James Kirk’s Phony Death and the Exasperation of Star Trek: Into Darkness
Inspired by Wagon Train (ABC/NBC, 1957-1965), Gene Roddenberry in the 1960s developed in Star Trek (NBC, 1966-1969) a science-fiction vehicle capable of grappling with the canonical questions of Western drama in a pseudo-anthology format. Each week, the crew of the Enterprise would arrive at a new planet and confront a new social problem, often presented using the filters of Western literary history. Using housings as diverse as Alice in Wonderland and the plays of William Shakespeare to confront American social conflicts ranging from racism to the Cold War, the show elegantly flitted from comedy to tragedy. I begin my discussion of the brilliant failure that is Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams’ sophomore film in the newest incarnation of Star Trek films in this way because it is a work that ought to have learned from Rodenberry’s use of Shakespeare, but has not.
The most mature retrofitting of prior dramatic tradition in the history of Western storytelling is Hamlet (1604), William Shakespeare’s monumental revision of the clichéd 16th century revenge tragedy. In five hours, Shakespeare surrounds the standard story—an evil man kills a father, whose son then exacts revenge—with Hamlet’s verbose and intense meditations on the immorality of vengeance. Like Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1587), Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness begins with the correct ingredients. Reworking Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, 1982), Kirk (Chris Pine) has to confront Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch), a terrorist bent on revenge against Star Fleet. However, unlike Shakespeare, who uses the massive length of Hamlet to depict a comprehensive critique of revenge, Abrams’ film goes on too long, allowing Hollywood action to diminish what could have easily been the greatest Star Trek outing, having laid in a course to bring Kirk to justice for his violent arrogance.
The death of Captain Kirk ought to lie at the emotional heart of the great film that Into Darkness should have been. And yet, at every level, the sequence is incompetently delivered. Most importantly, when Kirk rushes off the bridge of the Enterprise to present his new solution to the Kobayashi Maru scenario, the film stunningly inverts the premise of The Wrath of Khan, in which Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) saves Kirk and the Enterprise from destruction at the hands of Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban). Spock willfully enters a compartment flooded with radiation in order to fix a gizmo (“putting the mains back on line,” whatever that means), allowing our feckless crew to escape in the nick of time. Throughout the 1982 film, Spock has been trying to explain to the arrogant Kirk that, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” In a heartbreaking rejoinder to Kirk’s immaturity, Spock dies in front of his beloved captain, deadpanning, “I never took the Kobayashi Maru test. What do you think of my solution?”
This back story is intensely important to the inverted scene in Into Darkness. In the first Abrams film, the new Kirk and new Spock (Zachary Quinto) spar over the Kobayashi Maru test, which is meant to present an unwinnable scenario to measure how the would-be leader handles defeat, encouraging a mature sense that all men are mortal. In the reboot, in fact, Spock has designed the test, which Kirk easily, and without compunction reprograms so that he wins without complication.
Confronted by a new Khan, this time it is Kirk who saves Spock’s Enterprise and dies. However, all of the changed beats between the 1982 and 2013 film come out in favor of the former. Abrams misses every opportunity to save this debacle. Despite the fact that the new film begins with a mission meant to plant the seed of the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” message, as Kirk dies, he and Spock do not discuss this mantra, nor the Kobayashi Maru test. Instead, when Kirk dies, Quinto’s Spock delivers not a tragic eulogy, but the funniest line in the film. Spock screams, “Khan!,” a camp reprise of William Shatner’s howl at Ricardo Montalban in a completely difference scene in the film, as he is briefly hoodwinked by the genetic superman, and left stranded buried underneath miles of rock.
The 1980s Star Trek creators—driven by Leonard Nimoy’s desperate (and failed) attempt to extract himself from the series—forced me to suffer the full impact of Spock’s shocking death for exactly two years. The arrogance of Kirk—never checking on Khan, whom he had exiled in the late 1960s—led directly to the death of the most beloved character in the franchise. Even though Spock was brought back to life in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)—because Leonard Nimoy was given the chance to direct the film—the very thought of Spock not being with us any longer sat with me for 24 months. Indeed, all people die in the real world, something easily forgotten in the fantasy world of the cinema. My fifteen-year-old self had to ponder the full implications of this sad fact from the summer of 1982 halfway through 1984, and to this day, I am a better man for it.
