Saturday, July 23, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Stars (1981): Series Primer

A galaxy of heroes team together in an interstellar battle against evil. Blast off on adventures as big as the cosmos itself!”

Get ready for “60 laser blasting minutes of action…” in Space Stars (1981), a Hanna-Barbera animated Saturday morning series that lasted just one season, and eleven episodes.

Space Stars aired on NBC from September 1981 through November 1981, and had two clear influences.

The first is obviously Star Wars (1977). All the segments in the series are set in outer space or in alien worlds. And the series’ opening title imitates the opening crawl style of Star Wars, only with drawn character outlines as well as words.

The second inspiration is The All-New Super Friends Hour (1977-1978) on ABC, which featured popular DC Superheroes working together and separately, and interspersed short educational segments (about safety and magic tricks, for example) with adventures featuring a multitude characters from the Justice League at the Hall of Justice. It was an omnibus series, and so is this one.

Space Stars followed in this pattern with crossovers, but also short “black-out” segments include “Space Magic,” “Space Mystery,” and “Space Fact” and “Space Code.” 

The stars collected for Space Stars include 1960s hold-overs Space Ghost, and The Herculoids, was well as the Teen Force, and Astro and the Space Mutts.   Astro is apparently the family dog from the Jetsons, now working for the space police.

In the Space Ghost segments, Space Ghost -- a Batman corollary for the far future and outer space -- teams with his friends Jan, Jace and Blip the space monkey to defeat villains such as the tyrant Uglor, Toymaker, and star beasts galore. Settings include their home-base -- “The Ghost Planet” -- and also Space Ghost’s ship: the phantom cruiser. Space Ghost has power bands on his wrists that emit beams of all types, and the sidekicks can deploy “inviso-power.’

In the Herculoids installments, a human family consisting of Zandor, Tara and Doro live on distant Quasar (rather than Amzot, as previously…) in the wilderness.  They have befriended several amazing creatures including Zot (a dragon), Igoo (a rock simian), Tundro (a rhino/triceratops combination), and the blobs Gloop and Gleep. These beings defend the family against all brand of invaders both from Quasar (“The Snake Riders”) and beyond.  I’ve loved the Herculoids in all their incarnations.

The Teen Force segments involves a group of young heroes who dwell beyond Black Hole X and voyage to our universe. 

This group rides space sleds/rockets through space. The heroes are a psychic named Elektra, Moleculad -- who can alter and re-arrange his physical matter at will -- and Kid Comet.  They are assisted by diminutive sidekicks called Astromites, and regularly battle Uglor , tyrant of the planet Uris.

The next “space stars” are the show’s (cringe-worthy) comic-relief: talking space dogs Astro, Cosmo and Dipper, who work with a hapless human policeman, Space Ace, in the Astro and the Space Mutts segments.  This segment has not held up well, and was frequently not syndicated with the rest of the series during cable reruns.

The final segment of each hour of Space Stars is called the “Space Stars Finale” and always involves a team up of different heroes in cross-over tales. The Teen Force and Space Ghost join forces in “Polaris,” for instance, while the Herculoids and Space Ghost do so in “Worlds in Collision.”

Space Stars feels very antiquated by today’s standard of sci-fi programming.

It is basically a science free zone (despite its so-called “Space Facts”) with its space age superheroes (and dogs…) flying around in space sans space suits or other protections. 

Similarly, every creature and place is ostensibly made “futuristic” sounding by adding the words “star” or “space” as a descriptor.  Welcome to a world of star flies, star beasts, etc.  The stories tend not to be deep, either, focusing on action over character or even solid sci-fi concepts.

I’ll begin episode reviews of Space Stars starting 8/6!

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "The Brothers" (September 14, 1974)

The second episode of the Filmation live-action series Shazam first aired on September 14, 1974 and is titled “The Brothers.”

In this didactic tale, an older brother, Danny (Steve Tanner) refuses to acknowledge that his younger sibling, Chad (Lance Kerwin) can take care of himself, because he is blind.  Danny is over-protective and smothering, and his behavior irritates Chad, who wants to hold on to some semblance of a normal life.

Meanwhile Billy Batson (Michael Gray) learns from the Elders that he is destined to share his secret identity as Captain Marvel with Chad.  This prophecy comes to pass, as Michael and Mentor (Les Tremayne) attempt to rescue Danny from a life-threatening rattle-snake bite.  

In this crisis, Danny must place his trust in the blind Chad, and Chad comes through.

“The Brothers” follows almost-to-the-letter the narrative outline of the first Shazam installment, “The Joyriders.”  The Elders warn Billy about a lesson he must learn, quote a famous historical figure on the subject of that lesson, and then set Billy out to save the day.  Billy does so, but only by becoming Captain Marvel.

In this case, the lesson is that sometimes you must reveal your true self to help another human being, and the quote of the week comes from the Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) and Lyrical Ballads, his work with Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

“The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.”  

As a critic, I’m pretty much a sucker for works of art that contextualize their stories in terms of pertinent quotations, because -- generally-speaking -- such quotes provide us an insight into how an artist would like his or work to be seen.  I loved the quotes that opened Millennium (1996 – 1999) episodes, for instance. They always helped to contextualize the story in terms of human history, and literature.

And I can plainly see the appeal of including “famous” (or at least relevant) quotations in a live-action Saturday morning kid’s program.  With a little luck, the inclusion of such quotes encourages kids to learn more about Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Aristotle, or the “writer of the week.”

At the same time, however, the overtly preachy or heavy-handed nature of stories like “The Brothers” probably does much to drive kids away from a series like Shazam!  It is relentlessly moralistic. And therefore the quotations from famous writers feel more like an English class assignment than a part of an exciting superhero program.

Also in keeping with the format of “The Joyriders,” parents don’t seem to exist in this dojo.  

Instead, children are left alone for long stretches of time, and must ferret out moral problems without the supervision of adults.  Only Mentor is present as an “advisory” figure, at least so far.  The thematic concerns, as I noted in my post last week, are all juvenile ones.  And the opponents for Captain Marvel are mostly small-potatoes.  This week, he must only contend with Danny’s injury from a (stock-footage) rattle snake.

Similarly, there are very few interior shots in “The Brothers.”  There’s just a scene or two in Danny and Chad’s house, but the rest of the episode takes place on desert roads and in rocky canyons.  I’m not complaining about the approach, just noting, again that sometimes Shazam boasts the feel of a guerilla production.  There’s no home base (save for the mobile recreational vehicle), and no recurring settings, either.

As before, there are also some unexplained aspects of the Elder/Mentor communication in this Shazam episode. The Elders seem to be able to hear everything Mentor says, even though he does not travel with Michael on the boy’s weird vision-quest like trips to the Elders’ realm.  Mentor isn’t present visually, in other words, for the meet-ups, yet he always knows exactly what was spoken during the conferences.  Is he just eavesdropping?

Next week: “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” starring 70s child star Pamelyn Ferdin (The Mephisto Waltz, Space Academy, etc).

Friday, July 22, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: Strange New World (1975)

"What is this, some kind of Alice in Wonderland game?"

Captain Anthony Vico (John Saxon) confronts the mysteries of Eterna in Strange New World (1975).

Strange New World (1975) is usually considered the third of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's efforts to launch his Genesis II/Dylan Hunt series concept, following Genesis II (1973) and Planet Earth (1974). 

The only problem, of course, is that Gene Roddenberry's name is found nowhere in the credits of Strange New World, now available on DVD through the magnificent and indispensable Warner Archive.

Indeed, Roddenberry reportedly passed on this third series attempt, even though it stars Planet Earth lead actor John Saxon, utilizes the "PAX" name from the earlier pilots, and features the same general story of men from the present waking-up in a post-apocalyptic future and attempting to restore the auspices of  human civilization in a newly barbarous world.

In Strange New World, three astronauts aboard the space laboratory PAX -- Captain Anthony Vico (John Saxon), navigator Allison Crowley (Kathleen Miller), and Dr. Scott (Keene Curtis) -- are awakened from hibernation after 180 years (in the year 2173) only to learn that Earth has faced a terrible holocaust.

Swarms of meteorites destroyed whole portions of the planet surface at the end of the 20th century, virtually ending human civilization.  Intriguingly, this calamity makes Strange New World the only one of the three pilots not to feature the element of man destroying himself in a nuclear war.  Here, the cosmos are to blame for our troubles.

