Star Trek Into Whiteness: Khan and Racial Identity

It is a well-documented fact that I understand the meaning of a variety of highly revered holidays differently than my peers. This fact is perhaps best exemplified by the fiasco surrounding my interpretation of “veteran” which disrupted many of my Facebook friends’ celebrations of Veterans Day in 2013. As such, it should come as no surprise that my own personal traditions during the Christian holy week leading up to Easter differ from standard liturgy of the season.

My ideal Good Friday involves sitting back and watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with optional artisan bread and wine. Widely acclaimed as Star Trek’s greatest moment, The Wrath of Khan is perhaps best remembered for its conclusion in which beloved science officer Spock (played by Leonard Nimoy) sacrifices himself in order to restore the warp core of the Enterprise and prevent the demise of its entire crew. Those of you who think I am as antithetical to holidays as a Jehovah’s Witness may find my ritual surprisingly close to the ceremony of the body and the blood and the personal sacrifice of Christ observed by your standard issue Christian.

This year’s viewing of The Wrath of Khan is likely to be profoundly different than those of years past because of a couple of changes that have taken place in the past few months.

Nobody will be surprised to learn that the death of actor Leonard Nimoy at the age of 83 near the conclusion of February is likely to factor into the general mood of this year’s Good Friday. The actor best known as Spock has had an inordinate amount of influence on my life since the early childhood Star Trek conventions my father would take the family to.

Leonard Nimoy passed away on February 27, 2015 at the age of 83 due to complications related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Leonard Nimoy passed away on February 27, 2015 at the age of 83 due to complications related to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

But it wasn’t just the influence of Leonard Nimoy that made The Wrath of Khan one of my favorite films of all time. After dissatisfaction with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, Paramount executives brought producer Harve Bennett into the discussion about where to go with its sequel. Bennett is reported to have watched all 79 original series episodes in preparation, and it was during this process that he was struck by Ricardo Montalban’s portrayal of Khan Noonien Singh in the 1967 episode “Space Seed.” Bennet’s desire to bring Khan and crew back from exile was the “seed” that grew into Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Producer Harve Bennett and actor Leonard Nimoy, both heavily responsible for some of the best scenes in film history, died within days of one another.

These deaths are likely to add a great deal of gravity to the final scenes of The Wrath of Khan, but perhaps more transformative even than the deaths of Nimoy and Bennett is the fact that I have been rewatching the early episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series with a group of friends. This past week, like Bennett before me, I watched Khan’s first appearance in “Space Seed” myself. While the episode is rife with difficulties, from the awkward emphasis on romance between Khan and ship historian Marla McGivers to the Kirk’s foolish oversight in giving a tyrannical super soldier access to the ship’s most sensitive documents, there was a general agreement that something great was happening in this episode. Admittedly, our perception of the episode was colored by the film sequel we knew would come years later, but “Space Seed” also succeeded at developing a large chunk of the history between the 1960s era when Star Trek was produced and the 2260s era when Star Trek takes place. Ultimately, I think there is reason to believe that it is a great episode in its own right, even despite its shortcomings.

The episode "Space Seed" of Star Trek: The Original Series introduced the quintessential Trek villain Khan Noonien Singh (played by Ricardo Montalban).

The episode “Space Seed” of Star Trek: The Original Series introduced the quintessential Trek villain Khan Noonien Singh (played by Ricardo Montalban).

It was a point brought up by fellow Longest Wind writer Josh Toulouse that promised to “color” my future viewing of The Wrath of Khan. Josh was so spot on in his criticism that I wish to quote him directly from his Facebook post:

Watching this episode, I was again reminded how much the latest Star Trek movie kind of annoyed me. SPOILERS: How the hell is Benadict [sic.] Cumberbatch Khan? People get so pissed off when they hire a person of color to play characters that have previously been white (see the new Johnny Storm and the rumor that the new Spidey might be a black actor or that Idris Elba might be the new James Bond), which is ridiculous since the race rarely has anything to do with who those characters really are. Here, however, Khan is very defined by the fact that he is not a white European or American, so of course the new movie hires a white Englishman to play him. Rubbish. Ruined the film for me, even more than the nonsensical Historian Star Fleet officer ruined this episode [“Space Seed”] for me.

