Star Trek Into Darkness and Khan

Guest Bloggers Paul and Renee: We blog and review at Fangs for the Fantasy. We’re great lovers of the genre and consume it in all its forms – but as marginalised people we also analyse critically through a social justice lens. This post was first published on Fangs for the Fantasy on May 31, 2013.


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 Darknesshas 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 Cumberbatch 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.

AUTHOR’S 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.


Similar Posts (automatically generated):

About Guest Blogger

Guest Bloggers are most welcome to diversify the range of views and experiences presented on this blog. The opinions of Guest Bloggers do not necessarily represent other bloggers on Feministe: differing voices are important to us. Readers are cordially invited to follow our guidelines to submit a Guest Post pitch for consideration.
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Movies, Race & Ethnicity and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

87 Responses to Star Trek Into Darkness and Khan

  1. JBL55 says:

    Three thoughts:

    1. For me, changing the bad guy from dark-skinned to light-skinned actually removes all negative racial connotations. Now the good white guy can always triumph over the bad white guy w/o race factoring into it. Granted, it has the effect of removing one more dark-skinned character from the story, but it is not completely without merit.

    2. The original pilot for “Star Trek” featured Majel Barrett as the impassive Number One, second in command to Captain Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter). It was thought people would not accept a woman in such a position of authority, so they gave Spock her impassiveness and promoted him. Majel Barrett then was cast as Nurse Christine Chapel, a more acceptable female role. Thank God they ditched Yeoman Janice Rand after the first year — I still cringe when Kirk draws a protective arm around her when the Enterprise is threatened.

    3. There is a wonderful moment in the original series (I forget the episode) when Uhura takes Chekov’s seat at the helm — George Takei gives her quite a look as she settles in next to him. :-)

  2. FeministTrekkie says:

    You raise a number of compelling ideas, but I find the credibility of your argument is strained by your having failed to actually watch the film. Problematic as it is, the film nonetheless complicates the issues you raise, in particular the infallibly of Kirk vis-a-vis ‘bad guy’ characters. I would like to read an updated post when you have seen the film and can therefore comment more authoritatively on it.

  3. Emily says:

    It doesn’t alter the wrongness of casting Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of someone named “Singh,” but Ricardo Montalbán wasn’t a person of color either. Both his parents were Spanish immigrants to Mexico. Having said that, it says something about American perceptions of race that he was racialized and cast as “brown” in the 60s–and seems to be perceived in that way even today.

    Ironic that Star Trek in the 60s casting a white man of Spanish descent as a Sikh from Asia was more progressive than what we get today!

  4. Karen Brown says:

    As the above noted, we do have to look at the studio system and what Roddenberry was allowed to do in the series. If you watch the desired first premiere, they had a female first officer, and very impressive and professional (a bit insulted for it in the plot, but still an advance), and both she and the other female SCIENCE officer wore PANTS as their uniform, including being in an ‘away mission’.

    This was seen as something that would never make it in the ratings, so they made changes.

    And I’d agree. I don’t think much is lost by not having an ‘ambiguously brown’ (given the contrast between the supposed race and the actual one in the original work) evil psychopathic terrorist.

  5. Anon21 says:

    I don’t really agree with your aside about Benjamin Sisko, played by the great Avery Brooks, on DS9. Yes, for the first two season he wasn’t officially a “Captain,” but in storytelling terms there was no difference between the role he played on DS9 and the role Kirk played on TOS. Both were the sole commanding officer, which sort of undermines your contention that the show “has never strayed from the message that White masculinity is the only appropriate form of leadership.” And I’m not sure what significance the fact that “Deep Space Nine, was not a ship” is supposed to have.

    The Star Trek franchise is far from flawless on race. But Commander, later Captain Sisko was a big step in the right direction in terms of portrayals of people of color in positions of authority. I don’t get why you’d want to skip over that portrayal for what seem to be pretty flimsy reasons.

    • Erin says:

      I agree 100%. Whatever the word before his name, there was no effective difference between Sisko’s role on his show and Kirk’s, Picard’s, and Janeway’s roles on their shows. Give credit where credit is due: Sisko is a wonderful example of a black man in a powerful leadership role.