Returning to Earth and roaming the country side in a vehicle called a "Vesta Explorer," the three astronauts attempt to home-in on a Pax "recall" signal which will lead them to the underground cave where their loved ones await, all trapped in hibernation.  Their first mission in this "strange new world" is to wake-up their fellow PAX-ers from "an endless sleep."

In the first portion of this Robert Butler-directed pilot, following a heavy-handed voice over narration from Saxon, Vico, Crowley and Dr. Scott run afoul of a land called "Eterna" that has apparently conquered death. 

With Saxon's Vico wearing a red toga, and the lush green community grounds all around, plus several athletic young folks in colorful stretchy suits, this portion of the show resembles Boorman's Zardoz (1974), at least superficially. 

There's the sense of a surrounding "dark ages" while inside a protected compound, one group of Eternals (Eternans?) live in a kind of stagnant, unchanging paradise.  The outsider in both situations -- Connery in a loincloth in Zardoz and Saxon in a toga in Strange New World -- represents the change agent.

Very quickly, the PAX astronauts learn that something is rotten in the state of Eterna, namely that a 212-year old surgeon played by James Olson has "conquered" physical death through the creation of clones.

These disposable people serve as organ donors (a la Parts: The Clonus Horror, or The Island).  And some of the clones, known as "Defectives" are even forced to wear masks in public so as not to offend good taste.

Unfortunately, the self-same surgeon has not come up with a cure for senility, and is rapidly losing his mind.  His ultimate plan is to have Dr. Scott replace him as leader of Eterna, but Scott rebels when he learns that the surgeon plans to drain all of Vico and Alison's blood to boost the immunity of Eterna's denizens.

In Strange New World's second tale, the triumvirate of Vico, Scott and Crowley encounters a lingering war between descendants of Federal wild-life rangers and criminal poachers in what remains of a nature preserve.

The poachers get their hands on Vico's deadly flare gun, which unsettles the balance of power, and Vico and Scott must interfere in a battle not their own to save the day. 

In the end, Vico recommends the rangers alter their culture to incorporate the poachers.  The rangers, who live by the ancient "Code of Fish and Wild Life" manual realize that the book's words were "written for a different time," and must be updated to meet the challenges of today, not the past.

For many years, Strange New World has been considered the worst of the three Genesis II-styled pilots from the mind of Roddenberry.

In large part, this judgment may arise because PAX plays the smallest role in the action here. The idea inherent in Genesis II, Planet Earth and Strange New World is that the Earth is destroyed...but that man can -- through his auspices of decency, science, technology and morality -- rebuild it. 

In other words, there's the optimism of Star Trek present in the concept, but it's tempered (dramatically) by the fact that a new dark ages comes before man's ascent to the maturity (and the stars?).

That idea is more cogently conveyed in Genesis II and Planet Earth, both of which showcase a functioning PAX organization in the future of the New Dark Ages, one replete with Trekkian-like uniforms, ethnically-diverse members, and high-tech equipment.

All of that is missing in Strange New World: It's basically just three astronauts (in grimy outfits, no less), roaming around in a boxy RV, looking for signs of life.  The optimism factor is largely absent.  PAX is a relic of the past, absent in the present, and only a vague hope for the future.

There's also far less humor and overt sex appeal in Strange New World than in either of its predecessors.

The pilot sets one story in an antiseptic advanced culture (Eterna) and one in a desperate primitive culture, and there's an inherent darkness in both realms.  Vico and his friends leave Eterna with all the citizens dead, a questionable decision, if you think about the nature of a post-apocalyptic world.  It's one thing to dislike and disapprove of an immoral culture.  It's another thing to annihilate it -- and all its inhabitants -- when it is the only game in town. 

And yet, again, the Eterna interlude feels very much of the style of the Planet of the Apes films of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as the aforementioned Zardoz

This is a dark, dystopian future, perhaps more out-of-synch with the Roddenberry aesthetic than either previous pilot. 

The second tale in Strange New World is actually slightly more optimistic. It does breach a rapprochement between rangers and poachers, but it's also kind of dark and gritty.  The photography in this portion of the film is particularly strong: Strange New World looks authentically like a feature film.  But it feels only intermittently Roddenberry-ian, to coin a phrase.

