Movies Star Trek

I’m a Trekkie and I Loved Into Darkness

STID001I’m an unabashed Trekkie. I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, watching it at my piano teacher’s house between lessons. I watched Deep Space Nine and Voyager religiously when I was home from college. I crushed on the usual suspects — Wesley Crusher, Tom Paris, Harry Kim, and Julian Bashir — and consumed my fair share of Star Trek paperback novels in the lull between new episodes.

I saw every TNG full-length movie at midnight openings in theatres. I own the Star Trek Encyclopedia and even made a point to visit the Las Vegas Star Trek Experience exhibit, when it was still touring.

And, I loved Star Trek Into Darkness (which is being released on DVD and Blu-ray this week).

This didn’t seem particularly unusual to me until I read last month that thousands of Trek fans at the official convention in Vegas had voted Into Darkness the single worst Star Trek film in canon history. They voted it worst behind Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Behind Star Trek: Generations! Behind Star Trek: Insurrection! Behind Star Trek V: I Found God at the Edge of the Freakin’ Universe!!!

The Guardian rationalizes the Into Darkness hatred among Trekkies thusly:

The poll results confirm what has long been obvious to Star Trek observers: by rebooting the series in 2009 as an action-oriented, fast-paced, big-budget blockbuster proposition, Abrams and his team have completely alienated the hardcore Star Trek audience that has followed the film series and various TV iterations since its inception. While the movies were floundering at the box office prior to Abrams’ appointment, they cleaved more closely to a genuine definition of science fiction than the “space opera” tack taken by the Lost creator, who has always made it clear he was not a Star Trek fan in any case.

Honestly, I find it a little hackles-raising that my authenticity as a Trekkie is called into question because I love the J.J. Abrams reboots of the Trek universe. And I do. I love the J.J. Abrams’ reboots.

To be fair, I am a hardcore Trekkie who really doesn’t get down with The Original Series — I find it too slow, too ’60s, too space opera-y. I’m not particularly compelled by the adventures of three White heterosexual male space cowboys riding into the space-y sunset, looking for new indigenous peoples (and particularly their women) to (culturally) conquer. So, I think I’m more open-minded about the J.J. Abrams’ re-interpretations of the TOS crew: I have no particular affinity for the original versions.

Generally, I have to stifle the urge to punch this smug-looking guy in the face through my TV.
And, generally, I have to stifle the urge to punch this smug-looking guy in the face through my TV.

Also, I’m a child of the ’80s and early ’90s. I like to see things blow up. And, boy, do things blow up in the J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movies.

But, perhaps more critically, I think Trekkies can be divided into two camps: those who are drawn to Gene Roddenberry’s utopic vision of the future best embodied by the original series, wherein a security officer isn’t even necessary, because it is a fantasy of what we’d like the world to be; and those who enjoy seeing the Star Trek universe (particularly in later series) explore the cracks in that apparent utopia, as a commentary on contemporary society.

A lot of Trekkies — and I mean a lot of Trekkies — who grew up on TOS have a general disdain for the later shows like DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise, particularly the later seasons of those shows. The common theme in all the later seasons is the dark subject matters of war, crime, genocide, violence, and death that suggest life in the Federation is not the awesome thing it’s cracked up to be. Those “dreamer Trekkies” (as I call them, and I swear it’s not pejorative, although I know it sounds like it is) enjoy the escapist fantasy of Star Trek, which offers a harmonious, near-perfect ideal which we can strive for and perhaps one day achieve — one in which poverty and racism and all the other injustices of today are gone, and the most pressing matter for members of the Federation is to what depth we should impose our perfection upon other races. And I get it — what is science fiction if not a certain amount of escapism?

But for us “realist Trekkies,” the Federation of TOS is a little too Leave It To Beaver with impulse engines; everything bad that happens in the 23rd century Pleasantville that is the USS Enterprise 1701 happens off-ship. That isn’t a realistic, attainable future to me; that is a fantasy.

