Star Trek Into Darkness

I just watched Star Trek Into Darkness for the second time and ignoring the confusing title with its missing colon I found it even more incomprehensible than the first time.

First let me say the one positive thing I have to say. All the actors in this movie are top notch. They sell me the most ridiculous lines, the stupidest nonsense and the worst tripe writing I have seen in a very long time but they mostly pull off a powerful feat of acting sleight of hand that convinces me that they actually mean to say those things.Khan.jpg

First this movie starts out with a great (and by great I mean stupid) scene of Kirk fleeing a temple on a primitive planet. He has stolen something that the natives worship, just because it seemed like fun, I guess? (There’s a flimsy bit of paste where they hint that he’s trying to move them away from the volcano so they don’t die but that doesn’t make sense since Spock is about to freeze the volcano so they don’t die…) Then he goes cliff diving with Bones and swim under water to the enterprise, which apparently didn’t think that hiding in SPACE was a good idea? Apparently even the writers knew that was a stupid idea because Mr. Scott’s first line in the movie is to point out that it’s a stupid idea to hid a spaceship under the ocean.

Then Spock goes rappelling into a volcano, freezes it and Kirk has to come out of the ocean to beam him up, thus altering the lives of the natives further when they see the Enterprise that shouldn’t have been there to begin with. To make matters even more fun this is sort of the moment that hinges on the next little bit of plot stuff.

Uhura is mad at Spock because he didn’t cry when he almost died in the Volcano. Later when her and Spock and Kirk are in their little ship, flying into Klingon space she interrupts the mission to argue with Spock about his feelings — because, obviously as a woman she can’t wait to share her feelings until an appropriate time.

Kirk lies on his report and Spock tells the truth thus exposing Kirk as the careless layabout with no respect for culture or other people that he really is. Pike realizes that this is evidence that Kirk is not ready to be Captain (his first clue should have been that Kirk got promoted from smart-mouth cadet on his first mission) and makes him a cadet again because there are apparently no ranks in between Captain and cadet. You sink or you command the Enterprise in this world, buddy, there is no in between.Enterprise.jpg

Then Pike realizes that Kirk is supposed to be the main character of this movie and if the next scene doesn’t have him in it then what’s the point really so he promotes Kirk back to Commander because he went to a bar to get drunk and talk about getting beat up.

Kirk and Spock don’t like each other again because Kirk is being a petty idiot about Spock telling the truth. Seriously, this feels more like sixth grade than like an exploratory service. “You tattled on me, I’m not your friend any more.” Then they’re friends still because the writers remembered they already made that movie where Spock and Kirk don’t get along and learn to be friends.

There’s a technique used in writing called hanging a lantern on it. What this means is when you introduce something that is actually kind of ridiculous you have a character point out that it is ridiculous and move on. People laugh, it’s fun and then they get over it. If you do that once in a movie, it’s entertaining and people forget that the ridiculous thing is ridiculous. I noticed it three times in the first fifteen minutes of this movie. In other words the writers aren’t saying we know this element is ridiculous, just go with it, we think it will be fun. They’re saying we’re too arrogant to bother thinking up intelligent plots because we think the audience is too stupid to care.

Then Khan shoots up a room full of Starfleet commanders that is conveniently positioned near a large window so that he can get close with his spaceship. Unfortunately he proves to be a terrible terrorist because he only actually kills one person while gunning down the room with ship phasers. He transports away at the last minute using secret technology that renders warp drive and all spaceship transportation completely obsolete. (I have to ask: Do these writers have any concept of the distances and speeds involved in space? I really don’t think they do. They throw out numbers about hundreds of thousands of kilometers and they travel to other planets using transporter beams — which by definition are sort of limited to light speed. Maybe there’s a time lapse thing and it actually took Khan 300 years to get to Kronos?)

Kirk gets made Captain because as he says, “Starfleet can’t go after him, I can.” I have to raise all my eyebrows at this. Are you forgetting whose logo is on the corner of your paycheck, Kirk? Or whose insignia is on your uniform, or whose ship you are asking to be made Captain of? Or who you are asking permission from? If the head of starfleet sends a starfleet captain (newly repromoted after his other promotion after his demotion) on a starfleet ship with a starfleet crew armed with starfleet missiles on a secret mission to bomb the Klingon home world doesn’t that sort of make it a Starfleet mission?

I don’t know, sounds shifty to me.

Then Kirk, who knows that his mission is completely immoral refuses to listen to his crew, browbeats his first officer into complying, ignores is engineer who has valid safety concerns, hires a stowaway under a false name because she’s prettier than Spock (because this Kirk can’t seem to leave his own crew alone — this guy is a walking sexual harassment lawsuit, though, apparently in the future all the women like that kind of attention?). Then he fires his chief engineer for expressing a valid concern and promotes his navigator to chief because there are apparently no under studies or other people on the ship who have actually worked in engineering.

So Kirk decides to capture Khan because killing him would have ended the movie too quickly so he flies away with Spock and Uhura and get attacked by Klingons because, what did he expect to happen when he flew to their home world. Using our current technology it would be hard to land a spaceship anywhere on earth without somebody noticing. The Klingon’s are hundreds of years more advanced but Kirk seems to think they shouldn’t have noticed him because he’s trying to land in the desert or something.

Khan shows up and shoot some Klingons and saves them all. They all live because they are good guys and important. The Klingons all die because they are played by minority extras. Then Kirk expresses his anger by beating up the bad guy who totally just stands there and takes it without even looking like it even hurts him at all, and in fact it doesn’t, he never even gets bruised. They take him back to their ship and Khan reveals his secret that he went on a murderous rampage because he thought his crew was dead but the special torpedoes that Kirk has are actually cryo-chambers with his crew inside.CUMBERBATCH_STAR-TREK-INTO-DARKNESS.jpg

So it turns out that Khan was not really the bad guy in this business? Instead there’s a secret spaceship that Admiral Marcus built because he’s a super secret kind of guy. How this kind of thing gets done without anybody knowing makes no sense to me. How many people did it take to design, test and build this thing? How long has it been since the last movie? How did something so super secret stay super secret if Scotty can sneak aboard by just flying in and opening the door?

Kirk goes space jumping again because apparently it was just that much fun in the first movie. There is a lot of debris between the two ships, enough that it looks like at least two more ships probably got trapped between them while they were fighting and are now just giant pieces of metal for Kirk to dodge on his way to an impossibly small hole. Scott shows up to take his role as the resident lantern hanger and tells Kirk that this is like jumping out of a moving car, off a bridge and landing in a shot glass. Kirk goes for it anyway because he, like the writers do not understand that the analogy is actually accurate.

Old Spock shows up just to say, “I promised not to say anything but I’m going to say something.” Then he doesn’t actually say anything.

Then Kahn betrays them all but only kills the guys who’s actors are not on the list of the main cast.

Spock, trying to save Kirk and Scott offers to give Khan back his crew in exchange for his Captain. In a moment of sheer stupidity he tricks Khan into thinking that he has his crew and then detonates all the missiles. Of course Spock didn’t really kill Khan’s crew, he’s just playing a little joke on the guy who ruthlessly failed to kill anybody except Pike the last time he thought his crew had been killed.

Well. Now he’s really angry so he crashes his ship into San Francisco, which is, apparently, conveniently close to space, or something. Meanwhile the Enterprise is also crashing so all the laws of physics fly out of a convenient hull breach and we get to see gravity play games in space. First the Enterprise starts to fall out of orbit because it lost power. All nearby debris simply stays where it was put, apparently the debris hasn’t lost power yet. As the Enterprise tumbles the actors gain super powers and are suddenly able to run on the walls. Either that or this whole things is a giant mass hallucination because I can’t think of any other reason why a ship in freefall would have gravity that suddenly rotates it’s reference frame.

Kirk plays the role of Spock (and hangs a lantern on it later — this time in case the audience is too stupid to figure it out) and Spock plays Kirk’s role. Kirk dies, Spock runs around in San Francisco because transporters on the Enterprise only work when the writers don’t feel like having another chase scene. Then the transporters do work when they realize that Spock will need some help.

It turns out Khan’s blood is magic and brings Kirk back to life. The end.

Now my thoughts:

Apparently there are no competent Indian actors who could have played

So instead of a court martial, or a hearing, or a trial of any kind Kirk is just sent back to the academy. His career looks like this: Cadet, Captain, Cadet, Commander, Captain, Maybe Admiral of everything? (At the end he’s the one leading the ceremony because he’s apparently the highest ranking feller there is — and he’s about to leave on a five-year mission so that’ll be fun for the leaderless people back home. Plus he’s apparently immortal now, so…)

None of this makes any sense to me and the reasoning behind it in the movie makes even less sense. Why would any organization promote a cadet to Captain of a starship? Why would they then decide he needed to be a cadet again only to change their minds back later that same day. This has got to be the most schizophrenic command structure ever.

