Tribbled: Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)
By Mary "Stormer" Phillips & Shana Elmsford · Sep 26, 2013
Just FYI, this article contains material that might be considered spoilery based on our spoiler policy. In this instance, that includes discussion of all the ways that nothing in this movie makes any sense.
Stormer: We watched Star Trek: Into Darkness. FYI, Shana, I just got a text from Kim demanding that I say that.
Shana: She’s such a control freak!
Stormer: Yay! Welcome, Shana!
Shana: I can’t believe this is the movie you want me to make my debut on! Nothing makes any sense in this movie. It’s a tone poem of splosioning.
Stormer: That’s why I wanted you! To explain this plot to me!
Shana: Well, since this isn’t really a science fiction movie at all, you could have just gotten Jerrica to do it.
Stormer: Poor Jerrica. We’ll have her on when we do a documentary on macramé or something. But look. I get it. I am asking a lot from you. Because it’s also a Damon Lindelof plot, so you might hurt yourself!
Shana: Heh. Well, this movie certainly bears the mark of ole’ Doesn’t Care About Plot Holes.
Stormer: “You should consider these plot holes to be very important until the precise moment where I tell you they aren’t.”
Shana: We probably shouldn’t shit on him too much because he isn’t solely responsible for the script.
Stormer: Sure, but if you got the guy from Lost to do rewrites on a script written by the guys who wrote The Island and Mission: Impossible 3 and then got J.J. Abrams to direct? And all of them were under pressure to outdo the first film? I think Star Trek: Into Darkness is pretty much exactly how that might look.
Shana: True. Like how they start the plot off with a confusing and no-context vignette where Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) blackmails a Starfleet dude to blow up the Starfleet Record Hall—which is actually a secret something or other, naturally—by offering, in exchange, to save dude’s young daughter’s life? Which is already sympathetic, but then they also make sure dude leaves a confession at the last second to clarify that he really didn’t want to do this because dude is super-important to the…oh. He’s dead. And never gets mentioned again. I’m glad we spent that time with him. And I’m glad we learned he wasn’t a willing terrorist or something.
Stormer: Right. Consequently, the only functional purpose that scene serves in the actual plot of the film is that I guess it establishes that Khan’s blood can heal people from certain death. Except…I didn’t really understand that Khan injected his own blood into the girl until much later in the film.
Shana: It’s clear if you’re paying attention, I think. But that sort of assumes that you’re going to pay strict attention to a mostly wordless montage like this. If you miss it, and I think it’s eminently missable, than yeah, the whole scene just seems kind of whatever—
Stormer: —since the film could easily just have started with the library blowing up. Just…boom! And then everybody flies into action.
Shana: Well, the pacing is just off all over the place, here. Like the whole business with not revealing who Khan is until it’s revealed who he is, which—at least where the Enterprise crew is concerned—makes no sense because none of our main characters have a context for what it means to be Khan.
Stormer: Right. The audience knows, either because they care about Khan or because they’ve at the very least heard about Khan, but—
Shana: —the only reason to prolong the mystery is to shock the audience, exactly. And I think it actually screws the film over, because rather than etching a fully-formed villain we simply get disgruntled mystery man. He’s a threat, sure, since he’s willing to blow stuff up, but with no sense of what he wants that whole early section to the film is just our main characters reacting to an enigma, and to maintain the mystery they are required to have little interest in figuring that enigma out.
Stormer: First: I don’t think the reveal worked anyways because I feel like I always knew this movie was about Khan.
Shana: Yeah. The producers and writers were always too-cagey about it, in a way that made it almost certainly true.
Stormer: But, second? Even after the reveal, I still have no clue what Khan was trying to do, really. So they just sort of have Cumberbatch say the word “Khan” and then let that name do most of the heavy lifting. Suddenly all of the characters are like, “we need to stop the greatest villain mankind has ever known!” But I’m like, “huh?” Outside of the vague description given to new-Spock (Zachary Quinto) by old-Spock (Leonard Nimoy) there’s not a lot they have to go on.
Shana: Plus, they’re like, “we need to stop Khan from doing all of these things he’s trying to do that make no sense.”
Stormer: Yes. Please explain his plan to me.
Shana: I think even before we get to Khan’s plan we have to acknowledge how this film was written, because the script is the real issue here. It feels like the script was written in pieces to service ideas more than characters.