While I couldn’t help but to solicit Josh to write a post expanding on this juxtaposition, possibly throwing in references to casting choices for Kingpin in Daredevil, Nick Fury in The Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Heimdal in Thor, I knew that my friend Rod Thomas had actually written two-part review of Star Trek Into Darkness that got to the root of Josh’s problems back in 2013 for his blog The Resist Daily.

In the first part of his review, titled “Star Trek Into Darkness Review Part One: What I Enjoyed,” Rod started out with the positive aspects of the film. In addition to giving praise for the performances of many of the main characters, Rod was generally happy with the importance of persons of color in this film.

Into Darkness passes the Race/POC Bechdel test, which for those unfamiliar is just a way of measuring racial diversity of a film. How so? There has to be one scene where 2 people of color discuss anything but (usually) white protagonist. That simple, really. The Help barely passes. No, I’m dead serious, it was 90 minutes into that movie before it happened. Into Darkness within the first 2 scenes I believe had a scene with Sulu and Uthura [sic.] taking about the U.S.S Enterprise. It was a pleasant surprise.

The second part of the series “Star Trek Into Darkness Review Part 2: Whitewashing Khan Means Plotholes & Mediocre Science Fiction” was unsurprisingly less pleasant. Rod notes the “Space Seed” depiction of Khan as “a political tyrant from India in the 1990s, possibly Sikh” and The Wrath of Khan‘s similar portrayal as “a POC powerful villain who outmatches Captain Kirk,” both of which are strongly at odds with J.J. Abrams’ decision to cast British actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Rod does note the problems associated with Gene Roddenberry’s decision to cast Ricardo Montalban, an actor of Spanish and Mexican heritage, as a dictator originating in the Indian subcontinent, but notes a consistency of message in this early faux pas, the idea that a “person of color can portray a complex, sympathetic antagonist, one who puts our leader on the brink, and who REMAINS part of the cast in what is considered one of the greatest (if not the greatest) science fiction films of all time.”

Benedict Cumberbatch succeeds Ricardo Montalban as Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness.

Benedict Cumberbatch succeeds Ricardo Montalban as Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness.

Rod goes on to list several other critiques he has of Star Trek Into Darkness, but I do not wish to discuss them here. His posts are well-worth reading and I have linked them above for your enjoyment. In fact, it is worth noting that Rod nearly overshadows his valuable criticism of Into Darkness with an exposition about his love for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine which is about as on-cue as any description I’ve ever read of the series.

When I look forward to Good Friday, I cannot help but to see a contradiction, and that is the fact that my traditional holiday is proving to be more and more a-traditional with each passing day. It is true that I have at times prided myself at being described by others as an iconoclast, but that doesn’t mean that I’m completely against finding little bastions of comfort here and there, especially as I get older and have more difficulty dealing with change. The important question I have to ask myself is whether or not this change is for the better, and I believe the answer must be yes.

To watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was to become like a child again. I could easily put myself into the shoes of the boy who would watch his dad’s old VHS copy or catch the film during a TBS holiday weekend marathon. Slowly, however, I’m beginning to see things through the eyes of the father. I’m married and seriously entertaining the idea of having children in the next couple of years. It is only right to add some depth to my Good Friday tradition. Life is not without pain. Leonard Nimoy and Harve Bennett have passed away, and so must we all. Life is also not without injustice, and it is our job to name the sources of injustice and do our best to overcome them.

And after these servants of entropy waltz into my life, what of my original tradition will remain?

Rebellion against the breaking apart of the universe, no matter how hopeless, or, as it is more commonly known in most circles of society, communion — this will remain. In the spirit of communion I welcome all of you to join me on Friday, April 3, “Good Friday,” as it is called, in order to watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to eat, to drink, and to remember.

Remember

Leonard Nimoy as Spock and Deforest Kelley as Bones in the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. “Remember.”

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