While I think that Chris Pine does a brilliant job of playing Kirk and looks enough like the young Shatner that I can no longer see him as anybody else, I feel like the writers and director completely missed who this character is. Kirk is a deeply caring person, he knows who his crew members are, he performs weddings for them, he fights for them. Sure he goes on away missions when it should be the first officer and he has broken the Prime Directive a few times (a lot) but they were always in situations of actual moral dilemma. This new Kirk is a womanizing drunk who picks fights with his friends, has sixth-grade arguments and is completely careless with the lives of his crew and of indigenous peoples. When he is confronted by his actions he does not recognize that the Prime Directive is an important law but he scoffs at it and expects to be let off for his actions. He breaks the law because it would be fun and have cool looking scenes.

In other words he’s an arrogant, amoral, prick.

And it completely misses the point. If you were to compile a list of Shatner’s traits from popular media you would probably find this Kirk. If you were to actually watch the show you would see that he is something completely different. The writers completely missed this character.

One of Kirk’s arguments to Pike about why he should keep his command is that he had not lost a single crew member. The rest of the movie shows him losing crew member after crew member and Kirk doesn’t seem to care in the least. His ship gets blown up, people fall down corridors when gravity changes right in front of him. People get sucked into space. Kirk is only worried about running around and reaching the next plot point because he has no depth.

There is one moment where the writers accidentally hinted at something interesting. Kirk tells Spock that he doesn’t know how to lead, so he’s going on a space jump and leaving Spock in charge. I found myself wishing that they would have dealt with that more. Kirk goes on all these away missions because he’s insecure. He doesn’t know what to do on the ship and he wants to get away sometimes. It’s almost brilliant. If only it had been more than a single line of dialogue.

Several times the characters say random things to draw attention to things that will come up later. Kirk is talking to Khan and trying to be intense about who can be trusted. He interrupts himself by asking Bones what he’s doing. McCoy tells him he is using Khan’s Magic Blood(TM) to resurrect a dead Tribble. Then Kirk goes back to his intense conversation. Even the first time I saw this scene I could see it was blatant and clumsy exposition — Oh, Kirk’s going to die and get resurrected with Magic Blood(TM).

The sexism inherent in the early franchise at least had the excuse that it was a product of it’s time. This movie seems to think that Uhura can’t keep her emotions in check because she’s a woman and Carol Marcus can’t keep her clothes on because… I don’t know, women like to invite men into shuttles and make them turn around while they change their clothes? Plus, I understand it’s tradition from the old show (again it was the sixties) but in what warped imagination is a miniskirt a reasonable uniform for a person on an exploratory service?

So, I get that Khan is ruthless and smart and strong and has Magic Blood(TM) but how does it make any sense to wake him up to help them design weapons? He had been asleep 300 years. That’s like us waking up Isaac Newton to help us design better drones for our military servicemen. Does that make any kind of sense? Science and technology change so much in 300 years that Khan would have no background of relevance able to be of any use. How did they find his ship anyway? After the first movie the Enterprise is the only Starfleet ship left capable of long distance travel. If Kirk and company had found Khan they would have known about him so it wasn’t them. Maybe Starfleet sent out a plot hole and sucked him back home through it’s spinning vortex.

Finally my biggest complaint:

At the end of Wrath of Khan — that this movie is obviously completely ripping off — Spock dies. It’s heart-wrenching and powerful and beautiful. It works that way because it is an earned moment. At that point Kirk and Spock had shown their friendship in seventy two television episodes and two motion pictures. They had not only shown their own friendship but they had spent all that time being characters that the audience loved.

Into Darkness tries to cash in on that emotional train wreck with no success. Kirk dies and Spock screams in agony and runs off to have a Star Wars chase scene. It’s flat. It means nothing. These characters haven’t earned an emotional response. These actors haven’t been around long enough, been endearing enough to earn an emotional response. These writers haven’t given us lovable characters or lasting friendship or even any sense of personal sacrifice because they told us just twenty minutes ago that there is Magic Blood(TM) that will save Kirk so, no worries.

In short, Star Trek Into Darkness is a badly made version of a sixth-graders fan fiction after watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That these writers and director tried to sell it as an actual movie is pretty embarrassing.

Also, this can’t be Star Trek, they have actual pillows.No Pillow.jpgPillow

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette KowalThis book frequently gets described as Jane Austen if she had lived in a fantasy world where magic were real.

I suppose that’s a fair statement because the plot seems to be lifted straight out of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, down to the main character’s name and the younger sister’s misguided dalliance, the father’s practicality and the mother’s dramatic pretensions and political pandering.

The original part of this story is the use of glamour which is apparently some sort of manipulations of the electromagnetic spectrum only using the hands instead of lenses and other optics. Glamor is practiced mostly by women and artists who use it to make their houses look just a tad more beautiful or to breathe a little life into a painting or drawing.