Stormer: Yeah. There’s a real segmented quality to everything.
Shana: As an example, that whole scene near the beginning where we get re-introduced to the crew of the Enterprise? It’s explicitly about how Kirk (Chris Pine) gets demoted because he toyed with the Prime Directive, right? Which…well, I was going to say that’s out of character for Kirk, but I guess it’s in character, at least in terms of how he’s portrayed in these new films. But his demotion is so quickly reversed that it ends up not meaning anything. Why bother? Why not just have Khan attack Starfleet command and then have Fleet Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) send the Enterprise off after Khan? Why have this whole thing where Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) has to give Kirk sad Dad face and shake his head about all the wasted potential only to die a second later so that Kirk is reinstated?
Stormer: I guess the scene was supposed to give us a cold-openish look at the young crew working together, maybe?
Shana: Sure, but it also kind of resets all the characters. Like, the whole first film is about Kirk becoming more responsible and Spock (Zachary Quinto) learning to relax a bit and about this crew coming together, right? So logic says that this cold open should show the crew working well as a unit. Which it does to a point, I guess, except suddenly Kirk and Spock are at each other’s throats again about the rules.
Stormer: “You broke the Prime Directive, J! I would feel sad about this if I had feelings, which I totally don’t, not at all, because I am a Vulcan and Vulcans don’t have feelings.”
Shana: To me, the only reason the scene exists is to have that moment where Spock Is Willing To Die in that volcano so that Kirk Can’t Deal With That so that later in the film when Kirk Is Willing To Die and Spock Can’t Deal With That we all Get It. But because that’s all it is, in execution it just hits you like a palette of anvils. It’s too much.
Stormer: I think that’s a problem throughout the film. It dwells on individual character beats and plot points like this a little too much in order to set up mirrored plot points later in the film. It’s one reason, I think, this movie feels so segmented, like we’re going from scene to scene. It’s not, “Kirk has to make a drastic and potentially untenable decision to save Spock.” It’s “we need a scene where we set up Kirk and Spock and the sacrifice thing, so later when that happens again the audience’ll remember it. Oh, and also remember that Scotty (Simon Pegg) needs to quit so he’s on that other ship somehow later in the film.”
Shana: And that’s ignoring the fact that in these two reboot films the Prime Directive has never been established as anything particularly important, and the indigenous society the Enterprise crew is trying to save from that volcano has never been established as anything particularly important, and these films have no time to actually have a conversation about that, and plus as far as I know stopping the volcano from erupting and killing this society is pretty much a violation of the Prime Directive anyways. So it’s a fine action scene, but the moment you think about it you’re just kinda, “huh?”
Stormer: It feels like a first draft. Or, worse, it’s like that scene was just a blank page that read “to be inserted later” for most of the scriptwriting process, and finally somebody was like, “oh shit.”
Shana: Right, so the whole scene does little more than reiterate character traits from the previous film and set up the conclusion to this film in the most obvious way possible. It’s like being slapped in the face with a sign that says “either Kirk or Spock will have to die later on in this film, so keep this scenario in mind.”
Stormer: “Or else!”
Shana: But it’s also the action beats that compromise this as a total script. A lot of the times it feels like somebody said, “it would be super cool to have the Enterprise crash onto Earth, right?” And it is, I guess, but it also feels like nobody said, “well…how do we logically get to that point?” So you have these plot/character moments, and you have these action scenes, and everything else, including most of the explanations for why anybody is doing anything, are just these thin and translucent sinews of stuff that connect the set pieces together.
Stormer: Yeah. A lot of those explanations are throwaway lines as people are doing other things.
Shana: It causes two problems, I think. First, it makes Khan’s plot make no sense, and I’ll get to that in a sec, but also, in a broader sense, it saps any weight from the portentous things the characters say throughout the film. When Uhura (Zoe Saldana) tries to tell Kirk that they should be more cautious because they’re outgunned, I think, “why? It’s like a bad video game. You’re just grinding from cut scene to cut scene where a little more of the ‘plot’ is doled out.” There’s rarely any sense of stakes because the every ten minutes there’s a plot twist or a revelation that dramatically changes the goals of the characters, meaning that they’re just bouncing from thing to thing.
