A Few Thoughts On Star Trek: Into Darkness

By Arturo R. García

Poster for “Star Trek Into Darkness.” Image via thetrekcollective.com

Kendra and I will have a more thorough discussion regarding Star Trek Into Darkness on Wednesday. But, now that the film is out and a rather big racebending cat is out of the bag, I figured we’d open things up for a bigger discussion. Spoilers under the cut.

  • So, to finally confirm the spoiler that got leaked two weeks before the film’s release, the film was a new take on The Wrath of Khan, only this time the titular role was played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Now, consider these words from Racebending’s Marissa Sammy, emphasis mine:

It wasn’t perfect in the 60s when Ricardo Montalbán was cast to play Khan (a character explicitly described in the episode script of Space Seed as being Sikh, from the Northern regions of India). But considering all of the barriers to representation that Roddenberry faced from the television networks, having a brown-skinned man play a brown character was a hard-won victory. It’s disappointing and demoralizing that with the commercial power of Star Trek in his hands, JJ Abrams chose not to honour the original spirit of the show, or the symbolic heft of the Khan character, but to wield the whitewash brush for…what? The hopes that casting Benedict Cumberbatch would draw in a few more box office returns? It’s doubly disappointing when you consider that Abrams was a creator of the television show Lost, which had so many well-rounded and beloved characters of colour in it.

If that was indeed the case, then director J.J Abrams’ gamble appears to have failed: Though the film debuted at No. 1 with $84 million, that’s still considered a weak showing. And the video game isn’t selling that well to boot. So, an opportunity to expand this new Trek universe’s diversity is, well, lost. And thoroughly wasted, because this was an interesting take on the character–but not one that only Cumberbatch could have brought to life, eyebrows aside.

  • It’s been interesting to watch a critical backlash start to form against Abrams’ version of this universe–specifically, the accusation that it’s become too much like Star Wars. I say “interesting” because there were a few minutes there when this film, ironically, flirted with something approaching a meatier plot, like something The Next Generation might have tackled. And more gracefully, I might add, than did Shane Black’s Iron Man 3.
  • While nobody was looking, however, one of the film’s actual characters of color–somebody, please inform Ms. Saldana that they do exist–seemed to enjoy a stronger character arc. And one did not. 
  • Friends of mine who hate Abrams’ work point out that it lacks character. I would suggest that a more accurate title for this one was The Search For Character. That said, I definitely hope we’ve gotten the action ga-ga out of our system and that a third film (if it’s green-lit) goes back to the series’ exploratory roots not just in setting, but in character motivations, as well.

But what did you make of this hot sorta-mess, everyone?

  • LastBoomer

    Great discussion. I would have been thrilled with Sendhil or Naveen. I was so mad when I found out B.C. was playing “Khan” that I still have not seen the picture, but I also did not go to any forums, until now. How cathartic to realize others feel the same. Knowing del Toro (another great choice) dropped out of the picture somehow makes me feel better about it, but I still wonder why they made Khan a Brit. I will catch the film at some point before the next one is released, but first I think I’ll dig out Space Seed and Wrath of Khan and watch them back to back.

  • Bryan

    To: Mr. Abrams. Sir, the opening scene was awesome, great original material… wow! With all due respect, in my opinion haveing watched Star Trek all my life, the movie should not have been about Khan, sorry. The story of Khan was just fine already before. In the future, please think of something original. No remakes please. However I have to share that there were many fantastic Star Trek scenes in this movie, thanks.

    • nevilleross

      The rub is, if Abrams had done an original all-new story, people would be saying that it’s boring, most likely (although I wouldn’t mind some of the better Star Trek novels being adapted as movies.) People forget that Star Trek is an action adventure franchise, and has been so since the first pilot episode of the original TV series, ‘The Cage’-albeit with some smart shading.

