The Real Problem with Benedict Cumberbatch's Villain Role in Star Trek 12S

It's more or less official now which villain Benedict Cumberbatch is playing in the Star Trek sequel. It's been confirmed by multiple off-the-record sources, and Trek Movie seems pretty sure about it. And there's already a protest movement brewing about it.

But nobody's brought up the real problem with Cumberbatch's Trek villain yet.

Top image: Star Trek set photo via MTV.

Spoilers ahead...

So by all accounts, Cumberbatch really is playing Khan Noonien Singh, the villain made famous by Ricardo Montalban in the Original Series episode "Space Seed" plus the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This seems logical, based on what we've seen of set photos thus far — whoever Cumberbatch is playing, he apparently doesn't have any alien makeup on. And he doesn't have godlike Squire Trelaine powers, because otherwise Spock wouldn't be able to nerve-pinch him. It's clear Cumberbatch is playing someone human(ish), which narrows things considerably.

We already devoted tons of space to explaining why bringing back Khan is a bad idea — in a nutshell, it smacks of sequelitis and rehashing old ideas. It feels like pandering to the fans rather than doing something fresh and interesting. You can't improve on Montalban. Chris Pine doesn't have the gravitas to face up to a villain with that level of intellect and personality. Khan will probably get needlessly combined with another set of villains to make the story seem new — and indeed, there are multiple reports the Klingons are a major part of Trek 12.

Meanwhile, there's already a protest movement brewing against the idea of casting a white guy as Khan. Who, after all, is a POC character who was played by a POC actor. And yes, this is clearly a bit of whitewashing, along the lines of the Last Airbender controversies and other similar stuff. Khan is one of the most iconic people of color in space opera, so to turn him into another angry white guy seems just kind of sad. Also, one wonders if Cumberbatch is attempting to do some kind of pastiche of Montalban's accent — let's hope not. Originally, they had sought Benicio Del Toro for this role, but he had to pull out.

But there's another huge problem with casting a white guy as Khan.

Khan's whole backstory and reason for existing have to do with the Eugenics Wars. He's the product of selective breeding (or, according to Wrath of Khan, genetic engineering) to create the perfect human. He's smarter, faster, cleverer and more cunning than any normal human, and he can learn any topic from top to bottom in moments. That's why he's such a huge threat to Kirk and the others — much more than a regular human villain like, say, Harry Mudd. Or the Outrageous Okona.*

Khan is basically the ultimate racial supremacist, who believes everyone else is his inferior. He's clearly a product of the post-World War II generation grappling with the legacy of the Holocaust and Hitler's terrible ideology, like so much other pop culture of the 1950s and 1960s. (For more on this, read here.)

The Real Problem with Benedict Cumberbatch's Villain Role in Star Trek 12S

Making the ultimate representation of eugenics into a vaguely Asian villain played by a Latino was an oddly clever choice — it divorces his claims of genetic superiority from the real-life advocates of eugenics, and forces you to see the issue in a new light. For most of its history, eugenics was synoymous with "white superiority" — but Khan flies in the face of that, by giving us a eugenics experiment in which race is apparently not a factor. (Khan's followers are mostly white, so apparently Khan's ethnic identity is just pure happenstance, and the creators of this master race weren't aiming for any particular skin color.)

A color-blind eugenics program gets past the "white supremacy" aspects of eugenics to reach for the heart of why eugenics is so terrible — the very notion of one group of humans being innately better than another devalues us all. It dehumanizes all people, even the allegedly superior ones, by assigning to us a value based on arbitrary characteristics. It's one more step into making us like cattle, who can be bred for certain characteristics. Or more like things, really.

And yes, Khan is shown to be fallible, again and again — in "Space Seed," he misjudges Lt. Marla McGivers' devotion to him, and thus dooms his takeover of the Enterprise. In Wrath of Khan, a great deal of time is spent on the various ways Kirk outfoxes the man with the "superior intellect" — tricking him into dropping his shields, using fake damage-repair time estimates, luring him into a nebula, using his two-dimensional thinking against him. But these things are partly a big deal because Khan's superior intellect is his defining characteristic.

Part of the point of Khan, as a villain, is that his superior intellect has huge blind spots. (This is truer in Wrath of Khan than in "Space Seed.") But in order for that to work, you first have to build up Khan as being smarter and better than everybody else. If Khan is purely a delusional idiot who thinks he's mentally superior but clearly isn't, then he's not an interesting villain.

So there are two problems with having a white guy play the ultimate creation of a project to breed superior humans, destined to rule over all inferior breeds:

1) It's a little on the nose. You risk taking Khan's undercurrent of racial superiority and making it overt.

2) The potential for ick is huge. Like I said, you have to build up the idea that Khan really is superior, or he's just another guy. And having a white guy storm around talking about his genetic superiority — while proving that, at least at first blush, he really is smarter and better than everyone around him — just feels like it could easily get ugly. Of course, this is a question of execution, but you're basically steering a line between making Khan too awesome (thus proving that he's right about his eugenicist rhetoric) or making him just kind of a fraud.

In any case, it sounds like we'll get to see soon enough how this pans out. Perhaps all of the "eugenics" elements of Khan and the rhetoric about superiority will be toned down, and replaced with a kind of Gattaca-style tut-tutting about GMO humans. Perhaps Khan will just be more of a generic megalomaniac this time around. But in any case, casting a white guy as Khan means tossing out one of the most valuable things about the character — his ability to make us talk about eugenics without it being a coded discussion of white supremacy.

Update: To everyone who's saying Montalban was actually white in the comments, this is obviously one of those issues that gets into tricky territory because these labels are largely arbitrary. On the other hand, it's easy to find interviews where Montalban talks about being a "minority" actor and facing discrimination, including one where he says "Hollywood destroyed my dreams long ago." In 1970, he founded the Nosotros Foundation, to advocate for Latinos in Hollywood, and in 1972 he co-founded the Screen Actors Guild Ethnic Minority Committee. It's pretty clear that Montalban identified as an ethnic minority, whether or not we choose to respect that self-identification.

* Actually, was the Outrageous Okona a villain? I refuse to rewatch that episode to find out. I'm going to say yes, just based on the name and his terrible puffy sleeves. And the Joe Piscopo association.