There's also no doubt that Strange New World pointed to a central trope or convention of 1970s cult television and film: the post-apocalyptic road trip in an RV. 

TV series such as Ark II (1975), Logan's Run (1977) and films such as Damnation Alley (1977) all featured heroes broaching new, strange cultures each week in nifty, futuristic vehicles.  The Vesta Explorer seen here is a pretty cool ride though it receives relatively little screen time.

Of the three Genesis II-styled TV pilots, I actually admire Planet Earth (the second attempt) the most.  Saxon is a more charismatic lead than Alex Cord (from Genesis II) was, and that pilot (Planet Earth) has more sex appeal, more humor, more color and more Star Trekkian optimism than either Genesis II or Strange New World

The touches I like most in Strange New World are almost throwaway ones. You'll notice, for instance, that Allison wears a wedding ring and makes brief mention of her lost husband and interesting character touch that might have proven valuable in continuing stories.  What if Vico and Allison fell in love? 

Also, Keene Curtis is very good as Dr. Scott here, at first tempted by the medical knowledge available in Eterna and then, in the second story, willing to settle down, to "slow down" and "start living."

There's every possibility that had Strange New World gone to series that these two supporting characters would have made very interesting counterpoints to Saxon's heroic but dour Vico.  Would they have lost the passion for their mission, and just wanted to settle down somewhere?

It's always fun, as a fan of Star Trek, to gaze at the ideas in Strange New World and consider how they have played out in early and later Trek incarnations.

The second story in Strange New World, the one involving the Poachers, plays like a more cynical, less optimistic version of "The Omega Glory."

There, technological "parallel" cultures had descended into barbarism, but the "Yangs" still spoke the "worship" words of the U.S. Constitution!  Here, of course, the wildlife manual provides the words of importance, but the idea is the same.

And the story in Eterna -- with clones suffering from the equivalent replicative fading -- very much points to the second season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Up the Long Ladder."

The special effects and sets in Strange New World are all serviceable, as are the performances.  There's no denying that the program is a serious effort, and -- with a little fine tuning -- would have made a good series.  Too bad it didn't get the chance to expand upon all the potential.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves. Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that's not who we are...

Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), in Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013).

I now understand that the thing which really primed me to enjoy and appreciate Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) was..Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013).

I screened that movie adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel on opening day in the summer of '13, and was blown away by how relevant, experiential, and intimate the director had made the familiar material. 

Although I love and admire the original book, there can be little doubt that the legions of high school students reading it right now find it a chore, or worse: a “dead text.”  

But negative reviews be damned, Luhrmann revitalized Gatsby and made it live and breathe for modern audiences.  Rap music, 3-D photography, and other contemporary stylistic touches rendered it entirely of the moment, and will open up an understanding of Fitzgerald’s work for generations yet to come. 

For example, Luhrmann’s modernization of the work permits viewers to understand that the American Dream hasn’t changed much hanged in ninety years -- nor has Wall Street --  and thus help us to identify with Nick and Gatsby in a way that a traditional period piece simply would not.

Well, Star Trek lives again too, and in very much the same fashion I describe above, thanks to the efforts of J.J. Abrams and Into Darkness.

Although it may be sacrilege to say so in some circles, there are probably folks who would also consider Star Trek a “dead text” at this point. 

The franchise began almost fifty years ago, and the milieu which gave rise to it -- Kennedy’s Camelot -- began and ended before I was even born.

However, in ways large and small, epic and intimate, Star Trek: Into Darkness breathes fresh life into the franchise, and makes it relevant to today’s world.   

Although the narrative concerns the future of the 23rd century, the movie is really about today -- the world around us -- and its message is transmitted in the way that contemporary audiences can best receive it:  in 3-D, with lots of lens flare, and in J.J.’s preferred mode of expression: pastiche.

The film’s story is not -- as I had feared and fretted -- all about a revenge-mad terrorist armed with a weapon of a mass destruction, but rather about the ways that heroes respond to acts of terror, and fear. 

In short, Into Darkness is a spell-binding, thrill-a-minute film that accomplishes the one thing that the 2009 reboot did not, and which I desired to see more than anything else in a sequel.  Star Trek: Into Darkness restores the Gene Roddenberry franchise as a vehicle for social commentary by noting that the bad guys win when we go “dark” in response to bad deeds.  

