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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  • Simon

    Personally, Leonard Nimoy turning up made me -as someone who has only seen these two STAR TREK films – feel out the loop. And not in a bad way – in a good way. I want to watch more Star Trek now. In that respect, this type of tying things together is crucial to the series as it gains new fans and adds values to the 60 years of media available. The whole Kahn thing is a part of that – I am interested in seeing the original Wratch of Kahn and those who have seen it theoretically appreciate all the nods to it too.

    • that’s an interesting point. If youd never seen the original series or Wrath of Khan, all of these throwback fan service moments would go unnoticed. And you’re right: its a great opportunity for those who enjoyed it to delve into the back catalog. I think these reboots try too hard to please everybody, and ultimately i think that’s the wrong direction to take. It’s a tether that ultimately needs to be cut. Eventually you need to take the franchise to a place it already hasn’t been.

      Even if you liked seeing Nimoy on screen, didn’t you feel that moment was really forced? And it didnt do anything to help Spock and the crew of the Enterprise. Everybody claps, Spock reinforces the already established notion that Khan is really evil, and they are no better off than they were before they made the call. If it was me, i would have used that quarter to call in some back up. But that’s just me.

      • Grant

        After you see Wrath of Khan, you might still feel out of the loop, and want to watch “Space Seed”, an episode from the original series.

        • Biscuiteer

          I saw “Wrath of Khan” in the theater and many times later, but I didn’t watch the “Space Seed” episode until a couple of months ago. The cool exposition by Montalban about his cold dish of revenge, the fear in the voice of Chekhov when he read the name “Botany Bay”, and the plot to obtain the Genesis device was enough to support Khan’s intentions in that film. Still, if you have access to the series online, check that “Space Seed” episode out.

        • Simon

          I did hear that. But thats a problem in and of itself – there is SO much! IS it worth choosing to watch so many hours of backstory?

      • Simon

        Nah – Leonard Nimoy was crucial in adding weight to that scene – not only is this a bad ass… but its a bad ass who has clearly killed people before. Nimoy’s voice explaining how dangerous he is gave a sense of grvaitas – and fear. For me, I want to see what that fear is (by watching WRATH OF KAHN), for others they recall what happened previously.Good move in my eyes.

  • Sevzy

    Everything said here about fan service is why I thought the film was brilliant! It was still new. It does still have a new direction. It does make you want to go back to the original movies and series. This all made the new Star Trek a standout movie in my book. Well done all involved.

  • Thanksgiving Chimp

    Leaving the many grammatical errors aside (seriously, though, “a effort”), I think you’re way off. I know very little about Star Trek, maybe seen a handful of episodes and remember some scenes from some of the previous flicks, and I don’t think you need a Ph.D in Trek-ology to get the nods. Khan is iconic on a level of The Joker or Lex Luthor, so just being alive means you should know who he is; I didn’t find the Carol Marcus character shoehorned in there at all; and there were, after reading about the franchise more, a lot of changes made (ex. Peter Weller’s character). I think the point of Abrams’ reboot was to make a movie accessible to moviegoers, not just Trek fans. Yes, he threw nods in their to the past, but as someone who doesn’t know the difference between a Romulan and a Klingon, I found it extremely enjoyable. The cast is great (Cumberbatch was fantastic, Quinto continued his stellar work from the first one, even Chris Pine stepped up his game), the movie looks great and it was a lot of fun. All this talk of fan service seems to me like complaining for the sake of complaining. Into Darkness was a fun flick and one I will be back in the theatre watching again.

    • Guest

      The problem is that anybody fan service is supposed to help tell the story along with please fans, so outside of the context of the story how does Cumberbatch playing Khan serve the story? All it does it lead to more fan service. Overall since Khan is so iconic had he not have been everything in the 3rd act would be completely unnecessary.

  • Chip

    I’m old enough to have grown up with classic Trek in initial syndication before any films had been made, and I’m surprised you’d call this “fan service.” It’s NOT “fan service” to take a villain and name him Khan when he bears almost no similarity to the original character! Yes, JJ and crew have every right to do what they want with their reenvisioning of the Trek universe, but there was no reason to make such a connection with an underwritten character whose villainous bent is left unrevealed until late in the film. (The creative team had fooled me into thinking Marcus was the true villain.) Worse, we then get a reversal of roles in a reimagining of a classic scene when the two characters involved, despite their considerable character development over two films, have not yet reached the depth or length of friendship to give such a scene the necessary heft/gravitas/sense of loss that the filmmakers so clearly desire to achieve. The problem is not that the scene was reimagined, but that the characters were not yet ready for such a dramatic moment.

    None of this does longtime fans any favors. I don’t see this, then, as “fan service,” but rather an attempt to recast classic moments from a previous incarnation for a new audience in an attempt to engage them rather than the older fans.

  • Chip

    (continued from previous message)

    The “fan service” that I do see is for Lucas/Spielberg fans: the opening scene’s appropriation of the opening chase from Raiders of the Lost Ark and the later storage of the frozen superhumans in the equivalent of a government warehouse, as well as the Death Star-like space chase. In all of these cases, the homages are made with the filmic equivalent of a wink; these are lighthearted scenes and so fun for those in the know. You can’t provide that same “service” with serious matters (as in, e.g., the scenes I mentioned in the previous message).

  • leftysrevenge

    Unfortunately, I feel as though Spock was included, not only as fan service, but also a vehicle to further inform the audience just how bad this guy is, in case the point was missed several times before. If you hear it from Old Spock. then it MUST be serious.

    • Chip

      I agree concerning the reason for old Spock’s presence. Still, given the changes to Khan’s character and backstory, the tears that character shed when telling that story, and the huge setup with Marcus, I think Abrams and the writers wanted to keep us guessing as to who was the ultimate villain. (This is the equivalent of an alternate universe, after all.) It worked with me until the old Spock scene.

  • Sam Boles

    My individual experience (with MILD SPOILERS_BE WARNED) was that when the movie entered the final act the similarities to The Wrath of Kahn threw me out of the story. Instead of being involved with what was happening on screen, I was *consciously* noticing the 1-1 relationship of events and dialog in the two stories. Which is why I found the film vaguely disappointing, especially after the 2009 effort having found a workable way to disconnect from the previous continuity. Which explains in part why new viewers seem to love it while older fans (in all senses of that word) seem to have issues.