Home > Star Trek > Science Fiction Round 21: Star Trek Into Darkness

Science Fiction Round 21: Star Trek Into Darkness

Disclaimer: I am a Trekkie.  I’m also kind of a physicist, sort of.  At least that’s what my PhD will say when I’m done.  Thus, expect this review to be both long and oscillate between glee and statements about failure at physics.  Also nitpicking.  I’ll try to go more or less in chronological order within the film.


You have been warned.


Here are our main characters.  Me?  I think this image needs more spaceship.

Here are our main characters. Me? I think this image needs more spaceship.  MOAR SPACESHIP.

This is a Starship, Not A Submarine

As I understand it, J.J. Abrams really wanted to show a scene with the Enterprise coming out of the ocean.

So he did.

And it looked cool.

The trouble is, spaceships are not generally desired for underwater travel.  The Enterprise is definitely lacking in streamlining.  Or landing gear.  Or any other obvious adaptation.  And I hate to think what would happen if you put something like the thrusters (kind of like modern ion thrusters, which are awesome) underwater.  I don’t think they’d work very well.

In fact, a big deal was made out of the fact that Voyager (later on) actually had landing gear, and the ship was, in fact, somewhat streamlined to better handle atmospheric entry.  Presumably also upgraded to handle the pressure as well.  This is definitely not the case with the Enterprise.

On the other hand, at least he named the planet Nibiru.

The Prime Directive Has Issues

And this is why.  Interference with non-warp civilizations is absolutely prohibited.

Even if, through no fault of their own, their planet is about to blow up due to a ridiculously over-powered volcano.  Which fails geology forever.  It’d make more sense if it was something like Yellowstone going up and causing a small ice age and extinctions and deaths from famine and whatnot, which would still be good to prevent.

The Prime Directive prohibits this.

Of course, Kirk and company thwart this by super-freezing the volcano, but the Enterprise is seen by the natives while it’s going back to rescue Spock… and it looks like they’ve got a new religion.

And, of course, Kirk gets chewed out both for this and submitting a “boring” report that conflicted with Spock’s accurate one.  Saving a bunch of lives is such a terrible thing?  Then again, sparking some kind of scary religious cult thing could be a problem…

Regardless, I do wonder why they didn’t just set the cold fusion volcano killer on a timer, drop it down gently, and not send Spock in at all.

I must admit that the cold fusion bomb was cool.  If utterly ridiculous.

Section 31 Also Has Issues

Section 31, the black ops division of Starfleet, has its archive and weapons development depot blown up.

Seriously guys?  Section 31 can’t be all that secret after this.

Plus, it was way, way too easy for Harrison to essentially blackmail the local guy into blowing the place up, trading his daughter’s health for a suicide bombing.  Don’t you guys cover potential security risks like that?  Plus, you haven’t already done enough testing on Harrison to know that his blood could be processed into some kind of panacea?

Sleeping on the job, guys.

Hello.  You Killed Captain Pike.  Prepare to Die.

Pike is awesome.  Too awesome, apparently.  His taking the captaincy of the Enterprise back when Kirk got in trouble, and putting Kirk as first officer… obviously meant that he had to die.  I saw it coming, but I was really hoping that they were just going to show Pike in action.  But, no.

Also, Harrison escaped from the scene by means of transwarp beaming to Kronos, the Klingon homeworld.  Tech that he stole from Section 31.  (Who, in turn, stole it from Scotty.)  If Starfleet has transwarp beaming, why don’t we just… beam Harrison back?  Huh?  Huh?  Well… the only thing I can think of to explain that is insufficient sensor information to beam him back, while beaming-to isn’t that hard, so long as the landscape hasn’t changed and the planet’s orbit is the same.

But, even then… why not fly the Enterprise in close enough, to the edge of Klingon space, and beam him back that way?  Or send in a torpedo with a sensor/transporter pickup payload?  Oy.

At Least Somebody’s Got Some Sense

Well, the basic plan from Admiral Marcus is to go to the edge of Klingon space, and test some new long-range torpedoes on Harrison.  Execution at a distance with no trial, in essence.

Kirk, ticked off at Pike’s death, goes along with this.  However, most of the crew doesn’t like it.  And Scotty goes so far as to resign, since he refuses to take on board torpedoes whose contents he doesn’t know.  Which, of course, screams plot like nothing else.  The whole mission stinks to high heaven, and the crew doesn’t comment on this nearly enough.

