Star Trek Into Darkness showed up on Netflix recently, and I decided to watch it again (against my better judgement). And there are still some fun moments in that thing, but overall, it’s… really disheartening. Many have said this, so I won’t add to the summit of Mount Critique. We know how it went: None of the shout-outs to former canon were ever earned, Kirk degenerated into a raging frat boy, Carol Marcus was practically an unperson who existed to be RoboCop’s daughter—it’s all been said eloquently and amusingly across various webispheres.
But I did have an idea on how they might fix one of the film’s biggest problems.
The problem, as you might have already guessed, is Khan. Or not Khan, since it makes very little sense to find the guy here at all.
There are several issues with Khan being one of the villains in Into Darkness. Number one is the fact that they whitewashed the character. And do not give me the tired old, “But Ricardo Montalban wasn’t Indian, so who cares?” schtick. There is a big difference between giving a not-white part to a white man versus giving that same part to a person of color, even if they are not the same ethnicity as the character in question. One of those people is regularly granted more opportunity in casting calls. (If you said the white actor, you get no prize, but I thank you for your honesty.) It’s a statistical fact.
But! I can hear the gasps in the distance. But Benedict Cumberbatch! He’s a dragon! A consulting detective! A consulting dragon detective with his very own hobbit and a voice like melted chocolate from Willy Wonka’s waterfall!
Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor, and I love him as much as the next swooning super fan. It doesn’t change the fact that his villain-ly dialogue is pretty paint-by-numbers. No matter how much he’s giving the performance it doesn’t make Khan workable as an antagonist, let alone one that should feel familiar. There is nothing about the guy that makes you think of Khan, drudges up old memories, not even a silly shout-out line repeat. (Why did no one work “Buried alive… buried alive…” in there? MISTAKE.) Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman admitted that they decided the character could be Khan after the intial scripting process, which makes sense of this problem—the character wasn’t conceptualized as Khan. Later on, they basically just added a couple lines and a Nimoy cameo to legitimize the alteration.
There’s no low-cut pectoral-bearing jackets, no starship dogfight between evenly match opponents, no Shakespeare quotations, not even the fakey yoga-fu Khan practiced in “Space Seed.” There’s no pomp and circumstance, no true enjoyment at the game being played. He’s just a sad guy who talks real slow for some reason, and eventually crushes RoboCop’s skull like a fine pinot blanc grape. He has no understandable reason to hate Kirk this time around, so his battering of the Enterprise and her crew seems arbitrary and a waste of time. Sure, Khan wants to subjugate the universe, but one tiny starship should be beneath his notice with that lofty goal set in his head and a big angry HulkShip at his disposal.
Here’s the thing—this guy, the one who wanted to walk atop cold corpses, cry silent, genetically-enhanced tears and over-enunciate his threats? There is no reason this guy actually has to be Khan at all.
To wash the odd taste out of fandom’s mouth, the easiest retcon could be put in place during one of the future Trek films. There are 72 other super humans who Khan calls “family.” They were of all backgrounds and talents, an entire pantheon of super peoples. If one of them was woken up, not knowing when it was or what he would be asked to do, isn’t it possible that he might lie? That he might tell a powerful military leader in Starfleet that he was Khan Noonien Singh? We know that Khan’s exploits were legendary—of all these genetically engineered people, he was considered to be the Attila, the Alexander, the Caesar. Pretending to be him would likely buy you more respect, more time to figure out what was going on. It would be a smart move that could keep your people alive. The sort of move that a super man might employ when woken from a deep freeze a few hundred years in the future.
If it turned out that this man was not Khan, then all of his behaviors in the film would suddenly ring more true. Here is an individual, damaged by his circumstances and alone, afraid of losing the only people like him in the universe. He is lashing out against everyone who used him or cornered him. Without the weight of Khan’s original (very different) incarnation hanging over him, this character can be his own thing. And all that wishy-washy indecision that led to the stunt secrecy surrounding his identity in the first place could be put to bed. And we wouldn’t suddenly have to wonder how an alternate reality could change the ethnicity of a character born hundreds of years before the skewed timeline.
But better yet, we would also know that Khan was still out there… somewhere. And that would always be hanging over our heads, a perfectly poised hammer ready for whenever he was needed.