Dan Wells is the author of several science fiction and supernatural books, including Partials and Fragments set in an unusual post-apocalyptic future, and the upcoming The Butcher of Khardov. Dan is also at least partially responsible for Writing Excuses (a short podcast which gives fantastic advice for budding authors) and Do I Dare to Eat a Peach (a considerably longer podcast discussing popular culture, especially speculative fiction). He recently agreed to sit down and talk with us about Star Trek Into Darkness.
Note that STID has been out for a few weeks now, and this interview shouldn’t be seen as a review. And, quite frankly, it has a bucket full of spoilers. So if you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve been warned.
Ninja Monkey: So I saw you mention that there were some major story telling problems with Star Trek Into Darkness. And the last time I saw that claim, I thought the reasons given were absurd: mostly ill-considered but trivial at best. But given how you work, I’m sure you’ve got better reasons. So tell us what you hated.
Dan Wells: The plot is a disaster. The characters are awesome, the acting is great, the look is beautiful, but wow. I’ve never loved and hated a movie so much at the same time as this one.
NM: I’ve seen complaints before, but on the whole, I kind of dismissed them. My biggest hurdle is how Khan helped build the Most Advanced Warship Ever. But I think your complaint goes deeper.
DW: Well, a lot of people have complained about the opening bit on the red planet, Nibiru. It’s odd, and has some dumb science in it, but I’m not going to complain about the science.
NM: Awful science describes every Star Trek episode ever.
DW: As a prologue it does a good job of setting us up for the Kirk character arc: he’s uncontrolled and arrogant, willing to make sacrifices he shouldn’t, and getting himself into dumb situations that can only be solved through sacrifice. The Kirk in the TV show loved regulations–he followed them all the time, he was a great captain. The Kirk in the altered timeline grew up without a dad, which made him reckless and rebellious, and this is the movie where we see him grow out of that.
NM: They did a nice job setting up a character that will differ from the original series.
DW: The first real problem comes in the dressing-down scene, where he gets demoted. The first movie already did this exact plot: Kirk is a loose cannon and Pike has to reign him in and convince him to be good. This movie repeated the first movie’s arc almost verbatim, but condensed it to ten minutes. Pike’s the captain, something goes wrong, Kirk saves the day and has to take over. Repeating that, especially when they reverse it less than ten minutes later, is ridiculous. It’s lazy writing–it’s a sign that the writers couldn’t think of any way to tell the “Kirk is a rebel” story other than the way they already told it.
Clockwork Gnome: I was really bothered by how Kirk seems to have risen quickly through the ranks for no rhyme or reason… as much as I love him.
DW: Other than that, the only real reason he stays in command, in both movies, is because there’s nobody else
CG: In all of Starfleet… in all of San Francisco… there is no one else!
DW: They keep going out of their way to show “look, Kirk’s the only one here to step up to the plate,” but they haven’t really shown us “look, Kirk is capable and admirable and THAT’s why we need him to step up to the plate.”
NM: In this case, at least, I see solid reasons to put the rogue into a position of authority. That was lacking in the first film. I mean, they aren’t good reasons, but that was kind of the point. He’s reinstated this time because Admiral Marcus needs someone he can get to do something reckless without sacrificing anyone he knows is loyal to him. It doesn’t make sense for the Federation to send him, but to Marcus it completely does.
CG: That makes sense. I suppose they wanted to add a lot of super drama in the very beginning too.
DW: Yes, Marcus using the loose cannon for a mission of revenge is great, but it undermines the longer-term arc of trying to show Kirk as a good guy, not a manipulatable tool.
CG: Well, that’s true, but he’s still young in these movies. I kind of like that we get to see all of his mistakes and short comings.
NM: Well, he gets manipulated a lot throughout canon, but he also shows a lot more character beyond “don’t mess with my guys!”
CG: In the original series it seemed Kirk was never actually wrong, just trapped or tricked into bad situations to which he had a brilliant exit strategy.
DW: I’ll also grant that Kirk’s arc in this movie does show him learning responsibility
CG: GROWTH! … sorta
NM: I think the change is more a reflection of what we think of as military virtue today over what we thought of fifty years ago. We’re not going to see him rock-steady in this incarnation. Ever. Because for society today, the greater good of something like The Prime Directive is much less important than “save all the good guys!”
… unless they wear red shirts.
DW: that’s an interesting point. And very possibly.
Back to the plot, there was no need to take away his ship and then give it back. Just keep him as Captain, let Pike die as admiral, everything still works and doesn’t feel like a retread.
