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Where No Man Has Gone Before (Except That One Time)


Warning: this particular blog contains spoilers for the new Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, so if you haven’t seen that yet, look away.

      Now, I’ve written about titles before and, although I want to assure you that we will get to some Trekkie goodness nice and soon, I’d like to take a moment to discuss this film’s title because God knows lots of other people have. Or rather a few people have discussed it incessantly, viz. the bunch of Trekkies and self-appointed Wikipedia guardians (not necessarily the same people) who zealously guard the film’s Wikipedia page. If there’s one bunch of folk sadder than hardcore sci-fi fans (of whatever persuasion) it’s Wikigeeks. Before the film had even previewed, there was a massive flame-war on the talk page about – get this – whether or not to capitalise the first letter of ‘Into’. And by ‘massive flame-war’ I mean the best part of 100,000 words (equivalent to a small novel) of losers arguing, from positions of mutually incompatible dogma, about something that doesn’t matter in the slightest.

      The problem was a colon, or rather the absence thereof. Had the film followed the conventions of previous movies like Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: Nemesis, all would have been sweetness and light. But JJ Abrams (an undeniably talented film-maker who never met a CGI-added lens flare he didn’t like) had specifically stated that there was no colon in this title. Under Wikipedia’s pedantic house rules, a preposition like ‘into’ in a title is not capitalised unless it is at the start of a sentence or follows a colon. But ‘Star Trek into Darkness’ would imply that ‘Trek’ is a verb – the crew are somehow "trekking into darkness” – which plainly isn’t the sense in which it is meant. The publicity for the film generally split the brace of two-word phrases over two lines and/or used ALL CAPITALS, thus confounding the Trekkies’ and Wikigeeks’ attempts to resolve their differences.

     To the rest of us, of course, this was just hilarious (there’s even an XKCD webcomic about it). Furthermore, I was particularly delighted to see that the film’s BBFC certificate goes with the iconoclastically-hyphenated ‘STAR TREK – INTO DARKNESS’ which may indicate that the denizens of Soho Square don’t give a monkey’s, or perhaps shows that they’ve got a sense of humour and are giving the hornets’ nest a bit of a poke. If so, good for them.

      Now, bear in mind that I am not a Trekkie. Or even a ‘Trekker’ (whatever one of those is). I watched the original series on re-runs in the 1970s. I have seen most (but not all) of the films. I was quite excited when The Next Generation started and recall going to the house of a friend who had a contact in the States who sent over bundles of VHS tapes once a month. There was a regular ‘TNG/Quantum Leap’ evening at this bloke’s house as we all sat through several imported episodes with cider and pizza, a form of social bonding that is lost to society now that everyone just downloads shows the moment they’re broadcast. So I saw most of Next Gen, but certainly not all of it. I do recall – and this might surprise younger/overseas readers – that the BBC had an initial policy that it would not screen two Star Trek series at the same time. So it broadcast the first three seasons of TNG, and indeed the first episode of Season 4 which was the second half of a two-parter, and then stopped. Into that same slot it then scheduled the 1960s series including the infamous four ‘banned episodes’: ‘Miri’ which had been shown once in the UK and ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, ‘Whom Gods Destroy’ and ‘The Empath’, which had never been shown here at all.

      Then, after broadcasting all of the 1960s episodes, the Beeb went straight back to Season 4 of Next Gen. Although ironically this modern incarnation suffered its own censorship in turn with one episode unbroadcast (‘Higher Ground’, allegedly because of a reference to a fictional Anglo-Irish unification treaty) and another cut to shreds (‘Shades of Gray’, with almost the entire last five minutes snipped for being too violent; ironically the ‘unbroadcastable’ footage was shown (out of context) as a flashback in a later episode). However, despite the above arcane trivia, let me assure you that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Trekkie. (No, seriously. Look, in my day being able to name the four banned Trek episodes was a standard sci-fi trivia question, like naming all five Planet of the Apes films in the correct order or knowing what UNCLE stood for.)

      I don’t recall watching very much of Deep Space Nine, although to this day I retain a minor crush on Kyra Neris. I think the only Voyager I watched was the bunch of episodes from which I had to extract VHS frame grabs for issue 1 of SFX (see blogs passim). And as for Enterprise, I don’t think I ever got past the pilot. Did anyone? Although the fact that they cast Scott Bakula suggests that we were somewhat prescient with our TNG/Quantum Leap double-bills. So no, I’m not a Trekkie.

      The above notwithstanding, I believe that the first new Star Trek film, the one that’s just called Star Trek, the first movie with the new cast, is - and I do not want you to think I am hyperbolising here - not only the greatest film ever made but quite possibly the absolute pinnacle of human cultural achievement, knocking the Sistine Chapel into second place. (Places 3 to 8 are taken up by the Brandenberg Concertos, not necessarily in numerical order, and after that it all gets a bit confusing...)

