This article attempts to avoid direct Star Trek Into Darkness spoilers. However, due to its discussion of the film, it’s obviously best to see the movie if you’re one of those people that dislike spoilers. River Song perhaps.
Last month the latest movie in the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Into Darkness, premiered in cinemas and was greeted by the expected level of nerd fanfare. While the film is very successful in repurposing the standard futuristic-action-movie formula (faithfully adorned with a warp-core here and a Vulcan there to differentiate it from a Transformers movie) director J.J. Abrams has come under fire from longtime fans of the series for seemingly abandoning the principles of equality, diversity and philosophy that the original series aimed to embody.
From choosing to cast Benedict Cumberbatch, the whiter-than-white-isn’t-that-man-a-bedsheet Sherlock lead, as one of the franchise’s most iconic non-white characters to rather shamelessly lifting significant plot chunks of previous Trek movies, swapping around the character roles and branding it ‘nostalgic’, Into Darkness has some major narrative and casting issues hampering its attempt to be a brilliant movie. Which is a shame.
However Into Darkness‘s depiction of women may be the film’s biggest indiscretion against Trek philosophy as Abrams’ portrayal of feminist agency within the 23rd century feels more like something from the dark ages. While 2009’s Star Trek reboot may have elevated the centrality of Lt. Uhura within the ensemble dynamic of the Enterprise crew, it simultaneously ignored many opportunities to include further female characters within the newly realised universe. Classic Trek characters such as Nurse Chapel, Janice Rand and the fleeting but inherently promising Number One were all expunged from this new Trek narrative, while the Enterprise’s original commanding officer, Captain Pike, was installed as a central father figure for Kirk. The fact that Pike’s character was principally reinstated within Abrams’ universe, at the expense of other more established female characters who featured beyond a single flashback episode, is indicative of the new Star Trek‘s obsession with the exploration of the straight, white male figure at the expense of alternative identities.
So far, so sausage party. And while Into Darkness offered the opportunity to rectify this at least in part, what instead happened was this:
Yes, that is a woman in her underwear.
When a character as resilient, confident and intelligent as applied-physicist Dr. Marcus can only earn her place in a science-fiction film by parading around in her underwear, the ethics of direction must be called into question. The fact that Abrams was clearly so desperate to bear lady-flesh on screen is woefully apparent from the half-arsed narrative construct engineered to get Alice Eve half-naked: Dr. Marcus intends to defuse a mysterious torpedo aboard the Enterprise and so must change out of her standard uniform. (I presume it must have clashed with the torpedo casing.) As she begins to undress, Marcus instructs Captain Kirk (her direct commanding officer) to avert his eyes but Kirk naturally ignores this request and he (and the audience) enjoys a lingering view of modern feminism being thrown out the proverbial airlock. The whole issue has been bandied about extensively by this point. The film’s writer has actively apologised for the scene, labelling it ‘gratuitous’, and there’s been several excellent analyses of the film’s overall treatment of both gender and wider Trek ideology that eagerly rip the entire thing to pieces.
While I’m all for the media/long-time fans/general cinema-goers/those-with-brains actively sticking the boot in to patriarchal crap such as Into Darkness‘s first contact with Planet Boob, the grim reality is that the visual objectification of women within mainstream cinema is hardly anything new. The reason why people are up in arms about Dr. Marcus being pointlessly exposed in the hopes of giving some unwashed 14-year-old boys a pleasant moment to enjoy in the shower is because Star Trek isn’t just another colour-by-numbers dumbass movie with guns, robots and explosions, it’s Star Trek. For a franchise that brought people of different genders and ethnicities together for the very first time on television, in a time of racial tension even in the Western world, was an act of powerful revolution and change; a legacy that the series continued on throughout the first 35+ years of its history. From Star Trek: The Original Series to Star Trek: Voyager, women of all sexualities, mentalities and ethnicities have featured proudly and prominently and brought intelligent, complex and empowered female characters to the forefront of science fiction.
To jump from Voyager, a television show featuring a female captain in the central role as well as several other intelligent, resilient female figures that took great pleasure in annihilating the Bechdel Test on a weekly basis to Abrams’ Trek is soul-destroying for me. From Captain Janeway to Seven of Nine, key women of Star Trek shaped my views of feminism, equality and self-empowerment from an incredibly young age and motivated me to view others equally and to, in time, accept myself. It’s an age that feels painfully disconnected from this new version of Trek in which, to quote an Into Darkness crew member, ‘Last time, Zoe needed to wear underwear, and this time it was Alice Eve’s turn. You know, it’s a rather large male fanbase, and JJ wanted to appeal to that.’
The most troubling word in that entire sentence is ‘needed’, the suggestion that even in a utopian setting women cannot function in a serious context as equals without bringing their overwrought sexuality along for the space ride. It makes you wonder whether previous incarnations of Star Trek really did enact any form of social change, when female characters are body first and brains significantly after in the 21st century.
For a lot of fans Star Trek resonates far beyond merely a television show, it paved the way for new ways of thinking about cultural identity and the world we live in. While previous iterations of Trek may not have been without their faults, their intentions were always aimed towards equality, inclusion and exploration of the self as a constantly evolving cultural notion. While the characters may feel nostalgic and the effects shinier than ever before, if Into Darkness is where we must ‘boldly go’ then I think I’d prefer to stay in the light.