And Spock talks Kirk into a cloak-and-dagger mission to capture Harrison instead.  Good job.  Thus, they all fly in a confiscated trade ship, sneaking into an uninhabited part of Kronos… and as they’re flying in…

“What’s Left Of It, Sir.”

… there’s this moon of Kronos.  That’s odd, it looks like it’s exploded.  Wait, was that partially-blown-up moon Praxis??

To the filmmakers, I know you like making as many references as possible.  Which is fine.  But, given that the political ramifications of Praxis’ destruction due to “poor mining practices” was enough to cause a major diplomatic incident, threaten the existence of the Kilngon Empire and supply the plot of one of my favorite movies… no, it was too much.

Relationship Drama

Okay, I’ll admit it, I really like the Spock-Uhura dynamic.  The argument they have is hilarious.  (Especially when Kirk informs Spock that Uhura is right.)  And humanizing Spock a bit is good — particularly given his standard lies about not having feelings and not lying.  But, the important point: he does care.  And he’s willing to admit that in front of others while on a crazy mission to catch a terrorist.

I will also state that this movie did a good job in general of having the entertaining interactions that are one of the best parts of Star Trek.  Anybody know what Chekov was swearing about in Russian?

His Name Is Not John Harrison

Well, it’s not.

Although perhaps it should have been.  Our lead villain is actually… the notorious Khan Noonien Singh.

Dun dun DUN!

Except… he doesn’t really look that much like Khan.

There’s a helpful discussion of the problem here.

Bottom line:  Would it really have been so hard to make Benedict Cumberbatch (the actor) just be John Harrison, who is now taking over the mantle from a badly-defrosted Khan, including his name, à la Spartacus?  Add one line about how his commander has already died and some serious Undying Loyalty.  Plus, it gives some bonus points to Harrison’s/Khan’s angst/anger/desire for vengeance.  And maybe explains a few other things…

Is There Anything You Would Not Do For Your Family?

On the other hand, Cumberbatch is an excellent actor.  I may internally sub in an imaginary deleted scene where Harrison takes over for a badly-defrosted Khan so I don’t have to feel so bad about liking his acting.  He does a really good job of being the extremist who really only cares for his own people, above all else.

Some of the details of his decisions, though… are a bit dubious for somebody who’s supposed to be superhuman.  Most seriously: in an effort to smuggle them out, he hid his cryogenically-frozen people in the very torpedoes that Kirk is given to blow Khan up with.  This does not seem like the ideal method of rescuing them.

That, and how on Earth did he still manage to fit explosive payloads into those things?

And, if you know your people are in the torpedoes, why did you leave them armed?  There is a partial explanation, in that Admiral Marcus wants them all dead, and may have had the torpedoes re-armed… with the idea of killing all the genetically engineered war criminals with… um, well, 72 torpedoes.  Why Don’t You Just Shoot Them instead of trying to be clever?

Why Is Dr. Marcus In Her Underwear?

This seemed like pointless Fanservice.  Come on, you know Kirk’s reputation.  He’s not going to keep his back turned while you change.

There was also a scene with Kirk waking up with a couple of beautiful alien women in his bed.  And a deleted scene of Khan taking a shower.  But… the Kirk scene has the point of showing that he has issues.  Dr. Marcus?  Not really.  Well, except that she and Kirk have a thing (and a son) in the other timeline.  Not enough.

Which leads to another point: Star Trek is one of a lot of movies with a dearth of female characters, as has been mentioned on this blog before.  I think this could have been improved a lot by making Admiral Marcus a woman instead of a man — with the added bonus that this will probably make it less obvious to the audiences that Admiral Marcus is actually Admiral War Hawk Let’s Fight Klingons.

How Did You Hide That Thing?

Admiral Marcus, in addition to other nastiness, has been running the construction of the USS Vengeance, a purely-military starship, contrary to the dictates of Starfleet.  (The only other such class of ships built in the original timeline was the Defiant — for fighting the Borg, and later the Dominion, which is probably justifiable.)  It’s been built in a station in orbit around a moon of Jupiter, which looks to be Io or Ganymede.

Ignoring issues of radiation belts (which I’m sure Starfleet has technological solutions for anyway), why are you doing your construction there?  It’s… really easy to find.  Earth is the capital of the Federation, and they don’t have people watching for that kind of shenanigans?  Maybe they’re using the radiation to mess with everyone’s sensors, but still, it’s not that hard to point a telescope at them.  A deep-space station far from anywhere would have been a more logical choice.

But this way, we got pretty pictures of Jupiter.  Oh, well.

Also… why did you need four coordinates to get there?  Space only requires three… if you want to specify an orbit, you might take six or seven (position and velocity, plus the time at which you want them).  Or maybe Khan thought that space + time was enough, and Scotty could figure out from that what a stable orbit in that area would be.  Maybe.


Man, they needed these, for whenever they do the Seaview rock-and-roll.  I approve.

McCoy, What Are You Doing To That Poor Tribble?

Dr. McCoy injected some of Khan’s blood into a dead tribble.  He’s usually pretty sensible, but this came off as kind of weird and mad-sciency.  And, really… a dead tribble is your best test subject?  You’re not doing any other, more controlled, tests first?

That, and as soon as I saw this, if was obvious how they were going to revive somebody after a heroic sacrifice.  On the other hand, I’m glad they had sufficient foreshadowing.

Admiral Marcus, You Are An Idiot

Admiral Marcus wants to start a war with the Klingons.  Apparently because he thinks war with the Klingons is inevitable, so he’s going to start it.  This makes no sense whatsoever, unless he thinks he can get some sort of advantage out of not only firing first, but making it look like the Klingons did.  (By destroying the Enterprise and thereby conveniently destroying all evidence against himself, of course.)  This is… dumb.

And then he violates large quantities of Starfleet regs and Federation law.

And to top it off, he revives Khan, a known conniving superhuman megolomaniac who is a former tyrannical dictator.  And then makes Khan work for him by holding his crew hostage, the one thing that really, really makes Khan mad at you personally.

And then double-cross him?  That’s not playing with fire, that’s ineptly juggling lit torches in an oil refinery.

Vacuum Doesn’t Work That Way

Little bitty hatch to space, great big hanger.  Kirk and Khan safely fly in, and an unsecured mook flies out the hatch when it’s opened.

Sure, maybe he deserved the comeuppance, but that security dude shouldn’t have been sucked out so easily.

It’s time for some numbers.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that the hatch has an area of about 10 m^2.  (That’s a little larger than I think it actually was, but we can be generous.)  Then the force on the air there due to a pressure difference of about 1 atm is about 10^6 N.  Assuming the hanger itself has a cross-section area of about 1000 m^2 (not unreasonable, 30 m across seems about right), and assuming that the force gets immediately transmitted, that gives us a pressure of 0.01 atmospheres, which, for a human with cross-section area of 1 m^2, is about 1 g of force.  Which is not enough to pull him across a football-field length hanger in a fraction of a second.  And that’s ignoring the details of fluid flow and his large distance from the opening, which reduces the force quite a bit… the fact that as soon as he turns (or gets sucked into a feet-first position), his cross-sectional area is smaller…

Blood On Your Hands

Erm, Khan… did you just pop Admiral Marcus’s head?  Ew.  Eeeeeew.  While I’m grateful that I didn’t need to see all that gore, why are Khan’s hands not covered in blood and brains for the rest of the movie?  When did he have the time and opportunity to wash his hands?  Or maybe he wiped them off on the admiral’s clothing… eeeeew.

Besides which, popping somebody’s skull is not a good way to kill them.  If you can do that, why not just break their neck?  Faster, easier, less mess… um, okay, enough of that.

You Realize Those Are Still Armed?

I think this tops the list of stupid things Khan does in this film.  He demands that Spock transport over his people… who are all in cryogenic suspension in torpedoes that Khan made and modified himself.

And which are still armed.

To top it off, Spock actually still has his people, safe and sound in their tubes.  And sends the “please blow up” button on the torpedoes once they’re on the Vengeance (which Khan has appropriately commandeered).

And… Khan didn’t notice the armed torpedoes and the absence of life signs in the transporter beam?  And then filter out the explodium?  That sort of thing has definitely been done in Star Trek before.  Dumb.  Very dumb.

Nicely done on Spock’s part, though.  Well, except…

Hailing Frequencies, Mr. Spock?

Soooo… you still have his people on board.  Why not just tell Khan that?  And thereby forestall Khan’s Roaring Rampage of Revenge?

Also, you’re having this big shoot-out while in orbit near the Moon.  Why not call Earth for some help?  Transmit your version of events, rather than Admiral Marcus’s?  Ask them to power up the defense grids?  Oh, you’re being jammed, okay…

… wait, but you can still contact New Vulcan for advice from Spock the Elder?  Does not compute.

We’re Falling…

Technically, when you’re in orbit, you’re constantly falling.  You’re just missing the ground.

You don’t need power for that.

