Note: this article contains major spoilers for the Star Trek movies and minor spoilers for Prometheus. You might thank me, but just in case you want to discover them for yourselves, read carefully.
Ulysses is the worst book ever written.
There, that got your attention didn’t it? In saying that, I don’t mean that Ulysses is a bad book or even not a great one. What I mean is that it is one of the worst books every written because it is opaque, difficult and complex. It is unapproachable for most readers. This would be fine as far as Ulysses goes but its difficult style has persuaded many writers — and many critics — that being opaque, difficult and complex constitutes genius. So truly awful works like Gravity’s Rainbow are assumed to be brilliant because they are incomprehensible. The logic seems to be that a book that bad must be brilliant.
The Problem of the Mystery Box
In the last few years, I have noticed this aesthetic bleeding into science fiction. There are and more science fiction films and TV programs, including mainstream ones, that make no damn sense at all. Defenders of these movies and TV shows see their incomprehensibility as a sign of their brilliance. But I see them as a sign of lazy writing.
Take Lost, for example. I never watched it, but many people vented frustration because its plot wasn’t understandable. In fact, JJ Abrams has boasted about this with his routine about how wondering what’s in a mystery box is better than finding out what’s in the box. Battlestar Galactica, which I did watch, followed the same pattern. In the end, a shaky arc emerged but there were tons of red herrings and contradictions on the way.
Both series were proclaimed as brilliant. But I think this has less to do with actual brilliance than in mistaking incoherence and lack of planning for brilliance. Contrast them against, say, Babylon 5, which had a lot of mystery and intrigue but, in the end, holds together pretty well. Having watched the series multiple times, I can see how ideas are put in place years in advance, how everything is relevant to the plot and how, ultimately, it all makes sense. The reason it does is because Stracyzinski, unlike creators of Lost and BSG, was not just throwing random mystery events on the screen and then, toward the end, trying desperately to reconcile them. He had written out the plot in advance on 3×5 cards. He knew exactly what was going to happen so that events in Season 1 were directly related to revelations in Season 4.
And that’s the key difference. One series had a complex labyrinthine plot that was in view from the start. The others were put together by writers doing random things and pretending like it made them smart. In BSG, for example, the writers didn’t know who the Final Five Cylons were until Series 3 and practically drew names out of a hat. The Lost writers admitted they didn’t have a series bible and that the early days especially had random bits thrown out that they eventually dropped.
I’ve heard, but can not confirm, that several recent sci-fi series like Fringe, Terra Nova, Under the Dome and Revolution are even worse. In these cases, however, it seems more like plain bad writing than ham-fisted attempts at “mystery”. According to the online criticisms I’ve read, the series’ contradict themselves routinely even when the plot is straight-forward. However, this may be an offshoot of the aesthetic built by Lost, BSG and later seasons of 24 of doing a series with a running arc but no bible or advanced planning.
It’s fine to have a mystery box. It’s even fine to not necessarily reveal what’s in it. What is not OK is for the writers to not have an idea of what’s in the mystery box. Because instead of having plot developments that hint consistently at what’s in there, you end up with a maddening collection of red herrings that lead nowhere. You end up with a muddled plot that contradicts itself and punishes rather than rewards the attentive viewer.
Moving to film, a recent example of this trend toward incoherence is Prometheus. The early scripts made sense. But the version on the screen doesn’t. To cite Franklin Harris again:
Unfortunately, it isn’t just that “Prometheus” is ambiguous, which can be a virtue, but that it doesn’t seem to know where it’s going with any of its ideas. And when it comes down to the basic stuff, it fails miserably.
Can anyone tell me what the plot of Prometheus was? Can anyone say, for certain, that there actually was something in the mystery box?
Character as the Source of Drama
A good plot emerges naturally from the responses of characters to a situation. A bad plot emerges when you decide in advance what you want to do and twist the characters to follow those points. Lost and BSG, despite their narrative problems, at least had reasonable characters. But there is an even lower tier of sci-fi these days that combines an incoherent plot with idiotic or inconsistent characters.
Back to Prometheus. The characters in the movie frequently do nonsensical things because the plot, such as it is, requires them to. A character previously scared of the situation takes off his helmet and approaches a menacing tentacle. Why? So it can attack him. A pilot who could care less for one of the characters effectively commits suicide at her urging. Why? So the ship can be destroyed. Hell, the Star Wars prequels had more consistent characterization than this.
Kurt Vonnegut said that in a good story every character should want something, even if it’s a glass of water. In Prometheus, what do people want? What are their motivations? What drives them? A few of the characters have clear motivations, but the plot turns on characters whose motives are opaque if they exist at all. Say what you want about Abrams’ mystery box, at least he wasn’t putting the characters in there.
