Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Don't Boldly Go There

On an airplane last night, I saw that the in-flight video system was offering up (among others) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It had been many years since I'd last seen the film. So I decided to give it a rewatch.

This was a mistake. 

(A full confession is perhaps in order here. I have never been among those who thought that The Wrath of Khan was a top-notch film. In fact, it's not even my favorite Star Trek movie. Still, I was predisposed to, at least, find it a diverting way to spend two hours hurtling across the North Atlantic.)

Put plainly, in a lot of ways, The Wrath of Khan just isn't all that good. It has good bits, but as a whole suffers from a multi-level Idiot Plot. I'm not talking about trivial inconsistencies--seriously, who cares? No, I'm talking major "Chuuuuuwhah?" moments here: places where the movie doesn't make sense even by its own internal premises. For example:
  • Starfleet sends out one of its front-line, newly-upgraded vessels on a training cruise, with a crew consisting of almost 100% cadets. Let me know the next time the U.S. Navy sends out an aircraft carrier crewed exclusively by Annapolis plebes.
  • The cruise is apparently supposed to take place at sub-light speeds, within Earth's solar system. Nonetheless, they are the only vessel in the area when they get a distress call from space station Regula I. Apparently this station, for security and safety reasons, is located in a remote and little-traveled sector very near Earth.
  •  The distress call is clearly being jammed, and it's obvious from the content that something funny is going on, and the hijacked U.S.S. Reliant goes out of its way to approach Our Heroes in an unnecessarily suspicious fashion. Nobody notices.
  • Apparently the Federation relies on clay tablets for record-keeping. Hence, they can enter a solar system without registering that one of its planets has exploded, much less remembering that, oh yeah, this was that place where we dumped that ship-load of highly dangerous genetically-enhanced super-criminals a few years ago. (Also, apparently, they can't count; they land on the fifth planet from the sun, under the impression that it's the exploded sixth planet. It's a wonder they can even find it.)
  • When you have beamed down to a planet, and you realize that you need to escape immediately, do not run outside to investigate the weather. Use the magic words "Two to beam up immediately." Remember that teleportation system that got you here? It works both ways!
  • Oh, noes! The Plot Device is going to blow up, and we're all doomed! Kirk: "We'll beam aboard and stop it." David Marcus: "You can't." (Well, wonder boy, why not? Apparently just ... because.) Missing next line of dialog: "OK, then, let's just photon-torpedo it into its constituent atoms, then phaser the remains."
Trust me, there's much more. There's a good movie lurking somewhere in there--the interpersonal and thematic elements work well, though they could use some expansion. Apparently, however, nobody cared enough about the plot to resolve the gaping holes. I suppose it's only a mercy that they didn't have modern special effects technology.


  1. This brings up an interesting question, "When is it forgivable?" By "it" I mean anything from inconsistency to foolishness. For example, I liked The Matrix. I don't want to argue the merits to decide if it really was good or not. I had problems with the main conceit of the movie, that humans were batteries for the AI's. I would have been happier with a twist on that, that humans are CPUs. For AI to really run well, they need meat to run their programs on. But I digress. My point is this, I still really liked it. I was willing to forgive the stupidity. The second and third movies were abysmal. I wasn't able to forgive, maybe because the rest of the story was crap, there was little that was original, it was long winded and boring, the CG was obvious, they added religion, the list goes on. But the first movie? I could forgive a lot.

    Where is that line?

    1. There's obviously a large degree of personal reaction involved. I wasn't terribly fond of The Matrix, but that plot hole wasn't really the reason. (Rather, I thought that they'd taken a really good idea and largely wasted it.)

      For The Wrath of Khan, it's easy for us to forgive a great deal, because: Kirk! Spock! U.S.S. Enterprise! Kobayashi Maru test! Death scene! It's like fan candy. I guess that part of what bugged me is the feeling that the producers were relying on that reaction, and therefore felt free to decorate it with a plot that really makes very little sense. It wouldn't have taken much to repair the plot, if anyone had cared. For example, the whole "ship full of trainees" thing is irrelevant to the film; it could have been ditched in favor of highlighting a couple of actual, named characters.

      Maybe that's a partial answer. What's unforgivable is when it looks as though the film-makers know they're being sloppy and just don't care.

  2. I think that if you watched Star Trek (original) with fresh eyes now, you wouldn't like it. There were plenty of things to like, but many episodes were objectively bad. Spock's Brain? I'm willing to forgive RoK as much as I am Spock's Brain.

    1. It's a plausible statement, but there's no way to test it.

      Anyway, it's problematic to compare a single movie to a whole series, particularly on such a nebulous criterion. "Spock's Brain" is self-contained; it doesn't detract from (or add to) "The Trouble With Tribbles" or "The Doomsday Machine" or "City on the Edge of Forever" or "Balance of Terror".

      I will say that there are episodes that I enjoy more out of affection for the characters and series than on their own merits. "A Piece of the Action" is one of my favorites, but it does have something of the idiot plot about it. But that's a luxury that you have when you're making a series! A movie has to be a seamless piece that stands on its own. I didn't think Wrath made it.

    2. Not to belabor the point, but since we are on the subject, I believe that most fans saw the movie as a part of the series. Star Trek the Movie was less so. Wrath of Khan was a 2-hour episode with a bigger budget.

      BTW, I absolutely agree with "City on the Edge of Forever", "The Doomsday Machine", and "Balance of Terror". But "The Trouble With Tribbles" is only good if you already _like_ the characters. It is self indulgent. Again, if you watched it with fresh eyes (an impossible task, but maybe a good short story) I suspect it would be only... meh.

    3. By all means, belabor away!

      Your point is very well taken, and I think it's part of the problem. TWoK was indeed a 2-hour episode. Most fans did indeed accept it as such. That's enough to make it good fan-service. It's not enough to make it actually good.

      I'm curious as to why you think "The Trouble With Tribbles" wouldn't hold up, though. It has a plot. It has a genuinely SF-nal core question, as well: it's a counterpoint to the bad-SF-movie cliche of "And then a scary outer space monster attacks everyone!" The episode inverts that by asking: "If you did meet a scary outer space monster ... are you sure you'd recognize it?"

      "The Devil in the Dark", similarly, takes that same starting point and uses it to ask a different question. "OK, so the monster is attacking everybody ... why?"

      If you wanted to pick another episode that really only works if you already know and like the characters, I'd nominate "The Tholian Web".