Hey, Hathor readers! It’s your friendly neighborhood guest blogger, Gena– rumors of my writing retirement have been greatly exaggerated.
Before I jump into the nitty-gritty of this article, I’d like to give a big, big thank you to the awesome members of the Star Trek fandoms, and people from outside, as well, who’ve produced amazing, thought-provoking pieces on Star Trek Into Darkness’s whitewashing and continued hypersimplistic gender essentialism. Party lines have been drawn– not between new fans and the old guard, but an ideological boundary that I’ve seen play out, for its various reasons, across age, race, gender, and length-of-fannishness identifiers. You all had my back in a series of discussions around a movie I have not seen (and will not see), and some of you took that one for the team and came back to warn the rest of us about the stab in the back we were all dealt. Salud.
Now, Star Trek, for those of you who don’t know, is a multigenerational SF/F institution spanning nearly fifty years, five live-action TV series, an animated series, twelve feature films, hundreds of novels and comics, board games, card games, video games, arcade games, a slots machine (no, really), RPGs, and countless fanworks and documentaries– let alone its various real-world impacts in science, technology, the pop-cultural lexicon, groundbreaking social commentaries, and the ways in which the show and its legacy have often touched people individually on a profound level.
JJ Abrams is currently running Star Trek. I’ve expressed some issues with this before; it got worse. Star Trek… is not at its best in this moment. On the gender front, on a racial front, on any front but sfx and acting, as far as I’ve seen and heard of STID‘s plot, and several balls that have been in the air since the 1960s were dramatically dropped with the vague impression that “if you don’t like the game I’m playing, I’ll take my toys and go home.”
And not only have a lot of people involved in its production been showing their ass, a lot of audience members have, as well.
So while Star Trek Into Darkness only came out a little under three weeks ago stateside, this is a conversation people have been having, denying, mocking (awesome job using threats of racism as a joke, you guys! super “edgy”), and having again for four years now. So– I’m pretty sick and tired of having to have it. Consider this your last free reality check. Everybody gets one.
I’ll open up with the thing that got me on people’s radar for “not tagging my hate”:
Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan Noonien Singh in JJ Abrams’s Star Trek Into Darkness.
And that’s FUCKED UP.
Star Trek Into Darkness Whitewashing Bingo, by the talented azora_mysta at LiveJournal.
…I’ve gotten BINGO so easily and often unintentionally on this it isn’t even funny anymore.
Context is everything. So let’s go there.
In fact, I’m going to do you one better– most of the reviews I’ve seen critiquing STID have been attacking it on the basis of resting on Wrath of Khan’s laurels. A fair claim, from what I’ve read (and seen), with some spoilers so absurd-sounding that I almost didn’t believe the news that Benedict Cumberbatch was cast as Khan Noonien Singh for what it was surrounded by. But no, JJ Abrams has attempted to deliver a reworked Wrath of Khan for the 21st century, giving us none of the emotional gravitas of Nimoy or Shatner, even with their hamminess, after a grand total of four or so hours with his rebooted cast by the time he decided to flip it and reverse it (yes, meaning exactly what you think it means); however, that’s not the only, or even the most relevant bit of information to consider in this movie’s crap factor, or the only basis for justification that Abrams has made an egregiously racist and sexist film in 2013 after four-plus decades of continuously evolving Trek media that should have ensured otherwise.
I’m talking TOS. I’m talking Space Seed.
I’m talking 1960s politics.
And yeah, I am talking Wrath of Khan.
I’m talking intersectional awareness, y’all.
So, one of the things to always, always, always, always keep in mind when discussing Star Trek TOS, and, therefore, Star Trek’s roots, is that this is a very, very post-WWII/post-Korean-War production, a Cold War/Vietnam War production, a Space Race production, and a Civil Rights era production. This is Relevant Information for any media produced during that time, but particularly so for a show that painted not only humanity’s future, but humanity’s future from a military perspective, in space, that was so radicalized from humanity’s then-present (and other portrayals of humanity’s then-future) that it often remains relevant in spite of its datedness even now.
Gene Roddenberry served in WWII, George Takei and his family were incarcerated in the Rohwer Relocation Center during the Japanese American Internments, and Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner both grew up 1st-generation American children of Jewish immigrants in those same trying years. So when you have a show with a Jewish captain, a Jewish first officer, a Japanese-American helmsman, an integrated and co-ed Starfleet corps– including, of course, Nichelle Nichols as the Black, enlisted member (a Lieutenant, natch) of said interstellar forces, convinced in real life to stay on board by none less than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., himself– manning the bridge of a ship conceived of, even before the introduction of Walter Koenig as Pavel Chekov, as a joint US-Soviet effort– you’ve got some groundbreaking storytelling just in the choice of actors alone. The medium is always the message, if not in whole, then in large part.
Add in that this was Star Trek’s first season on the air; Space Seed premiered in February of 1967. The month before that, Lester Maddox, “staunch segregationist“, was sworn in as the governor of Georgia; Wilhelm Harster, Wilhelm Zoepf, and Gertrud Slottke were tried for deportation of European Jews to the Auschwitz and Sobibor concentration camps, being implicated in the deaths of over 100,000 people, including Anne Frank; NOW endorsed the ERA; and the US, UK, and Soviet Union signed the Outer Space Treaty, prohibiting the placement of nuclear weapons or WMDs into orbit or onto any natural or manmade satellites. That May, the Outer Space Treaty was ratified, and NASA announced the crew for the Apollo 7 manned spaceflight. Loving v. Virginia, a landmark case declaring anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, was not settled until two months after that, with Alabama the last state to adapt its laws, thirty-three years after the case’s settlement. Race riots remained an ever-increasingly-frequent reality, culminating in the worst riots in US history out of Detroit and New York.
Only three years prior, in February of 1964, the poll tax was overturned– and that April, Malcolm X gave his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, imploring African-Americans to vote, the same month Nelson Mandela gave his anti-apartheid speech, “I am Prepared to Die“. Mandela was imprisoned that June. Malcolm X would be assassinated the following February, with riots breaking out in 125 cities in response.
1964 had the first instances of draft card burnings in protest of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Act was passed (though the Fair Housing Law wouldn’t pass for another four years), and the world saw the first close-up images of the moon courtesy of the Ranger 7. The Supreme Court ruled in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan that under the First Amendment, criticism of political figures could not be censored, nor declared defamation– a case specifically brought to court over free speech reporting of Civil Rights campaigns in the Southeastern United States. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., won a Nobel Peace Prize– and James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were lynched by Klansmen in Mississippi. 1965 saw Bloody Sunday, the Watts Riots, the 54 mile march led by Dr. King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, continued Nazi trials, the first photos of Mars, and the Second Kashmir War. The January after that, Indira Gandhi was elected and sworn in as Prime Minister of India, the Communist Party of China declared the launch of the Cultural Revolution that May, and Star Trek premiered that September. No Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1966.
In April of 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. October of that same year, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was released, with Duane Jones cast as the film’s hero, Ben, making waves by specifically refusing to play the character as low-class or uneducated; and the plot’s echoes of its time– as Elliott Stein wrote in his 2003 review of the film, “[i]n this first-ever subversive horror movie, the resourceful [Black] hero survives the zombies only to be killed by a redneck posse”– were inescapably potent. That November, Plato’s Stepchildren, SE3E12 of Star Trek: TOS aired, showcasing the first scripted interracial kiss broadcast on American national television, between Nichelle Nichols’s Lt. Uhura and Captain Kirk.
