Star Trek Into Darkness Review Part 2: Whitewashing Khan Means Plotholes & Mediocre Science Fiction

“Is this a military operation? Is this what this is now? I thought we were explorers?”- Bones

“I’m not J.J. Abrams, who’s ultimately responsible. I’m just his Asian puppet. Which, by the way, is also the title of my autobiography.”

-John Cho, Interview at Straight.Com

oops white khan

Image from Perez Hilton

Please see my first post: Star Trek Into Darkness Review Part 1: What I Enjoyed

To be honest, this blog post has been months in the making. The content of which has been stewing in my brain for a long time. I grew up a self-taught Star Trek fan, watching The Next Generation and Star Trek: The Animated Series with my brothers, and fanboying every Saturday about Deep Space Nine. DS9 holds a special place in my heart for two reasons: first, it appealed to my love of science and critical thinking, addressing the economic/Ferengi issues of the day, and second, true to the Star Trek legacy of diverse casts (not just tokens, but major players in the story), DS9 had the ship lead by Commander Benjamin Sisko (played by Avery Brooks). I admit to being bitter I will never see a DS9 movie (I still have hope), but the stories were rather inaccessible and the dialogue was not on a 4th grade reading level. Sorry but not sorry. DS9 helped me to escape from my experience of marginalization as an African American male, who was smart, the guy who jocks tried to cheat off of (and they failed at that), in a school system and society where I was told over and over “No you can’t”, in more ways than one, that I could not. DS9 told me, “Yes you can. You can be great regardless of how others see the color of your skin.” If it weren’t for Jesus and DS9, I don’t know where I would be.

When I heard that J.J. Abrams was going to make a Star Trek trilogy a few years ago, I really was apathetic. I had a long long history of facebook statuses dedicated to critiquing LOST, its fandom, but I held out a glimmer of hope since I really enjoyed Abrams’ ALIAS. I saw Star Trek 2009 opening weekend in theaters, and it wasn’t half bad. But as I keep going back, there are a number of visual cues through out the film that, the three of the first four scenes in fact, are all fights, they are all pro-jock, anti-intellectual lens-flare-filled action sequences. This was not going to be the Star Trek I knew, of thoughtful dialogue; it was going to be IDIOCRACY’S version of TOS, with J.J. Abrams playing the part of President Camacho.

Fast forward to last year, rumors of the Star Trek sequel said it was going to be “darker” but with just as much high flying action. The most disturbing of the rumors was that Abrams had recruited Benedict Cumberpatch to play Khan Noonien Singh from Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan (1980s TOS movie) and season 1 episode, “Space Seed.” In the episode “Space Seed,” Khan is identified as a political tyrant from India in the 1990s, possibly Sikh. In other words, Khan is a POC powerful villain who outmatches Captain Kirk, and it takes a betrayal and the sacrifice of one of Kirk’s closest friends to defeat Khan. Our white U.S. American hero is defeated by a racial minority who believes in empire building and racial superiority. In the post-World War II context of Star Trek: The Original Series, the idea of additional World Wars was something that was held by the audience. Khan is a symbol both of what the future that we dread, and that a Man of Color could be part of an authoritarian regime (or to put it nicely, be an ACTIVE participant in determining the future as a SUBJECT) was part of what Roddenberry’s TOS+film was trying to envision.

Now, yes, I know there’s a lot of problems with Richardo Montalbon ( who is of Spanish and Mexican heritage playing a person who was geographically located on the Indian continent), but the message remains consistent: 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.

Space Seed+ Wrath of Khan are far superior efforts in storytelling, they were not dependent upon CGI, mass-media hype, or unnecessary violence or sexual exploitation for that matter. Speaking of sex and gender issues, in spite of having Zoe Saldana play a strong Lt. Uhura, this movie managed to FAIL the Bechdel Test. There is not a scene where there are at least two women talking to each other, let alone conversating about topics outside of the male protagonist. There were plenty of women featured, just like with racial minorities, but outside of the opening sequence where Into Darkness barely manages to pass the Race/POC Bechdel, no interaction between minorities or women. J.J. Abrams’ dumbed down, jocked up bro-culture “update” of Star Trek actually goes backwards when it comes to gender and race. Women and racial minorities are nothing but props as the future is lead by white male political players.

white khan

Seriously, why did Abrams choose to lie over and over again about him whitewashing the story of Khan? He knew what he was doing, just as Christopher Nolan whitewashed at least two (I would argue three) Batman villains/antagonists, Talia Al Ghul, and Bane, just as the heroes in live-action version of Avatar: The Last Airbender were whitewashed , and just like the movie based on the true story of the World Trade Center, where two actual black heroes were replaced by white actors. .

