Saturday, September 21, 2013

#607. The emerging Star Trek Into Darkness Khan-troversy

There've been a lot of clues lately, but yeah, I've now realized that Star Trek Into Darkness is not especially popular.

It clicked for me when Entertainment Weekly devoted the debut of a new column to the phenomenon.  You can read it here.  The article outlines some of the obvious symptoms, like the convention survey that inexplicably ranked it as the worst of the twelve Star Trek movies, or the spate of defensive comments from its creators.  The whole thing is starting to reek of Superman Returns.

(And incidentally, I remain a passionate fan of Superman Returns, so I never understood that, either.)

I suspect the whole thing has to do with the second great story Star Trek fans love to tell themselves.  The first great story is the initial three seasons and cancellation that did not after all prove the end of Gene Roddenberry's vision.  The second great story is how Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the Greatest Star Trek Movie Ever.

I will give those fans the benefit of the doubt.  Without Wrath of Khan, it's very possible that the franchise as we know it today wouldn't exist.  The Motion Picture brought Star Trek back from the dead, but most fans today consider it a boring snorefest.  (And perhaps as a further sign of my cultish incompetence, I've always loved The Motion Picture.)  Everything changed with Wrath of Khan.  The costumes, for one.  And Ricardo Montalban became a true franchise icon.  He made his first appearance as Khan in the episode "Space Seed," but I'm pretty sure if both of them had only appeared then, we wouldn't speak so much about either today.

No, Wrath of Khan became an immediate touchstone.  There are plenty of elements that stopped resonating after a while, but Khan remained.  Kirk's solution to the Kobayashi Maru  test became so iconic that it was featured in the first J.J. Abrams flick.  (That alone should have told fans how much Abrams himself admired Wrath of Khan's importance to Star Trek lore.)

Fans established the odd movie curse in response to it.  They didn't so much like the first one.  They loved this one.  They were less enthusiastic about the third one.  The Voyage Home was the one with the whales.  You know about that one.  The fifth one was the next much-discussed misfire.  And the sixth one was the farewell of the original cast.  And so on.

It was Abrams who broke the curse.  His Star Trek was an odd movie, the eleventh in the series.  (Perhaps this was also because Star Trek Nemesis was an even movie, the tenth, and was such a box office disaster that it helped put the whole franchise in a coma.  Although I love Star Trek Nemesis.  Go figure.)

This one was also the biggest box office success of all the Star Trek films.  Of course, some fans were already grumbling.  The most generous comments suggested that he had made a Star Wars film (years before he accepted the assignment to succeed George Lucas in that franchise).

Abrams rebooted the Star Trek mythos with his film, opting for an origin story in the style that had become popular with movies at the time.  That just happened to mean that Khan, who had been off the board since Wrath of Khan, was back in play.

And why not?  Wrath of Khan established the character as integral to the whole franchise.  Star Trek usually defines itself more by social messages and its lead characters.  Khan's presence just so happened to result in a whole trilogy of linked films, thanks to Spock's death and resurrection (and whales).  His story began and ended, essentially, in the one film, but it was a combination of everything hitting the right marks, and how it helped the fans embrace the new material, and even that it made Star Trek a little like Star Wars, the whole reason Star Trek returned in the first place, that made Wrath of Khan so consistently memorable.

For some people, and not just Star Trek fans, "consistently memorable" is a parallel concept to unquestionable greatness.  Most critics who compile the greatest films ever made operate in this way.  They hit all the milestones like pieces of a puzzle.  To Star Trek fans, the first and most important piece will always be Wrath of Khan.

This is how something like the backlash to Star Trek Into Darkness happens.  Because in bringing back Khan and deliberately echoing Wrath of Khan, Abrams has threatened the legacy of this treasured memory.  Has he made a better version, a better film?  For many fans, this is unthinkable.  Rather than consider this possibility, they will reject the new film outright.

Star Trek has faced this challenge before, in 1987 when The Next Generation debuted in syndication.  This was the start of a new era, too, the beginning of a whole new cast's legacy.  Tellingly, Captain Picard's place in franchise lore was not solidified until he faced the Borg, which is kind of like his version of Wrath of Khan (making the eighth film, First Contact, all the more appropriate, and its own allusions to the second film all the more resonant).

Fans who are rebelling against Star Trek Into Darkness won't admit it, but this is old hat for them.  They rebelled against Deep Space Nine successfully.  There are many passionate fans of DS9, who stand by the opinion that it is the best of the Star Trek series.  Voyager hasn't been so lucky.  Neither has Enterprise.  Fans who try and stick with the simplest version of their devotion, who incidentally will never admit this, split opinions so successfully after Captain Kirk's death in Star Trek Generations that they helped bring the franchise to a standstill less than ten years later.  There were more episodes and more films in that period than at any other point in Star Trek history, but all the while the fans were actually struggling against them rather than embracing this boon period.

And then Abrams brought things back to Kirk, and audiences who weren't as concerned with the purity of it all finally admitted that Star Trek had become an iconic cultural institution, and that's how we got ourselves such a widely embraced film.

And then Star Trek Into Darkness, which dared to storm once more unto the breach.  And thus the backlash.  Terribly inevitable, really.

That's what fans can do.  They can embrace and they can reject.  Star Wars knows a thing or two about that, too.  (Incidentally, I love the prequels.)

And incidentally, I love Star Trek Into Darkness.  I guess I should have seen this backlash coming.  Everyone seemed to love the wild goose chase before the film was released, confirming what the filmmakers kept trying to deny, that Khan was in this movie.  I guess when everyone finally learned the truth, it was not as much fun as the chase.

Fans who thought Abrams didn't bring enough social commentary to his Star Trek don't have nearly as much to complain about in that regard with this one.  While carrying on the spirit of the extreme focus on the character of Captain Kirk that was featured in the first one, the sequel also makes ample room to meditate on the nature of war as we've known it this century, and even as we're dealing with it now, in the time of Syria.

And yet the controversy brews.  You'll pardon me if when I think about it that's not the first thing that comes to mind.  Star Trek Into Darkness joined, for me, the ranks of the elite in the franchise's film series.  And perhaps is one more reason why I can put Wrath of Khan, if anything, further behind.  Or perhaps further ahead.


Pat Dilloway said...

I haven't seen it yet but it sounds lame. Basically if you don't think about how idiotic things like STARships being UNDERWATER are then it's fine.


I enjoyed the movie the twisting of having different characters doing what other character did in the original movie had me doing double takes.

Tony Laplume said...

Exactly, David. If you were willing to let it, that sort of thing was a huge bonus.

Al Diaz said...

I happened to like Startrek into the darkness, but then again I do not consider myself a "fan" of the franchise.

Tony Laplume said...

Al, the new films are specifically geared toward being more open to new fans while also giving existing fans plenty to enjoy, so that's good.

Pat, it occurred to me later that you've got a standing protest to these films, so I guess there's not much more to say about that.

Maurice Mitchell said...

The backlash is interesting, especially since I would defy anyone to say that "Into Darkness" was worse than "Final Frontier." It had it's moments, but felt rushed and non-sensical. This controversy is exactly why Abrams hid the identity of the villain to try and get past the inherent knee-jerk reaction fans would have to "another" Khan movie. In the end, I think the fans will forgive and forget. Like you said "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" is way too cerebral and slow for a mass audience and it's beloved now.

Tony Laplume said...

Pat's latched onto author A Lee Martinez, who recently wrote an extended Facebook post about Into Darkness. I think the debate will continue for a while.


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