Stormer: I don’t do video games, as you know, so I’ll just accept that that’s a good simile. But please explain Khan’s plot to me, Shana! Why did Khan put his 72 friends in those torpedoes?
Shana: To hide them from Admiral Marcus, I guess, because Marcus betrayed him after he helped Marcus build his super-starship the Vengeance. Khan says he did it to “smuggle” them.
Stormer: I kept wondering why Marcus didn’t notice they were missing.
Shana: Dunno. Not mentioned.
Stormer: Where was Khan going to smuggle them to? The Klingon homeworld?
Shana: I think we’re supposed to accept that Khan blew up the Starfleet Records Hall so that Starfleet Command would gather so that he could attack them so that Marcus would load all 72 torpedoes onto a ship and chase Khan to the Klingon homeworld and fire all 72 torpedoes at Khan? I guess? Marcus does tell Kirk to just fire away.
Stormer: But…well, we find out that Marcus wants a war with the Klingons because he wants to militarize Starfleet, and I guess Khan knew that, but why does he send Kirk if he’s just going to get in the evil Starship Vengeance anyways to chase them? Why didn’t he just do it himself?
Stormer: And did Khan, if indeed his plan was to provoke the Admiral into firing those torpedoes at him, disarm the torpedoes? So they wouldn’t explode?
Shana: I guess he must have?
Stormer: But didn’t he also want the Vengeance? Because he makes that point about how he designed it to be run by a very small crew if necessary, and that assertion is lingered on like it’s this crucial puzzle piece, like we’re supposed to know right there that Khan isn’t all he seems to be. So…he wanted that ship, right?
Shana: I dunno. Because it also seems like he wanted to be captured on the Enterprise so that he could convince Kirk to trust him so that they could invade the Vengeance together, which suggests that he probably didn’t want the Enterprise to fire those torpedoes at him on the Klingon homeworld, which in turn suggests that he knew a) that Marcus wouldn’t come himself, b) that he would send Kirk instead, and c) that Kirk wouldn’t fire the missiles and instead would command an away team onto Klingon so he could get himself captured.
Stormer: Did Khan also know that Scotty would quit the Enterprise early in the film and then serendipitously end up onboard the Vengeance, which turned out to be the only way Kirk and Khan could gain access to Marcus’s ship?
Shana: See, this is what I’m talking about. First off, everything in this film happens because something else that doesn’t quite make sense happened, so each scene as a self-contained thing is okay but threaded together they’re just reactions to arbitrary decisions that were already made. Second off, Khan’s clever master plan is effected just as much by utter contrivances as it is by the actual plans that he made. I guess you could argue that he’s just winging it because Marcus sends Kirk, but—
Stormer: —Khan never once acts like he’s trying to adapt to anything. That he’s winging it.
Shana: Right. And my primary issue with plots like this is that I shouldn’t have to read into abstract intimations and vague explanations to make things make sense. But it’s that problem that is especially characteristic of Lindelof’s work. In Lost, in Prometheus, and here, the villains can’t just say what they’re actually trying to do or what they want or what their plans are…for reasons. It’s maddening.
Stormer: Yeah, the enigma thing only works so far, because at some point it needs to be clear what the stakes are.
Shana: I feel like they thought the only way to make him menacing was to make it seem like he had every planned all along, but…if he’s really that super-smart, he should have been able to see that his plan was fucking bonkers. More importantly, though, I feel like if he had just once intimated that Marcus sending Kirk instead of going himself had forced him to alter his plan on the fly? It would have made him seem more menacing.
Stormer: I agree. It would have made it look both like he actually had a plan and that he was smart enough to change gears as events dictated.
Shana: It’s the people in the torpedoes thing that is really confusing—
Stormer: —because people is torpedoes?
Shana: Well, yeah. But also: once those torpedoes are out of your control, anything could happen. Which Spock immediately demonstrates when he arms them all and blows up the Vengeance. Which…if your master plan is to have your crew survive and help you pilot a super-starship? Maybe don’t hide them in the one thing that could explode and destroy both your crew and your ship. Like, why not just smuggle them in ration boxes, or through the official Starfleet linen service?
