as rooted in the evils of the industrial-military complex, though Ben Kingsley makes a much more twisty and interesting villain than Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison.

While Kirk is slowly evolving into the wiser, more strategic Captain of the original series, and while, despite my complaints I found Into Darkness less irritating than the 2009 reboot, afterwards I found myself hoping against hope they don’t make a third movie. Unless they can find a director who can take it to a new level. I’d vote for Alfonso Cuarón, whose Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the best of the Potter series, demonstrated both a nimble visual flare and a strong sensibility for characters.

But that would mean to boldly go in a  new direction, something Hollywood is, alas, loath to do.

Carol Marcus

Athena’s footnote: I have thoughts of my own on STID that parallel Calvin’s and Devin Faraci’s in Badass Digest. I’ll share them if I get a spare moment but they’re encapsulated in the images I chose to accompany this entry.

Images: 1st, summation of the reboot ST (aka ST||) universe; 2nd, Dr. Carol Marcus as comparison shorthand between ST|| and the original ST.

22 Responses to “To Boldly Go…Where We’ve Been Before”

  1. I remember having thoughts along similar lines when watching the 2009 movie; I never particularly got into the original show (though now I’m getting more interested in it) but both of the new films (I saw Into Darkness last night) definitely have that space-western vibe. Worse yet for Into Darkness, I swear there’s a moment where you can HEAR the scriptwriters saying, “Crap, the villain’s too sympathetic. Quick, let’s make him a homicidal maniac so the inevitable Tough Choice isn’t quite so tough later!”

    Overall, as entertaining as it was to watch Karl Urban channel DeForest Kelley, I found myself thinking that these actors are way too good for this movie. That’s too bad.

  2. Athena says:

    It’s not just that. There is no logic to anyone’s actions. They’re just devices for “cool” fight scenes. And the retreading is like bad AU fanfic.

  3. Caliban says:

    While Karl Urban (a standout as Eomer in The Two Towers) does an excellent imitation of DeForest Kelly–who, by the way, appeared at least one Have Gun Will Travel episode directed by Roddenberry–he does almost nothing of necessity in this latest movie. It is a sheer waste of his time. Anton Yelchin is similarly wasted. John Cho almost, not quite as much.

    Which is shame, because if they had had a really good script, and not just a fanfic retread as Athena aptly puts it, they could have made a terrific movie.

    The villain could have stood to be made sympathetic–I don’t want to give anything away here, but his template is sympathetic–but here he is, as Devin puts it, just Hannibal Lecter in Space. But not even that.

  4. Zarpaulus says:

    Meanwhile the most well-known British TV hero, the Doctor, prefers not to kill so much he carries a sonic screwdriver instead of a gun. And despite the monster of the week frequently slaughtering everyone around him he only kills it less than half the time, unless they’re Cybermen or Daleks, because killing the former is an act of mercy and the Daleks wiped out his Kardashev IV species.

  5. Athena says:

    Each time I attempt to watch Dr. Who I get nauseated. The misogyny, racism etc are overwhelming. So I can’t judge how non-violent he is.

  6. Jim Fehlinger says:

    I saw this last night. I probably wouldn’t have bothered, but I was invited by friends. The friends (a married couple and their two almost-college-age boys) apparently enjoyed the film immensely. I did too, I suppose, for some value of “enjoy”; but my God, Trek has degenerated into pure violence porn. And the original characters (even Spock, now) have become caricatures of their original personae. And yes, Karl Urban’s skillful mimicking of DeForest Kelley’s mannerisms is striking, but McCoy is a pale shadow of the old doctor. So it goes. I guess that’s simply what sells to 12-year-old boys these days — Kirk as a comic-book superhero (“comic” in more ways than one) and sidekicks. The most interesting character in the film was the Benedict Cumberbatch villain, and I was left wishing for more of him, and less of the Enterprise crew.

  7. Athena says:

    The emblematic action of this film was that Kirk started the engines by… kicking them. On my end, I kept wanting to smash that permanently plastered smirk off Pine’s face. And Spock literally phoning in information – can it get any more insulting?

