Star Trek Into Darkness: exploring the plot three years on

How does Star Trek Into Darkness's plot hold up three years on? Ryan takes a closer look...

NB: The following contains spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness and Prometheus.

It’s often the case that post-screening conversations are as much fun as the cinema visit itself. Whether a film’s good or bad, sitting and dissecting a movie over a drink or during the car journey home is as much a part of the theatre-going experience as buying popcorn or the joyful sense of anticipation as the lights go down.

Sometimes, it’s the most bewildering movies that provoke the most enjoyable discussions. I can still remember the exchanges I had with a friend after watching 2012’s Prometheus: why did Rafe Spall tickle that evil-looking space snake? Why did Old Man Weyland hide aboard a ship that was his in the first place? Why didn’t Charlize Theron run in a zig-zag instead of a straight line? And so on, like a less one-sided version of this video by Red Letter Media.

If anything, the post-mortem which followed a screening of Star Trek Into Darkness was even more protracted and filled with bafflement. Sure, the movie’s premise was simple on the face of it: an alternate-universe retelling of Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, except played out with a much younger Enterprise crew and a completely different Khan from the one played by Ricardo Montalban back in 1982.

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Yet JJ Abrams’ sequel to his own 2009 Star Trek reboot was also much more than this: Khan’s true identity was, infamously, cloaked in anonymity prior to release. There were terrorist attacks and a conspiracy that went right to the top of Starfleet Command. There were gratuitous Tribbles, Alice Eve in M&S briefs, exploding sovereign rings, frozen bodies in torpedoes, Klingons with multiple piercings and threesomes with cat aliens.

In the end, the Star Trek Into Darkness conversation became so bizarre, protracted and filled with digressions that my friend and I had to simply give up and agree that we really liked the set designs and explosions. But three years have passed since the movie’s release. Times have changed. Political careers begun and ended. Empires have risen and fallen. Having seen Into Darkness a couple of times since, and given time to digest its events, it’s gradually dawned on me that the plot is far less difficult to unpick than I’d originally thought.

Ahead of Star Trek Beyond’s release later this month, here’s a renewed attempt to understand Into Darkness’s workings…

The Villains

Rather than give a precis of the movie from beginning to end, let’s start by viewing things from the perspective of one of the main villains – Peter Weller’s Admiral Marcus. A particularly hawkish officer intent on militarising the Federation, he finds and thaws out Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help design superior torpedoes and space ships.

Khan had been in stasis for 300 years, so using him to design weapons of war might sound a bit like reviving Charles Babbage to help you build a super-fast gaming laptop, but wait: Khan isn’t just any frozen genius. He’s a genetically-engineered super-being who’s faster, stronger and smarter than any other person living or dead. Considered too dangerous to be left walking around in the 20th century, he and his crew of fellow Augments were quietly put in the deep freeze.

Stirred from his slumber, Khan is given the less exotic name John Harrison and, per Marcus’s instructions, designs some fancy new torpedoes and a big, scary warship called the USS Vengeance. What Marcus doesn’t know, however, is that Khan is secretly double-crossing him: he’s somehow gathered up his old crew-members and hidden them in the batch of new torpedoes he’s designed, apparently in the hope that he’ll be able to sneak them out from under the Admiral’s control.

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To do this, Khan hatches a plot which is quite astonishing in its complexity.

A plot which is astonishing in its complexity

Khan targets a low-ranking Starfleet officer, Thomas Harewood (played by Noel Clarke) who has a terminally ill daughter. Promising to save the little girl by giving her phial of his augmented super-blood, Khan effectively manipulated Harewood into becoming a futuristic suicide bomber.

Using a special ring that explodes in contact with water (a bit like those experiments with magnesium ribbon we used to do in science class), Harewood detonates himself in an archive building in London, which is actually a secret installation belonging to Section 31. We soon learn that Khan committed this act of terrorism knowing that it would trigger a meeting at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco. As Starfleet’s top brass assemble in a conference room at the top of the building, Khan descends in a futuristic helicopter-type ship and opens fire, killing Kirk’s friend and mentor Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood).

