The Pros and Cons of 'Star Trek Into Darkness'' Mystery Villain

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by Matt Singer
May 17, 2013 11:30 AM
14 Comments
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"Star Trek Into Darkness."

This article contains SPOILERS. But it shouldn't have to.

"Star Trek Into Darkness" is now playing in theaters around the country. From the moment this sequel to 2009's "Star Trek" reboot got the green light, nerd speculation has coalesced around the identity of the movie's villain. Would director J.J. Abrams and his collaborators bring back Khan, the famous ubermensch who terrorized Captain Kirk and the crew of the Starship Enterprise in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?" Would they utilize another, lesser-known villain? Or would they invent a new one completely? 

Abrams wouldn't say -- because that's Abrams' schtick: he doesn't say. He never says. It all gets back to his well-documented love of a storytelling and sales technique called "the mystery box" -- inspired by a grab bag he bought at a magic store as a boy and never opened because, in Abrams' words at a TED talk about the subject, as long as it remained closed the box stood for something bigger than the fifty bucks worth of cheapo magic tricks it contained. Closed, he says, "it represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential." The promise of what could be in the mystery box was much more appealing than the reality of what was actually in the mystery box. 

For Abrams, "mystery is the catalyst for imagination." And it has been the catalyst for many of his projects, from "Lost," with its enigmatic island and perplexing hatches, to "Cloverfield," whose trailer didn't even mention the title of the movie.

The mystery box has been working overtime on "Star Trek Into Darkness." First Abrams wouldn't reveal the identity of the villain played by Benedict Cumberbatch at all. Then Paramount Pictures released a still of Cumberbatch doing a fine Hannibal Lecter impression with a caption naming his character as "John Harrison." But there was no prior "Star Trek" villain named John Harrison -- so why the need for all the secrecy? Cue more mystery box. Though some marketing has alluded to Harrison's secrets or history, the filmmakers have remained extremely tight-lipped about what he's doing, why he's doing it, and above all whether he has any sort of past with Kirk and Spock.

Now the movie is out, and we can finally confirm, after all the questions and dodges: John Harrison is Khan. Harrison is actually an alias created by Khan -- I'm paraphrasing here -- to hide his true identity while enacting his revenge against a rogue Starfleet admiral played by Peter Weller. But here's the thing: Khan has almost no reason to hide his true identity. it's not like Khan is an international celebrity. No one recognizes his face when they see him in security footage or in pictures. Khan provides some other reasons in the film why he had to protect his real name, but they're basically a load of baloney. The only legitimate excuse for Khan to "disguise" himself as John Harrison are those outside the film demanded by J.J. Abrams, for purposes of his mystery box.

The general problem with this whole mystery box approach to storytelling -- and the specific problem in the case of "Star Trek Into Darkness," which is a lot more fun when we think Benedict is just some random pissed off guy instead of a specifically pissed off guy named Khan -- is that at some point, you have to open the box. And as Abrams himself admits in that TED talk, a mystery box is only exciting as long as it remains closed. 

But Abrams values mystery so much he puts it ahead of common sense amongst his cinematic priorities. If this guy is "Khan," the dude played so brilliantly in the TV episode "Space Seed" and "Wrath of Khan" by Ricardo Montalban, why doesn't he look or sound anything like Montalban? Chris Pine's Kirk is not exactly the same as William Shatner's, but they share a certain appearance, attitude, and personal style. Zachary Quinto's Spock looks a lot like Leonard Nimoy's, and certainly he has all the same Vulcan mannerisms. Cumberbatch's Khan bears almost no resemblance to the original one. How can he? In order to preserve the sanctity of the mystery box's unveiling, we have to be surprised when he says his name is Khan. If he was wandering through the movie in a chest-exposing brown leather harness, we'd figure it out on our own.

Which is, when you think about it, sort of ludicrous -- this entire movie's twist is built around a reveal that should be self-evident. To make it work, Abrams and his team had to essentially de-Khan Khan -- strip him of all his physical trademarks and tics. But if someone is so divorced from the source material of what they're doing that their connection to it has to be explained in a big dump of exposition, is it really that big of a deal? At that point, why even do it at all?

