In just a few short weeks, the third installment of the “rebooted” Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Beyond, will hit theaters at warp speed. Based on the most recent trailer and various interviews from writer/actor Simon Pegg, this go-around promises to be more grounded in the original series’ legacy. To put it mildly, the first two installments have not exactly been “Star Trek” movies. Oh they featured all of the main players, had familiar planets and aliens, and even slick-looking uniforms that everyone recognized. On the surface, they sure look like Star Trek movies. But the heart and themes of the series have been lacking in both installments. It has looked more like the Star Wars franchise. Star Trek is not Star Wars. Star Wars is a western showdown in space. It’s a civil war between good and evil, the have and have-nots. It’s a war. It’s right there in the title. That is not at all what Star Trek should be. Complete destruction of the Enterprise is not a regular part of the Star Trek Universe. The crew of the Enterprise are not soldiers. They are peacekeepers and surveyors, traveling to far off worlds, making contact with new life, and expanding man’s knowledge of the universe.
The television show was a morality play. The episodes were designed to teach a lesson to the people living in the 1960’s. During the height of the Cold War and during a bitter battle for civil rights in America, the crew of the Enterprise had a Russian and a black woman as officers on deck. This was a show that was telling its audience, “get over your shit, because in the future, racism doesn’t exist.” Arguably, the best episodes of this show, and its successors, involved moral dilemmas and very few fire-fights. Episodes like “Doomsday Machine” focused on the effects of the American/Soviet Cold War and how future generations could be in danger because of military-based decisions made in the past. “City on the Edge of Forever” looked at the unintentional consequences of war and peace. Is one life worth more than the greater good? “Measure of a Man” from Next Generation asked what it means to be human and what kinds of people are afforded civil rights. “Mudd’s Women” looked at… space prostitution? Nevermind, bad example. The point is, the Enterprise wasn’t in danger of being obliterated every week. It wasn’t damaged beyond repair constantly. It happened occasionally in the movies, but not every movie. This is one of the core ideals that I hope will be returning with this third installment. What lessons were learned from the first two movies? Try harder to not destroy a planet? Don’t blame people who try to help? I guess the second had a point about militarism, but it’s still a stretch to get there. All of the original films from the 80’s, no matter how bad, at least had a point. The Search for Spock looked at saving lost lives, moving on from old relationships, and respecting cultures that you don’t fully understand. The Final Frontier dealt with the dangers of religious fanaticism. These films never lost their core point, despite the storytelling itself being subpar. Star Trek Beyond needs to move back into this realm to stand out and be more than explosion-fests with ripped off plots.
Let’s talk about the caucasian elephant in the room. There was plenty of backlash about the choice of Benedict Cumberbatch to play Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s typical “Hollywood white-washing.” Fair enough, but I’m going to look at at the problem from a different perspective with this casting choice. Even if you hate hearing the “whitewash” complaint, there are plenty of plot holes created in this universe that need addressed, but let’s start with Cumberbatch. Khan could have been easily played by someone that looked more like Ricardo Montalban. This is not because you should get someone that is racially the same in a reboot just to appease that vocal group in the audience that will play a race card. You have to get someone that matches the profile because these movies aren’t actually a reboot, which the audience and writers seem to be forgetting. The original Star Trek timeline is changed at the beginning of the first movie when Nero time travels to kill Spock but arrives too early and destroys a Federation starship that has a newborn James Kirk on it. Up until this point, there is no difference between the reboot timeline and the original timeline. The presence of Leonard Nemoy’s old Spock is proof. He is playing his character that he has played for 50 years. Anything that happened before Nero changes the timeline, still happened. According to the original series episode, “Space Seed”, Khan and his followers were frozen and sent into space during the Eugenics Wars on Earth in the 1990’s. Due to the changes to the timeline and the acceptance that the butterfly effect will change everything as a result, his ship is discovered earlier in the future by Admiral Markus instead of by the Enterprise. But he should still look like Ricardo Montalban since this character had been in stasis several hundred years before the reboot. This should be more like what Terminator Genysis did.. The decision to cast Cumberbatch isn’t just white washing, they are ignoring their own continuity that they’ve created. Hell, they have the same problem with Nero being a Romulan in the first movie. No one in the Federation had seen a Romulan until Kirk originally encountered them in the episode “The Balance of Terror”. It should have been a big deal in the “reboot” movie, as it was in that episode, but this plot hole is conveniently ignored in the film. Ultimately, not only does Into Darkness ignore its own continuity, it is a half-assed attempt to remake Wrath of Khan and they got a really great white actor to play the part made famous by a really great hispanic actor. So how could this problem have been avoided?
