Friday, 17 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: The Good, The Bad and the Book

"Well **** talked to him...." - Admiral Alexander Marcus

So how do you review a film that every man, woman, quadrupedal lifeform, Gorn, Tholian and Horta has reviewed already? 

It's hard, that's what it is. Damn difficult to write something new, quirky and different that means people will actually bother to scroll down further than the second paragraph. And yeah, expect SPOILERS; a few at least.

Well you've made it to the third paragraph which is a good sign. Now what I thought about doing was tell you why this film is utter garbage and should be jettisoned into deep space but that's unfair. Instead, let's look at the good and the bad with a "novel" twist. Literally. I've got my hands on the yet-to-be-released novelisation of Star Trek Into Darkness by Alan Dean Foster and it throws some new light on the latest installment of the stellar franchise.

So...shall we begin? (couldn't resist...sorry!)

Star Trek Into Darkness is a real mixed bag. It so clearly wants to be an action movie from the opening five seconds it hurts. The problem is that there was at least one cell in JJ Abrams brain that reminded him that this was a Star Trek movie and not Mission: Impossible 5. The opening sequence is a prime example of everything that is wrong with the film. There's a chase, some aliens we've never seen or heard of before (nor will again), the Enterprise hidden beneath the waves and Spock quoting lines from The Wrath of Khan. It's all signs and portents for what is to come but because this is the first new Star Trek since 2009 you desperately want to forgive the movie all its sins and revel in the experience as whatever it looks like, whatever it feels like, it's as near as dammit to "classic" Star Trek as we're ever going to get for a while.

But that can't be it? That can't be the logic to why this is a bad film can it? Well no. It's not a bad film although the promotional campaign has a lot to answer for but more on that later.

Benedict Cumberbatch does a decent enough job as John Harrison and subsequently a decent enough job as Khan (told you there were spoilers) although both on the screen and in the novel all mention of his historical Eugenics War background is sidestepped so quickly it's an obvious omission. There's not even a name-check for his sleeper ship stuck in there. What worries me with Cumberbatch is that he comes off more as a Malcolm McDowell/Tolian Soran kind of villain rather than a Ricardo Montalban/Khan. He's not a distinctly evil character and even late into the story he's still driven by a desire for revenge and personal justice and while he seems cold, calculating and all out better at everything there's never the threat you would have felt from General Chang, "Prime" Khan or even 2009's Nero at a push.  

The way the novel is written does work to this character's advantage as the mystery of John Harrison is retained right up to the point of revelation within the Enterprise brig. His appearances prior to this are shrouded, left to the reader's imagination and not spoiled by the movie's visual overload of action and effects. The encounter on Qo'noS for example is quick and brutal, emphasising the super-human nature of this character but never really gives a clue as to who he really is and while we're carried along by the swiftness that Harrison dispatches his foes both in hand-to-hand combat and with his oversized weapons, the drama of seeing this is lost and even providing background on the Ketha Province or details on what Harrison uses in his one-man charge can't make up for that. For those of you who like your Star trek trivia, the lowlands of Ketha were the birthplace of General Martok. The allusions I got from the novel and the way in which it describes this abandoned area of the Klingon homeworld suggest that the plague might have been something to do with the Augment virus we saw back in the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Kudos for the reference and the book pays better service to it than the movie.

Another element of the whole better realised is Noel Clarke's doomed Starfleet character, Thomas Harewood. We get to know this individual even within the limited pages he gets. The film almost romanticises the situation he and his wife face but the novel pinpoints the longevity of the couple's pain, the futility of the bedside vigil for their daughter and ultimately the sacrifice Harewood makes. Unfortunately it also gives away early on that where he works is not just an archive before it is revealed by Admiral Marcus to Kirk and Spock. Not a big fault but it could have been avoided with a couple of tweaks.