      As one wise person put it about the movies:

      (TMP) Somewhat cerebral. Mostly a 2001 knockoff. Ilia in a ridiculously short skirt.
      TWOK) Revenge. Explosions. Getting old. KHAAAAAAAN! A FUCK TON of Pew!Pew!
      TSFS) GE-NE-SIS?! Kirk’s son killed. Get out! Get out of there! Lots of Pew!Pew!
      TVH) They are not the hell your whales. One damn minute, Admiral.
      TFF) Three boobed cat stripper. Sha-ka-ree. Lots of Pew!Pew!
      TUC) Racism. Cold War. Shakespeare. Lots of Pew!Pew!
      GEN) Fantasy land. Duras Sisters. Enterprise go Boom. Lots of Pew!Pew!
      FC) BOOM! Sweaty Borg. Sexual healing. Drunks. A METRIC FUCK TON of Pew!Pew!
      INS) Face lift. Forced relocation. F. Murray Abraham on a couch. Lots of poorly paced Pew!Pew!
      NEM) Dune buggy. Mentally deficient android. Slowly moving doom device. Lots of random Pew!Pew!

      I have highlighted two of the most popular pre-JJ Trek movies in the fandom.
      Trek was an action franchise from the second movie installment onward. To suggest otherwise is to completely ignore everything beyond The Motion Picture.

  • Sobia Ali-Faisal

    I haven’t seen the movie and am not familiar with the series as much as others, but something which has bothered me for years (and I’m surprised wasn’t mentioned here) is that Khan is not a Sikh name. Khan is very a Muslim (Pathan) name. The fact that a Sikh character is supposed to be a negative character further feeds the “evil brown man” trope (in which case it’s probably better that a white guy played the bad guy), but that fact that his name is a very common Muslim, and specifically Pathan, name (again, not Sikh) just demonstrates the continuance of absolute ignorance and lumping of all brown people into one group. Or am I missing something?

    • DJ

      Sobia, you are totally right. Khan is a traditional Pathan last name, Singh is a traditional Punjabi Sikh name.. I am not sure where his middle name Noonian came from. From what little I know of Star Trek canon, Khan is a vat grown, genetically engineered super human. So his name may have been derived from his sources of DNA so to speak. He may be part Pathan and part Singh … or Hollywood is absolutely ignorant and could not see the difference between one brown person and another :). I think that is probably the correct explanation.

      • Hyatt

        Gene Roddenberry supposedly got the name “Noonien” from a WWII soldier he served with, Kim Noonien Singh. Khan, and TNG’s Noonien Soong, were his attempts to reach out to his old comrade and let him know that Gene remembered him. I’m not sure if it’s true, but if it is, it’s pretty touching.

    • sunseeker

      I always thought of his name as a composite–his last name of “Singh” is more Sikh, “Khan” is more Muslim, I’m not familiar with “Noonian,” and we already have intercultural/interreligious children/names in the world. (I just read the other responses–that answers my question about “Noonien”!)

      Since Khan was created in the 60s, it was probably a bolder move to have a “genetically superior” human be brown. (And the most controversial figure at the time was Chekov, with his Russian pride, since the Cold War was seen as the biggest “threat” in the US.) There was still some exoticization since he was considered “barbaric”–I’m thinking it may have been an allusion to Ghengis Khan? Anyway, since the current stereotype is that terrorists are brown men, it was probably a wise choice to have Khan be played by a white guy this time around.

      Now, Khan was supposed to have been a genetically modified person during attempts to create a “master race.” He and the others theoretically have genetic features from multiple cultures (there were all kinds of people represented, though Khan was their leader). What made them problematic (besides the idea of “master race” itself) was that they turned on humanity and started taking out those considered less than perfect–which fits with the current film’s theme of exploring our inner darkness, from the “terrors” we create to the “terrors” we become.

  • Jessica Isabel

    Hey Arturo – I don’t know if you and I are on the same page but I felt like Sulu’s character had a great (albeit minor) development. And Uhura spent the whole movie crying. You know, except for the part where she stabbed that Klingon in the leg.

    Benedict Cumberdoodle doesn’t have shit on Sendhil Ramamurthy… who would have knocked that role out of the PARK.

    • Meg

      Yeah I think Uhura might have been the biggest missed opportunity there. I feel like most of the actors did a pretty good job of emulating the spirit of the characters in TOS, but hers just seems completely different.

