Star Trek: Into Snarkness / by Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

Editor's Note: Like many of you, my friend Paul and I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness a few weeks ago. I was rather impressed whereas Paul was underwhelmed. We started nerding it up on Twitter until Paul suggested we switch over to email in order to fully descend into the depths of our nerdery (during which he also came up with this segment's name, "Into Snarkness"). What follows is a transcript of that descent, presented, I'm assured by friends at the NSA, in the format PRISM captured it.

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To: Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson
From: Paul Alexander
[May 21] 

I think conversations about popular franchises like Star Trek are loaded with the baggage each fan brings to the table, so it's important to lay our cards out. First off, Lars, on a scale of one to Mom's Basement, how would you gauge your level of fandom relative to the average joe? And what did you think of the last Star Trek film, the 2009 reboot?

To: Paul Alexander 
From: Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson
[May 21]

As I've said to many a psychoanalyst, I bring a fair amount of baggage to the table. My father indoctrinated me into the world of Star Trek at a young age. Many of my childhood memories involve sitting on a sofa with my dad watching people going boldly where others hadn't gone before.

Now, that said, I am far more versed in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine than any of the other series—embarrassingly, I never finished Voyager (I'll assume they all made it home as JJ Abrams hadn't yet stepped in)—and I know the films quite well, with the exception of Nemesis. I heard it was terrible and shied away from it.

And a further caveat to keep in mind: while Star Trek was a huge part of my childhood and adolescence, much of it has remained there. I have long been meaning to revisit the original series, TNG, DS9, and Voyager (I asked Q for a favor and now live in a universe where Enterprise never happened), but have not yet got around to any of this, much to my shame.

And my feelings about the 2009 reboot are complicated. The first time I saw it, I was very entertained and excited for the future of a storied franchise. With repeated viewings, however, while a lot of the fun remained, a number of issues started creeping up. That's when I began to worry Star Trek might end up more like Lost (promising start, awful end) and less like Super 8.

Also, a reboot killed even the faintest glimmer of hope I had for a Deep Space Nine film. I know, I know, it was never going to happen, but can't a boy dream?

To: Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson
From: Paul Alexander
[May 21] 

Like you, my dad was a big fan, and we enjoyed the later series together, particularly TNG. As an adult, though, I've watched and re-watched nearly every incarnation (even Enterprise, begrudgingly) and enjoyed them. Eventually, my love for all things Roddenberry surpassed my devotion to Star Wars for the usual reasonsmy adult sensibilities being much more attuned to former's vision of an idealistic, space-faring diplomatic corps.

Let me get this out of the way: I didn't hate Into Darkness or think it was a bad film. I just thought that as far as Star Trek movies go, it was basically mediocre.
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Part of my strong reaction might be due to the fact that I adored the '09 reboot. What wasn't to like? Chris Pine's Kirk was a believable genesis for that character. Quinto and Co. shined too. Most of all, the Federation's on-screen presence as a fleshed-out organizationrather than, as it was in each series, not much more than a sporadic transmission from an admiral in a far away placegave me some hope that the cerebral muscles of the franchise were going to be flexed once more, signature lens flare be damned.

Star Trek '09 was thrilling, fun, and technically brilliant; not surprising coming from Abrams. But it was also self aware. Dude didn't just play to his strengths, he really did the spirit of the franchise justice. Into Darkness' self-awareness, on the other hand, seems squandered on its consciously self-referential format by virtue of it being a quasi-remake of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Unlike some ST nerds, I thought the alternate timeline side-step in ST '09 was well-played. Here are characters that, while iconic, were not well realized in the original series, save for Spock and Kirk (Uhura = the black one, Chekov = the Russian, and so on). The chance presented itself in the reboot to distinguish them from the source material and give them identities beyond their race and shirt color, and that's what they did. Nimoy's Spock was a meaningful presence as well; passing the torch to New Kirk and bridging the gap between timelines. It's a brilliant technique when well-executed, as we've seen in zillions of comic books.

Conversely, most of Into Darkness' climactic moments devolve into breathless pandering. The "KHAAAAN!" moment, like Samuel L.'s "I've had it with these motherfucking snakes" line in Snakes on a Plane, came across as if it was crowdsourced from Internet message boards. I hung my head on that one.