Apollo 11 landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon in 1969, one month after Star Trek TOS wrapped its final season.
Still with me, here? Great.
So this is the world that was the backdrop for the future Roddenberry wrote; if not a gleaming future, then one incandescent in its optimism in the potential presented by a humanity unflinchingly acknowledged as often grimly, savagely flawed, even when, in theory, it could have gone unsaid. Despite the limitations placed upon this story’s execution, at its best, Star Trek, and most quality sci-fi, tells us truths about ourselves we may not want to see, while presenting speculative futures and pasts with a magician’s sleight-of-hand– and for as optimistic as the show was, Star Trek TOS certainly was an uphill battle both ways; appropriate, given the times, and hugely ambitious, given the futures chosen to glimpse. And so, out of these two worlds (three, if you count the real-world’s then-future and the fiction’s past as his origin point) was the character people know as “Kha(aaaaaaa)n” born.
And, he was brought into all three of those worlds as a Desi Sikh superhuman named Khan Noonien Singh. Who was not only a genetically engineered, selectively bred, super-strong, super-healing, super-suave super-genius– but who was also more than a match for the crew of the USS Enterprise, including its captain. The character has five times normal human strength, a “superior intellect” (he cuts his way through the Enterprise’s digital libraries like buttah), and is introduced wearing little more than gold netting. He’s a bully. He’s arrogant. He comes across as someone who thinks he ought to be treated as a king, and in Space Seed, he always seems to be challenging people, either to challenge him or to cut through their emotional and mind games. He doesn’t just read books, he reads people; and unlike Kirk (he and McCoy have an exchange after Kirk uses his similarly honed observational skills to admonish the ship’s historian for getting moony-eyed over Khan
and can you blame her, Bones musing that it was a shame Kirk had wasted his potential on command, when he’d have made a fair psychologist; “Fair?” is Kirk’s smug response), Khan is pretty up-front about using his skill to manipulate and abuse those around him. There’s always an air of menace about Khan, even though he’s the smoothest motherfucker to ever smooth his way across the frictionless void of space.
Also, he does fauxga, complete with stock synth music, because… Star Trek had about a $5 budget. What did you, expect a sitar or something?
(Phys-ed is mandatory.)
Herein lies the brilliance of writing Khan as… Khan. You absolutely could not have Khan be Black. On my first watchthrough of Space Seed, I was deeply affronted that no one even in his crew is mentioned as Black when Scotty rattles off “they’re all mixed types– Western and Mid-European, Latin, Oriental,” and, were this show released in the ’90s, as with TNG, or in the modern day, I’d’ve been quite right in that. However, a line Spock delivers later in the episode (part of which I pull the title of this post from) gave me pause regarding the real-world setting encasing and subsuming the fictional world of Space Seed. Regarding Khan, and the Augments with whom he co-ruled Earth before being overthrown in 1996, Kirk asks Spock, “Would you… estimate him to be a product of selective breeding?” That startled me enough that I’d had to pause the episode for a second or two, because that is a bold-ass question with some bold-ass phrasing to it.
But Spock responds that “In 1993, a group of these young ‘supermen’ did seize power (!), simultaneously, in over forty nations. […] Because the scientists overlooked one fact: superior ability breeds superior ambition.”And it clicked to me that this was not about the be the story CBS would tell its White audience in 1967 with Black men involved in any way, shape, or form whatsoever– and that even if they would, that would be a dangerous-ass story to tell, for everyone involved in its telling. And, given the political clime, a dangerous-ass story for Black folks potentially uninvolved with Star Trek at all, given how little “provocation” seemed needed to “justify” White supremacist extremists’ lynching of African-Americans and Civil Rights activists with near impunity during those years. (Besides which, it then becomes impossible to write in his romantic/abuse subplot [which I’ll touch on later]– it’s two years too early for such adventures, and, despite the issues with who Khan is as a person and his relationship with Lt. Marla McGivers, their kiss was still more consensual than Kirk’s and Uhura’s– though, supposedly, Shatner’s tendency to hog/steal the spotlight led to this first interracial kiss, intended to be between Uhura and Spock, being something that couldn’t be brushed off as a “safer” interspecies moment; instead, we ended with a White man, playing a White man, kissing a Black woman, playing a Black woman, with no two ways about it. So… there’s that, at least, even if “alien mind control” had to be the justification behind it.)
Aaaaaand you also can’t write this literal übermensch as a White man. Spock also tells Kirk he’s crunched some numbers, and determined about 80-90 Augments were unaccounted for by the end of the Eugenics Wars. When Kirk, astonished, remarks that that information was never in any of his history texts, Spock replies, “Would you reveal to war-weary populations that some 80 Napoleons might still be alive?” …So. So. So. I’m just going to give y’all a second if you want to review those history bullet points I gave you because– oh, okay, you’re back, excellent. Maybe you’ve guessed where I’m going with this one!
In a world full of everyday human beings taken over by a literal Master Race, to then be at constant war (the Eugenics Wars lasted three years; after that, there is a World War III preceding Terran-Vulcan First Contact in the Trek-‘verse) and have the powers at be decide not to reveal the ratlines and military operations leading to some 80 Mengeles, Schumanns, Eichmanns, Brunners, Priebkes, and Rauffs at large, for fear of shaking up the population for a problem they might never have to face if it’s kept quiet enough? And have that fly as a sci-fi plot without playing too much into the White supremacy that made even the thought of a Black Khan a dangerous notion? And, on the flip side of that, our heroes let them live? And are still meant to be heroes? Plus, it’s a bit literal– it gets real easy to cast out the devil and keep his books in your house, so to speak. So you likewise lose out on the sociopolitical commentary at hand, that you should probably not fuck around trying to create a perfect race because it won’t work (Khan is a classically flawed villain if there ever was one, and, uh, the Augments lost), but that, at the same time, you should probably not be creating monsters and raising them up with the ideology that they are princes and that they are superior and flawless, and then leave them to their own devices, because that’s a monster that will destroy you in pursuit of bigger and better things than you and your racial, genetic, intellectual, physical inferiority can hope to dream of, from their perspective– and they’ll have the capability to carry out those pursuits far and away beyond your control by the time you decide to step in, or cotton on.
While that is abjectly terrifying, it’s easy to see how a villain being Aryan could have glossed over the implications of that narrative in the oversimplification presented by the Siegrune– after the fact, in the ’60s, of course. Because lest we forget, “horror” for many in the middle to upper social tiers of the West is simply “history” for everyone else; anti-Hitler propaganda stateside didn’t really kick off until after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and, from what I remember from school, WWII is considered to have run between 1941 and 1945– despite the fact that Mein Kampf was published in 1925 and von Hindenburg had appointed Hitler Chancellor of the NSDAP by 1933. (A later first season episode, The City on the Edge of Forever, manages to lampshade this fairly nicely; even TOS’s season 2 episode, Patterns of Force, with a Nazi planet, is less about Aryan supremacy and more about socialism vs. fasciistic cultural revolution, both episodes focusing on history as a cause-and-effect pattern with far-reaching consequences for both.) Culturally, people weren’t ready to separate those issues, and for good reason; the “war-weary populations” of the real world had never really ceased to be at war.
