Special Features – Star Trek Into Darkness: The Failure of Fan Service

Anghus Houvouras on Star Trek Into Darkness and the failure of fan service (warning, major Star Trek Into Darkness spoilers follow)….

Fan service.  It’s an act of appeasement.  An effort to try and satisfy the fan base of a particular franchise while trying to do your own thing with it.   The truth is, fan service is an anchor.  A cinder block chained to the neck of a property that weights it down and prevents it from becoming something original.  Star Trek is a franchise with deep roots that runs back nearly five decades.  When they decided to relaunch Star Trek, there were radical departures made to try and separate the old from the new.  I was a big fan of the rebooted Star Trek because director J.J. Abrams and his creative team weren’t afraid to reconfigure the formula.  The sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness is weighed down by pointless fan service that feels like it’s taking one step backward for every two steps forward.  And every problem the film has is due to a kind of cinematic obligation to the original Star Trek sequel: Wrath of Khan.

Star Trek Into Darkness is a good film.  Let me get that sentiment out of the way right now.  Star Trek Into Darkness is a fun little space adventure with some great actors having a lot of fun with the paper thin, intergalactic soap opera that they have to work with.  But there are some inherent issues with this film that taps into a real problem facing Hollywood right now:  the inability to create something new in favor of delivering something familiar.  Filmmakers seem so beholden to the past that it makes growth nearly impossible.  This might seem rather lofty and existential for a movie about a bunch of space traveling friends dealing with intergalactic dilemma, but it’s such a salient example about the stagnant creative growth in Hollywood.

Everything wrong with Into Darkness can be attributed to pointless fan service.  Those moments where Abrams and company work way too hard to try and shoehorn in elements of earlier Star Trek films.  For example, the inclusion of Khan Noonien Singh.  Why was Khan the villain of the film?  It certainly didn’t work organically into the story.  In fact, Khan’s entire back-story is delivered via an endless bit of exposition where Cumberbatch chews on scenery while telling his woeful tale. 

The only reason Khan is the villain is because Khan was the villain in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  As if it is some kind of cinematic obligation.  That kind of logic is creatively suspect.

I’m not even the world’s biggest Star Trek fan, but I watched The Original Series and The Next Generation. I’ve seen the movies. So I know the history. The minute Khan is in his cell basically delivering his endless monologue/back story, I just started laughing.

The Original Series had Kirk and company find the spaceship Khan and his buddies were frozen on, unfreeze them, and then we learn about their sordid past and how dangerous they are. Wrath of Khan requires the viewers to be familiar with the episode which basically sets up why Khan hates Kirk so much. Kirk made mistakes in the past, mistakes that drove the already murderous Khan insane, and thus you have an epic vendetta.

Into Darkness has to try and cram all that pathos into two hours. So basically you have bad, exposition heavy writing trying to do the heavy lifting to make it seems like an epic hero/villain confrontation.   There is no real vendetta between them.  Kirk hates Khan because he killed his surrogate father figure.  This provides Into Darkness with some role reversal in comparison to Wrath of Khan. In fact, Into Darkness is heavily reliant on the kind of role reversals that you would only get if you were familiar with the original series and movies, hence the motivating phrase of the creative team: fan service.

Now it’s Kirk who has murderous rage towards Khan.  Now its Kirk in the chamber instead of Spock. Now its Spock who yells KHAN!!!!! This is what passes for clever these days.

It’s the fan service that really provides all the eye rolling moments of Into Darkness. I go back to the battle by the moon. The Enterprise is wounded. Things look bleak. Spock gets a line of communication open, and he calls….. OLD SPOCK?

The audience claps. You get to see Nimoy on screen, and what takes place?

“Hey Old Spock. What do you know about Khan?”
“He’s really, really evil. Super evil. Billy Zane in Titanic evil.”

So Spock, you couldn’t figure out how evil this guy was after he single handedly took out a Klingon battalion and then took control of a super death spaceship and just killed a guy by crushing his skull with his bare hands?  Maybe you could have…. I don’t know… called for another Starship to come beam the crew off the ship or get the rest of the fleet to come in and fight this massive war ship.

Did Old Spock’s thirty seconds do anything to serve the plot, or did it instead make new Spock look like a moron and do nothing but provide another bit of fan service. I think I would have enjoyed it more if they’d just gone a new route with a new story and not tried to shoehorn in the fan service villain with some really bad plotting.

It’s like Abrams and company were given a box with all the pieces from Star Trek, and they had to rearrange the pieces but couldn’t add a single new element. How else do you explain things like Carol Marcus? She was a huge influence on Wrath of Khan. So they sit in a room looking at the Carol Marcus piece and wonder “how do I work this in?”

If you start applying that kind of logic to Into Darkness, so many things start to make sense. This is one long riff on the original film with every creative decision motivated by obligation.

I liked the first Star Trek film because they messed with the formula and tried to do their own thing. It wasn’t perfect, but it was fun. There was fan service there, but it didn’t feel like fan service was steering the ship. Star Trek Into Darkness suffers because so many pieces felt obligatory.

What I find interesting is how this will effect Star Wars: Episode VII.  On a purely intellectual level.  Because lets be honest, Star Wars hasn’t been interesting since Michael Jackson’s Thriller was topping the charts.  Star Wars is the perfect fit for Abrams.  Someone who really is more of a franchise manager than a movie director.  With Star Wars he has the ultimate geek toy chest to play with, and he will no doubt deliver a film built on a foundation of fan service.  For the guys writing the checks, that’s all that matters.  Star Trek Into Darkness has shown us the map Abrams will be using to chart a course for the Star Wars franchise: an all too familiar route. 

Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the graphic novel EXE: Executable File, is available from Lulu.com.

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