Why “Star Trek Into Darkness” Is Smaller Than Life

For many viewers, it turns out, Star Trek represents the ideal workplace. “I was most attracted to the competence of the characters,” said a Tennessee businessman. “It would be nice to live in a world or even work in an office where everyone was dedicated to their jobs and to each other and good at their work.”

In retrospect, this escapist appeal makes sense. In Star Trek, the work is meaningful; the colleagues are smart, hard-working, competent and respectful; the leaders are capable and fair; and everyone has an important contribution to make. Star Trek features what law student Cindy McNew described as “a close-knit group of colleagues whose abilities complement one another and who don’t seem to take out their animosities or ambitions on each other.” Deep friendships develop from teamwork and high-stakes problem-solving. It’s the workplace as we wish it were — and as it too rarely is.

And the system is just. “Promotion by merit seemed the norm (as opposed to promotion by influence),” wrote a California (STOCA1) electrical engineer. There were no stories of “officers who shouldn’t be in command, of nepotistic promotions, or of people sleeping their way to the top,” noted David M., a Virginia public-relations executive.

“Everyone wants to be a part of a group that is successful and everyone wants to contribute,” concluded a Florida lawyer. “That is what Star Trek projected.”

Until the current installment, that is.

New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott captured the movie’s betrayal of Star Trek’s traditional culture when he observed that “Star Trek Into Darkness” is “essentially ‘The Office’ in space.”

While unfair to “The Office,” whose portrayal of the absurdities of a vacuous workplace with a bumbling staff is much funnier than anything in the new Star Trek film, it’s an astute comparison. Instead of effective teamwork, the movie gives us adrenaline and forced humor, with characters who seem barely able to do their jobs or get along. Caught up in a dysfunctional workplace romance, Spock and Uhura snipe at each other. Chekov fumbles about cluelessly trying to fix the engines. Dr. McCoy muffs an assignment to defuse a bomb. Scotty runs around shouting.

The script talks about the crew as “family” but doesn’t show the problem-solving that generates loyalty and respect. Irritation rules. And Captain Kirk seems to have gotten his job not by demonstrating command skills over an extended career but by having the right connections.

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