An utterly spoilerific review of Star Trek Into Darkness

I love Star Trek. As a committed geek, I spent my teenage years watching the films and every episode of the first four TV series, collecting tie-in novels, magazines, figures and of course getting mocked by various classmates. Then Enterprise came along during my university years, and, well, the less said about that, the better. After four seasons of that, it felt like Star Trek needed a rest, and indeed, for a while, it went away.

Then the reins of the franchise were handed over to JJ Abrams, and in 2009 we got a bright, flashy reboot, replete with action, in-jokes and excessive lens flares. It wasn’t quite Star Trek, it erased the timeline I knew and loved, and the more you analysed it, the more flawed it became – but overall, it was pretty enjoyable nonetheless. Would Star Trek Into Darkness offer more of the same?

Well, yes and no. Star Trek Into Darkness is certainly designed to look sumptuous on the big screen, and I’m sure almost everyone else will greatly enjoy it, but since I’m famously hard to please, I came away from the whole thing with mixed feelings at best. The film is deeply flawed, the plot essentially nonsensical, and somehow the whole thing lacks the sheer enjoyment factor that saved the original. What follows is one of my trademark deconstructions of the film, so if you care about spoilers and haven’t seen the film yet, stop reading here.


Star Trek Into Darkness begins with the now Captain Kirk up to his usual tricks – breaking the Prime Directive, but in a good cause. Whilst Kirk and McCoy run from the primitive natives and their inaccurately thrown spears, it’s up to Uhura and Sulu to drop Spock into an active volcano so that he can prevent it from erupting and destroying said natives – by detonating a cold fusion device. Now, obviously I’m willing to give Star Trek of all things a free pass on its well-established physics breakers like warp drive and the transporter, but whatever this magical bomb is that freezes all the lava in the volcano, it’s not a cold fusion device. “Cold” fusion is just a hypothetical way of getting fusion reactions to take place at room temperature rather than in super-hot conditions such as the core of the Sun. If anything, such a bomb would surely destabilise the volcano even more.

But anyway, enough physics (for now). The point is, that despite having such advanced technology to hand, it is still necessary for Spock and the bomb to be dropped into the volcano so that he can set it up manually whilst in mortal danger. Of course, things go wrong and Uhura and Sulu’s is unable to retrieve him, forcing the Enterprise, which was mysteriously hiding under the ocean instead of safely in space (can the hull even withstand such pressure) to surface and reveal itself to the natives in order to save him. How did they get it under there in the first place without anyone noticing? Why did they bother? If the civilisation is as primitive as it appears, I’m sure the Enterprise could have plotted an orbit that kept it out of sight.

Of course, the upshot of it all is that Kirk breaks the Prime Directive and interferes with the natural development of a civilisation to save Spock, and Spock being the scrupulously honest Vulcan that he is, writes all this up in a report to Admiral Pike. Having had quite enough of Kirk’s cocky “the rules aren’t for me” attitude, Pike takes back command of the Enterprise, grounds Kirk and reassigns Spock to a different ship. Of course, we all know how long that particular situation will last.

Meanwhile, in London, trouble is brewing. Enter our villain, Benedict Cumberbatch, who for months we were told was playing a villain who “may or may not be Khan”. Let’s get it out of the way right now – he’s Khan, but for the moment he’s going by the name of John Harrison. In return for saving his daughter’s life, Khan convinces a Starfleet officer to blow up a top secret Starfleet installation. Within moments, Kirk is instated as the Enterprise’s first officer by Admiral Pike (who always trusted and believed in him, of course), and they head to an emergency meeting of important Starfleet commanders. During the meeting, Kirk is the only one to realise that “Harrison” might have actually wanted all the top brass in one place so he could attack them, and indeed, no sooner has he voiced this concern than Harrison manages to get a shuttle past Starfleet’s incredibly lax security, attack the meeting, kill Admiral Pike, and transport away. And he doesn’t transport just anywhere – having got his hands on a portable transwarp device, he manages to beam himself all the way to the Klingon homeworld, Kronos. I know transwarp is supposed to be special, but it’s still pretty unbelievable that he could beam himself all that way using a device small enough for Scotty to be able to lift easily.

With Pike gone, Kirk is back in command of the Enterprise, and the commander of Starfleet, Admiral Marcus, has a mission for him. Despite the fact that tensions with the Klingons are high, Kirk is to pack the Enterprise with 72 experimental long range photon torpedoes, head to the edge of the Neutral Zone, and fire them at Harrison’s location on Kronos. It’s all fine, though, because the area Harrison beamed to is uninhabited, so the Klingons will barely notice 72 high yield warheads destroying a significant area of their homeworld, all for the sake of killing one man. And it’s not like Harrison could have changed location once he got to Kronos now, is it?

