Why I Liked Star Trek: Into Darkness, But Mostly Why It Made Me Mad


Warning: Spoilers ahead. Also, rants. I freely admit that I go into waaaaay more detail about some things that I didn’t like than the things that I enjoyed.

Let me start off by saying that I enjoyed the new Star Trek movie. I repeat – I had fun watching Star Trek: Into Darkness, and overall, I liked it. It was a well-made blockbuster action movie. It was pretty to look at, it was full of attractive people, and the set (for the most part) looked like the high-tech love child of the original Enterprise and an iPad. I really, really liked how much screen time was given to Benedict Cumberbatch. Because seriously. I would pay money to watch him in anything. A movie about watching paint dry, you say? Fine. Take my money. It was well spent.

I did not prefer the blatant sexism. Because seriously, Mr. Abrams, what the hell? I know that it is a blockbuster, and thus I expect for the focus to be on a white male protagonist, because unfortunately that is the world we live in right now. I accept that. If I wasn’t prepared for some sexism and/or racism, I would not go see a summer blockbuster, just like I wouldn’t have gone to see Into Darkness if I had an overwhelming hatred for lens flare. I’ve made my peace with the fact that I can like something in spite of its flaws.  But this went kinda overboard on the sexism, and the worst part is that I don’t know that Abrams & Co. even cared enough to notice.

Example the first of annoying, unnecessary sexism:

Uhura. Her character in this movie and in its prequel is strong – she has opinions and she isn’t afraid to speak out. She is brave, both emotionally (her openness with Spock about her feelings and expectations from him) physically (going out alone to try and talk to a bunch of armed Klingons),and she has mental strength/intelligence/determination in spades (her job is basically to be a linguistic genius, and she kicks ass at it -well, in the first movie, at least). She’s great.

That being said, I hate how they used her in this movie. HATE IT. All of her motivations revolved around Spock. Even when she is showing character qualities that I admire, she displays them to her worst advantage. Going into a volatile and highly dangerous situation while at work? Sure, let’s have her pick THEN to start fighting with Spock about their relationship. Yeah, and have her just keep at it, even when her superior officer points out that this isn’t a good time. Because that will make the joke where Kirk is afraid of pissing her off SO FUNNY. Because women, amiright? They’re so unreasonable!

Also, every time Uhura tried to do something, she failed. For no good reason. Why couldn’t the Klingons have at least maybe kinda listened a little bit before Khan came out with guns blazing? Why did she have to get rescued by the menfolk? It would have been much more in keeping with the spirit of Star Trek to have an attempt at diplomacy be met with something other than laughable failure. And towards the end of the movie, when she beams down to rescue Spock from a losing fight and save Kirk by keeping Khan alive, why did she have to be useless?! She shoots Khan with a phaser at point blank range several times. While phasers were previously shown to have less effect on Khan, they still do SOMETHING, so there is basically no excuse for why Uhura shooting him does nothing.  Why even have Uhura be the person sent down there in the first place if she didn’t do anything no other crew member could do; it’s not as if she has any combat expertise that would make her useful in the situation. Are we supposed to believe that Sulu made a dumb decision? Would Kirk have sent her? Ugh. Anyway, Spock knocks out Khan with one final, (incredibly powerful, apparently) uppercut to the jaw.  As near as I can tell, the whole reasoning for this sequence was that they just wanted Spock to have an extra moment of looking like a badass, apparently, at the expense of the only badass female character of the franchise.

Example the second:

Carol Marcus. Again, a character that I was really rooting for. She’s a scientist! She specialized in weapons! This is a classic setup for a strong female character in Star Trek. So classic, in fact, that they were once again clearly ripping off Wrath of Khan, where Kirk’s former flame is a blonde scientist named Carol Marcus who is developing a device that could create untold good for the universe, but which has massively dangerous side effects. In Wrath of Khan, her role as a love interest is secondary to her role as a scientist. She has a strong moral compass, and her work is important to her, so important that she has raised the son she conceived with Kirk entirely on her own; the son has no idea Kirk is his father. I was rooting hard for Carol in Into Darkness – I wanted to see the relationship between her and Kirk develop, and I hoped (Oh, how I hoped!) that her brains and ability would be what attracted him to her.

Aaaaaand she turns out to be useless. Like Uhura, her entire character is motivated by her relationship to a man, in this case, her father. Even when she does get to do something cool, as when she defuses a bomb, she doesn’t do so by careful application of her knowledge and skills. Nope. She freaks out and defuses the bomb by sheer luck and a generous helping of hysteria. Like Uhura, she is potentially an awesome badass, but she is so poorly utilized that the writers should, frankly, be embarrassed.

That underwear scene, for one, should cause everyone involved in it to cringe with embarrassment. I wasn’t bothered much by the Uhura underwear scene in the previous movie, because that actually made sense with what was going on in the plot – this one was completely gratuitous. Why was she changing? It is never explained! There is no reason given – either implicitly or explicitly – for why she would need a different outfit. Or, for that matter, why she would change in the back of a shuttle with the whole rear hatch hanging open, or why she would strip in front of a virtual stranger (other than wanting to get it on, which is a perfectly valid reason, but not one that was implied in the scene). Not only does Kirk take a good long ogle, we do too. And it is written off as a moment of light heartedness. Call me crazy, but looking at someone naked without their permission, especially when they have specifically asked you not to, should probably not be a humorous moment. It was entirely fan service, and poorly written fan service at that. Shoehorning it in when it had no relationship to anything going on is was the annoying icing on the whole rape-culture-endorsing scene.

To be fair, Damon Lindelof, one of the co-writers, publicly apologized via twitter for the scene, saying:

“I copped to the fact that we should have done a better job of not being gratuitous in our representation of a barely clothed actress. We also had Kirk shirtless in underpants in both movies. Do not want to make light of something that some construe has mysogenistic [sic]. What I’m saying is I hear you, I take full responsibility, and will be more mindful in the future.”

Which does mollify me a little, but not that much, because why didn’t you stop and think about it beforehand? This movie is huge, and I’m sure both the script and the final product went through multiple rounds of editing. Why did no one apparently think, “Hey, maybe there should be at least some sort of a reason for this scene?”

Anyway, back to Dr. Marcus. When she is incapacitated in the fight with Khan near the end, again, her character is written and directed so as to show her in the worst possible light. It’s great that she tried to make a stand, but not only was she put out of action quickly, her injury was minimized. Sure, she had her knee viciously shattered; but when we see her later, she is half-heartedly gripping it and kinda wincing, but still capable of being invested in what’s going on. This wishy-washy treatment annoys me. Have her pass out, or be in obvious extreme pain, or valiantly trying to do something despite her injury. Don’t just stick her in the scene to have her quickly taken out of the fight, only to then sit around looking like she could probably worm her way over to that fallen phaser, but is choosing not to because she has an ouchie. That’s the worst possible option, but by that point I wasn’t really expecting anything else, because:

Annoyance the third:

This movie fails the Bechdel test. It fails it spectacularly. There are only two named female characters, and not only do they not talk to each other about something other than a man, they don’t talk to each other AT ALL. I would give it a pass if they even had a “hi, how about those crazy torpedoes?!” interchange. Three lines would be a technical pass. One of the problems with this film is that they created a situation in which their female characters interacting is superfluous. Because they are there to wear short skirts, and be emotional, and sometimes be available for kissing. The only other memorable female characters are the cat-like aliens with whom Kirk has a threesome (speaking of acceptable, justified nudity, they didn’t bother me really at all, because they had a reason to be naked. It’s well established that Kirk sleeps around). And that’s just a big bummer. As a lllllady, I object to the nearly complete absence of powerful llllladies. The first movie passed (not with flying colors, but it passed). In point of fact, it was the Uhura underwear scene that made it pass. In case you don’t recall, during that scene Uhura and her roommate talk about a transmission that Uhura intercepted while working late – an interception that has a HUGE impact on the plot. Because in the first movie, Uhura was actually an effective character.

What made all of this so much worse for me is that I love Star Trek. I love that at its best, it is a celebration of all that we as a species have the potential to become. I love the whole philosophy, and how it often challenges viewers to think – about themselves, our world, and what they can do to create change for the better. I love that it casts women and people of color and aliens as captains and admirals and other powerful people. I love that it does this for background characters, implying that it is totally normal and shouldn’t even be a THING. Just “Of course that captain who we’ll never see again after this scene is Indian, why wouldn’t he be?” (in Star Trek IV) and “Yes, that admiral happens to be a black woman” (Star Trek: The Next Generation), only IT DOESN’T EVEN SAY THOSE THINGS. It just casts a diverse group of actors (and yes, I know, for the most part it still follows white male protagonists, but like I said, this is the world we live in. I’ll take what I can get and celebrate it, in the hopes that other filmmakers will sit up and take notice).

At its worst, Trek in its various iterations is a fun space adventure – Into Darkness was very much a fun space adventure. It was a blockbuster action movie, and therefore the sexism (and other -isms… while I love Mr. Cumberbatch, that was some serious character whitewashing there, but this article is already long) would not have bothered me nearly as much if it hadn’t had the name Star Trek attached to it. It’s like buying what you think is a Ferrari and finding out it’s a Fiat. While a Fiat is a perfectly good car, it’s not what you were expecting to get.

So, while I liked this most recent iteration of Star Trek, I liked it for the shiny, pretty, space adventure. It was missing basically everything about Star Trek that makes me geek out. It was just a fun, well-made action movie: no less, and certainly no more.


