Star Trek – Into Darkness

Star Trek is one of those TV programmes that I’m always happy to watch, while fully understanding that it’s rubbish. Well, not complete rubbish: the central trio of characters has a kind of mythic resonance, with Spock the man of reason, McCoy the man of feeling, and Kirk the man of action who has to take advice from each of them before going out and punching people.  And while the show’s well-meaning liberalism may seem half hearted to modern eyes – Lt Uhuru as space-receptionist etc – it was well-meaning and liberal for all that.  (In all the pop culture I experienced as a child, I think George Takei was the only Japanese man I ever saw who wasn’t running out of the jungle with a gun, screaming, “Banzai!”)

Anyway, off we all went to Paignton  yesterday to see the latest big-screen version, Star Trek – Into Darkness.

For some reason, while Star Trek the telly programme was about visiting strange new worlds and having adventures there, Star Trek movies are almost always about a mad villain who is trying to destroy the earth/take over the Universe, and has to be hit until he stops. This one is no exception. It starts off in a cheerfully neo-colonialist, Indiana Jones-ish way with Kirk and co escaping from alien tribespeople in a startling red landscape, but that storyline ends before the main title. It isn’t long before the the mad villain appears, played rather engagingly by that Benedict Cucumberpatch out of Sherlock, and the colour almost literally drains out of the movie: in the future, it seems, everything will be grey. (Star Trek – Fifty Shades of Grey would have been a better title, if it hadn’t already been taken.)

The cast are all pretty good: I particularly like Karl Urban’s peppery Dr McCoy, and Simon Pegg is fun as Scottie. There are lots of shiny futuristic cityscapes, a lovely bleak planetoid where great wind-sculpted rock towers rear up out of a flat plain of shale, and the costumes and sets look cool and contemporary while affectionately referencing the old stuff (though the grey dress uniforms with the peaked caps look creepily fascist). Of course,  no Star Trek ship, on TV or in the cinema, has ever equalled the original Enterprise, a real ’60s design classic, and this one doesn’t either – the prongs at the back aren’t sleek enough.  But on the plus side, there’s a tribble.

And yet, and yet, it all felt a bit meh.  In terms of plot and pacing it certainly isn’t a patch on Star Trek 2 – The Wrath of Khan, which it references heavily.  “I thought we were supposed to be explorers?” says Scottie at one point, and so did I, but this is an oddly earthbound Star Trek. There’s a quick trip to Kronos, planet of the Klingons, who were one of the best things about the later TV spin-offs, but have been woefully redesigned as dull, helmeted soldiers in grey greatcoats and grey body armour, more like First World War stormtroopers than the camp space-vikings of old. The focus is all on the evil Cumberbatch, and some shenanigans within Starfleet Command, so instead of pushing onwards and outwards, the story has to loop back to San Francisco for some collapsing skyscrapers and an explodey, punchy climax.

Right at the end Kirk gets to quote the ‘To boldy go…’ speech, and under the closing credits the old Star Trek music plays and the screen fills with vistas of the far, strange worlds and alien suns which the movie could have taken us to, but I guess that might have been too much fun.  Because, weirdly, I think this is a Star Trek movie that wants to be taken seriously

I suppose it probably says something about the mood of the 1960s – optimistic, outward looking – and the mood of the 2010s – insular, pessimistic, obsessed with terrorism, and keen on grey stuff. Maybe it also reflects the rise of ‘geek culture’ – things like Star Trek and Batman which used to be enjoyable fluff are now presented as if they’re profound and important works of art (there’s a good, long piece about that trend, by someone cleverer than me, here). That’s not quite fair, because there is fun stuff in this film, but it’s almost all in the interactions between the characters and in a couple of action scenes – there’s precious little allowed in the plot or the world-building.

All I can say for sure is that this is the sort of film in which the captain discovers that he has 72 sociopathic super-humans asleep in cryogenic suspension tubes aboard his ship – and they never wake up.