      • Gomiville says:

        Seconded.

        And on top of that, he was in command of a very complex situation. For all the excellence of Kirk’s cowboy mentality or Picard’s reasoned diplomacy, Sisko had to balance numerous and contradictory factions of politics, religion and even commerce. It was a powerful example of command.

        Plus he was a single father.

        He shouldn’t be so off-handedly dismissed.

      • chava says:

        he was also allowed to have some pretty serious flaws, while not descending into either the Angry Black Man or the model minority. complex character ftw.

      • moviemaedchen says:

        Thirding all of these comments.

    • miga says:

      They also left out Janeway, who is white but not a man.

  6. XtinaS says:

    No post on ST:ID is complete without this spoiler-FAQ:

    http://io9.com/star-trek-into-darkness-the-spoiler-faq-508927844

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for that link — now I really don’t have to think about ever shelling out $ for this movie, or even spending two hours of my life watching it streamed on Netflix.

  7. chava says:

    I….think we can throw Sisko at you, honestly. He functions as the show’s “captain,” and attains that role (and *godhood*) later in the series.

    Re: Khan, I was happy that they did not cast a Pakastani or Indian man, because of the terrorism sub-plot. Like we need to see another coded-Muslim brown man blowing shit up in the name of his ideology. That said, the critique of the “white man’s triangle” is totally valid (Bones, Spock, Kirk) although I feel compelled to point out that Nimoy and Quinto’s otherness is coded as Semitic/Jewish, which is why they fail as “true” white leaders.

    The true fail of the film for me was its treatment of women, sp. women of color. Uhura was reduced to a gay couple’s beard, and Chapel just made the point (again) that Kirk was Oh So Not Gay Ladies. Sulu did have a nice moment in the captain’s chair, though.

    • moviemaedchen says:

      I’m not sure that Into Darkness avoids the ick of having a ‘brown man blowing shit up’ even WITH the casting of Cumberbatch. Harewood, the Starfleet officer Khan talks into blowing up Section 31 for him, is definitely not white. Cumberbatch just gets more screentime.

      • chava says:

        Eh, but he’s not part of the terrorist cell, he’s manipulated into it. You can argue its another failure to show black men as courageous, but I don’t think it shows Harewood (aka Mickey) as a terrorist, exactly.

      • moviemaedchen says:

        Yeah, you can make an argument either way I suppose. He’s definitely not a villain the same way Khan is. But the visual is still there. I guess for me it still fits into a broader pattern of racefail on the movie’s part. But Harewood is a sympathetic character for the short time he’s there.

    • wrane says:

      Chapel just made the point (again) that Kirk was Oh So Not Gay Ladies.

      That was Carol Marcus – she actually mentioned that Christine Chapel had taken a job on the outer frontier after a relationship with Kirk (good for her :P). I don’t know if Carol Marcus and Kirk are going to have a relationship or a son in this timeline, but I like that we get to see her more. One of my friends was arguing with me that it would be a better movie if she wasn’t in it at all but that actually really bothered me because there are so few women already, and if there was no Carol Marcus, her part would still exist, the admiral would probably just have a son instead – parents/children/captain/crew are the repeated themes in the film.

  8. chava says:

    (and don’t get me started on how Kirk can somehow beat up a 2x-stronger Klingon or Romulan, but poor! tiny! Uhura! is completely incapable of defending herself)

  9. Nobody says:

    Like others here, I’m not really buying the “Sisko doesn’t count” argument.

    I haven’t seen Into Darkness, but I’m pretty ambivalent about the reboot in general. The first movie certainly worked as an action film, and the way the new actors channeled the original cast was fun.

    But it seems like the new series sees itself as getting “back to basics” where “basics” is essentially Kirk smirking and kicking ass. The original show’s utopianism and the fact that it was pushing boundaries of inclusiveness for its time seem to take a distinct back seat.

    It’s like the makers are nostalgic for everything that didn’t make the original show unique.