A writer worth his paycheck and with a fleeting understanding of Star Trek can make a handful of tweaks to the final plot we got and get a good movie that still has Cumberbatch, and actually has a message. Cumberbatch plays a character who is genetically engineered to be perfect. He is impossible to beat in combat and he can kill when he wants. This describes Khan, but it also mostly describes another Trek character: Gary Mitchell. In the original series, Mitchell appeared in the second pilot episode of the original series called, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” In the episode, he is long-time friends with Kirk and develops god-like abilities when the ship passes through an energy field. The new powers corrupt him and he causes destruction to the crew and ship. He’s also played by a white guy. Practically the same plot can happen in Into Darkness, just trade out Marcus discovering Khan’s stranded ship and change it to Mitchell being on his crew that goes through the energy field at the edge of the galaxy. Marcus wants the power Mitchell has so he can start and quickly end a war that he wants with the Klingons. In this changed version of the film, Marcus’ motivations for war are still the same and he still has a human weapon he can use to get there. Cumberbatch now plays someone that won’t offend and it respects continuity. Khan being a popular character is also irrelevant for this movie because that fact didn’t help sell tickets. The reveal that Cumberbatch was playing Khan was held off to be a secret. All advertising had him playing “John Harrison”. It was the worst kept secret as audiences assumed it was a smoke screen, but it was never confirmed before it’s release. The Khan payoff wasn’t even used in promo material. Changing his character to Mitchell would not be an issue, from a financial point of view.
The other oversight these movies make is the contribution of the Klingons to Star Trek cannon. They appear in a rather important deleted scene in the first movie (another awesome plot hole) and are used as a side-quest afterthought in the second movie. The Klingons were developed to be a metaphor for the Soviets during the Cold War. The Federation had constant issues with them on the show. They were the most powerful race in the galaxy outside of Federation control. The movie, The Undiscovered Country, featured the end of that strained relationship and the beginning of a new one, as an homage to the end of the Cold War just a few years prior. An interesting development from the show that is never talked about but sometimes alluded to is their physical appearance. The Klingons of the original series had a darker complexion and with facial hair that resembled a Mongolian appearance. The movies and all subsequent shows featured the now classic ridged forehead with no explanation into the change. These new films would be a great opportunity to explain this difference. It can also be folded into the morality theme of the movie. The Klingons don’t have to represent the Russians anymore, since in reality, they are not a major concern. What is a major concern though? ISIS, but at the time the movie was made, radical Islamic terrorism in general. The Klingons are depicted as very war-like, wanting the destruction of the peaceful Federation. Due to their ridged heads, they can’t blend in with others, but the less alien, more human looking race of their people could. It would be easy for the more Mongoloid-looking Klingons to act as the film’s “sleeper cells” that contribute to the havock in the film, possibly working with a turned Mitchell to get back at the corrupt system he’s a part of. Are all Klingons living on Federation planets secret terrorists? No, but just a few committing horrific crimes would undoubtedly cause panic and hatred towards their people and way of life. Marcus could easily turn this into propaganda to start his war. You only need to look at any 24 hour new station to see these events happening daily in our lives. The connection would be obvious and pertinent to the current political climate, just as “Soviet” Klingons were in the 60’s.
These two slight, but important changes, could have made Star Trek Into Darkness far more worthy a title in Star Trek lore. Instead, what we got was Wrath of Khan Lite. I hope the title of this third “reboot” installment is more than just a catchy title. I truly hope we are moving Beyond flashy, non-sensical space battles and more into the thought-provoking stories that made the franchise great.