It’s fine to make a character morally ambiguous or to make his motivations somewhat opaque. One of the best characters in TV science fiction was Kerr Avon of Blake’s 7. Avon claims to be entirely motivated by self-interest, wanting to be safe, rich and secure. But over the course of the series, his actions often betray his self-proclaimed motives. He risks himself, even sacrifices himself for others. In my opinion, his cynical self-interest is who he wishes he were. He sees the idealism in others and finds it childish and even, in the case of Blake, fanatical. But he can’t quite be that selfish person he wishes he were.
But the thing about Avon is that he remains a compelling character even though his motives are unclear. Unlike the characters in Prometheus, he actually has motives besides advancing the plot. There is something he wants. There are reasons behind the things he does. He is consistent in his actions, even if his actions are not always consistent with his words. He doesn’t abandon the crew to death in one episode and then take on a full squad of Federation troops in the next because the plot says so. If Avon is a mystery box at least there’s something inside it, even if we never find out what it is.
The motivations of Hal 9000 in 2001 are opaque. But there is clearly some reason behind them, even if it is not explained until the next movie (or in the book). If 2001 were made today, Hal would kill some people, spare others, pilot the ship to Mars, send laser beams down the hallway and no explanation for any of it would be given or even possible. Defenders would say, “well, he was a crazy computer”. He was, but even crazy computers act in certain ways. And once we find out what drove Hal mad, his actions make sense.
In a recent post, I talked about conspiracy theories. I noted that the difference between a real conspiracy theory and bogus one is that real conspiracies tend to be pretty straight forward (“let’s kill Hitler”), even if the mechanics of them sometimes become complex. Fake conspiracy theories are like Rube Goldberg engines because they are not built up from ideas (“let’s assassinate JFK”) but from perceived holes in the conventional explanations (“a magic bullet”).
The problem with some of the worst science fiction plots these days is that they tend to devolve into Rube Goldberg engines for the same reason. No one lays out the plot in advance and thinks about how Character X would accomplish Goal Y given situation Z. They decide they want to have events A, B, C and D happen and so wrap the characters around that. They then proclaim that we’re too simple to understand the complex plot. Maybe this is the result of our paranoid times: the X-Files‘ absurd plot was born from Watergate paranoia. It was never intended to make sense but to reflect vague conspiracy theories. But for most science fiction, it makes no damn sense. (And the X-Files has well-developed characters with clear motives even if the overall plot was nonsense.)
Star Trek: Spoiler Warning
What brought this post up — and perhaps it’s because I care about it so much — was the recent Trek films. While I liked them, I was ultimately disappointed because it seemed like they were built less around character than around set pieces and action sequences. This is a big letdown for a series that was always built around character.
For example: in the first movie, one of the most problematic sequences occurs after the destruction of Vulcan. Spock throws Kirk off the ship, Kirk runs into Spoke Prime on Delta Vega, they then run into Scotty and then transwarp beam back to the Enterprise.
The number of coincidences and plot contrivances in that portion are staggering. That’s because the script isn’t trying to make sense or be consistent with anyone’s character; it’s trying to gin up a bogus conflict between Kirk and Spock, get the action beat of the monster on the moon, get a meeting with Spock Prime and drag Scotty in. It is entirely a plot contrivance that emerges from the bizarre decision of Spock to not put Kirk in the brig but to abandon him on a dangerous icy planet (I’m thinking that would be called attempted murder in Star Fleet regs).
Here’s an alternative off the top of my head that would have accomplished the same thing. While the Enterprise is being repaired, Spock works on rescuing survivors. Among the survivors is a young engineer’s mate Montgomery Scott, who is put to work since Enterprise lost so many engineers in the battle. Spock prioritizes restoring subspace communications to warn Star Fleet while Scotty is given the lesser task of repairing the warp engines. Hearing that the Nerada visited Vulcan’s moon, he sends Kirk to investigate. Kirk finds Spock Prime, who advises him that Spock II is compromised and can not properly command the Enterprise. He also advises him to promote promising young Enterprise personnel such as Ensign Chekov. Returning to the Enterprise, Kirk relieves Spock. When Scotty works a miracle and restores the engines, he sets off in pursuit of the Nerada and also to get close enough to Earth to warn them by normal communications.
Yeah, that’s not a great plot either. But it’s built around the characters taking logical actions to deal with the situation. I didn’t start out with “we want to put in a cool CGI monster because it’s been ten minutes since we had an action beat.” But you could still put a CGI monster in there if that’s your kink.
Star Trek has other problems: the complete lack of any planetary defense on Earth or Vulcan, Nero’s failure to warn Romulus of the coming supernova (something their astrophysicists could check out), the movie not being entirely clear on the distance scales of star systems and planets. But, overall, it holds together OK. Most of the characters are reasonably defined. I was hoping that in movie 2, Abrams would iron out those problems.
