The Absence of Story in "Star Trek Into Darkness"

By now you've no doubt seen Star Trek: Into Darkness. If not, read no further, for here there be SPOILERS. I would warn you that I will be discussing the movie in detail and might possibly give away aspects of the story, but that is a singularly unnecessary concern with this film. As cinematic adventures go, it is sufficiently fun and exciting, but it fails to delve deeper into the story, which is something Star Trek should always endeavor to do. While it bears the brand of a franchise best known for being about exploring the unknown, the latest installment from Abrams is content to boldly go where many movies have gone before.

Into Darkness may take place on a ship called Enterprise, with characters named Kirk and Spock exchanging comic quips, but its similarity to Star Trek ends there. All opportunities for storytelling presented by my favorite fictional universe are paved over to facilitate the delivery of big action set pieces. I'll admit that I've wanted to see a Star Trek action movie ever since I was twelve years old, and I finally got it. In 2009. Unfortunately, the sequel steadfastly refuses to explore any new frontiers it encounters.

In the only scene that truly felt like Star Trek, Kirk and crew are trying to save a Stone Age civilization from being wiped out by a volcano without exposing themselves. Although the Prime Directive, Starfleet’s sacred non-interference clause, prohibits it, Kirk reveals the ship in order to rescue Spock. And for a second, it almost looks like Kirk is in big trouble. An admiral is yelling at him after all, and he loses his command for almost five whole minutes. Instead of exploring what effects this could have, why the Prime Directive is important and how it came to be, and thus possibly learning something about the society that would view such a rule as necessary, the Enterprise's profound impact on a primitive civilization is played as nothing more than a joke. The expansion of knowledge, that sacred cow of Star Trek, is not given any priority and only the barest of attention in this story, so something else explodes and Kirk is given the Enterprise again so he can warp to the next action scene on far away Kronos, the homeworld of the feared Klingons.

While this would have been the perfect chance to learn more about one of the more robust and beloved alien cultures in the history of the show, the Klingons are merely there so Khan can demonstrate what a badass he is by killing them all. Sadly, the shameful practice known as Worf-beating continues. After Khan’s anti-climactic capture, Kronos is left behind and its inhabitants are not seen again. I couldn’t help but wonder how much more interesting the story could have been if they had stayed on Kronos, with Khan himself trying to ignite the war between the Federation and the Klingons. It would have been more interesting than yet another race to rescue an imperiled Earth from vengeful madman.

I couldn’t help but wonder how much more interesting the story could have been if they had stayed on Kronos...

Which brings us to the biggest missed storytelling opportunity in the whole movie: Khan himself. Other than constantly reminding us how dangerous he is, the movie tells us very little about its most intriguing character. When he finally reveals his true name, there's a bigger reaction from the audience than from Kirk. Which is not just a missed opportunity, but doesn't make any sense. This would be like finding out the Navy had revived Hitler to help them plan the war on terror, but no one on the Enterprise seems to have the slightest idea who Khan is, or the inclination to find out, which also calls into question why his identity had to be kept secret in the first place. Khan is a literal link to their past, the epitome of what humanity used to be like: a genetically engineered super soldier turned conqueror, willing to do anything to achieve his ambitions. Kirk represents the future, a member of a human race so enlightened that he would hesitate to kill even a mass murderer. Khan's brief stay in the Enterprise's brig presented the perfect chance to study the contrasts between protagonist and antagonist, possibly learn how the decidedly divided world we are now will some day become the cornerstone of the United Federation of Planets, but it is allowed to pass with little remark.

You might find yourself saying: "Sure, there could have been more story, but did it really hurt anything?"

Oh, most certainly, hypothetical reader. If you are lazy in your storytelling, you might not end up telling the tale you think you are. For example, if you didn't know anything about Star Trek before seeing Into Darkness, it would be easy to get the impression that Khan is really the tragic time-displaced hero, struggling to save his family from an oppressive, inhumane future regime.

Let's look at the most compelling story in the whole movie. For the first twenty minutes we watch a couple despairing for their very ill daughter. The young Starfleet officer played by Noel Clarke conveys the pain and frustration of a father forced to endure his child's suffering despite the miracles of 23rd century medicine with only his eyes and a handful of words. When Cumberbatch's enigmatic villain offers to save her life, we already know that this man will do anything to save his daughter, like blow up a building that may have been a library or a top secret research facility, depending on who you ask. Thus we are introduced to the dominant theme of the movie: the lengths one is willing to go to for family. This theme is reinforced later when Kirk breaks the Prime Directive to rescue Spock, and then also volunteers for a mission to terminate the slayer of his surrogate father figure with extreme prejudice. By this measure, no one is a more devout family man than Khan.