Harrison then uses Scotty’s patented method of transwarp beaming to instantly teleport himself to the Klingon home planet Kronos (or Qo’noS to use the spelling more commonly preferred outside the movie).

Khan’s next move requires a bit of conjecture on our part. It’s likely that Khan knows all too well that any attempt to pursue or attack him will spark a war with the Klingons. But had he calculated that Admiral Marcus would have the Enterprise loaded up with the torpedoes containing his crew and despatched for Kronos? How did he know that Marcus wouldn’t make the cheaper and more sensible move, which would be to send a small team of heavily armed commandoes on a secret mission to Kronos using the same transwarp beaming tech Khan used?

If Khan had calculated that the Enterprise would be sent to find him, he must also have divined that Kirk would have an attack of moral conscience and ignore Marcus’ orders to torpedo Khan out of existence. Had Kirk obeyed his command, Khan would’ve been killed, Marcus would’ve got the war he’d been spoiling for all along, and gotten away with using Khan as his personal weapons designer to boot.

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Taking Vengeance

Assuming Khan was gambling on Starfleet attempting to capture him alive, the gambit soon pays off. On learning that the torpedoes containing his crew are aboard the Enterprise, he willingly gives himself up to Kirk after a protracted gun fight with a group of Klingons. It’s somewhere around this moment, we’re guessing, that Khan devises a new strategy. Realising that Admiral Marcus might turn up in the sprawling USS Vengeance,  he bides his time in the hope that he can take control of the Vengeance and get back his crew.

Or at least, that’s what we’re assuming: Kirk’s ultimate victory over Marcus and his far superior ship relies on such a number of conveniences that it’s quite mind-boggling: Scotty discovering the existence of the Vengeance, managing to sneak aboard and shut down its weapons just in the nick of time; Marcus’ daughter Carol (Alice Eve) being on the Enterprise to help uncover her father’s plot; Kirk deciding at the last second to recruit Khan’s help to take out Admiral Marcus.

At any rate, Khan finds a way to use the Enterprise’s crisis to his advantage, and manages to take control of the Vengeance in the midst of all the confusion. Threatening to destroy the Enterprise, Khan orders Spock to beam the torpedoes containing his crew onto the Vengeance. Khan hasn’t reckoned on Spock’s cool, Vulcan logic: he’s secretly primed the torpedoes and removed the frozen bodies before beaming them aboard the Vengeance. Kirk, Scotty and Carol Marcus are beamed back to the Enterprise just before the torpedoes detonate aboard the Vengeance, all-but crippling it.

Summing up

In terms of plot complications, we’re on smoother territory from here on out, relatively speaking. In a lengthy action coda, Kirk sacrifices himself in order to save the Enterprise – a pointed reversal of The Wrath Of Khan‘s events. Fortunately, Khan’s super-blood means that Kirk can be revived, and after a punishingly long fist fight on the roof of a transport vehicle, Spock punches the superiority out of Khan and shoves him back into stasis.

In retrospect, Star Trek Into Darkness isn’t quite the muddle I’d initially believed. There are, admittedly, all kinds of plot conveniences and things casually glossed over. After the massacre on Kronos, why haven’t the Klingons declared all-out war by the movie’s end? Doesn’t Khan’s blood mean that death has effectively been abolished? Doesn’t Scotty’s transwarp beaming technology render cumbersome ships like the Enterprise obsolete?  

Those are questions I’m still struggling to answer, and it’s possible that future films won’t address them, either. But assuming you can get behind Paramount’s more action-oriented reboot of Trek, Into Darkness nevertheless contains that vital spark of chemistry between its characters – particularly Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto’s Kirk and Spock, who get the most to do here.

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In both TV and film, the Star Trek franchise has long explored current fears and moral dilemmas, and on repeat viewings, it’s easier to see how Into Darkness attempts to do this within the context of an effects-filled SF action movie. Kirk’s anger over the loss of his mentor almost turns him into a military pawn, before Spock gently reminds him that holding Khan to account is morally better than becoming an assassin. Amid all the explosions and action, Star Trek Into Darkness ultimately comes down on the side of peace rather than war, and justice in the place of revenge. Gene Roddenberry would, I think, have rather liked that sentiment.