Saturday, May 25, 2013

STAR TREK - FEMINISM & THE FUTURE: A letter to Paramount


Dear Pararmount.

I noticed that you recently released a new Star Trek movie to a theatre near me.  Doubtless, you have been waiting on baited breath to hear my thoughts on this latest jaunt with the Enterprise.  Naturally I felt your anticipation, and decided to respond in turn with this letter to you.  It seemed like the least I could do.

Right up front, I want you to know that this isn't going to be one of the J.J. Abrams bashing sessions that so many people on the internet have taken to writing.  But there are some concerning trends that I've noticed beginning to develop in the series, and seeing as this is only the second film in your re-branding of the franchise I thought we might nip some of those more negative traits right in the bud.

First lets focus on what you've already done correctly....

OVERALL (the good... or at the very least, not bad)

On the whole I'm totally on board with what Abrams has accomplished.  Of course when you're dealing with success on the level that you are it's simply an unavoidable inevitability that you will have some critics.  Most of the complaints being bandied about I disagree with, and I feel they should be addressed.  So listen up fans.  This next bit is to you.

1. "'Star Trek' and 'Star Trek into Darkness' aren't really Star Trek movies.  They're actually action movies"

This is actually a point made by my writing partner Rachel (who, I should point out, still admits that she liked both films).  Now, I don't agree with her on this, but Rachel is a really smart person, so when she made this argument I was compelled to give it some serious consideration.  And she kind of has a point.  On a whole, Star Trek has always been a space ADVENTURE series.  Sometimes those adventures have been comedies, at other times they've been physiological thrillers, others political dramas, and other times still, Star Trek has been action packed. The Trek films are no exception to this wide variation. 

With each installment the genre has always changed from film to film.  In effect each movie is like an individual blockbuster 'episode' of the overall series.  "The Wrath of Khan" was a cat-and-mouse thriller.  "The Voyage Home" was a cultural-fish-out-of-water comedy.  "The undiscovered Country" was a who-done-it murder mystery.  "First Contact" was a horror-thriller.  And so on, and so on.  It is, in fact, the strength of the Star Trek franchise that it can adapt to nearly any style of story telling.  Hell, the television shows have even been known to do the occasional period piece.  Therefore, to make a Trek film that operates as an all out Action/Adventure not only makes sense, it was long overdue.  The important thing is that the characters felt real, and they were facing the highest stakes that the plot would allow.  In this, J.J. Abrams succeeded in spades when he took the helm of the franchise.

Love 'em or hate 'em, these ARE Star Trek films, and they're here to stay.

2. "The new films are all flash and no substance.  These aren't the deep intellectual narratives that Star Trek is known for!"

To these individuals I feel compelled to pull a 'spock' and raise my eyebrow at them.  True, there have been times when Star Trek has truly nailed an emotional beat for a character.  Some in particular have done so while mirroring our own social issues and struggles against prejudice, etc.  But get real for a second here. 

Star Trek has ALWAYS been escapist entertainment first. 

That's why it WORKED so well.

While we were busy being distracted by transporter anomalies, gladiatorial combats, and exploding consoles, the shows would slip in small jabs of social commentary that would make you think.   But the story MUST come first or else you're just watching a public service announcment, instead of a space opera.

Is Abrams' 'STAR TREK' a particularly deep or introspective art-house film?  No.  Clearly not.  But neither was the majority of Star Trek in the first place.  That didn't mean it wasn't GOOD, however.  Just that it's first mission was to entertain, and entertain well.  Then, sometimes, that entertainment would surprise us with some thoughtfulness.  And, if we're being fair, there were also some pretty well developed character beats between Kirk and Spock in the newest films too.  It wasn't all just vulcan nerve pinches and phaser fights.

There was also a sword fight!
 3. "LENS FLARE!"

Fine.  We all get it.  J.J. REALLY likes himself some lens flares.  Haha.

Seriously though.  Is that the worst thing about him as a director?  Really?  Until people started pointing it out I didn't even notice it, never mind consider it a BAD thing. I just can't see what the problem is.  It's lens flare.  Firefly had lens flare and that show was awesome ALL THE TIME!

Or else.

Jeez.  Get over it and start paying attention to the story.

So yeah.  I guess I'm trying to say that I'm pretty jazzed on way Star Trek has been shaping up lately.  It's changing, true, but it always has been.  In fact, if Star Trek didn't change with the times it probably wouldn't be around anymore.

This begs the question:  If I like the newest films so much, what areas do I think warrant criticism?

Specifically?  Three areas. Here we go.

THINGS TO IMPROVE (the bad... kinda)

1. TELL NEW STORIES

I should clarify on this one.  I'm NOT complaining that you brought back Khan.  He's a GREAT villain.  In fact if you wanted to bring back the Borg, the Cardassians, or The Dominion, I'd be all for it. They were all great too.

As far as Khan is concerned, I would even be quite happy if he were to return in the next movie.  At the very least, I HOPE he returns eventually. With the Dominion we got a solid five seasons out of them.  The Borg were featured in enough episodes to warrant dedicating an entire DVD box set to them. But before 'Into Darkness' was released Khan had only appeared TWICE. EVER! And he was an ARCH NEMESIS!   There are plenty of new stories that could be told about his character.  Bringing him back is not what I had a problem with.

I wanted new STORIES, and instead I was given a remake of the 'Wrath of Khan' (or an homage. Whatever.)

What, did you think I wouldn't notice that you simply remade the "Death of Spock" scene while switching the characters and calling it a day?

Honestly, I found the "Death of Kirk" scene actually suffered because of the comparison I was forced to make with it's predecessor.  The entire time I found myself thinking, "That wasn't bad, but it was better the first time".  (And the first time had William Shatner in it.  So you don't really have an excuse.) The self-referential nature of those scenes felt very masturbatory indeed, and I've never felt comfortable watching masturbation while I'm in a theatre.

I prefer to go to public washrooms for that.
I also could have done without the iconic "KAAAAHN" scream, delivered this time by Spock (instead of Kirk), Not the LEAST of which because it makes little to no sense for him (of all people) to be screaming anything. Period.  Yeah Spock was upset, and the ensuing chase scene was awesome, but even still, an emotionally distraught Spock would NOT yell into the air for no reason. 

Think about it.  Who was he screaming at? Khan?  Khan couldn't hear him.   In 'The Wrath of Khan' Kirk only screamed his adversaries name because he was talking DIRECTLY TO HIM (albeit via communicator)!  He wasn't just howling at the wind, he was Yelling AT KHAN.  Literally.

Now, it's not fair to say those scenes ruined the film for me, but they did make me feel a touch uneasy about the future of Star Trek.  I would hope that the subsequent installments aren't merely going to consist of "The best of Star Trek" simply remade with the finest CGI that money can buy.  Obviously the temptation to rehash some of the fan favorite moments from the earlier films is tempting, but Star Trek has never needed to do that before to keep our interest. and it doesn't need to start now.  Just tell us new stories about the characters we already know and love, and you will go MUCH farther in the long run.  I promise you.

2. DON'T RUSH THE STORIES YOU DO DECIDE TO TELL

Again, this is mostly directed at 'Into Darkness'.

'Star Trek' was an origin film.  It was allowed to be a self-contained, since it was setting the stage for the sequels, and it did a good job of it.  With 'Into Darkness', however, I figured that we would finally witness the beginnings of a bigger arc that would tie us into the (inevitable) third film.  It turns out that I was wrong.

I'm not saying every film franchise NEEDS to have a long serialized arc, but 'into Darkness' really seemed to be building up to something big throughout the entire film.

Until the third act.

Where it abruptly ended. 

Obviously there are a lot of elements that the third film can still use to build upon, but I couldn't help but feel there were also a lot of missed opportunities as well. 

For instance...   Terrorism.

Okay, so Khan has just rammed a MASSIVE Starship into a major metropolitan city. 

Rad.  I can dig that.

What's the aftermath?  What are the political ramifications? Could this leave the federation open to attack by one of their enemies (such as the Klingons)?  Maybe.  I don't know.  It's never really touched on. 

