‘Star Trek’s’ Alex Kurtzman Talks Khan, Kirk’s Journey & Carol Marcus’ Underwear
Star Trek Into Darkness was not only one of the biggest successes of the summer but also one of the most passionately debated. While some fans swallowed its twists, turns and surprises whole, asking for more, others were more skeptical, leading to contentious discussions of what constitutes a proper Trek movie, and what creative choices by the filmmakers best expand the boundaries of a beloved mythology without betraying it outright. Remarkably, those conversations eventually spilled out from the comments sections of reviews and think pieces to interactions between fans and the filmmakers themselves – and unsurprisingly, arguments were mounted on both sides with equal passion and insight.
But now that Star Trek Into Darkness is out on Blu-ray, that conversation can evolve: After director J.J. Abrams and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci spent years trying to build the perfect story for their sequel, fans can now devote even more time to fortifying their support, or in some cases, finding the cracks.
In advance of the release of the new set, as well as the Star Trek: Stardate Collection, which collects all of the pre-Abrams Trek films in one expansive Blu-ray set, Kurtzman spoke with Spinoff Online about the film, and answered a few burning questions that lingered after the film ended. In addition to finally openly talking about the decision to make Khan the sequel’s villain, Kurtzman examined the journey he and Orci sent their heroes on, and reflected on the choices they made – including stripping down actress Alice Eve to her skivvies – that have inspired so much debate among the film’s champions and detractors alike.
Spinoff Online: You weren’t able to talk about it for a long time, but now that it’s out there, what to you was the purpose or value in making Khan the villain?
Alex Kurtzman: Well, we debated that very question for a full year, because I think you can’t think of Star Trek without thinking of Khan. He is the gold standard in villainy when it comes to Star Trek. So we all really wanted to make sure that we felt that we had a real reason to do it, in the same way that we felt we had a real reason to do the first one. And our minds actually rejected the idea of doing Khan for a while, and when we started asking ourselves what we felt we wanted the story to be about, and we came, I think, to the conclusion that it really needed to be about the fact that while Kirk and Spock had come together as, let’s call them colleagues at the end of the first one, they weren’t really friends yet. And we knew the second movie needed to be about solidifying their friendship – making sure that the definition of friendship as Kirk understood it was not something that Spock’s Vulcan mind was ready to accept. And so the question then became, OK, you want your bad guy to bring that problem out, and to force our two characters to explore it – and ultimately that led us back around to Khan. And the idea that Khan, in so many ways what made him such an amazing villain in [Ricardo] Montalban’s version was that he really did put Kirk and Spock’s friendship to the test. So I think we wanted to harness the spirit of that idea. That said, we did not want to redo Wrath of Khan, because Wrath of Khan is a priceless gem in our minds. It’s perfection, and it’s essentially untouchable, and so the idea that we would just repeat that story would be a huge mistake to us. Part of what we were thinking when we set Trek on its course in the first movie was that we would always be able to play in harmony with canon, meaning characters could come into the story and you would be able to recognize familiar elements and familiar people, but sometimes the situations would feel slightly different. And we thought it would be kind of cool to do that here, and I think the common denominator in both Khans is that they are both men who ultimately were doing what they were doing to protect their family. And that is also what Kirk is doing in this movie. So that’s what led us back to Khan – that’s the long-winded answer.
What pressure does Abrams’ mystery box approach put on you to deliver a satisfying surprise? Because it has to be something that lives up to the expectation and speculation that fans have.
Let me see if I understand the question correctly. J.J.’s approach being wanting to keep things sort of secretive, and the microscope that Star Trek is under by fans, and how do those two things work together — is that what you’re asking?
Yeah, basically. J.J. and you guys have talked about people coming into the theater not knowing everything that’s going to happen, but because there is so much speculation, what pressure does that put on you guys to create something that satisfies or pays off that anticipation?
I see, I see. Enormous pressure. I think we consider ourselves to be hardcore fans, so it puts enormous pressure on it because I think we ask ourselves, what would we be satisfied by, and what would fans of this beloved franchise also be satisfied by? And the truth is you’re never going to please everybody, so you kind of have to accept that at a certain point in the process. So just merely doing Khan, people will reject it outright, and some people will be really curious how we’re going to do it, and some people will love it. So I think that our philosophical approach to doing something like Khan is to make sure we’re not assuming anything about what people think about the character and who he was. He has to stand on his own legs in his own right here, and yet he has to pay homage and tribute to the amazing version of Khan that came before him. So, you know, that’s a pretty tall order, and that’s part of why we took a full year to decide to even do Khan — because he is the most beloved Star Trek villain.
