Some quibbles with Tribbles

Star Trek into Darkness

Fandoms are a dime a dozen these days; but if you don’t count the late-19th-century mass obsession with Sherlock Holmes, it was Star Trek that originally put fandom on the pop-culture map. Even before there were Deadheads, there were Trekkies (who at first bristled at the condescending label like a Tribble spotting a Klingon, but have by now seemingly come to embrace it). And they’ve been debating the cosmic philosophical and literary significance of this mid-‘60s TV space opera, avidly and with great seriousness, ever since.

If you’re even a casual fan of Star Trek in any of its manifestations, you should get your fair share of enjoyment out of the franchise’s 12th cinematic incarnation, J. J. Abrams’ Star Trek into Darkness – and much more so if you grew up on the original TV series. It’s essentially the second half of a two-part prequel to that storyline, leaving off just as the starship Enterprise is being launched on its iconic five-year mission to seek out new civilizations and blah blah. It’s a fond hommage serving up one classic meme after another that are dear to a longtime fan’s heart – though often spun in a jokey sort of way, like the moment when a panic-stricken Ensign Chekov is told to change into a red shirt so he can fill in for a missing Commander Scott. “Uh-oh,” chants the theatre audience in unison. Yes, there’s even a Tribble, and it gets to be a MacGuffin even though it happens to be dead.

Revisiting favorite genre tropes may be fun by itself, but what truly matters to a Trekkie is what a particular interpreter makes of the iconic cast of characters. Much of the skepticism that arose when Abrams announced that he intended to have a younger generation of actors portray the original Enterprise crew for his 2009 vehicle simply titled Star Trek evaporated when his casting choices turned out very strong across the board. The actors applied themselves respectfully, and fans for the most part took them to their hearts.

Nowadays there exists a widespread subgenre in “fanfic” (fan-written speculative fiction about characters from a particular fandom’s alternate universe) that is known as “slashfic” – so-called on account of the slash mark appearing between the names of two characters who are being imagined in a romantic relationship unsupported by the original canon material (a practice also known as “shipping”). Very often the speculative relationship is homosexual in nature.

For better or worse, slashfic is generally acknowledged to have been invented by Trekkies, and it originally took the form of “Kirk/Spock.” Some fans saw homoerotic significance in scenes in which the captain and his science officer acknowledged the depth of their friendship and loyalty or otherwise had some sort of male bonding experience (usually when one or the other was narrowly escaping death, which typically happened about once per episode). Often the context was Spock’s being forced to confront the emo non-Vulcan half of his genetic makeup (which typically happened about every other episode).

So it’s a time-honored convention in Trekkie fandom that the dialectic between Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock is the single most fertile ground in the canon for doctoral dissertations and fansite forum arguments. Abrams is apparently a true believer in the crucial role of the Kirk-Spock dyad, as he has made it as much a focal point of his two Star Trek movies as the narratives themselves. He directs our attention over and over to the ways in which the ethical choices and leadership styles of the two central male characters are shaped by the core ways in which their personalities differ from one another: Kirk (Chris Pine) the man of action, who operates on gut instinct when the going gets tough, and Spock (Zachary Quinto) the man of cool logic, who always plays by the Starfleet rulebook no matter what self-sacrifice that requires.

That division can get overly reductive, even for sci-fi, but the director is at his best when he puts the characters in situations where their default attitudes cause them to make bad choices, and each must make grudging accommodation to the other’s approach. Seeing Spock forced to wing it to save his crewmates (or some planet or species) is a phenomenon that we’ve witnessed before; but the young Kirk portrayed in these films is so headstrong that the likelihood of his ever being granted command of a Starfleet vessel again after losing it in the first act seems dicey indeed.

I’m still not entirely persuaded that Pine is a great fit for this role, but I might be unfairly blaming him for the choices of the writers and the director. His Kirk seems too impulsive and bellicose, and lacks the sense of perpetual amusement with the Cosmos that made William Shatner’s original Kirk bearable. Pine’s best acting moment here is one of his few quiet ones, when he must make a high-stakes decision of whom to believe – or at least pretend to – between two unreliable characters offering self-serving interpretations of a perilous situation.

Quinto, for his part, is as Spockian a younger Spock as we are likely to get. He has the character’s physical carriage, his deep stillness, down pat, along with the dry vocal inflections that occasionally just barely hint at sarcasm and superiority. Seeing him have to break into a stiff-armed run in an action sequence is a bit unsettling (did Leonard Nimoy ever have to do that?), as is watching him react, ever so slightly, to being kissed by Uhura (Zoe Saldana). If memory serves, according to canon, Vulcan mating happens about as frequently as a sunspot cycle. But remakes are remakes, and directors always like to confound our expectations a bit.

Speaking of Uhura, female viewers in particular will likely approve of the changes in her character (other, perhaps, than the romance with Spock, though I think most girls of my generation found him sexier than the cocky captain). She gets to be less the glorified switchboard operator and more the butt-kicking landing-party multilinguist. The funniest bits in this humor-laden movie belong to Simon Pegg as Scotty, who is drawn as very feisty, even rebellious, and not just a fretful mechanic married to his ship. Karl Urban gets the short end of the stick as Dr. McCoy, since all the scenes that would normally play up his exasperation with Spock’s coolth have here been handed to the captain instead. I found myself missing that bickering-old-married-couple dynamic, and Urban, though he delivers quite a serviceable Bones, just doesn’t have enough to do here.

That brings us to Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, a rogue Starfleet agent who goes by the name of John Harrison and turns out to be a genetically modified supervillain who has been kept in suspended animation for 300 years – and has, of course, an old grudge that makes him want to smash planets and enslave populations and that sort of supervillain thing. Anyone with even a middling familiarity with earlier cinematic iterations of Star Trek will spot his true identity within a few minutes of screentime without any spoiler aid from yours truly. Cumberbatch may seem a bit too Anglo for the part, but he has the requisite sepulchral voice and brooding presence to carry it off well.

My quibbles with Star Trek into Darkness mainly revolve around the decision to make it a nearly nonstop action movie, whereas the charm of the original lay largely in the diplomatic maneuverings required by the Enterprise’s mission. There’s not enough chess-playing here and quite a bit too much artillery. But times change, even in the remote future, I guess. And the movie did amuse this old Trekkie well. Perhaps the third installment, if there is one, may prove a little truer to the spirit of the original narrative. May this franchise live long and prosper.

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