Friday, May 31, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness and Khan

For months before the release of Star Trek into Darkness, there was a lot of speculation regarding whether or not Benedict Cumberbatch would be playing the role of Khan Noonien Singh. Because Star Trek into Darkness has a different name than Wrath of Khan - the second movie in the Star Trek series, it was conceivable that the character Khan would be overlooked altogether. Now that the movie has been released, there has been a resounding backlash because it has become common knowledge that Cummerbatch is indeed playing Khan.

The character Khan Noonien Singh first appeared in the original series, in the episode Space Seed and then became the antagonist in the second movie Wrath of Khan. In both instances, the character was played by the Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán. As fans of the series know, in each instance that Khan Noonien Singh appeared, he was defeated by Captain Kirk. This is par for the course because Kirk being the captain of the USS Enterprise, inevitably makes the right decisions and always gets his crew out of any difficulties they encounter; prime directive be damned.

Having not seen Star Trek into Darkness yet, I cannot say whether or not this is a direct reboot of Wrath of Khan; however I have been following the anger online over the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch has been cast as Khan Noonien Singh. Because Khan was played by Ricardo Montalbán, many see his replacement by Benedict Cumberbatch as a direct slap in the face to people of colour, by a series which has historically prided itself on being racially progressive. When the original series first aired on September 8, 1966, there was absolutely nothing like it on television. Star Trek had an interracial cast including: a Black woman, a Japanese man and a Russian on the bridge, playing critical roles on the ship. It went on to feature one of the first inter-racial kisses on television. It is however worth noting that the kiss was forced by an alien creature and not something Kirk or Uhura wanted. Kirk slept with green women, but had to be forced into kissing a Black woman, think about that for a moment.

So how did this progressive series decide that it was appropriate to simply erase a character of colour and replace him with a White man? Well, let’s start with the fact that the character Khan was originally conceived of as being of Nordic descent. The writers and Roddenberry had no idea at first that they would be able to get an actor of Montalbán’s skill. When they did manage to cast Montalbán, the character became a sikh from Northern India. Clearly, even casting Montalbán in this role was highly problematic because he was neither sikh or Indian. It was the classic case of one brown person filling in for another, which is commonplace in the media even today. As long as the actor is Brown, they are cast as: Latino, Native American and Indian, regardless of what their true ancestry is. It’s clear that from looking at the images of Montalbán when he originally played Khan in the original series that his skin was darkened, using makeup to make him appear as the northern Indian character he was playing.

By the time that Wrath of Khan came around,  Gene Roddenberry and those responsible for the series had decided to dispense with the makeup.  Unless the character of Khan Noonien Singh is played by at the very least an Indian man, the portrayal itself is problematic.  Of course, no one is commenting about that fact because all many see is a missing man of colour. They may not have had to darken John Cho to play Sulu but having him cast in that role, regardless of George Takei’s consent and approval is yet another example of Star Trek’s willingness to simple insert people of colour into specific roles regardless of their culture, but hey, one Asian is like another right, regardless of the historical tension between the Japanese and Koreans.  It has been deemed better to have a character of colour off cast than to see a White face instead and that way of thinking is highly problematic because it inevitably makes people of colour disposable, without unique and beautiful cultures.

In terms of the erasure of a man of colour, I don’t see casting Benedict Cumberbatch as a bad thing.  Let’s be honest, though Khan is a genetically engineered individual, despite all of his assets, he inevitably loses and has his plans destroyed by Captain Kirk.  This has to happen because Khan is an antagonist and the series is set up  for Captain Kirk to never lose.  So, what people are pinning for is to see a man of colour take on the role of a villain and see him once again lose because White leadership is inevitably superior, regardless of how bright, savvy, or skilled the antagonist of colour is.  What does it mean if even genetically enhanced that a person of colour has no hope of beating a White man without enhancements?  It reads as though no matter how hard said person of colour works, or how long they plan, that they will always and forever be less than the White character. Don’t we already see enough of people of colour in the media cast as antagonists or villains who are destined to fail?  Do we really need yet another stunning example of how superior the White male hero is in 3D no less?  I think not.  People of colour didn’t lose a good portrayal when Cumberbatch was cast as Khan, what we lost is yet another reminder that we are inferior.

Star Trek, like many other sci fi series, glorifies the leadership of the straight, White male.  Regardless of how progressive the show might have been when it first aired in the late 60’s, it has never strayed from the message that White masculinity is the only appropriate form of leadership.  The second in command has always been Spock and though he is a Vulcan, the role has been played by Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto, who are both White men.  So you can suspend belief all you want because Spock is a Vulcan, at the end of the day, you’re still looking at a White male. It is also worth noting that the primary relationship in the series is the friendship between Bones, Spock and Kirk - three White men. Uhura never really rose above the role of interstellar secretary, ready to risk her career in Star Fleet at Kirk’s command and Sulu, who did finally get his own ship, was quick to follow Kirk’s lead in a crises situation. Don’t even bother to roll your eyes and throw Benjamin Sisko at me because Deep Space Nine, was not a ship and he was most certainly not a captain, despite being the main protagonist of the show. When it comes to people of colour, Star Trek has long been happy to sit on the laurels of the past and not move forward racially.

In the end, this really comes down to whether or not people of colour desire inclusion at all costs, or are happy to settle for a negative portrayal, just to see ourselves on the big screen.  The question of bad portrayal or erasure has long been a problem in speculative fiction and something Star Trek is no stranger to, long before the issue of Cumberbatch playing Khan became an issue. Personally, I don’t see that compromising and accepting a negative portrayal actually moves us further ahead.  The character Khan is hungry for power, has no respect for life, and is corrupt.  If people of colour played various roles in the media, then Khan wouldn’t be problematic because we could point to many other characters in far more positive roles.  Seeing the single narrative of the evil character of colour, who gets defeated by the flawless, strong White male protagonist, is just more trope laden nonsense and furthermore, having a Black woman and now a Korean man (note: the character Sulu was originally played by the Japanese George Takei), does not mediate the damage that a Khan of colour would have caused.  Sometimes, it’s simply better to let go of inclusion, if the end result of said inclusion, would simply lead to yet another trope laden performance that highlights the supposed inferiority of people of colour.

Editors Note: Benjamin Sisko took command of Deep Space as Commander Benjamin Sisko and in the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, he became Captain Benjamin Sisko.  This is still however problematic because all other captains, were captains of their ships at the start of each series (Janeway, Kirk, and of course Jonathan Archer) and were all White people.