Log in

Today I Shall Behave as if This is the Day I Will be Remembered
Meta: Some Thematic Mumblings on Star Trek: Into Darkness 
12th-Jun-2013 07:57 pm
Star Trek
I realize I'm totally late to the party on this one, but I've wanted to talk about Star Trek: Into Darkness for a while now, and haven't really been able to articulate why the movie fell so flat for me. I thought I'd just throw this out there and invite commentary, if anyone's interested. I won't touch on a lot of the stuff I've seen covered in people's meta and reviews of the film so far, since I think a lot of really intelligent things have been said (particularly regarding the treatment of women in the film, the recycling of scenes from The Wrath of Khan, and the whitewashing of Khan), but I wanted to talk about why thematically the film didn't work for me (and the few ways in which it did), and I haven't seen that done yet. Though, very likely, it has been done somewhere, and much better than I'm about to. Some spoilers for TOS, particularly The Wrath of Khan.

Basically, I think the film deals with three main themes: (1) hubris and the nature of command, which is examined through Kirk and Admiral Marcus, (2) cycles of violence and revenge, which is invoked through Khan, and, subsequently, Admiral Marcus, Kirk and Spock, and (3) love, which is in a sense a subset of theme two, since it is what fundamentally drives the desire for revenge and the unleashing of violence in the film. I think a big part of what bothers me about this film is that two of these three themes aren't actually resolved. However, the theme of love gets a lovely, slashy climax, and the fact that this film seems utterly dedicated to making Kirk and Spock seem as devoted to one another as possible in the time honoured tradition of Star Trek is it's biggest redeeming feature to me.


This is where the film starts. I have a lot of problems with the opening scene, but for the sake of staying on topic I'm going to focus only on what it says about Kirk as a captain.

Pike pretty much hits the nail on the head when he calls Kirk out on being 'overconfident'. Prime Directive violations are usually pretty interesting, but the film (and more importantly, Kirk) sidesteps the moral questions about whether interference is appropriate when lives are at stake in favour of exploring Kirk's choices as a captain, and, by extension, his hubris. Kirk doesn't actually defend his actions in interfering in the first place, only his decision to rescue Spock, (in fact, he does the opposite and attempts to side step the whole thing entirely by lying about it), which suggests he's unwilling to own the consequences of his actions. He's also unwilling to sacrifice members of his crew, if necessary, which Pike is quick to point out.

There's an episode of TNG where Deanna Troi is taking a command exam on the holodeck, and the only solution that will save the ship in the simulation is to send one of her crew in to certain death. This is a lesson that Kirk has clearly not learned (and it's an important one). He's also utterly unwilling to consider it, which follows from his behaviour at the hearing over his solution to the Kobayashi Maru. Reboot!Kirk very clearly isn't TOS!Kirk, so I think it's fair to say that Spock may have been largely correct about the fact that Kirk doesn't understand the point of the test, no matter how much I like his solution.

However, unlike the Kobayashi Maru, the situation on Nibiru is of Kirk's own making. Pike makes the point that he "wouldn't have risked his first officer in the first place". Whether or not saving the inhabitants of Nibiru was appropriate is still an open question, the point that Spock required rescuing based on an order Kirk had given still stands. The fact that he rebuts this with an argument that he's never lost anyone under his command just reinforces the fact that he's unable to lose anyone under his command, because he'll just bend the rules until he finds a solution that works. But the repercussions of that solution seem to escape him, and that is where the problem lies.

The problem is, the film doesn't really give him the consequences he needs. He's promoted back almost as soon as he's demoted. Pike's death drives a desire for revenge, but does nothing to address the concerns Pike raised about him as a commander. After all, his justification to Admiral Marcus for going to Kronos is that Starfleet can't go, but he can. Why? Because the rules don't apply to him. (Of course, neither do they apply to Admiral Marcus).

There is a parallel that can be drawn between Kirk's hubris and Marcus'. Both of them give the same justification for their actions – Kirk has to go to Kronos because he is the only one who can (in his eyes), just as Marcus had to wake Khan up because only he can lead Starfleet against the Klingons. Like Kirk, regulations don't seem to apply to him, and, like Kirk, he attempts to sidestep the consequences of his actions by eliminating the witnesses and covering up the evidence, just as Kirk lied in his report. Marcus is, essentially, precisely the sort of commander Pike is concerned Kirk will become. After all, Marcus too believed his actions were for a greater good.

We have two examples of Kirk's growth as a commander: one is when he pleads with Marcus to spare his ship at the expense of his life, and the other when he follows through and does die (albeit very, very briefly) for the sake of the ship. The problem I have with this is that it still doesn't address Kirk's failings. It's certainly noble, but it's also, in itself, a solution to the no-win scenario. Because the ship wins. Actually, it's Spock's solution to the no-win, fulfilling the his principle that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

This question is first raised (word for word) when Spock himself if faced with death in the volcano at the beginning of the film. Kirk's response is the same as his counterpart's in The Search for Spock, that the needs of the one (i.e., Spock) outweigh the needs of the many. But he makes that decision, I think, for different reasons. Certainly, he does act out of love in both cases. In this film it's pretty clear that Kirk's primary motivation for saving Spock was emotional, given he spends the rest of the film asking Spock if he understands why Kirk went back for him. Which is pretty much the equivalent of 'you know I can't live without you, right?' But, he also doesn't seem to understand the alternative. When Spock is beamed up and says that they've broken the Prime Directive, his response is "so, they saw us, who cares?"

Kirk's going with 'the needs of the one' wasn't actually a choice, really. It was the only option, because he doesn't seem to grasp what Spock was saying about the needs of the many at all, in order to decide to go against it. I would argue that he still doesn't understand it fully in the end, either, but I'll get to that when I start talking about compassion.

Kirk's 'death' was not an answer to 'do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?', but rather an answer to Khan's question of 'what wouldn't you do for your family?' He would die for them. But it does absolve him of the necessity of facing the death of another at his orders. It is, in a way, cheating death – not his own, but a death that is his fault and one he'd have to live with. Scotty's concern about danger to the ship when he brings it close enough to beam Spock out of the volcano already demonstrates a certain degree of willingness to risk everything for those he cares about. Dying for the ship is simply an extension of that.

Given it was his desire for revenge that put his ship at risk in the first place, he does face consequences – but I would argue that they're not the right ones to address the problems raised at the beginning of the film. Especially since Kirk's resurrection makes this yet another cheat, and erases those consequences the same way his demotion is hand-waved away almost immediately. We do see some self-doubt from him – when he cedes command to Spock in order to get aboard the Vengeance, and when he apologizes to the crew when he thinks they're all about to die. They're wonderful little moments, but the reality of it is, by the end of the film there have still been no permanent repercussions from his actions that he has to deal with.

Revenge and Love

These two themes are intertwined. We have several examples of love in the film, which in turn drive the violence that takes place. The first of these is the Starfleet employee whose daughter is cured by Khan. His love for her is exploited by Khan, all as part of his plan to get revenge on Marcus, which is in turn driven by his love for his adopted family.

On the other side, we have Kirk and Pike's relationship, which I think is arguably a father-son one. Pike's death drives Kirk right into Marcus' hands, and has him to very nearly (and, since we never get any response regarding the Klingons, it's possible he did actually) start a war with the Klingon empire. The other major relationship we see that invokes this pattern of love leading to a perpetuation of the cycle of violence, is Kirk and Spock's.

Khan says he was awakened because they needed an uncivilized man in a civilized time. The word he uses is 'savage', which I don't like next to the implication that Starfleet has somehow 'progressed' beyond that, but this is essentially what Khan unlocks in everyone he comes into contact with. Revenge in this film is visceral, and extremely violent.

The film ends with the quote: "Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that's not who we are…" But what the film actually shows is that is precisely who they are. The whole thing is an escalating series of tit for tat that bares the worst qualities of all involved, and, unfortunately, goes largely unresolved. But it is also fundamentally about love as this quote highlights.

First we have Khan, who makes an erroneous assumption that his self-proclaimed family has been killed, and begins immediately to extract a brutal and bloody revenge. He's aiming for Marcus, but clearly doesn't care who he hits along the way. So, right off the bat, Khan makes it clear that he is willing to murder for those he loves.

Kirk is initially willing to do the same – and he has the same disregard for fallout. He's willing to risk war with the Klingons, which has a potential for catastrophic loss of life, as well as the lives of everyone aboard his ship. Spock and Scotty act here as the voice of conscience – my heart broke when Scotty said "I thought we were explorers", and Spock's insistence that Khan receive a trial does, finally, sway Kirk into capturing him alive.