  10. NickN says:

    I’m partial to the idea of Khan being portrayed by someone with a darker skin tone because can be done as a statement against racists by having the genetically augmented “superior” human be someone who isn’t white — or better yet having him be mixed race.

    I didn’t like the nuTrek’s version of Khan mainly because other than the name there is no real resemblance to the original version. Khan wasn’t someone who was just physically and mentally superior to Kirk, but someone who oozed charisma and could out Kirk Captain Kirk. Cumberbatch came across as just another generic movie villain who uses non-ideology based terrorism to achieve his goals.

    The way Kirk originally beats Khan has nothing to do with Kirk being a “flawless, strong white male protagonist”. Khan beats him to the point where Kirk is forced to use his experience to win rather than rely on luck and circumstance; being superhuman doesn’t trump practical knowledge and experience.

    I think the main problem is in the script. I don’t think I would be offended if another person of color was playing a villain who was as charismatic and competent as Khan was originally. However when Khan runs around planning bombings and crashes starships into cities then yeah, I see the problem in having him being played by a person of color.

  11. amblingalong says:

    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.

    Well, that’s inane.

    • Well, if that’s the basis for their analysis – “where the characters started” – I suppose James Kirk spent all the movies being a carjacking, alcoholic douchebag. And also ten years old.

      Also, apparently according to social justice(TM), black people can’t have character arcs now. They have to start the series as King And Tyrant, or they’re just a racist cardboard copy of the REAL (white) captains.

      Of course, if a black person is King and Tyrant, I’m going to assume that’s also racist. Somehow. I can find a way.

    • piny says:

      Even if he does count as a captain, he’s still the only one. They found Scott Bakula for Enterprise.

      Commander Sisko was in charge of an entire space station. You can make some points re: the custodial rather than command role, or how annoying it is that they finally got a black head guy and took away the final-frontier part, but his role would be more analogous to general or lord mayor. He had to lead Starfleet personnel and maintain good working relationships with everyone else on the station – in some ways, he had more of a leadership role than a simple captain.

      The show also had some really cogent politics around all of that – maybe even more sophisticated than the baddie-of-the-week format of the traveling ships. Sisko had to demonstrate a lot of sophistication, and couldn’t just defeat the enemy, and then he had to deal with the worst villains since the Borg.

      He stands out as the only non-white person to lead a show. But he was a developed character and was always shown to be an excellent leader. The show also included his family, more than with any other captain, which I liked.

      As far as Benedict Cumberbatch…Khan was a villain, but he was a sympathetic and intelligent villain. That role, the role of the criminal mastermind, the guy we’re supposed to partly identify with, typically goes to white people. Lex Luthor, Dexter, Hannibal, Ozymandias: when we’re supposed to be interested in the workings of a villain’s mind, and repsect their intelligence, they get to be white. Original Khan was evil, but he also had some good character notes. He was an emperor, and then got sent into exile and living death as a kind of human war crime, and then this jackass exiles him again and then gives him a chance to get revenge.

      This Khan was mostly just emo. The writing for Into Darkness was terrible – and the whole film was like a systematic shot-by-shot ruining of the original – but New Khan was meant to be an evil genius with a (somewhat) sympathetic backstory. And he repeatedly outsmarts Kirk, who comes off as pretty stupid and naive until the very last part of the movie.

      JJ Abrams didn’t whiteify Khan so that there would be one less non-white villain in the Trek universe. He did it because he wanted to claim an interesting character for white people. He even introduced another white villain to draw the audience’s attention.

      There was another big instance of racism in the movie, I think. The Klingons look much more African (and seem to have some pseudo-African costume design stuff going on?) than in the original series or the subsequent TV shows. They’re also a lot scarier: they don’t negotiate and seem mostly interested in killing. And they died like Orcs; in fact, Cumberbatch dispatched about fifty of them. They seemed very much like the kind of villain we’re not supposed to respect. It would be awesome if they became an opportunity to have a whole bunch of black actors in interesting, complicated roles – maybe a challenge to the exceptionalism of the Federation – but based on the way they were introduced, I’m not holding my breath.

      Oh, and the opening scene, where Kirk and Spock save a bunch of natives (who are speaking gibberish, jumping up and down, and carrying spears) from an exploding volcano and achieve godhood? …Yeah.

      • wembley says:

        Oh, and the opening scene, where Kirk and Spock save a bunch of natives (who are speaking gibberish, jumping up and down, and carrying spears) from an exploding volcano and achieve godhood? …Yeah.

        I love how the creative team gave the natives literally white skin (or skin covered with white dust or something, it was hard to tell which it was supposed to be) because that means they’ve covered their ass! Except not.

  12. Valdi says:

    I think this post is a good summation of some issues Star Trek has had with gender and race. Represented as Indian and played by a Mexican actor, there are several issues with this depiction, including the idea that race and skin tone are easily interchangeable in depiction and the fact that leadership at Starfleet is often depicted as being racially and sexually homogenous.

    I don’t think that the treatments of gender and race are as simple as they have been made out to be here. Deep Space Nine is given short shrift even though Benjamin Sisko possesses a clear leadership role. I don’t think helming a huge space station near a stable worm hole is any less awesome than cruising around on a starship, the marketing around DS9 sold it as a full series, and the writing was perhaps the most interwoven and political work in Star Trek.

    Similarly, it was a huge triumph to have Ricardo Montalbán play such a prominent villain, and someone who has come to be so loved in Star Trek lore. Having a Sikh actor play Khan would have been the most appropriate solution, but I can’t cut short shrift to his accomplishments.

    Another thought that’s been circulating – the idea that Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan avoids all those racial problems with a bad villain of color being defeated by a good white hero. That is true, but the less problematic depiction of conflict is at the cost of diversity in the movie, and at the cost of whitewashing yet another character in Hollywood. Given the way the lore is already determined, and given the tastes of typical authors in Hollywood, Star Trek will remain good at representing diversity at some points and bad at other points.

    • moviemaedchen says:

      the less problematic depiction of conflict is at the cost of diversity in the movie, and at the cost of whitewashing yet another character in Hollywood.

      This. There are so many different ways for it to be problematic. Whereas if we already had many people of color in a range of visible, important roles in media to the same extent that white people have those roles, there would be much less riding on any single role.

  13. a lawyer says:

    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.

    Disposable? Off cast?

    What about the fact that POC actors can, you know, ACT? I don’t understand how you could take a view which appears to pigeonhole POC actors into a restrictive set of race-matching roles.

    Is this satire? Seriously, look at what you’re suggesting here.

    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

    .
    Rewritten: “Sorry, John: you can’t take that part because the professional actor who used to play that part has ancestry from a country which has bad foreign relations with the country of your ancestors. And hey–you and George Takei DO hate each other right? Since you’re Korean and he’s Japanese, I just assumed.”

    This has got to be a joke, right? Right?

    • A4 says:

      Yes, this piece is missing any analysis of this issue from the perspective of the actor rather than the viewer. It is an unfortunate trend in our entertainment culture to objectify our entertainers and the impact of their performances without taking into account their own subjective natures and experiences of the issues being discussed.

    • What about the fact that POC actors can, you know, ACT? I don’t understand how you could take a view which appears to pigeonhole POC actors into a restrictive set of race-matching roles.

      Long ago, we had this notion that being of a certain race didn’t necessarily mean that one had to play exactly that culture and only that culture, regardless of the actor’s own background, or the role’s own culture.

      But everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.

    • thinksnake says:

      Insisting that Sulu was always meant to be specifically Japanese because of casting Takei seems unresearched at best. What with Sulu being named after the Sulu Sea, which doesn’t touch Japan. And his character being made as ‘all of Asia’ (which is problematic in all sorts of ways in itself, but seems to have been ignored by the OP?).

  14. I’ll just leave this here: Complaining About Shows You Don’t Watch

    Also, I’ve never watched DS9, but I find it unconscionable that you have neglected to mention Benjamin Sisko punched Hitler and single-handedly killed every Nazi ever, and I find this abominable. And don’t throw any pesky history at me. Don’t point out that Deep Space is a station, and bigger and arguably more important than any single ship in the fleet, and Sisko couldn’t possibly have had time to fight Nazis single-handed while commanding Deep Space. Sisko did what I say he did, how I say he did, and it had exactly the significance I say it did. That is apparently how literary critique works now.