Stormer: Why doesn’t Khan just let Kirk die when they’re space jumping from the Enterprise to the Vengeance and Kirk flies off course when his nav dies? Like, once they’ve let him out of Enterprise jail, doesn’t his super-strength make him not need them anymore?
Shana: I guess because he needs leverage to get the torpedoes off of the Enterprise? He makes that trade.
Stormer: Are Scotty and Carol (Alice Eve) not enough?
Shana: …I don’t fucking know.
Stormer: “This is a serious situation we’re in, crewmates! This possibly evil gentleman wants his crew-stuffed torpedoes back…for reasons.”
Shana: I guess we’re supposed to assume Khan will destroy the universe or something, but at no point in this film is it really clear why it would be so awful to give him his crew back. Or what his ultimate goal is, beyond getting his crew back. Again, the film just sort of let’s the fact that he is Khan stand in for an actual threat.
Stormer: And who is he? Why are he and his crew super? That whole explanation is just Marcus telling Kirk that…for reasons? He sent a bunch of starships around to find a reason for war and they found a ship with Khan in cryo-sleep on it.
Shana: You think they would have tested his blood before they work him, maybe, and found out it could heal people.
Stormer: Yeah, let’s end this discussion of the plot. The Vengeance blows up because Spock has Bones (Karl Urban) arm the torpedoes before he trades them for Kirk, but the space battles have knocked the Enterprise’s warp core out of alignment, so Kirk Is Willing To Die to realign them and Spock Can’t Deal With That but Bones has discovered that Khan’s blood can cure a Tribble—
Shana: And with that, this plot has been tribbled!
Stormer: Right. So Spock and Uhura chase super-human Khan and beat the shit out of him to save Kirk’s life. Uplifting music. Flash forward a year and Kirk is alive and everything is cool.
Shana: So throughout the film Kirk breaks the Prime Directive, whines when he gets fired, too-earnestly requests that he be reinstated precisely because he wants to avenge the death of the mentor he has disappointed over and over, disobeys several orders, indiscriminately fires an important crewmember and promotes arbitrarily promotes an unprepared crewmember in his place, destroys two star ships and a lot of a city on Earth, and releases the guy who caused all of this destruction from prison to aid him in his quest, but everything is cool because he almost died from radiation poisoning. Look at how he’s grown.
Stormer: Heh. The plot confusion would still grate, I think, but less so if the character story was…better. But it’s just the same character story we got in the first film.
Shana: I think it’s worse than that. The story of a brash, young individual who is forced through extraordinary circumstances to learn to be responsible while butting heads with a by-the-books compatriot? That’s not an original plot even outside the Star Trek franchise. Hell: it’s the main plot of Wizards of Waverly Place. And it’s more interesting in that show, because Alex is a girl and so when it turns out that she can be herself and responsible and be a better wizard for it we’re getting a sort-of commentary on what it’s like to be a young girl competing with a rule-abiding boy like her brother Justin. I’m not saying Wizards of Waverly Place is some amazing piece of television, or some trenchant critique of the patriarchy, necessarily, but at least it adapted this obvious character study into the service of something…broader. Star Trek: Into Darkness just assumes that this story we’ve seen a billion times before is, in and of itself, compelling, because it’s about one boy becoming a man. Like, honestly? I don’t give a shit about Kirk’s early years. I want a story about how Kirk has to make an actually tough decision; not one where he just smarms and sleezes his way through shit and it’s consequence-free…for reasons.
Stormer: Right. It’s less compelling than it should be, I think, because it only works in-film because of the out-of-film. Like, until Kirk crawls into the warp core and certain death to fix the engines? I’m not sure he’s really done a single thing in either of these films to convince me he’s ready to be a good starship captain. The only reason the plot makes sense is because I know that William Shatner played a starship captain named James T. Kirk on a television show and for several movies. That’s why I should care. Not because the Kirk in these films has made me invested.
Shana: Because there’s nothing to get invested in but luck and contrivance. You know what would have been interesting? A movie about Kirk trying to stop a war with the Klingons that Marcus tried to start. But that’s just dangled out there, and never brought up again. The Klingons might as well not be in this movie at all, except that the film was briefly able to be all, “ooh! Look! Updated Klingons.”
Stormer: Well…that’s everything in this film. “Look: updated tribbles! Updated Khan! Updated starship!”
Shana: Yeah…for reasons.