When J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci rebooted the flagging “Star Trek” movie franchise with their eponymous 2009 feature film, their use of time travel and an altered timeline freed them to boldly go where no previous writers had gone before.
Considering the many changes to the canon created by Gene Roddenberry in the mid-1960s, Abrams and his writers had more creative choices than if they had tried to shoe-horn “Star Trek” into the existing continuity. Having established that the Chris Pine-Kirk’s timeline was independent from that of “Star Trek: The Original Series” and its spinoffs, the new films’ USS Enterprise could set her own course and still be part of “Star Trek” lore.
So, with an almost infinite number of story possibilities, why does “Star Trek Into Darkness” take Capt. James T. Kirk and the Enterprise back into the well-trod territory of both 1967’s Original Series episode “Space Seed” and its 1982 feature sequel “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”?
According to the film’s Internet Movie Database’s trivia section, Kurtzman and Orci point out that “the dilemma for the sequel was whether to pit the crew against another villain, or to have an ‘exploration sci-fi plot where the unknown and nature itself is somehow an adversary’, like in ‘Star Trek’.”
However, after exploring different scenarios and various possible antagonists for Kirk and the Enterprise crew, the screenwriters and Abrams decided that Khan Noonian Singh was the villain that resonated the most.
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, and Anton Yelchin as younger counterparts of the Original Series' iconic characters, “Star Trek Into Darkness” takes elements from “Space Seed” and “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and twists them to fit into the new alternate timeline.
Star Trek Into Darkness begins, James Bond-style, at the tail end of a survey mission on Nibiru. Capt. James Tiberius Kirk (Pine) and the crew of the USS Enterprise have been assigned to observe the primitive culture on this remote Class-M planet.
It should be an uneventful mission, but when Kirk discovers that a volcanic eruption threatens to kill the sentient beings on Nibiiru, he leads an away team - including First Officer Spock (Quinto) and Dr. McCoy (Urban) - to stop the eruption.
Kirk is well aware that this would break the Prime Directive, Starfleet's prohibition of starship crews' interference in the natural development of a primitive culture. Nevertheless, his disregard for the rules and his need to make a difference push the Prime Directive aside. Thus, Kirk conceives a daring plan that he hopes will save the Nibiran natives without affecting their cultural evolution.
The mission to prevent the eruption succeeds, but Kirk's decision nearly results in Spock's death.
Worse, the primitive Nibirans catch a glimpse of the Enterprise as it rises from its hiding place in the ocean and flies into space.
When the Enterprise returns to Earth, Kirk and Spock report to Adm. Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood). Spock has filed a complete report on the Nibiru mission, while Kirk has turned in a falsified account that fails to mention the violation of the Prime Directive.
Pike, who had recruited Kirk into Starfleet because he saw the young man's potential, is furious. After lecturing Kirk about his recklessness and poor judgment, Pike informs Kirk that he's no longer captain of the Enterprise and has been demoted to the rank of commander.
"You think the rules don't apply to you, because you disagree with them." - Pike to Kirk
Meanwhile, in London, a mysterious figure (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes a Faustian deal with Thomas Harewood (Noel Clarke) a Starfleet officer whose daughter is terminally ill. If Harewood smuggles an explosive device into Starfleet's Kelvin Archives Building and sets it off, his daughter's life will be saved. Harewood is desperate to save his daughter's life, so he agrees.
The mysterious man then extracts a vial of his own blood, which he gives to Harewood along with a ring-like device. Harewood visits his daughter at the Royal Children's Hospital and mixes the blood into her IV drip. When Harewood sees that her vital signs go from red to green, he proceeds to "pay back" the mysterious man and blows up Starfleet's Archives building.
Back at Starfleet HQ in San Francisco, Kirk, Spock, and Pike are summoned to a conference of Starfleet Command's top brass, including Adm. Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller). Kirk has been reassigned to the Enterprise as Pike's First Officer, and the meeting has been convened by Marcus as a result of the London bombing.
Marcus reveals that the mysterious mastermind of the attack is a Starfleet operative named John Harrison, and that the Kelvin Archives building was really a facility operated by Starfleet's CIA-like Section 31.
Kirk suspects that Harrison won't stop attacking Starfleet after destroying the London facility and surmises that the operative has bigger fish to fry.