I was wrong. Star Trek: Into Darkness is worse when it comes to storytelling. In STID, Admiral Marcus decides he wants to militarize the federation, start a war with the Klingons and conquer the Galaxy. This sort of thing has historical precedent. The path that most warmongers have chosen would be to ramp up paranoia and militarism through propaganda and staged Reichstag fire incidents. Once the buildup is ready, they stage a full-blown military incident on the border of Klingon space to start the war. One way this could play out in film: the Enterprise crew, stationed on the border of Klingon space, finds the lies behind the propaganda thanks to their Klingon-speaking communications officer. This could lead to a huge battle between militaristic forces on both sides and those who want peace (sort of like Star Trek VI did). You could even end it on a cliffhanger, if you wanted, with the Enterprise crew and a few peace-wanting allies as renegades as the two empires move toward war, then resolve that in movie 3. And how beautifully ironic it would be if the ultimate upshot of Nero’s interference in Movie 1 was to bring about peace and understanding between humans and Klingons decades sooner.
Something like that might have been a great Trek movie. Indeed, you can see the outlines of it in the actual film. Or they could have gone in a different direction. They could have left the Klingons out, kept Khan in and made it about eugenics. Or we could have had a totally unrelated adventure. Or we could have had Gary Mitchell.
But no. We didn’t get anything like that. Abrams decided we need to have Khan and we needed to kill Pike and we needed to involve the Klingons and we needed to have the Enterprise badly damaged in an attack. And so we get a Rube Goldberg engine: the Admiral revives Khan (and only Khan), puts him to work building new weapons (because there are no geniuses in the 23rd century), has Khan stage a couple of attacks (maybe; it’s not clear if Khan is still following his orders) then retreat to Klingon space. He then wants the Enterprise to fire 72 torpedoes filled with Khan’s people to wipe them all out (because simply firing them into the Sun or turning off their cyro units would be conspicuous?) and then sabotages the Enterprise so it will be destroyed by the Klingons. Then he shows up in the Vengeance to destroy the Enterprise and claim the Klingons did it (there being no black boxes in the 23rd century).
None of those complications were necessary. None of them make any sense. He doesn’t need Khan to build advanced weapons; Star Fleet has massive troves of engineers, many of whom might be sympathetic to his cause. He doesn’t need Khan to blow up buildings AND flee to Klingon space AND have the Enterprise get destroyed by the Klingons AND send the Vengeance to destroy it. Marcus has a transwarp beaming device. He could transport a bomb to Khan’s location, transport Khan’s people into the Sun and then stage a military incident on any ship near Klingon space. His Rube Goldberg plan doesn’t make him look like a chessmaster; it make him look like an idiot. Pick one conspiracy and stick with it.
And what are Khan’s motivations in all this? Is he helping Marcus? If so, why does he try to kill him? If not, why does he flee to Kronos? Because he was hoping that Kirk would show up with the 72 torpedoes with his people in them and drag the Vengeance along for the ride? That’s not Khan being a genius; that’s Khan being a plot device.
In the climax, the Enterprise and the Vengeance are duking it out over Earth. Does no one notice? Does no one say, “Hey, the flagship of the fleet is getting the shit kicked out of it by a mystery ship. Should we, you know, ask them what’s going on?”
There were moments when I thought this movie was going to go to interesting places. One, pointed out by my brother, was when Kirk asks why anyone would blow up Star Fleet’s records. But instead of following on that, we get an attack by Khan in a helicopter (Starfleet security is apparently terrible). Another was when Uhura confronts the Klingons on their planet. In a previous Trek iteration, she would have talked them into helping. It would have been a shining moment for her. But no, she needs to fail so we can get a stupid action sequence of Khan taking out an entire fleet with a cannon.
I liked Abrams’ Trek movies but that was mainly in spite of themselves. When the movies focus on character and intrigue, they are good. But that doesn’t happen nearly often enough (especially in the second movie). For all Abrams’ talk about character building, intrigue, mystery boxes and how you don’t don’t need the best special effects for a good scene, STID is just another bang-up film in a Star Trek template. It has its moments; but not enough. I liked it; I wanted to love it.
All is not lost, of course. We are in an unfortunate era dominated by people who savor “mystery” over coherence and plot contrivances over character. If you look past the glamor franchises, you will see better things: Inception, Gravity, Children of Men, WALL-E, Moon, District 9, Cloud Atlas. Hell, even The Hunger Games and Avatar are better than some of the recent crap. Her looks intriguing.
So there is hope. You just have to look past the shadowy remnant calling itself Star Trek.