    I didn’t find HarrisonAkaKhan interesting. Ignoring the infodump and his spastic, nonsensical activities, Cumberbatch was literally pouting the entire time. He didn’t look scary or superintelligent; he looked like a petulant public school boy with indigestion. Also, FFS, he literally said, “My name is not Harrison, it’s Khan.” That’s like saying “My name is not Smith, it’s John.” I could go on, but won’t.

  8. Walden2 says:

    I went to see Star Trek Into Darkness last Sunday. I was ready to loathe this newest edition of the J. J. Abrams remake of a franchise I used to love, as I assumed it would only be worse than the 2009 edition. I was ready to write a scathing review about how Abrams and his cronies had ruined what Star Trek was all about at its core, something that had remained through all the previous films and television series incarnations more or less intact. I also planned on ripping into its undoubtedly awful misuse of science and physics and alien morphology, just as Abrams had done in spades four years ago.

    Instead, I just kind of gave up.

    As excellent and original as this article is and I fully agree about the whole violent revenge attitude prevalent in America, as I contemplated the new ST film over the next few days I realized the following: That saying anything about it good or bad would be like my shouting at the monster tornado that just devastated parts of Oklahoma. Neither would know nor care about what I said. If I kept standing in their way in some increasingly pitiful act of defiance as to the respective methods of destruction they were reaping on the landscape, I was liable to get tossed to the side – if I was lucky.

    This is no longer the Star Trek I grew up with. Perhaps nothing can stay the same after almost half a century. Thanks to Abrams and the Hollywood machine, the franchise has become Star Wars in the guise of Star Trek. As said here, the revamped main characters are almost literal parodies of the originals. The same goes for the USS Enterprise: The bridge is either a discothèque or an Apple store and main engineering is apparently a beer factory. So, Athena, fret not that Kirk fixed the warp drive by literally kicking it back into place. It doesn’t really matter in this new universe.

    I think Aldous Huxley with his novel Brave New World did a better prediction of how to control the masses than George Orwell with 1984: Don’t terrorize the masses into blind obedience of the state. Instead, give them 24/7 access to everything their base needs desire, which includes exciting but mindless entertainment (Huxley’s “feelies”). By the time anyone realizes that those in power are manipulating what we hear, see, and therefore think, most people will no longer care, just so long as the soma keeps flowing.

    If you think I am being too dramatic or paranoid, then all I can say is… see how well their plan is working?

    The new Star Trek is just a symptom of the larger problem. But this time I don’t think the new Kirk and Spock can be counted on to save us.

  9. Athena says:

    Larry, I couldn’t agree more that the less said about ST|| in general and Descent into Dumbness in particular, the better.

  10. Walden2 says:

    But, Athena, they did have really cool explosions and it was so awesome when those two starships were battling each other and then when Spock was trying to beat the crap out of Khan while on that fast-moving transport (where they did not get blown off by the wind) in revenge for killing Spock’s boyfriend – I mean friend, strictly platonic male friend!

    Because Spock has a girlfriend in this remake, a real one named Uhura (adios pon farr!). And she knows how to speak Klingon and get really mad at Spock every time he goes on an adventure and stuff. Cause that’s what girls do in these things, get mad at their boyfriends for not staying home with them and watching a good movie on the couch and stuff like that. And guys do NOT like other guys except as buds.

    And wasn’t it really cool the way Scotty ran around like crazy with that funny accent of his and somehow got onboard a supersecret giant battlecruiser. But I am not entirely certain why they bothered to have Sulu and especially Chekov this time around, because they didn’t really do anything of importance as far as I can tell.

    Hey do you think Kirk and Carol Marcus will hook up by the third film? And if so what is he going to tell those twin alien babes with the tails who he was sleeping with?

    And there is a real person with the real name of Benedict Cumberbatch.

    Wicked awesome.

  11. Athena says:

    Actually, I think this film would have made more sense as a silent Three Stooges version.

