Star Trek Into Whiteness: Why I’m Glad [Spoiler] Was White

I finally got to see Star Trek Into Darkness over the weekend. Thanks to Tumblr, Facebook, and friggin’ Pinterest, I’d already been spoiled as to the real identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain, billed only as John Harrison prior to the movie’s release. Stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie yet and are among the fortunate unspoiled few.


John Harrison turns out to be an alias for one of the most iconic Star Trek villains of all time:


Cumberbatch has proven a controversial casting choice. The controversy is understandable. The original Khan, who first appeared in the Star Trek television episode “Space Seed,” was a Sikh man played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban. British actor Cumberbatch may or may not have broken a few world records for Whitest Guy Ever in the History of White Guys. This is known as whitewashing, and, as I cannot overemphasize, it is a legitimate concern. However, now that I’ve seen the movie, I think turning Khan white was the right call.

Before I explain why, let me share a bit about my perspective. I am Latina. I don’t speak for all Latin Americans, all people of color, all women of color, or all Trekkies of color. My POV doesn’t cancel out that of other people of color who were offended by the casting choice. But I want to establish that I’m not coming at this issue from a perspective of white privilege. In fact, while I was waiting for the movie to start, I was mentally composing an angry rant about a preview for Devious Maids. (Maybe you’ll get to read that review in the future if I ever subject myself to an actual episode.) I’m all for privilege-checking and political correctness. I’m fully aware that there’s a huge difference between recasting white characters as people of color (a decision I’ve praised in other works) and recasting non-white characters as white. So, I promise, this review isn’t going to be a kiss-up minority telling other minorities not to be so damned sensitive. Again, if you’re a POC and you were offended by Khan being white, I’m not going to tell you your feelings are unjustified or invalid. But, personally, not only did I really like Star Trek Into Darkness‘ Khan as a villain, I think I would have been offended if he had been brown.

Khan’s characterization in the original TV series and in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan falls under “fair for its day,” imo. He’s arguably one of the more complex, sympathetic villains in the original series (hereafter referred to as “TOS”). And TOS gets major kudos for casting a person of color in the role of a superior human specimen. But like so many other elements from TOS that were edgy and progressive in the late 1960s, a lot of Khan’s characterization looks problematic when seen through a modern lens. Though he is the intellectual and physical superior of Captain Kirk, Khan is still portrayed as savage. Primal. Exotic. Other. He’s a mysterious warrior from a forgotten time (the 20th century, nearly 300 years in the past by the time he wakes up from his cryogenic sleep on the Enterprise). His name conjures images of a ravaging Oriental horde. Kirk describes Khan and his peers as “aggressive, arrogant [people who] began to battle among themselves,” which Spock attributes to “superior ambition.” To be fair, Kirk calls these people “Alexanders and Napoleons,” but the concepts discussed play into common fears about minorities rising up and seizing undeserved power from the white establishment. And Khan is part of a long tradition of people of color as villains matched against white heroes. Charismatic, sympathetic, complex villains beloved by the audience, maybe, but ultimately villains, who exist for the purpose of being tamed by the white heroes. In the TV series famously pitched as “Wagon Train to the stars,” it’s portrayed as just and magnanimous when Kirk essentially leaves Khan and his people on a reservation. This is all forgivable in a product of the 1960s, but in 2013, not so much.

Montalban’s Khan achieved genetic superiority through selective breeding. Cumberbatch’s Khan, similarly, is genetically engineered to be a superior human specimen. He’s Captain America without the biceps, pecs, or conscience. Like Montalban’s Khan, Cumberbatch’s Khan is Kirk’s superior and Spock’s rival in matters of intellect and strategic thinking. Still, he is an archetypical Ancient Warrior. Khan outright tells Kirk that his ally in Starfleet needed him less for his intellect than for his “savagery”. It was an excellently-written scene, and Cumberbatch played it to chilling perfection. However, I think if I had seen a Middle Eastern man who had recently emerged from a literal sleeper cell deliver this line to the white all-American hero holding him captive, I would’ve felt like walking out of the theater.

Let’s go back to that sleeper cell thing. Star Trek Into Darkness starts out with Khan orchestrating a major terrorist bombing on a trade center public archive. Shortly thereafter, he executes a second one on the Pentagon Starfleet Headquarters. We later find out that this man has been sleeping in a frozen cryogenic state for centuries, awakened when some military mastermind had use for him. He has over 70 crew members still frozen, still sleeping, whom he has hidden inside actual missiles. In case it isn’t obvious enough, terrorists sleeper cells suicide bombers Al Qaeda 9/11. It was a good storyline, and no more in-your-face than Gene Roddenberry’s endless Cold War allegories. But given J.J. Abrams’ choice to pursue this storyline, I’m glad the villain wasn’t someone who actually looked like his name could be Khan Noonien Singh.

Which brings me to a bit of subtext that is pure speculation, and that I’ll be interested to hear Abrams’ thoughts on in the future. Why the hell is this guy named Khan Noonien Singh? He looks way more like a John Harrison. My theory? Misappropriation. It can’t be a coincidence that he just happens to have a name most commonly associated with a historical figure legendary as both a ruthless conqueror and a military genius. I think his real name was Harrison and he named himself Khan. He likely chose the name for all the reasons it’s arguably problematic – the exoticism, the Orientalism, the romanticism, the mysterious otherness. The idea of a white Englishman appropriating a name/title from multiple Asian cultures in this way makes Cumberbatch’s Khan look even more villainous, imo.

So, that’s my take. I loved Cumberbatch as Khan. I loved this movie. I will see it again in the theater if I get a chance. I will own it on DVD. I will rewatch it many times, as I have its 2009 predecessor. And, like I did in the theater, I will quote the final lines of the movie along with Captain Kirk.

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: