Whitewashing and Terrorism: A Star Trek Trailer Critique

Star Trek: Into Darkness isn’t even out yet, and yet I only needed to see the trailer to have massive issues with it. I am a Trek Fangirl, and therefore I will not be appeased by J. J. Abrams’ little “nods” to “nerddom” as they are usually referred to in the preliminary movie critiques. Yes, I actually liked the first Star Trek movie he did. Not because it was Star Trek, but because it was a cool, well-made action-film.

Now there is only so much “well-made action” one can take. At some point, I long for the drama, the intense conversations, the personal conflicts that shaped the Original Series as well as The Next Generation. Yep, I’m one of the Picard fans. It should be obvious why I have a problem with too-much-action Star Trek! I quote the Gameological society: “Abrams uses Star Trek’s characters but neglects the themes that made the series great.”

But this is not the case here: My problem is the villain. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

There was much speculation on Benedict Cumberbatch beforehand, assumptions went all over the place, and now it’s finally out on the table: Khan. I couldn’t believe it. I know, everybody and their mom just LOVE Cumberbatch, and although I haven’t seen much with him I tend to agree that he’s pretty cool. (Sorry, Sherlock fans, haven’t seen that yet..) But Khan? Dark-skinned, Indian Sikh, formerly played by a Mexican?

Of course it has already been noted that using “darkface” on Ricardo Montalbán is one of those typical practices in cinematic history we’d love to forget, yet still argue about, today. And yet, you know what’s even worse than that? Whitewashing!

Geek Feminism (a website I only now discovered?!) already collected a few links on the topic before it was even clear that white, British actor Cumberbatch was indeed playing the enigmatic Khan. This is not some random nitpicking. This is striking!

I will not even go into the topic of how problematic whitewashing is in general, but let it be said that there is still a lot of touchiness in Hollywood regarding the subject of casting actors and actresses of colour. Remember the idiotic Game of Thrones outrage, when the roles of Salladhor Saan, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Grey Worm etc. where given to black actors? Apparently in The Hunger Games this was an issue, too.

So now we actually have a character that’s supposed to be Indian, and they refuse to deliver it. Why? Honestly, I have no idea why they wouldn’t cast an Indian or even mixed-race actor for this role. (Obviously they can hardly pull off a darkface on Cumberbatch…although I would have loved to see the shitstorms afterwards.)

I always loved the fact that the alternate “history” in the Star Trek Universe was not only shaped by a Eurocentric or “west”-centered world view. Orientalism and all that in mind, “the west” is still so arrogant to believe that it’s view is the only thing that matters in world history  - yet Roddenberry embraced a wider view: Khan ruled absolutely over huge parts of the Earth in the mid-1990s, in an obviously Asia-centered empire. I don’t think that the originators of this idea meant it as a “scare” for American whites – although it surely must have seemed so in 1967 when “Space Seed” first aired – but simply as a logical, in-universe development after World War III. This is an important detail in a series that has always leaned on the patriotic side.

Star Trek TOS made a bold statement about multiculturalism with its pointedly mixed crew, especially about race relations in the USA with the inclusion of Uhura. All the other Star Trek franchises have tried to pick up on this (with TNG unfortunately being the most white of them all.) This is a universe that really tries to represent all of Earth’s different cultures, so why shouldn’t there be a non-white villain? Why take multiculturalism away from Star Trek and make Khan a white guy?

So how do we look at Khan in general, possibly the most awesome villain the Star Trek franchise produced? The thing to be kept in mind is, the eugenic Khan Noonien Singh has a very rich backstory, one that firmly roots him in the history of the Star Trek Universe. The issue of genetic engineering was a central part of the violent wars that shook Earth before it “evolved” into the space age. The topic pertains to almost every spin-off in some way. The basic question of Star Trek is something like “where do we go from here?” Since Enterprise, it has even been established that the entire eugenics theme eventually leads to the creation of Data.

Because of the essential questions connected with eugenics, this has always been a personal story. Does “superior ability breed superior ambition”? Khan is proof of that. Do individual actions and experiences shape a character? Yes, they do: We don’t know what would have happened to Khan and his people on Ceti Alpha V had it not become a barren wasteland. Maybe they would have prospered and eventually returned to harass the Federation. Maybe they would have lived in peace. Who knows?

J. J. Abrams thinks he knows. In interviews about Into Darkness he talked about how some people may be destined to meet, even in alternate universes. I agree that this makes for a neat and simple plot idea, but then again, we only think the meeting between Kirk and Khan to be necessary and essential because it is so central to Star Trek canon!

In the actual fictional universe, their meeting was so extremely random, and their enmity only really took off as a consequence of random chance, that I don’t see why “fate” should have had anything to do with it. I always thought that the alternate or mirror universes, alternate timelines and possible futures all shown in Star Trek TOS and its spin-offs would give proof to the opposite: that the universe is governed mostly by random happenstance.

But we are willing to overlook that in favor of fan-service  right? Of course Abrams had to cash in on Khan, even in such a roundabout way as he does (as far as I understood it from the newspaper review I read, he’s brought into the future for …shady reasons?).

Which brings me to my last point. A TERRORIST, really? It has been noted by numerous reviewers about numerous films already: Hollywood seems unable to process bad guys any more as anything but terrorists. I’m not American, so obviously I cannot relate to post-9/11 trauma. But is this really all you’ve got, Hollywood? Can you really take a villain that’s as complex and rich as Khan and turn him into a simple, aggressive terrorist?

Remember, Khan was not just some random dude who blew stuff up. He does not just pretend to be “better” in many ways, he actually is better in many ways. He was engineered to be. This means he’s not only stronger, he’s also more intelligent, more capable. Kirk admired these qualities in him. For that reason he was, what was that word, oh yeah: AMBIGUOUS.

But ambiguity and subtlety have no place in modern action-movies. Star Trek: Into Darkness will be a buddy movie about Kirk and Spock jumping off cliffs and getting into fist fights. Fun, yes, but not subtle. And that is what Khan originally brought into the picture: He highlighted many of the qualities Kirk himself possessed, but showed what happens when a capable person cannot exercise restraint.

He was portrayed as a warrior – as Kirk sometimes is, too, even though he tries very hard not to be one. Kirk and Spock try to clarify that in an era of peace, people like Khan had to adapt. A similar theme was explored in the TNG episode “The Hunted”, where a man engineered for war was imprisoned because he could not “function” in a peaceful society. He, and others like him, turned to terrorism, too; but with the express goal of re-integration into the society that kicked them out. There is no perfect solution to this problem, which is why the crew of the Enterprise leaves the planet without learning how the situation was resolved. Khan’s imprisonment on Ceti Alpha V was not only just a (rather convenient) compromise, it was also a move where nobody could predict how it would end.

I don’t think that Khan was actually meant to come across as a terrorist-type. He wanted to lead, to rule, as he did before. J. J. Abrams also mentioned in that interview that even though history might change, people didn’t. So is Khan a terrorist because he was always meant to be one? Was it inevitable? Actually, isn’t the entire story of The Wrath of Khan based on that one, tiny orbital shift ? Was Khan really destined to go after Kirk?

All I can say to that is: I don’t know. My final verdict will have to wait until after I’ve actually seen Into Darkness. I am not expecting much, so it may yet surprise me. From what I read, Cumberbatch makes a great villain – which I do not doubt – and probably the most serious drama this film has to offer. We’ll see.

I am extremely grateful to one of my most-visited websites, Memory Alpha, where most of the images in this post are from.

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5 thoughts on “Whitewashing and Terrorism: A Star Trek Trailer Critique

  1. without wanting to spoiler too much: start to see the “new” movies as a parallel universe. ive just seen the movie. it is kind of a nice action movie.but as a star trek fan you WILL rage at a lot of canon-errors :)

    • No worries about spoilers, I’m not so touchy anymore ^^ That kind of comes “with the job” as a literary scholar… *sigh* And of course I am seeing them as parallel universes… like the mirror universe, just instead of everyone being evil, everyone is now flat, unsubtle and actiony ^^

  2. maybe your blog made me realize it more…but *Minor-SPOILER* Uhura was soooo obvious a “look at me,im a tough-girl. i can talk down the klingons”-kinda woman it hurt.
    and *more minor spoilering* Spock kissing/ crying in public made me almost leave the cinema….as for the end? go and watch it. i want to see you rage,too :D

    • Haha, I think there is really no way for me not to see it now. And I *preliminarily* agree with you on the Spock thing. *sigh* I wish cinema wasn’t so expensive though T_T

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