  12. Caliban says:

    A lot of these loud spectacle films would be improved, I think, by watching either with no sound, or in a language one doesn’t understand. When Avatar came out, I was strongly tempted to see it like that (I was traveling abroad at the time). When we finally gave in and saw it, here in the US, understanding the clunky dialog didn’t add to any enjoyment.

    Ironically, one film I *did* see in a language I didn’t understand, with no subtitles, I understood pretty well anyway–Miyazaki’s “Ponyo,” which we saw in Japan. But that is a tribute to his strength as a visual storyteller.

  13. Walden2 says:

    At least The Three Stooges made no pretensions to being higher art.

    Hey, how did Khan go from being an Indian Sikh to a white British guy? And how could a guy from three centuries in their past – even a really smart one – know how to help the Federation build superweapons and ships?

    And why did new Spock contact old Spock about Khan when the old Spock had told new Spock he could not reveal anything about the future? Plus old Spock did not tell new Spock anything about Khan that was not already literally painfully obvious to anyone who spent more than one minute with the guy. Khan is really dangerous and mean. Plus he apparently turned British while in suspended animation. Hey, thanks, old Spock. That cameo was really worth it. Now let’s go do another Audi ad together.

    And how come when the Enterprise was at about the distance of the Moon when it lost power from battling that big black military dreadnaught ship, that it suddenly stared plunging towards Earth, which it reached in a matter of minutes? Why didn’t the Apollo spacecraft just shut off their engines when they wanted to go home?

    Oh wait, this must have been Abrams homage to the very first science fiction film ever made based on Jules Verne’s novel From the Earth to the Moon. In that 1902 French cinematic classic, the lunar explorers got back to Earth by pushing their space capsule off a ledge! With the lunar natives in hot pursuit. So that means the beginning of the new Star Trek film was also a tribute to the first SF film. Right?

    So why was the Enterprise hiding underwater on that forbidden alien planet instead of orbiting it in space, where the primitive natives would never have noticed or suspected it? And if Spock did freeze all the hot lava in that active volcano (a tropical island with an active volcano and superstitious spear-wielding natives. Hmmm.) which supposedly would somehow destroy the entire planet (called Nibiru – oy), does that mean he froze the entire mantle region of said world, maybe even down to its core? Because if he just froze the top layer of lava coming out of the volcano, all that would do is build up massive amounts of pressure from the still hot magma beneath and eventually create an even worse eruption that would very likely take out at least the whole island.

    And how is it that the UFP’s Prime Directive can be about both keeping a newbie society from being exposed to advanced technologies and ideas before they are ready (and who decides this?) and allowing an entire intelligent species to die if some natural phenomenon they have no control over threatens to kill them?

    Is the Federation implicitly saying this is the will of God? So letting these beings all die is okay, but having them briefly witness a giant shiny noisy object rise out of the water and fly up into the sky is bad? People on this planet have reported seeing similar things (yes, Aquatic UFOs, not kidding) and yet I still don’t see humanity suddenly flying off to Alpha Centauri in our very own starships. And if we did, would that be a bad thing?

    So now the natives of Nibiru might be inspired to learn how to fly and get off and away from that dangerous island. Or maybe they now worship a new flying ocean deity. Either way, is this going to be worse than an erupting volcano that would have buried them all in hot lava?

  14. Athena says:

    Calvin, I agree: the best and the worst don’t really need dialogue!

    Larry, you can find discussions of all these points, and more, in these snarky reviews:

  15. Walden2 says:

    Leave it to you, Athena, to not only have but find some of the better reviews of this film I have read so far. The one at io9 made me laugh.

    They also make me realize why I kind of went mentally numb after seeing STID. There was just so much wrong with it on so many levels, I think my brain instinctively protected me from becoming permanently stupid until I could get far enough away from it in time and space to think about it without irreversible harm.

    That being said, I can handle mindless action films so long as they actually aren’t too stupid and do not pretend to be something else or better than they really are. I know Star Trek is not the height of culture, but at least the earlier versions tried to be better than what mainstream science fiction usually offers, especially back in the day.