    • chava says:

      Now I wish there had been an ep where Sisko punched a Nazi.

      • Anon21 says:

        There was that time he punched defenders of racist/classist near-future American society (in “Past Tense”). (At least, I think he punched them?) Not Nazis, but not bad!

      • miga says:

        I hated those episode arcs. They had them in every damn Star Trek series and I always tuned out.

        If I wanted to watch a period drama I would’ve changed to Dr. Quinn!!!

      • moviemaedchen says:

        Yes, that episode needs to exist.

      • wembley says:

        He punched Q, but I don’t think that counts.

    • shfree says:

      I also have not seen the reboot of the Khan movie, because I think the last thing the Star Trek universe needs is a Kirk even smirkier than the original. And I would like to complain about Simon Pegg playing Scotty, because he is NOT Scottish but English, and that shit just can’t stand.

      • Willard says:

        Actually James Doohan was Canadian of Irish extraction so that makes exactly like the new/old Sulu thing. \rolleyes

  15. Tim says:

    While we’re at it, what about the basic premise of the show, and for most popular culture, to begin with? A technologically advanced, expansionist culture sets out on “peaceful exploration” in ships that just happen to be armed to the teeth with unimaginably powerful weapons. They encounter “good” alien cultures and entities who agree to follow their rules and bad ones who don’t. The good ones get to join the Federation and the bad ones, after supposed efforts made to try to get them to be good, are killed and blown to smithereens, relunctantly, of course, as a “last resort.” Sound like anything in real life?

    Look, I loved the original ST series and all of the spinoffs, but the “reboots”? Meh. Come up with something new, already.

  16. chava says:

    Here are just some of the racial problems within Star Trek:
    –Klingons are nearly always coded as black/dark skinned.
    –Ferengi are coded as Semitic
    –‘soft’ imperialism, secularization and colonization is often presented as a Good Thing, despite efforts to address it in TNG and DS9. ditto white man’s burden and exploration where “no man has gone before.”
    –the captain of the Kelvin is killed in the first five minutes.

    You know what is not a racial problem with Star Trek?
    –John Cho being Korean.

    • Willard says:

      the captain of the Kelvin is killed in the first five minutes

      I’ll admit I had to look that up since I remembered the ship, but not the details. He gets shanked by the Romulans then the Kelvin gets blowed up real good in less than 5 minutes (real time, obviously longer in lens-flare-baby-naming-time). I didn’t see anything racially problematic in it at all, but I’m not a POC. What jumped out at you there?

      • Willard says:

        If we’re doing trope analysis though this one falls kind of flat. There’s a woman that gets sucked out into space after one of the torpedo barrages, and I generally assumed that the engineers engulfed in a fireball when the warp reactor went out didn’t pull through. His is the first named character death, but the trope doesn’t make that distinction.

        Rewatching the scene on the lookout for race stuff it was pretty awesome actually. You had a lot of diversity on the bridge (including speaking parts), and Robau was an exemplar of selfless leadership under fire. Lumping it in with how the trope has been abused predominately in the horror genre ignores a lot of what’s actually going on on the screen.

      • chava says:

        mmm, fair enough. I’d argue that it still plays into the trope somewhat, but in the list of Iffy Stuff about ST, it isn’t up that high.

  17. Henry says:

    You know, I haven’t actually commented here in years, but this one might be worth the effort.

    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.

    Consider my eyes rolled. Sisko’s rank is completely irrelevant. He was the Boss, clearly and without question. Honestly. I’m having a hard time thinking of a franchise that’s made more of an effort to showcase diversity than the run of Star Trek series. It was to the point where it was bit ham-fisted; every other plot line was an alien metaphor for tolerance and inclusion. In any case, I think the idea that “White America” is uncomfortable with people of color in positions of authority in popular media is a bit outdated – there’s plenty of examples besides Ben Sisko.