Chekhov (the playwright, not the starship helmsman) would have had something to say about that.


  1. Tim Knight
    May 13, 2013 @ 11:23:32

    Oh dear! Thanks for that review, Philip, I don't feel so bad about waiting for the DVD now. I do love my Star Trek, but you're right, the TV show, in its many iterations, was all about exploration and new experiences – not just attacking the Earth and blowing stuff up. There are plenty of other sci-fi stories that already do that.


  2. Marjorie
    May 13, 2013 @ 18:02:43

    I'd heard that it wasn't as good as the first one, which is a shame (I will admit that anything with Zachery Quinto AND Benedict Cumberbatch has a certain appeal even if the plot is a little lacking..)

    I never watched much of the original series but the first reboot film was lots of fun despite that.

    (On the other hand,I thought Iron Man 3 was very good – and it passes the Bechdel test!) Have you seen it?


  3. Philip Reeve
    May 14, 2013 @ 07:35:21

    It's still worth a look, but, as often happens with big films, I spent the first hour thinking, 'Ooh, this is going to be good!' and then the rest like Peggy Lee, thinking, 'Is That All There Is?'. It was a toss up between seeing this and Iron Man 3 and I suspect we made the wrong choice; hopefully we'll get to see it soon. I hate superheroes, but Robert Downey Jr is always good – he managed to keep me awake all through 'The Avengers' – and Don Cheadle is one of my favourite actors. (But I have no time at all for the 'Bechdel Test'.)


  4. Tim Hansen
    May 14, 2013 @ 16:22:49

    I was thinking exactly the same even before I read your review. I love it when the action takes place in deep space, other galaxies and unknown territory. Even the short trip to Kronos was cool with all the megastructures around (ironically, I love megascale engineering and artificla landscapes in science fiction and find forests like the one in Avatar boring (my favorite part was the giant machines in the beginning), while it's the opposite when I watch documentaries from the real world). It actually made me think about Mortal Engines.

    Sicne they will go on a five years mission now, one can only hope they manage to get away before something decide to keep them on earth, and that they encounter weird life forms, giant alien space stations and so on. The best thing would be the whole "lost in space" concept; they suddenly realize they have no idea where they are, how they got there, where they are heading or how to come back. If Doc Smith was able to create that feeling in his first Skylark book decades ago, it shouldn't be impossible to add something like it to a modern movie.


  5. Philip Reeve
    May 14, 2013 @ 17:05:32

    Thanks Tim (and I'm with you on the megastructures). I was thinking about the original Star Trek, and while my memory may be faulty, it seems to me that they never went anywhere near Earth except in the time travel episodes. Sometimes another starship showed up, or they visited a space station, but otherwise it was always unknown territory, and the Enterprise crew was alone, far from its chain of command. I hope you're right, that the third film will take off to new places, but I think I remember thinking the same thing at the end of the first one – 'That's the boring origin story out of the way, next time they can get down to business'. I have a horrible feeling that the third one will start with them being ordered home to tackle yet another dotty terrorist.

    I do think it mirrors our whole attitude to space. When Star Trek was first on people were watching the Apollo programme and imagining the conquest of the solar system. Now we're more interested in Commander Hadfield playing his guitar and tweeting photos of the Earth back at us.


  6. Elinor Blackwood
    May 14, 2013 @ 22:30:00

    Ooh, I can't wait to see it! I'm afraid I'll probably be rooting for the wrong side, though: best villain ever?

    (You're not fooling me, by the way: I know you can spell his name properly because you slipped it into one of the LARKLIGHT books. [Mothstorm?])


  7. Philip Reeve
    May 15, 2013 @ 09:32:14

    Gosh, did I? I think that may have been a coincidence, I don't think I'd ever heard of him before 'Sherlock' took off.


  8. Elinor Blackwood
    May 15, 2013 @ 13:27:11

    I thought at the time that it was odd, considering the publication date of the book, but decided you must simply have been an Obscure Film Expert. To have arrived at that by coincidence, though – what a delightfully bizarre thing.


  9. Philip Reeve
    May 15, 2013 @ 17:03:35

    Maybe I'd come across his name in a review or something. I tend to stockpile interesting names. It's a good job I didn't give that one to a major character!


  10. Elinor Blackwood
    May 16, 2013 @ 21:33:45

    I have been known to steal names from the technical bits of film credits (such as lighting directors et cetera). Those can be treasure troves.


  11. David Bridger
    May 19, 2013 @ 09:16:56

    Oh, dear. Thanks for this, Philip. It's as I feared (worse, actually, but what you say makes sense) so now I'll wait for the dvd.

    Is it too much to hope they'll really send them off to explore uncharted space in the next film?


  12. Philip Reeve
    May 19, 2013 @ 09:35:17

    Hi David! Sadly, I suspect it is.

    I was trying to avoid spoilers in my review, but here's a (somewhat sweary) review that's full of spoilers and mentions a couple of massive howling plot holes. It also points out that the next Star Trek movie will be set in a universe where you can teleport instantly to anywhere and there is a cure for death. So my hopes aren't very high!


  13. Philip Reeve
    May 19, 2013 @ 09:35:47

    Sorry, I can't work out how to make that work as a link… It's worth a read though!


  14. David Bridger
    May 19, 2013 @ 10:08:39

    Oh no! That sounds terrible! I can live with departures from canon if the thing holds together okay, but not with uncaring stupidity. Groan!


  15. Alexander
    May 21, 2013 @ 08:52:24

    Everyone else seems to be a Trekkie, but I know little of the original series. Even so, the plot holes where painfully obvious. Usually plotholes are more apparent after you've watched the movie and are thinking back on it.

    Didn't they have 72 frozen people just like Kahn? Why didn't they just use their blood? And the way Scotty snuck into the military base was one of the stupidest things I've ever seen. If their was a war with the Clingons the Alliance would have had all their data leeked in a day. Shouldn't a primitive tribe forget all about a spaceship by the time they're advanced, and the spaceship would become a myth or something?

    Still, I thought it was an alright movie, but the 2009 movie was alot better. That may be because I'm an outsider to the series. Maybe I should watch some of the old Star Trek, namely the movie with the whales.

    (PS. What are you're views on the upcoming Pacific Rim?)


  16. Philip Reeve
    May 22, 2013 @ 08:28:19

    Thanks Alexander! Almost all works of fiction have plot holes. With big, noisy films I tend to think it's OK as long you don't notice them till you're half way home from the cinema. But yes, in this one I was sitting there thinking, 'Why can't they use the blood from those 72 other people?' I was expecting them to come up with some pseudo-scientific reason why that wouldn't work, which would only have taken 1 line and would be a way of saying to the audience 'look, we know there's a problem here but let's overlook it so we can do this big action sequence' – which is a perfectly good way to deal with a plot-hole. But they couldn't be bothered…

    I've only seen a brief trailer for Pacific Rim. It looks spectacular – but then EVERYTHING looks spectacular these days; it's getting boring!


  17. Jack
    May 29, 2013 @ 16:29:10

    I love the old TV show, but not so much the old movies. Khan disturbed me, the whole bug thing. I'm not a huge fan of bugs OUTSIDE the body, let alone in the brain. So, by comparison, I liked the movie, being as I never liked the old ones. But next to the shows it has nothing. I think the only one who came close to getting his character cool was Simon Pegg, not that he has to try very hard. He's just naturally that way.


  18. Philip Reeve
    May 30, 2013 @ 12:07:14

    I do think Karl Urban does a great job as Dr McCoy – he somehow captures something of DeForrest Kelley, but makes it his own as well. Sadly, he's almost completely sidelined in the film! But yes, Simon Pegg is always a pleasure to watch.


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