Hollywood producers, directors, and executives do not believe that people of color can perform these roles, and they do not believe that (majority white) audiences will connect characters who are People of Color. In other words, it boils down to profit, choosing profit over people. When one talks about whitewashing history, she is referring to denying the contributions of non-whites in a society, as well as denying that those people ever had any agency to begin with. They are the passive recipients of whites’ activity. Every time you whitewash a movie, you are sending a Public Service Announcement to racial minorities that white bodies are more valuable than the bodies of the people of color. J.J. Abrams, in short, by whitewashing Khan, is informing people of color that we CAN’T; we don’t belong in the movie industry, we can’t be valid actors in history. That’s where Abrams is highly mistaken. I know Star Trek. Unlike JJ Abrams, I love Star Trek. And according to DS9, I can!

For additional criticisms such as this, I would recommend:

Why not pick an Indian to play Khan in Star Trek? by Deepanjana Pal of First Post Bollywood

Star Trek: Into Whiteness at Racebending

A few thoughts on Star Trek: Into Darkness by Racialicious

And my personal favorite, The Whitewashing Khan Tumblr

19 thoughts on “Star Trek Into Darkness Review Part 2: Whitewashing Khan Means Plotholes & Mediocre Science Fiction

  1. ilostmyprayerhanky

    Rodney, this is Monte. Thanks for introducing me to the concept of the Bechdel Test/POC Bechdel Test. There are so many things I’m unaware of in this world and juts wanted to pass the thanks along. I look forward to reading about critical race theory from your posts, because I know nothing about it and it sounds foreign to me, and is therefore, possibly awesome. If you’re bored, I just started a blog myself:

  2. Charles

    Hi Rod. Finally saw Into Darkness last night, so I can stop avoiding all the online chatter about it.

    I take a small amount of pride that I knew BC was really Khan as soon as they mentioned the number of torpedoes. My inner monologue during that scene: “Well that guy’s clearly genetically enhanced. Hey, 72 torpedoes that appear to be hiding something inside them? Wasn’t that the exact number of Khan’s crew?” I rule.

    I kept waiting for at least a throwaway line to explain why BC (who was awesome) is playing an Indian guy. Something like “My face is in the history books, so my appearance was altered so nobody would know my true identity” and then just carry on. I could have accepted that, seeing as how (as you pointed out) Montalban wasn’t Indian either. But we got nothing. Maybe it’ll be an extra feature in the DVD.

    Gotta say, as much as I enjoyed BC’s performance, it didn’t raise the hairs on my arms like RM’s “THIS IS CETI ALPHA FIVE!” scene did (and still does). Wrath of Khan still reigns supreme among Star Trek films.

    1. RodtRDH Post author

      Exactly! No backstory for the villain; it was really really vague if you hadnt seen Space Seed or WOK. You’re right, Amanda is wrong. WOK is the superior sci fi film

  3. Scott F

    I didn’t like BC’s performance at all. Although he did manage to dominate the screen by sheer scowl-power, who directed him to stand there with his hands away from his body all the time? Or to sit perfectly still in sickbay through a couple of cut aways? This is acting?? I rewatched Space Seed with my ten year old and was amazed how expressive RM could be just by flexing a muscle in his jaw. And how Nimoy’s face actually MOVES when he acts.

    Your blog is terrific. Thanks for being here

  4. Joel

    I know this is a bit off-topic, but since we’re talking about race and sci-fi, I thought it would be a good place to bring it up.

    I’ve been rewatching Firefly lately, and it’s full of Chinese cultural trappings but has almost no Asian characters. Do you think this is a problem? As much as I love Firefly (probably my favorite show), this seems like a bit of a flaw. I can understand not having one on the main cast, but to not have everyone speaking their language and not even have any as episode characters is a bit troubling.

    1. RodtRDH Post author

      Excellent question, Joel. The more I watch & rewatch Firefly, the more it (lack of Asian characters) becomes a problem, esp given the Tams’ last names. 1 of the writers Jane Espenson has a response to an essay criticizing this problem, & she says she regrets it, but in Once Upon A Time, the show has the exact same problem! Hummmmm

      1. Joel

        I think the Asian prostitute in Heart of Gold gets a couple of lines – are there are any others with speaking roles?

          1. Joel

            Well, I just purchased the Better Days comic, and Jayne does imagine having an Asian on his crew!

          2. Joel

            It’s just one or two panels, but it’s something.

            The comics are pretty good. On the negative side, the plotting is sometimes sloppy and sometimes stuffs too much story into too little time. But they’re still enjoyable because the dialogue is very true to the characters. I haven’t read the Shepherd Book backstory one yet.

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