When I talked to you before the movie came out, you talked about Kirk learning what it means to be captain. Maybe in retrospect, do you feel like that’s the same journey he goes on in the film, or what do you think he goes through? Particularly because a big part of the story is him learning about mortality, and yet he beats it at the end.
Yeah, I mean, look – I do still hold true to everything I said before. I think that is Kirk’s journey, and I think we all know that Shatner’s version of Kirk was a Kirk who did not accept a no-win scenario, and what I think intrigued us was the idea that, what happens when Kirk is faced with the ultimate no-win scenario. In some ways it goes back to what Spock said to him in the first movie – there is going to come a moment where you face certain death, and you’re going to have to face it whether you like it or not. And so in some ways the lessons of the first movie that Spock is trying to teach him pay off in the second movie as much as some of the, I think, relationship strands the two of them are playing out against this backdrop of the meaning of friendship and the meaning of who Kirk is as a captain. And all of those things together gave us a reason to go down this road – and I think got us really excited about the idea of doing Khan.
Whether it’s testing the boundaries of the Prime Directive, or exploring the amount of emotion Spock demonstrates, where do you draw the line between making a choice that goes against what we think of with an idea or character in the name of creating an interesting story, and contradicting what may be unassailable canon?
Well, I think that’s a question we’re always asking ourselves. Just to be clear, I think you’re referring to how far we will allow Spock to go in his display of emotion – is that what you’re asking?
That, or in the beginning of the movie, they violate the Prime Directive to save this planet — where the story exists for you versus doing something that might betray what people would consider canon
Well, I think that’s what it’s about. I mean, that’s why Kirk is stripped of his captainship, because he violates the Prime Directive, and that is the one thing you do not do. And it’s funny – we had so many debates in the story-breaking process of whether or not we could do that, and what the Prime Directive meant, and how audiences who were not familiar with canon would understand what a massive deal it was for Kirk to break it. So all of that thinking absolutely went into our story design.
I imagine you probably read a few of the reviews for the film. What do you think in retrospect is maybe a criticism that you feel is actually valid about the movie that if you had it to do over, you wouldn’t repeat that choice?
Hm, interesting question. Firstly, I like to actually talk to people and find out what they thought of the movie and get honest answers face to face. I find it very difficult for me to read the reviews. I know that Bob and Damon [Lindelof] and J.J. feel differently about it. But personally, I actually really like to have one on one contact with people, because Star Trek fans are so thoughtful, and it is such a meaningful part of their lives. And I don’t know, I guess, huh – why don’t you pick one and I’ll comment on it?
OK. Well, the decision to have Alice Eve in her underwear is, I think, a good example of something that Damon actually commented on. Do you think it was justifiable for that character to do that?
Well, it’s funny, we had tons of story conversations, and spent a whole lot of time talking about how we were going to justify that. And ultimately, I think it’s one of those things that you either accept is part of the scene dynamic – you know, she is bold, and certainly Carol Marcus as we knew her was bold from the first movie. That was part of what was fun about her relationship with Jim, and yet obviously it’s a different Carol Marcus than before. And we figured, how do we harness the spirit of that in this scene, and that’s ultimately where we came to it from. But certainly it’s been criticized as egregious, and I guess everybody has their own point of view of that. All I can tell you is that it’s not something we went into blindly, and certainly we all sat in a room going, okay, we’re going to be criticized for this, but how do we justify this in a way that feels like it was thought about? And either you go for it or you don’t.
Where to you does the end of Star Trek Into Darkness leave this world? The film focuses on the inevitability of a war between Starfleet and the Klingons, but the epilogue takes place a year after the events in the film and everything seems pretty all right.
Well, I think that the title comes from the fact that Gene Roddenberry had this vision of the future where – it’s funny, my son was just asking me about this yesterday. He said, ‘Why is Star Trek Into Darkness called Star Trek Into Darkness?’ And I explained to him that Roddenberry had this beautiful and very optimistic vision of the future, where we would come to a time where different species, different alien races come together, and we would all operate together as one Federation to explore space and work together. And that vision is tested by Khan, and it is corrupted by Marcus, within itself. And so the question Kirk asks at the end of the movie, and I think the question we leave the movie on is, can Starfleet continue in its utopian vision given the kind of things that happen in the movie? And I think we know that they can happen now, so we know that they may happen again, and if these events provoke a war in the future, how will we deal with that response? This is the very definition of blowback. And so I think, hopefully we’ve set up a complicated moral dilemma, but you should definitely know that the compass of Roddenberry’s vision of an optimistic Federation, is where all of this came from.