Headturning Moments in Star Trek Into Darkness

Warning: Spoilers for Into Darkness

In The Science Fiction Reboot, I describe the experience of what I call the “headturning moment” as “a reaction generated by a scene, snippet of dialogue, or some other cinematic feature that causes audience members to turn to their neighbors and comment (usually) quietly. This is best observed from the back of a movie theater, as the shadowed heads seem to move in unison.”

I first noticed these moments in 1997, during an opening-night (of course) showing of the Special Edition of Star Wars: A New Hope. Every time something new or different appeared on the screen, I watched the heads of those in front of me turn to the side (and since I always prefer to sit toward the back of a theater, especially with stadium seating, I had a great view of this). It occurred to me that even someone who had never seen the original Star Wars (if there is such a person) would know just from the audience reactions which elements were different in this new edition.

That observation rattled around in my head for years until I finally found a way to weave it into my academic work. In fact, the headturning moment was one of the early keys to “breaking” the analysis that would eventually become The Science Fiction Reboot. Even those reboots that don’t occur on the big screen (like Battlestar Galactica and V) have their own equivalent: the text messages sent during shows and online live fan discussion board chats.

When it comes to such moments in the 2009 Star Trek, though, I didn’t identify quite as many in Reboot as I would have thought. One remarkable example, of course, is the “redshirt” moment early in the film where we have no doubt about Engineer Olsen’s fate when he appears in a red spacejump suit. Overall, though, the second film in the Star Trek reboot, this year’s Into Darkness, was full of headturning moments. And this time, I observed them not only by watching those in front of me but also out of the corner of my eye, as my companions for that screening were fans on the lookout for just such moments.

Before I saw the film, I had diligently avoided spoilers and so had three theories of how the reboot was going to tweak the original Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Kahn:

  1. Kirk was going to sacrifice himself instead of Spock (but I didn’t know how they were going to revive him);
  2. Spock would repeat his sacrifice (but, again, with the destruction of Vulcan, I had no idea how he would be resurrected); and
  3. Spock Prime would intervene and sacrifice himself, representing a permanent break from the original timeline.

Those who have seen the movie know that my first theory was correct, and that Kahn’s “super-blood” was the unanticipated (for me anyway) solution to reviving Kirk. And I was fine with that. I had a feeling, from the opening scenes where Kahn uses his blood to save a little girl in exchange for her father (a Starfleet officer) blowing up the Kelvin Memorial Archive, that something similar would happen at the end to save Kirk. But even though I saw it coming, I still enjoyed the movie tremendously.

And that early “event” (in narratology terms) was the second headturning moment of the film. I’ve listed, in order of appearance, five others that seemed significant in Star Trek Into Darkness as well as a bit of explanation and reflection on my reactions. Did your favorite make my list?

  • “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Zachary Quinto’s Spock delivers this line in the opening sequence, even before the title appears, at once fulfilling and frustrating fan expectations for the film. If he says it then, we wonder, what will he say at the end of the movie?
  • “Go put on a red shirt.” My heart dropped when I heard Kirk tell Chekov to change his uniform because he was taking over as Chief Engineer for Scotty, who had resigned in protest over the new top-secret torpedoes. Knowing that the reboot had completely freed Abrams and company from the previous timeline, I really thought they might kill off Chekov in this film.
  • The appearance of Carol Marcus. I have to admit that this is one of the moments that I missed on my first viewing, in large part because I am not as familiar with the original movies as my companions were. But when Spock revealed that the new science officer’s name was actually Carol Marcus, long-time Trekkers knew, or at least suspected, she would not only end up being on the right side of the story, but that she would survive the film because, in the original timeline, she is the mother of Kirk’s son, David.*
  • “Bones, what are you doing with that tribble?” I think this is my favorite from the film, probably because of my childhood memories of seeing “Trouble with Tribbles” in the Aldan Elementary School cafeteria. Not only does this exchange between Kirk and McCoy give a brief nod to that iconic episode of the original Star Trek series, but McCoy’s attempt to revive that tribble using Kahn’s blood also foreshadows the eventual solution to Into Darkness’s reversal to come (see below).
  • “This is what you would have done.”/“Khan!” Of course, this is the climax of the reboot’s reversal of the original ending of the Enterprise’s deadly encounter with Kahn. Kirk and Spock trade places, with the former sacrificing himself to save the ship and the latter screaming with rage at the death of his friend. Heads turned when Chris Pine’s Kirk says, “This is what you would have done,” because, of course, in the other timeline, it is exactly what Spock did do. Well, maybe not exactly as it seems telling that the rebooted Kirk’s actions to save the Enterprise are much more physically demanding than what was required of the original Spock in Wrath of Kahn.

* In my own defense, though, there is a reason I didn’t recognize this character. Her only appearance, before Into Darkness, was in Wrath of Kahn and that is a film I have not seen in its entirety, and even then not willingly, since it was originally released in 1982. The early scene on Ceti Alpha V where the eels crawl their way into the brains of Chekov and another Starfleet officer was too much for me to handle at the age of six and just the thought of that movie makes me shudder even today.

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