Khan's bent on revenge, however, stops once he realizes the torpedoes are on the Enterprise, and decides he needs Kirk. Then we have Kirk's unleashing of pure, unadulterated violence, when he punches Khan over and over. This, right here, is savagery, in the sense that Khan uses it. He has reduced Kirk to a breaking point of fury and grief, which is something we see again as the film progresses. This is the opposite, in a sense the consequence, of love, and it's ugly. I actually like that about the film. I just wish they'd actually explored it a bit more.

Khan's breaking point is equally visceral. He literally crushes Marcus' skull. The line "you should have let me sleep" foreshadow's Kirk's own death – Marcus' hubris has brought him to this point, just as Kirk's decision to take off in revenge of Pike's death results in his own.

Finally, we have Spock's. While I have to say, I have a lot of problems with this characterization wise, I am a little bit tickled pink by it. We've already seen Spock's reaction to the destruction of his entire planet, the decimation of his species and the death of his mother. His response is that he requires everyone to "continue performing admirably". Spock keeps rigid control of his emotions until Kirk pushes him over the edge in Star Trek, even avoiding the pitfall of a knee-jerk desire for revenge on Nero in favour of the command to rejoin the fleet (which is the correct procedure, though it was not the best option for the situation they were in). So, Kirk's death apparently is more unsettling than all of that put together. So, you know, there's that.

However, Spock then proceeds to go on a revenge-driven manhunt for Khan and, like Khan and Kirk, become extremely physically violent. In fact, the only thing that keeps him from killing Khan with his bare hands is the knowledge that Khan is required to restore Kirk to life. Following that, all we see of Khan is that he has been returned to stasis.

Which concerns me about this is that Spock, who was initially the voice of conscience, seems to have none here – and this is never resolved or commented upon again. He advocated for a fair trial for Khan, but apparently, even after he is captured, he receives none and is returned (I can only presume unwillingly, since I think it's pretty clear he'd rather be awake and with his crew) to stasis. I find this morally and ethically very, very dubious, because Spock is essentially condemning Khan without a trial, which is precisely what he advocated against earlier in the film.

Compare this to Kirk's response to Khan in the TOS episode Space Seed. Even after Khan attempted (and very nearly succeeded in) a hostile takeover of the ship, Kirk's response is filled with compassion and understanding. He sets them down on a livable planet (though not an easy one), and challenges them to make the best of it. This highlights the fact that in TOS, unlike Into Darkness, Kirk actually attempted to empathize and understand Khan, rather than simply seeing him as a monster.

This brings me back to the opening scene on Nibiru. One of the things I always loved about TOS is the different ways in which compassion is expressed. McCoy, for example, has a great deal of compassion, but it's a very human sort of compassion. Spock points this out in The Immunity Syndrome:

Spock: I've noticed that about your people, Doctor. You find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million. You speak about the objective hardness of the Vulcan heart, yet how little room there seems to be in yours.
McCoy: Suffer the death of thy neighbour, eh, Spock? Now, you wouldn't wish that on us, would you?
Spock: It might have rendered your history a bit less bloody.

McCoy's compassion is confined, in a sense, to the familiar. Not that he doesn't care about alien life, but it's much easier for him to express understanding and compassion for those he knows well, or those who are like him. This is essentially the essence of all of the needling he gives Spock. Spock, on the other hand, doesn't express compassion nearly so openly, but seems to have it for every kind of living thing they run into, and very nearly equally. The Galileo Seven is a good example of this, when he states "I am frequently appalled by the low regard you earthmen have for life" when the survivors of a shuttle craft suggest attacking the indigenous lifeforms to protect themselves. Spock doesn't discriminate in his respect for life in the same way McCoy does. McCoy is extremely compassionate on an emotional level with the other survivors of the Galileo's crash – he understands the need for a funeral, for reassurance, and comfort, (which Spock doesn't, and this highlight's Spock's early failings as a commander) but he doesn't understand the compassion Spock has for beings that have done nothing but attack them, because he sees it as compassion for the others at the expense of themselves.

I don't think the point of the show was that either one of these points of view is inherently better. Rather the opposite, the balance between the two of them is what is essential – and this is what drives each and every one of TOS!Kirk's Prime Directive interpretations. He navigates between this sort of broad-spectrum compassion and empathy for the 'other', and the emotional human compassion McCoy demonstrates.

