Star Trek: To boldly go where the franchise has already gone before

Khan and Kirk face off in Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness is the highest-grossing Star Trek film to date. It’s a good movie, but it could have been great. The main problem was the decision to reintroduce Khan into the new Star Trek timeline.

Ricardo Montalban‘s depiction of Khan Noonien Singh saved Star Trek. Without his legendary performance in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek as we know it today would not exist. Interest in the franchise would have gradually dwindled to the point where the average person in 2016 would not even know what Star Trek is.

“Common, you’re exaggerating!” Am I? Without the success of The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek: The Next Generation wouldn’t have been green lit. Had The Wrath of Khan flopped, there wouldn’t have been any further Star Trek television series or movies. Every single success Star Trek has had post 1982 is directly because of The Wrath of Khan.

In my previous article I discussed how the Star Trek: The Next Generation film series almost destroyed Star Trek. Those movies still made money by standing on the shoulders of The Wrath of Khan.

I would even argue that Star Trek‘s (2009) popularity is owed to The Wrath of Khan. General audiences gave the movie a shot because of our collective unconscious’ familiarity with The Wrath of Khan.

On the one hand it makes sense that Star Trek‘s sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, would feature Khan as its villain. This would, theoretically, energize the Star Trek fan base. I’m not naive — I know that big budget Hollywood movies are about making money. Paramount continues to make Star Trek movies because of brand recognition, and so why not increase your profits by including Star Trek’s most famous villain?

Remember how I said Star Trek (2009) did a perfect job setting up our characters? James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) had a complete character arc in the film, and so the sequel was naturally going to focus more on setting up a complex and interesting villain. We already feel like we know Kirk, Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the rest of the team. If Star Trek (2009) was Kirk’s story, the sequel should have logically been the villain’s story.

My main gripe is, why did it have to be Khan? Benedict Cumberbatch always plays such great villains, and his onscreen chemistry with Chris Pine is mesmerizing. Benedict Cumberbatch is a virtuoso of villains, but he should not have been playing Khan. For these reasons:

1. Khan Noonien Singh is Indian, and he is a pale British guy. #castingfail #colonialism

2. Khan and Kirk, in Star Trek Into Darkness, have no history together. Which equals:

3. Inevitable fan disappointment.Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan poster

In case you’re not a die hard Trek nerd (you’ve kissed a girl), here’s a warp speed recap. Khan first appears in the 1960s television series. Khan is a genetically enhanced warlord who, along with others of his kind, once tried to take over the world. Khan and his men were frozen for 200 years, but then were found and revived by the Enterprise crew. Khan nearly takes over the Enterprise with both his strength and cunning. Kirk eventually outsmarts Khan. Khan admits defeat and accepts exile on the rough but inhabitable planet Ceti Alpha V. Khan and his men are left to conquer the planet. Khan also takes Lt. McGivers, who voluntarily leaves the Enterprise after falling in love with him, as his bride.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan takes place 15 years later. “Space Seed,” a.k.a. the episode of Star Trek with Khan, had become a cult favorite among fans. Fans of the show considered Khan to be the perfect foil to Kirk, Spock and Bones. I agree. Starfleet is all about honesty, integrity and using logic for the greater good. Khan evil, narcissistic, and ruthless.

Ceti Alpha VI, Khan’s neighboring planet, exploded shortly after the Enterprise crew left. This resulted in Ceti Alpha V becoming a desert planet that killed most of Khan’s people, including his wife. Khan now seeks revenge on Kirk.

In contrast, Kirk has spent the last several years as a Starfleet admiral living a comfortable — almost too comfortable — life. The two are perfectly contrasted. Khan is savage while Kirk is stately. Khan’s motivation is vengeance while Kirk’s motivation is trying to hold on to his youth after turning 50. Kirk misses his days aboard the Enterprise, and soon cruel fate reintroduces him to command. Be careful what you wish for, Captain…

I love The Wrath of Khan because Kirk finally gets taken down a peg. He went through his entire Starfleet career as smug, arrogant and cool-headed. Khan finally manages to break Kirk. It’s as satisfying as it is terrifying to watch.

Star Trek Into Darkness needed Kirk’s perfect foil. Why couldn’t Benedict Cumberbatch be a psychotic man who had some kind of grudge against Kirk? Maybe a Starfleet officer who served aboard the Enterprise who Kirk fired because of some misunderstanding. Or he could just be a terrorist named John Harrison.

The film was marketed as “John Harrison is the bad guy.” He’s introduced as a terrorist, and his target is the United Federation of Planets.

It’s silly that they didn’t stick with that since John Harrison is a perfectly intimidating villain. The “big reveal” that he’s actually Khan could have been a different twist. Maybe his wife and family were killed when Nero attacked Earth in the last movie?

Or how about this. John Harrison opposes the idea of Starfleet. I understand that Idris Elba‘s villain in the upcoming Star Trek Beyond will challenge Starfleet’s principles, so why couldn’t John Harrison have been that?

Star Wars has Darth Vader, Star Trek has Khan. I believe Benedict Cumberbatch had the talent to potentially be an iconic villain in this new Star Trek universe.

But by making him Khan, the circumstances weren’t satisfying. Because the characters didn’t know who Khan was, it didn’t have any effect on them (or the general audience, if they hadn’t seen the earlier screen versions of Khan). When John Harrison reveals, “My name…. is KHAAAAAAN,” Kirk and Spock just look at him unfazed, as if to say, “OK… who’s Khan?”

KhanWe should have known who John Harrison was and what his motivations were, or at the very least they could have been revealed to us in an interesting way. What are Khan’s motivations? To take over the world? Boooooring. At least in The Wrath of Khan it was personal.