Instead, there’s a certain catharsis in watching Star Trek tackle (and in some cases succumb to) the same problems that we face in post-20th century Earth. They tell us that the strife we face today doesn’t disappear with an anti-septic coat of Enterprise-beige paint, a tricorder, cotton/polyester uniforms, and a few warp nacelles. Instead, I prefer a darker Star Trek, one wherein there are real societal and institutionalized problems in the world, but also one in which humanity can overcome them.

It'a s world where a young cadet can both suffer a horrible war injury and PTSD.
The darker side of Star Trek is one wherein a young cadet can suffer a horrific war injury , survivor’s guilt, and PTSD; and where writers compellingly tackle those issues in a relevant manner.

Into Darkness is a movie that appeals to “realist Trekkies.” Sure, it’s a movie about Kirk and his crew exploring space; about the heartache that comes with loving a half-Vulcan hybrid; about phasers and space battles and things blowing up… but mostly, it’s a movie about terrorism. More specifically, it is a movie about 21st century, 9/11-style terrorism, and post-9/11 America.

Obviously, the film has its flaws (for example, gratuitous full-frontal near-nudity by the movie’s resident female love interest), but overall, I think Into Darkness should be judged for its strengths — it is a smart, insightful and nuanced political thriller that, despite being set several centuries into the future, is highly relevant to the world today.

Also, Benedict Cumberbatch.
Also, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Before the film came out, Trekkies good-naturedly lambasted the name “Into Darkness” — a title both vague and grammatically inaccurate. Yet, upon seeing the film, I can’t help but find the title apt. The movie isn’t just about journeying into the dark and terrifying environs of space, but about journeying into the darkness of the human soul, and confronting what our species is capable of doing for a cause — whether it is the political cause of saving a nation of genetically-advanced humans, or the personal cause of saving a child. Into Darkness explores what the Federation is willing to do — and what rights we are willing to sacrifice — in the name of fighting terrorism and the terrorist, Khan. And, Into Darkness gallantly depicts what Kirk is willing to do to save his crew.

Into Darkness is an unsettling vision of the future, one in which access to a warp drive and a matter transporter hasn’t solved humanity’s enduring problems. And, while I understand why other Trekkies might not like this darker tone to the Trek universe, I actually prefer it. Into Darkness, DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise are pessimistic, even dystopic, interpretations of Roddenberry’s vision.

But they also remind us that social injustice, racism, war, and violence won’t disappear on their own; that we, as humans, are still responsible for our own actions and the injustices we might commit. The dark recesses of human nature won’t be saved by first contact with an alien species; the utopic future of Rodenberry’s inspiration is not an end goal but a constant struggle.

Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek offers us a vision of what a better future for humanity might be. Darker Trek sagas, like the beautifully rendered, fast-paced and violent world of J.J. Abrams’ Trek reboot offers us more: a better future — imperfect perhaps — but forged by the collective blood and sweat out of the world we live in now. That’s a vision of the future — where we either sink into darkness or propel ourselves towards a brighter tomorrow, but we do it all together — that inspires me.

And, that doesn’t make me less of a Trekkie because of it.

12 comments

  1. I agree with you, Jenn! (Thought I notice you didn’t touch the genetically engineered elephant in the room, heh.)

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  2. No, I didn’t. 🙂 Figured someone was gonna call me on it. 🙂

    Here’s my opinion: is it clear that “Khan”‘s character is intended to be Middle Eastern or South Asian (which is what POCs online assert)? I’m not a huge TOS fan, but my recollection is that there isn’t any explicit reference to Khan being of a particular race in the original series, nor is there one in the JJ Abrams movie. Khan exists in a futuristic arguably post-racial future, and one where even where issues of race are raised, Khan himself is explicitly genetically engineered or grown in a lab, not one wherein he’s got a racial history.