Fired up by Pike’s death, Kirk seems pretty gung-ho about the whole mission, causing Spock to question its morality, and Scotty to resign when he’s asked to take custody of 72 torpedoes of unknown payload. For some reason, there is no deputy chief qualified to take Scotty’s place, so Chekov of all people is assigned as the new chief engineer. Under his auspices, the warp core malfunctions within moments (although to be fair, it isn’t actually his fault), leaving the Enterprise stranded on the edge of the Neutral Zone.

Nonetheless, it’s mission time, and as it turns out, Kirk doesn’t intend to kill Harrison – instead, he’s going to lead a mission to Kronos to bring him back alive. To this end, Kirk, Spock, Uhura and two red shirts disguise themselves as “nothing to do with Starfleet, honest” and head down to the planet to find Harrison. In the meantime, Sulu is left in command, leading Bones to stage whisper to Kirk (within Sulu’s earshot) that the young pilot is not command material – nice bit of reverse foreshadowing there. Sulu’s job is to get in touch with Harrison and threaten to use the 72 photon torpedoes on him if he tries anything, which he does in a deadpan “I will end you” manner that I initially assumed was meant to be comedic, but which in fact was meant to be taken seriously.

Meanwhile, Kirk’s landing party runs into a patrol of skinhead Klingons with facial ridge piercings, and after their unsurprising reluctance to listen to Uhura’s “help us, honourable warrior” pleas, they have to rely on deus ex machina in the form of Harrison himself, who, as a genetically enhanced superman, is easily able to dispatch all the Klingons before surrendering himself to Kirk and crew on hearing exactly how many torpedoes they have on board. Kirk punches him a few times for good measure, but even that can’t down a man like Harrison/Khan.

Once aboard the Enterprise, the ever calm Khan starts letting slip that he knows far more about the situation than Kirk, suggesting that the captain might like to open up the torpedoes for himself, and even passing on some coordinates where he claims something interesting will be found. Suitably intrigued, Kirk manages to somehow call Scotty back on Earth using his Starfleet issue mobile phone (that is some impressive roaming coverage), telling him to check out said coordinates whilst the crew of the Enterprise takes a look inside one the torpedoes.

Luckily for them, Admiral Marcus’ daughter Carol (yes, Carol Marcus, as in the original Wrath of Khan) just happened to blag her way aboard the Enterprise before they left Earth, and she also happens to be a weapons expert. Since opening a torpedo aboard the Enterprise would be a bit stupid even by film character standards, she and Bones go to a nearby planetoid to do so without endangering the ship (cue lots of jokes about Bones’ “magic fingers”) – although of course they still don’t guard themselves against the warhead spewing out toxic chemicals when opened. Fortunately, that’s unnecessary, as the torpedo casings actually contain cryogenically frozen people. Yes, indeed, these are the supermen of the Eugenics War, found by Admiral Marcus, who awoke Khan so that he could take advantage of his superior intellect and develop weapons to use against the Klingons. Yes, for Admiral Marcus is of the mind that since the galaxy is a dangerous place and the balance of power a fragile one indeed, the best thing to do is provoke a war with the bloodthirsty Klingons. And to force Khan to comply, he kept the other 72 frozen survivors as hostages, prompting Khan not to use his superior intellect to figure out a way to rescue them, but to mindlessly attack Starfleet in a blind rage that, to be honest, achieved very little.

With repairs on the warp core underway, Kirk is ready to take Khan back to Earth to stand trial, but naturally, Marcus just wants this whole sorry mess cleared up – and to that end, he shows up in a massively overpowered warship that was previously hidden at the coordinates Kirk sent Scotty to check out. Which, of course, means that when Marcus tries to use his warship to destroy the Enterprise, Scotty ex machina is able to disable the power and coordinate Kirk and Khan transferring from the Enterprise to the warship using only spacesuits and a tenuously line of sight from one ship’s escape hatch to the other. In the process, Scotty also kills a generic hired guard by exposing him to the vacuum of space, but he’s an ugly goon so no one really cares about that.

With Khan’s help, Kirk and Scotty get to the bridge, but even though Kirk is fully expecting it, Khan’s superhuman ability to resist phaser stuns lets him betray the captain, kill Marcus and take command of the warship – which of course has conveniently been engineered so that, at a pinch, it can be controlled by just one person.

In the meantime, however, Spock has contacted New Vulcan to allow for a gratuitous Leonard Nimoy cameo in which old!Spock warns his younger counterpart that Khan is the most dangerous enemy they ever faced in their timeline (well, the most dangerous alongside all those other equally dangerous foes they encountered). Armed with this vital knowledge, Spock is able to bluff Khan into believing he will trade the 72 frozen survivors for Kirk’s life, only to instead just beam 72 live torpedoes aboard Khan’s ship and blow it up.

By this point, judicious application of the warp drive has brought both ships almost back to Earth, so the explosion sends them both into free fall. The shoddily constructed Enterprise starts burning up in the atmosphere whilst the apparent gravity in the ship in no way reflects either the gravitational systems or its spinning descent towards Earth, but since the warp core is ‘misaligned’, it can’t be pulled out of its spiralling descent. Instead, Kirk has to sacrifice himself by entering the radiation-flooded core area and kicking the warp core back into alignment. Yes, he fixes a powerful matter-antimatter reactor simply by application of percussive force, before dying of radiation poisoning in a reversal of the Kirk/Spock scene in the original Wrath of Khan.

