Friday, May 31, 2013

Star Trek Into the 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.