      Was also disappointed in Benedict Cucumberdale. Like him on Sherlock…but he seemed to play this character really similar??? I can think of a few people who would have done a better job. I GET that Ricardo Mantalban’s breastplate thing looked dumb, but I feel like telling me a pale skinny weird looking guy is some kind of a superhuman was a hard sell.

      Also thank you for writing this. my dumb white self didn’t even get he was supposed to be a Sikh and I always just thought Khan was a weird name for a white guy!

      • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

        That wasn’t a breastplate… That was Montalban’s own chest.

    • http://twitter.com/Ellington3 Rhonda Yearwood

      A big YES to the idea of Sendhil Ramamurthy being cast as Khan!
      That would have been BONUS!

      • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

        I thought Naveen Andrews… However, i think cumberbatch is awesome.

    • aboynamedart

      You are certainly not alone there, let me just say that.

    • nevilleross

      With the same problem as mentioned above of a brown-skinned person being the bad guy committing terrorist acts. I just chalk it up to Section 31 giving Khan/Harrison plastic surgery to keep him from being identified, since he’s still a wanted war criminal.

  • FeministAllies

    For what it’s worth (just mentioning it), Abrams did want Benecio del Toro for Khan, but he passed: http://screenrant.com/benicio-del-toro-star-trek-2-villain-khan-rob-142302/

    I’m kind of fine with villains in movies being white guys for a while–you can go see brown people being villains in just about every other movie there is, y’know? Of course, Khan as a self-described “genetically superior” person is much more interesting, I suppose, but star trek *movies* have never been about subtleties–the shows dealt much better with more complex ideas than the movies ever have, I think.

    • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

      I think Del Toro would still be questionable racially…

  • http://twitter.com/john_mccollum John McCollum

    I actually liked the movie quite a bit, as did my wife who is a long-time trekkie. I’m a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch (who deserves to be famous based solely on his epic name if nothing else), so it’s hard for me to be impartial when discussing the casting.

    It seems to me that Abrams was in a bit of a no-win situation. If he had cast Khan accurately (as a Sikh), he would have faced criticism of perpetuating the stereotype of a brown Asian person as dangerous, underhanded and exotic. I don’t know.

    • http://www.facebook.com/citizensfortaxjustice Richard Phillips

      My thought exactly.

    • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

      The original character was a bit of an Orientalist muddle, saved by Montalban’s performance (although he was in brownface…)

      I read that initially the villain was just going to be a galactic terrorist but the writers wanted to fit in Khan. It’s a shame, because as some have pointed out Cumberbatch has a strong resemblance to Joachim, one of Khan’s henchmen. My personal choice would be Garth Of Izar, who would have reason to attack starfleet.

      I guess “JOAAAAAAACHHHHIIIIMMM!!!!!” doesn’t have the same ring to it…

    • aboynamedart

      It’s a tricky thing, no doubt. Which Abrams and the writers could have avoided by keeping Harrison as Harrison. But, as I said in my critiques of Iron Man 3, to lose one of the seminal characters of color in a fandom isn’t a win, either. This take on Khan actually got a chance to state his case in a near-sympathetic fashion, as well. Let’s not forget that Kirk betrayed him first.

  • http://www.theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com/ The Literary Omnivore

    I was so mad I had to vlog. I really appreciate this angle on the situation—if the idea was that Cumberbatch’s casting was somehow vital to box office returns, it failed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/allen.herring.3 Allen Herring

    First off, I really enjoyed this movie. I’ll try not to put spoilers.

    To think that they weren’t dealing with Khan from the beginning is…well let’s say, I don’t think Hollywood is willing to take a risk with it’s franchise films and I’m sure JJ was relishing the idea of re-imagining Khan…so I wasn’t surprised at all. I was disappointed.

    Disappointed that yes Khan wasn’t a person of color, but more so that there wasn’t a new villain explored. This film, while good, does not hold a candle to the original. There was a wonderful nods to the first film, the juxtaposition of what occurs with Kirk and Spock was great. The first Khan was bad ass Shakespearian action in space. It was a submarine film elevated to grandeur. Ricardo Montalban elevated the villain beyond camp and made him a sexy domineering character. Benedict never even reached camp. He uttered my name is Khan with a voice that strained to say, I am attempting to project a character created by another person in two incarnations. I’m trying to use my voice to evoke the best film of Star Trek lore, I’m not trying to make my own character. That is the problem with rehashing such a iconic character. Further, Khan isn’t in this JJ Trek world, he is in the Star Trek canon.

