‘Cos a Khan party don’t stop until it’s conquered 25% of Earth and fled justice into space!
SPOILERS: Probably safest to assume that everything after this paragraph contains spoilers up to and including Star Trek Into Darkness.
I saw Into Darkness with my friends a couple of weeks ago, and even after I recovered from my lens flare headache, I was kind of unimpressed. I’ve been a Trekkie since I was ten, and I don’t go to a Star Trek movie to see Spock punching a dude in the face, you know? And it’s a shame, because I had enjoyed JJ Abrams’ first round with the franchise, and now I just want to reject everything about it, even the 100% brilliant aspects like Zoe Saldana, John Cho and Simon Pegg.
When Star Trek came out, it inspired me to go back and watch the whole of TOS and TNG. (I got about halfway through DS9, which was great, but then I kind of got distracted. I’ll go back to that and VOY at some stage, I swear. As soon as I get over my fear that Voyager won’t be as perfect and brilliant as it seemed when I was 14.
(Actually, Voyager was the fandom that taught me that all showrunners hate puppies, kittens, happiness and women, which is probably why I like Steven Moffat so much — he seems to tolerate puppies, kittens, happiness and women, and that’s a big step up from Brannon Braga. When you lower your standards, you can’t be disappointed.)
Anyway, this time around, I gathered some friends and said, “Hey, totes gonna watch ‘Space Seed’ and Wrath of Khan. You should come over and stuff.”
And they did, even though they weren’t big Star Trek fans, and were somewhat more positive towards Into Darkness than me.
Remember how I blogged about fannish defensiveness a few weeks back? Showing Star Trek to my friends is really nerve-wracking, because there’s always a small part of me that worries they’ll … I don’t know, hold me responsible for Shatner’s line reading? It’s a neurosis. And also quite silly, because my friends these days are sensible women who can cope with watching old fashioned TV, and don’t judge me for liking something that’s a bit stilted and odd.
But wow, “Space Seed” is old fashioned. Not as shockingly as early Doctor Who — Star Trek had a much better budget, and the general film quality was higher (even setting aside the difference between colour and black and white), but the pacing is veeeeeeeeeeeeeery sloooooooooooow compared with modern television.
TOS ran four minutes longer than TNG (something I felt was quite unjust when I was young), and they really take their time setting up the plot and characters. If this was made today, Khan would take take over the Enterprise much earlier, and the rest of the episode would be one long action scene. As it is, the capture of the crew, torture of Kirk and defeat of Khan and reclamation of the ship all takes place in the last quarter hour.
…also if this was made today, apparently, Khan would be played by a white British actor, rather than a Mexican in brownface. Which is also problematic, but it’s an historical artefact from 1966/67. Ricardo Montalban spent much of his career playing men of other races, including Asian, because Hollywood’s pretty racist and a man has to eat.
The interesting thing about Khan was that the original script portrayed a Nordic superman. And Gene Roddenberry basically went, “Well, if you’re creating a superhuman out of the best humanity has to offer, he’s probably not going to be white.” So although there are a lot of issues with Khan, from the brownface to his relationship with McGivers, he simultaneously represents 1960s racism and progressivism.
In fact, in “Space Seed”, Scotty describes the eugenics warriors thusly:
“They’re mixed types. Western, mid-European, Latin, Oriental.”
I’m wincing and impressed at the same time. Nice try, 1966.
It’s kind of unfortunate, then, that by 1982, this is what Khan’s people look like:
Well done on not putting Montalban in brownface this time?
According to Tumblr, incidentally (because I hit the tags in search of Carol Marcus gifs, but I’ll get to that later), casting a Mexican to play an Indian is way more racist than casting a white man to play the same Indian, and also it’s impossible for Khan to be a man of colour, because scientists are racist and would have bred their superman to be white. To which I say, congratulations, you are officially more racist than 1966!
The other problem with “Space Seed” is that it’s also an artefact of 1960s attitudes about women. Although it hardly seems fair describing it as such, since at the same time as Star Trek was giving us Marla McGivers, Doctor Who was adding Polly Wright to its already impressive list of brave, clever, sensible female characters.
(Uhura is woefully underused in “Space Seed”. IT MUST BE A DAY ENDING IN Y. She does the comms thing, and then gets physically threatened by Khan’s henchmen until she activates the KirkTortureCam. Nichelle Nichols does give some great Outrage Face at this treatment, though.)
Anyway, Marla. She’s the ship’s historian, and I’d like to think that it’s awesome that history is so respected in the Federation that starships carry their own specialists, only … what do they do? Marla betrays the ship. The Enterprise-D had one for five minutes, but then he got shot, and never replaced. BECAUSE WHAT DO THEY DO? Even Kirk doesn’t seem too sure.
Marla’s not even a good historian. She’s basically the equivalent of those women who write love letters to serial killers in prison. Her quarters are a shrine to Great Men Who Conquered Shit And Killed People – Alexander the Great, Caesar, Napoleon – and she also paints their portraits. And she falls for Khan because he’s a Great Man Who Conquered Shit And Killed People, not an emasculated specimen like the men of the future.
(Someone should write an essay about masculine anxieties as represented in “Space Seed”. Someone who’s not me, I mean.)
The most interesting moment in this relationship is when Khan tells her, “Go. Or stay. But do it because it is what you wish to do.” It makes the coercion that follows look consensual!
But my favourite scene in the whole episode is the one where Kirk, McCoy and Scotty express their admiration for Khan, and Spock is horrified and outraged that they’re being fans of a problematic person. (Khan Noonien Singh. Amanda Palmer. Can you see the difference?) Here’s a transcript:
SCOTT: I must confess, gentlemen. I’ve always held a sneaking admiration for this one.
