Last night, I met up with a couple friends to go see Star Trek Into Darkness; we’d been planning on seeing it together since it was announced, and it was a great excuse to finally catch up after months of not seeing each other. I guess that’s what happens when you’re spending an excessive amount of time working on university projects. Either way, I really felt slightly disappointed with the film despite the fact I adored it.

This entire post contains spoilers; I don’t want to spoil it for everyone, so I highly suggest that you not read anything more until you’ve watched the movie. If you don’t mind being spoiled, then go ahead; feel free to read as much as you like, but I did warn you.

First, I have to make a list of all of the things I loved about this movie. I really did enjoy it, and I have to give them credit for the parts that made it memorable (and something that, despite the negatives, I would watch again).

  1. Simon Pegg as Scotty. This is a combination of both one of my favourite actors and one of my favourite Star Trek crew members. As a result, it’s hard for me to dislike this setup at all. Still, I loved the way that Scotty was written. Every moment he spent on screen built up a character that stood up for his beliefs, even though he was made to resign from his post. In order to maintain his beliefs and moral values, he had to give up something and someone he cared about. Also, the anthropologist in me loved Scotty even more for pointing out that they were militarising the Enterprise rather than supplying for exploration and that he disagrees with doing so for multiple reasons.
  2. Zachary Quinto as Spock. Not only does he look and the part, the character is given emotional growth throughout the film. He’s shown some of the meanings of friendship throughout the film; he’s made to realise that people care about him but feel as if he doesn’t care because of he withdraws his emotions and leans toward logic. He struggles with this, and it just reminded me of so many of my male friends; that aspect spoke loudly to me about the way our culture asks men to forego emotion because it’ll just ‘get in the way.’ (And, honestly, I think that’s a social commentary that Spock works best for making today.)
  3. Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan. Considering that this character and Sherlock share the same superiority complex and ability to manipulate others into doing what they want, it’s quite obvious that Benedict’s already got this down and pulled it off beautifully. Khan was frustrating in the right ways, and you felt right there with the Enterprise crew every time someone questioned his motives.
  4. Chris Pine as Kirk. Chris isn’t new to playing maverick-type characters who don’t like playing by the rules; he played this beloved Enterprise captain similarly in 2009, and he reprised him beautifully again. Watching Kirk’s growth from that of a young man who can’t accept responsibility for his actions (but has a good heart that doesn’t always line up with the rules) to that of a captain who starts realising that his sense of justice doesn’t always line up with what’s right, and this is further shown by the stand that he has to make against the Admiral.
  5. Karl Urban as Bones. He picked up his quirky fan favourite lines, being the snarky doctor who liked to occasionally pull at Kirk’s impatience. “I’m a doctor, not a torpedo specialist!”
  6. Anton Yelchin as Chekov. He had me at his first line in Star Trek (2009), so he clearly had me here. He’s up and ready for the challenge, even if hesitant and frequently apologetic. Also, the continued mispronunciation of the letter V continues to make me very happy.
  7. John Cho as Sulu. He brings that unknown confidence to the captain’s chair when asked to “play poker with a dead man’s hand,” even provoking Bones to go as far as to say that he hopes he never ends up on his bad side.
  8. The overall story was compelling; I wanted to keep watching it. All of the changes in the main three characters were brought together in such a fashion that it made them relatable and lovable. You felt their pain, and you felt their strength. The reasons behind Khan’s villainy were believable, and you had the nagging question about what kind of people were working for Star Fleet. All of those elements worked together nicely to create a fun and intriguing narrative that mirrored some of the issues in society today.

But there were a few things that I hated and really had a negative impact on the Star Trek universe for me. I grew up watching all of the series, watching the ways that female characters were treated through their characterisations. They still had their constant issues, but it was getting better over time. That said, the female characters of past series are far more interesting than Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) are in this incarnation.