For similar reasons, Khan himself could not have been “Oriental” in a story where Roddenberry was trying his damnedest with George Takei as Hikaru Sulu on the bridge, later to be joined by Pavel Chekov, particularly with the thinly-veiled Communist stand-ins of Klingons and Romulans as “bad” Soviets and Chinese/North Koreans/North Vietnamese, respectively. You’re already doing that story– and you don’t want to undermine the goals behind casting and writing your protagonists with one mishandled antagonist. (Likewise, it probably would have been best to steer away from a Latin@ villain, no matter who was actually cast, given the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis were pretty fresh in people’s minds. Also, you know, Star Trek being a Desilu production, it is generally not awesome to cast a villain with the same background as one of your bosses.)
So. What you need is someone who’s brown, but not too brown, not Black, not White, but White enough to interact with your other characters.
Which is where Ricardo Montalbán comes in.
Ricardo Montalbán was a Mexican actor of solely White European Spaniard descent. Now, while that would have put him very much at the top of the racial hierarchy in Mexico, above mestiz@s and indígen@s (and Black Mexicans and mixed-race Black Mexicans for damn sure when/if he encountered them)– and idk if he would have been perceived as “White” as U.S. Americans would define it in Mexico, though he would definitely be a beneficiary of privileges analogous to structures of Whiteness in the U.S., there also tying “legitimate” Mexicanness to his Europeanness– he was not a “White” actor Stateside. Far from it, in fact. Not only because of his stereotypically “Latin” appearance (dark skin, dark hair, a smoulder, etc.), but also because the U.S., with its funky history of multicolonialism Highlander and its W.-European-centricity, was never going to view Spaniards as “really” White– in the same way Italians, Greeks, and Other-marked Jewish Europeans would never be “really” White, either.
Now, the reason that’s an issue when discussing Khan as a PoC character and whether or not Montalbán is considered a PoC actor is that not only do you have this multi-century-long historical prejudice between and among various European identities in an extremely Germanic- and Anglican-influenced country like the U.S., Montalbán is still a Spaniard from Mexico, and a dark Spaniard from Mexico. To lend some perspective, I Love Lucy was only even allowed on-air on the basis that Desi/Ricky was a White Cuban, because racial miscegenation (vs. ethnic miscegenation) was still a crime in many places, and too risqué for television. In this context, while Montalbán’s “pedigree” was enough to get him into CBS/Paramount’s Hollywood machine, he was still not “really” White, and his complexion marked him as a racial Other enough that he was frequently cast as “Indian” (NDN, not Desi), or, in WWII films, as Japanese— considered a step “above” having a “real” White actor in makeup (look, he’s believably “swarthy” and foreign!), you got a “safe” option for PoC characters without actually having to hire too many PoC actors, even if you were going to have them end up playing their own race for a change.
It’s easy enough to see remnants of that in American cinema to this day— Antonio Banderas, a Spaniard from Spain, has generated millions in revenue playing Latin American men. Even Benicio del Toro, the actor who had been rumored to have been cast as Nu!Khan (which, to the people who claim a Desi actor would have been too much of a dead giveaway for playing Khan– firstly, who cares?, and secondly, if that was your “twist” to reveal, you’re doing it wrong– because casting del Toro wasn’t? there are better twists, just saying), is a Spanish Puerto Rican with dual American and Spanish citizenship. You still have this tendency to skew towards “safer” Latin@s rather than Latin@s of mixed heritage (as in, indigenous and/or Black), both within Latin American media and in “Anglo” portrayals of latinidad. Nowadays, even when mestizaje is no longer as much of a black mark on an actor’s career, that mixedness is not something to be looked at in detail, or spoken about, and is to be referred to as part and parcel of “Latinness” in itself, where being too much more indigenous or Black still marks you as not “Latin enough”– even while to be Latin@ is socially viewed and structured as a (still inherently inferior) “race” that’s not really a race after all, when convenient for the White beneficiaries at the top of the status quo. Sound familiar?
So, yeah, it’s still hecka problematic that Ricardo Montalbán was cast as Khan– but he sure as shit wasn’t “White,” even though he may have been so nominally enough to be afforded second- or third-tier status above other PoC; and, regardless of his heritage, socially, he still isn’t. And he’s no less the actor who was chosen, nor was Khan Noonien Singh any less the character who was designed and written, as this example of a perfected humanity, in body and in mind– if not in psyche– in fact, the cream of the crop, and all without eliminating him from the running on the basis of his (or his actor’s) racial and religious background in a discussion of eugenics. None of that was an accident.
None of it was an accident twice, in fact.
…All of which is irrelevant to a discussion of casting in 2013, when, regardless of any desired “homage” to Montalbán, the resources and social traction are available, especially for a big-budget production, to actually cast a Desi (or, be still my heart, specifically a Sikh) actor without needing to swap in a White guy for the kissing scenes lest you scandalize your audience’s delicate sensibilities.
Not that there’s not plenty enough material to scandalize with– the not-really-interracial kiss between Khan and McGivers is still a product of its time, if a very interesting one. Khan’s not positioned as the non-White brute so much as he’s presented as somewhat old-fashioned, obviously in-canon and for the time (he complains about Lt. Marla McGivers’s stiffly curled, beehived hair, which he seems unfamiliar with– and while she attempts to interrogate him as the ship’s historian, he leads her to a mirror to style it himself, the way he prefers: more “soft, natural, simple”), as well as violent– but calculatingly so. It gets worse for McGivers from there, and she didn’t really start out on too great of a standing at the beginning of the episode. While it’s unfortunately easy to read this as a story of yet another backwards, controlling, PoC man abusing and corrupting a Good White Woman (further problematized by the Satan/God parallels implicit in Space Seed and Wrath of Khan’s references to Paradise Lost), it works eerily well as a critique of DV narratives and normalized misogyny. Because while, on a grander scale, Kirk and the Enterprise represent God and Heaven, Kirk and Khan are both deeply flawed in similar, and similarly matched, ways. Khan is a textbook manipulator, and both he and Captain Kirk use the hyperobservance they share to dismiss others as somewhere beneath them once they get a read on a situation. And it’s so smart– the episode opens up with Kirk’s arrogance, him interrupting Uhura’s transcoding of a broadcast coming from the Botany Bay in order to rub it in Spock’s nose that he was wrong about the vessel not being from Earth. Spock asks him why that gives him so much pleasure, and he responds, “An emotional Earth weakness of mine,” smirking his way through the line.
More importantly, both Kirk and Khan dismiss Marla McGivers for various reasons– Kirk as an overly-emotional, romantically nostalgic historian and woman, for her interest in Khan to the point of distraction; and eventually, that judgement call comes back to bite him, his not taking her seriously in-episode, or even leading up to the episode, where she would have been a crewmember whose contributions were valued enough that she would bother formulating any. (Before even beaming down to the sleeper ship, Kirk snarks, “Here’s a chance for that historian to do something for a change.” Then he mispronounces her name. Twice.) He dismisses her, and therefore her closeness with and attraction to Khan as irrelevant and frivolous, with no deeper meaning for herself or for him, and very nearly dies for it– the only thing saving him from an intellectually and physically superior PoC villain in the end being the ingenuity of panic and an improvised bludgeon at the last minute.