A few late breaking (and not particularly fitting) third act twists -- including another cameo from Leonard Nimoy's "Spock Prime" and a riff of the iconic Spock death scene from "Wrath of Khan" -- make Khan a bit more relevant to the story Abrams is telling. But when it comes right down to it, Cumberbatch's character didn't have to be Khan. He could have just been "John Harrison," mysterious Starfleet superman gone rogue. The movie certainly incorporates bits and pieces of Khan's mythology into the plot, but most of what he does is just generic super-villain bad guy stuff. Again, the only reason he's Khan is so he can be a part of the mystery box.

What's so interesting about these Khan contortions is the way they turn the last "Star Trek" movie's greatest strength into "Into Darkness"' biggest weakness. "Star Trek" engineered this brilliant workaround for the original "Trek" continuity by sending Nimoy's Spock Prime back through time, creating this alternate universe that skewed off into a tangent timeline. At the end of the film, Spock Prime meets Zachary Quinto's young Spock in a spaceship hanger and tells his more youthful self that, in the future, he should "put aside logic" and "do what feels right." Nimoy doesn't come out and say it, but the implication is clear: you have my blessing to do something new. This "Star Trek" needn't be beholden to the old one, or to the "logic" of stories that came before. Abrams and whoever else works on "Star Trek" after him can carve out a new destiny with new stories. They could do what feels right.

Having so elegantly found a way to tell new stories with old characters, "Star Trek Into Darkness" takes the ill-advised step of dragging the characters back to the familiar. After working so hard to justify fresh adventures with the old Enterprise crew, "Into Darkness" just rehashes an old one.

All the best parts of "Star Trek Into Darkness" are the new ones; the high tech adventure, the massive space battles, the comic chemistry between the actors, the dudes flying through space at breakneck speed. All the worst ones are callbacks. Other franchises can bear the burden of rehashing themselves over and over again, but not "Star Trek." It flies directly in the face of this series' ethos: "To boldly go where no one has gone before." For all its strengths, that is something this "Star Trek" never does.

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14 Comments

  • Tyrone Greene | September 25, 2013 8:33 AMReply

    Abrams has become a Khan-tortionist with his storytelling trickery. This movie is more like Space Seed, with Wrath yet to come. Perhaps the story would have been served better if John Harrison had been one of the other popsicles and he worked to dethaw Khan during the film for a better reveal. This way John Harrison's face could have graced the movie trailers, keeping the mystery, but we would have gotten a truer Khan within. After all, if the timeline was disrupted at Kirk's birth, there's no reason for 300 year old Khan to be genetically disimilar to TOS Khan. Benicio Del Toro would have been great.

  • lolwut? | August 24, 2013 7:49 PMReply

    I actually felt pity for Khan in the reboot-sequel. Besides some vague announcements of being a "war criminal" it just didn't convince me. That is until aiming his crippled ship at StarFleet Headquarters. Although, he was under the impression that his entire crew was - once again - murdered. It makes me wonder if Khan would of still betrayed Kirk if he was just allowed to do-his-thing to Robocop's face.

    They really should of stuck with John Harrison...

  • Exodus | June 5, 2013 12:52 AMReply

    Well portrayed Khan or not, I think the whole point of the article is that they should have gone with something new entirely instead of revisiting the Khan storyline.

  • Tyler | May 23, 2013 4:40 AMReply

    Great, great article. I agree, so perfectly expressed. I do have to mention tho I was sad to see a failed opportunity to make a pun with the title. "The Pros and KHANS of 'Star Trek Into Darkness' Mystery Villain". Come on man, that wrote itself!

  • Pan | May 20, 2013 1:26 PMReply

    The Villian did have to be Khan. The guy had to be a super-human for this plot to work. If we use a super-human when we have Khan to draw a parallel to, people would say John Harrison was just a rip-off, a cheap carbon-copy, of Khan. By fully embracing him as Khan, we just get to compare one interpretation of Khan vs another.

    The only Khan this guy should be compared to is the guy from the original series since the actions which turned him into the vengeful man with a wrath never happened in this timeline. And he is that cocky and charismatic Khan from the original series - after a year of assimilating into the modern world.

    I think if they'd tried to clone the Montelban Khan, it would have been insulting to the legacy. So, by reinterpreting Khan rather than reinventing a Khan-like bad guy, Abrams did right. Like everything else in this timeline - things are just a little bit different because they are not happening in the same sequence.

  • Ramayana | June 19, 2013 8:50 AM

    Why bother creating a parallel universe tangent that you can exploit to tell new stories, and then merely use it rehash the Star Trek Lite of the original series? Do the new writers have no imagination of their own? Not devout Trekkies enough, we take it? Lame.