Accordingly, the film plays as a recap of the difficult "War on Terror" years since 2001, years in which America condoned torture, holds suspects in perpetuity without trial, launched a pre-emptive war, and has relied on advanced, push-button technology to destroy enemies from afar, in violation of law and perhaps morality.  Into Darkness is about who we have let ourselves become…all out of irrational, overwhelming fear and anger.

But, as Star Trek has long suggested, the best way to battle darkness is to bring it into the light…to expose it for what it is.  To my delight, this J.J. Abrams film understands and transmits that notion in a fashion that a dozen interchangeably “dark” superhero movies simply do not.  Kirk in this movie is angry about his loss and looking for vengeance, but because of his friendship with Spock, Scotty, and others, he is soon able to see that revenge cannot be the quality that defines him.  He's better than that.  

We should be better than that too.

The purists will complain -- just as they complain over Gatsby, and just as they complained when The Next Generation first premiered in 1987 -- but in their stubborn refusal to accept the passage of time and embrace modern audience appetites and movie techniques, these folks will also miss out on the best and most relevant Star Trek movie in possibly thirty years.

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

In Star Trek: Into Darkness, the U.S.S. Enterprise under command of James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) undertakes an unauthorized mission on the inhabited world Nibiru. 

In contravention of the Prime Directive, Kirk and his crew, including the half-Vulcan first officer, Spock (Zachary Quinto) attempt to save the primitive inhabitants from extinction by volcanic eruption.   The mission to quiet the eruption is a success, but with qualifiers.  The natives, for instance, see the Enterprise in their sky, and begin the worship of it as a God…

Upon return to Earth and Starfleet, Kirk is called on the carpet by his superior at Starfleet Command, Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood), for his actions on Nibiru. Those incidents were reported by Spock, who Kirk saved from certain death on the planet.  Spock believes Kirk should not have violated Starfleet Regulations, while Kirk believes that Spock should have trusted him.

Meanwhile, the shadowy John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) -- an agent for the secretive security branch of Starfleet called Section 31 -- goes rogue and launches two terrorist attacks against his former superiors.  He destroys an archive in London, and attacks command personnel in San Francisco. 

Captain Kirk requests permission to pursue the terrorist to the end of the galaxy if need be, and in that quest is provided a new, highly-advanced weapon by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller): 72 highly-advanced stealth torpedoes. 

Marcus orders Kirk to go to the edge of the neutral zone near Klingon space, where he is to fire the torpedoes from a safe distance at an uninhabited province on the alien home world of Kronos.  There, intelligence suggests, Harrison is believed to be hiding.   

Spock objects to a kill order for a man who has not even stood trial for his crimes, and Scotty (Simon Pegg) resigns his commission rather than take aboard 72 weapons of unknown origin that could damage the Enterprise.

Upon reaching the neutral zone, Kirk reconsiders his orders, and takes a team down to Kronos to arrest and bring back Harrison.  

This act which enrages Admiral Marcus, and opens up a world of secrets involving Section 31, the true identity of Harrison, possible war with the Klingons, and the existence of the first battleship in Star Fleet history…`

“I surrendered to you because, despite your attempt to convince me otherwise, you seem to have a conscience, Mr. Kirk.”

One important thing to understand about Into Darkness is that it is indeed the victim of a terribly generic marketing campaign. 

Previews and trailers stress a mad man, acts of terrorism, and even the dreadful line “I will have my vengeance,” which -- if memory serves -- does not appear in the film.

As I described in my post, Threading the Needle, the advertisements and posters evoke memories of The Dark Knight (2008) and Iron Man 3 (2013).  

Similarly, the title Into Darkness is also outright dreadful, and a deliberate misnomer.  This is not a film about Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew traveling into darkness, but rather about finding the antidote to the darkness in their lives -- in friendship, for instance -- and staying true to their convictions and beliefs in the process.   

The movie isn’t angst-ridden or broody, or particularly dark for the apparent sake of narrative and thematic “maturity.”  It isn’t a film about ugliness.  Instead, Into Darkness is about finding the best within oneself when times are worst, and that path of light being the key to dispelling encroaching darkness.