Nyota Uhura

In Star Trek Into Darkness, Uhura is rarely used as a stand-alone character. Most of her interactions relate solely to Spock to give him more characterisation. Here is a quick list of her actions throughout the movie (if I missed any, let me know – I’m doing this from memory):

  • In the beginning, she is shown with Spock and Sulu on a skipper that is hiding in an ash cloud of an erupting volcano. She is suiting Spock up to go on a mission into the volcano to detonate a cold-fusion device so that they can stop it from killing Nibiru’s native inhabitants. Spock gets stuck, she (understandably) starts to worry about his safety and offers to suit up; Sulu tells her that they have to abandon the skipper and go back to the Enterprise. She promises to help Spock as soon as they get back.
  • After Spock is saved, she makes a call to the transporter room to tell him that his device detonated and saved the planet’s inhabitants from a fiery death.
  • She is later on an elevator with Kirk, who mentions that he finds her boyfriend infuriating (and that he’d like to commit an act of violence against him); she tells him that he’s not alone. The response (though humourous) is “Are you two fighting? What is that even like?”
  • Kirk, after arriving at the bridge, chooses her and Spock to go on a mission to an uninhabited city on Chronos together; he picks her because she speaks Klingon. (“How’s your Klingon?” “A little rusty.”) He asks them if they’re okay to work together. (Her: “Yeah.” Spock: “Uncertain.”)
  • After departing the Enterprise on the mission, they get into a “lover’s quarrel” on the skipper. She tells him that he doesn’t seem to care about anyone’s feelings for him, this leads to Spock’s speech that details the trauma of losing his home world, later saying that “though he may not seem to care, the opposite is true” (paraphrased).
  • When surrounded by the Klingon, she convinces Kirk to let her use the talent he brought her for to try to negotiate their way out of danger. She goes out, talks to them in a manner that obviously would solve nothing, nearly gets killed by one of them and is then rescued by the very person they were sent to Chronos to capture.
  • She shouts at Kirk to stop beating the crap out of Khan.
  • She stands on her tiptoes after returning to the Enterprise, kisses Spock and then walks off.
  • Later, after the crew restabilises the Enterprise (which was attacked first by Admiral Marcus and then furthermore by Khan), Spock is sent out to capture Khan. Chekov is unable to target them directly, and she offers to be teleported down.
  • Once teleported down, she stands behind Khan (who is sitting on Spock) and starts shooting him with a phaser set to stun (Bones required Khan to come back alive). Khan immediately becomes distracted with her, and Spock gets up to hit him over the head with a piece of metal from a space-barge.
  • After Spock subdues Khan, he begins beating the crap out of him mercilessly. Uhura is required to yell at him to stop, stating that Khan is the only way to save Kirk.

First, I have no problem with her doing any of this. It’s a fine way to structure a story in some instances, and it’s not all terrible. She’s in love with Spock, not a Vulcan, and she should be worried for him; she experiences emotions differently than he does, and she should show that. That said, though…

Almost every interaction that she has throughout the movie includes Spock. Again, that isn’t a bad thing. However, all of those interactions only characterise her as “the caring girlfriend;” they do absolutely nothing to give her a story. There should be moments where isn’t being questioned about him; there should be moments where she isn’t focusing on him. It just feels as if her only purpose is to be there to support him, both the character and his development.  Even when Kirk asks her about the argument, he doesn’t even really stop to ask her how she’s coping with it; he doesn’t even stop to talk to her about anything unrelated to Spock at all. His first instinct is to complain to the person closest to Spock about him, leading her to show that he’s a fairly frustrating man to be romantically involved with.

The continuation of Spock’s story – his past and why he acts the way he does – is provoked through the lover’s quarrel, which is something else I want to discuss later. None of it is actually focusing on Uhura’s character; she becomes the means by which we get more information about Spock, and she is relegated to being useless soon after. I’m also none too happy with her response to his speech. Yes, it was moving and deeply troubling, but I cannot say that I would be content with that as an excuse. It’s troubling both for women and men. But in terms of this characterisation, it is frustrating that movies continue to think that we should tolerate a lack of emotion and a huge imbalance of effort in our relationships.

And two points, she loses all of her power. First, Kirk specifically chooses her to go to Chronos because she speaks Klingon. When her chance to use this knowledge comes, she goes out and starts talking to them about how she wishes for them to help her find a human criminal who is hiding in their ruins. The Klingon asks why he should care about a human who kills humans, which is a wonderful question; this plays on earlier information in the movie that the Klingons had killed two human settlements. If they’ve already killed humans, why would they care? For all intents and purposes, Khan is essentially doing their job for them. Her response: “Because you are people of honour.” This clearly demonstrates that, despite being intelligent and knowing the language, she doesn’t have any information regarding them; the main Klingon grabs her by the throat and starts to draw his weapon. The only thing that stops him is that Khan single-handedly rescues his captors.

The second point is when she’s teleported out to help Spock. Initially, I was excited that she was going to go out and be useful! But then she acts as a distractor, unable to stop Khan from doing much of anything (other than wailing on Spock and, in turn, going after her). This gives Spock a chance to get up and otherwise subdue him. She literally is just standing there and shooting at him, doing nothing else. What frustrates me about this is that she could easily have been the person to subdue him and show that women are capable of rescuing and saving the people that we truly care about; I would’ve preferred to see that, especially considering Spock’s actions afterward (another point to address later).

I was sorely disappointed with this presentation. Uhura is an amazing character, and she always has been; she should, especially for today’s audience, continue the progressive past that she had. Historically, Uhura (as played by Nichelle Nichols) was a part of the first bi-racial kiss on television; it only goes to show that she should be utilised in a better fashion than she was in this movie. She should be something more than this, something that female (and all) Star Trek fans can look up to. But she just wasn’t, and that’s sad.

Carol Marcus

This character was even more disgustingly utilised than Uhura. She could’ve been a wonderful addition to the Star Trek crew, but she was increasingly useless throughout every scene. This actually angers me because I like Alice Eve and was looking forward to seeing her in this role. And what did I get? A character who is either undermined or removed from situations without any control. Here’s a list of her actions in the movie:

  • She sneaks aboard the Enterprise by forging transfer papers (under the name Dr. Carol Wallace) to gain access to the crew; Kirk allows her on, and Spock is immediately suspicious of her. She continues to use her background in advanced weaponry.
  • Spock catches her scanning a torpedo and asks what she’s doing. She explains the obvious actions, but he meant more in terms of her actions to get on the Enterprise. He tells her what her true identity is and her relationship to the Admiral, questioning her motives. (This is actually infuriating because there were no hints that he’d done any additional research to figure out who she really was.)
  • After Khan is captured, she is required to take apart one of the torpedoes. She gets into a pod with Kirk while talking about how it would be dangerous to take the torpedo apart on the ship, and then tells him to turn around so she can change. While she’s changing, he turns and looks at her; she just tells him to turn around.
  • She’s seen on a planet’s service with Bones, exiting a pod to take apart a torpedo. Kirk tells him that he’s there to help Carol, not to flirt with her. Bones continues flirting with her (awkwardly), and she dismisses him each time. She asks him to cut a wire, he accidentally arms the torpedo; in an attempt to disarm it, she removes a panel and pulls out the wiring. (This is ridiculous because essentially top-secret torpedoes could be easily dismantled by ripping things out. Also ridiculous because a person without a background in advanced weaponry could do it.)
  • Realising that her father is going to destroy the Enterprise, she runs to the bridge to plead with Kirk to convince him not to kill the people on board her ship. She tells her father that if he plans to kill everyone, he has to do it with her on board. Father’s response? Beams her onto his dreadnought class starship, ignoring her wishes.
  • She is seen slapping her father and being immediately restrained, with him somewhat threatening her. She tells him she’s ashamed to be his daughter.
  • She is seen elbowing one of the fleet during Khan and Kirk’s infiltration of her father’s ship; she is later injured by Khan (presumably breaking her leg) while trying to stop him from murdering her father (who she had earlier dismissed and would’ve preferred to die before joining him).
  • She is seen putting Kirk into cryostasis to keep him alive, as per Bones’ orders.
  • She is seen being welcomed as a permanent member of the Enterprise family at the end.

Again, not everything she does is bad; I don’t mind some of it. I love that they made her really smart and that she wanted to stand up to her father’s immoral actions. I love that she wanted to make a difference and help people. Those are all admirable and wonderful qualities that any person could have.

The problems with her, though, are that she’s useless. She’s an incredibly smart person who is undermined repeatedly. She’s an advanced weapons expert, and she treats the one and only time she works with it as if she knows nothing about them; she’s supposedly seen (at least part of) the reports on these weapons because her father shared them with her, but she can dismantle them by tearing them apart.

When she tries to stand up to her father, she’s immediately beamed away. She doesn’t get to even do anything about her father’s immoral actions; she has absolutely no persuasion, and he doesn’t even care about her feelings. Granted, this continues to show just how horrible of a person he is, but it undermines the strength of character she was supposed to have. She defies his wishes, sneaks aboard a starship because she knows something bad will happen, and yet she doesn’t seem to know much about either the torpedoes or her own father. She just feels so disconnected from it all.

