Sunday, May 19, 2013

A Spoiler-Filled Analysis of Star Trek's Inevitable New Debate

Whenever a director gets involved in an established franchise, whether it's Peter Jackson adapting beloved Tolkien novels, Joss Whedon bringing Marvel comics to life, or even George Lucas returning to a galaxy far, far away fifteen years after his original trilogy, a unique challenge is issued: do you focus on keeping the fans happy? Or do you risk the wrath of the fanboy and make a film that will appeal to a universal audience?

It isn't always an either-or proposition, and most filmmakers (especially those noted above) have tried to satisfy both sides of the equation. Over the last few years, JJ Abrams has been staring down one of the most daunting fanboy franchises of all, and with "Star Trek: Into Darkness," he brings that debate to the forefront.

In 2009's "Star Trek," Abrams laid down the gauntlet with a timeline twist that told Trekkies they should consider his films a unique interpretation of the Trek universe instead of a regimented set of prequels to the original series. By transporting a villain from Trek's canonical future into its ambiguous past, then allowing him to alter that past, Abrams shook off the fanboy tether and got to work telling his own story. One that had Spock hooking up with Uhura and the Planet Vulcan biting the big one long before Captain Kirk could ever climb the steps of Mount Seleyah.

But instead of declare total creative independence, Abrams' Trek films have continued to forge ties to their original source material, offering frequent echoes that suggest certain events in history are rooted, regardless of your particular timeline. (Longtime Abrams fan will note the previous exploration of this theme in "Lost"). This idea is played out to unexpected degrees in "Star Trek: Into Darkness," primarily through its familiar villain.

For months, speculation has swirled around the identity of actor Benedict Cumberbatch's baddie. As the second film of the new franchise, many expected/hoped for the second coming of Khan Noonien Singh, the legendary baddie Ricardo Montalban portrayed in the second film of the first franchise. Others noted parallels to Gary Mitchell, a Federation officer featured in the original TV series back in the late 1960s. It was telling that a completely unique character never seemed to be an option, and even more telling that Abrams chose to give fans a brand-new interpretation of that eugenics superman gone bad.

By choosing Khan as his heavy, Abrams has offered thrills to Trek's longtime fans, but stifled the immortality of his own franchise at the same time. "Into Darkness" is an awesome film that boosts the Star Trek resurgence, and Cumberbatch is an impressive Khan. To rookie Trek fans and casual observers, it's a great movie, and to seasoned veterans, it's even better. But the film's explicit nods to "Wrath of Khan" (right down to Zachary Quinto's echo of William Shatner's most infamous acting moment) that propel it to new heights of meaning also force it to take a backseat to the Montalban film.

Once Cumberbatch revealed his identity halfway through the new film, I couldn't help but fall into a "which is better?" internal debate between the two Khans and their respective films. In the face of superior special effects and imposing marketing, I almost felt defensive on behalf of Montalban and "Wrath of Khan," which I see as "my" film. I guess that is what happens when you write a 15-page paper on Chicano Nationalism through the lens of a 20-year-old sci-fi flick. Or when you retain childhood memories of turning away from the screen when those bugs get dropped in Chekov's ear.

It's amusing that I/we feel compelled to do this whenever confronted with options in popular culture, or anything else for that matter. If it isn't Benedict Cumberbatch vs. Ricardo Montalban, it's Coke vs. Pepsi, or (for my fellow photographers) Canon vs. Nikon. Heck, one of the implicit purposes of the new Trek franchise is to give it more street cred in the Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate. For decades Star Wars movies have been cultural events while Trek releases were attended by a narrow sliver of sci-fi fandom. While this may not mean anything in terms of film quality, profits are what allow our favorite franchises to keep turning out product. Abrams has sought to address that gap, and I think he has made great strides in generating a more inclusive fan base for Gene Roddenberry's baby. (Of course, now that Abrams is helming Star Wars as well, things are about to get very interesting.)

But as far as the Battle of the Khans is concerned, my verdict is this: Cumberbatch is awesome, more than up to the task, and will earn his spot on Star Trek's Mount Rushmore of All-Time Best Bad Guys. But since that particular Rushmore only features two faces, and since the other one is the original version of Cumberbatch's character, the New Khan can only go so far. "Star Trek: Into Darkness" is a film that can stand on its own feet and be enjoyed even if you aren't familiar with Trek history. But if you are familiar with Trek history, "Into Darkness" becomes even more impressive, but also more derivative and dependent as a consequence.

When Cumberbatch glares at Chris Pine with hollow eyes and declares, "MY NAME IS KHAN," it is a powerful moment only to those who already know who Khan is. When Zachary Quinto prods Leonard Nimoy into his Doc Brown Moment later on, the original Spock's reaction is weighted because we too remember what Khan did the first time around. Without the source material, these dramatic moments ring empty.

Of course, rational people will understand that this debate is as pointless as arguing whether LeBron James would beat Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one. It gives you great fodder for sports talk radio, but it doesn't really mean anything. There's no reason you can't enjoy and appreciate both Khans. But when you enter the waters of such an established franchise, these kinds of debates come with the territory.

For years I've been trying to get my English students to understand the difference between text and context, especially how context can hold so much sway over a text's full meaning. "Star Trek: Into Darkness" may have just become Exhibit A in that lecture.