Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Defense of Star Trek Into Darkness [PART I - Khan]

Most of the movies and TV shows that we get these days are remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, or spin-offs. I don't even need to give an example, you probably have 10 already popping up into your head. Because of this there's been an outcry against all apparent lack of originality. I agree, the industry can use something refreshing. But we humans have been telling stories ever since we found the need to explain the ball of fire in the sky, which has nothing new under it.

It's precisely because of this rehashing-of-old-ideas epidemic that I think there was a surprisingly harsh reaction towards JJ Abrams Star Trek Into Darkness in the summer of 2013. Yes, it got a lot of good reviews as a summer movie. But it borrowed heavily from past writings of Star Trek and took a lot of liberties to adapt them to a new alternate universe that the hardcore Trekkies simply couldn't stand for. To them, its the equivalent to rewriting the Bible.

I love Star Trek. No secrets there. But it has never been anything even close to a religion for me, even if I have my obsessive tendencies. My religion (if any) would be storytelling, and it's on that basis that I want to defend this movie.

*****If you've never seen the movie and wish to avoid spoilers, TURN BACK NOW. I will have to touch on a lot of spoilers in this argument. *****

For a start, here's a recap of some of the main reasons people really dislike this movie:

  • considered a "rip off" of the episode "Space Seed" from the Original Series and of The Wrath of Khan (both stories involving the villain Khan, if you were wondering)
  • Kirk's death and the deus ex machina solution to it
  • too much action/SFX, not enough Shakespeare quotes and thought-provoking philosophical questions
  • Spock's emotions
  • Kirk's immaturity
  • Khan. Just... everything about Khan.
As I said, my point of defense will be storytelling. I'm a writer and that's the only way that I can see a movie or TV show. If the characters and story hold together well enough, then I won't be offended.

So I'll start with the most prominent aspect to both the character dynamic and the story of Star Trek Into Darkness: Khan. 

Benedict Cumberbatch (left) and Ricardo Montalban (right). Both convincingly Indian.

He is, by far, everyone's favorite villain in the franchise. This mostly has to do with the performance of Ricardo Montalban who is more or less deified in the eyes of Trekkies/Trekkers, so it's not surprising that they felt skeptical of a new name and face in the role. Especially one that is so completely different than Montalban. I'm referring, of course, to Benedict Cumberbatch. The re-casting is surprising to anyone who knows anything about the character of Khan. Khan is a Sikh, described as being Indian. (Montalban was born in Mexico. Close enough. right?)

The reason why we love Montalban as Khan was certainly not because he was a convincing Sikh. He wasn't. It was because he had what any actor should when playing a role, and that was presence. He brought the character to life by carrying himself with the right amount of arrogance and power, intelligence and unreserved passions. Montalban was so good at playing the part that he's now a permanent part of pop culture. Unfortunately, that provided Benedict Cumberbatch with some pretty big shoes to fill. He's a lithe, pale British actor playing a character who was meant to be an Indian superman. Seems like a recipe for disaster, but I think he knocked it out of the park. 

Why? Because he's every bit as much of a serious actor as Ricardo Montalban was. He made the character frighteningly intelligent, arrogant, slightly ethereal, and when the story called for it, dangerously passionate. He did justice to the character by making him intimidating and vulnerable at all the right moments. Both Montalban and Cumberbatch are classically trained, which is exactly what a larger than life character like Khan requires. I think Abrams knew this in the casting process, because an unconvincing or ridiculous villain is poison to any movie. Because of the writing in Star Trek Into Darkness--unlike "Space Seed" or The Wrath of Khan--we actually get to see the bite behind his bark. We are given reasons to be scared of him through actions more than just words. 

This heralds the old "show don't tell" cliche of writing, and it is definitely more true for the film medium than literature. In "Space Seed" and The Wrath of Khan we, the audience, are constantly told how strong Khan and the other superbeings are, how super intelligent they are, and how merciless they are. True, we get glimpses of these attributes. Such as Khan pulling open a lock door on the ship with his bare hands in "Space Seed", or in The Wrath of Khan lifting Chekov a good two feet off the ground like he's a jug of milk. But the true extent of his power and ruthlessness is left to the imagination and replaced with a lot of literary quotes and strutting. Into Darkness shows us so much more in the writing of Roberto Orci, Damon Lindelof and Alex Kurtzman. We get to see Khan destroy a squadron of Klingons while wielding what looks like a canon from a ship, crush a human skull with his bare hands, and out logic Spock (mostly). 

The ethnicity of the character is rather irrelevant no matter which version you look at. In fact, in the original script of "Space Seed" as written by Carey Wilber and Gene L. Coon, Khan was going to be called Erickson and be of Nordic origin. There is nothing specifically Sikh about Khan that necessitates his ethnicity. The only indication of Khan's Indian ties is his name, and it is only given in full as Khan Noonien Singh once by Spock Prime.

But isn't the beauty of Science Fiction (especially Star Trek) the fact that we can explain away just about anything with a little technobabble? Isn't it conceivable that Khan had surgery upon being revived from his cryostasis so as not to be recognized as the warlord who lived three hundred years before? Or, why couldn't a white guy have a Sikh name? The point of the story is that Khan is the most formidable enemy Kirk and company go up against in their adventures, and the CumberKhan is definitely that. (EDIT: I've recently read that the official comic book for Khan explains the cosmetic surgery and re-calibrated vocal cords that account for Khan's new face and accent. I haven't read the comics, but they could be worth looking into.)

Moving on from the character himself, there is the issue of the writers' choice to have him in Star Trek Into Darkness in the first place. I've seen a lot of angry internet postings and comments saying it would have been better if John Harrison was just a member of Khan's crew and not Khan himself. I highly suspect, however, that if Abrams et al went that route, the fans would have complained with "They might as well have just brought in Khan!" There's no winning with Trekkies/Trekkers.

It never struck me as a lack of creativity to bring Khan in for Star Trek XII. Instead, Orci, Lindelof and Kurtzman are working within the context of the Star Trek universe for a fresh angle while keeping with the basic elements of what we know and love about Khan. If there is one thing that fascinates me, it's "what if" stories. That's what Into Darkness essentially is. What if it wasn't Kirk and the Enterprise that found Khan's ship in space? In "Space Seed", 20th century Khan learned all about a 23rd century starship within hours of just reading the ship manuals. What would happen if he had been around for a year? 

The new film gave a favorite character room to stretch his legs, to grow and show his layers. He's more than just a genetically-altered Captain Ahab after Kirk's white whale (I almost wrote "Kirk's Moby Dick" but that would have some unintended connotations... Looks like I said it anyway.); he's a super warrior, conqueror, genius scorned who may be "better at everything" but terrible at controlling his emotions. He's a character worth revisiting and I am happy that we were given the opportunity in Into Darkness. 

Cool guys walk away from a crashed starship and a decimated city. CumberKhan, ladies and gentlemen.

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