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We've trekked into darkness before

Zachary Quinto is Spock, Benedict Cumberbatch is John Harrison and Chris Pine is Kirk in "Star Trek Into Darkness."
Zachary Quinto is Spock, Benedict Cumberbatch is John Harrison and Chris Pine is Kirk in "Star Trek Into Darkness."
Paramount Pictures

After J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek movie was released in 2009, the Onion, a parody news website, released a piece filled with mock interviews with Trekkies bashing the film for being too “fun” and “watchable.”

“Yes, it was exciting,” said one middle-aged woman ludicrously attired in Klingon battle garb, “but where was the heavy-handed message about tolerance? Where was the stiff acting? I mean, it just didn’t seem like a Star Trek movie to me.”

Indeed. With the impending release of “Star Trek Into Darkness,” the sequel to the aforementioned fun and watchable flick, the line between Onion satire and Trek reality remains dangerously thin. Many of the old school Trek faithful have taken to movie websites to decry Abrams’ transformation of the Star Trek franchise into something that Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wouldn’t recognize. Orthodox Trekkies insist that the original Star Trek was about heady intellectualism that can’t survive alongside shoot-em-up, bang-em-up action/adventure.

If that’s the case, they haven’t been watching a whole lot of Star Trek.

Yes, the original episodes aren’t nearly as action-packed as 2009’s big screen outing, but it’s not for lack of trying. In just about every episode, William Shatner’s Captain Kirk gets off quite a few of his patented roundhouse kicks, and there’s usually phaser-fire aplenty. Certainly nothing is done to the scale of the Abrams version, but that’s due more to 1960s special effects technology and tiny television budgets than anything else.

What is true is that Gene Roddenberry resented network interference in his space opera and resisted efforts to raise the dramatic stakes by means of personal conflicts and action sequences. He was of the opinion that 23rd Century humanity will evolve beyond such petty squabbles. When he was finally given free reign to express these utopian ideals in 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” the product of his unfettered vision was stultifyingly boring. Thus Roddenberry’s influence on the sequel, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn,” was greatly diminished, and the cinematic results were far more dramatically satisfying than they were the first time around. Even the most diehard Trekkie is forced to concede that “Kahn” is likely the best version of Trek ever committed to film.

Even so, “Kahn” is filled with all the “fun” and “watchable” elements that Abrams’ detractors claim to loathe. It has a scenery-chewing bad guy and lots of things that blow up. At the same time, it doesn’t skimp on weighty thematic content and offers a thoughtful meditation on aging and death, as well as a celebration of the possibility of redemption and new life. There are indications that “Star Trek Into Darkness” is going to pay homage to the film in several respects, with the possibility that Benedict Cumberbatch, the film’s villain, will be revealed at some point to be Kahn himself.

Except I don’t think Cumberbatch is playing Kahn. At one point, Karl Urban, who plays Dr. McCoy in the new movies, let slip that Cumberbatch will actually portray a version of Gary Mitchell, a character who appeared in the second Star Trek television pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Mitchell was Kirk’s best friend at Star Fleet Academy, but he is corrupted by godlike powers he receives at the edge of the galaxy. Kirk is then forced to battle him to death with rough-and-tumble fisticuffs and a phaser rifle shooting off the side of a mountain. Ironically, it was this action sequence that ended up selling Trek as a series to NBC, which had rejected Roddenberry’s first Star Trek pilot for being “too cerebral.”

It seems the tension between brainy and brawny was present at Trek’s inception. There’s every indication that the new movie is a successor to, and not a departure from, that worthy legacy.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog,