Because Facebook and other sites include the first paragraph of blog posts I’m going to pad for a bit so that no one gets things spoiled in their feed. If you want to read my (apparently pretty popular) non spoiler review of Star Trek Into Darkness, click here.

I’m going to start a bit slow here because there is a lot to my writing this piece. Specifically, the fact that I’m going to not just spoil the plot, I’m going to explain why this is a film that a new generation of Star Trek fans will look back on in 30 years when the series is rebooted again and go “The reboot sucks! Into Darkness was better!”

I never liked alternate history fiction, I always frowned and said “But that’s not how it happened.” Then I read Turtledove and Cherie Priest and oooooo now I get it, it’s a crazy new sandbox to play in for interesting ideas.

That’s what JJ Abrams new Trek universe is. As I explained in my non-spoiler review (WARNING THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE TO AVOID SPOILERS) this new universe has been pretty well and thoroughly messed with. Star Trek Into Darkness is very much like the second episode in the first season of a new show. It is not at all like the 12th film in a continuing series of movies. This is more Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale than it is Superman Returns.

That *should* be enough padding. SPOILERTOWN!

Cumberbatch is Khan, the movie is a retelling of Space Seed with elements of Wrath of Khan. Someone actually screams “KHAAAAAAAAAANNNNN!”

I’ll let you freak out, roll your eyes, or clap your hands for a minute before I deep dive into why it’s awesome.

As a Trek nerd I was seriously upset at the rumors that Benedict Cumberbatch was going to play Khan. It just seemed a dumb choice for the second movie out of the gate. The universe has been rebooted! Why would Khan be angry at Kirk? I would have rather they done a third or fourth movie where maybe Khan and Kirk would have been friends! The first second Star Trek film was about Khan (yeah I know just run with it)!

So let’s dive in! I’m going to discuss the plot linearly time wise, not in the way the movie lays out its reveals.

Shortly after the events of the first reboot film some members of Starfleet begin to realize two things: Klingons and Romulans are threats, and Starfleet is ill prepared to deal with them. The Federation authorizes certain Starfleet members to conduct special programs designed to bolster the military knowledge and capability of the Federation.

This results in Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller, loving every minute of his screen time) conducting an historical research project that uncovers the existence of the SS Botany Bay, filled with genetically engineered military experts. Marcus locates the Botany Bay, thaws out their leader, then proceeds to hold the rest of his followers hostage in cryosleep, threatening to kill them if Khan does not assist Starfleet in developing more warlike ships or improve their military strategy.

Khan proceeds to do this, joining a secret group in London called Section 31 and his work ends up resulting in a new and special class of ship. Along the way he sees the inadequacy and hypocrisy of what StarFleet is doing by claiming to be an agency of exploration while preparing secretly for pre-emptive war. Not to mention the singularly ungentlemanly act of holding his followers hostage. Thusly, Khan plots his revenge against both the specific target of his ire, Admiral Marcus, as well as Starfleet itself. Khan wants this special ship for his own, and he’s got some plans for his future.

(Everything I wrote above is revealed by the fine team over at Exposition Incorporated later in the movie when our villains monologue to Kirk, very little of any of it is shown.)

Ok right off the bat this is a brilliant (and I might say the only way) to introduce Khan back into this universe. It took enormous balls to make the second Star Trek reboot movie about the most iconic character in the series’ history, done so perfectly before.

Wrath of Khan hangs over the entire Star Trek movie franchise like some type of curse. The first film, the original Star Trek The Motion Picture, has been seen by fandom as good, but ponderous. It’s slow and tackles deep philosophical ideas. Wrath of Khan was a bit of a thrill ride where our illustrious crew faced their age, a confoundingly evil adversary, nearly lost the ship, rose to the occasion, and made sacrifices that for once were painful and immediate. The Kirk in Wrath of Khan was a man who had fought for everything he had and had never really failed. He cheated death, tricked his way out of it and patted himself on the back for his own ingenuity. We got our hearts broken, saw real danger in the threat to the crew, and saw two decades of story building get turned on its head. Star Trek suddenly was grown up. Star Trek 2 broke the mold.

Unfortunately it was so impactful that every single film following it except Star Trek IV tried to recapture that lightning in a bottle. “Cold open that has little to do with the ensuing plot? Check!” “Strong Villain with unique personality traits to play foil to the Captain? Check!” “Beat up the Enterprise to the point it’s either destroyed or semi-functional to create dramatic tension? Check!”