I didn't need any of these questions to be FULLY answered, but it sort of felt like they were completely brushed off altogether.  As the end of the film rolls around Kirk and the gang are all primed to go off on their legendary "five year mission" to seek the shit out of space and it's numerous life-filled civilizations.   Hopeful expressions are emblazoned upon their beautiful Hollywood faces as they make witty repartee about the untold possibilities that lay before them.  It's good ol' space-exploring-business-as-usual, and everyone seems to have completely moved on from the fact that  HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WERE ABSOLUTELY MURDERED TO DEATH IN LESS THAN A MINUTE by the biggest Starfleet ship EVER!

"Forgive and forget" I always say.
Maybe the next movie will touch on this.  I really hope it does.  But I can't help but shake this uneasy feeling that the events of 'Into Darkness' will go more or less untouched in the next film. You know... like a certain Vulcan planet that got blown up, taking with it majority of an entire species, and has only ever mentioned once in passing (during an argument about relationships) since.   I mean, come on; you'd think the federation might be reeling from the aftermath of at LEAST one of the attacks dealt by the last two villains.  I just think it would be nice to see these major traumatic events have some sort of long-term effect on the universe that these characters occupy. 

Something to think about, at any rate.
  
3. USE THE WOMEN!

I'm not the first to make the following observation.  In fact both Rachel and the considerably more famous (than me) Felicia Day have both brought this to light, but there's strength in numbers, so I'm going to add my voice to the chorus, and hope you're listening.

I like women.  Not just because they're pretty (and they really are), or because they look better in lingerie than I do (trust me on this), but because I actually know some pretty incredible individuals who happen to be women.  My wife is a woman.  My writing partner is a woman.  My Mom is a Woman.  Most of my Co-workers are women, as are many of my friends.  And you know what?  They're great.  They're competent, funny, imaginative, hard working, intelligent, compassionate, friendly, and strong human beings. (which is more than I can say for myself.  I'm the worst)

You see, aside from my general sexual preference toward women, I actually like women primarily because I like people (at least, on paper).  I like ALL different kinds of people, with different upbringings, different skin colours, from different parts of the world, and with different points of view.  A world without women would deprive me of roughtly 50% of all the wonder and intrigue I've been fortunate to experience from one day to the next.

Therefore, when I go out to the cinema, I always appreciate it when the females in my film of choice are written at least as well as the males.

So how did 'Star Trek into Darkness' fare with the ladies?  To answer that I'd first like to highlight some of the better character beats that 'Into Darkness' had to offer, starting with the Men...

THE MEN

KIRK: "I don't know what I'm supposed to do, I only know what I CAN do!"  This was great moment for Kirk, showcasing both his weakness and strength as a character.  For all his bravado Kirk is filled with so much doubt and fear, yet never lets it stop him from taking action.  Awesome.

SPOCK:  In a moment of raw humanity, shows that he does feel and hurt when he goes charging after Khan, proving that Vulcan's can be deadly warriors.  An epic moment for character who's actions are usually so meticulously thought out.

BONES:  Though he has less to do in this outing, Bones is ever the great quip-artist.  Ever comfortable wallowing in an attitude of Doom-n'-Gloom, Bones is quick to act when an opportunity to save his captain presents itself.  A loyal friend and Doctor.

SCOTTY:  The unlikely hero, Scotty was really given a chance to shine with the few scenes he was in.   Most notable is when he stood up to Kirk even though it cost him his job; a man of convictions who does what is right, regardless of whether it makes him popular.

SULU:  Bluffing like a boss.  I can totally believe that he'll be a Captain one day.

PIKE:  Wise and patient, always commanding the respect of others through his example, and filled with forgiveness and grace to those who need it most; a true mentor for Kirk.  His death was tragic.

KHAN: Lethal and Cunning, this is a man who always had the upper hand, even when he was behind bars (or glass as the case may be).  Each time he graced the screen was a terrifying delight to witness.

Alright.  Cool. 