    If you are rebooting, you have to at least try to stay true to the world that you are creating. What made the animosity between Khan and Kirk so magnificent was their battle began on the small screen in Space Speed and blossomed into Wrath of Khan. It was a film that culled its history and made itself a new exciting adventure – something TNG never was able to do in the big screen (No…First Contact is in no way better than any TNG Borg episode). This plot story just wanted to have Khan in it, when it should have just played on Admiral Marcus and Pike and elevated the conspiracy element.

    I think you are right Arturo, this echoed “Conspiracy” from The Next Generation. However, there was a scattershot of villains in this film. Not selecting one and using them as the crux upon which the film turned was the problem. Each of our characters had a Moment or two, which I enjoyed, but the scenes didn’t quite lead to a character payoff. Close, very close, but just left of center I feel. What kept them from hitting the target is the same thing that troubled me about Khan. The character development – aside from Uhura – was not original to these characters but moments that echoed or alluded to other character moments from the original series or films. Sulu didn’t grow, he nodded to Sulu’s own captainship of the Excelsior. Scotty approached character arc with his resignation. Chekov was practically a red shirt. And Bones was one “Dammit Jim…” away from caricature.

    Yes this was a hot mess. It was fun. But it was saddening that the Enterprise never fired one torpedo, one laser, and instead just got its tail handed to it by a bully. There was no denouement for the sacrifice, the ship or her crew. All the falling, falling, falling and rising from the clouds just to hover as the Dreadnought falls past. Where was the space battle!

    Yes I enjoyed it – more than Iron Man 3 and its Orientalization of Mandarin and its future dismissal of the need for Tony Stark as Iron Man – but not nearly as much as Wrath of Khan.

    Thanks,

    Allen

    • Maripoya

      I think it would have been a more interesting movie if Admiral Marcus was the central villain and Khan was left as we remember him in the Wrath of Khan. Then the writers could have ramped up tension between Kirk and Marcus over the morality of preemptive war, so called collateral damage, abandoning legal protections/procedures, i.e. a way of exploring our current situation via surrogates. Instead, the dual focus–plus a new Khan that has no history with Kirk–makes it a less compelling narrative about personal vengeance; a missed opportunity to at least give a nod to the TOS tradition of exploring contemporary social topics during its tenure.

      • Shazza

        That’s a great idea! My husband & I saw STID over the weekend. He is a big Trek fan, and while we both enjoyed it, he felt Marcus really WAS the villain here. That the character of Khan was wasted. But then Abrams himself has stated he’s not a Star Trek fan. And I really need Zoe to stick to talking about acting.

      • sunseeker

        Admiral Marcus WAS the central villain–he was responsible for bringing Khan into power, wanted to start a preemptive war, attempted to destroy his own people, and lost all sense of his own morality. Khan was portrayed as victim as much as perpetrator–genetically modified, trying to save his own people, unable to feel compassion for the others because people like Marcus had constructed something of a sociopath (in the past–the ones who created him).

        • aboynamedart

          He was central in terms of putting events into motion, as you summarized. But, he was not presented as the primary threat for most of the movie. He wasn’t involved in the final confrontation, nor where his efforts exposed to Starfleet or the general public on-screen. Instead we got Kirk’s flowery rhetoric a year afterward.

          • sunseeker

            True enough, though it is often the case in life that the most threatening/responsible “villains” are not at the forefront of an assault. So…the ethics of hiding the atrocious actions of an “insider” come up as an issue (something that happens all the time in governments/militaries/etc).

            The ending could have been much, much better if there had been some processing of the movie’s themes rather than offering a flowery speech. (For that matter, they could’ve kept Kirk dead for a while…at least until the next movie. I also question the ethics of just using Khan’s blood to bring him back to life like it’s no big deal. Will the genetically modified people continue to be exploited for their blood?)