      I went into that cinema with no preconceptions and very little advance knowledge (I generally avoid any reviews of movies I intend to watch). And I was blown away. I thought the casting was spot-on, the design was fantastic, the script was clever and witty and exciting and paid homage to the original series without being some slavish fanboy wankfest. Music, cinematography and of course the special effects - all top notch. I really, genuinely can’t fault that film. When you consider how many attempts to recreate on the big screen a pre-existing franchise have fallen desperately flat - Planet of the Apes and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy spring to mind, although not before The Phantom Menace - then what JJ Abrams and co managed with Trek was a huge achievement.

      I just wish I could be as enthusiastic about the sequel. It’s not, let me stress, bad. It’s not an embarrassment like the Hitchhiker movie or Burton’s ludicrous Apes nonsense. It’s just disappointing, mainly because it’s so derivative. Having avoided spoilers in reviews, as is my habit (and if you generally do likewise then let me give you one final warning to LOOK THE HELL AWAY RIGHT NOW) I didn’t know that Benedict Cumberbatch’s character turns out to be Khan Noonian Singh. But the wannabe revelatory line "My name is Khan” failed to generate any sense of awe or surprise from this audience member. Just a shrug and then a realisation that, just two films into the new franchise, they have decided to start trading on past glories instead of, you know, boldly going where no-one has gone before.

      I’ve already seen Wrath of Khan, thank you. It has already been made. And one of the reasons that film is so good (establishing the tradition that the best Trek films were the even-numbered ones) is that it pleased the fanboys by harking back to ‘Space Seed’ (an original series episode that was good but not, up to that point, particularly significant) while being an exciting and original story in its own right for everyone else. But Into Darkness basically played on the assumption that everyone watching is familiar with Star Trek II. And they’re not. There’s a whole generation of audience members - cynically courted with that 12A rating - for whom the name ‘Khan’ means nothing. Young TF Simpson for instance, who is currently nine and a half, has seen the first Abrams Trek movie on DVD and enjoyed it. (He teases his dad for being a Trekkie, which I’m not. Yes, I do own some Star Trek action figures but he’s the one who plays with them.)

      My point is that to these neophyte Trek viewers, the film has little to offer because its key elements simply riff on earlier films. Particularly ill-advised was the farewell scene between Kirk and Spock (I told you to LOOK AWAY!) which obviously thought it was being clever by inverting the climax of Wrath of Khan but actually subsumed whatever emotional impact it might have had beneath a layer of pointless fanboy self-referentiality. Plus, back in Wrath of Khan, Kirk was losing a friend and colleague who had stood by him through several years of dangerous missions. In Into Darkness, Spock and Kirk have known each other for what, about six months? Possibly the most brazen lift was the scene of Kirk and Khan being propelled between the two spaceships which openly admitted, in the preceding dialogue, that it was a lazy retread of the exciting scene in the immediately previous film when Kirk and co dropped down through the atmosphere onto a small platform.

      Except that I don’t remember the sky-drop scene being so cavalierly stupid with physics. If these two figures can steer themselves through the debris field, why do they need to be so accurately aimed in the first place? More to the point, whatever hits and cracks Kirk’s faceplate would slow him down so that he could not possibly enter the other ship at the same time as Khan, and/or veer him off course on a trajectory from which he could not possibly recover.

      And there lies the biggest problem with Into Darkness: a relentlessly dumb plot which becomes dumber the more one thinks about it. Have you seen any of those very amusing ‘Everything Wrong with [Film Title]’ videos on YouTube? While watching Into Darkness I actually found myself mentally tallying up the stuff that those guys will have to play with. Little things like the landing party to the Klingon homeworld dressing in plain clothes to avoid any connection with Star Fleet, but as soon as they set off, Acting Captain Sulu broadcasts a message to the planet announcing that a Star Fleet landing party is on the way. Although to be fair, that was pretty much Sulu’s only line in the entire film. I think the lead singer of Skunk Anansie who takes Chekov’s seat, a woman with neither name nor character (nor indeed, hair) has more lines than Sulu.

      And why is Chekov not there? Because obviously, if your Chief Engineer quit just moments before you set sail, you would send the Helmsman down to run the engine room. So much better than the lazy option of just promoting your Second Engineer. I could go on. How is the ‘edge of the Neutral Zone’ just a quick shuttle trip from the Klingon homeworld? How does Scotty’s shuttle travel the 400,000,000 miles from Earth to Jupiter (in one day)? Why does Carol Marcus have a completely gratuitous underwear shot (something which prompted an irate opinion piece from some poncey Telegraph hack who brilliantly thought the film was called Star Trek: Into the Darkness!). And perhaps most puzzling of all, why would anyone hide their friends inside bombs? Isn’t that a bit like Werner von Braun trying to keep his colleagues safe from the Russian army by secreting them inside unlaunched V2s?

      Into Darkness simply fell flat. The next Trek film (presumably with a new director while JJ does his Star Wars thang) will have to be a lot better. Which raises the intriguing possibility that in this brave new world, the good Star Trek films will be the ones with odd numbers. 








MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.