In terms of the social commentary, Star Trek’s (2009) destruction of Vulcan is now, clearly, the 9/11 of the franchise and the galvanizing incident behind the plot line of the sequel. Star Trek: Into Darkness follows-up that context, and reveals a Starfleet Command in chaos  and confusion over how to respond to looming threats.

There is a direct, multi-faceted parallel between the years 2001–2013 and the events in the new Trek timeline.  I’ll enumerate as many as I can, for they are legion.

Point 1: The John Harrison/Bin Laden connection

John Harrison, the villain of Into Darkness is a former agent of Section 31, a shadowy covert organization in Starfleet.  He was "awakened" by Admiral Marcus and trained in 23rd century technology and intelligence to help Marcus countenance looming threats such as the Klingon Empire. 

Osama Bin Laden, the late terrorist who struck America on September 11, 2001, is, in some circles, believed to have been trained by the CIA (corollary to Section 31, in Star Trek) to battle the Russians in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen.  

In this case, Harrison also turns against those who trained him, and uses that training and knowledge to strike back at his former masters.

After two devastating terrorist attacks on Starfleet and Earth, in London and San Francisco, Harrison escapes without a trace to an uninhabited province in unfriendly territory.  

Historically-speaking, we know that Bin Laden sought sanctuary in the rough mountain patch separating Pakistan from Afghanistan, particularly the inhospitable landscape of Tora Bora. 

Bin Laden’s proximity to a sovereign country possessing nuclear capability and a population by-and-large hostile to America, became a central issue in tracking him down, and contending with him. 

That precise dynamic plays out in Star Trek Into Darkness as Kirk must negotiate his proximity to the Klingons, and not allow Starfleet to become visibly involved in an incursion into such sovereign territory.  Provoking the Klingons -- like provoking Pakistan -- could mean "all out war."

Finally, John Harrison is called his full-name only once in the film, and though it is abundantly familiar to Star Trek fans, it plays differently in terms of the post-9/11 milieu.  Khan Noonien Singh sounds not entirely unlike Osama Bin Laden.  Three word names, both consisting of apparent Middle Eastern-sounding origin.  This resemblance may seem slight, but played out in this alternate universe timeline, I believe the connection is significant.

Point 2: Photon Torpedoes and Drones

The way to get and destroy Harrison, ostensibly, is by use of new, modified 23rd-century torpedo in Star Trek: Into Darkness

These torpedoes can be fired from a great distance to destroy the terrorist.  As others have written persuasively, this aspect of the Star Trek plot boasts a clear corollary with our continued drone attacks in foreign countries, including Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  This “push-button” war raises questions of morality in both circumstances.  

In neither instance is there a declared state of war, and therefore no permission to launch decapitation strikes deep inside sovereign territory.  

But in both cases there exists the opportunity to kill with impunity, without repercussions, and to do it in such a way as there are no casualties for the “heroes.”  This opportunity tends to make war seem "clean" and "pretty," especially to a detached citizenry.  No pilots endangered, no boots on the ground.  Just death from above, and from a great distance.

Point 3: The Klingons and Iraq

Following Al-Qaeda’s surprise attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, the Bush Administration immediately began conceiving a way to legitimize a war…with Iraq.  

Al-Qaeda was headquartered in Afghanistan and had no links to Iraq or its despotic ruler, Saddam Hussein, and yet the Administration began to lobby for war with that state.

This fact is revealed in Bob Woodward’s text Bush at War, which notes that “Before the attacks, the Pentagon had been working for months on developing a military option for Iraq…Rumsfeld was raising the possibility that they could take advantage of the opportunity offered by the terrorist attacks to go after Saddam immediately.”

In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Admiral Marcus is similarly, unhealthily obsessed with the Klingon Empire and believes that war with the Empire is inevitable.  He is looking ahead to a next, possible enemy, instead of dealing with the enemy that already exists (John Harrison).

Accordingly, Marcus and Section 31 have begun to hyper-militarize Starfleet, and laid the ground-work for a new war against an enemy who has not yet struck.  The U.S.S. Vengeance, a super-battleship, has been secretly commissioned for a war that, as of yet, has not been launched.  