Oh don’t get me wrong, it didn’t result in every Star Trek film being bad or anything. First Contact and others were quite good. But they all tried to be Wrath of Khan, and none of them really came close. All of them except Star Trek IV, and more about that in a minute.

Back to spoilers!

The movie opens with a seven or eight minute sequence that could be its very own Star Trek episode. It’s thrilling, fun, and like Wrath of Khan’s cold open it establishes some items that are going to get explored later. Kirk and McCoy, in disguise, have been trying to distract the natives of a planet where their entire population is under threat from a super Volcano. Spock, Uhura, and Sulu are aboard a shuttle attempting to stop the detonation of the Volcano. Kirk and McCoy rejoin the Enterprise which is hidden underwater so the Prime Directive is observed while they try and save the natives.

(A moment here about the people complaining about the ship being under water or in atmosphere: in the original Star Trek series Enterprise could enter atmosphere. See the episode Tomorrow is Yesterday. Now shush.)

Spock gets trapped in the volcano before he can detonate a device to stop it, leading to a quandary for Kirk: disobey the Prime Directive and let the natives see the Enterprise so he can save Spock? Or let Spock die?

This continues the ultimate resolution of the plotline established in the prequel comic Countdown Into Darkness (written by the films creators) where Kirk learns a valuable lesson about letting the Prime Directive doom a civilization. He makes the call his friend is more important than whatever small damage might be incurred to a society doomed anyway and in an amazing sequence where I may or may not have shouted “THERE’S MY GIRL” when my favorite Enterprise arose from the water we get the first nod to Wrath of Khan when Spock protests saying “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

This open was pitch perfect Star Trek. Those who complain this reboot is too action oriented and not big on ideas *really* need to go back and watch all 79 episodes of the original show. The ideas are here. The Prime Directive is explained, albeit a tad breathlessly, the moral choice and character building moment of deciding to rescue Spock is pure Trek, and the consequences of Kirk’s actions to those natives (which I won’t spoil here because honestly it’s priceless and you have to see it) shows that actions have consequences. Very few original series episodes were “City on the Edge of Forever”, a lot of them were “Spock’s Brain”.

Anyways, alas our Captain Kirk has not yet had enough time with Spock to understand he cannot lie. Kirk’s report omits the rescue and violation of the Prime Directive. Spock’s, does not. It is at this point that Kirk is relieved of his command.

Yup, relieved of his command, in a scene conducted by Admiral Pike that squarely addresses the folks whose main complaint about the reboot is how Kirk went from cadet to Captain so fast. Kirk is angry and hurt by Spock’s actions, but at the same time Chris Pine plays him with a wonderful “I guess I should have realized things were going too good” sense of resolution that finally he had screwed up and got caught for it.

I want to go back here to Wrath of Khan’s Kirk. Kirk struggled to achieve what he was losing in Wrath of Khan. This Kirk is still too young, still too brash, and has been given far more than he’s earned. It’s an important character beat. He’s upset at Spock, but Pine does a wonderfully nuanced job of making me think he’s mad at himself too.

So Kirk gets drunk.

Meanwhile, in another movie, a London family is mourning the impending death of their young daughter. A father and mother visit her in the hospital, all hope seems lost. Benedict Cumberkhan appears, saying his name is “John Harrison” promising to save her. He’s escaped the confines of Admiral Marcus. Using the advanced properties of his genetically enhanced bioengineered blood he cures the girl but at a price, he convinced the father to smuggle a bomb into the area for Starfleet in which he works. Ostensibly a library, but in reality it’s Section 31. His plan? Enact revenge on Starfleet and Marcus and rescue his crew.

Admiral Pike decides to make Kirk his first officer and go back to command of the Enterprise, where Kirk can learn what it really means to lead a crew. BeneKhan Cumberharrison’s terrorism in London calls all the smart Admirals and Captains and their first officers into a room at StarFleet headquarters. During the ensuing discussion Kirk doubts the official explanation of a library generating such a high level response and Harrison JohnberKhan appears to try and kill all of StarFleet high command before being foiled by Kirk from killing them all. He escapes.

Admiral Marcus lives, Admiral Pike dies.