    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.

    Just as any white actor can play Russian, Scottish, Irish, German, French, etc. How is this not a good thing? It means they can work more. How is it better to say to a Mexican actor, “we can only hire you for ‘Mexican’ roles?” It’s acting; it’s not important what they are, just how they look. How many Japanese actors appear in Chinese films as Chinese characters and vice-versa?

    The idea that it’s apparently reasonable for Japanese people to get pissed off that John Cho (who’s a good actor) is playing Sulu because he’s Korean, or that Khan somehow HAS to be played by a Mexican because he once was, is the entire problem. It’s just tribalist bullshit – no different from the assholes who were all fired up that Heimdall was played by Idris Elba.

    Maybe if we could see James Kirk, Gifted Yet Flawed Officer instead of James Kirk, White Man we wouldn’t need to have this discussion.

    • pheenobarbidoll says:

      It’s just tribalist bullshit

      Fail.

    • A4 says:

      Maybe if we could see James Kirk, Gifted Yet Flawed Officer instead of James Kirk, White Man we wouldn’t need to have this discussion.

      +1 bingo checkbox for “If you stopped talking about race then racism would disappear”

    • In any case, I think the idea that “White America” is uncomfortable with people of color in positions of authority in popular media is a bit outdated

      …I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you fell through a wormhole and have recently arrived here from the 25th century.

    • amblingalong says:

      I think hidden among the dreck was one good point:

      Just as any white actor can play Russian, Scottish, Irish, German, French, etc.

      Saying you should only hire, say, a Korean actor for a Korean role (and never a Chinese actor) sounds social justiceyful, but if white actors can step into a wide range of white roles, but (again, for example) Asian actors are limited to only playing the Asian roles that also match their ethnicity/nationality/national origin, what you’re arguing for is actually directly harmful to everyone in the business who’s not white.

      • Emma says:

        It is frequently very irritating when an American actor incapable of doing whichever accent or speaking whichever language is cast as Russian, Scottish, Irish, German, French etc – see Johnny Depp in Chocolat, Mel Gibson in Braveheart and absolutely everyone who’s supposed to be German in Die Hard. But you’re right that no one writing from a social justice perspective sees it as an issue.

  18. pheenobarbidoll says:

    I can’t critique the movie because I fell asleep 10 minutes into it. It was god awful boring.

  19. Pingback: Ubuntucat » Blog Archive » Blaming actors of color isn’t productive change

  20. Willard says:

    Having not seen Star Trek into Darkness yet

    Another one of these? Considering a lot of the argument hinges on just how the role of Khan is portrayed in the movie I’d think that would be important. The whitewashing is ridiculous and unnecessary, but the characterization of the role was never (and continues not to be) “hungry for power, has no respect for life, and is corrupt.” Well, maybe the first one, but you don’t get to be warlord of a quarter of the Earth by not exercising power.

    Also George Takei had only nice things to say about John Cho.

    Finally, kicking Sisko under the bus because he started a rank below captain and commanded 10 million metric tons of heavily armed space station? I’d take that over a measly ship any day of the week.

  21. Ann says:

    the head of a giraffe against a bright blue sky: its mouth is pursed sideways

    ::: I WANT TO THREADJACK! PLZ PLZ PLZ PLZ PLZ! Posting at blogs using a totally fake email address with paragraph after paragraph of known hot-button “clueless” assertions gives my bleak flamebaiting heart a thrill. PHEAR M3!!1!11! :::

    [Moderator note – ORIGINAL COMMENT CONTENT HAS BEEN FLUFFINATED]

  22. amblingalong says:

    Honestly, and I do mean this in good faith, I have no idea why this article was even allowed here. There are plenty of thoughtful critiques of this movie at places like Racialicious, by people who actually took the time to watch it, and who can bring a degree of analytical firepower to bear.

    Lastly, because I’m slightly petty and because it made reading the post extremely difficult, please note: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/commas.htm

    • Yes, well, at least they managed to google the spellings this time. From their Game of Thrones failmeta that they posted on here before, I was half expecting this article to talk about Kork, Speck and their adventures on the Corporation.