The other two issues I have are with the gratuitous scene of seeing Alice Even in her bra and panties, which had absolutely nothing to do with anything, and that Bones won’t stop hitting on her despite the fact that she doesn’t want any part of it. Part of it may’ve been to initially annoy Kirk, but she side-steps the bad advances frequently; it just got to be too much and lost the initial humour of the situation.

Conclusion

Though Star Trek Into Darkness does have its good points, the continued characterisation (or lack thereof) for females in entertainment is frustrating. One of the reasons why the Star Trek franchise has been such a powerful series is that it’s been gradually progressive, making attempts to change with the times. The various series had a lot of female characters that were intriguing and grew to different levels (Kathryn Janeway, Deanna Troi, Beverley Crusher, Natasha Yar, Guinan, Ro Laren, Kira Nerys, Jadzia Dax, Ezri Dax, B’Elanna Torres, Kes, and Seven of Nine). They all had their issues, yes; no character is perfect, which is part of the reason we love all of them. The difference, though, is that they were growing and changing; they didn’t always rely on someone else. The very fact that we even had Kathryn Janeway should show that the women of Star Trek are so much more than just useless characters who provide information for their male counterparts; they’re powerful shapers of the story who can make an impact on it.

And we really need to keep that story going in all areas of our entertainment; we need to show that these characters can make a difference, regardless of their gender, race, orientation, religion, whatever. And that’s what Star Trek, I think, is supposed to be about. That’s what it was about for me growing up, and it’s why I still love it today. But I feel like these recent movies have sort of forgotten that, even if I do enjoy them somewhat.

3 Responses to “Star Trek Into Darkness: What’s Missing from the Story”

  • Dan Says:
    May 10th, 2013 at 11:39

    you serious? you’re trying too hard and nitpicking now …
    Uhura was better than in the first movie and better than how nichols Uhura had ever been treated by previous writers

  • Nikki Says:
    May 10th, 2013 at 15:18

    It’s not really ‘trying too hard’ because no where in the post did I say “Nichols’ Uhura was treated better than Saldana’s.” I stated where Nichol’s Uhura started out in terms of progressive behaviour (which, for the time, was shocking — it was even to the point that, when she considered leaving, MLK Jr asked her not to). What I didn’t mention in all 3000+ words was that Nichols wished that, as it occurred once in the Animated Series, that Uhura had been allowed to take control of the Enterprise; this was a fact that always frustrated her.

    Uhura was better in the 2009 movie because she actually had some development; this movie did not do that, and it relegated nearly every on-screen moment to her telling us about Spock (or provoking him to tell us about himself). That’s part of the point because it removes her characterisation from herself and places it on someone else. The fact that she’s even upset with her boyfriend is taken away from her and used to characterise Spock; that is a problem.

    The two chances she has to do something amazing and powerful and helpful, to show that she’s intelligent and strong in her own right and capabilities? She loses both of them, and they are utilised to either introduce something about a character (Khan) or to further characterise someone else (Spock). She’s shown to care a lot about Spock, but there are two moments were she isn’t even allowed to save him.

    Nitpicking would be if I was complaining about minor flaws (presentation of Klingons, if it bugged me); this is not a minor flaw because it somewhat negates the previous advances (which were imperfect but were advances nonetheless) that the Star Trek franchise had been making since its inception.

  • Nikki Says:
    May 10th, 2013 at 15:46

    There is a small issue here in that I didn’t say Nichols’ Uhura was treated better; I provided an example of how her original character had been used it a socially progressive manner, which should be continued in other ways today. This even extends to two further pieces of information about Nichelle Nichols and her version of Uhura that I neglected to include because I had already written over 3000 words.

    First is that, when she was considering leaving the show, MLK Jr asked her personally to stay on because she was playing a role that black children could look up to and that other children could see as being more equal than other black characters for the time.

    Second is that Nichelle was always frustrated by the fact that Uhura was never allowed to assume command of the Enterprise in the Original Series, which was something that had been allowed in the Animated Series.

    So while she may be “treated better,” her characterisation is removed from herself and used to characterise someone else. That’s a problem.