I. Love. Star Trek. I have seen every episode of every series, and I have enjoyed every series for what it brought to the table, even if sometimes it was full of wasted potential — cough Voyager cough cough — or was brought down by uninspired character writing… I’m looking at you, Enterprise. However, The Original Series holds a special place in my heart, both as my introduction to Star Trek and as a unique combination of escapist action-adventure and high-concept philosophical exploration. Sure, it was limited by the special effects and the censorship standards of the time, but Gene Roddenberry’s concept and the writers who ran with it developed a great cast of characters who continually had engaging adventures from week to week. This is why, in 2009, I was excited to see J.J. Abrams’s crack at reviving Star Trek for a modern audience, a reboot that would introduce a new generation to the characters I knew and loved. What we got was… well, it was okay, I guess, but it certainly wasn’t Star Trek.
The main problem with Star Trek ’09 (which is what I will refer to the 2009 film in order to distinguish it from The Original Series and the franchise as a whole) is that it isn’t thematically consistent with what Star Trek has always been. The Original Series was all about exploration of the unknown and bringing excitement to prospect of scientific revelation. The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise was just that: a crew of individuals who were part of a five-year mission to explore and confront new obstacles. They were doing their jobs, and our engagement as the audience was to see them do their jobs well. Star Trek ’09 is framed as the polar opposite of that kind of story. James Kirk is now the protagonist of an origin story, pursuing his destined place as the captain of a starship after the death of his fellow-captain father at the hands of a mysterious enemy. The rest of the crew is present and accounted for, but only Spock is allowed a fully fleshed-out character arc, which simply acts as a mirror to Kirk’s coming-of-age journey. Various connections are made—such as Kirk’s birth aboard his father’s under-attack starship and Kirk finding Elder Spock and Scotty on a random ice planet—that make the universe feel small, rather than vast and explorable as was Roddenberry’s vision.
But you know what? I can forgive Star Trek ’09 for those faults. It’s still an alright movie that establishes the universe and characters for a new audience, full of engaging action scenes and with a nice narrative flow to it that uses the concept of destiny as a crutch, but no more so than any Star Wars film. (It’s not exactly a coincidence that Abrams moved on to direct The Force Awakens.) What I cannot forgive, though, is how Star Trek Into Darkness not only spun its wheels in regards to advancing this new timeline’s narrative, but it exploited the Star Trek canon in a way that came across as simultaneously pandering and completely out of touch with the fanbase. To address the first point, the driving character arc of Into Darkness is that Kirk must once again learn responsibility for his actions, re-earning his rank as captain while demonstrating that, once again, he is the best person for the job based on some hand-wavy destined bullshit. Not only is this lazy character work, but it also forces the plot to, once again, be largely grounded to Earth, not exploring the vastness of space, which IS THE ENTIRE POINT OF STAR TREK!
The only times we get to see an alien world are the opening, which is a poorly explained away mission that only serves as an excuse to reset Kirk’s prestige status back to zero, and the excursion to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos, which highlights the pandering nature of this film. Why bring back the Klingons, yet fundamentally change their designs? This isn’t an instance of whiny fan entitlement; I’m genuinely curious as to why the filmmakers would make an explicit point to evoke the nostalgic rivalry of the Klingon Empire and the Federation, only to drastically alter the look of one of Star Trek‘s most iconic races? Similar references are made to Section 31 and Star Trek II’s Carol Marcus, which seems to exist in name only and bear little to no relation to their original counterparts. A Tribble is given a visual callback that only begs the question of why a Federation vessel would be carrying such a dangerous creature, and a throwaway line about a Gorn completely disregards that race’s antagonistic history with the Federation. These are all admittedly small nitpicks (and believe me, there are more), but they pile up and compound on one another in such a way that implies that the writers were attempting to evoke nostalgia in a property that they themselves don’t really understand. The film is half-assedly researched in a way that betrays the writers’ lack of love for the property they were adapting.
So let’s address the elephant in the room: Kahn. Benedict Cumberbatch as Kahn is one of the most blatant bits of stunt casting in recent memory—a good actor who does well with the role as written but doesn’t do anything to evoke the uniquely malicious take Ricardo Montalbán brought to the character. (And let’s not forget that this is yet another instance of Hollywood whitewashing, but that’s an entirely separate article.) Casting aside, though, the reveal that Cumberbatch’s character is Kahn means absolutely nothing to the film’s story or the characters that inhabit it. Kahn’s background is never elaborated upon, so instead the film relies on the audience’s knowledge of The Wrath of Kahn—or at least name recognition of the character—to establish him as a potential threat. However, this flies in the face of every callback that the film otherwise drops, paradoxically requiring audience research that the filmmakers didn’t seem to bother with.
The way the film’s climax is meant to mirror The Wrath of Kahn’s is an interesting idea in theory, having Kirk die in the same way that Spock did in this film’s successor, but that moment doesn’t mean anything if Kirk’s death can’t retain some level of permanence between installments. Even though The Search For Spock was not a great film, it at least retained a level of logic and consistency that meant that Spock’s death was a unique circumstance only he could recover from. Into Darkness literally invents a cure for death, and then never explores the ramifications of such a cure. That’s just lazy writing, especially for a franchise that now has to quietly ignore that part of its lore in order to tell stories with any sense of scale or stakes.
This is why Star Trek Beyond feels like such a breath of fresh air for the series. I won’t rehash my review of the film here, but part of what makes Beyond such a great Star Trek film is that it flat out ignores most of what the other two reboot films fumbled. Writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung are self-professed Trekkies, and that shows in their approach to making an ensemble character film, rather than another Hero’s Journey for Kirk. The spirit of The Original Series is evoked not through endless references and callbacks, but through the spirit of exploration and adventure that doesn’t need recycled iconography to be engaging. Given that a fourth installment of the series has just been announced with a brand new writing staff, we can only hope that they draw their inspiration from Beyond the first two installments.