In fact, a torpedo strike into Klingon territory would be just the thing to give Marcus his desired war, wouldn’t it?

And at one point in the film, Marcus yells at Kirk that if war comes, Starfleet needs a decisive man like him making decisions, calling the hard shots.  

In other words, he's the decider

And if Starfleeet dare pick someone else, someone open to facts instead of fear (someone like John  Kerry or Jim Kirk perhaps), you might risk "nuclear mushrooms" over American cities.  

The corollary to the War on Terror Age couldn't be more precise.

Point 4: The Private Soldier

Star Trek: Into Darkness also suggests that because Starfleet boasts clear regulations and orders of conduct that its officers must heed and obey, other, less “principled” soldiers may be required in the event of war with the fight in accordance with Marcus’s cut-throat new principles (learned from Khan?).  

Accordingly, U.S.S. Vengeance is manned with “private” security forces, just as a private security firm, Blackwater operated in Iraq.  

The idea here, roiling under the surface is that Starfleet Regulations -- like the Geneva Conventions -- are "quaint" relics of a bygone time, not to be honored in a time of war-mongering and fear-hysteria.  Good soldiers no better than to break the laws of engagement, but what about hired guns?

Point 5: The Torture Debate

In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Captain Kirk accepts John Harrison’s surrender, and then spends the next minute-and-a-half beating him, attacking his prisoner for his murderous deeds in London and San Francisco.  

But Harrison is stoic, and endures the abuse without pain, or even expression.  Finally, Kirk must stop.  He has achieved absolutely nothing through his display of brutal and primitive violence.  He has not weakened Harrison, and he has not learned anything whatsoever about Harrison’s motives or plans.  

Again, this moment in the film is very clearly a corollary for the on-going debate about the use of torture on “enemy combatants.”  

Notably, Kirk only succeeds in hurting himself -- embarrassing himself, too -- in physically attacking his prisoner, a man in his custody and therefore under his protection.  This brutal physical assault has the effect of making him look weak, not Khan.  

Worse, it makes Kirk lose the moral high ground for a time.  

And again, that’s exactly what happened to America at Abu Ghraib and in covert CIA bases the world over. Instead of living up to our ideals about how to treat prisoners, we sacrificed our ideals out of fear and anger. 

One of the most intriguing aspects of Star Trek: Into Darkness is that its writers show the courage to diverge from our dark recent history in their idealized version of the future. Kirk eventually realizes it is wrong to kill a man from a distance without benefit of a trial.  He hunts down Harrison/Khan and captures him for just such a trial (though we don’t see it).  The best way to deal with terrorists is in the light of day, not in the shadows.

In real life, we know that Bin Laden was hunted down and executed without trial, an act of revenge that in no way illuminates America’s true and hopeful nature as "the shining city on the hill."  The point is that we have to be better than our enemies in our beliefs. That's what attracts allies to America; that's what makes us strong.

Star Trek: Into Darkness thus suggests that the “good guys” win when they remember their true values, not when they descend to the level of barbarian, or give in to passing surges of blood-thirst or vengeance.  

This subtext represents a very Star Trek-kian principle, and I am happy to see it enunciated in an age of such thoughtless violence.  Every other blockbuster movie is about a hero meting revenge for some terrible wrong.  It's nice to see a blockbuster, for a change, where the heroes stop short of vengeance, take a breath, and remember who they are.

The Mirror Crack’d:  Into Darkness as a Pastiche affirming the universality of the Kirk/Spock Bond.

J.J. Abrams’ preferred mode of operation, I would submit -- based on his film career -- is pastiche.  

You can see it clearly in Super 8 (2011), a film that dynamically apes the Spielberg filming style, and uses and adapts elements from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  I have read some complaints by Star Trek fans about the ways that Into Darkness “apes” previous moments in Star Trek history, namely the denouement of The Wrath of Khan (1982).

A pastiche, of course, is an artistic work “in a style” that imitates that of another work or artist.  But I would submit where a film like Nemesis apes the plot-line of The Wrath of Khan, Abrams goes one better with his frequent, post-modern nods to the Trek franchise. 

His Star Trek is set in a different timeline, in an alternate universe (not unlike the Mirror Universe, for instance), so some events actually have legitimate cause to repeat.  History is going to repeat itself, more or less.  And it is in the excavating of that "more" or "less" that Abrams seems to have so much fun. 