Here’s where the movie nailed me, in two key moments. The first is that Khan doesn’t care a whit about Kirk or his ship or anything having to do with him. He’s after Marcus and the Admiralty. The second is when Spock mind melds with Admiral Pike at his moment of death. This was a real Spock moment for Zach Quinto. The depth of the expressions on his face while maintaining a stoic Spock exterior was moving. Here he was, connected to his former Captain, experiencing his last moments. Spock recounts them later in a scene that again, you really have to see to get the full impact. It was a wonderful touchback to “The Menagerie” episode of the original Trek, where Spock risked his career for Pike. This universe is told in movies so it doesn’t have time for that, we get this instead. And it worked. I got that these two men had a bond such that if Pike had not died, later on Spock would have risked his career simply to help the man if he needed it.

Back to the movie!

Khanadict Bumberjohn has escaped to the Klingon homeworld, and Admiral Marcus monologues to Kirk that the Klingons are a dangerous warlike race and John “Harrisonkhan Cumberbatch” Harrison could start a war no one’s ready for. Kirk is enraged at the death of Pike and wants revenge. Kirk is reinstated to Captain of the Enterprise to go kill Harrison. Not apprehend him, kill him. Kirk is incensed enough, manipulated enough by Marcus, and has bent the rules enough in the past to know sometimes you gotta take action.

This is where the movie surprised me. It’s now a Kirk revenge story. A totally believable one. Marcus has issued the Enterprise several of a new class of torpedo, Kirk’s to blanket the uninhabited area of the Klingon homeworld with them, killing Harrison who is hiding there. Few of the crew agree with this course of action, Scotty in fact resigns because no one will let him examine the torpedoes and the integrity of the ship is his responsibility.

Scotty’s resignation felt forced to me. I liked it, it was a stand for principle. Simon Pegg you can see throughout the film is having the time of his life playing this character. But the scene felt a bit rushed, and I was looking for nods to what Scotty went through in Wrath of Khan. I was hoping they would have tied his resignation more to his pride of the ship not his job as engineer. Things shake out ok later though. Scotty gets drunk and calls Kirk “Captain perfect hair”.

So we go to the Klingon homeworld, in which it looks like Praxis has already been destroyed so that’s interesting. Kirk decides after significant and well written angst to go down and capture Harrison instead of killing him or attacking the Klingon homeworld which might cause a war.

I liked the Kirk revenge story moment. Turning a Khan story on its ear and having Kirk be the blinded-by-revenge guy was great. But as the movie played along I was concerned by it. I didn’t like this Kirk. I didn’t want to root for him. The moment where he does the right thing and changes his tactics to bring Harrison in felt right and was a good emotional beat in the film.

The next 15 minutes on the Klingon homeworld are pretty much action filler and a reveal of the new Trek Klingons. They didn’t deviate too much from the familiar and I liked them quite a bit.  KhaniKhan HarrisonKhan shows up and rescues the crew from capture by the Klingons and Kirk gets his revenge moment when KhanKhan “John Harrison” Khan, calmly, surrenders after being informed the number of those special torpedoes the Enterprise has. Kirk beats the crap out of him while Khanikan Skywalkerson just accepts it, not resisting. Also, somewhat telling, our villain doesn’t appear to be in the least bit physically damaged by Kirk’s assault.

Come to find out those special torpedoes? They aren’t really all that special. They’re just super shielded oversized regular torpedoes. Admiral Marcus placed a member of Khan’s crew inside each one, still frozen in stasis, as an ultimate solution to the problem of Khan’s escape and ambitions, and having 72 super geniuses around.

This is all revealed by Khanison Harrison John in the Enterprise brig. He reveals his origins and real name (Thank goodness now I can just call him Khan when he’s in the movie plot now) and the location of a secret construction area near Jupiter where his special class of ship is being built. Kirk contacts Scotty to ask him to go check it out. And Scotty finds something interesting.

Here, plotwise, is where things got really explanatory, and the action slowed down ponderously. Kirk notified StarFleet that he would be taking Khan to the nearest Starbase under custody. Suddenly, Admiral Marcus shows up in Khan’s specially designed ship, the USS Vengeance. It’s an entirely new class, approximately three times the size of the Enterprise but with 1/8th the crew because Khan’s contribution was the design of automating for war versus all the things an exploratory ship has to staff for.

Admiral Marcus monologues his backstory and tells Kirk to hand over Khan and the torpedoes. When Kirk tactfully refuses then warps away (almost reaching Earth), Marcus reveals he’s perfectly fine with destroying the Enterprise. It is at this point that Marcus’ daughter, Carol Marcus (the same character from Wrath of Khan)—

Wait did I not tell you about her? Oh sorry it must have slipped my mind.