So, when the Enterprise’s power goes out, they shouldn’t suddenly be in a different orbit that causes them to fall to Earth.  Unless they were in some sort of strange powered orbit that left them with velocity going essentially right towards Earth, or some bizarre parabolic setup that only now is causing them to crash, there’s no good reason for it.

… Artificial Gravity Issues

Speaking of which… if you’ve having problems with getting enough power for your artificial gravity, shouldn’t you just go into free fall?  With gravity going to zero?  Instead of doing the Inception thing?  Maybe you could justify it somewhat, with the tumbling and spinning that the ship is doing as it goes down, but… I’m not sure it’s going fast enough for that.

What Happened To The Star Wars Program?

Speaking of stuff falling in… isn’t Earth supposed to have pretty serious space defenses?  Because, Klingons?  Random space probes?  Uncomfortably close asteroids?  And stuff?  And it showed up in the first, original Star Trek movie?  And where did that space station go?

Maybe they just haven’t been able to override the standard safety protocols that prevent them from firing on Federation vessels.  But that level of concern for safety doesn’t quite gibe with the fact that…

The Enterprise is not OSHA Compliant

Although at least they’ve got handrails.  But all those random big open spaces in the Enterprise for people to fall through while the artificial gravity is being all wonky seem… problematic.  Also, why is the warp core alignment thingamabob so difficult to access?  Why is there no catwalk?  No stairs?

And, given that it’s darn dangerous in there with all the radiation, why don’t we have a convenient little robot we can control from outside for all of our maintenance needs?  Of course, this sets up Kirk to dash in and save the day, at the cost of his own life.

Death Scene

I think this was well done, including the role-reversal relative to The Wrath of Khan.  Kirk is dying from radiation poisoning, having saved the day, and Spock is there to say good-bye.  There was a particularly touching bit where Kirk says he’s afraid, and asks Spock how he chooses to not feel that.  Spock, teary-eyed, replies, “I don’t know” with the implication that he’s not doing so well at that just now.  That said… a lot of the impact was lost because I already knew how Kirk was going to be resurrected later.  Wrath of Khan was originally expected to be the last movie in the franchise, ever (heh heh), and so, although they’d left a hook for a possible sequel, everybody thought Spock was killed off for real.

Also, there was no need for Spock to yell “KHAAAAAAAAN!!!!!”  Yes, guys, I know you wanted to make the reference, but it doesn’t really fit, either the moment, or the character.  Some sort of cold, steely narrowing of eyes, and a hissed, “Khan…”, would have worked much better, I think.

How Many Times Did You Just Shoot Him?

This is kind of ridiculous.  Khan runs around on Earth, having some epic we-are-not-normal-humans fisticuffs with Spock, which is kind of entertaining.  And then Uhura shows up with a phaser to do the smart thing, which is shoot Khan (on stun) repeatedly.

Like, a lot, repeatedly.

And he’s still not knocked out, despite that, and the Vulcan nerve pinch, and even then, it takes a few more blows to the head from Spock to finally make him conk out.  Yikes.  I mean, that’s more punishment that even Vulcans normally take in these shows.  (And they generally go down after a single stun…)

Maybe you should’ve just killed him, and taken some blood from his dead body… or maybe one of his compatriots would work just as well.

“I’m beginning to think I can cure a rainy day”

Oh, Dr. McCoy.  I liked the episode where you cured the Horta.  It was cute.

But, what are you going to do now that you’ve made a magic serum from Khan’s blood that can cure death?  At least they made a mention of keeping Kirk cold until they could put the treatment on him, but wow… Khan’s blood is magic.  Not shown in the earlier episode and film… and continues to make me like the Khan-is-a-new-guy idea, who has different genetic mods than the original.

Hey, What About That Trial?

I am sorely disappointed about the lack of trial-and-incarceration here.

Khan just gets dumped back into cryogenic storage.  This seems… dumb.  In the sense that somebody could walk in and let him go again.  To wreak further havoc.  And stuff.

And, also kind of wrong, in the sense that leaving him frozen in storage forever is not actually that different from death.

You Made Warp Drive Sparkly

To the special effects guys:  I realize you wanted the movie to be shiny.  And it was good.  There was lens flare.  And it was good.  But you made warp drive sparkly.

It made me think of the stupid vampire romance that should not be named.  At a Star Trek movie.

This, I cannot forgive.

  1. 2013/06/03 at 2:04 am

    Well, you know, they only ever mention the Prime Directive so they can break it.

    (I was under the impression that it was something like Yellowstone.)

  1. 2013/12/22 at 8:54 am
  2. 2016/08/06 at 10:29 am

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