Mary Robinnete Kowal is a brilliant writer and a master storyteller and it is very possible that anybody with less chameleon-like writing skills would have sounded like a cheap parody of Jane Austen. However Kowal has mastered the art of sounding like other writers and she employs it to good effect.

I still remember the first time I heard Mary Robinette Kowal speak. She was a guest on the Writing Excuses podcast and she talked about what she had learned about story telling from puppetry (she is a professional puppeteer). It was perhaps the most brilliant episode I had ever heard and the most useful writing advice I have ever heard to date. She was brilliant.

I have read many of her short works and each one blows me away. Few authors are capable of evoking emotions so strongly and in so few words. Kowal has perfected her ability to tell a story in a very short space and I can not speak too highly of her work.

This book is no exception. It lacks some of the depth of Austen but it flows much more quickly and never feels drawn out. Despite it’s predictable nature (if you have read a Jane Austen book you know how this one is going to turn out), it was a fun book to read and one I fully recommend.

Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie Vaughan

Kitty and the Midnight Hour by Carrie VaughanI wish that this book did not have such an unfortunate cover on it.

Carrie Vaughan has been on my radar for quite some time. She attends the Albuquerque science fiction and fantasy convention every year and always has very smart and interesting things to say. I have also read a small number of her short stories and found them to be imaginative and very well written.

I have to admit that the covers for her books held me back for a long time, though. The protagonist, Kitty Norville, is a werewolf that works at a radio station as the late-night DJ. One night she starts talking about vampires and werewolves and other paranormal things as something to pass the time between rock songs. It becomes so popular that her show gets syndicated and suddenly paranormal creatures from all over the country are calling her at night to ask for advice.

The book is short and shows Kitty growing from a young werewolf who is subservient to her pack to one that is strong and confident and willing to fight for what she feels she deserves. The beginnings of the book are a little hard to read as Kitty is mistreated by her pack leaders (the alphas) and she simply cowers and takes it. She quickly starts to stick up for herself, though, which gets her into trouble.

I feel like this is a good start to a series. If the story ended here it would be disappointing. Knowing that more books are already written means this is a good first chapter for a character who still has lots of growth and mystery to solve.

Kitty is interesting as a character and her sections about taking phone calls on her radio show are probably the most exciting and interesting parts of the book. I am excited to read the second book and see where the character goes.

Howliday Inn by James Howe

Howliday Inn by James HoweThis remains my favorite in the series of stories about Harold, the quiet and friendly dog, and Chester, the cat with the overactive imagination.

In this story they are sent to a boarding house for pets while their owners go on vacation. Chateau Bow-wow is every bit as creepy as the name and the overcast sky indicate. With all the mysterious howling and the unusual animals being boarded there.

Then there’s a murder and a kidnapping and somebody finds an empty bottle of poison and suddenly Chester’s imagination is alight and he’s ready to accuse everybody of nefarious deeds.

This book takes the premise of the first book and steps away from it in an interesting way. Bunnicula — titular character that started it all — is nowhere to be seen. This works because Bunnicula is not really a character but a McGuffin, an object for Chester to get upset about and for Harold to be indifferent about. Now they are placed in a position where they know nobody, there are several strange and unusual characters around and suddenly Chester’s suspicions mean that everybody is a possible murderer.

When I was little I found this book intense. I could not wait to find out what was going on. I don’t remember actually believing any of Chester’s theories. He’s always so off the wall that I never took him seriously. However the book is good at convincing the reader that Chester’s theories are at least the most reasonable with the information given.

The fun of the story is to see how wrong Chester is with the given facts.

With that, it’s still a fun book. The jokes are still funny (to me) and the mystery is interesting enough that my six-year-old found it very intense, but not too scary.

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson

Firefight by Brandon SandersonI feel like this is like one of those Marvel superhero movies. Not because it’s about superheroes because it really kind of isn’t. Not because it’s about super powers, or defeating powerful being, or phenomenal cosmic energy, or comic book logic, though it has all those things in it.

It feels like a Marvel movie because it is as predictable as having tacos on Taco Tuesday.

And somehow it’s still really awesome.

Every Marvel movie has basically the same bad guy. (Loki gets a pass on this one because he’s awesome.) All the other ones are just some feller who wants to be the worst thing to happen to the world since the last funny-colored guy to want that. Their villains are generic. That’s not why we watch them. We watch them because Tony Stark says funny things while he’s getting beat up, and Steve Rogers gives all the extras lots of opportunities for jokes and Bruce Banner always has something clever to say and Loki’s going to show up soon so we might as well watch Thor until then.