Khan dismisses McGivers because he sees her as someone he can manipulate, if not with charm, then with intimidation, and because of his pompousness, he assumes her fear of him means loyalty to him, and that that loyalty to him is an indicator of McGivers’s own superiority– as low as she is, she can still recognize the best when she sees it, and that puts her a tier above the ship’s crew who don’t recognize him for the superior being he is. She’s just intelligent enough, in his estimation, to be unquestionably his, but still “inferior” enough that even if she wasn’t, it would hardly be to his detriment. He criticizes her lack of decisiveness at one of their relationship’s turning points; “Go. Or stay. But do it because it is what you wish to do.” She has romanticized Khan and his boundary-testing as a sort of personal bodice-ripping Kate & Leopold, and is treating him as something of a “pet” accordingly; but Khan wants her to decide between staying with and dedicated to him as a leader, or maintaining her dedication to not ruffling the Enterprise’s status quo. He‘s already cast her as an essential pawn in his plans, where it’s that same tipping point of superior inferiority that makes her necessary– so, he’s obviously looking more for “fear me, love me, do as I say” (seriously, he practically hisses at her, “Open your heeeeaaaaart” at one point) than any actual decisiveness of her own. But when that decisiveness rears its head, and McGivers’s decision is that she doesn’t like Khan’s decisions very much– and that she’s about to make some decisions opposing them– it costs Khan the ship, and future, he planned so hard to get, and waited for for two centuries.
At the end of the episode, we see the difference between Kirk’s and Khan’s flaws, beyond just that one used to be a despotic tyrant, hailing from the 1990s, and the other only works in space, but is from Iowa. Kirk actually means it when he offers McGivers a choice at the end of Space Seed. She’s not a passive receptor of agency-free victimhood, and both men’s presumption of that in the beginning of the show ends up a race to their own undoing. She chooses a future with Khan; she loves him, and he’s come to care for her enough that he tries to warn her to stay with Starfleet and face court-martial instead. Still, upon hearing her choice, Khan beams, “A superior woman. I will take her.” He may love her, but he still doesn’t respect her as much as he ought to in his arrogance– and he is still an abuser, a literal tyrant, and a man who would’ve murdered her entire crew, had it come to that. Kirk offered her help in the form of an out, without judgement or spitefulness for her having turned on him and the crew before. And… she says no. It’s a choice. It’s a choice McGivers made, that wasn’t made for her, because her voice has been denied her the entire episode, and what the heroes need to learn, even if the villain doesn’t, is that she is a fully-fledged person, and those choices are hers, and her life is hers to do with what she will, “take her” or no. And, in-story, she’s not demonized for it, and no one takes that minute to drop any kind of holier-than-thou victim-judgment moral grandstanding as the story wraps.
I’m not just pointing this out because it shows off the complexity of the Khan character, or to highlight the tragedy of the relationship between Khan and Marla McGivers– it’s problematic and dysfuctional, but in a way that doesn’t cast one player as a character and one as a prop, even while one is clearly the abuser and villain, which is fascinatingly complex and bears a realistic depth and texture rarely afforded to fictional characters at all, let alone (what were thought to be at the time) one-offs; but she still ended up fridged in an offscreen death before Khan’s return in Wrath (presumably due to Madlyn Rhue’s degenerating multiple sclerosis, and producer Herve Bennett’s stance that it would be unfair to recast her on the basis of her disability; a better explanation than most fridgings, to be sure, particularly given the potentially shaky territory in writing a story about a power-drunk eugenically crafted superbeing with delusions of grandeur and his wheelchair-bound wife. It could have gone somewhere very interesting if handled well, imo, though it could obviously have taken several dark turns with implications as to how and why McGivers had been impaired, as well as come into some morally trepidatious terrain, but the story would have been a very different one than Wrath of Khan ended up being, to be sure).
I’m pointing it out because not only is it a better, more thoughtful, and honestly, more victim-/survivor-respectful narrative of domestic abuse than we often get in real life in 2013, but also because, of the three women with the greatest impact in the Khan story, McGivers is often cited as the “weak female character” of the bunch– despite the fact that in 1967, she’s better-rounded (and more strongly conceived and executed) than the collaboratively written social and media narratives around actual women’s lives in the 21st century. It’s all well and good to say what people ought to do or ought to have done in other people’s lives or in fiction, particularly without their lives’ and relationships’ contexts, but in the real-world battered-women abuse survivor Olympics, there was never any “right answer;” the only way to win, socially, is not to play, despite the obvious issues with that worldview. Last time I checked, all survivors were strong– any choice you make that keeps you alive and, ideally, helps preserve more life in turn, is the real right one. And last time I checked, writing “strong” female characters was less about never making mistakes, violence, “exceptional femaleness,” and a lack of representation of women’s varied lived realities– it was and is about writing female characters as fully realized characters, even, and especially, when they aren’t “perfect,” or portrayed that way in order to suit and support another character’s (or audience’s) agenda– including to define “strength.” In any case, Marla McGivers didn’t make it to either movie, even though Star Trek Into Darkness is a combination Khan origin story and partial quasi-remake of his return.
The two women who did make it to Wrath of Khan, and who likewise show up in Into Darkness, are Lt. Uhura and scientist Dr. Carol Marcus. Uhura isn’t given much to do in WoK, though her role in Space Seed is to be quietly defiant to Khan’s demands and his followers’ abuses in the episode’s minor climax, which, given the situation they’re in, and the Augments’ strength, comes across as incredibly badass, though that may just be me (and Uhura’s refusal to be cowed, and the violence she faces as a result of Lt. McGivers’s enabling of Khan become turning points for Marla’s character); obviously, Nichelle Nichols clocked more than enough screen time as Lieutenant U to make up for being somewhat shortchanged in Wrath, though I’m fangirling hard enough over her in Space Seed that she hardly needs it.
Dr. Marcus is a one-movie-only character: in Wrath of Khan, a molecular biologist who, despite actress Bibi Besch’s justifiable sentiment that Marcus felt written as a means to an end, steals the spotlight and holds her own onscreen with Shatner’s Kirk. In the movie, she is the kickass scientist in charge of the development of the Genesis Device– a controversial, expensive, dangerous supermachine, capable of generating life from nothingness through application of rapid terraforming by atomic disintegration and rearrangement of the matter, on a subatomic level, to the human-friendly configuration of a preset matrix. Khan wants the device, and she’s not about to give it, or her work, up. She’s a single mom, her team including her not-so-fucked-up son, Dr. David Marcus (I’m looking at you, Pine!Kirk writers), who, surprise! Turns out to be Kirk’s son from a relationship she and the Captain had had years before. So: both of them Pretty Significant Characters, even without watching The Search for Spock. Also? She grows a living planet inside of a dead asteroid. In a day. In a movie full of great lines, she’s up there with Montalbán, and showing off the world she’s built from scratch, Dr. Marcus proves it’s all in the delivery, demanding, “Can I cook, or can’t I?” She creates the classified tech/potential weapon that gives Khan something to claim and a plausible reason to give up his quest for revenge, and he won’t let go of one for the other; said technology carries over with serious life-and-death, political, and long-term character development implications for the next four films (and tie-in EU) of TOS’s cinematic run.