I'll keep it high level for now, but the third act in general seemed aloof to me. I know Abrams' work isn't universally revered for its coherency, but combine a few all-too-standard-for-the-franchise deus ex machina, giftwrapped resolutions with some seriously underutilized players (what, two minutes worth of the Klingons, who are supposed to be the actual threat?), and I walked away very puzzled. You mentioned Abrams' lack of familiarity was what lowered your expectations for these films; I felt the opposite. The franchise, floating adrift like an abandoned space freighter for the better part of a decade, was in desperate need of new blood. It seemed clear from the first film he understood what makes Star Trek magic, even if the film format works against it sometimes. Star Trek was at its best when it was exploring uncharted waters. Into Darkness played it way too safe, treading all-too-familiar territory, and suffocated under the weight of its admittedly lofty expectations.

To: Paul Alexander
From: Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson
[May 22] 

While this runs the risk of angering a number of Star Wars fans, I'm often surprised when someone strongly prefers Star Wars over Star Trek if they have a solid grounding in both franchises. This isn't a knock to Star Wars (and by Star Wars I mean the original three films, perhaps even the fantastic Knights of the Old Republic games), there is just so much more at hand within Roddenberry's extended vision. Even if someone feels the original series is "too campy" or that TNG takes too long to really "get going," DS9 and Voyager easily evade these designations, and both helped to show that a fair amount of darkness exists in the universe of Star Trek, a far cry from the "unrealistic space utopia" label that has sometimes dogged the franchise.

And while there are some less than stellar Star Trek films, I feel there are more than three very good ones, which gives Roddenberry and Co. a slight edge over George Lucas. The fact that Roddenberry and his disciples were somehow able to withstand the urge to go back and ruin the franchise's origins and mythos doesn't hurt either.

This isn't a terrible segue back into the main current of our conversation, as it is Abrams' use of (or inability to escape) the franchise's origins and mythos in Into Darkness that seems to have irked a number of viewers and critics (and it is Abrams who has been entrusted to help us all recover from the horrors Lucas exposed us to with Episodes I-III).

I agree that Into Darkness was rather too restricted by the history Abrams is trying to both honor and distance himself from, and in ways the reboot was not. It's impossible to overlook the fact that the second of Abrams' Star Trek films mirrors or echoes the second installment of the original films—and I have to say I was both thrilled and a tiny bit disappointed to have called very early on that Benedict Cumberpatch's "mysterious villain" was likely Khan. That seemed to me to be the logical conclusion—why else hide who the antagonist is? And the whole second film-second film parallel didn't dissuade me from this suspicion.

Having accepted Abrams' crafty alternate timeline move (hard not to accept it when Nimoy's the one breaking the news), I was excited to see what JJ might do with a character like Khan, and how he would put his own spin on that film's climactic close. And for the most part, I feel Abrams did very well—until, I concede, his version's own "climactic close," and not because it was Kirk sacrificing himself for his crew or because Spock is the one yelling "KHAAAAAN!", but because the pacing broke down. What should have been a smooth(er) dramatic crescendo felt more like turbulence on a flight: things get pretty rough and worrying, then there is a moment of calm, you think, "Is it over?", and then the whole damn plane starts seizing all over again, a pause, more shakes, guy next to you spills his ginger ale, and so on.

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The Wrath of Khan suffered from none of this shakiness—the Mutara Nebula allows the final moments to be laced with suspense and dread while building to the film's climax, and while we knew which Ahab will likely make it out alive, we aren't sure if all of Kirk's crew, or even the Enterprise, will be so lucky, and for good reason. Spock's sacrifice in The Wrath of Khan also felt more meaningful; this is not to disparage New Kirk's sacrifice, but the lack of tension, suspense, and dread that led up to his (albeit short-lived) death. In The Wrath of Khan, Spock saves the Enterprise from being destroyed by Khan and the Genesis Device; in Into Darkness, Kirk's death seems mostly there to trigger Spock's half-human side. Into Darkness overthinks its ending: too many battles, too many sets/settings, too many pauses in the action, not enough tension, suspense, and dread, which doesn't ruin the end, but it leaves just enough wrinkles and holes for nerds like us to point out and pick at.

Now, all this nerdy bitching and nitpicking aside, was I satisfied by the third act of Into Darkness? For the most part, yes. I got what I paid for and what was ultimately promised by throwing Khan into the mix: a ruthless antagonist, a broken enterprise (sadly, sans nebula), a warp core killing a main character (but no Search for Kirk), a battle of strength and wits, someone screaming Khan's name in rage (which was quite interesting as it is the logical, rational Spock losing his Vulcan cool while holding the dead body of his closest friend), and in this version I get to watch a goddamned starship fall to Earth and crash into Future Frisco, and witness Spock marrying his human irrationality/rage with his Vulcan strength and quite nearly beating the "savage" Khan to death. Also, did I mention the USS Vengeance crashes into San Francisco? Because that was awesome (as long as it didn't damage the future home of the 49ers).

