Next week: "The Lorelei Signal."
Saturday, May 25, 2013
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "One of Our Planets is Missing" (September 22, 1973)
“One of Our Planets is Missing” by original series director Marc Daniels is another superb early episode of Filmation’s Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 – 1974). The episode is not only true to Star Trek’s spirit of adventure and decency in the face of dangerous alien contact, but forward-looking in its approach to its subject matter. The episode also maintains remarkable continuity with the established Trek universe.
In “One of Our Planets is Missing” a “huge cosmic cloud” moves into the "outer fringe of the galaxy.” This cloud is a “strange combination of matter and energy” and quickly consumes an uninhabited planet. Worse, it is on a direct course for a world of eighty million colonists: Mantilles.
Captain Kirk (William Shatner) orders the Enterprise to investigate, and takes the ship inside the strange cloud. Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) soon realize that the cloud is alive, and possibly intelligent. Spock likens the space-going organism to a “bull grazing in the pasture of the universe,” a bull who may be unaware that it is harming other life-forms.
With only hours remaining before Mantilles is consumed by the cloud, Captain Kirk must consider destroying the organism’s brain, but Spock attempts a Vulcan “mind-touch” and contacts the alien being in hopes of reaching some kind of agreement. He allows the cloud entity to see life through his eyes, and recognize that it is destroying life-forms with its basic, biological behavior. The alien understands Spock’s message of peace and cooperation, and pledges to return to its “origin place” outside the galaxy.
“One of Our Planets is Missing” charts the Enterprise’s encounter with a mysterious space cloud, a sort of scintillating alien rendezvous that would recur, with some variation, in films such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and episodes such as Star Trek: Voyager’s “The Cloud.” Here, the cloud is not cloaking a vast life-form (as is the case in the first movie), but is an actual life-form unaware that its behavior may be interpreted as hostile.
In the best tradition of Star Trek stories, this alien -- once it learns of its behavior – seeks a peaceful end to the crisis. No phasers are fired. No punches are thrown. With its female voice (provided by the late Majel Roddenberry), the Cloud here also evokes memories of another benevolent cloud being, the Companion from the episode “Metamorphosis.”
In "One of Our Planets is Missing," Spock uses the Vulcan mind-touch to give the cloud a sense of humanoid life, a development which recalls not only “Metamorphosis” (and Commissioner Hedford) but some moments in the third season Star Trek episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” Here, however, the entity in Spock’s body not only gets to “feel” and “touch” human life, but through a video presentation on a view screen, gazes at human life on Earth. It sees cities, children playing and other aspects of our existence.
In terms of continuity, “One of Our Planets is Missing” is rather amazing, especially for a Saturday morning production in 1973. Kirk contacts the governor of Mantilles, Bob Wesley, a character seen in live-action in the second season episode “The Ultimate Computer.” We learn that Wesley left Starfleet for politics, and now lives on Mantilles with his eleven-year old daughter, Katie. This is a great character touch that connects the animated series to its live-action predecessor, and not in a gimmicky or exploitative way.
Also in “One of Our Planets is Missing,” Kirk grapples with the necessity of killing the cloud to save the population of Mantilles, and verbally references his speech from “A Taste of Armageddon” about deciding “not to kill…today.” It’s a deliberate call-back to a great (and under-appreciated episode), and also a good re-assertion of Kirk’s essential humanity.
Scotty also gets a significant role in this episode, proving his worth once more as a “miracle worker.” Here, the engineer is able to capture one of the cloud’s villi (made of anti-matter) to regenerate the Enterprise’s failing engines. This seems strangely plausible in terms of previously established Trek tech.
I haven’t watched “One of Our Planets is Missing” in many years, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching it this week, and felt that it honored the finest tradition of Star Trek. It’s the tale of a misunderstanding between alien races, and suggests that peace and friendship are possible once a dialogue begins, and if everyone -- over the odds, and without panic -- embraces good intentions.
Next week: "The Lorelei Signal."
Next week: "The Lorelei Signal."
Friday, May 24, 2013
Alone among those titles The Green Slime has gained quite a reputation as something of an anti-classic. Specifically, it has earned only a lowly score of 3.7 from user/reviewers on the Internet Movie Database.
In additions, books such as The Official Razzie Movie Guide and Son of Golden Turkey Awards have pretty well mocked and eviscerated the film too.
The former resource calls the movie a "camp classic" while the latter describes The Green Slime in this fashion: "Some of the worst American actors meet some of the worst Japanese special effects in this multinational fiasco."
So that's the conventional wisdom.
The New York Times was slightly more forgiving of The Green Slime, however. Critic Howard Thompson opined that the film "opens promisingly, keeps it up for about half-an-hour but then fades badly. There is a quiet, tingling efficiency about these early scenes and very little nonsense. The trick photography and stratospheric effects are neat and clean. And the plot itself isn't half bad for this kind of operation."
I had not watched The Green Slime since 1976 or thereabouts, but when a dear friend of mine named Robert offered to lend me his DVD of the movie (recently released thanks to the exquisite Warner Archive), I jumped at the opportunity to screen the film again and re-assess.