Compassion is largely absent from Into Darkness. Even Spock has given it up by the end of the film. On Nibiru at the beginning, Kirk demonstrates a kind of absence of compassion, in his lack of understanding of what seeing a starship might do to the culture – of why the Prime Directive was important. This leaves out entirely this debate about when it is or isn't appropriate to intervene. Because the film doesn't actually discuss the question of whether or not the Nibiru are better off for the intervention (instead it plays it for laughs), it comes across flat. The Nibiru aren't given speech, so they have no say in the matter, and Kirk brushes aside the question with a "who cares?" Well, no one, because we have no opportunity for empathy with the Nibiru.

Just as we are given little opportunity to empathize with Khan. He clearly feels deeply, but the question about the extent to which Khan was wronged is never raised. It is, instead, drowned out by Kirk, and later Spock's, quests for revenge.

This is why I think Kirk still doesn't understand the point of 'the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few' by the end of the film. He saves the ship because he loves the people on it – his emphasis is on protecting loved ones. It's not a bad motive, or a wrong one, but he never demonstrates the ability to empathize with people 'other' than himself, whether they are simply biologically different, or whether they have wronged him. And Spock, whose role this has traditionally been, casts that aside in favour of the violence Khan stirs up in him, but then never picks it back up.

While Kirk plays out Spock's part in saving the ship, Spock uses precisely the sort of trick Kirk might have played in beaming over armed torpedoes. However, Admiral Marcus' crew are still aboard that ship, and he condemns them, as he condemns Khan, to death without a trial. While it was possibly the only option available at that point, I can't help but wonder if its necessity could have been avoided, if either Kirk or Spock had attempted to empathize with Khan.

While I hate to compare TOS!Kirk and TOS!Spock to their reboot counterparts, given they are explicitly different characters and should be allowed to stand in their own right, the pulling of dialogue straight from The Wrath of Khan makes this pretty much unavoidable. Roddenberry and others have explicitly said that Kirk and Spock were meant to complement each other, and, along with McCoy, embody the three elements of the tripartite soul: reason, emotion and intuition. We see role reversals in TOS – The Devil in the Dark comes to mind, where Spock advocates killing the Horta, the last of her kind, in order to save Kirk's life (a logical, given the Horta is a proven killer and Kirk is trapped with it, but emotionally-driven choice), and Kirk spares it, controlling his fear and reaching out to communicate with it. The problem I have with the role reversal in Into Darkness, is that they don't switch back, and the essence of who they are and how they complement one another seems to get lost in the process.

Spock and Kirk's near-death (or, in Kirk's case, temporary-death) experiences are obviously meant to complement each other, and explore both of their relationships with death. Spock actually does a lot of exploration of what death means in this film. He is apparently capable of dealing with his own death, but seems extremely rattled by the deaths of others – just as Kirk is willing to sacrifice his own life, but never learns how to handle the possibility of causing someone else's.

But Spock seems to get further away from his goal. Unlike in The Motion Picture where Spock's contact with V'Ger reminds him of the benefits of his emotional half, this film explores the negatives – the lengths love and grief will drive him to. This would actually be very interesting, if Spock seemed to take anything from it at all. We see him react first to the shock of the loss of Vulcan and his mother, with the immediate, and understandable reaction that he never wants to go through that again. It's a lovely glimpse into Spock's grieving process, actually, and it's a totally logical response to unwanted stimulus. He analyses and identifies the bits he doesn't like, and then attempts to find a means of suppressing them.

Then we see him meld with Pike as he is dying, and he feels vicariously Pike's death. It's an interesting choice for him to make, for somebody who is attempting to avoid those particular feelings, but it springs from a place of love and compassion. It is, I think, Spock's way of preventing Pike from feeling alone as he dies. It says a lot about Spock, and his response to death. It would be overwhelming, arguably, to experience someone's death in such an intimate way, especially so soon after such a huge, personal tragedy, but he is willing to do so for Pike's sake. And, perhaps, to some extent his own, to test his resolve after having been faced with death himself. This is a very compassionate, kind, and generous reaction, actually. And it shows that Spock is dealing with grief, in his own way.

He also experiences Kirk's death vicariously, to some extent. Kirk asks him how not to feel, and now he can't manage the same degree of control. He can't give Kirk the same comfort as he gives Pike, because he can't answer the question. And, of course, when Kirk dies it sets him back – arguably – farther than where he was when he started. Just as Kirk was willing to risk the ship, and violate the Prime Directive for Spock, now Spock is willing to put his conscience and logic aside in favour of physically killing Khan – which is a purely emotional act.