Constructed by very smart screenwriters (Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof), the death of Kirk in Into Darkness is a stroke of brilliance to rejoinder the nonsense of the inconsequence of death in most Hollywood cinema. Killing William Shatner would be unthinkable, but losing Chris Pine would not really be all that great a loss. To not lose the good one in the dyad, but the arrogant jerk, leaving the one struggling to be human behind to pick up the pieces, would have been the most radical and beautiful thing to ever happen in Star Trek. And yet, in his rush to make a blockbuster action movie, Abrams demonstrates absolutely no thematic instinct whatsoever, allowing Kirk to stay dead for exactly 9 minutes, less time than it takes a Tribble to regenerate.
Into Darkness proposes to offer a critique of vengeance. For about two thirds of its running time, it does a decent job. However, when Kirk is easily reborn, the wheels fly off of this thematic machine. This is a common problem for film students, who argue they are making a critique of violence when indeed they are merely propagating more images of violence. It is shocking that talented and seemingly sophisticated filmmakers as this fall into this adolescent trap. They desperately needed a voice—a producer, a dramaturge, a friend—separate from the Hollywood machine to rescue the end of their film. Alas, I find no evidence of such a presence.
After Kirk’s resurrection, everything that was promising about the film turns to stone. In an absurd action sequence in which Spock and Khan fight on floating cargo barges for what seems like forever, Abrams seems to be justifying his helming not of Roddenberry’s Star Trek, but instead his new job, rebooting the far more tedious world of George Lucas’ Star Wars. The climax of Into Darkness reminds one not of the 1960s television show, but instead the floating fight on the volcano planet between Obi-Wan and Anakin which ends Star Wars III: The Revenge of the Sith (2005), minus the searing heat. In the closing credits, Abrams dedicates the film to soldiers who fought for America in the wake of 9/11, presumably because the film is so laden with images of Khan the terrorist destroying futuristic skyscrapers. That a Star Trek film would take this neo-conservative position is an affront to the 1960s liberalism of Roddenberry’s Star Trek, a show dedicated to the belief that scientific exploration would produce utopian goals far more efficiently than militarism.
What’s more, Enterprise (UPN, 2001-2005) already better explored the possibility of Star Trek speaking to the post-9/11 social context. Having aired its pilot in September 2011, the last Star Trek television series completely retrofitted its time travel premise in the wake of the bin Laden terrorist attacks, building its entire third season around the Earth’s military vengeance against an alien species for killing millions of people during a sneak attack on Florida. Abrams and his creative team seem to be aware of this at least vaguely, as they cast Peter Weller as the film’s true villain, a militaristic lunatic similar to the character he played on the final season of Enterprise. But given Into Darkness’ endorsement of action-based militaristic solutions, any complexity about revenge the film might be after is drowned out and completely ineffective during the action climax.
It is here that Roddenberry and his 1960s writers’ use of Shakespeare is so important. The great achievement of Hamlet is its five-hour demonstration that the consequences of revenge are far more damning than the original act of evil that precipitate them. As Shakespeare’s play comes to an end, all of the characters about whom we have come to care lie dead on the stage. In The Wrath of Khan, built around another great literary triumph arguing against vengeance, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1850), Khan obliterates himself and his entire family in his mad quest at revenge against Kirk. For his part, despite “winning” and defeating Khan, Kirk—the film’s second Ahab—loses the better angel of his nature.
In glorious understatement Spock Prime (Leonard Nimoy) in Abrams’ film describes the original Khan having been defeated “at great cost.” Alas, it pains me greatly to observe that Star Trek has also been saved by Abrams and his merry band of intertextual workers at a price that is clearly too high. Into Darkness sets up a series of future films in which Khan and his fellow Nietzschean supermen will return to create more havoc. I can only hope that Abrams will plot a new course back to Rodenberry and Shakespeare, learning the lesson that making truly critical art about revenge is far more satisfying than following the Hollywood actions trends du jour. The needs of our many outweigh the needs of their few.
– Walter Metz