So far we have some pretty decent stuff for a summer action flick.  The only character arguably missing form that list is Chekov, and even he has the virtue of being amusing, spunky, and markedly gifted for a kid his age.

Great.  Lets go check in with the women, shall we?

THE WOMEN

UHURU: "You brought me here to speak Klingon.  So, let me speak Klingon."

... Wow.  I... I just... Really?  That's it?  That's all you have to say?

Full credit to Zoe Saldana.  She is a fantastic actress, and brought as much gravity to her dialogue as any person possibly could, but you almost wonder why she was even hired for the part.

Don't follow?  Let's recap.

Uhuru is brought to the Klingon homeworld along with the Kirk 'n the boys to retrieve Khan.  Naturally, the Klingons aren't too happy about this and open fire on the 'intruding' human vessel.  Kirk, the testosterone-laden protagonist that he is, is all primed to duke it out.  Thankfully Uhuru has a firm head on her shoulders and realizes violence would only exacerbate the situation.

Perfect.  The Stage is set.  This is Uhuru's time to shine.  Now is her moment to make a rousing plea to Kirk.  Or perhaps throw out a quippy rebuttal to his agressive intentions.  Whatever it is, you just KNOW it's going to be awesome, right?

"You brought me here to speak Klingon."

She states a fact.  THAT is the coolest line her character has in the ENTIRE film.  She states her job.  Zoe Saldana's excellent delivery not withstanding, It's something of an underwhelming piece of writing.  But, to be fair, her time to shine hasn't happened yet.  At least we get to see her stand her ground to a gang of ruthless warrior Klingons right?  They'll be all intimidating and shit, but she'll convince them not to attack her, because Uhuru is an intelligent woman with the firey tenacity to calm even the most violent minded individuals.

Because she's a badass.

Because she is ALL that is woman.

Hear her ROAR, Damn it!

... DAMN IT!  And there she goes, with barely a whimper.  For all the build up the scene gives her, Uhuru is almost immediately relegated to a damsel in distress who would have been mercilessly gutted if it hadn't been for Khan's manly intervention.

And that's it.  For the rest of the film Uhuru basically hangs around and worries about Spock.  Oh!  And, in one scene, she got to worry about Spock while wearing a tight wet-suit.  She's so empowered.

CAROL MARCUS: Aaah the new chick.  Good.  About time the Enterprise brought a new gal along for the party.  Of course, many people will recognize her character as the mother of Kirk's child from 'the Wrath of Khan'.  In that film she was a strong-willed, intelligent woman.  No doubt, in 'Into Darkness' she will certainly join the Enterprise crew due to her credentials, instead of just batting her pretty eyes at- ... oh wait.

"If I'm going to convince you I have the proper credentials I'd better hope you won't look past my cute blonde hair and perfect teeth."
 Alright fine.  But clearly she was using her feminine whiles against Kirk because she's up to something. I mean, look at her.  She's all shifty and suspicious.  Spock feels threatened by her.  SPOCK!  She gives Khan a weird look, like she recognizes him.  What's she up to?  Is it espionage?  Is she working with Khan?  Is she here to kill Khan?  Maybe she was sent by someone even bigger and more secret!  Whatever it is, it has to be good!  She says she just wants to 'check out the new torpedos', which is perfectly acceptable reasoning as far as the plot's concerned as long as it's followed by... ANYTHING.   Is she planning to use them to blow up the Enterprise?  Is she trying to awaken Khan's 72 followers?  Has she been sent by someone else as part of some secret reconnaissance mission?  The options are limitless!

And none of them are the answer. 

Turns out she was just 'kind of curious', because her "father never keeps secrets from her usually" and she just wanted to see what was up.  That's it.  She didn't have any other information to go on.  Didn't have a back up plan if she ever found out... whatever it was she thought she was trying to find out.  Her entire function in the movie was simply to move the plot forward.

But at least she gets to prove herself later on right? At least she's a highly qualified weapons expert.  No doubt, she will prove herself as an equal to Kirk and his crew.  I mean, she obviously wouldn't waste precious screen time objectifying herself.  ...Right?

