Thursday, December 6, 2012

Star Trek: Who the Hell is Benedict Cumberbatch Playing?

So "Star Trek Into Darkness". Teaser trailer. Go.

It's an OK teaser. Nothing particularly exciting. Then again, I wasn't really excited about the last "Star Trek" movie until it came out, so I don't really think it's a major strike against it. I guess J.J. Abrams trailers aren't really exciting for me.

But the thing everybody is talking about (and has been talking about since production started) is who Benedict Cumberbatch is playing.

The most common theory is that it's Khan. People who think it isn't Khan typically put their chips down on Gary Mitchell. Why? Well because Simon Pegg said that it wasn't Khan and then later said that it was Gary Mitchell. NOTE: It occurs to me that this second link is actually Karl Urban, not Simon Pegg. Oops. My bad. Please ignore the following stupidity.

Personally, I'm inclined to believe Simon Pegg's first statement, but not necessarily his second. As the resident nerd-celebrity in the cast, Simon understands how nerds function. He knows what rumors like this do to fandoms and that failing to address them makes them fester like a gangrenous wound. For example, when Marvel Studios neglected to reveal the identity of the alien race in "Avengers", fans obsessed over it needlessly and then it turned out to not matter in the slightest. Personally, I think that the rest of the production team was keen to just let the nerds think that it was Khan because it wasn't really important and if they weren't fixated on that, they might catch the scent of something actually important to the story. Still, Simon Pegg pays a lot more attention to nerds than probably most of the rest of the people involved with the film, so he probably just got really sick of everyone obsessing over it and saying how including Khan would ruin the movie and accusing them of white-washing and yadda-yadda-yadda, so he finally just snapped and said that it wasn't Khan so that they could shut the hell up about it and maybe get excited for it instead.

Also, I think that including Khan would be a huge mistake, especially if you plan to take the "vengeance" angle. Khan's vengeance in the original timeline only made sense because Kirk did something to him as a captain and then left him stranded for years. Kirk in this new timeline hasn't been captain long enough to make that kind of an impact. Aside from that, essentially remaking "Wrath of Khan" is pretty much a guaranteed way to piss off your fanbase, and while you may not need the fans to make "Star Trek Into Darkness" a success, you do need them to keep the momentum going for the next film.

While I think Simon Pegg's statement about Khan is probably true, I don't necessarily believe his statement about Gary Mitchell. I mean, as of right now I'm inclined to believe that's who it is, but not because Simon Pegg said it. As I said, because Pegg is a nerd (and also a comedian) he understands what trolling is, and an obscure character reference from the original series is exactly the sort of red herring he knows fans will jump on. He may just be fucking with us.

Even so, based on this trailer, I'm inclined to stick with Gary Mitchell over Khan. Here's why.

The New Argument Supporting Khan

After this trailer, the new big supporting argument for the Khan Theory is actually not from this trailer, but from the Japanese version of the trailer. Specifically, it includes a bit about family and this brief image:

Yes, this image is obviously a reference to "Wrath of Khan". Let me be blunt, though. This image does not suggest the involvement of Khan. What it suggests is the death of Spock, which actually I already suspected based on this statement from Zachary Quinto. Yes, he claims to have been taken out of context and was simply saying that he didn't want to commit to playing Spock again until after this movie comes out... but it could just as easily be a diversionary tactic. I personally wouldn't be surprised if Spock will die in this movie.

But that's neither here nor there. Just because Spock died in the movie related to Khan doesn't mean that dying in this movie equates to the presence of Khan.

Also, I really don't get how the references to family connects to Khan. Sure, you could say Khan considers his followers to be his family, but that's never really been a core part of his character. I really think that people are suffering from confirmation bias on this one.

In my mind, the only way Khan could have been involved in this movie was if his motivation was more "Space Seed", less "Wrath of Khan". If it is Khan and he gets defrosted as in the episode "Space Seed", he would have no real reason for "vengeance". He's a megalomaniac, not a cold-blooded killer. There was a reason he was exiled rather than executed. What drove him to vengeance was what happened to him between "Space Seed" and "Wrath of Khan", and none of that could have possibly happened yet.

So if it IS Khan, not only will his inclusion piss off fans, the undoubtedly nonsensical reasoning for his appearance and behavior would be a complete and utter betrayal.

My Argument for Gary Mitchell

So I realize that the argument I'm about to give doesn't really support Gary Mitchell specifically. Really, this argument could apply to any character who was a cadet during the previous "Star Trek" movie. In fact, this could just be a completely new character. But since Simon Pegg said Gary Mitchell and since Gary Mitchell fits well enough into my argument, I'm going to stick with Gary Mitchell.

If you aren't a Trekkie, you've probably asked, "Who the fuck is Gary Mitchell?" about a dozen times by now.

Short version? Gary Mitchell was a friend of Kirk's during his academy days. At one point his psychic powers get amplified by the galactic barrier, those powers turn him into a raving douche, and Kirk is forced to kill him. For the long version, just watch the episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before".