While I understand where you are coming from with the "mediocre" comment, and share many of your sentiments, I feel like Into Darkness was doing a fine job until its closing minutes, and even those weren't terrible, there were just a few missed opportunities and rough edges.

Where I full agree with you, howeverand this will loop back around to another comment you madeis that Star Trek is at its best making history as opposed to rewriting it, and one thing we never really saw (only heard about) in the shows and films was the Klingon War. And, JJ, you should have kicked that mother off in Into Darkness, or at least spilled the gasoline and lit the match. Why show us Klingons if you're only going to then take them away, jerk?! And would it have been so hard for the Klingons to have found Khan's hideout with a carefully placed Starfleet uniform just accidentally laying around, maybe with fake plans for a clandestine assault? It isn't exactly out of Khan's character to kick a hornet's nest, especially when he plans to not be around when the retribution hits.

My brother and I had an hours long discussion on all the ways Klingons could (and arguably should) have played a larger role in Into Darkness—nearly discovering the broken Enterprise just the wrong side of the neutral zone, which would have led to war; pursuing both Khan and Kirk from Kronos to Earth, acting as a much needed source of suspense, tension, and dread; having one or two Klingons stow away on a shuttle after the Khan-Klingon-Human battle on Kronos, just to spice things up—and I think this is where JJ stumbled the hardest. How much happier would everyone, Trekkie purist nerds included, if Into Darkness ended not with the promise of Abrams moving into uncharted waters, but a Klingon war rally on Kronos after the seeds Kahn purposefully or Kirk accidentally sowed begin to breach the surface? A Klingon war movie would allow Abrams that middle ground he wants: a historical event deeply important to the franchise, but one that's never been shown, not in the way Abrams could bring it to life—and I think JJ uncharacteristically dropped the ball not at least ratcheting up tensions between Earth and Kronos in Into Darkness.

Sorry about the novella-length response.

Get us back on track with your take on Into Darkness' weakest moments—and what you see in the future of the franchise. 

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To: Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson 
From: Paul Alexander
[May 24]

You did a brilliant job of articulating some of my biggest problems with the film; I think in the end, the flaws you described just bothered me a lot more. This movie could have been a huge jumping off point for an epic story. Instead, by Kirk's speech at the end, it has become something of a pedantic post-9/11 cautionary tale: "By adopting the tactics of our enemies, we risk becoming like them." Wait, what enemies? Those guys in the metal helmets we saw for two seconds, like, an hour ago?

I don't want to retread your arguments to death, but by underselling both the Klingons and Khan as villains, and electing instead to send viewers on a logic-gap laden goose chase where we're not meant to know just who the bad guys REALLY are from one moment to the next, each successive plot development is robbed of drama, all in the name of His Holiness, The Action Sequence. "Kirk needs some new super-soldier blood or he'll stay dead? Why don't we take some from any one of the 70-something popsicles sitting here, frozen in these torpedo tubes? Wait, Khan's getting away! Let's chase him down, beat him up on top of a flying car, and get HIS blood instead!"  

Sidenote: I think I may have understated the impact of Damon Lindelof's pen on my opinion of Into Darkness. (Lindelof was not a writer on ST '09: it was strictly an Orci/Kurtzmann joint.) It's something I didn't really consider when our conversation started, but he jumps out at me as a likely contributor to Darkness's disappointing and often incoherent trajectory. 

As for the future of the franchise, I think the spirit of Trek that we're both familiar with, and actively pine for, is going to fade. It's already sacrificed in large part by virtue of the cinema format's constraints, and increasingly, the need to tell broad, internationally viable stories in summer science-fiction movies in order to justify their high cost. The international market for big-budget action films has ballooned in the last decade, so films like Star Trek are now being crafted for maximum universal appeal. (If you want to gain an insider's perspective on this process, check out Steven Soderbergh's "State of Cinema" Keynote from the recent SF International Film Festival.) Star Wars has always been a more internationally beloved franchise than Trek, whose primary fans are Americans. So in order to capture the hearts of moviegoers in Turkey and China, they need to... you get the idea.

But more simply, to justify the explosions and the fistfights and the shootouts, we need a reason for Kirk and company to kick up some shit. We can't simply have them parse through a procedural dilemma, climaxing in a tense torpedo volley on the main bridge, for 100 minutes. So, to hell with the Prime Directive! (A puzzling plot device if there ever was one, used much more effectively in the albeit inferior 1998 film Star Trek: Insurrection.) And off we go into swashbuckling galactic adventure town.