And thus is the problem of the entire second act of this film. It’s basically an exposition/reveal vehicle. The Carol Marcus character gets incredibly short shrift in this movie, serving solely as a momentary tense moment with Spock near the end of the first act (Spock, and we, are puzzled as to why there are two science officers aboard) and to maybe maybe not kinda sorta but not really flirt with Kirk. She’s not there for tension because just at the very moment you think she suddenly has a purpose in telling her father he cannot destroy the Enterprise because she is aboard, he beams her off the Enterprise onto the Vengeance.

It’s the first moment in the movie I felt let down. The character pretty much can be removed from the film without impacting a whole bunch at all. It’s one of the first moments when you can see the filmmakers went a bridge too far with the Wrath of Khan references or moments. There’s two more moments in that regard that happen as well. But the Carol Marcus issue is a movie-long problem. She’s not interesting as written (although wonderfully played by Alice Eve even if the accent is a bit odd) and given rather mundane plot duties. I hope she fares better in Trek 3.

Marcus’ USS Vengeance then Wrath of Khans the ever loving snot out of the Enterprise in a fun warp speed battle.

There’s a touching moment where, his ship disabled and about to be destroyed, Kirk pleads for the lives of his crew, pointing out they should not have to pay for his mistake in trusting Marcus’ original motives instead of his true ones, which are to kill Khan, his followers, and anyone who knows the origin of his new supership. Kirk offers himself, Khan, and the torpedoes. Marcus however points out he’s just tying up loose ends, and Enterprise was at the Klingon homeworld in an act of war. Blowing them up is just good housekeeping.

I loved this moment. This felt very much like the culmination of a Wrath of Khan beat, where Kirk would ingeniously outsmart Marcus with a command code or something and escape. Instead he turns to his crew, and he says simply “I’m sorry.”

It’s a wonderful powerful moment. I sat there for a second going “What?” The entire lift of “Federation ship against Federation ship” from Wrath of Khan was building up to this moment where a StarFleet Captain might pull some backdoor command to beat the other ship!

But this isn’t Wrath of Khan. And Kirk’s the inexperienced one here, facing a careered StarFleet Admiral. It was good stuff, the writers here confounded expectations.

It’s at this point the most interesting and unexpected moment in the film happens. They do a callback to Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock.  Scotty has stowed away on the Vengeance and disables this advanced new ship that would make the Enterprise obsolete much like he disabled the Excelsior. If the writers didn’t high five themselves when they wrote that moment I don’t want to work in that writer’s room. With all the Wrath of Khan notes in this film they had the guts to pull in a Star Trek 3 note. They wisely didn’t have Pegg quote any lines from Search for Spock but his panicked glee at what he had done was, again, pitch perfect. He’s having the most fun in this movie, and you can tell every time he’s on the screen.

There’s only one person who can help Kirk, and he’s in the Enterprise brig. Kirk has to use Khan to get aboard the ship Khan helped design before they regain power and destroy the Enterprise. So Khan and Kirk conduct a space jump that forces each one to trust the other in order to succeed. This was a moment I really enjoyed, this was the alternate universe portion of Khan that really shined. Khan doesn’t hate Kirk. In fact he couldn’t care less about Kirk. He’s after one thing: Marcus and taking over the Vengeance. While all this is going on Spock does something that perhaps you get the sense he might not have ever done before, he contacts Spock Prime to learn of Khan.

The moment between Spock and Spock Prime is really awkward because it seems like Spock Prime has some really arbitrary rules for revealing information about the universe he knows, and the information he imparts isn’t particularly damning since he provides no context or backup. Has Spock Prime told anyone about V’Ger? The Borg? The whale probe from Star Trek IV? All of these things are still out there and is he just going to hope that what happened to Vulcan in this new universe won’t happen to Earth because “People must live their own destinies?” I get why the moment was there. But it was awkward and rushed.

Khan wants the Vengeance and Marcus. Needless to say both things happen, Khan betrays Kirk and kills Admiral Marcus to take control of the Vengeance. Once done he negotiates with Spock for the beaming over of his crew for the return of Scotty, Kirk, and Carol Marcus. Having learned about Khan in the other universe, Spock agrees, but keeps Khan’s crew and only beams over the torpedoes, which are then detonated to disable the Vengeance, but not before it gets some shots off and both ships spiral down to Earth below.

I liked the outsmarting of Khan to only beam over the torpedoes and not his crew, and Kirk’s surprise of how Spock thought of that. It’s the beginning of their relationship that will one day result in “Admiral, if we go by the book, hours would seem like days” level understanding of each other.