One thing a friend of mine pointed out to me after we watched "Star Trek" (the movie) was that dozens (possibly hundreds) of inexperienced cadets were thrown at Nero's ship during the attack on Vulcan, and most of them probably died. Only the Enterprise was spared thanks to Nero's obsession with Spock. Let's suppose that some of those cadets managed to reach an escape pod, but the escape pods from one of the ships go off-course and reach the galactic barrier. Then let's say one of those cadets' latent psychic abilities are awakened and he manages to steer his escape pod back into the galaxy while all of his friends and fellow cadets are ripped to shreds by the barrier.

You'd then have someone pissed off at the Federation for sending him and his friends to their deaths for no good reason (since Vulcan was destroyed anyway) and with the psychic powers to back it up.

On top of that, given the changes to Kirk in the new timeline, it's probable that Gary Mitchell's relationship to him is different. In the original series, Gary Mitchell was a subordinate to Kirk, being a cadet while Kirk was a much more experienced Lieutenant. Since Kirk was a cadet in the last movie, it stands to reason that Gary Mitchell wasn't even in Starfleet yet. However, Kirk joined Starfleet for different reasons in the new movie, and possibly at a later point in his life. It's possible that he and Gary Mitchell joined Starfleet at the same time and were friends, but also equals.

Imagine you are going to school and you're a better student than your friend. Your friend spends all of his time getting laid and cheating at tests. He's a good guy, but you know that you'll probably end up surpassing him. Then a freak accident happens and your lazy friend ends up stowing away on a ship he shouldn't have been on in the first place and through stupid luck ends up becoming a captain while you practically end up dead.

If you were Gary Mitchell, wouldn't you be more than a little jealous of Kirk? A guy who broke all the rules and leap-frogged into power at an unprecedented rate simply because of an accident that also left you emotionally scarred?

This is all just speculation, of course, but if that's the angle they're taking, I think it fits. Gary Mitchell could be a force to be reckoned with, could have considered his fellow cadets to be his family who were needlessly slaughtered by the Federation, and could harbor deep-seated jealousy towards Kirk.

It's Still Wrath of Khan

Regardless of who Benedict Cumberbatch is playing, there is still one sour note, and it's a big one. "Star Trek Into Darkness" is looking to be yet another attempt to reuse the "Wrath of Khan" formula.

Don't get me wrong, "Wrath of Khan" is a great film, but "Star Trek" used to be about bigger concepts until every single movie became about obsession and vengeance. "Generations" dealt with Malcolm McDowell's character's obsession with the Nexus. "First Contact" dealt with Captain Picard's (completely out-of-character) obsession with getting back at the Borg (it also did a riff on "The Voyage Home" with the time travel angle). "Insurrection" was... actually fairly unique, though it still had problems of its own. "Nemesis" was practically a beat-for-beat remake of "Wrath of Khan" even throwing in the death of a beloved character to save the rest of the crew and implying his eventual rebirth. Then of course "Star Trek" involved Nero's single-minded quest for vengeance.

Look, vengeance is all well and good as a plot device, but the best thing about "Star Trek" is that it can cover just about any aspect of science fiction. This was something that TOS and TNG understood very well, though it eventually got dumbed down in subsequent generations. The assumption is that audiences are more interested in character drama than exploration of concepts. But can't we have both? "The Matrix" explores plenty of philosophical and technological questions while still being specifically about a single character's journey of self-actualization. Even "Wrath of Khan" had the subplot about the Genesis Project that in the right hands could end galactic hunger, but in the wrong hands could be a devastating weapon of conquest.

Probably the most common (and valid) back-handed compliment given to the most recent "Star Trek" film was that "It was the best 'Star Wars' movie in years." The implication that it was less science fiction and more space opera. And they're pretty much correct. Outside of the subtle exploration of destiny (although it mostly comes off as contrivance) there's not much attention paid to any concept bigger than human emotion. That doesn't make it a bad movie, it just raises the question of why we're using the "Star Trek" franchise if all we're going to do is have gun fights in space?

I think that "Star Trek Into Darkness" can be a good movie, but I also think anyone hoping for a return to high-concept stuff from older days of "Trek" should temper their expectations a bit. I don't think we can expect much beyond another character-driven story about vengeance, obsession, family, friendship, and sacrifice. That can all be good, but it's starting to feel more than a little played-out to me.

Still, I'm interested to see it.

1 comment:

  1. When Eric first showed me the poster teaser for the movie, my initial reaction was "Batman? What happened to Gotham? What did you do?!"

    Picture I am talking about:

    When Eric told me it was the next Star Track I laughed, and then realized he was serious. Don't get me wrong, I like dark and edgy and personally I think the last movie complimented what I wanted the original series to be. But I think they are going far too off towards the "What's popular, let's do exactly that." spectrum. I'm not exactly comfortable with that. Action, adventure, space opera, sure. But how far down the dark and edgy cliff do we need to go really?

    My fear is I'm going to go see this movie and I'm going to leave thinking it was the same movie I've been seeing with super hero movies as of late. Hollywood really needs to stop with the whole "let's repeat the same theme over and over until it's dead" thing. I just really hope the trailer and all the guffaw they've been putting out is just to get people hyped.