Sunday, May 19, 2013

Why the new Star Trek is more consistent than you may think - and the parts where it dives into the deep end of crazy

I caught Star Trek: Into Darkness Friday night and it was a real fun movie to watch. Like it's predecessor its more of a spiritual successor to the franchise, lacking some of the grace and philosophical introspection Trek has sometimes been known for in the past. Like Trek in general (and the first Abram's movie in specific) it's full of pseudo-science, science gaffs, and some occasional plot holes you could pilot the Enterprise through. It has an early reference to a "cold fusion bomb" that was such a bad choice of name for the actual device they deployed that I felt like the screenwriters were deliberately screwing with us, for example.

I'll take a moment here to give you my grade on this movie before the spoiler-laden rants below: A solid A+ for general enjoyment, with a C+ for coherence; to contrast with the 2009 Trek film, I'd have given that an A+ for fun and a D for coherence. So in some regards this film is an improvement. I'd also add this caveat: if you are a hardcore Trekkie, the kind who is bothered about why the new movies don't properly emulate the look and feel of the tech from the 1967 series, then you probably already know you hate this movie but that's okay because it's not really for you. It's for Trekkies like me who feel that the rigid adherence to canon had made Trek a wallowing mass of nonsensical contradictions over the years, have accepted that fact, and moved on.

Spoilers ahead, just a warning!

Despite all this, there's an interesting internal coherence going on in the movie that is surprisingly decent, although it may not seem so to non-Trekkies unfamiliar with some of the tenets of the franchise universe, or hardcore Trekkies blinded by the trees and thus missing the forest. For example, in the first Trek movie in the new universe we saw most of Earth's armada devastated by Nero's planetcracker while it was destroying Vulcan. Cut to three years later, roughly, and we find that Earth's fleet is nowhere near up to speed, and a lot of private or hidden resources are being sucked into a defense program to build a Dreadnaught, all at the direction of the Grand Admiral himself. So when, at the film's end, we see that same dreadnaught fighting the Enterprise, some people have wondered where the hell Starfleet's other local ships were. The short answer: the Admiral probably ordered everyone away, to give him breathing room to polish off the Enterprise. Later, when the dreadnaught is piloted by Khan and plows into San Francisco, it's probably not shot down precisely because the ship has all of the Grand Admiral's "stand down and ignore us" protocols in effect.

Now, it's the movie's fault for not at least tacitly addressing this (a simple scene in which Admiral Marcus tells Earth's defense forces to stand down would have sufficed) but it makes sense to me in the context of what happened. A second explanation is that this dreadnaught is pretty tough, and no amount of planetary defenses would have sufficed to take it down. A third, and even likelier option which is implied by the movie's own story is that Earth doesn't really have a very weaponized defense force....given that the flagship of the fleet, the Enterprise, is rendered to swiss cheese by the dreadnaught, I have to say that makes a lot of sense. What we're seeing here is a weird mix of the conventional technology of the Enterprise vs. an unholy union of the pre-war tech info brought to the table by Khan, plus the scanned future-tech taken from Nero's ship in the last movie. The fact that they made this new vessel reminiscent of a mix of Enterprise D and E just made it even more interesting.

So why the advanced technology? This is all way beyond the TOS era tech from the original era, right? This technically was already answered by the film makers, who indicated that the presumption was that in the first movie Nero's ship was scanned and details recorded, opening up Starfleet's eyes to a wide range of technological options not previously imagined. I, however, would suggest a different (or amended) answer, which hinges on the whole time travel element: this isn't really even the same universe rewound; Spock and Nero from the first movie slipped backwards and sideways in time, to a slightly different universe, one with slightly different laws of reality and history that extend well beyond the scope of the original series.

Transporters work differently in this Trek. Seriously, they do; aside from the visuals, which actually imply people being surrounded by an array of circulating particles rather than just being disintegrated, transporters seem to be a lot more fidgety, and have trouble picking people up if a bug is walking on them, or there's atmospheric trouble, or any number of other issues. Simultaneously, a very specific portable device (the Scotty super-transporter) can transport a target light years and even his a moving target in Warp. Is this inconsistent? I have a hard time working this one out, and my gut tells me that the problem here is screenwriters who went for Rule of Cool first and "this will mess with our universe's implied assumptions" ended up ignored.

If, however, I try to apply some logic to the way transporters work (and fail to work) I arrive at the conclusion that it's a suggestion that the technology works very differently in certain key ways from the way it worked in Old Trek. I'd postulate it's using some sort of strange quantum entanglement to get the job done, and that the device is "repopulating" the target at a new destination rather than its current location. This becomes trivially easy to do when you know the speed and distance of a target, but something as simple as a ladybug in your hair could screw things up, because now you have another observer and a whole bunch of additional variables to account for. Something like that? Ah, I got nuthin' on this one.

At least they acknowledged the staggering significance of Scotty's transwarp teleporter device as a distinct thing in this movie, being sequestered away by Section 31 for weaponization.

Another thing that I find head-scratching is the whole "Qo's'Nos" (alias Chronos) event. There are a lot of things we can interpret from the event in which the Enterprise warps to the Klingon Homeworld, as follows:

First, the klingons appear to have already destroyed Praxis. Notice in the one space scene with the disintegrating moon in the background? Now, in the implied new history Nero supposedly was captured by klingons and locked away in Rura Pente for twenty odd years before being freed, and after his escape he destroyed the prison world....but going by Star Trek VI Rura Pente was not a  moon in the Klingon system, best as I could tell. This means that Praxis was already mined out and blew up, a couple decades early. This help explains the next issues.