    Furthermore was played by Ricardo Montalban in the TOS, who is of Mexican descent, and mostly because it was Ricardo freakin’ Montalban. Khan’s name aside, his as far as I know his character is racially ambiguous, and his identity is more “genetically modified” than “Middle Eastern” or “South Asian”.

    “Taking food out of a POC actor’s mouth” issues aside, I think Benedict Cumberbatch was brilliant as Khan, particularly since I think the evidence that this was an example of a race-bend is thin. I personally have no issues with the Cumberbatch casting. There may have been a talented actor of colour who could have done Khan justice, but what I do know is that Cumberbatch is a talented actor who DID do the role of Khan justice.

    But that’s just one girl’s opinion. I see why others have more issues with it than me.

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  3. As a South Asian and a Muslim, I find it problematic to dismiss what Khan’s character represents. “Khan” is a very common Muslim surname, particularly a South Asian Muslim name. “Singh” is a Sikh name. Furthermore, “Khan Noonien Singh” is an exoticized name that NO South Asian person would have.

    There is a Star Trek episode that refers to Khan as a Sikh warrior from India. Therefore, he is supposed to be Indian. I understand why people were upset about the race-bending casting, but again, as a South Asian Muslim, I am uncomfortable of seeing South Asians being vilified, especially given the escalating number of hate crimes committed against us.

    You acknowledged the post 9/11 allegory in this film, so it’s difficult to not see the parallels with Khan and Muslim terrorists. Many Muslim writers and activists have pointed this out already, but “terrorist” is code for “Muslim.” It is a word that continues to stigmatize our community. What’s frustrating is that, yes, it’s offensive that a white man played a character with a (fake) South Asian name, but it’s also offensive that the character himself is classified as a Sikh terrorist (even though it’s not mentioned explicitly in the reboot, South Asians KNOW and RECOGNIZE the names “Khan” and “Singh”).

    While the audience is made to sympathize with Khan’s struggles, he’s a terrorist at the end of the day. It’s nauseating to see South Asians, Arabs, Iranians, and Muslims being vilified. It’s even more upsetting to see them go unchallenged.

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  4. @Mast, I see and sympathize with your point, but do you not find the issues of “Muslim as default terrorist” that you raise assuaged somewhat by the casting of a White British actor? Again, I’m not familiar with the TOS ep where Khan’s race is raised, but in the movie at least Khan’s name is Khan’s name because that’s his name, not as a reference to his race.

    Considering that even you note that to Muslims and Sikhs the reference is obvious, but to those not familiar with either culture, they may not catch the reference, I don’t think Khan’s race is a priori “obvious” to the audience. So the “racial cross-casting” (if it is such since I retain that the character is racially ambiguous, at least as far as Into Darkness is concerned) is a direct contradiction to this movie as potentially perpetuating stereotypes of Muslims/Sikhs as terrorists…

    And to put it out there, I sympathized with Khan’s struggle more than I sympathized with the Federation. I would assert that Kirk’s decision to aid Khan also indicates that the film feels that the motivations are just, if not the methods (and betrayals) at the end.

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    1. I still find it problematic in the same way a white actor played Ra’s Al-Ghul (which is also a name that no Arab person would have). The filmmakers are still trying to draw parallels with post 9/11 themes – the villain representing the “Muslim terrorist,” where they’re played by white people or not. I found it laughable when he said, “My name is Khan” because that’s the title of an Indian film – about a man named Khan, who experiences Islamophobia in post 9/11 America.

      Even if people of “other cultures” aren’t aware that “Khan” and “Singh” are Muslim and Sikh names respectively, I think solidarity against the exploitation and vilification of these names is important. I hate when white people, for example, make “Khaaan!” jokes whenever I mention a Muslim writer/actor/musician/artist with that last name.

      The Star Trek episode where Khan’s Sikh and Indian roots are mentioned seems to have been taken off youtube. But I know there is an episode guide where you can find the exact episode.

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