So, today... The Green Slime?
Well, first off, I believe The New York Times' Howard Thompson was actually more accurate in assessing and describing the film's strengths and weaknesses than the professional and amateur mockers have been.
In 2011, the film's special effects have undeniably aged poorly, and the actual Green Slime monsters probably never looked particularly convincing, let alone scary, to adult eyes. Not even back in '69. It wasn't really until Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), perhaps, that space monsters were suitably scary on-screen, and The Green Slime looks almost prehistoric by comparison.
I might also add that the science as presented in the film seems ludicrous. And that the acting is -- termed politely -- stiff. Blow dried might be a better description.
If we're keeping count, one might note that much of the dialogue is risible...and thus humorous. The view of scientists is pretty cliched too, with one professor's irresponsibility walking hand-in-hand with his idiocy.
And last but not least, the overt swinging sixties vibe (down to the awesome theme song and scantily clad astronaut ladies drinking champagne...) readily encourages the prevalent "so bad that it's good" interpretation of the film.
And last but not least, the overt swinging sixties vibe (down to the awesome theme song and scantily clad astronaut ladies drinking champagne...) readily encourages the prevalent "so bad that it's good" interpretation of the film.
So please, take all these negative points as absolute givens if you decide to watch The Green Slime. Don't say I didn't warn you, okay?
But playing devil's advocate now, this Japanese production filmed at Toei is also -- to my surprise -- constructed on some pretty sturdy film craft. The film's director, Kinji Fukasaku (1930 - 2003) is well-known as a favorite of Quentin Tarantino's and even in The Green Slime, one can detect the reason behind his admiration.
No, this isn't The Yakuza Papers (1971) or Battle Royale (2000) -- not by a long shot -- yet Fukasaku is the same artist; one extraordinarily gifted with visuals, especially talented at selecting the very right shot at the right moment.
The upshot is that a producer could actually mount a shot-for-shot remake of The Green Slime in Hollywood today -- featuring big-name actors and upgraded special effects -- and it would probably be pretty damned good.
The Green Slime is the story of a planetary disaster in the making. The multi-national UNSC (United Nations Space Command) learns that a rogue asteroid, named Flora, is on a collision course with Earth.
In fact, it will strike in less-than ten hours. Stalwart Commander Jack Rankin (Robert Horton) is assigned to destroy the asteroid before catastrophe occurs. Unfortunately, Rankin's assignment will also involve relieving his old friend, Vince Elliott (Richard Jaeckel), from command of the international space station, Gamma 3...and seeing his old flame, Dr. Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi), again.
But Jack is a non-nonsense kind of officer, and rushes in where angels fear to tread. On a rocket mission to the rocky surface of Flora, Horton's team detonates several explosives in short order. The threat to Earth is pulped, but a single glop of indigenous green slime lands on one astronaut's pants.
Upon return to Gamma 3, the crew celebrates the mission's success, unaware that the green slime has begun to grow in the decontamination chamber. In fact, the Green Slime thrives on electricity, and soon becomes a walking, cyclopean, tentacled monstrosity capable of "feeding on energy and discharging energy."
The Green Slime can also regenerate at a "frightening" rate. Even one drop of spilled Green Slime can regenerate a nursery full of these squeaking monsters. In other words -- to quote Alien -- "you don't dare kill it!"
Very soon, Jack realizes that there is no choice but to abandon and then destroy the overrun Gamma 3 station, lest the alien threat reach planet Earth...
Very soon, Jack realizes that there is no choice but to abandon and then destroy the overrun Gamma 3 station, lest the alien threat reach planet Earth...
"If he's right, those things are going to be all over the place!"
As I wrote at the start of this piece, it's easy, from a casual viewing, to detect what's bad and unintentionally funny about The Green Slime.
I do not now and never shall deny any of those important elements.
But solid film criticism isn't merely about plucking low-hanging fruit from the vine. In some instances, it's about excavating those things that get buried in favor of the obvious. And the fact of the matter is that The Green Slime is highly entertaining for a number of reasons, and it seems fair and judicious to enumerate those reasons in this review.
In particular, I recommend that viewers pay special attention to the visual compositions, and the ways Fukasaku uses the frame to create an escalating sense of tension.
For instance -- effortlessly and perfectly -- Fukasaku shifts to hand-held shots in the interior of a small spacecraft set just as the movie's protagonists undertake their important mission to Flora. The sudden shift from a more stately grounded camera to the hand-held shots supports the story's rising anxiety level.
That sense of artistry extends to the film's numerous space sets, which have sometimes been termed "cardboard." I didn't see that much, frankly, except in a few short sequences where Gamma 3's doors appear momentarily light weight. And on the contrary, the surface of the planet Flora as visualized here is quite dynamic and intriguing: a live-action studio set of considerable intricacy, color and depth. In the days before CGI, everything had to be built -- including whole planets -- and The Green Slime's foreign Flora looks like fantastic on DVD.
I could also comment on the effective choreography and early wire-work in some of the flying/battle sequences in space, a precursor to such EVA battles as we've since seen in Moonraker (1979), among other films.
With all this good work, it is a mystery to me why a clearly capable director allows his poorly-designed, silly-looking monsters to get so much damned face time on camera. This film could have been significantly improved by some shock cutting, by featuring dimmer light in a few moments, and by other techniques that could hide or mask the fakery. If those steps had been taken, The Green Slime might be remembered very differently today.
In terms of atmosphere, The Green Slime is gloriously a product of its time and specific context, the late 1960s. This was our world in the midst of the Apollo Program, with a moon landing on the horizon. Accordingly, the film benefits from the same kind of 1960s retro-futurism and can-do attitude as TV series like Thunderbirds or Star Trek.
That means the film is veritably filled with astronauts in red and blue jump suits, bustling about and moving quickly into action to face danger and save the world in the process. Launch a space mission to save the Earth in under ten hours? No problem! Just hit the accelerator! The Green Slime goes into laborious detail showing space cruiser launches, futuristic cities and other examples of man's "high technology" in this possible future. The breadth of imagination in terms of production design and miniature work on display here is not so easily dismissed, even if we have outgrown both miniatures and can-do futurism.
In terms of the world it presents, The Green Slime offers an irony-less view of can-do space adventuring, with serious men and women going about their business without tongues-in-cheek. In today's hipster world, this is just something else to laugh about, no doubt, but The Green Slime is the product of a more optimistic age. One in which we all believed -- without question -- that man would conquer space. I find this facet of the film charming and innocent, I must admit. The film's confidence in us, in mankind, is one of its finer qualities. This faith is reinforced in the subplot that many critics find so deplorable, the Rankin-Elliot rivalry.
Specifically, Rankin is all about the job, damn the consequences. We're all expendable!
And Elliot is the opposite, willing to save his men at the expense of the mission.
In the end, both men -- and both approaches -- are required to save the day. This plot-point alone seems evidence of a more innocent, less polarized time in our world. Today the answers to a lot of our national and international problems are both liberal ones and conservative ones, but no one wants to admit that fact. It always has to be either/or; not a little bit of both.
The Green Slime's dueling commanders -- fighting over the love of a woman and the path to success -- each must compromise a bit, and come to see the validity in opposing approaches. Is this particularly deep? Perhaps not, but it's another byproduct of The Green Slime's more optimistic epoch..
If you think that comparison is a valid criticism and a sign of "bad" cinema, then don't waste your energy on The Green Slime. You won't be that into it.
On the other hand, if you believe the comparison to Godzilla films is actually a positive, then by all means, sit back, relax, and have a good time with this silly movie played ever-so-straight.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
This second season episode of The X-Files (1993 – 2002) is one of the sharpest, most stunning social critiques in the entire catalog.
In “Die Hand die Verletzt,” Mulder and Scully deal -- in storied New England -- with the Satanist equivalent of “Cafeteria Catholics,” religious practitioners who pick and choose which edicts and dogma they want to believe in, and ignore the rest.
But when you’re dealing with the Devil himself, it’s dangerous to break faith, as the episode suggests in no uncertain terms.
“Die Hand die Verletzt’s” brilliance arises from the inventive notion of “lapsed” Satanists: one-time believers who are now doing so well that they no longer find it necessary to obey the edicts of their (dark) Lord.
They are punished (egregiously…) for their trespasses, of course, and so the episode begs the question: why do humans insist on pledging fealty and devotion to divine beings, and then promptly impose their own judgment about that deity’s wants and desires over its clearly stated ones?
In other words, if you believe in the Bible -- Satanic or otherwise -- how much personal “interpretation” is really allowed?
This X-Files episode could have very easily -- and very controversially -- been a story directly about Christianity, and that’s sort of the point. The episode critiques “the faithful” as people who claim to be of a certain “tribe,” but who don’t actually want to conform to their tribe’s belief system. This fact alone might be read to suggest that there is no God.
Because, after all, if you really believed in a deity, why would you wish to incur his or her wrath?
Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate the unexpected and unusual death of a high school student in Haven, New Hampshire, and Mulder believes the murder may be occult-related
Although Scully and Mulder don’t know it, the school board and PTA in this sleepy town consists entirely of lapsed Satanists who have watered down their faith. As a result, an evil substitute teacher/demon Ms. Phyllis Paddock (Susan Blommaert) arrives (presumably from below…) at the local high school to wreak havoc and remind the wayward souls who really calls the shots.
Before long, a local teenage girl, Shannon (Heather McComb) claims to have unwillingly participated in black masses in her cellar, and to have performed as a “breeder” for her Satanist parents. Soon, she apparently commits suicide.
Mulder and Scully find no evidence to substantiate Shannon’s report of devil worship in Haven, but even the duo from the F.B.I. soon feel the controlling hand of the devil at work through the extremeley frightening Ms. Paddock.
Once more, we can’t sufficiently discuss an X-Files episode without noting how cleverly it plays on real-life, current events of its time period.
In particular, the year 1992 saw the release of the F.B.I. report by Agent Kenneth V. Lanning (of the Behavioral Science Unit) on “Satanic Ritual Abuse.”