9 thoughts on “Why I Liked Star Trek: Into Darkness, But Mostly Why It Made Me Mad

  1. Thank you for speaking my feelings about this movie. It is with a twinge of guilt that I say that I love this movie and will continue to do so (buy it, watch it when I’m sick/bored/sad) simply because Star Trek is in the title. However, some of the fixes were SO simple, have Carol and Uhura talk, don’t show Carol in her undies for no reason, put back in the Benedict-taking-a-Showerbach scene, etc. The less simple fixes are Khan’s white-washing and making female characters a larger part of the plot. While the twitter apologies are nice, they get lost in the shadow of the final product.

    The scene where Khan tells Kirk to look into some coordinates is proof that I would pay to watch Cumberbatch act the phonebook.

    • I agree, the Twitter apologies are a nice gesture, but Twitter is pretty much the least weighty way of making a public apology. There were so many easy fixes for this movie! And a lot of less easy fixes that I hope they make for the next movie (which hopefully there will be, unless they do a TV show instead which would be SO. GREAT. but is highly unlikely).

      I also wish they has kept the shower scene, and not just because of my aforementioned obsession with Benedict Cumberbatch. The fact that they hold up a short deleted scene as “see, totally not sexist!” is just more proof (to my mind, anyway) that they aren’t even bothering to THINK about how they are representing gender. A deleted scene in which Khan looks a little bit like a drowned rat (the prettiest drowned rat ever, but still) does not somehow balance out a rape-culture-endorsing underwear scene with no justification.

      • Let’s be careful, though, of buying into the idea that showing men in sexy eye candy situations (I echo the sentiment that I would love to have had showering BC in the movie) somehow makes it okay to randomly show women in sexy eye candy situations, because I hate that argument. There are lots of very attractive people, both men and women, that viewers of all sexual orientations can admire, but that doesn’t mean that objectifying both genders would somehow make it totally fine.

        That being said, I totally understand that Kirk’s kind of a womanizer and I agree that scenes where he’s in bed with women, for example, aren’t offensive in themselves. But why the random changing scene? At least give me a plot- or character-driven justification for llllladies in their undies!

      • Goodness, I didn’t mean to imply that at all! Just that I wish blockbusters in general would include tasteful, well-incorporated instances of male nudity as often as they do female nudity. Objectification is never cool! Especially when the argument is along the “but, but… we’re terrible to EVERYONE” lines. A desire to see filmmakers working in plot and character related reasons for people of all genders to be undies-clad is what I meant.

      • I didn’t think you meant that, either 🙂 It just reminded me of that point people make that makes me very cranky and puffed-up. I’m all in favor of tasteful nudity/hotness from both genders; I like pretty people! I just want filmmakers (and television, etc) to understand that adding pretty boys to movies that have dumb and unnecessary ways of sexualizing women shouldn’t placate us. I’d say that (I think) most of us don’t object to sexuality in general, but we want it to be there -for a reason-.

    • The white-washing of Khan could spark its own post in its entirety, although to be honest the problems with race are inherent in the original iteration of Khan too. A Mexican actor (however talented and GORGEOUS) portraying an Indian Sikh is still problematic. Yes, this was during the 60’s when Hollywood treated all ‘brown’ ethnicities as interchangeable, but still…

      (Also weird: making the character specifically Sikh and then having the character with cut hair. Consistency, people!)

      A commenter on The Stranger’s review of the film made a really good point about the casting of Khan:

      “As much as I like Cumberbatch as an actor, he was simply the WRONG choice physically: Khan Noonian Singh is a Sihk, from Northern India, NOT a London-born Caucasian. Making the argument that “well, it’s an alternate universe, why CAN’T he be from London?” would only make sense if one also argues that Kirk could be Black, Uhura could be a male, and Scotty could be of French descent! Seriously, if you’re going to fuck with nationalities and use “alternate universe!” as your rationale, why not go all the way with it?”

      • Here’s the thing, the alternate universe argument is not only a cop-out, it is false. Caution: this is where I get more-than-my-usual-amount of nerdy.
        Khan was taken out of a 300-year long suspended animation. So he was put on ice long before Nero went back in time, the interim-captain George Thor Kirk rammed the USS Kelvin in order to save everyone, and the offing of Winona Ryder with the majority of the Vulcan species. So unless those events changed the genetic and culture makeup of a person who had already been around for centuries, they just need to own up to their casting decisions for what they are.

      • Heather, I couldn’t agree with you more! I am also pretty intensely geeky about Star Trek, and am annoyed that they couldn’t even make their re-imagined plots make sense. Grrr. Also, there are so many questionable things about this franchise that I feel they need to just own up to. A big, official “yeah, we were pretty racially and sexually insensitive, so so sorry that we didn’t think about how people other than straight white men would react to these films” would be nice. It’ll never happen, but hey, I can dream.

        What upsets me most about these movies (which were fun and I liked reasonably well) is not that they are messing around with the source material, but that they are messing around with the source themes. IMHO, if it’s not about acceptance and learning to live peaceably with different people, it’s not really Star Trek.

  2. Pingback: The Hobbit: The Invisible Women | Sassafrakas

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