By this point, Kirk has beamed down to the Earth’s surface, and since the Enterprise can’t pinpoint him to beam him back up, all they can do is beam things down to his position. At this point, they should have beamed down some sort of restraining cage or perhaps even dropped a large anvil on top of Khan, but instead Spock beams down to chase Khan and start beating him up on top of a floating car in a scene more reminiscent of Ratchet and Clank than Star Trek. In a very un-Vulcan fit of rage, Spock is ready to kill Khan, but Uhura quickly shows up to make sure he gets taken into custody instead.

Once again, the day is saved, but wait – Captain Kirk is dead! Will the next film be “The Search for Kirk”? Well, no, because this film’s Chekhov’s gun (and I’m not talking Pavel) has already been established – the amazing regenerative powers of Khan’s blood. Having injected it into a tribble earlier in the film, McCoy sees the creature return to life, prompting the realisation that they need to take Khan alive and gather more blood to give to Kirk. Of course, the magic mutant blood works just fine, and Kirk awakens two weeks later, ready to segue into the epilogue, in which the Enterprise finally commences its epic five year mission.

And thus, we reach the end of another epically long review of a science-fiction film, and one in which I didn’t even have a chance to touch on so many little things – like the relationship ups and downs between Spock and Uhura, the constant need to cram in fanservice for fans of the original Star Trek, the flimsiness of the Enterprise and the never-ending fascination with lens flares. Is the film worth seeing? For most people, probably. Maybe after a few more viewings even I will come to view it more forgivingly. But for now, all I wish to do is revisit the old episodes and films, wrapped in the glow of rose-tinted nostalgia.

4 thoughts on “An utterly spoilerific review of Star Trek Into Darkness

  1. I, too, am a similarly commited and unapologetic fan of the Star Trek franchise. I enjoyed the first reboot but felt that there was little time for character and story (however, 79 episodes and 6/7 films worth had generated enough avenues to explore, so it shouldn’t be hard to do).

    I left the film with mixed feelings, but first I would like to refer to your review. While the beginning was replete with plot oversights (I agree with the problem of why the Enterprise was underwater when orbit was a better option), I could forgive “cold fusion” once (but only once) as I remember “lithium crystals”. Not dilithium. Not trilithium. Not tritanium either but “lithium crystals”. Now this oversight was changed to “dilithium” for obvious reasons but it can “allow” one major break with physics/pseudo-physics. Kirk and co. breaking the Prime Directive is the sort of thing Kirk does, and breaking laws of physics is the sort of thing Star Trek does. I therefore fully expect the next film to include time travel. Kirk is a “menace” according to Dulmer and Lucsley and we haven’t had the Enterprise travelling through time yet.

    Here is where I have a few issues, one with the Cummberbund himself, Khan Noonien Singh is a man of Indian descent (hence the name). At no point did I look at Benny and see indian heritage. I just saw Sherlock.

    I also thought the re-use of too many elements from one film was a disappointment. One of the things I liked about the first film was the re-use of concepts (but not whole plots) meaning that plot in-jokes could be enjoyed by the knowledgable fan. Spock giving Scotty the “formula” for transwarp beaming a la Scotty giving Transparent Aluminium was one example. It was done just about right. This film’s overuse of Star Trek II as the basis of plot was so bad that I spent the second half shouting to myself “They can’t kill Kirk. They just can’t KILL Kirk”. They did something similar with Bond and all I will say is (never say) never again.

    I didn’t like the dumbing-down of plot elements. Kirk CAN use an engineering kit. I remember episodes where Kirk saves the day by climbing into the Jeffries tube and fixing the problem. But it wasn’t done with the precision tool that is the Starfleet standard issue boot. Star Trek’s greatest moments are when it sets films that could be understood by non-fans in the Star Trek universe. Submarine movies, spiritual rescue missions, environmental campaigns and whodunits brought non-fans into the series by giving something they would enjoy. I didn’t see that this time.

    If there is a third film, could we please have some originality and thoughtfulness about plot and character. Explore the bromance of Kirk and Spock. Say something about our time or reflect what is happening worldwide. Just don’t drop into endless self-parody. We don’t crave the explosions or are bored by a lack of pace. We are much more intelligent than what is being presented to us in the prequels.

  2. The one thing that bothered me most, though, is when the Enterprise is falling to Earth. Artificial gravity is gone, so it makes sense that the crew would fall to whichever direction Earth was in, right?

    No! Because they’re FREEFALLING. Like the ISS. And that means NO GRAVITY.

    It just sort of drew my attention away from the movie.

  3. Pingback: Why Every Star Trek Film is the Best…and the Worst | Azure Flame B-Side

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