      • Willard says:

        I had to go back and read that one mac, worth the lulz.

      • pheenobarbidoll says:

        I was half expecting this article to talk about Kork, Speck and their adventures on the Corporation.

        *just dies*

      • amblingalong says:

        Macavity you are on fire.

      • Thank you ^__^

        Honestly, these “analyses” annoy the hell out of me. It would be one thing if they actually had some nuanced analysis to offer, but it seems to boil down to “White people did a thing. I OBJECT.” I mean, come on. I hate on the Institutional Whitey as much as anyone, but this is fucking ridiculous.

    • C.D. says:

      I’m with amblingalong here. There have been brilliant analysis of why whitewashing Khan is problematic at Racialicious and Racebending (among other places). By people who have watched the movie.

      I particularly liked Marissa Sammy’s piece up on Racebending, where she concludes that: “In the original Trek, Khan, with his brown skin, was an Übermensch, intellectually and physically perfect, possessed of such charisma and drive that despite his efforts to gain control of the Enterprise, Captain Kirk (and many of the other officers) felt admiration for him.

      And that’s why the role has been taken away from actors of colour and given to a white man. Racebending.com has always pointed out that villains are generally played by people with darker skin, and that’s true … unless the villain is one with intelligence, depth, complexity. One who garners sympathy from the audience, or if not sympathy, then — as from Kirk — grudging admiration. What this new Trek movie tells us, what JJ Abrams is telling us, is that no brown-skinned man can accomplish all that. That only by having Khan played by a white actor can the audience engage with and feel for him, believe that he’s smart and capable and a match for our Enterprise crew.”

      On another note, I find it hilarious that earlier commenters are like “now we just have a white guy defeating a white guy, and all the racial stuff is gone.” Uh… no? Even if there wasn’t the whitewashing, white people have a race! It’s so telling that as soon as you turn an entire cast white, people – even on progressive websites – are like “oh, well, racial issues are gone.” Just by having a white cast, and by making a conflict AGAIN between white people, you are indeed playing into racial politics. Racial politics ALWAYS exist. White is not a neutral space.

      Here’s the thing: maybe it’s too problematic to have Khan played by a POC (I don’t actually think it is, but let’s pretend). But if you (and by you, I mean “Abrams and co”) are not willing to navigate those issues in a respectful, thoughtful way, then DON’T WRITE A MOVIE WHERE THE VILLAIN IS KHAN. If you can’t do it without whitewashing, DON’T DO IT AT ALL. Just cast Cumberbatch as a new villain and walk away.

      • chava says:

        he was also a scandalously scandalous ladies’ man, something which we didn’t get to see in ITD, unfortunately. I did think he was going to seduce Marcus for a bit there, but no, alas.

      • piny says:

        The original Khan also had some really good reasons to kill Kirk: Kirk sent him into exile on a planet that ended up killing most of his people. Remember the space slugs in Chekov’s ears thing? That was how a lot of them died.

  23. Ametra says:

    The line that Kirk had to be forced to kiss Uhura strikes me as odd. Yes, he had to forced to kiss her. Kirk may like women and loved to bed them, but it had to willing. If given the chance I think Kirk would have slept with Uhura, if she was willing. He was her Caption. He job was to protect her and ever other person under his command. He was not to use his position of power to force them. In the episode “Mirror, Mirror” were Kirk and other cross to another dimension. He finds the idea to trading sex for power disagreeable. It offended him. He states that we should not be forced, that people should have choices. So, yes he had to be forced to kiss her, because he respected her, that it was not their choice.

  24. Librarygoose says:

    A few thoughts:

    Benjamin Sisko was kiss-ass, DS9 is the most underrated of the series. Seriously, in my mind way more intricate and better acting than Voyager.

    Star Trek math- ST:OS=ST:TNG<ST:DS9<Voyager<All the movies<All works of fandom<the cartoon< enterprise.