Pictured: Female empowerment: The SWIM SUIT edition!
*Sigh*

And the really frustrating thing is that the ONE skill she's supposed to have she STILL bungles.  The fact that she didn't blow up Bones along with the torpedo is due purely to the fact that she FLUKED out!  For all her apparent expertise in disarming explosives, her final solution is to 'try ripping out wires'.  Beyond that, she spent the entire film crying at her daddy, and getting injured.  And even THEN she seemed to be merely displeased that all her new friends were about to die.  As if they were her favorite toys that Dad was about to sell at a garage sale.

Here's the thing though.  I get that sex sells.  It goes without saying that Beautiful people are attractive, and who DOESN'T want to see Alice Eve in her Undies?

Communists, probably.
But see, if you have a scene with Kirk dressed down to nothing but his knickers he will at least have a chance to prove his integrity as a character later on, because he's the protagonist.  Carol Marcus only has a few scenes to define her character, and you used one of them on this...

It pains me to show this a second time, but I have to.  For feminism.
And none of them on showcasing her strengths as a person.

At the end of the day I don't remember Carol as a character, but as a sexual object.  That's kind of too bad, seeing as the Enterprise is already something of a boys club.  It would have been nice to have another REAL female character added to the mix.  Here's hoping for next time?

Speaking of Female characters. Where ARE all the women anyway?

Seriously.  Where are they?  What, did they all leave when they heard Joss Whedon was producing a new show?

Again, Felicia Day makes the point here, so I won't flog a dead horse, but there is a disturbing lack of female representatives at the captains meeting near the beginning of the film.

This is, I think, the most perplexing aspect of 'Into Darkness'.  Star Trek has traditionally always been 'ahead of the times'.  In the original series there was a Japanese man, a Russian, and an Alien all on the bridge of one ship.   When it came to women, Star Trek actually went the next step and cast an African American woman like it wasn't any big thing.  True, at the time Uhuru was little more than a secretary taking calls for the captain, but it was the 60's.  It wasn't perfect, but it was a step in the right direction.

By the time Star Trek entered into the 21st century there had been female characters filling the positions of Doctor, Science Officer, Chief Engineer, First Officer, and Even Captain.  Sure, there was Seven of Nine, and T'Pol, whose attire accentuated certain *ahem* assets.

Like Seven of Nine's... eyebrow.
But by-and-large both ladies grew as characters BEYOND their sexual appeal.  Star Trek was a pretty well rounded universe filled with badass, layered, conflicting, heroic characters, both Male AND Female.  Both sexes worked along-side each other as equals.  It was not unheard of for Picard to be given orders by a female superior officer.  Kira would often challenge Sisko if she disagreed with him.  Janeway's leadership brought Voyager safely back to the Alpha Quadrant.

Sadly, her hair bun would be one of the few casualties.
These were women that I could look up to not because of their sex, but because they were strong, kind, compassionate, and intelligent individuals.   Star Trek is all about equality and acceptance of others, and in that sense 'Star Trek into Darkness' failed meet the bar, never mind raise it.

If you only take ONE of my criticisms to heart then please make it be this last one.  You have a rare opportunity to tell new stories about these beloved characters.  My challenge to you is that you redefine characters like Uhuru and Carol Marcus not by showing us more skin, but instead by showing us their strength as characters, and women.

WRAPPING UP

I know I've written a lot of words seemingly tearing apart your fancy blockbuster, but that honestly isn't my intention here.  Truthfully, I did enjoy myself, and I hope to see Star Trek Live long and Prosper for as long as I'm alive.  But please, PLEASE don't succumb to being merely accessible in the present.  Show us something that we all can strive for in the future.

Be ahead of your time again.  I'd pay money to see that.

Sincerely, a Trekker forever.


-Fenske
(If you like what I have to say on my blog, check out what I can do with 140 characters or less, and follow me on twitter.)

2 comments:

  1. FEEEENSKE. Please review The Amazing Spider-man sequel! :D I'd also love to here your insight on The Superior Spider-man comic series C: Thanks!

    ReplyDelete