    These reviews just confirmed that Abrams has dumbified the franchise into a pit I don’t think it can get out of, unless someone else with talent and a real respect for Star Trek takes over the films. It may happen as Abrams gets wrapped up in his real love, Star Wars, and finds himself too busy to deal with all those annoying Trekkers.

    The third film is supposed to be about the Enterprise and crew finally going on their original five year mission – they said so at the end of STID. Will they explore strange new worlds, seek out new life forms, and make relevant social commentary along the way?

    We shall see.

    No, I doubt it too.

    But thank you, Athena, from pulling me out of my state of mental numbness.

  16. Christopher Phoenix says:

    I could instantly tell that J.J. Abrams has degenerated Trek into a summer action flick filled with snarky dialogue from the trailers for Star Trek: Into Darkness, so I have no high hopes for this film. In fact, the film can be considered a success- J.J. intended to turn ST into mindless entertainment, and he succeeded quite handily!! Today’s Hollywood SF is based on the theory that audience interest can be held by large explosions and lame humor, so what has happened to ST II is not surprising at all, really.

    The feeling I get from modern SF films is that it is all just a business venture, thus the filmmakers try to find a formula that will sell well while requiring the least creativity on their part. Thus, lots of SFX, and no attempt at telling an original story. I suspect the large number of remakes (and sequels) coming out these days is because the producers hope that there is a guaranteed audience for a known name- and of course it easier to recycle old films than to try to come up with something original.

    Of course the science will be mangled, why should Hollywood directors care about orbital mechanics if they don’t care that cars don’t explode when they are hit by bullets?

    On a side note, I was a bit surprised to see the USS Enterprise plunging into the San Francisco bay in the trailer- and hearing that the ship submerges itself in an alien ocean to hide from natives. Enterprise wasn’t meant to land on planets, and the few times she ended up the lower atmosphere in the original series, the ship was clearly at risk of crashing (or burning up like a bolide). Not that I would care if that happened in ST II, since the new Enterprise was made so ugly!!

    The decision not to land the ship in the original ST came about because the cost of the SFX required to land the ship every week would put the show’s budget in danger of crashing, but made quite a bit of sense for an antimatter powered spaceship with presumably dangerous warp engines (which Matt Jeffries placed in nacelles along the secondary hull to keep the engines from the crew). None of this logic goes into the ST II, apparently. Along with the logic that if you want to hide from primitive cultures who have no telescopes or radar, just stay in space.

    On a further side note, the actress playing Dr. Carol Marcus doesn’t remind me of Carol Marcus in the comparison image you show- I would have thought she was supposed to be Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, oddly enough. And begun waiting for Gary Mitchell to strangle Chris Pine. “Bow to me, Pine, worship your god!!” XD I must admit that I didn’t anticipate Abrams would reduce Dr. Carol Marcus to fanservice.

    I’d love to hear your opinions on STID, once you have time to share them, but pictures are indeed worth a thousand words- I consider it quite ironic that the ST II sequel showed the Enterprise crashing into the San Francisco bay as that image perfectly describes what Abrams did with Star Trek.

  17. Brian M says:

    io9 is all kinds of awesome!

  18. Barkeron says:

    Regarding STID’s status as violence porn, maybe that’s the reason why you hear “yet I enjoyed watching it” so often; modern Hollyweird action flicks’ loud splosions and flashy lightshows act as supernormal stimuli that keep our ol’ ape brains addicted.

  19. Walden2 says:

    Just like sports. Gorillas in captivity who are given television sets love to watch American football.

    Humans = Monkeys with car keys and special effects.

  20. Walden2 says:

    Here is an interesting paper on the Other in Star Trek (mainly the Original Series):

    And a very eye-opening article (PDF format) about Gene Roddenberry’s role in the making of Star Trek and how much he reimaged himself with it:

  21. Athena says:

    No! Really? Who would have thunk!!