That report -- which is name-checked directly by Scully in the episode itself -- notes that there is no “corroborative evidence” for all the reports of Satanic abuse in America in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The author writes: “We now have hundreds of victims alleging that thousands of offenders are abusing and even murdering tens of thousands of people as part of organized Satan cults.”
The reason for this mass delusion, or insanity, Lanning suggests, is that Satanism -- the old “Devil made me do it” excuse -- offers “the simple and clear cut explanation for a complex problem,” meaning child sexual abuse. Lanning also relates the Satanism “cult” fear directly to the “Stranger Danger” idea of the 1950s, which also created a mass scare in American suburbia, but didn’t account for all that many cases of abuse, globally-speaking.
“Die Hand die Verletzt” turns such findings on their head, and makes a funny claim. There are Satanists everywhere in small-town America, the episode states, but -- humorously -- they are no more devout or zealous (and therefore dangerous…) than most American Christians.
Apparently, faith of any kind is really hard to come by these days, to paraphrase John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
By turns funny and ominous, “Die Hand dieVerletzt” is a sharp critique of human nature, and its apparent desire to believe in a Deity… but then second-guess that all-powerful deity for sake of personal convenience.
I had a Catholic college professor (and film instructor) who introduced me, back in the late 1980s, to the derogatory term “Cafeteria Catholic.”
He explained that these people looked across the smorgasbord of Church doctrine and belief, and picked and chose what edicts they wanted to obey, as if choosing toppings from a salad bar.
This way, they could use birth control and not worry about their immortal souls.
Or they could be pro-life, but then instruct their pregnant teenage daughter to get an abortion if the need arose.
I’m not trying to pick on Catholicism per se, or even Christians in general here. I suspect the same “Cafeteria” approach is present in virtually all forms of faith, and perhaps even sci-fi fandom, as a reader suggested to me recently.
People claim they are true believers, but what they really mean is that they have selected a belief system that mirrors or reflects their already-entrenched belief system. In other words, they shop for a religion that mimics a pre-existing state of mind, and tend to ignore facets of that religion that simply don’t line up with what they already like.
Mulder expressly comments on this very notion in the episode by remarking to a lapsed Satanist that indeed there is a difference “drinking grape juice instead of wine at communion.
“Die Hand die Verletzt” charts this universal phenomenon, humorously using Satanists as the “faithful” satirized. The Satanists are depicted as typical American suburbanites, worried that the musical Grease has the “F”-word in it, for instance, and looking to climb the ladder of American success.
As long as these “good folks” believed that Satanism could make them upwardly mobile or successful, well, they were Satanists. But when they achieved their goals, it turns out they didn’t need their “God” to help them anymore. He was cast-off, neglected.
What this episode of The X-Files describes, then, is a kind of selfishness about religious faith. These men and women aren’t in it for a God of any kind. They are in it for themselves. They get to claim faith (and therefore righteousness), at the same time that they reserve the right for themselves not to do something that they don’t like, or find unsavory (like sacrifice babies on an altar to Ba’al, for instance…)
What remains impressive about “Die Hand die Verletzt” is that the manner in which the narrative and tone travel from pointed satire of organized religion in America to stark, demonic terror, scene-to-scene.
The tipping point in that transition is a sustained, brilliantly-directed sequence in which young Shannon (McComb) reveals her personal history in a coven. The camera intently circles the young witness as she goes on and on, describing a litany of inhuman horrors. From this point on, the episode moves away from examining religious hypocrisy and delves full-bore into terror.
Rather surprisingly, “Die Hand die Verletzt” makes no bones about the Devil’s existence as a “real” force on Earth. The kids in the woods raise a demon, Mrs. Paddock, and she is a terrifying embodiment of the Serpent.
In fact, once she begins prosecuting the lapsed Satanists, the overall suggestion is that Mulder and Scully couldn’t stop her, even if they had all the facts at their disposal. The episode thus casts a malevolent spell as it broaches its denouement, and our heroes are forced to reckon with the point of view that -- from a certain perspective, they were “in league with the Devil” on this particular investigation.
“It was nice working with you,” Mrs. Paddock writes on a chalkboard in the local high school to confirm this idea. The message is chilling for what it suggests; for the idea that agendas aligned for a time, and Mulder and Scully were part of a plan beyond their own wishes, desire, or control.
The overall episode becomes funnier (and even tongue-in-cheek), however, when one starts to consider it in light of all the conspiracies about public schools acting as breeding grounds for the “evils” of secularism.
Then there’s the belief that Satanists have infiltrated the Federal government and are persecuting Christians, and so Mulder and Scully’s unwitting “alliance” with the Devil here suggests that imaginary conspiracy as well. Were the episode done today, it wouldn’t be about the bugaboo of Satanism, but probably Sharia Law infiltrating schools and government. The monsters change, but the (loony) fears remain the same.