Firefight is like that. You know what’s going to happen. There are some Epics, in this case several, that David doesn’t know how to kill. Then he figures it out and he kills them. What makes it work is David. His constant optimism and fear of water and of other things that are kind of irrational fears for somebody who is willing to go head to head with demi-gods in a hope that he will figure out their one weakness in time to not die. David is the reason this works.

David spouts his metaphors (which are actually similes) that somehow are terrible and don’t make sense except they kind of do, once you see his thought process behind it. That, plus his recent discovery that there are ways, possibly, for Epics to stop being evil and a mystery is slammed into the heart of a more-of-the-same episode.

David meets new characters, makes new friends, finds new enemies and does it all while in the midst of an existential crisis of what he has spent his entire life teaching himself.

It’s all very teenager.

There’s a new setting this time that is fascinating and new Epics with exciting new powers. There are bits and hints of the story coming in the final book that are tasty morsels and there is lots and lots of action.

Which is awesome. It’s just, I’ve seen it before.

(Am I the only one that can’t stop seeing a flaming Texas falling on New York City when I look at that cover?)

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation by Jeff VandermeerJeff Vandermeer is known for writing what is referred to as the New Weird. He writes weird stuff.

For some reason that description has never appealed to me so I tended to shy away from his books. However, lately I have been hearing a lot of good things about his writing and decided to give it a try.

Annihilation is like one of those nineteenth century exploration novels where a party explores a mysterious island and terrible things happen to them. Only this is a modern novel and the terrible things are based on fungi and mushrooms and hypnosis and something very very strange that is going on.

The entire book is told as the journal entries of a woman who is identified only as The Anthropologist. She is accompanied in her exploration of Area X by The Surveyor, The Biologist and The Psychologist.

They discover a buried tower and an erect lighthouse with mysteries that pile on top of mysteries. Madness and fungus inspired horror ensue.

This is the first book of a trilogy that sets up a mystery that offers intrigue and compelling reason to read the rest of the series. If the exploration of hidden mysteries and the discoveries of seemingly otherworldly locales sounds fascinating then this is the book for you. Jeff Vandermeer sprinkles mysteries around with wild abandon, all of them feeling connected and solid enough that the answer must be just one more piece away.

It isn’t. This is the first book of a trilogy but watching The Anthropologist (none of the characters are ever named) stumble through the discovery of deeper and deeper layers of mystery is fascinating and compelling.

I found myself hoping that this expedition (the twelfth) will get home alive, will discover the mystery and make it out.

This is a compelling first book in a trilogy that promises to have some fascinating conclusions.

Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams

Implied Spaces by Walter Jon WilliamsIn science fiction there is an expected anomaly that is referred to by a phrase coined by Vernor Vinge. It is called the Technological Singularity, or Singularity for short. The idea is that at some point in the future our technology is going to advance to the point where we — as we are now — will not be able to understand it.

There have been many singularities throughout history. If we were to somehow show people of two hundred years past the internet and streaming videos and Skype and smart phones it would appear as magic to them. Thus the Singularity is just an extrapolation of the Arthur C. Clarke dictum about any sufficiently advanced technology.

Implied Spaces is about a post-singularity universe in which many universes, available via wormholes, have been created. These universes can be created with custom physics and following different laws and rules than our own universe. The worlds, born out of the minds of video game players, have evolved into a variety of places where people can choose to live. Death is no longer truly possible because of technological resurrections and Aristide travels around the universes with his wormhole edged sword and his AI avatar cat studying the implied spaces.

The implied spaces are the ones that exist, not by design but by implication. When people create universes they create certain things they are looking for. The implied spaces are the areas or things in the universe that exist, not because they were part of the design, but because the design implies they exist.

With that as a premise it seems hard to imagine how this book could not be excellent. The ideas involved are fascinating and have a certain symmetry to them that feels very well planned.

However, this is another book that I just didn’t love. Part of it is the post singularity setting. Much like the post singularity setting of Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief I found my inability to understand what was going on too much of a hurdle to cross. The advanced technology of the post-singularity universe feels like an excuse for the author to not bother explaining. Descriptions lack detail, characters lack substance, and the universe at large lacks any sense of reality. The whole feels like the outline of a poorly conceived video game that is badly in need of a concept artist to give some flesh and color to some of the concepts.

Walter Jon Williams’ writing is a bit spartan and feels undeveloped, almost choppy in places. This surprised me because previous Williams books have been long-winded enough that they begged to be shortened. Alas even when writing a shorter work with shorter sentences and smaller paragraphs he still comes across as telling too much.

I had a really hard time getting into this book, which might be setting, or it might just be me, unable to grasp the confusion that is a post-singularity universe. Your mileage may vary.