All of the terrorist acts Khan committed were to free his people from the regime holding them hostage. He says they were unjustly condemned as war criminals, and the only person to contradict this is the corrupt admiral that defrosted him to design weapons for a war he was planning to start. Even when Spock calls his future self to get the scoop, his older counterpart merely recounts the obvious: Khan is very dangerous. But the only reason Khan is dangerous is because Kirk intends to hand him over to be tried and judged by the same people who forced him to build WMDs by threatening his family. In fact, there is nothing in the movie to condemn Khan other than actions he took under duress in order to save his family. In another film, Khan would be the steadfast, indefatigable hero who will stop at nothing to protect those he loves. We would root for him. By the end of the movie, I pretty much was. Is Khan really the bad guy here, or is Starfleet?

While plots will always have holes and even the most well-developed characters can go off-script, it is important to keep such things at a manageable level, where they can easily fit under a reader's suspended disbelief. But lazy storytelling is not so easily fixed or forgotten, because readers will fill the void with a story of their own. Remember that scenes where people talk aren't just filling space between the big shoot outs: this is where you tell your reader what the story is about. If you can't be bothered, don't be surprised if they come up with another one.

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eyeroller's picture
eyeroller June 4, 2013 - 1:59pm

yes, the biggest missed oppirtunity is Khan himself, but with all due respect, of course Kirk has no idea who Khan is. Khan is frist discovered in "Space Seed," one of the episodes form the Five Year Mission they are getting ready to go out on at the END of the movie. 

the use of Khan as the villain is ridiculous. there's no context. who cares? his name could have been literally ANYTHING for all the relevance Khan Noonain Singh has to the cast and crew or to the plot itself. they wasted one of the most iconic characters in the entire ST universe for no reaosn other than trying to pander to the audience - and audience that would have gone to see it anyway!

i agree the movie was very entertaining and very enjoyable, but i also agree they missed many opportunites. not only in this movie, but for the future.

this one should have been about the klingons.

where the first movie was a fun, exciting time filled with homage to the series, this one was fun and exciting, but still felt like pandering. because the writers cheaped out.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine June 4, 2013 - 1:48pm

Have we come to expect anything less from Damon Lindelof? Story ain't his strong suit.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On June 4, 2013 - 9:33pm

^^^Neither is psychological compexity. I blame him for what Prometheus could've been.

Regarding Star Trek, there's no need to shoehorn in anymore of the older cast. Old Spock performed his function well enough in the last movie. The moment I saw him I worried it would either be a useless cameo (which it was), or worse, some deus ex machina appearing just in time to provide help and/or information to get everyone out of a jam. Oh, and I love how Kirk, with just a few well-placed kicks in the end, could knock an incredibly intricate and sensitive piece of equipment like a warp-core back into place. Lazy-ass writing.

While the movie did have its moments and I was never bored, I was also expecting more of the brain component that always made for the best Star Trek. Hopefully they'll get someone new to helm this for the third go-round. Abrams's sensibilities are better suited for Star Wars anyway.

docawesome's picture
docawesome from Dallas is reading Texas by James Michener June 7, 2013 - 1:16pm

@eyeroller: Kirk should have recognized the name because Khan Noonien Singh is one of the most notorious despots in human history. In The Original Series' episode Space Seed, as soon as they find out his name, Spock immediately looks it up and finds out exactly who he is, not to mention the Enterprise had a historian aboard who specialized in that time period. As soon as Spock brings this to his attention, Kirk responds with "That Khan?" 

It would've been a great chance to explore the history of the Federation and maybe a little philosophical debate about the ethics of genetic engineering, but apparently none of that was more important than blowing stuff up. 

Chris L's picture
Chris L from New Mexico is reading The Map and the Territory June 9, 2013 - 5:07am

To me, the Star Trek franchise has always been about strategy. The crew(s) of the Enterprise were almost always outgunned by some menace to the galaxy, so they had to use their smarts to survive. Into Darkness seemed to lack this element. It was just another action flick. Yeah, there was the photon torpedo switch-a-roo, but basically, this came down to being a movie of fight sequences. That last sequence with Spock and Kahn was the equivalent of every action movie ever made with the epic throw-down on the top of a moving train (here, it was a hover vehicle). 

Good actors, lame plot.