I often write that The X-Files is the Star Trek of the 1990s, the pop-culture phenomenon that defined a generation. Episodes like “Die Hand die Verletzt” prove the point well. The episode works as social commentary, as tongue-in-cheek comedy, and in the end, as absolute horror show. Even better, the episode never feels off-message, or possesses the wrong tone. “Die Hand die Verletzt" holds a mirror up to the audience and asks us to consider the things we believe, and even, ultimately, the way that we put those beliefs to practice.
Next week, the epic double feature: “Colony/End Game”
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
“Grab hold and pull! You can stretch 13” STRETCH ARMSTRONG up to four feet. Squish him, scrunch him, stretch him out. He always returns to his original shape, ready for any wild position kids can think of!”
--Ad copy describing the capacity and capabilities of the unique action figure, Stretch Armstrong.
One of the most popular (and no doubt strangest…) toys of 1976 was Stretch Armstrong, from Kenner.
Essentially, Stretch is a muscle-bound, blond-haired “hunk” (garbed only in briefs…) who -- because he came filled with dark-colored “gelled corn syrup” -- could be stretched, pulled and tied into the aforementioned “wild positions.” Stretch Armstrong’s toy box implored kids to “stretch him long…watch him return to shape again!” Sometimes, this advice was followed too closely…
Stretch Armstrong -- soon to be the subject of a major motion picture, apparently -- became so popular in the late 1970s that other “stretch” creations were added to his universe in the years 1978 and 1979. These included the ultra-cool Stretch Monster, described as having “green scaly skin, devil’s eyes, and a half-man, half-lizard look,” Stretch X-Ray, and for the little ones, Stretch Octopus.
Today, it is exceedingly difficult to find an original Stretch Armstrong who hasn’t been bled out or otherwise mishandled. I had a Stretch Armstrong as a kid…for about five minutes, but always really wanted the Stretch Monster, who seemed very menacing and cool, and who would have been a perfect villain to combat Steve Austin or Jaime Sommers in Kenner’s Bionic line..
Below, some commercials for Stretch and his adversaries.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
(Note: In the following review, I will discuss, obsess on, and lovingly caress spoilers of all kinds, so be warned now, before you proceed…)
“There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves. Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that's not who we are...”
Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), in Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013).
I now understand that the thing which really primed me to enjoy and appreciate Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) is...Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013).
I screened that movie adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel on opening day, and was blown away by how relevant, experiential, and intimate the director had made the familiar material.
Although I love and admire the original book, there can be little doubt that the legions of high school students reading it right now find it a chore, or worse: a “dead text.”
But negative reviews be damned, Luhrmann has revitalized Gatsby and made it live and breathe for modern audiences. Rap music, 3-D photography, and other contemporary stylistic touches have rendered it entirely of the moment, and will open up an understanding of Fitzgerald’s work for generations yet to come.
For example, Luhrmann’s modernization of the work permits viewers to understand that the American Dream hasn’t changed much hanged in ninety years -- nor has Wall Street -- and thus help us to identify with Nick and Gatsby in a way that a traditional period piece simply would not.
Well, Star Trek lives again too, and in very much the same fashion I describe above, thanks to the efforts of J.J. Abrams and Into Darkness.
Although it may be sacrilege to say so in some circles, there are probably folks who would also consider Star Trek a “dead text” at this point. The franchise began almost fifty years ago, and the milieu which gave rise to it -- Kennedy’s Camelot -- began and ended before I was even born.
However, in ways large and small, epic and intimate, Star Trek: Into Darkness breathes fresh life into the franchise, and makes it relevant to today’s world. Although the narrative concerns the future of the 23rd century, the movie is really about today -- the world around us -- and its message is transmitted in the way that contemporary audiences can best receive it: in 3-D, with lots of lens flare, and in J.J.’s preferred mode of expression: pastiche.
The film’s story is not -- as I had feared and fretted -- all about a revenge-mad terrorist armed with a weapon of a mass destruction, but rather about the ways that heroes respond to acts of terror, and fear.
In short, Into Darkness is a spell-binding, thrill-a-minute film that accomplishes the one thing that the 2009 reboot did not, and which I desired to see more than anything else in a sequel. Star Trek: Into Darkness restores the Gene Roddenberry franchise as a vehicle for social commentary by noting that the bad guys win when we go “dark” in response to bad deeds.
Accordingly, the film plays as a recap of the difficult "War on Terror" years since 2001, years in which America condoned torture, holds suspects in perpetuity without trial, launched a pre-emptive war, and has relied on advanced, push-button technology to destroy enemies from afar, in violation of law and perhaps morality. Into Darkness is about who we have let ourselves become…all out of irrational, overwhelming fear and anger.
But, as Star Trek has long suggested, the best way to battle darkness is to bring it into the light…to expose it for what it is. To my delight, this J.J. Abrams film understands and transmits that notion in a fashion that a dozen interchangeably “dark” superhero movies simply do not. Kirk in this movie is angry about his loss and looking for vengeance, but because of his friendship with Spock, Scotty, and others, he is soon able to see that revenge cannot be the quality that defines him. He's better than that.
We should be better than that too.
