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LXB: Star Trekkin’

15/05/2013
tags: ,

It’s been a while since I last took part in The League of Extraordinary Bloggers weekly topic challenge, but I’ve recently been reminded that writing about topical subjects is a good thing and this week’s challenge is exactly that.

This week’s challenge: Star Trek

Warning: This post contains spoilers for Star Trek: Into Darkness. If you’re in a self-imposed media blackout until you’ve seen the film, you may want to bookmark this for reading later.

I’ll begin with a confession. I have not seen as much Star Trek as people might think. Yes, I’ve seen most of the movies (I’ve missed one or two of the worse ones) as well as several episodes from The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, but there are still large gaps. The reason for this is mostly one of timing. Here in New Zealand, TV stations used to air genre shows at unusual times. For almost the entirety of its run, Babylon 5 aired in the early afternoon on a Saturday. Far from ideal timing if you enjoyed sci-fi, but also took part in sports events, or had parents who liked to get out of the house on weekends.

Recently, TV stations have been more realistic in their scheduling of genre shows – though they still have to compete with the endless stream of singing and cooking contest shows. OnDemand services also make it possible to watch a show when and (almost) where you like. If this had been an option 20 years ago my gaps would likely be much smaller.

Despite having missed so much of the franchise’s run, I can still make my way through most conversations due to the show’s pervasiveness within out culture. Terms and ideas have made their way into popular culture to such an extent that people will reference Star Trek without even realising it. Admittedly, I have seen enough to distinguish myself from most people, but I don’t have the depth and breadth of knowledge that I have for shows like The X-Files and Stargate SG-1 (both of which aired at much friendlier times throughout their runs).

I think it’s because of all of this that I don’t have as adverse a reaction to J.J. Abrams’ two Star Trek movies that many of the ‘hard core’ fans appear to share. I can understand their disappointment, to an extent, but I genuinely think that his offerings have been some of the best the Franchise has had to offer in a long time. Yes, it’s a departure from much of the aesthetic of the original series, and Abrams does get a little trigger happy with lens flare, but that’s okay. If a franchise is to succeed and grow, some change is required, even if it’s only to keep up with filmmaking technology.

Image from Wookiepedia

That said, not all change is good.

After the success of Star Trek, I thought the die-hard fans would be more accepting of Into Darkness. Sadly, I was wrong. It appears J.J. Abrams has made the fatal mistake of reusing an iconic character from the original series. Here’s the big spoiler: Benedict Cumberbatch is playing Khan, genetic Übermensch and chief antagonist of what is considered the best Star Trek movie. On top of this, they’ve changed the characters back story and appearance considerably.

I could kinda understand the outrage if they’d cast the woman in the role and not provided an explanation for the swap in the movie, but this just comes across as petty and complaining for the sake of complaining. To explain why, let’s take a look at at Khan’s background. According to the Star Trek Wiki, Memory Alpha (which I’m sure is a clever reference, even though I don’t get it): “Khan’s background was suspected to be Sikh, from the northern region of India.”[1] Okay, so Khan is Indian. Well, not quite. In the original series, Khan was portrayed by Mexian actor Ricardo Montalban who is about as Indian as I am Middle Eastern (the TSA might be convinced, but that’s about it). We can pass this off as the producers being a little cheap when it came to ethnic diversity outside of the main cast.

Image from Memory Alpha

It doesn’t count as blackface if they’re aliens

Because Montalban was so iconic in the role they bought him back for Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan and, I guess, just hand-waved away the fact that he still didn’t look very Indian. Warp forward 30 years and it comes time for Into Darkness to go into production. Apparently, the producers originally wanted Benecio del Toro to play Khan. His Puerto Rican ethnicity gives him a similar complexion to Montalban, but is also about as convincingly Indian. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d played a different ethnicity, though. He played Raoul Duke’s Samoan attorney in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – despite barely looking or acting Samoan. For one reason or another, del Toro had to drop out of Into Darkness and the producers recast Khan, this time bringing in the comparatively new Benedict Cumberbatch. Between Sherlock and the upcoming part 2 of The Hobbit, he’s already got an impressive acting resume. He’s also a hit with women (and some of the men, no doubt) so his inclusion might sell even more tickets. The only thing is, he’s white – whiter than both Montalban and del Toro, and much whiter than someone of Indian stock.

Image from nowmagazine.co.uk

So. Very. White.

Apparently this is a step too far for some people. Forget that the production hired a brilliant actor who is more than a match for the film’s protagonists. Forget that the event which opened the previous film has caused massive changes in the timeline. Forget everything. Cumberbatch is too white to play Khan, and this is a terrible thing.

Except it’s not.

Yes, it would have been great if they’d gotten del Toro to stick with the film. Heck, there are a number of Indian actors who I’m sure would have been happy to accept he role. The thing is, Cumberbatch was the one who got the role. Now, if it later comes out that the producers went with him over a darker skinned actor because they wanted someone with lighter skin I’ll be disappointed, but I simply don’t think that’s the case. Some people just need to accept that the people making a film often have different ideas to them, and are seeing a much bigger picture when it comes to making decisions. For instance, how many of us imagined that Anakin Skywalker would be such a whiny bitch, or James Bond would be played by an Australian? Film makers have to decide how to market their movie to the broadest market possible. You could say it’s a case of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few and the one.

Ultimately, the movie is there to entertain us. We might not all agree on all of its aspects. Some of us will like the updated sets and character changes, some of us won’t. We need to put our preconceived notions of what a Star Trek or Khan movie should be like and weigh the film on its own merits. If you can’t do that, then that’s your problem, not mine.

Update: I’m not the only one who knows less about Star Trek than people think they do:

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