Don’t worry, all spoilers are under the cut. The rumour may turn out to be bogus, but I can understand why you’d want to be careful. I wish I didn’t know this, but I stumbled across it and cursed the sky. Now I might as well muse on it.
Analysis is perhaps premature, but there’s a ring of truth to this that warrants discussion. Regardless, the instinctive reaction to this rumour from Trek fans and observers is telling in the assumptions it provokes.
So don’t click through if you want to remain unspoiled for now.
So Trekmovie, AICN, Vulture, and a whole bunch of sites received allegedly sound information from their sources that Benedict Cumberbatch is indeed playing Khan Noonien Singh in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek sequel.
The rumour confirmed an assumption when both Benicio del Toro and Edgar Ramirez were up for the villain role, which was corroborated by some industry chatter. The thinking was that Ricardo Montalban was Hispanic, and so another Hispanic actor would be cast in the same role, even though Khan himself was a Sikh.
So Benedict Cumberbatch comes along, looking decidedly not Hispanic or like a Sikh, and the rumours seemed like just that. And now the rumour is back. This time, the assumption is that Abrams is foolhardy enough to re-use the villain from the most acclaimed and beloved Trek film and that he would cast Cumberbatch to play an ethnicity he is clearly not suited for.
The latter in particular seems far-fetched, so there must be more to the story. There’s more counting against Khan being the sequel villain.
See, the tangent universe established in the first Trek universe is still beholden to Trek future history until the point that Nero’s ship emerged from the temporal rift. So yes, even Enterprise is still canon. More pertinently, the established era of the Eugenics Wars–the 1990s–would arguably have to be adhered to. This date was established in the original series episode where Khan debuted, “Space Seed”.
Obviously as the franchise moved on into the 1990s and 2000s, this particular date needed to be glossed over. The Voyager two-parter “Future’s End” was set in then-contemporary 1990s California, and no reference was made to the war. We were led to assume that it was happening elsewhere in the world and America was as yet unaffected.
The problem has never come up again because the Eugenics Wars were never directly dealt with in a story. In the new film, they would need to be. Sure, the writers could retcon it and say they took place 100 years later or something, but they went to so much trouble to create an alternate timeline to preserve the original Trek universe that they devoted the first film’s plot to setting it up. Why undo all that work by blatantly disregarding a key date?
As for why Abrams should avoid Khan, the reasons should be clear: it would betray a stunning conservatism and lack of creativity. After establishing the vast tableau of the Trek universe and giving themselves the freedom to tell any story they want, they immediately fall back to the safety of the franchise’s most iconic individual villain (as opposed to a species, such as the Klingons or the Romulans).
To do so would, in my opinion, utterly squander the impressive feat that Abrams and co. achieved in resurrecting Trek so soon after the franchise’s decline and making it more mainstream than ever before. Granted, this Trek felt different and was less socially conscious or scientifically curious, but it still resembled Trek enough that it was exciting to see this universe back on screen. The possibilities were now limitless. Instead, they can’t look beyond their own nose and have run straight into the comforting arms of the ever-popular Khan.
Of course, what’s pointless about these gripes is that the villain may not be Khan. What would make them more ambiguous is if Khan is being used in an utterly different fashion: less a nemesis for Kirk and more a catalyst for a galactic conflict of some kind. Perhaps Khan’s ship is indeed discovered, but Cumberbatch is playing another superman and Khan doesn’t survive. That twist would be so distractingly cheeky though that I doubt Abrams would risk undermining the story with fans that way.
Regardless, there are other ways to use Khan. For one thing, it couldn’t ape The Wrath of Khan because the character would never have been exiled to Ceti Alpha V by Kirk, as he was in “Space Seed”. While an innovative redeployment of the character would certainly be preferable, it still rankles as a product of the brand recognition mentality that pervades Hollywood.
Defensive comparisons have been made with Christopher Nolan using the Joker in The Dark Knight. He managed to employ the character in a completely different fashion to Tim Burton, so why can’t Abrams?
The defence has little merit because Jack Nicholson’s performance was not the first appearance of the character. The Joker has been a consistent presence in comic books for 70 years, and has appeared in the 1960s live-action TV show and the 1990s animated series. Before Nolan got hold of him, the Joker had already been interpreted and re-interpreted in innumerable ways, which is testament to the versatility of the character and his primal, chaotic force. Nicholson’s performance was not a sacred cow.
Khan, on the other hand, appeared twice, played by the same actor in the same continuity. He hasn’t been re-interpreted yet because he hasn’t appeared since. Of course, you could rightly argue that no-one else has played the original Enterprise cast either, and we all survived the shock to the system. To be honest, I’m still a little dismayed at that conservatism too, but realistically there was no other way to relaunch the franchise. The iconic original characters were needed to gain traction with audiences.
But Abrams and Paramount have that traction now. The first film was a big hit, so why not think big? Get wildly creative and tap the Trek universe for all its worth. As iconic as Khan is, he isn’t Kirk’s archnemesis. The Joker is, not because he’s the most popular but because he’s the opposite of Batman in every way. He complements and defines him, and that’s why the binary is so compelling. Khan and Kirk are compelling together because The Wrath of Khan was such a good movie.
The Joker emerging in Nolan’s version of Batman was a welcome inevitability because the character is central to the mythos. Khan is not. Trek is much bigger than that, and is fundamentally about social and political ideas engaged in with a sense of wonder and adventure. That’s why the franchise could spawn so many spin-offs with new casts without them betraying its origins. If 25 seasons of television didn’t need to rehash Khan somehow, then why does Abrams in sequel number one?
But again, this could all be moot. However, the reaction to the Khan rumour is so elaborate both here and across the Internet because it sounds so plausible, and that’s what’s noteworthy about this issue. We’ve grown so cynical about Hollywood’s profit-motivated nostalgia that there’s a sad inevitability to Khan being the villain that’s difficult to shake. We’re not jumping on this possibility because it’s any old morsel from the hyper-secretive Star Trek production. We’re jumping on it because it could so easily be true and poorly executed that we’re partially resigned even as we rage against it.
What’s most searing is that our appreciation for Khan’s place in Trek lore is no doubt what would have driven them to that choice in the first place. We are being re-served what we’ve had before because we liked it once before, and now it’s biting us in the backside without asking our permission.
Or Cumberbatch isn’t Khan. In which case, yay. Carry on. It really does seem pretty crazy. For both he and del Toro to be in the running must mean it’s a new character, or they’ve rewritten him somewhat. If he is Khan, I would love to be proven wrong and see the character repurposed in a more dynamic way than I can imagine.
The first trailer should surely reveal what’s going on, and perhaps we’ll see one this northern summer. Prepare for the Internet to explode in fury or sigh with relief.