The purists will complain -- just as they complain over Gatsby, and just as they complained when The Next Generation first premiered in 1987 -- but in their stubborn refusal to accept the passage of time and embrace modern audience appetites and movie techniques, these folks will also miss out on the best and most relevant Star Trek movie in possibly thirty years.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
In Star Trek: Into Darkness, the U.S.S. Enterprise under command of James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) undertakes an unauthorized mission on the inhabited world Nibiru.
In contravention of the Prime Directive, Kirk and his crew, including the half-Vulcan first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto) attempt to save the primitive inhabitants from extinction by volcanic eruption. The mission to quiet the eruption is a success, but with qualifiers. The natives, for instance, see the Enterprise in their sky, and begin the worship of it as a God…
Upon return to Earth and Starfleet, Kirk is called on the carpet by his superior at Starfleet Command, Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood), for his actions on Nibiru. Those incidents were reported by Spock, who Kirk saved from certain death on the planet. Spock believes Kirk should not have violated Starfleet Regulations, while Kirk believes that Spock should have trusted him.
Meanwhile, the shadowy John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) -- an agent for the secretive security branch of Starfleet called Section 31 -- goes rogue and launches two terrorist attacks against his former superiors. He destroys an archive in London, and attacks command personnel in San Francisco.
Captain Kirk requests permission to pursue the terrorist to the end of the galaxy if need be, and in that quest is provided a new, highly-advanced weapon by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller): 72 highly-advanced stealth torpedoes.
Marcus orders Kirk to go to the edge of the neutral zone near Klingon space, where he is to fire the torpedoes from a safe distance at an uninhabited province on the alien home world of Kronos. There, intelligence suggests, Harrison is believed to be hiding.
Spock objects to a kill order for a man who has not even stood trial for his crimes, and Scotty (Simon Pegg) resigns his commission rather than take aboard 72 weapons of unknown origin that could damage the Enterprise.
Upon reaching the neutral zone, Kirk reconsiders his orders, and takes a team down to Kronos to arrest and bring back Harrison.
This act which enrages Admiral Marcus, and opens up a world of secrets involving Section 31, the true identity of Harrison, possible war with the Klingons, and the existence of the first battleship in Star Fleet history…`
“I surrendered to you because, despite your attempt to convince me otherwise, you seem to have a conscience, Mr. Kirk.”
One important thing to understand about Into Darkness is that it is indeed the victim of a terribly generic marketing campaign.
Previews and trailers stress a mad man, acts of terrorism, and even the dreadful line “I will have my vengeance,” which -- if memory serves -- does not appear in the film.
As I described in my post, Threading theNeedle, the advertisements and posters evoke memories of The Dark Knight (2008) and Iron Man 3 (2013).
Similarly, the title Into Darkness is also outright dreadful, and a deliberate misnomer. This is not a film about Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew traveling into darkness, but rather about finding the antidote to the darkness in their lives -- in friendship, for instance -- and staying true to their convictions and beliefs in the process. T
he movie isn’t angst-ridden or broody, or particularly dark for the apparent sake of narrative and thematic “maturity.” It isn’t a film about ugliness. Instead, Into Darkness is about finding the best within oneself when times are worst, and that path of light being the key to dispelling encroaching darkness.
In terms of the social commentary, Star Trek’s (2009) destruction of Vulcan is now, clearly, the 9/11 of the franchise and the galvanizing incident behind the plot line of the sequel. Star Trek: Into Darkness follows-up that context, and reveals a Starfleet Command in chaos and confusion over how to respond to looming threats.
There is a direct, multi-faceted parallel between the years 2001–2013 and the events in the new Trek timeline. I’ll enumerate as many as I can, for they are legion.
Point 1: The John Harrison/Bin Laden connection
John Harrison, the villain of Into Darkness is a former agent of Section 31, a shadowy covert organization in Starfleet. He was "awakened" by Admiral Marcus and trained in 23rd century technology and intelligence to help Marcus countenance looming threats such as the Klingon Empire.
Osama Bin Laden, the late terrorist who struck America on September 11, 2001, is, in some circles, believed to have been trained by the CIA (corollary to Section 31, in Star Trek) to battle the Russians in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen.
In this case, Harrison also turns against those who trained him, and uses that training and knowledge to strike back at his former masters.
After two devastating terrorist attacks on Starfleet and Earth, in London and San Francisco, Harrison escapes without a trace to an uninhabited province in unfriendly territory.
Historically-speaking, we know that Bin Laden sought sanctuary in the rough mountain patch separating Pakistan from Afghanistan, particularly the inhospitable landscape of Tora Bora.
Bin Laden’s proximity to a sovereign country possessing nuclear capability and a population by-and-large hostile to America, became a central issue in tracking him down, and contending with him.
That precise dynamic plays out in Star Trek Into Darkness as Kirk must negotiate his proximity to the Klingons, and not allow Starfleet to become visibly involved in an incursion into such sovereign territory. Provoking the Klingons -- like provoking Pakistan -- could mean "all out war."
Finally, John Harrison is called his full-name only once in the film, and though it is abundantly familiar to Star Trek fans, it plays differently in terms of the post-9/11 milieu. Khan Noonien Singh sounds not entirely unlike Osama Bin Laden. Three word names, both consisting of apparent Middle Eastern-sounding origin. This resemblance may seem slight, but played out in this alternate universe timeline, I believe the connection is significant.