…Which totally explains why there needed to be a scene of her in her underwear. And it’s totally justified by that one scene they filmed with that one guy in the shower that– oh? Oh, that one’s not actually in the movie. But shouldn’t that still count for something?
Pictured: “Equal opportunity flesh.” (Coincidentally, not featured in trailers or promotional materials, and not one of only two bits of footage available of Kirk before the movie premiered.)
Five bucks says that the two naked/near-naked women Kirk’s in bed with aren’t actually part of that final “equality” count.
I want to make it clear here– I’m not here to say you can’t be sexy/naked/near naked and a “strong female character.” As I mentioned, making a female character into the poster girl for a specifically policed and maintained kind of girlhood/womanhood isn’t actually progressive, and, to be frank, demonizing a female character for, uh, wearing underwear that we can see, the hussy, would be slut-shaming. Nothing against Carol Marcus. Everybody’s gotta wear panties sometime, and if she feels most comfortable at work in a push-up bra then it is not my place to say she’s wrong (though this is really not the same as the infamous miniskirt issue that remains a bone of contention; still, personally, I would have chosen yoga pants and a really good structured sports bra– wire-free individual encapsulating cups can be life-changing, I swear). Being honest, I haven’t seen the film; while I’ve read and seen quite a bit more on Cumberbatch’s Khan, and there was obviously more Montalbán footage and expanded material as a basis of comparison. I’ve already written about Uhura here before, and my frustrations with STXI and the treatment of her character, as a sort of add-on vaginal expansion pack with a voicebox for Spock’s infrequently expressed emotions. But I don’t know anything about the new, AOS Carol Marcus, really; what I have seen of her seems very Asami Sato-esque (honestly, including the polarized fandom response, haterade sipping, and implied love triangle/canon-pairing break-up), which, if true, I am so here for like whoa.
But I will say it makes me deeply uncomfortable the way Abrams consistently bends over backwards to “justify” the weirdly exploitative application of the male gaze to the Trek films, where male nudity is always either a character-defining moment or a scene of sexual triumph, and female nudity is framed as a passive, unwilling receptor for said male gaze. Quite literally– “the scene” everybody’s talking about is specifically a shot framed as a Kirk POV, playing with the fourth wall by making the Kirk the audience and literally placing the audience in Kirk’s shoes. Which gets uncomfortable, fast, when Alice Eve’s Carol Marcus asks Kirk to turn around and look away before she changes clothes, and he turns to stare at her anyway.
I’ve seen this scene defended because Marcus took Kirk into a private space and changed, so what did she expect, which really smacks of rape-victim blaming rhetoric, imo; I’ve heard it defended because Marcus didn’t tell him why she needed him to turn around; and I’ve read musings that Marcus actually wanted Kirk to look, but needed to pretend she didn’t because… she had a crush on him, and in the 23rd century (and 21st century) it’s still too “slutty” for a girrrrl to ask a boooyyyy on a date? Or something. I don’t even know. Who does that? Does anybody actually do that?? (Hey, guys, btw: there’s ways to film someone being upfront with their bodies and comfortable with their own nudity/near-nudity without hypersexualizing the gaze itself or turning the moment judgmental in 2013. I’ve seen it done. You just embrace the sexiness of confidence and swagger, as you would with the freedom and lack of restrictions in a male character! Boom boom pow.) Anyways. I’ve seen it defended because Marcus, at that point, was revealed to be not altogether who she’d claimed to be earlier in the movie– because it’s not Abrams’s Star Trek unless everyone’s mother is absent/dead, and everyone has deeply seated daddy issues, Marcus
is secretly actually a Disney princess assumes her mother’s maiden name to “sneak” aboard the Enterprise because I don’t fucking know why, Jesus, can’t people get name changes or put down preferred names on their job paperwork in the future?
Of which only the last one even works, KIND OF, MAYBE (I actually don’t know, because I haven’t watched the film, but– like, is Marcus reasonably perceived as a danger to herself/others? Maybe don’t follow her into her bedroom then, yo, but, okay, I… sort of see how that might work), as defense of the fictional Kirk, in-story, for actions against the fictional Marcus’s specifically stated wishes surrounding her bodily autonomy– and less as defenses of the real world writers and cinematographers who did a thing with greater social/cultural significance and resonance than 8 seconds of screen time with an obviously consensual cast, because what the actual fuck, you guys. That whirring sound was the point flying past you. You’re defending your 10 seconds of flesh because someone gave you a “reason” it’s okay to sexually harass even a fictional someone who’s already told you their boundaries and given you a pretty clear “no”? Creep much?
Also, Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof used the Carol Marcus underwear scene to write Nurse Chapel out of the rebooted Enterprise crew. Marcus brings her up, actually– in case anyone was wondering, the short version is: Kirk hit it, so Chapel quit it. He has a “reputation,” you see. I’d’ve made a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am joke, but it would have run more like wham-bam-HOO-DIS? Because he also doesn’t even remember who Chapel is.
I’m not even lying. I wish I was.
So there’s more to this than “just” casting issues and “just” nerds gnashing their teeth about respect for canon– though, yeah, that’s an element, too. There’s not only a fundamental lack of respect, there’s a certain distinctively brazen disrespect for canon, for its creators, and for the audience itself at play.
And to take all that backstory– that context– to take this Sisyphean struggle pushed for and fought for and clawed and scrabbled over by the cast of Star Trek: TOS, by Gene Roddenberry, by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz for supporting it and laying the groundwork for, not only their own success, but to forge a path for others’ struggle down it to be somewhat less arduous– and have JJ Abrams hollow out these brilliant women, and then hand Khan over to Benedict Cumberbatch, of all people? It’s outrageous.
They literally took a Desi Sikh character– and filled the role with an extremely pale-skinned (naturally redheaded, in fact) White Englishman, an actor too fancily British for his own comfort, previously typecast as “posh,” intellectual, aristocrat types. Because, hey, what’s a little more Imperialism with your erasure cashing in on the Other-marked name of a PoC character with none of the actual ties to the character or his background itself, amirite?
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention one little thing– the movie’s plot? In Star Trek Into Darkness, you don’t touch on Space Seed, and you do have Kirk sacrificing himself for his crew with the inverted hands-on-the-glass thing. (I hear Spock almost cries about this in-film? I could see that in Wrath of Khan, but, dude, you just met Kirk. Didn’t your mom just die last movie?? Nero killed the shit out of your planet, and James T. Kirk, who you’ve known for about five minutes, is the thing emotionally compromising you in this moment. Okay.) Carol Marcus is… present, anyway. But the thrust behind Khan? Khan‘s motivations?
Giving a little hint about the bad guy, the British thesp describes the character as a “terrorist.” He explains that Harrison is “someone who’s a fearsome warrior and he’s an expert in hand-to-hand combat and weaponry, as well as being a psychological terrorist – he’s a great manipulator of minds to perform his intentions and do his bidding.”
[…]In a different interview with MTV, Cumberbatch once again stresses that Harrison is a terrorist but he refuses to reveal if the name is just an alias of another master villain. “He’s a terrorist; he operates as a terrorist,” he dishes, adding that the character “has an interesting relationship with Kirk, and with Spock in a way. He very much plays them off against each other. There’s an element of shadow to him and Kirk.”(source)
Are you fucking. Shitting me.
And you might be thinking now, “Hey, Gena, he said psychological terrorist, and you did say TOS Khan’s an abuser, so maybe–”
…AND IN 3D, TOO.
This Khan– this Khan opens up with blackmailing a man into chemically suicide-bombing his own Starfleet/gov’t. office building in London. Then, the main thrust of his villainy seems to center around crashing the fuck out of the Enterprise, downing it hard out of the air into the visually distinct architectural landmarks of a major American city (in this case, San Francisco, home to Starfleet HQ). In case that wasn’t subtle enough for you, there’s also an after-credits scene dedicating the movie to post-9/11 veterans.
Because that’s exactly the mental image people needed to associate with one of the only pop-culturally prominent and iconic Sikh characters in American sci-fi. That’s the correlation that was missing 47 years ago. Way to capitalize on life-and-death xenophobic Islamophobia, assholes.
Some folks also say having a White villain “allows” the audience to sympathize with Khan (which is deeply problematic in itself), and add in the bonus argument that a PoC actor, particularly a Desi actor, would have made the movie too racist, and so, really, people should be grateful. For what, I don’t see– being blamed for racism and racist storytelling in a racist infrastructure, literally, for existing? And if only you let White actors tell your story, it’d be golden, because you are the racist element? I don’t know– being treated as a villain euphemistically? I mean, what, I’m supposed to believe the movie’s so antiracist that the newly-christened-as-White villain plays into every military industrial complex stereotype of the Terrorist Other (and the “Converted” Other-Infected/Disguised-Other Terrorist Hiding Within [vs. “true” domestic terrorists/terrorism, which is still claimed as one’s culture’s own], if you really want to go with the extra desperate “maybe he wasn’t even the real Khan!” arguments), but, hey, he kept the name Khan Noonien Singh? BITE ME. Why the fuck are people so dedicated to protecting this racist-ass plot in, literally, its most racist way of existing barring brownface and gibberish? I’m going to have to assume… it’s racism, meaning its aggressive defenders who seem to cherish it so much… are racist. That’s, literally, the only conclusion I can reach.
And some folks said, after the casting reveal, that not only would a PoC actor have given away that the villain was Khan, his being Khan would have given away the movie’s plot. I’m going to assume most of them were talking about the Wrath of Khan inversion, here, but the point still stands that 1) if a casting gives away your movie’s entire plot, particularly as re-adapted material, your lack of writing skill is not a me problem, but, being more realistic, 2) if casting a Desi actor would not only have told you the character they were playing was Khan, but would also tell you that they were going to plot the slaughter of a bunch of armed servicemembers in a “terrorist story,” that either says a whole fuck of a lot about you, or– being more generous– a whole fuck of a lot about the quality of the storytellers’ work, and/or the state of racism in Hollywood storytelling in general right now.
But if you really want a less problematic movie? Rewrite the shit. Or don’t. Use. Khan. IT’S AN EASY FIX. There was no way to tell this movie’s story with this character and have it not be some kind of clusterfuck. Leave it the fuck alone. AND. If you don’t like being called a racist, maybe stop doing racist shit!
They should never have gone there. On several fronts. This director and producers shouldn’t have gone there even without their own “contributions” to ST’s canon, because they took a franchise— whose tagline is “to boldly go where no man [no one] has gone before,” natch— and sure as shit boldly went into the same fearmongering, hatemongering territory PoC have been having to live with and White-supremacist culture has definitely gone for over half a century.
It wasn’t ever going to be great. It wasn’t even ever going to be good, actors’ performances notwithstanding (which, as I’ve read, far and away outstrip every other aspect of the film barring lensflare abuse and SFX– aside from the obvious issue and the obvious actor, I have no problems with the cast whatsoever; and, while I maintain that if you can pick up and deposit your big boy checks, you can deal with the big boy repercussions of your actions, it should be fairly obvious by this point that I don’t consider Benedict Cumberbatch the only or the most guilty party in this fiasco).
If this is any indicator of what Abrams, Kurtzman, and Orci are willing or able to turn out when given the wherewithal to do so— financially, creatively, and with the availability of choice from a planetwide acting pool— based off of other people’s framework, since the new movieverse is a reboot of a multi-season television series as well as its tie-in films— they not only don’t deserve the accolades that have been and are being heaped on them, they don’t deserve to have millions of dollars and the rights to other people’s work handed over to them, even with as simple an expectation that they not do more harm nor create a product simultaneously worse and more antiquated in values than the original material.
They’re hacks. And they’re racist hacks, to boot.
Wait, wait! There’s more.
People try to defend this movie’s whitewashing in spite of all of that.
People want to get into fact-checking wars over extraneous details in light of all of the above.
Like I said, this reality check’s on me.
There’s a few stories about the character’s conception– io9 has a pretty great post up on the details around the writing and production of both Space Seed and Wrath of Khan that gives as clear a timeline of the creative process for TOS as anyone can hope for. Which is to say, not very; the article has internal consistency, but I’ve read easily a half dozen variations of it with minor details shifted around, sometimes to serve authors’ interests, other times just because ST:TOS was on a shoestring budget with multiple cooks in the kitchen and inconsistent recordkeeping even episode-to-episode, let alone between various canons (Khan’s name is often given as Khan Noonien Singh, though there are novels listing him as Sibahl Khan Noonien, for example), between television and movie productions (iirc, the writers were upfront about having goofed in Khan “remembering” Chekov in Wrath of Khan, since Koenig hadn’t joined the cast yet– he stepped in while George Takei was filming The Green Berets– though the EU has its various patches for said continuity break), or, naturally, each involved party’s various narrative of how things went down.
In fact, one of the older stories around Khan– his being named after one of Roddenberry’s old war friends– got its own added sense of drama with this article in particular. According to Google, March of 2013 was the first time it had any records of “Noonien Wang,” mentioned here as a Chinese friend who’d dropped out of touch with G.R. in the ’40s. The story before that, as far as I’d always read (generally through various forums and the Memory Alpha wiki, but this is supposedly this version’s earliest [extant] web hit) was “Kim Noonien Singh.” Arguments for the latter origin story have leaned more towards the specificity of Khan-the-character’s Sikh background (touched on less in canon, and more in Greg Cox’s Eugenics Wars novels); arguments for the former have, disturbingly, leaned more towards justifying the “racial ambiguity” and implied ethnic plasticity of Khan-the-character– surprising no one, skewing heavily towards holy Whiteness as default, Batman!– on the basis that “Noonien” neither indicates Sikhism nor presence in the Desi diaspora. (It sure as shit doesn’t indicate Scandinavianness or give off any Anglican vibes, either, but that never comes up in such conversations.)
Other people try and attack that his name includes both “Khan” and “Singh,” due to Khan being a Muslim last name, and Singh being a Sikh one, and use that to declare him Not So Much A Sikh After All, Eh? Or, the same as the above argument, to suggest that Poor Research = Invalid Results– which would be true if this was a science lab experiment, but not so much when you talk about deliberate choices with full authorial control in fiction writing– in a show that’s shown itself to often be a specific commentary on, or written with an awareness of, the times and environment it was being produced and released in, particularly as regards racial bigotry. If the story says Khan Noonien Singh is a Sikh, guess what? Not only is he a Sikh, whether you like it or not, there’s also a reason behind that. I don’t care if you don’t like it.
And I’ve seen some amazing theories in-verse– I tend to go with “Khan” as a title (as in leadership of a Khanate), considering the character is said to have ruled all of Asia and the Middle East (I said goooddamn); others say the Augments’ being named after the scientists collaborating on their development and birth, implying more of a world effort on this bioengineering front, supplementing Khan himself’s non-Whiteness in pursuit of the perfect human; and the most interesting one I’ve seen is that Khan would represent a future with less religious strife on the Subcontinent, one where intermarriage between Muslims and Sikhs could be a conceivably commonplace reality, and where people would keep both elements of their heritage in their name, worn proudly and for all to see in a world where wars and personal battles may not be fought over such things anymore. If that were the case– even if it weren’t the case, and that’s just an interpretation– it’s certainly a profound one. Rather than poor research, Khan would be a deliberately pan-South-Asian construct; as an individual, the way we could go bad, certainly, but not as a result of his heritage so much as a result of the superiority he is demonstrated to truthfully have in spades– and who, for all his foibles, is someone Scotty, Bones, and Kirk admit they admire, despite (and because of the way he carried out) his iron-fisted rule.
That’s some heavy shit.
George Takei has said, of his character Hikaru Sulu, that despite (or because of) the character’s last name as non-nationality-specific in origin, Takei made the choice to play the role as a pan-Asian/pan-Asian-American representation for the future– that, though his background was Japanese, in Sulu, Asians and Asian-Americans could see themselves, regardless of whether or not they were Japanese, too. John Cho approached George Takei before filming STXI with concerns over any imposed pan-Asianness due to erasure– with him as a Korean-American actor playing a character originated by a Japanese-American actor, he didn’t want to sort of– cross-yellowface, if that makes sense, by going along with catchall Otherization through the identity-erasing lens of White-centricity that sees all Asians/Asian-Americans as identical. George Takei gave Cho his blessing, of course; and, never one to disappoint, Cho has repeatedly spoken against (read: thrown shaaade over) Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting as Khan in the lead-up for his second Trek film, as far as it appears the boundaries of his contract will allow, all things considered– because, hey, no matter what “leverage” you try to use to invalidate the identity of even a fictional character (because trust and believe, people do it to other people in the real world more than enough), attempting to dismantle PoC identity in favor of giving yourself some kind of “pass” to deploy monolithic Whiteness is a racist fucking act.
Those whitewashing defense/Sikh denial arguments all tend to wrap up in the particular kind of “colorblind casting” argument with overtones of “now shut up and stop talking about it” that all-too-often comes in defense of whitewashing, often with bonus Orwellian ouroboros-like victim-blamey arguments around PoC representation at all (“There are plenty of roles for PoC if you try hard enough,” “If you want to get ahead, you should stop taking stereotypical roles,” “If you don’t take on enough roles, you won’t be a marketable actor, so someone with a bigger name is going to get the part,” “You’ll have to take some lower-quality roles at first,” “Maybe they just chose the actor with the strongest resumé,” “You’re limiting yourself by perceiving all of this to be about race,” “‘[LEAD CHARACTER]: Caucasian or any other ethnicity,'” and so on and so on, ad infinitum). And they tend to dismiss Khan’s racial background, if not on the basis that Roddenberry didn’t know what he was doing and/or got the character and his religion wrong in the ’60s, then on the basis that, said characterization having been decided “on a whim,” and/or decided in a manner that was influenced by the casting of his actor, makes it a less valid character trait than, say, Spock’s nerve pinch or Vulcan salute, both off-script Nimoy inventions pulled into episodes fairly last-minute.
So while I’d normally say, “Who cares? It’s a background story piece of trivia that no one can really answer for sure, and it has no bearing on the story”– because, heads up, no matter how many rough drafts J.K. Rowling has kicking around of her Hogwarts novels, that kid’s name is still Harry Potter now– and, hell, Star Trek had a pilot without Kirk whatsoever, and test footage of Spock in brick-red makeup, and that doesn’t make one not exist and the other look anything more like a PR disaster about to happen in the show that did get made– I’m going to address that right now. Since those kind of self-serving logical fallacies are more often than not used to prop up unbalanced power structures at the cost of me and people like me, in favor of folks more interested in telling formulaic tales of White Men and their Only Interacting With Other White Men Adventures, even in 2013, and even when those stories are literally snatched out of PoC’s hands, I guess it needs to be said. Preferably loudly.
Even if they did hold any kind of weight, these discarded drafts and behind-the-scenes trivia wouldn’t outweigh actual canon, the context in which said canon was conceived, nor the impact, significance, and existence of said canon– dare I say, factors which wither those discarded drafts and trivia into little more than footnotes, if that, in the story of this story. And regarding the factors leading up to the original decisions in the writing and casting of Khan– the real world context beyond the in-verse justifications– tossed-out script proposals do not get to pull rank on real world history.
And even if they were going to be factors in development of a new canon, 1. that doesn’t exempt you from critical discussion, and 2. doesn’t lend you any legitimacy over anybody else. Likewise, when those changes are retrograde to the representational diversity and storytelling of the 1960s, I’m going to suspect a White-supremacy-serving agenda. I mean, even for something that could be as troublingly inconsistent as Star Trek: TOS, if you want to play with hard canon facts– if you want to say Khan’s race is arbitrary, not only as a series character, but as a character who returned as a major antagonist for a feature film– then where the fuck is my Latin@ Spock? Where’s my Black Dr. McCoy? Where’s my indigenous Captain Kirk?
I don’t exactly see the same fans bending over backwards to justify Cumberbatch’s casting lining up to defend Lucy Liu in Elementary. Oh, wait, it’s because racial interchangability in this case is really just code for PoC disposability. Just sayin’.
Likewise, if we’re going for equal-opportunity sexualization so much, why not any scenes– left in-movie, mind– where, say, Anton Yelchin walks in on John Cho in his underwear in their ship’s quarters and immediately strips down himself? Talk nerdy while you do it. But not to each other, of course. Why not introduce three bedroom-scene-only male characters to lounge, only in their lacy underthings, in some female character’s bed post-coitus, when the woman in question either, say, ducks out of view, or gets called into work or something? “Duty calls,” she will declare, getting dressed. We never see the men again. Why not that?
But all that’s okay, because it’s a reboot, right? Don’t make such a fuss– this is the sexy, fun Star Trek that takes nothing seriously! The past is the past, man! …Tell me, then, why was there such a fuss made about how closely Zacharay Quinto resembled a young Leonard Nimoy? Tell me why Nimoy and William Shatner both got sign-off rights on the recasting of the characters they pioneered in 1966 if we’re playing fast and loose and irreverent with canon? Tell me why, if we’re so dedicated to the pop-cultural “camp” image of Star Trek: TOS rather than its actual canon, I’m not supposed to laugh at Zapp Brannigan’s incompetence and be more invested in the entertainments offered by his failures and deadpan ex-lovers than in his friendships and family issues? Tell me why all the characters whose arcs begin after the reboot put into place in the 2009 film are left intact, when one of the few characters predating said reboot (okay, technically you have all of ST:ENT and ST:First Contact to go off of, too, but one of the few within TOS) gets drastically rewritten, his background brushed aside, and is, coincidentally, one of the few hugely iconic PoC roles in said series, as well, in favor of casting an Englishman who’s not-really-even-fauxpologized in advance by… attempting to wash his hands of responsibility for taking (and signing a contract for) (and getting paid for) (and reaping the benefits of his own marketability following) a racially inappropriate role?