And then that's it. Kirk is back to life before we can actually see Spock process any of his responses. While I don't have a problem with Spock dealing with the darker sides of emotion – in fact, I think it's fascinating, (to steal a phrase) – but for it to work, we need to actually see him process them. Instead we don't see either Kirk or Spock overcome the 'savagery' Khan unleashes, instead they simply sweep him under the rug and call it a day.

It does leave me feeling a bit as if Khan won. He has made – to use his words – the 'civilized' time 'uncivil'. Certainly, neither Kirk nor Spock rise to the occasion in their treatment of him, nor the resolution to the film. And that might be interesting – maybe – except for that ending quote, that revenge is "not who we are". Khan made his point loud and clear: revenge is precisely who we all are underneath. The only time revenge is halted during the film, is when there is a more compelling reason to stop. If Khan hadn't been required to save Kirk's life, I'd be willing to bet Spock would have killed him.

Despite all of this, the theme of love is actually explored quite nicely. We have the different examples of family love, which includes its breakdown in the relationship between Admiral and Carol Marcus. Her "I am ashamed to be your daughter" I think can stand as a counterpoint to Pike's dressing down of Kirk. Both of them are denied an opportunity to repair the relationships and prove themselves (although it's dubious if Admiral Marcus ever would have). And, of course, we have the exploration of Kirk and Spock's relationship. I think it's safe to say that Spock's response to Kirk's death answers the question of whether or not he understands why Kirk went back for him. But, while their relationship in the film does go a long way in convincing me that there's little those two wouldn't do for one another, it does little to emphasize what made Kirk and Spock such a great partnership in TOS. The moment where Kirk admits that he doesn't know what he's doing, and he thinks Spock is better qualified to remain in command of the ship was a lovely moment of fallibility from him, but it results in Spock slipping into that same level of rule-bending that was the reason for Kirk's dressing down and subsequent self-doubt in the first place.

It leaves the film feeling unresolved. Kirk has not, as a character, addressed the faults that were set up initially. While he faces consequences for his actions, all of the far reaching or long-term ones are brushed aside (the fate of the Nibiru, the war with the Klingons, Khan's fate), and the immediate, personal ones are resolved almost instantly. Spock's emotional exploration is similarly left hanging, and it leaves him in a very dark position, character-wise. He has surrendered his role as conscience, and all of his exploration of grief seems to have gone out the window as well.

But, on the flip side, Kirk and Spock barely know each other by the time this film takes place, and are already throwing everything about their characters out the window in their haste to rescue one another, so, you know, the more things change, the more they stay the same. If nothing else, this movie gave me the homicidally-protective-of-Kirk!Spock I'd secretly wanted but never wanted to admit to wanting in a fanfic, and so despite all of its numerous faults, I'm grateful for that.

13th-Jun-2013 02:22 pm (UTC)

Yeah, I have to say, re-watching some TOS episodes after seeing this film put it into even starker contrast. TOS could sometimes be a little bit in your face with its 'today's message is...' approach (Star Trek: Save the Whales, anyone?) but at least it always asked questions.

Definitely agree on the 'ST:XI was a fluke' feeling. Though, at least ST:XI had its own, original plot and wasn't in direct competition with an already existing, and much better film. So, yeah, totally with you on the whole 'alternate reality' thing – they should be telling their own stories. It's mentioned in some of the meta below but nu!Kirk and nu!Spock aren't the same people as their TOS versions, so why put them in the same situations? I don't much like the characterisation of nu!Kirk, but if they're going to go with the playboy, bad boy thing they've got for him, then they need to own it. It's like the filmmakers have the same unwillingness to be accountable as Kirk himself does in the film.

I might come back to this with more links if I can think of any more later, but here's a couple:
Lettered did a lovely writeup on why the plot recycling really doesn't work,
Rhaegal did a beautiful science smackdown of the film,
Racebending has a pretty widely-read article on the whitewashing of Khan that's worth a look,
Greywash's comments on Khan are also definitely worth reading,
and, while it's relevant to the 2009 film, Planets in Refrigerators is definitely worth a read – it's about the destruction of Vulcan and the way the reboot franchise handles alien cultures.
This page was loaded May 24th 2017, 7:59 am GMT.