At the Alamo Drafthouse the pre-show entertainment consisted of various clips of amateur recreations of the classic show as well as a few fan made documentaries that were mostly amusing, sometimes a little bit painful. Nothing really caught my eye until a segment involving Gene Roddenberry appeared where he was introducing something related to the Original Series and I found my heart catching a little bit in my throat. One of the things I was most afraid of seeing in this movie was the final and complete absence of his influence on the Star Trek universe. I appreciate that JJ Abram’s vision and style is bringing new fans into the fold and introduces them to something I love, making for a more accessible and action oriented story that keeps the humor and heart that makes the crew so interesting and compelling. Star Trek and the original crew of the Enterprise were conceived of in a time of optimism, with mixed gender and ethnicity decades before television and, in fact, the nation had begun to shake off stereotypes and embrace our diversity. Coming out of the economic boom of the 50s and the spiritual awakening of the 60s, the show was a reflection of our imaginations at the time when anything seemed possible. This trend continued when the show was revived in the early 90s. The Berlin Wall was down, along with the Soviet Union and a show about exploring space and discovering new forms of life was exciting again. Ultimately, this was Roddenberry’s unfortunately unique vision: our species united without pursuit of wealth or status exploring the final frontier and expanding our circle of friends across the stars, protecting the weak, and learning for the sake of itself. When he passed away in 1991, his legacy was going strong in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I don’t know how he would react to the first reboot. I enjoyed it because Abrams is a gifted storyteller with an excellent sense of pacing and suspense. All the references were there, it played out like a primer for introducing the uninitiated, describing all the principal characters with their personalities mostly intact. I liked it a lot but I was wary about the direction they were going. There wasn’t enough science to call it science fiction and the nobility and optimism about the human spirit that encompassed the source material was completely missing. I accept this because up until that point people thought of the show as being about multi-colored onesies and facial prosthetics. I accede that this alienated a lot of casual audiences and that, overall, most of the stories told from the Original Series through Voyager lacked the core human emotions that allow for most people to have something to relate to. The common emotion present in both the rebooted Star Trek film and Into Darkness is revenge, explored with more depth in the latter and with much more intelligence than I was expecting. But still, going into the movie, I was worried that the hardcore Star Trek nerd inside of me would be resentful that the things I loved would be further stripped away; that Abrams would turn my beloved franchise into (even more of) a shadow of the Star Wars universe he openly cribbed and that I would hate this film for ignoring the basic tenets that made Star Trek what it was.
What I was forgetting was the basic tenets that made Star Trek what it is, rather than what it was. This universe was and is a reflection of our own society and right now we don’t live in the 1960s or the 1990s. A society coming to terms with its own power and responsibility is suddenly devastated by a horrific act of terrorism that shakes it to its foundations. Our sense of invulnerability and entitlement are stripped away by that act, the specters of our actions and sins abroad are now at our doorstep to visit revenge using unorthodox and horrifying methods. Some of us believe that the only way to fight these monsters is to become monsters ourselves and suspend the basic liberties and ethics we live by in order to protect our way of life and, more importantly to us in our fear and anger, take eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. This is not a criticism of these decisions, nor is this exclusively a description of a post 9/11 America. The Star Trek universe, in the destruction of Vulcan, is now and as it always should be, a reflection of our own. In Star Trek Into Darkness the villains are, to me, startlingly appropriate, and its conclusion is more satisfyingly optimistic than I could have hoped.
In the end, this film is about Kirk assuming the mantle of leadership as a man rather than an ambitious ne’er do well with extraordinary luck, where he both learns to trust his instinctive leadership abilities while at the same time coming to terms with what it means to be a Star Fleet captain. That may be a particularly nerdy thing to say but it is important to understand how significant that responsibility is in that universe; it was a rank that got passed around in the first reboot so many times it makes for a good drinking game. But what makes Into Darkness an exceptional and effective sequel is that Kirk learns that being a leader isn’t solely about coming up with great ideas and saving the day, it’s about accountability to the people who look to you for guidance. Accountability and, ultimately, sacrifice.
Where the first film was fun and featured youthful versions of the principal characters of the Star Trek universe essentially playing with an awesome new toy, Into Darkness moves the story in the only logical direction it can go: towards maturity, towards the darkness. Because children are allowed to play with childish things but when they are required to become men and women, they put childish things away. For now we see through a glass, darkly. And I can’t wait to see where we go next.