‘Star Trek into Darkness’ just Khan’t quite make it

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I have a confession to make: I’ve been pretending to be something I’m not – namely, a normal person. But in my old age, I’ve decided to reveal the truth. I’m a Trekkie, Trekker — no point in getting hung up on the terminology, you get the idea. An aficionado of Star Trek. Back in my youth, I engaged in just about every geeky Trek-related activity possible (attending conventions, reading Trek novels) — short of putting on a costume. (And that was probably just because I wasn’t a good enough seamstress to make one.)

I mention this because I believe it establishes my bona fides to complain about the newest entry in the very profitable franchise spawned by Gene Roddenberry’s television show of the 1960s: the film “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” Without revealing any spoiler information, I will say that it borrows heavily from an earlier film – but instead of being an homage, as may have been intended, STID (we folks in the sci-fi realm are very fond of acronyms) comes across as derivative, lazy, and fundamentally dishonest.

I say dishonest because the film purports to be within the Star Trek universe, but it really isn’t. It has the label stamped across it in order to ensure a ready-made audience, but in actuality it’s a loud, tiresome action film, replete with over-the-top special effects, featuring characters named Kirk, Spock and McCoy who occasionally but inconsistently resemble the originals.

The young Kirk is pretty believable. Mc- Coy is reduced to a one-dimensional deliverer of one-liners, but he’s still himself. It’s the character of Spock who seems particularly off-key in the two new ST films – this one and 2009’s “Star Trek.”

The problem is not with Zachary Quinto’s portrayal of the half-human, half-Vulcan science officer, which is nuanced and likeable, but with the scripts. Spock in the original TV series and in the films numbered I through VI was a complex individual who attempted at all times to adhere to a Vulcan credo of logic and self-discipline. Despite clearly having emotions, he refused to display them because his philosophy viewed them as an embarrassment and a distraction from higher reasoning.

Fast-forward to the movie reboot, and you have a Spock who is having a passionate affair with Lieutenant Uhura, the ship’s communications officer; who sheds tears at one key moment in STID; who loses his temper and pummels the film’s villain; and who (in a particularly cringe-worthy scene) raises his head and yells at the top of his lungs in grief and rage.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with giving a much-loved character some fresh new dimensions and allowing him to evolve, but this goes beyond evolution. At what point is Spock no longer Spock, just a crewman with pointy ears?

Another dishonest element in the “new” ST films is their complete rewriting of the basic tenets of the ST universe. The first film posited a new timeline, created when Spock attempts to thwart a supernova by initiating a black hole to swallow it (technology that certainly wasn’t part of the original ST ’verse) and winds up traveling through the black hole. In the new timeline, the planet Vulcan has been destroyed, Spock’s mother is dead along with Kirk’s father, and we have the new Spock smooching with Uhura every time they cross paths in a corridor.

I enjoyed this first new film but imagined that the second would restore things to the “right” timeline. Clearly that was not the script writers’ plan. Instead, STID continues marching along the alternate path. Incidents from the original reality recur, but in ways that only vaguely resemble their antecedents. Plots from the past are rewritten. In better hands, this sort of treatment might prove an interesting twist on some old favorites. Here, it just indicates a dearth of imagination on the part of the film-makers.

My husband, a sci-fi fan himself, once wrote a short story about a world where creativity was slowly dying. That world has apparently come to pass, at least in Hollywood, where every major release is some sort of sequel or remake. But who’d have ever thought that a Star Trek film would prove to be the poster child for tired rehashings of familiar plot lines?

On Trek blogs, a debate is raging about whether fans should go see the new film despite its weaknesses in order to encourage Paramount to keep the franchise alive. I’d vote no.

The franchise is clearly going to live long and prosper, in one form or another, but maybe it can be encouraged to make better use of the talents of Quinto and Chris Pine (as a very handsome and intense young Kirk) in a future, more intelligently written film.

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From June 2013.