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Monday, 22 July 2013

I'm a doctor, Jim, not a librarian!

A library, with spaceships
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) 

What's it about?
Kirk and Spock battle a genetically-modified Rip van Winkle, a Starfleet conspiracy, and their own sublimated homoerotic desire. Should any two of these threats overcome the USS Enterprise, the United Federation of Planets will descend into paramilitary brigandage, leading to war.

What's it got to do with libraries?
The Library of Alexandria probably wasn't burned down by a mob of intemperate Christians, the original Library of Congress probably wasn't the direct target of British pyromania during the War of 1812, and the recent panic about iconoclasm by Islamist radicals in Timbuktu led to much worrying, but few charred manuscripts. Though many libraries have been victims of war, I can't think of one destroyed by a deliberate act of terrorism. We say that knowledge is power and that our institutions have deep cultural significance. If that were really true, surely more libraries would get blown up by those whose values are antithetical to ours?

A bomb in an archive sets up the action in the latest Start Trek film. Science fiction has often been a vehicle for investigations of knowledge and power. But not here. The explosion merely pushes the plot towards more explosions. Star Trek Into Darkness provides a sequence of interstellar detonations separated by winks, nods, buddy hugs and gratuitous shots of Alice Eve's bosom. Little else.

In film, libraries often disguise something else (see my posts on the British Museum, Batman and The Librarian for examples). The Kelvin Memorial Library hides a subterranean weapons-development facility; visually, a massive cavern full of spaceships. Given that there isn't a two-mile cave underneath London, I suppose we're meant to assume that Starfleet removed a vast quantity of Tertiary Era London Clay at some time. Very cleverly and quickly, so that nobody noticed. Presumably these spaceships go through some kind of testing process too. In space. Taking off from beneath the metropolis. Again without anyone noticing. When you stop to think about it, little in Star Trek Into Darkness makes much sense. The suicide-bombing is carried out by a Starfleet officer to thank a villain who saved the life of his child. Only the anti-intellectualist Quarterback Kirk realizes that it's odd that someone would want to blow up what is nominally a library.

Is it any good?
The destroyed archive is named for the USS Kelvin, the ship on which Kirk was born, shortly before his father died in battle. Relieved of his command, stripped of his rank, Kirk is reborn as a captain in this act of terrorism, which will lead directly to the death of his surrogate father. The heavy layers of psychoanalytic convolution, plot circumlocution, and self-referentiality stopped me from enjoying the spectacle here. The neat shades of grey written for Benedict Cumberbatch are too simplistic to accommodate the actor's abilities. Triangulated between the comic book, the blockbusteringly nonsensical and the postmodernist reinvention, Star Trek Into Darkness falls into a black hole of its own making. Its already feels time for someone to reinvent Star Trek, again.

J.J. Abrams
Written by
Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
Daniel Mindel

Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey

Cast includes Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve

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