But, sadly, that wont help an Enterprise in a death spiral towards Earth. The warp core is misaligned, the chamber itself is irradiated. Only a manual realignment can give the ship power to arrest the dive.

In Wrath of Khan Kirk had never been forced into a position to make a sacrifice. He’d cheated death. The entire opening of the film had established how jokingly he took the concept of death. Then, at the end of the film a character had to die to save him and everyone else. It was a decision that didn’t occur to Kirk at all on the bridge at the time, he never thought to run down and sacrifice himself. Death, and at some level sacrifice, had become jaded concepts to him. He wallowed in self pity about his age, but reveled in his outsmarting Khan.

This new universe Kirk had finally been shown what it meant to sacrifice. Through the deaths of Pike, the near death of Spock, his offer to sacrifice himself for his crew to Marcus, all this things build up to the moment when he realizes what he needs to do, what his father did. Do what he can to protect his crew.

And so Kirk goes into the chamber, he realigns the warp core, he has a final moment separated by glass with Spock, and he dies.

The beats here are perfection. I was surprised at how my repeated million times viewing of Spock’s death in Wrath of Khan impacted me while seeing that final scene with Kirk in Into Darkness. The Enterprise is saved, but at great cost.

A brief note here, Spock screams “KHAAAAANNN!” echoing Kirk in Wrath of Khan. It’s an incredibly tone deaf thing to do on the writers’ part. It wasn’t needed and only invites needless comparisons to Wrath of Khan’s iconic moments when what they were striving for was telling another side of that story.

When Spock dies in Wrath of Khan, Kirk slumps against the glass and mumbles “no.” Rather than scream Khan’s name, if they wanted to show Spock lose his emotional control he could have screamed “NO!” (note, not Darth Vader like “NOOOOOOOOOO” just shout out angrily “NO!”)

That would have been better. Spock screaming Khan’s name was a bit too cute to work. Another Wrath of Khan bridge too far.

Ah but remember Khan’s superblood! Why can’t they use the 72 existing crewmembers who would be super likely to have the same blood? Well that would remove the ultimate irony of, by saving Kirk with Khan’s blood, Kirk would always have a little bit of Khan in him.

The Vengeance crashes to Earth, Khan survives, and Uhura saves Spock and helps take down Benedict Khan Harrison Khan (last one I promise). Kirk is revived, Khan put back into stasis and a year later a rechristened (and yet again redesigned, the nacelles and rear of the dish have been changed) Enterprise launches on it’s five year mission.

To say making this second film about Khan is cheeky does a disservice to the word cheeky. There’s a million ways this film could have failed. Very few in which it could succeed.

But succeed it did. I’ve not mentioned the incredible special effects and look of the film. Michael Giacchino’s score is terrific. At times the film tries too hard, but I never faulted it for trying to begin with. I loved it and I can’t wait to see it again.

This film isn’t Wrath of Khan, but Wrath of Khan still hangs heavy over the Star Trek movieverse. I think what they were trying to do here is put Khan to bed. It’s done, they did it. No more conjecture about when Khan’s coming back. Of course Khan being in stasis sets up a sequel down the road but I doubt it’s worth going there. There are plenty of other stories to tell.

The Star Trek movie widely claimed by non-trek nerds as the best was Star Trek IV and is loved by Trek fans as well. It’s the only Trek movie to have a villain who doesn’t talk, doesn’t beat the crap out of the Enterprise, doesn’t have a lot of the tropes that the Star Trek The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek Voyager shows managed to avoid that every movie since Wrath of Khan does. The Voyage Home was about combating a threat not a villain. Along the way it played with some big humanistic ideas like ecology, extinction, spiritualism (in Spock’s resurrection) etc.

I would love for Trek 3 to go down that path.

Actually what I would *really* like is Abrams to forego a Trek 3, work on Star Wars, and executive produce a new Trek TV show. 13 episode seasons broken up like Walking Dead or Breaking Bad so as not to tie the actors up too much.

I can only wish.

One comment

  1. Etienne Vlok says:

    Great review, Stephen. I agree with almost everything you said, but I most DEFINITELY agree with the idea of a 7 – 13 episode TV series that gives JJ Abrams (who know a thing or two about running a TV production) the chance to flesh these characters and their relationships out more than a series of 2 hour films would allow. We can get back to the movies – let’s do the series first.

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