So what of the more prominent cast? Kirk buys a ticket on the world's fastest emotional roller-coaster for one - this guy gets suspended, promoted, demoted, returned to the Academy, reactivated and promoted faster than you can say Kobayashi Maru. Fact. His removal and reassignment to the Enterprise all happens at such a breakneck pace that the first ten minutes seem irrelevant given where he ends up anyway. What you do get from the book on the flipside is much more discussion and explanation around the process of why this all happens and adds to discussions between (significantly) Kirk and Marcus and earlier, Kirk and Pike. These additions provide more depth to their thoughts and personalities as well as vital plotting that gets snipped out of the final cinematic cut and there are more than one or two "A-ha!" moments throughout. Although the weight of Pike's loss on Kirk doesn't come across at the same level we see on the screen, there is a brief time of reflection which we lose that builds on the family and loss of a father figure that pervades this movie in either format. His journey is perhaps not as bounding as seen in Star Trek (2009) but there is development and his path takes him to a much more secure and wiser place - there's a maturity that he has gained over the course of the encounter with Khan that readies him for the five year mission ahead.

Spock and Uhura's relationship is more muted than in the 2009 reboot but this Spock gets all emotional over an officer he's only really known for nine months at one point which just seems, ironically, illogical. In all fairness he's a much more emotional Spock than Nimoy ever was and I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with that. I suppose when you don;t have a series to play out the human/Vulcan conflict, squashing it into 2 and a bit hours requires a bit more emphasis on the obvious. Given that, the "bromance" between Spock and his captain plays well against his love interests and ultimately seems to be of more importance to him than Uhura.

Equally illogical is Chekov's promotion to Chief Engineer but in the novel you realise that the decision is a forced one given Scotty's opposition to the experimental torpedoes loaded onto the ship. We understand more from Alan Dean Foster why he doesn't want them and his conscience as well as subsequently why Chekov becomes the ideal candidate as his replacement....or maybe Kirk just wanted him off the bridge. He's not got a lot to do apart from look at a broken warp core for most of the story and even the book adds little to the role. Sulu on the other hand gets two decent scenes which are the same in either format - on the shuttle during Spock's mission into the volcano and then getting a chance at the centre seat during the incursion into Klingon space. Nice precursor and hat nod to Star Trek VI and the Excelsior. The development is subtle in that he gets a chance at command and it allows John Cho a little breathing space in the role. McCoy gets to grump around and get some cracking lines which are fortunately in the film and the book In fact his presence at some key moments reminds you just how good a character he is. Foster has managed to capture his "likeness" very well. Urban could easily be Kelley. He's still the closest to the original out of the whole cast. I'm just narked that he's been diminished in prominence thanks to the requirement for a stronger female lead Star Trek character with Uhura.

Time constraints of the screen versus the page are more than evident, as with the 2009 reboot, mean that expansive, action-slowing dialogue gets left on the cutting room floor in favour of the time limit and pacing for a cinema audience. The novel gives us more - it's like having the biggest deleted scene section on your DVD right in front of you for analysis. Even better is that you can see where parts were added during filming or worked in a slightly different way. What we have from Foster is the "definitive" writers version  - the way Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof devised their screenplay and the way they walked into production on Day One of filming.  Say Harrison's escape from Earth for example - in the movie I felt a plot-hole appear around the transwarp beaming issue - how could he escape with a portable kit all the way to Qo'noS? Here we find out it was a series of hops from one transporter to another which makes more sense but might have been a little confusing to fully explain on screen. This just adds more weight to the essential matter of getting your hands on the novel. 

While we can all gripe about action over themes and characterisation, I think knuckling down and reading the book will add another dimension to the film, unaffected by lens flare or over-dramatic effects. Now I'm not saying that we should be looking  for this on the next Booker Prize list for example, however what I am saying is that this might help give fans both Star Trek and non-Star Trek a better understanding of what the overall picture was from the writers before things were adjusted or shifted. Heavy reliance on the action piece is another prevalent force within the book. You become very aware that while there is a lot of additional dialogue and insight into character motivations and personalities, you are being shunted from one action point to another; Earth to Qo'noS, Qo'noS to Vengeance, Vengeance to Earth and so on. The subtlety of the themes that made Star Trek great are even more evidently missing when you read the story because it's aimed so heavily at the mainstream to garner the limelight and the cinema-goer's hard earned cash at the box office. We can all scream and shout that Abrams has removed the heart and soul from the franchise but the reality is that money will spawn a sequel which will tread the same lines and concept once more.

What is almost totally lost by the novel and Foster is the humour of the movie. Some of the lines are missing and I noticed this during the scene in which Carol "Wallace" reports for duty aboard the shuttle on the way to the Enterprise as well as slightly earlier when Pike chews out Spock over his attitude. We just don't appreciate the fun of these moments in the book. They are lost within the page and lack the quirks that the actors on screen add to their characters. The depth that is added gets missed which is a shame especially considering the number of "Prime Universe" novels which hit these characters running. I'm not saying Alan Dean Foster misses the boat because these aren't the "same" people Shatner and Co played but there are elements of their personalities that the page fails to capture.

One thing that I can praise the novel for is the fact that it manages to avoid using chunks of The Wrath of Khan references that nearly ruined the movie for me. There's homage and then there's going too far and this just skirted the right side of that line. Sadly the end third was as frantic off screen as on with the last battle seemingly over in a heartbeat and the crash of the Vengeance just doesn't have the same resonance in text that you get from the visuals. The background to the event is well written, looking at the catastrophe on the ground and what causes the ship to miss Khan's intended target of Starfleet Command but the impact just lacks the gravitas of a full blown effects team at work. 

The shame with the movie is that both this and the fall of the Enterprise are featured in so many clips, trailers and feature toes that their full force is mellowed by the time you see if unfold in Star Trek Into Darkness because it's been played out so many times. At least the chase between Khan and Spock gets some weight added to it. Odd thing really but looking back over this review you realise how much this book relies on the action and description of on screen events. The characters are in the back seat from the off as we're plummeted into that first chase sequence and a dangerous situation. Don't get me wrong, both the book and the movie are entertaining however the people within seem to lack soul and it's hard for us to care for them. Indeed you do end up rooting for Khan because he's a more faceted individual than anyone else. So what am I actually saying about this? Ok, I don't hate it but I'm not waxing lyrical that it's the movie the franchise was in need of nor will it be a contender for film of the year. It's a good movie and the book is a fantastic companion volume that fills in the gaps of said action movie. 

The characters are lacking and I think Scotty comes off better in the movie than the book for having a substantial amount of clichéd Scottish dialogue slashed yet his character in the book is nowhere near as comedic as it is played by Simon Pegg. Indeed it shows how the movie adapted from the screenplay and must have worked better in some ways when it moved in front of the cameras.

There were a few bits that bugged me when I went to see Star Trek Into Darkness and this novelisation manages to either successfully avoid acknowledging their existence of provides an answer to the gaping pothole. For example, Carol Marcus has a distinctly English accent while daddy, Admiral Marcus blatantly heralds from the other side of the Atlantic. Here we find out why as we also see why only Khan and not his cryogenically frozen superman can provide the final solution. 

More than likely I burnt through this book because I had only recently seen the film and it's afterimage was still firmly locked in my mind but it is a page turner and will satisfy the questioning mind of questions a Star Trek fan or cinema goer. Sadly through while Foster is capable of conveying the thoughts of characters that we may not totally perceive on screen, his ability to describe and animate action sequences is his downfall and there's no substitute for seeing Star Trek Into Darkness on the big screen. Hats off to Paramount and Bad Robot though. It's been a masterful campaign trail which culminated in the movie opening in the US on May 16th. From what I've seen of the US reaction it's been mixed to say the least and I still feel uneasy to some degree over a week later. The novelisation was a great help and I feel happier after having poured over it. Things make sense, narrative is explained and perhaps the impact of actions are better addressed than they are in the movie. Maybe the all action marketing campaign was a little too good and it will be interesting to resist this movie in five years time or even just after the release of Star Trek 3 which must now be something of a formality given the record breaking success of the second reboot. 

And finally... and probably more due to the nature of a novelisation we are spared that glorious panning shot of Admiral Marcus' model collection. Why oh why does no one even question what the hell the big ship on the end of the row is and why is everyone so surprised when they finally see it turn up?!

You can get your hands on the novelisation of Star Trek Into Darkness by Alan Dean Foster from Simon and Schuster priced £12.99 ISBN 9781471128899. The movie, Star Trek Into Darkness is (of course) in cinemas right now....

You can also read my review of the Star Trek (2009) novelisation now

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