KIRK: He was the best of the tyrants and the most dangerous. They were supermen, in a sense. Stronger, braver, certainly more ambitious, more daring.
SPOCK: Gentlemen, this romanticism about a ruthless dictator is —
KIRK: Mister Spock, we humans have a streak of barbarism in us. Appalling, but there, nevertheless.
SCOTT: There were no massacres under his rule.
SPOCK: And as little freedom.
MCCOY: No wars until he was attacked.
KIRK: Mister Spock, you misunderstand us. We can be against him and admire him all at the same time.
I can only assume that Spock then goes off to call them out on Tumblr. As soon as he finds a gif that will express his lack of feels.
ANYWAY, Khan is brought to heel and sent into exile with his people, on the grounds that ’tis better to reign in hell than serve in heaven, and Marla goes with him because the alternative is (I assume) a cushy Federation jail, and who wouldn’t want choose an inhospitable, uninhabited planet over that?
And we’re left with the final mysteries: why would a group of escaping war criminals steal the ship that signals their criminality to any passing Australian? How can a ship called S.S. Botany Bay send up no red flags whatsoever? I guarantee you, deep in the bowels of the Enterprise, some Aussie crewman had been singing “Bound for Botany Bay” for days by the time everyone else figured Khan was bad news.
The first thing to note about Wrath of Khan is that it introduces two new female characters and gives them substantial roles. In fact, it has more female speaking parts than Into Darkness, and 100% fewer underwear scenes.
(On the other hand, despite the presence of Carol Marcus and Saavik, Uhura is still underused. One thing I wholeheartedly love about the reboot is how it does give Uhura significant time and attention — although it’s still nothing compared with the male leads — and I just wish Nichelle Nichols had received the same kind of respect.)
Part of the reason I was so keen to rewatch Khan was Carol Marcus. I didn’t hate her in Into Darkness, but I did hate that they took this independent, funny, super-intelligent woman who managed to be defined by neither her son nor her ex-boyfriend, and turned her into a generic Strong Female Character whose primary motivation is her daddy issues. With a gratuitous underwear scene.
I mean, Khan!Carol is middle aged, and it makes sense that a younger version would have different priorities and maybe less confidence than her older self, but I couldn’t see a shred of the future Carol in the new version. Alice Eve is no less competent than Bibi Besch, but the writing just wasn’t there. New!Carol was just hollow.
And it did bug me that they took Carol Marcus, who is proudly civilian, and whose scientific drive is for the creation of life from nothingness, who regards Starfleet as a tool for the advancement of science and a necessary military evil, and turns her into … a weapons specialist. At first this made sense, with the militarisation of new Starfleet, but then, the Starfleet of the movies is also highly militarised.
It’s significant, I think, that when David Marcus accuses Starfleet of stealing and weaponising the Genesis research, none of the other younger scientists disagree. Only Carol, who is old enough to remember a gentler, exploration-based Starfleet, contradicts him.
That generation gap is significant, because Wrath of Khan is less about a crazy dude trying to kill everyone, and more about middle age, loss, obsolescence and facing death. The Enterprise is full of junior officers in training, with Spock in command, and Kirk sort of flailing about in a new position as an admiral. And then, amidst all that, his past comes back to haunt him: an enemy he thought he’d left behind, the woman who broke his heart, the son he never knew.
And then Spock dies, and Kirk faces death and the no-win situation properly for the first time. And, because he’s kind of an asshole, he finds it exhilarating. Rejuvenating. He feels young at the end. Sad and overwhelmed with loss, but also young. And also, Spock’s death? All about him.
Amazingly, this coda doesn’t detract from the power of Spock’s death. Although the truly amazing thing is that when Kirk, at the funeral, describes Spock as “the most human soul he has ever known”, Spock doesn’t rise out of his coffin and say something sarcastic. And Saavik is too grief-stricken to do it for him.
I HAVEN’T EVEN TALKED ABOUT SAAVIK YET!
Saavik is Spock’s protege. In terms of character types, she’s basically Romana I – a beautiful brunette ice queen with more theoretical knowledge than practical experience, and magnificent eyebrows.
They’re not very, you know, Vulcan eyebrows, though. And she actually sheds a tear at Spock’s funeral. See, a cut scene would have revealed that Saavik is actually half-Romulan, and not completely down with this total lack of emotion business. But because that information was taken out, and Kirstie Alley wasn’t given the classic Vulcan eyebrows, she can come across as a bit of a half-baked Vulcan.
DOESN’T MATTER, THOUGH, ‘COS SAAVIK IS GREAT. She challenges Kirk, making him hugely uncomfortable, while Spock just stands in the background and looks approving. But she also respects Kirk and learns from him — she’s not just a Strong Female Character whose version of feminism is an inability to admit she’s wrong.
I mean, not that she overtly admits she’s wrong, but sometimes her eyebrows suggest that she’s taking things in.
Saavik was Kirstie Alley’s first big movie role. By the time The Search for Spock came around, Alley asked for a huge amount of money, and Saavik promptly regenerated into Robin Curtis.
Curtis was very good in the role, and her version of Saavik was much more classically Vulcan, but she lacked the quiet sass that Alley’s version had. Nevertheless, it’s a real shame that she barely appears in Star Trek IV, and after that she just vanishes from the Trek universe.
(But it could be worse — Valeris, the traitorous Vulcan in Star Trek VI, was originally going to be Saavik. Hoo boy, did we dodge a bullet there! Although we also have to put up with Kim Cattrall’s acting, which is never a highlight.)
AND THAT WAS THE KHAN PARTY. I believe we have tentative plans for one day having a Whales and Tribble Party. Because boy, do I know how to show my friends a good time, or what?