In a decade, I imagine Star Wars and Star Trek will feel very much alike, and not just because they'll share a director. They will become entertaining summer romps whose bland message of altruism or universal human-hood or whatever, if one exists, violently vacates your brain like a deflated balloon the second you leave the theater. Whether that excites you or troubles you comes down to opinion, I think. In my view, Star Trek has always functioned best as hour-long episodic fare, and while there isn't much comfort to be found in these films' new fiscal responsibility as summer action standard bearers, I do reserve hope that the success of these films will generate new interest in reviving Star Trek on the small screen.

To: Paul Alexander
From: Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson
[June 4] 

I strongly agree that the idea of "the enemy" was rather murkyfor it wasn't the Klingon enemy (or the adoption of their tactics) that proved to be the problem, but Khan, the man whose savagery we were trying to adopt to defeat the Klingons... who were barely in the movie. And other than knowing the Klingons were pretty mad with Starfleet, we didn't get much background on that. I don't need an Intergalactic CNN interlude, but I like my enemies and conflicts to have some depth to them. The enemy triangle was underdeveloped to the point of rendering it all but useless and mostly infuriating, as our exchange underscores. Khan obviously had to be the main villain, but I think there was a missed opportunity not giving the Klingons or the buildup to the Klingon War more weight.

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Sadly, as much as I'd like to disagree, I think there's more than a shadow of truth in your prognosis of the future of Star Trek. In a world where Fast and Furious 6 not only exists, but garnered a fair few positive reviews, I think we've reentered the super-charged, explosion-laden adrenaline binge that was Hollywood in the '90s (and my adolescence). And there are more people excited about the possibility of something blowing up than there are Trekkies, so just on that cynical, monetary level where films get green- or red-lit Star Trek has to attempt to balance itself between a storied franchise, passionate fans, and people who pay to see epic action movies in general. That's going to be a tricky balance, but, all our snark and whinging aside, I think there is some hope that JJ (or a successorwho knows what franchise will land in his lap next) could pull this off, at least to some extent. Some of my favorite TNG moments involve battling the Borg, and DS9's Dominion war was amazing, so there are blueprints within Star Trek's own past for how to marry explosions with intelligence. I guess we just have to hope that someone decides to dust off that old book at the library, eh? And, to return to my main platform, for all of Into Darkness' (and the reboot's) weaknesses and flaws, I still very much enjoyed themand here we are, you and I, nerding it up something terrible, all in response to these films. I think if either film had been straight up trash this exchange would have ended in a 15-minute Twitter fireball as opposed to a War and Peace-length epistolary exchange.

Like you, I also hope that the renewed interest in the Star Trek franchise, and the piles of cash Kirk and Spock are raking in, will allow Star Trek a chance to get back on the air. The idea that Star Trek doesn't have broad appeal and can't make money has been truly banished by JJ's two films, so there should be some very receptive studio execs around when that new Star Trek pilot script hits their desks. The problem then will be whether this television show is in the vein of its small box predecessors or its new big screen sibling. As much as I'd love to see Burn Notice in Space (and I really would watch that misadventure), I'd like it to be devoid of the Star Trek label.

I suppose, like on Jerry Springer, we've reached that stage where we should turn to the camera and let America know what we've learned from this ordeal. (And then quickly decide on another topic to debate!)

To: Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson
From: Paul Alexander
[June 11]

I guess I've learned its hard to talk about storied franchises like Star Trek without unpacking your own baggage (are we really surprised Orci and Co. didn't do exactly what we would've liked?), while simultaneously acknowledging the demands of blockbuster film making in 2013, as much of a bummer as that is. You're correct that the film is meaty enough to demand close examination, and holds its own for the better part of 120 minutes. I think we'll have a much better idea of where things are headed in the next incarnation, since this is a series that's still finding its footing on treacherous, dork-laden ground.

Not much else to say. (Except perhaps "don't you dare bring the Fast movies into this!" - next time?)

P.S. BURN NOTICE IN SPACE YES TOTALLY

To: Paul Alexander
From: Lars Garvey Laing-Peterson

[June 14]

I agree—it'll be on the next pass through that we'll get a good idea of what JJ Abrams can do with Star Trek. I wonder how long we'll have to wait for that, however, with Star Wars working its way through the pipeline. I guess there's nothing to do but wait. And initiate a Kickstarter campaign for Burn Notice in Space.