    Racebending.com has always pointed out that villains are generally played by people with darker skin, and that’s true … unless the villain is one with intelligence, depth, complexity. One who garners sympathy from the audience, or if not sympathy, then — as from Kirk — grudging admiration. What this new Trek movie tells us, what JJ Abrams is telling us, is that no brown-skinned man can accomplish all that. That only by having Khan played by a white actor can the audience engage with and feel for him, believe that he’s smart and capable and a match for our Enterprise crew.”

    This, I think, is a better analysis.
    Benedict Cumberbacth made a fine villain but a fucking terrible Khan. I think the movie was a success because it made my old trekkie dad cry.

    • tigtog says:

      Benjamin Sisko was kiss-ass

      ??!1!11?! I really hope that was meant to be kick-ass?

      [eta: from a full-on DS9/Sisko fan]

    • Willard says:

      I’m just confused by the math?

      Original series equals The Next Generation, then a series of “less thans” that puts Enterprise at the top? Or are those arrows pointing in the direction of good?

    • miga says:

      I was going to say “YOU SHUT YOUR MOUTH ABOUT MY CISKO”

      – but then I read your correction. Carry on.

  25. 1701 says:

    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.

    I’m really not comfortable with the way this article just blew past George Takei’s opinion of a character he originated and fought like hell for (he’d been campaigning for Sulu’s captaincy since the second Trek movie, and it took until the sixth for it to happen). Certainly I don’t think Takei’s comments are off-limits to criticism, but this article doesn’t actually make a criticism. Takei spent years of his childhood interned with other Japanese-Americans in World War II. To trample his opinions on your way to “hey, one Asian is like another right,” is… questionable at best, disrespectful at worst.

    • Willard says:

      I just reread their statement and realized “regardless” in the context may not have meant “without regard for” like I thought. Either way, Takei’s opinion on the character should carry some modicum of regard

  26. Mildred says:

    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.

    Aaaah. Weeds.

  27. Andrew says:

    The article also doesn’t ring true vis a vis the original series. There were many POC in high command positions; admirals, commodores, high-ranking scientists, planetary leaders, throughout the run of the series. Guest stars, yes, but clearly demonstrating that the Star Trek universe was diverse racially and sexually.
    For its time and given the Civil Rights atmosphere it was brewed in, it did an amazing job (or shall we say Roddenberry did when not undermined by the network) of showing a multi-cultural/ethnic future.

    Pointing to one character, albeit the lead, in a sea of other faces, smacks a bit of dis-ingenuousness.

    Also, tell me the episode where Kirk has sex with the green woman. It’s an old Kirk joke, but never actually happened.

  28. Cedric Prime says:

    I feel you evade any nuance in your use of the ‘White’ man here. One of the major tropes of cinema – arguably post-Star Wars – has been the nefariously well-spoken British White Male villain.

    This is not to say there is an oppressive prejudice towards this group, however. The nature of the villain and how he is perceived seems just as important. This ‘sort’ of baddy is very often brilliant, charismatic, borderline-unhinged yet somehow a gentleman.

    Whereas, Black or Asian villains are regularly portrayed as the ‘enemy,’ either religious fanatics or communists or dumb thugs, or all of the above.

    I think that more telling is the choice of hero. Can anyone think of a significant Asian protagonist in Hollywood?

  29. Pingback: Friday’s Reading List | Smoke & Stir

  30. April says:

    A good article I read argued that the problem was that villains who the audience was mean to identify with were always Caucasian.

    Think of all the shows which have villains as the main characters. They are all white e.g. Dexter, Hannibal, the Sopranos etc.

    Same, as in this case, if the villains are geniuses (and so the audience is meant to admire their intellect on some level). For example Sherlock and Hannibal.

    Villains who aren’t white tend to be thugs or terrorists, people we’re not meant to identify with.

    Thus you can argue that, in an odd way, it is progressive to have an identifiable non-white villain.

    On the terrorist problem, they could have written something else for him to do. Or not have Khan as a character. I’d personally rather not see Khan at all rather than see him half assed.

  31. John Cowan says:

    I’m here to complain about a U.S. character like Kirk being played by a Canadian like William Shatner, totally ignoring the traditional tensions between the U.S. and Canada.

Comments are closed.