Second, the klingons have a lousy detection grid around their homeworld. Maybe they used to have one but Praxis blowing up fried it. Maybe Chronos (because I refuse to keep retyping the klingon spelling) has been thoroughly mined out and is now effectively a slum planet, and the bulk of the klingon interests have shifted to other worlds, and resources along with it. Maybe they just aren't as technologically advanced. Remember, in Trek VI the Enterprise-A slipped through the neutral zone and only got picked up by a listening post with a very bored guard. The newer Enterprise (which, as I'll discuss below, moves a lot faster) might have just gotten lucky, or been using coordinates provided by Admiral Marcus which was a known dead zone in Klingon monitoring posts. So this doesn't bug me so much.

Finally, klingons do appear to have effective sensor shielding, and maybe even stealth tech by now, given that the Romulans are out there selling arms to the klingons. As such, even if we didn't see the klingon defense ships in stealth mode its reasonable to assume they had either sensor-defeating stealth tech or actual romulan stealth tech that kept them from being picked up by the Enterprise's sensors. As for the intel that they acted on (that the sector on Chronos was abandoned)...nothing in that scene suggests that info was fresh, and assuming Starfleet got that info from its own stealth probes, could be a bit out of date anyway. So this seems like a problem on the surface that goes away quickly.

Now, a quick bit about Khan. Why did Admiral Marcus think finding a sleeper ship of genetically enhanced humans from the eugenics wars was a good idea? This seems like a no-brainer, although it relies a bit on the assumption that this universe is a retcon timeline: Khan and his people were true super soldiers, genetically engineered not just to be the smartest and most cunning leaders of the world (as the TOS Khan was) but to be true killers and super men. Admiral Marcus realized that in the current era humankind was made of survivors that had operated under a clause of nonviolence and peace for more than 150 years now, and that he needed someone who was a product of the tumultuous and vague wars which wiped out most of Earth from the old days to help him conceive of what could be done with the weapon's technology stolen from Nero's ship.

The movie obliquely references Khan's origins as being from roughly 300 years ago, without being specific (i.e. 1996), and this is a younger less factually-focused crew, so it would be nice if the new Trek universe was one which held even less certainty about exactly when and how everything went down in Earth's past, including exactly when the so-called Eugenics Wars happened. Call me a fool of a Trekkie but I still like the idea that Trek postulates a potential future history that spins off from out own, rather than one which spins off from 1967's conception of such. The scene where Khan kicks the crap out of a small army of klingons lends credence to this whole notion.

The bit where Kirk calls up Scotty? Not an issue. The only reason we didn't see more of that in TOS and the old movies was that we didn't have cell phones back then. Other than that, Kirk and crew took plenty of direct phone calls across vast distances, just usually sitting down in front of a vidscreen. Trek has had a long and established history of instantaneous communication, and this is just the new series continuing the trend in a way more modern and familiar to us.

Some of my unanswerables:

1. Why did Khan hide his crew in torpedoes? What possible benefit did he think could come of this action? Did these torpedoes have such a small payload that they had that much room in them, making the idea seem sensible, or did Spock, toward the end of the movie, have to add in explosive charges to the torpedoes as well after removing their stasis-tube contents? I do not feel the movie explained Khan's actions on this, or the full nature of the torpedoes well enough here.

2. What the hell is a Cold Fusion Bomb and why would they call it that? What that bomb did was more of a energy-sapping device.

3. The entire "Enterprise hidden under water" scene struck me as 100% Rule of Cool and not at all feasible. Assuming the Enterprise can sustain itself under water (I reasonably expect it could) I still question why parking it there made any sense. Also, why were Kirk and McCoy faffing around in the alien temple in the first place? WHY???? I assume it was to provide a distraction from the shuttle gliding into the volcano's mouth.....but....still.

4. So they know Khan's blood can regenerate dead tissue. There are 72 additional supermen in the ship's hold that can be used as well, right? Well, I do have a partial answer for this, as follows: McCoy determined that it was only Khan's blood which would do; his other genetically enhanced followers weren't subject to the same level of modification he was. Given that in Khan's TOS and Trek II appearances his people were all closer to sheep and cult followers than genetic supermen like himself, this makes sense to me. It would also explain why Admiral Marcus left them in cold sleep rather than wake them up, because they were more useful as bargaining chips than actual agents of Section 31. That said, my real question is: WHY DOES KHAN'S BLOOD REGENERATE DEAD TISSUE....including radiated tissue? WHY?!?!?!?

5. When the Enterprise starts to fall into Earth orbit, I can't help but notice that that entire scene started closer to the Moon, but rapidly seemed to move closer to Earth, despite the fact that neither vessel was under power. This is an example of Sci Fi authors have no sense of scale. Another example: the fact that as best I can tell it took the Enterprise maybe 20 minutes to get from Earth to Chronos. Even assuming that this timeline's ships had benefited from improved warp technology thanks to Nero polluting the timeline, that's very damned fast.

6. More evidence this is an alternate universe and not just a timeline reboot: Carol Marcus was a weapon's researcher and not the much more green-friendly physicist she was in TOS.

7. Is it just me, or do Trek shuttles still not have a proper airlock?

Hey look someone got some Dead Space in my Star Trek


  1. After they went between the buildings on Chronos, Kirk asked if the kilingon was still there and either Spock or Uhura said they weren't reading any ships, "or they are jamming our sensors."

    1. That is true...and it explains why the shuttle might not have picked them up, but it wasn't entirely clear why the Enterprise itself wasn't detecting the klingon ships if they were scanning the sector, and since the klingons left the Enterprise alone they must not have been aware of it, and therefore couldn't have been jamming them (even though Sulu broadcast a message directly to the planet).

      This is all very nitty-gritty stuff though, and didn't (imo) detract from the film...just the sort of stuff a Trek film is inevitably subjected to.