NM: Reducing the punishment might have improved the overall arc of act 1 then
NM: it does stretch credulity when both films are taken together. He’s not even in, he gets in, almost gets booted from academy, gets promoted to first officer, then thrown overboard, then goes from prisoner to captain in half an hour.
DW: Harrison’s escape starts a new set of problems. Why did he flee to Kronos? What was he hoping to accomplish there? I suppose it’s possible he had a plan we didn’t know about. Maybe he was specifically trying to draw out Marcus’s retribution, but that’s ridiculously far-fetched. Going to Kronos served Marcus’s purposes, but not Khan’s.
NM: My first suggestion is that Kronos is the most Iraq-like of established ST settings. Obviously no extradition, though it doesn’t seem like being caught in the first place is a problem for him. I can come up with some convoluted logic that helps it, which is possible but isn’t in film.
DW: I suppose it’s possible he was just planning to hide out there and regroup, but whatever. It’s a weird move that doesn’t make sense and is never explained.
NM: I’ll agree, I can’t think of a reason to be on Kronos that passes an Occam’s Razor sort of test.
DW: He has no feasible reason to go to Kronos except possibly to hide, but Khan is not a hider
NM: He doesn’t seem to have a clear plan to get his crew before he gets on the Enterprise, and that’s the most out of character.
DW: I actually liked that he went to the Enterprise without a plan. He figured out they had his torpedoes, and was willing to make the self-sacrifice to help them, confident he could figure it out later. But, he has no feasible reason to hide his friends in torpedoes, unless that was literally the only place he could do it.
NM: I can see him putting them in torpedoes, but he’d reprogram them and take out the explosives.
DW: Did Marcus know the people were in the torpedoes?
NM: Marcus definitely knew, was my impression. At least, he learned some time in between when they got put in there and when he sends Kirk. So he rearmed them.
DW: Then why give them to Kirk? They’re his bargaining chip with Khan. I assume Marcus’s plan was to tell Kirk the torpedoes were stealthy but they actually wouldn’t be, so he’d fire them at Kronos and start a war. Maybe his plan is to kill the people inside, but there are easier ways to do that.
NM: It is a very batman-sitcom-villain plan to go to these elaborate lengths. Heck, he could just space them.
DW: Call it a weapons test and shoot them at Saturn, and you get the same result without Kirk in the mix to mess it up. Give Kirk some totally normal torpedoes and there you go. I suppose it’s possible that Khan knew Marcus would do this, and went to Kronos specifically to draw him out, but that’s crazy.
NM: That’s a few too many moves ahead to be predictable.
DW: That’s so many levels of prediction it’s basically prophecy.
NM: But it’s almost easier to swallow than coincidence
DW: Yes, but if those are our only options, that’s bad writing.
Another bit of bad writing we skipped was Kirk forcing Scotty to resign. He’s so dead set on using the torpedoes he’ll let one of his best crewmen and friend go, but then immediately reverses his decision and decides not to use the torpedoes. It’s a clumsy hack to get Scotty on Earth to do some investigating, and it’s a repeat of the earlier bit with Kirk losing his command: they make an earth-shattering decision only to reverse it a couple of minutes later.
NM: Now this is a complaint I’ve heard before. I’m more than happy to let this one go, though.
DW: I bought it as well, until he reverses like two minutes later.
NM: Kirk wants revenge, and not letting the torpedoes on means he can’t go. He’s being hot headed, he needs to get moving. When he reverses, however, he knows it’s not irreversible. He can hold off on using them because he still has options. But if he didn’t let the torpedoes on, he wouldn’t have been able to go at all.
DW: Kirk’s refusal to fire the torpedoes is one of the few examples we see of “really good commander”
NM: Ok, but what about the rest of the plot. After they’ve set up all of this badly, is the resolution satisfactory?
DW: We can’t discuss the plot problems without addressing the elephant in the room, …or I suppose in the reactor.
NM: That’s what I’m getting at. Is the foil to WoK satisfactory or irritating?
DW: First: Spock calling old Spock was needless.
NM: That’s true. It just gave opportunity for a Nimoy cameo, which I think is ok, though the dialog could have been better.
CG: Leonard Nimoy has a contract with Satan to be in every Star Trek commercial and film from now until eternity.
DW: it was a clumsy cameo, just like keeping Scotty on Earth was clumsy. Old Spock says, “As you know, I can’t tell you, but I will” and then gives them zero useful information. What good did that call serve? What came from it?
NM: Skipping the call, the reversal of Wrath of Khan made me geek out, though I got a bit embarrassed by Spock screaming “Khaaaaaaan.”
DW: Reversing the WoK thing was awesome, but doing it in the first place was lame.