Nah, those aren’t really questions. I already know why. That ACME-level ruse isn’t a particularly clever one.
It’s a self-aggrandizing, narcissistic/masturbatory argument in order to justify “shaking up” canon– because, hey, nothing fresher and newer and more modern and aesthetically pleasing than more White guys everywhere, am I right?– and, while canon-shaking can be awesome, if done right and done for the right reasons (like, for example, the time that Sir Patrick Stewart used his interest in playing Othello, despite the… obvious barrier, to work with director Jude Kelly towards a “photo negative” production with an African-American company “[featuring] an increased emphasis on abuse against women” in 1997; Baz Luhrmann’s over-the-top Romeo + Juliet, with its multiracial cast; BSG ’04-’09’s changing up main character races and genders, altering metanarratives of the storyline drastically; and, naturally, the enduring popularity of chromatic recasts and Rule 63 fancastings in general), when your end result amounts to, “Hey, there just weren’t enough White men in that story,” I’m going to call that reasoning into question. I don’t even need to question if your story’s been done right– because no matter how masterfully acted each role is in your show, or how brilliantly composed your musical’s score is, or how beautiful a set you’ve assembled, that’s just all the more elaborate a “Go to hell!” fart you’ve pointed in every non-White-man’s direction with your story. It’s like you sent me a note across study hall that you painstakingly crafted into a Kells-level illuminated manuscript– to tell me how much I suck. In fact, you told me to get out of study hall with that shit because nobody likes me (or, better yet, you told me and everybody else that I’m only of value– or even worth paying attention to– if I’m a prop to you and your White men’s existence, preferably providing some fetishistic appeal via dress/undress/or ethnic/racial performance for the Otherizing EYE OF WHITE MEN to stroke your Western ego or stoke your dehumanizing libidinous fire while telling you more about… yourself.)
“The Great Eye sees all. NOW STRIP.”
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: A photo of… more White men! Yaaaayyyy!! None of them are in their underwear.
So I’m going to assume you’re racist and sexist and probably, on some level you may not even acknowledge, hate me for even existing. I mean, there’s not enough White men in your fiction? Maybe there’s not enough White men in this reality! Maybe there will never be enough White men in the world for you. Excuse the fuck out of me for taking up good space and air and matter and energy that could have been a White man instead– it’s not like my origin story was important, so long as we defend the iconography of Whiteness. Screw your story, screw your lived experiences, screw validating your emotions and psychological presence as another human being– we’re casting a White man. …Yeah. If you’re lucky my response to that is going to be a politely worded, “Fuck you and the Mayflower you rode in on.”
Especially if you’re looking to line your pockets off of that, and have me be the one to line up and pay for it– and then thank you for your effort afterwards.
Let alone that on a project like Star Trek, you aren’t just erasing people’s present-day existences, you’re also attempting to erase the past, the effort that went into the storytelling around these character and around their stories, and you do so by erasing one of the few futures that has been allowed to non-White-man audiences in the tale of tomorrow– a future that’s stuck around for fifty years, and a future that has had very little in the way of competition on that front for fifty years aside from the franchise (until now) attempting to improve on and outdo itself.
Intent doesn’t matter on this bad boy– even if your only intent was how much you love Benedict Cumberbatch and want to see him in everything and he’s a great actor and, and, and– irrelevant. There’s literally millions upon millions of White boy stories in the world being told every day. Why are you so dedicated to seeing him as Khan– one of the most iconic roles in the genre, and one of the most iconic villainous roles in modern American cinema, and one of the most iconic film roles played by a MoC actor in SF/F ever? What the fuck makes you, and him, feel so damn entitled?
And as far as his skill, what makes him so great? Why not any other actor? Why not an unknown actor? In fact, why do you know his name more readily than, say, Shah Rukh Khan’s, or Naveen Andrews’s, or Sendhil Ramamurthy’s, or Suraj Sharma’s? What’s the context in place behind his being more famous to you, and what does that say about the media you choose to consume, and the media options producers and television and movie executives and actors and writers have made available to you? What does that say about the library of works adaptational media is drawing from that not only is, say, BBC’s Sherlock a majority-White production, but that in the 2010s the material chosen for adaptation into a television show to begin with is something like the majority-White Sherlock Holmes?
And, moreover, why should anybody anywhere prioritize making/hearing/watching yet another White Man tell a story over anybody else’s on the sheer basis of his Whiteness? Particularly when it’s not his story to begin with?
You say Benedict Cumberbatch is one of the most skilled actors of his generation. Whatever truth may or may not be behind that, in light of Star Trek, all I hear when you say that is “White men are more important than you will ever be.” And it’s a song I’ve heard before. And it’s a song I won’t be paying hard-earned money to hear again, no matter how dulcet and English-accented I am assured the singer’s voice is. Color me not the fuck interested in hanging around for that.
Apparently, some folks have agreed with me on that front– not necessarily for my same reasons, but definitely in not spending money on Star Trek Into Darkness– not to Paramount’s satisfaction, anyway.
I’d like to think that this “poor” peformance, by Paramount’s standards, will make them take a second look at the casting issues and writing issues that I know acted as a deterrent for many of the Trekkies/Trekkers they seemed less-enthusiastic to cater to than with their last film (I mean, I know how, but… how?? I wouldn’t have thought you could get a less “Trek” story than the action sequences strung together in ’09 pretending to be a cohesive plot [supplementary materials and deleted scenes helped that quite a bit, and I love them combined into one storyline, honestly, but… still. You shouldn’t need those], but, uh, I didn’t realize Abrams was going to balls up everything for his encore performance). I know better, though. They’re more likely to blame it on the Star Trek franchise itself, or on the direction, which they will consider no longer a “them” problem, JJ Abrams having moved on to Disney/Lucasfilm’s new Star Wars movies– possibly to abandon that ship in time to return for Trek’s 50th anniversary in three years. He’s bragged before about being more of a Star Wars fan and never having been into Star Trek, so I assume the move suits him– but then, he’s said a lot of things.
But if Star Wars fans could ever learn anything from Star Trek fans, at very least they should let Star Trek Into Darkness be a warning to them. I won’t Admiral Ackbar at you guys.
But I will say I’ve got a bad feeling about this.
Unlike the writing and development of Star Trek and the character of Khan Noonien Singh, it is entirely a happy accident that this article was posted on the 31st anniversary of the premiere of Wrath of Khan, the first Star Trek 2 (II).
The Gena-Approved Recommendation for your viewing pleasure today would, naturally, be Space Seed, followed by Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (on YouTube and Amazon, $2.99 ea. [free with Amazon Prime], and streaming on Netflix). Happy viewing!