Point 2: Photon Torpedoes and Drones
The way to get and destroy Harrison, ostensibly, is by use of new, modified 23rd-century torpedo in Star Trek: Into Darkness.
These torpedoes can be fired from a great distance to destroy the terrorist. As others have written persuasively, this aspect of the Star Trek plot boasts a clear corollary with our continued drone attacks in foreign countries, including Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This “push-button” war raises questions of morality in both circumstances.
In neither instance is there a declared state of war, and therefore no permission to launch decapitation strikes deep inside sovereign territory.
But in both cases there exists the opportunity to kill with impunity, without repercussions, and to do it in such a way as there are no casualties for the “heroes.” This opportunity tends to make war seem "clean" and "pretty," especially to a detached citizenry. No pilots endangered, no boots on the ground. Just death from above, and from a great distance.
Point 3: The Klingons and Iraq
Following Al-Qaeda’s surprise attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration immediately began conceiving a way to legitimize a war…with Iraq.
Al-Qaeda was headquartered in Afghanistan and had no links to Iraq or its despotic ruler, Saddam Hussein, and yet the Administration began to lobby for war with that state.
This fact is revealed in Bob Woodward’s text Bush at War, which notes that “Before the attacks, the Pentagon had been working for months on developing a military option for Iraq…Rumsfeld was raising the possibility that they could take advantage of the opportunity offered by the terrorist attacks to go after Saddam immediately.”
In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Admiral Marcus is similarly, unhealthily obsessed with the Klingon Empire and believes that war with the Empire is inevitable. He is looking ahead to a next, possible enemy, instead of dealing with the enemy that already exists (John Harrison).
Accordingly, Marcus and Section 31 have begun to hyper-militarize Starfleet, and laid the ground-work for a new war against an enemy who has not yet struck. The U.S.S. Vengeance, a super-battleship, has been secretly commissioned for a war that, as of yet, has not been launched.
In fact, a torpedo strike into Klingon territory would be just the thing to give Marcus his desired war, wouldn’t it?
And at one point in the film, Marcus yells at Kirk that if war comes, Starfleet needs a decisive man like him making decisions, calling the hard shots.
In other words, he's the decider.
And if Starfleeet dare pick someone else, someone open to facts instead of fear (someone like John Kerry or Jim Kirk perhaps), you might risk "nuclear mushrooms" over American cities.
The corollary to the War on Terror Age couldn't be more precise.
Point 4: The Private Soldier
Star Trek: Into Darkness also suggests that because Starfleet boasts clear regulations and orders of conduct that its officers must heed and obey, other, less “principled” soldiers may be required in the event of war with the Klingons...to fight in accordance with Marcus’s cut-throat new principles (learned from Khan?).
Accordingly, U.S.S. Vengeance is manned with “private” security forces, just as a private security firm, Blackwater operated in Iraq.
The idea here, roiling under the surface is that Starfleet Regulations -- like the Geneva Conventions -- are "quaint" relics of a bygone time, not to be honored in a time of war-mongering and fear-hysteria. Good soldiers no better than to break the laws of engagement, but what about hired guns?
Point 5: The Torture Debate
In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Captain Kirk accepts John Harrison’s surrender, and then spends the next minute-and-a-half beating him, attacking his prisoner for his murderous deeds in London and San Francisco.
But Harrison is stoic, and endures the abuse without pain, or even expression. Finally, Kirk must stop. He has achieved absolutely nothing through his display of brutal and primitive violence. He has not weakened Harrison, and he has not learned anything whatsoever about Harrison’s motives or plans.
Again, this moment in the film is very clearly a corollary for the on-going debate about the use of torture on “enemy combatants.”
Notably, Kirk only succeeds in hurting himself -- embarrassing himself, too -- in physically attacking his prisoner, a man in his custody and therefore under his protection. This brutal physical assault has the effect of making him look weak, not Khan.
Worse, it makes Kirk lose the moral high ground for a time.
And again, that’s exactly what happened to America at Abu Ghraib and in covert CIA bases the world over. Instead of living up to our ideals about how to treat prisoners, we sacrificed our ideals out of fear and anger.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Star Trek: Into Darkness is that its writers show the courage to diverge from our dark recent history in their idealized version of the future. Kirk eventually realizes it is wrong to kill a man from a distance without benefit of a trial. He hunts down Harrison/Khan and captures him for just such a trial (though we don’t see it). The best way to deal with terrorists is in the light of day, not in the shadows.
In real life, we know that Bin Laden was hunted down and executed without trial, an act of revenge that in no way illuminates America’s true and hopeful nature as "the shining city on the hill." The point is that we have to be better than our enemies in our beliefs. That's what attracts allies to America; that's what makes us strong.
Star Trek: Into Darkness thus suggests that the “good guys” win when they remember their true values, not when they descend to the level of barbarian, or give in to passing surges of blood-thirst or vengeance.
