In 2009’s Star Trek, JJ Abrams successfully made the effort to appeal to new viewers as well as dyed-in-the-wool Trekkies. This time round, he seems to be going further afield— and alienating the original fanbase entirely.
The publicity for Into Darkness has been solidly high school: Don’t worry—it may be Star Trek, but it’s not for nerds anymore! In an interview with Jon Stewart this week, Abrams made it very clear that he’d never liked the show as a kid, because it was “too philosophical.” “I stopped listening when you said you didn’t like Star Trek,” Stewart joked. “I saw your mouth moving, so I assume you apologized.”
It’s not actually necessary for a director to be a lifelong fan if they want to make a successful adaptation. In fact, JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek movie was proof of that. But it’s another thing for an adaption to leave most of the original show’s values in the dust, which is what Into Darkness seems to be doing. The dialogue is snappy, the action sequences are fun, and the characters seem real enough, but the heart and the brain are now gone.
In 1966, Star Trek broke new ground with its international crew of hopeful explorers, scientists, and adventurers. True, the show was full of heavy-handed Cold War metaphors and casual 1960s misogyny, but its central messages were obvious: Racism is bad. Give peace a chance. That kind of thing. Men and women, Russians and Americans, aliens and humans: all could work together on a more-or-less equal footing. For many viewers, Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura) was the first woman of color they’d seen playing anything other than a maid. Star Trek was pushing the envelope.
In 2013, not so much. Into Darkness shows more racial diversity among cameos from alien species than it does among human characters in main speaking roles. Worse still, iconic Star Trek villain Khan Noonien Singh was recast as Benedict Cumberbatch, possibly the whitest man on the planet.
In Khan’s original role, he was super-intelligent, super-strong, the head of a genetically engineered master race—and brown. In other words, the opposite of the usual racial stereotypes one saw in mid-20th century “foreign” or “exotic” villains. Whitewashing Khan into being an posh-sounding Englishman reinforces the message sent out by Kirk, Spock, and the morally ambiguous Admiral Marcus: Good or evil, everyone in power is a white male. Suddenly, the awkwardness surrounding one of John Cho’s publicity interviews makes sense. “Who is your favourite villain?” he is asked. “Ricardo Montalban,” he answers. “He was badass. And a man of color, I might add.” Nervous laughter. Next question, please.
When it comes to world class pedantry, few groups can challenge the prowess of Wikipedians and Star Trek fans. So when the two come together it’s little surprise they create a swirling maelstrom of anal retention from which no common sense can escape.
Case in point: The Wikipedia talk page for the new movie Star Trek Into Darkness. There, Wikipedians and Wikipedia Star Trek fans have engaged in a heated conflict that’s raged for nearly two months. More than 40,000 words have been lobbed from either side. Earlier today, the debate was even the subject of a mocking cartoon at the popular Web comic XKCD.
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