The point seems to be that no matter how much the "new" time-line alters the course of cosmic events -- like the destruction of Vulcan -- some events are indeed pre-destined, or pre-determined  Kirk and Spock are meant to join up…in every universe.  And Kirk is meant to be Captain of the Enterprise in all realities too, at least for a time. 

John Harrison/Khan fits this same template of pre-destiny.  

In any universe, Kirk and Khan are going to meet, clash, and he will only be defeated by, in the words of Prime Spock (Leonard Nimoy), "a great personal cost."

The only thing that can defeat this powerful villain, is the combined force -- and friendship -- of Kirk and Spock.  In the canon universe, it is Spock who dies to save the Enterprise.  In Into Darkness, it is Kirk who goes into the warp core to face his own death. 

This is not a blind, empty repetition of Star Trek lore, it is an outright assertion of the importance of the Kirk/Spock relationship, and its value in the face of villainy.  

Those viewers who see Into Darkness as merely ripping-off the Wrath of Khan are missing the point entirely.  Instead, the “mirror” scene of Into Darkness at the reactor core is a beautiful statement about Kirk and Spock’s connection in any reality.  They will always be friends and they will always be willing to sacrifice themselves for their family: the Enterprise crew.  Khan will never win, in any universe, because he lacks the special bond that Kirk and Spock share.

Quite frankly, we could not get to this vision of a friendship that spans universes without Abrams’ penchant for pastiche, without his willingness to appropriate sign-marks and symbols from Trek history and re-purpose them for today's audiences    

The very thing that some Trekkers complain about as a weakness is, in fact, a strength of the film, and also of Abrams’ vision of Star Trek.  He is not repeating what has happened before, he is revealing to us how, in the face of a “mirror” universe, some values such as friendship -- and Starfleet Regulations -- endure.  

With Kirk and Spock together on the Enterprise, the universe shall, more or less,  “unfold as it should.”

This appreciation for Abrams’ modus operandi does not preclude me from criticizing certain aspects of the drama, however.  

Although everyone has bent over backwards to appreciate Benedict Cumberbatch’s villainous performance as Khan, I would suggest his success in the role arises from his own qualities as an actor, and not the writing of the character.  

I recognized him as a strong presence in the frame, in other words, but not as Khan.  I recognize Pine and Quinto and the others as the Enterprise crew, but the writers have brought almost no “old series” signifiers to allow permit long-time viewers to recognize Khan as the same man from “Space Seed” or Wrath of Khan. 

Would it have been too hard to have Cumberbatch quote Milton, or Dante, or Melville, just to remind us old folks he’s the same fellow from Space Seed?   

There is precious little of “Khan” in the writing of the Khan character in Into Darkness, which makes him seem a more generic villain than need be.  It’s a good thing they cast an actor with such strong physical and intellectual presence, but watching the film, I never felt like this Khan was the same man I had met before.  Cumberbatch brings immense focus to the role, but not the larger-than-life theatricality of Montalban.  I missed that aspect of the character, as well as his sense of literacy and history.

I also feel that some of the changes in this time-line are going to cause problems for the writers down the line.  If a man can trans-warp beam from San Francisco to the heart of the Klingon Empire, there is no need for Star Trekking of any kind whatsoever.  

Somehow, future movies will have to address the fact that the transporter device is now a better, more efficient means of travel than starship and warp drive.

But frankly, these are quibbles with a movie that is exciting, emotionally-affecting, funny, and incredibly entertaining.  The social commentary about the post-911 age permits this film to live up to Star Trek’s most noble tradition of being about something more than spaceships and lasers, and J.J. Abrams’ penchant for pastiche transforms the film into a meditation about the depth of the Kirk and Spock bond, no matter the universe, no matter the situation.

So like The Great Gatsby, Star Trek endures, and finds a meaningful place in the pop culture of the 21st century.   I am aware many fans hated.  Those fans should look at themselves in the mirror, and listen a few times, to Kirk's final captain's log, summation.  In that message is the core of the Star Trek ethos.

And again, once more the sky's the limit...the five year mission begins again.  I can't wait to see "what's out there...."