This subtext represents a very Star Trek-kian principle, and I am happy to see it enunciated in an age of such thoughtless violence. Every other blockbuster movie is about a hero meting revenge for some terrible wrong. It's nice to see a blockbuster, for a change, where the heroes stop short of vengeance, take a breath, and remember who they are.
The Mirror Crack’d: Into Darkness as a Pastiche affirming the universality of the Kirk/Spock Bond.
J.J. Abrams’ preferred mode of operation, I would submit -- based on his film career -- is pastiche.
You can see it clearly in Super 8 (2011), a film that dynamically apes the Spielberg filming style, and uses and adapts elements from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). I have read some complaints by Star Trek fans about the ways that Into Darkness “apes” previous moments in Star Trek history, namely the denouement of The Wrath of Khan (1982).
A pastiche, of course, is an artistic work “in a style” that imitates that of another work or artist. But I would submit where a film like Nemesis apes the plot-line of The Wrath of Khan, Abrams goes one better with his frequent, post-modern nods to the Trek franchise.
His Star Trek is set in a different timeline, in an alternate universe (not unlike the Mirror Universe, for instance), so some events actually have legitimate cause to repeat. History is going to repeat itself, more or less. And it is in the excavating of that "more" or "less" that Abrams seems to have so much fun.
The point seems to be that no matter how much the "new" time-line alters the course of cosmic events -- like the destruction of Vulcan -- some events are indeed pre-destined, or pre-determined Kirk and Spock are meant to join up…in every universe. And Kirk is meant to be Captain of the Enterprise in all realities too, at least for a time.
John Harrison/Khan fits this same template of pre-destiny.
In any universe, Kirk and Khan are going to meet, clash, and he will only be defeated by, in the words of Prime Spock (Leonard Nimoy), "a great personal cost."
The only thing that can defeat this powerful villain, is the combined force -- and friendship -- of Kirk and Spock. In the canon universe, it is Spock who dies to save the Enterprise. In Into Darkness, it is Kirk who goes into the warp core to face his own death.
This is not a blind, empty repetition of Star Trek lore, it is an outright assertion of the importance of the Kirk/Spock relationship, and its value in the face of villainy.
Those viewers who see Into Darkness as merely ripping-off the Wrath of Khan are missing the point entirely. Instead, the “mirror” scene of Into Darkness at the reactor core is a beautiful statement about Kirk and Spock’s connection in any reality. They will always be friends and they will always be willing to sacrifice themselves for their family: the Enterprise crew. Khan will never win, in any universe, because he lacks the special bond that Kirk and Spock share.
Quite frankly, we could not get to this vision of a friendship that spans universes without Abrams’ penchant for pastiche, without his willingness to appropriate sign-marks and symbols from Trek history and re-purpose them for today's audiences
The very thing that some Trekkers complain about as a weakness is, in fact, a strength of the film, and also of Abrams’ vision of Star Trek. He is not repeating what has happened before, he is revealing to us how, in the face of a “mirror” universe, some values such as friendship -- and Starfleet Regulations -- endure.
With Kirk and Spock together on the Enterprise, the universe shall, more or less, “unfold as it should.”
This appreciation for Abrams’ modus operandi does not preclude me from criticizing certain aspects of the drama, however.
Although everyone has bent over backwards to appreciate Benedict Cumberbatch’s villainous performance as Khan, I would suggest his success in the role arises from his own qualities as an actor, and not the writing of the character.
I recognized him as a strong presence in the frame, in other words, but not as Khan. I recognize Pine and Quinto and the others as the Enterprise crew, but the writers have brought almost no “old series” signifiers to allow permit long-time viewers to recognize Khan as the same man from “Space Seed” or Wrath of Khan.
Would it have been too hard to have Cumberbatch quote Milton, or Dante, or Melville, just to remind us old folks he’s the same fellow from Space Seed?
There is precious little of “Khan” in the writing of the Khan character in Into Darkness, which makes him seem a more generic villain than need be. It’s a good thing they cast an actor with such strong physical and intellectual presence, but watching the film, I never felt like this Khan was the same man I had met before. Cumberbatch brings immense focus to the role, but not the larger-than-life theatricality of Montalban. I missed that aspect of the character, as well as his sense of literacy and history.
I also feel that some of the changes in this time-line are going to cause problems for the writers down the line. If a man can trans-warp beam from San Francisco to the heart of the Klingon Empire, there is no need for Star Trekking of any kind whatsoever.
Somehow, future movies will have to address the fact that the transporter device is now a better, more efficient means of travel than starship and warp drive.
But frankly, these are quibbles with a movie that is exciting, emotionally-affecting, funny, and incredibly entertaining. The social commentary about the post-911 age permits this film to live up to Star Trek’s most noble tradition of being about something more than spaceships and lasers, and J.J. Abrams’ penchant for pastiche transforms the film into a meditation about the depth of the Kirk and Spock bond, no matter the universe, no matter the situation.
So like The Great Gatsby, Star Trek endures, and finds a meaningful place in the pop culture of the 21st century.
And again, once more the sky's the limit...the five year mission begins again. I can't wait to see "what's out there...."