CG: I love that they are basically sticking to the original movies but messing with them enough to make it fun to go back and rewatch the old stuff.
DW: There’s no reason in the universe that just because they’re fighting Khan again someone’s going to have to go into the reactor again. Lazy, lazy, lazy.
NM: Less lazy, I think, than contrived. Going into the reactor was deliberate, just forced.
DW: Forcing it because they were lazy and couldn’t think of anything better.
CG: Benedict Cumberbatch was amazing. Uh-ma-zing
NM: Cumberbatch is the other, slightly smaller elephant in the room. Khan is a sikh, east Indian. Why do we get Mexicans and white guys to play him?
CG: I think they did that for the nerds. Er… for us. Because Cumberbatch causes a stir wherever he goes. He’s big money.
NM: I think Ricardo Montalban was casted because his skin was darker, and that’s all they cared about then. But this time… are we sure we can’t find an ethnically accurate actor to play the role? But that would raise another problem. They’d be pummeled with the racist card if they actually had a brown Khan.
CG: There are only a handful of actors available you know. That’s why they made him British. The British never oppress anyone.
DW: One of the producers said they cast a white guy because they didn’t want to demonize a non-white guy. “It became uncomfortable for me to support demonizing anyone of color, particularly any one of Middle Eastern descent or anyone evoking that. One of the points of the movie is that we must be careful about the villain within US, not some other race.”1 I think that quote is arguably one of the most racist things about it. It can be summarized as “we want the villain to be one of us, someone we can relate to, so obviously that’s a white guy.”
NM: That was a hard decision, I’ll grant that. I’m not going to fault them for the choice, but it’s a tricky bit of nuance given the current climate of SF.
CG: Personally I don’t care if they get the ethnicity right so much as I care about them having a good actor.
NM: Yeah, but they’d still get hit hard if he’d been “another race.”
DW: Having the genetically superior ubermensch be a Sikh played by a Mexican was kind of cool in the TV show.
NM: Yeah, that’s what I want to take away, but the public doesn’t like that much nuance, I think. It won’t play well in sound bites.
DW: Making the genetically perfect dude white is problematic, but I can see their other reasons for doing it.
CG: I think they wanted Cumberbatch because it was marketing genius and he’s an awesome actor. It brought the movie up five levels.
DW: Cumberbatch was so good he was arguably too good. He acted circles around everyone else, including Pine, which was awkward. He’s the poster boy for every director who’s ever said “we just hired the best actor regardless of race.” In this case they totally did.
NM: The biggest problem with the whole movie, I think, is how much of it is recycled material. Flying through the debris is a redo of the planet dive in the last movie. Kirk’s character arc, as Dan discussed earlier, is a remake of the last movie. Act 3 is a remake of WoK.
CG: Why is that bad? I like it.
DW: They just riffed on older movies the whole time, without enough new stuff. I actually really dug the initial reveal of Khan, because it was new and cool. They were using an old character, but doing something new with him. Then in act 3, it was just a retread of a movie we’d already seen.
NM: I want to point out that WoK actually had the defeat of Khan better. There he is beaten because he’s used to earth-bound battles, and he doesn’t think 3 dimensionally. In this one, he’s beaten because… reasons.
CG: because Spock kicked his trash fifty-nine ways on a barge or something. What was that all about?
DW: That was about the writers going back to their own well. Again. The Spock arc in the first movie was to show him becoming more like Kirk: more flexible and emotional. They gave him the same arc again, just like they gave Kirk the same arc again.
NM: Well, he’s really “beaten” in the space battle. The rest is just chasing.
CG: Yah.. what’s with the chasing? I don’t remember that much chasing.
NM: Like always, I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out the bad. But I am an unabashed fan of this incarnation of Star Trek. I’m ToS as far as TV fandom goes. The Next Generation and Deep Space 9 both failed to get my attention very much, so I never watched Enterprise.
CG: I like the star ship battles and crazy warp core maneuvering more.
NM: Yeah, the previous films have had very static space battles.
DW: I can gush. Pine is an amazing Kirk. He’s not aping Shatner, but he’s taking the role to places that are new and familiar at the same time. We can see that yeah, this is exactly how Kirk would have ended up if he’d grown up without a father.
NM: Or a crappy stepfather who doesn’t even let him drive a car at age 9! But yes, I really really love that Pine’s Kirk is not Shatner’s Kirk.
CG: I think this is the best cast ever in the history of reboots. BUT! Where is the blonde chick? She always had the best hair.
DW: I also loved the little tidbits like Carol Marcus being a weapons engineer. In the original she was a biologist, but in this new timeline she’s seen that the universe is way scarier than they thought it was. Her father is ready to betray everything to protect people from new threats, and so the daughter is like a more moral version of that same thing.
NM: Yeah, that was good character planning, and let’s admit it. Adm. Marcus “yoinking” Carol from the bridge of the Enterprise was so “you don’t have ANY cards, guys.”
CG: But is she the same character as the blonde with the awesome beehive in TOS? It’s been too long since I watched those.
DW: Carol was Kirk’s old flame in the original movies. Kirk’s baby mama.
NM: Carol Marcus was a new character in WoK, but she came with a back history. She was never in the TV series. The blond you’re thinking of is Nurse Chapel, who is referenced in this film, but has not been seen in this film.
CG: OK. Thanks for clarifying on the nurse vs. the baby mama. I keep waiting for her beehive to show up and it never does. Sigh.
DW: I loved the casting of Alice Eve as Marcus, and the assumption that we’ll get to see some romance in the future. Seeing that relationship starting, instead of ending, will be fun.
NM: Yeah, because they can tame a different character flaw for Kirk.
DW: We should definitely gush about Pegg as well.
NM: Anyone who doesn’t love Pegg has earned my animosity. He’s totally earned his place.
CG: Pegg is really so great. And I like his bug-eyed sidekick.
DW: He’s the most famous actor in the movie, other than Cumberbatch, and they used him appropriately. I’m sad that using him so much pushed some of the others into the sidelines, but they only have so much time. And neither movie has had any idea how to use Chekhov. Even Sulu gets short shrift.
NM: I like that they made him so young. There’s a lot of potential
CG: I love me some Chekhov
DW: They’re trying too hard to do the Kirk/Spock friendship, and to use Uhura because they need a woman, that everyone else is getting lost. Even Bones would be background if Karl Urban weren’t totally killing it in the role
CG: I agree. What is with the Uhura/Spock love?! It just doesn’t make sense.
DW: I actually think there’s good TV canon support for Spock/Uhura
NM: I like the Uhura/Spock relationship. Adds a new dimension, and really fits what they’ve made Spock’s personality to be in this incarnation.
CG: Maybe my childhood memories just aren’t comfortable with a sexy Uhura kissing Spock.
NM: heh, Nurse Chapel is the one who had a major crush on Spock in TOS. There are several episodes of her coming on to him. Especially in the one where he goes into pon farr.
CG: It does add a new level of interest though. Kirk isn’t the only one baggin’ the babes.
NM: Maybe we can see a lot more Chekov/Sulu/Scott in a third movie where Kirk/Spock/Uhura take some more background.
DW: That could be awesome.
CG: I would go see that.
NM: Yeah, Bones is an awesome character. He’s a doctor, makes his living with science, but he’s the humanist foil to Spock’s logic. They need a plot that plays that up. So we need at LEAST 2 more movies.
DW: And if either of them focus on Kirk learning responsibility again, I’m done.
NM: Yeah, it’s time for him to be growed up now.
CG: I agree. Kirk needs to just go explore a bit. I’m pretty sure we’re going to get at least 4 more, don’t you think?
NM: Depends on who directs next. Abrams is admittedly more of a Star Wars fan.
CG: How is the super transporter going to change the space exploring bit though? I’m still kind of hung up on that. Why didn’t they just teleport and get Khan if he just teleported there to get away?
DW: Yeah, they’ve really made spaceships obsolete. If the super-teleporters are so amazing and so portable, come on.
CG: It worked for the first movie, for Scotty’s character development, but yeah… I bet they will have some reason for not being able to pop home to earth whenever they feel like it. It’s sort of like a mini Stargate now. Maybe they are going to cross brands!
DW: But I’m willing to forgive ST any science crap they want me to forgive.
CG: Even with all the plot issues, I still drooled all over myself just being at the movies and watching Star Trek on a big screen with big new lens flares and a Cumberbatch villian. I think I could possibly forgive them anything.
NM: They’ll need to introduce something to limit the super transporting. It’s not that it’s bad science, it’s that it’s poor world building. I mean, all the science is bad. That’s just assumed.
I kind of want to end on the five-year mission note. The series is looking forward, not just setting up anymore. And I want to look forward to more of them now.
DW: The end of the movie, beginning the five-year mission, gives me hope that they’ll start telling some real stories now.
NM: We’ve got openings without any heavy handed “Here’s your next plot.” I mean, it’s not like Nick Fury showed up to recruit Chris Pine. But we have so many good openings and literally a galaxy of stories open.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Dan.
DW: My pleasure. This was fun.