Sure enough, almost as soon as Kirk figures this out, Harrison mounts a one-man attack on Starfleet HQ. Several of Starfleet's senior officers, including Pike, are killed. Kirk thwarts Harrison's plan to kill Adm. Marcus by forcing his jumpship to crash, but Harrison escapes via transporter.
Determined to terminate Harrison, the militaristic Marcus gives Kirk command of the Enterprise and orders him to follow Harrison, who is now on Kronos, the Klingon Homeworld. Even though Marcus knows war with the Klingons might ensue, he orders Kirk to load 72 new photon torpedoes aboard the Enterprise, head to the Neutral Zone, and kill Harrison, consequences be damned.
Fueled by desire to avenge his dead mentor, Kirk accepts the mission. Now, he must convince a skeptical Spock that what they're about to do is the right thing to do....
James T. Kirk: Why is there a man in that torpedo?
John Harrison: There are men and women in all those torpedoes, Captain. I put them there.
James T. Kirk: Who the hell are you?
John Harrison: A remnant of a time long past. Genetically engineered to be superior so as to lead others to peace in a world at war. But we were condemned as criminals, forced into exile. For centuries we slept, hoping when we awoke things would be different. But as a result of the destruction of Vulcan your Starfleet begun to aggressively search distant quadrants of space. My ship was found adrift. I alone was revived.
James T. Kirk: I looked up John Harrison. Until a year ago he didn't exist.
Khan: John Harrison was a fiction created the moment I was awoken by your Admiral Marcus to help him advance his cause, a smokescreen to conceal my true identity. My name is... KHAN.
The plot of “Star Trek Into Darkness” is essentially a variation of the story told in “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” combined with the writers’ take on post-9/11 events.
You see, Harrison is actually Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically-engineered "superman" who ruled one fourth of the Earth in the early 1990s, according to Trek lore. In both timelines, Khan and his followers are sent into exile aboard the sleeper ship SS Botany Bay, which drifts through space for 300 years.
In the Shatner-Kirk universe, it is the Enterprise that finds the Botany Bay and awakens Khan and his crew from suspended animation, setting off the Kirk-Khan cycle of conflict and revenge that culminates in “Star Trek II.”
In the J.J. Abrams universe, it's the George S. Patton-like Adm. Marcus who discovers Khan and revives him for his own purposes.
Adm. Marcus believes that war with the Klingons is inevitable and wants Starfleet to be more of a military organization than a science-and-exploration armada. A warrior like Khan would be useful in such an endeavor.
For readers who haven't yet seen “Star Trek Into Darkness,” I won't divulge any more plot points. Suffice it to say that director Abrams and writers Damon Lindelof, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci manage to pull off the near-impossible task of reviving Khan's iconic revenge-seeking character in a way that honors the original Ricardo Montalban incarnation, yet is original and riveting to watch.
“Star Trek Into Darkness” works well on every level.
As Khan, Benedict Cumberbatch doesn't try to imitate Montalban, the actor who originated the iconic role. The alternate “Star Trek” timeline's Khan shares many traits with his Original Series counterpart - superhuman physical strength, Machiavellian duplicity, iron will, superior intellect, and a menacing charm.
Abrams' decision to cast Cumberbatch pays off because this new version of Khan somehow seems redeemable. In some ways, Khan is the “Star Trek” equivalent of Darth Vader from “Star Wars”, a proto-heroic figure who is victimized by the story's true villain.
As in the 2009 “Star Trek” reboot, Abrams proves himself a master storyteller who knows the nuts and bolts of a sci-fi/action adventure. His ability to find a human story behind all the techno-wizardry of a “Star Trek” feature is rivaled only by that of Nicholas Meyer, who directed two of the Original Series-cast features and co-wrote a third.
Abrams also gets excellent performances from the main cast and the various guest stars, including Alice Eve as Dr. Carol Wallace, Peter Weller as Adm. Marcus, and even a brief but important cameo by Leonard Nimoy as "Spock Prime."
The special effects by Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic are excellent. ILM doesn't use old-school models anymore, but the CGI visuals look super cool, even on a modest-sized home TV.
The sound design by Ben Burtt and Matthew Wood clearly deserve an Academy Award nomnation, as does Michael Giacchino's stunning musical score.
There are several home video editions of “Star Trek Into Darkness” on DVD and Blu-ray:
Star Trek Into Darkness (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy)
Star Trek: Into Darkness SteelBook (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy + Villain Ship)
Star Trek Into Darkness (DVD)