  • Poingly | May 20, 2013 11:56 AMReply

    John Cho looks nothing like George Takei. Let me just put that out there for a moment and let it sink in.

  • Andres | May 20, 2013 12:42 AMReply

    I just want to reiterate Tyler's comment. This is exactly what happened. So it was explained and not just totally random.

    I think the other thing that is being missed is that this movie continues the alternate timeline thread from the first movie. So we are treated to the Khan story of this alternate reality. At the end we had a very familiar scene play out but this time it was slightly different.

    So if you did not care for this version of Khan too much you have to go and blame Nero from the first movie for creating a butterfly effect.

  • Tyler | May 19, 2013 9:13 PMReply

    I thought he mentioned in the film that it was Admiral Marcus that gave him the name John Harrison because it was the Admiral who didn't want anyone to know who he was. It was in Marcus's best interest to hide the fact that he had unfrozen a war criminal to help create weapons for Starfleet, which is supposed to be a peaceful organization. Admiral Marcus was the one who was hiding Khan's identity, not Khan himself. In fact, the one time anyone calls Khan "John Harrison" to his face, he reacts to it almost in disgust and reveals his true identity almost immediately.

    I'm not saying that you have to like it, and by all means you have every right to criticize whatever you want about the film, but the whole "Khan having a secret identity" thing is something that is supported by and explained in the story of the movie, NOT just some nonsense thing thrown in by Abrams in order to fulfill his "mystery" quota.

  • Ramayana | June 19, 2013 9:00 AM

    Actually, it IS nonsense. They could have just created a whole new bad ass character simply called John Harrison, designation New Bad Ass Star Trek Supervillain Who Can Kick Klingon Ass. There was no need to call him Khan. At all. So why did they do it? No cojones to stamp their own mark? I think with Lidelof and Abrams involved, I think they are indulging in their favourite past-time: opening up the Pandora's box with teenaged glee, yet not having the genius of Spielberg to make it all make sense in the end.

  • Kelly | May 19, 2013 10:29 AMReply

    Everything you wrote is spot on. Thank you! I left the movie feeling slightly cheated. You put it all in perspective. I can't imagine what Abrams will do to star wars?

  • bohmer | May 17, 2013 6:35 PMReply

    I really don't understand JJ's move. The movie would have not feel like a let down in the end if Cumberbatch was simply John Harrison. Hell, that would have been more surprising to me that is name was indeed Harrison and not Kahn, that everyone following the development of the movie guessed. No Kahn = no bad scenes where everything coming from TWoK felt cheap and unnecessary. No reverse death scene that felt wrong and emotionless because technically, Kirk and Spock know each other for only one movie and a half, not three TV season + a movie and a half (you can had that Spock is really left for dead at the end of TWoK). No screaming Spock that felt wrong too. As much as Cumberbatch made the most of what was written for him, he could hardly honor the Motalban performance. Kahn is supposed to be strong, yes, but mostly super intelligent. Which the screenplay didn't exploited enough.

  • Edward Copeland | May 17, 2013 3:42 PMReply

    I'm not a Star Trek obsessive, but even I had read the scuttlebutt about the villain being Khan long ago, which made it all the more ludicrous when Trekkies/Trekkers went apeshit about critics revealing "spoilers" by mentioning who he is in their reviews. If I knew it, you know damn well that they had read it as well. Did they go into the movie after taking an amnesia pill? Paramount trying to strongarm the Inaccurate Movie Database for being accurate for once and listing Benedict Cumberbatch's character's name in the credits comes off even more ridiculous. With Abrams directing the next Star Wars as well, if the villain had turned out to be an illegitimate child of Emperor Palpatine, THAT would have been a spoiler. It's as silly a case of "spoiler" nonsense as those whining about ruining The Great Gatsby or Les Miz because we've become so culturally illiterate that no one has read the books or, in the case of Les Miz, seen the musical or the umpteenth previous nonmusical versions of the story.

  • John | May 17, 2013 12:30 PMReply

    To play Devil's Advocate: an explanation for Khan using the alias John Harrison is that he's a historical figure in Star Trek's future who can be researched easily. So I don't think its a stretch that he and Admiral Marcus (Weller) would conceal his identity.

    Despite that I agree with your basic point: the villain didn't have to be Khan, and it feels forced.

    And what makes non-diegetic sense and doesn't make diegetic sense is why no one in STID mentioned the period in which Khan and his men initially tried to take over the world that was mentioned in "Space Seed": the 1990s!

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