One of the things that surprised many viewers of Star Trek Into Darkness is that the film portrayed a less than virtuous Starfleet, something some folks have likened to the series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But Deep Space Nine's portrayal of Starfleet reflects that series' role in the larger Star Trek universe and doesn't belong in the movies—at least not yet.
Yesterday, I linked to a piece about a soon-to-be-released interview with Bob Orci, one of the writers of Star Trek Into Darkness. There were a lot of things about the interview that were bothersome, but I was particularly struck by this line:
"There is a cancer within Starfleet, and it's a story you can pitch without saying anyone's name prior," Orci said.
That crystallized one of the (albeit many) issues I had with Star Trek Into Darkness as a Star Trek film: a sense of the creeping DS9-ification of the new timeline.
Now I love the grimmer side of Star Trek. If you ask you ask me what my favorite piece of Star Trek media is, I will answer Deep Space Nine without hesitation. I love the characters, the futuristic war stories, the tales of horrific biological engineering. And yes, I love that it portrays a Starfleet and a humanity that are far from perfect.
But what makes Deep Space Nine something greater than it would be as a standalone show, what makes it great Star Trek, is that it stands as a counterpoint to the TV shows and movies that came before it. The original Star Trek and The Next Generation both gave us a clear idea of what Starfleet was: interested in exploring the universe, morally upright, filled with people who were intellectually curious and introspective. Sure, there were dissenters and bad apples even in the Starfleet of the original Star Trek films and The Next Generation, but they were portrayed as the exception, not a cancer. This was a humanity we could aspire to, a humanity that could go toe-to-toe with the Q and joined with a Federation whose name was practically a byword for virtue.
Deep Space Nine called into question this human exceptionalism. "Well, it's easy to be a saint in paradise," Benjamin Sisko says in the second season. Deep Space Nine takes the world of Star Trek and expands it into a universe, asking "What is it really like to live in a Federation outpost?" It showed the Federation at war, not from the relative comfort of a starship, where skirmishes are the norm, but closer to the front during a persistent, devastating war. And it gave the Federation bigger warts, warts that were harder to ignore. The lauded diplomacy and problem-solving of The Next Generation couldn't help the Maquis, colonists who revolted after their homes were ceded to the Cardassians. The revelation of the secretive Section 31—which appears in Star Trek Into Darkness—was chilling, even after viewers had grown accustomed to DS9's grittier Star Trek. Deep Space Nine was about the price of paradise, and it succeeds in large part because we as viewers already knew what paradise looked like.
Yes, Star Trek Into Darkness follows a grand tradition of—as commenter LongCorpse appropriately put it—admirals going off the reservation. And Section 31 pops up in the TV show Enterprise, so certainly it exists in the timeline of the new Star Trek films. But we know so little about the state of Starfleet and the Federation at this point in time and in this timeline, that it feels like, with STID, J.J. Abrams and crew slapped a goatee on the new Star Trek films and simply declared that this is the darkest timeline. (And hey, that's what the "Mirror, Mirror" universe is for.) But what's the point of hauling the franchise's biggest skeletons from the closet before you've even shown us what the rest of the house looks like?
We've already written a lot about the unearned fan moments referencing The Wrath of Khan in STID, but the tale of villainous admiral and the abuses of Section 31 feels like an unearned storytelling moment. When it became clear that the new Star Trek films were happening in a different timeline, I thought it was a brilliant move, a chance to tell stories with these characters unhampered by canon. And sure, it could include more realism, stories told with the aid of bigger and better special effects, with an eye toward exposing the flaws in the Federation. Instead, the second film radically altered the nature of Starfleet—at the hands of Alexander Marcus, who is the head of Starfleet—and made that the focus of its story.
But Lauren, you say, the new timeline is still reeling from an immense cataclysm, the destruction of Vulcan. Isn't it natural that this would radically alter the politics of Starfleet? Sure, but if we're still sitting in a Star Trek universe, Star Trek Into Darkness had a different job to do: show us how the destruction of Vulcan impacted the Federation and Starfleet in particular.
STID wants to have it both ways. It wants to rely on our knowledge of the Star Trek media that came before—including our understanding that Starfleet is a largely virtuous enterprise—while chucking the rules of its universe out the window. In turning an ugly mirror on Starfleet, Deep Space Nine rests comfortably on the backs of the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, but, though it can draw from Enterprise, the new movies have no such luxury. Consequently, STID feels like it took an enormous shortcut through the Star Trek universe, not to tell a darker Star Trek story, but to tell a dark story that happened to feature elements of Star Trek.
We shouldn't look to Deep Space Nine and assume that its stories were great merely because they were dark. They were great because they were Star Trek stories that explored the darker elements of the universe. They were written by people who clearly had a lot of affection for the universe, but also recognized the deep problems in the earlier series. The task of the new timeline is to rebuild the universe, but with an understanding of what happened in the previous timeline.
J.J. Abrams confirmed earlier this week that he won't be directing the next Star Trek movie. If we do get another film in this new timeline, I implore the next director: If you want to tell a darker, grittier story with Star Trek, go head and have a blast. But if you want to present the darker side of Starfleet, please be sure that you've earned those story moments first.