I think J.J. Abrams wanted us to see Kirk at his lowest point. There were so many Deus Ex Machinas in the previous movie that I think Abrams wanted us to see Kirk lose for a change. What would happen if Kirk’s actions actually had consequences? This was done well, save for the ending, which I’ll spare you for the sake of spoilers in case you haven’t seen it. The ending completely lost the film’s momentum and suspense, and let’s just say it borrows just a bit too much from previous Star Trek films.

My biggest complaint about Star Trek Into Darkness is the fact that it doesn’t work as a self-contained film. Star Trek (2009) does and so does Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Star Trek Into Darkness relies too much on gags from the previous film; cheap nostalgia from Star Trek’s 50 year history and too many esoteric references for the general audience. Star Trek (2009) works because the setup is basically: Here are the good guys and here are the bad guys. The Wrath of Khan’s set up is actually the same, albeit told in a subtler way with more underlying themes.

Star Trek Into Darkness would have been perfect with these slight alterations:

1. Make the story the self-contained rise and fall of John Harrison

2. Make Earth the main setting to increase audience investment

3. Make Admiral Pike’s murder a deliberate attempt to hurt Kirk

4. Give Kirk a love interest, or at the very least an emotional anchor other than his crew

5. Eliminate superfluous villains like the Klingons and Admiral Marcus

If you’ve made it this far you either just scrolled to the bottom or are a very astute and patient reader. Thank you for sticking around yet again to read my nerdy spiel on Star Trek. I didn’t hate Star Trek Into Darkness and it’s not a bad movie by any means. I actually really recommend it for fans of Star Trek (2009). A few weeks ago I wrote an article where I said that director Justin Lin has learned from the mistakes of Star Trek Into Darkness and promises that Star Trek Beyond will take Star Trek away from revenge plots. I cannot wait to see Star Trek Beyond.

One more thing. Kirk’s iconic angry yelling of Khan’s name is redone in Star Trek: Into Darkness. Once by Spock, and once by me when it was revealed that John Harrison was actually Khan. “Con!” Get it? The audience was conned into thinking that John Harrison… never mind. ~ Yanis Khamsi

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Comments & Discussion

  1. Kami • July 11, 2016 @ 9:20 PM

    Great review. i watched the movie but I didnt get the subtleties that were inderscored In your article. Can’t wait to see the next star trek. I’ll keep in mind the comments you made in your review.

  2. Carter • July 11, 2016 @ 11:33 PM

    Huh. A new review for a three year old film. You guys are really on top of things.

  3. Andrea • July 12, 2016 @ 9:20 AM

    Really good critical assessment of Star Trek in general. Looking forward to the new one, I hope it’s better than the last one.

  4. Marsha • July 12, 2016 @ 1:05 PM

    Sometimes its not the script that makes a movie but who they get to play the iconic characters.
    Benedict Cumberbatch great actor and AMAZING Khan. I dont think Star Trek into Darkness would have made that much if it was’nt for his acting.
    Can’t wait for the next Star Trek hope it can live up to the previous one.

  5. C-Dubya • July 12, 2016 @ 1:47 PM

    In a way I agree with the article. I think it should have stayed as John Harrison. Or how about one of the frozen people was Kahn, just not unfrozen to cause havok yet. A story about John Harrison dying trying to save Kahn and his crew of engineered humans and Kahn thaws out later in the new movies to exact revenge when they can flesh out his character better. Think about that. So I agree it really should have been about this John Harrison guy. PLUS it could have avoided all the backlash about Kahn being a white british guy that seemed to bother a lot of people before the movie came out. I also think that Wrath of Kahn was great, but I think if the movies lasted until The Voyage Home, thats the one that people would have made a turning point for future viewership. I am stoked to see the next installment though.

  6. Big IKE • July 12, 2016 @ 4:05 PM

    OK I like some of the things your saying! I Agree I hated Star Trek until I was 7 and saw Wrath of Khan, and yes all the movies tried to live up to that ever since! Khan is there best villain period, better than the Klingons and Romulans. Now we seen Wrath of Khan we don’t need to see it again. Space Seed was an excellent episode! This movie some what achieved that!! Into the Darkness did not need to be another revenge plot by Khan, it makes more since Pike was just collateral damage and Kirk took to heart. I like Khan made a 23rd Century upgrade it made him that more dangerous than his previous introductions because he always lack 23rd experience in spite his super intellect. This movie really show Khan intellect and his super strength!!!! I thought Marcus was a great villain (General Lee may) and someone like Khan would get empowered would be through someone like that, look Khan built the USS Venengence , the advance torpedoes. I like they did not kill Khan off so he can always come back, Khan never needs to die, like Batmans Joker to Kirk. But its not Kirk that defeated Khan it was the crew of the Enterprise in every encounter each member did there part like this last one. Kirk had a future love interest Carol Marcus. I think this was the best Star Trek movie ever, plus franchise needs a Star Wars action edge, tired of seeing nerdy middle age men talking all the time when now you see adventure with a star trek cerebral edge. Deep Space started off with its Dominion Wars , to Enterprise with Augumets 3 parter to now !

  7. Big IKE • July 12, 2016 @ 4:11 PM

    Voyage Home was Good but its Wrath of Khan! I think him being a British Guy was ok, it gave us a different take on Khan, how Marcus surgically altered him ( Read the Trek Comics afterwards). I think if they did the old Khan no one would live up, I abbrams wanted to avoid that with this new Khan. But it had to be Khan not subordiantes because Khan tube was program to open first (Space Seed).

  8. tristan • July 13, 2016 @ 1:16 AM

    all i know for sure is that every movie the Enterprise will get its butt kicked. The new one should be no different.

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