With the upcoming „Star Trek Beyond“ it’s time to revisit a Star Trek entry which was voted “worst Star Trek film” by Trekkies/Trekkers: “Star Trek Into Darkness” (from here on referred as “Into Darkness”).
Ranked below infamous entries like “Star Trek V” and “Star Trek Insurrection”.
This movie gets criticized a lot, even though it has got a lot of qualities. The main arguments against the film are that “Into Darkness” is basically a remake of “Star Trek – The Wrath of Khan” (from here on referred to as “Wrath of Khan”). Wrath of Khan is the second movie in the Star Trek-franchise, based on the TV-show from the 1960s. It’s also the movie that had kept the franchise alive due to its financial success, and for many it is always remembered as the movie in which Spock (Leonard Nimoy) heroically dies while saving the crew of the starship Enterprise.
“Into Darkness” shares a lot of similarities with this film with Khan again being the main villain, and one of its primary cast members sacrificing himself for the crew. I gave “Into Darkness” a lot of thought, and eventually arrived at what might be an unpopular opinion: Khan’s appearance in “Into Darkness” makes much more sense than in “Wrath of Khan”!
In my opinion “Wrath of Khan” is one of the best Star Trek movies. Not just because it tells a thrilling, suspenseful story and is well made, but because of its many themes: James T. Kirk (William Shatner) has to deal with growing old, being not the man anymore that he used to be, and therefore he is reflecting on his past life and past victories. As stated in the film he never faced a true no-win-scenario. His wit, strength, and crew were enough to beat his opponent. In Wrath of Khan Kirk finally has to come to terms with his own mortality and choices.
But then you get a revenge-subplot in form of Khan. Khan Noonian Singh (Ricardo Montalban) had appeared only in the episode „Space Seed“ of Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS), and was apprehended by Kirk in a fist fight. Then he and his crew of 72 were relocated to an uninhabited planet.
The story of Khan was over. There was no grudge against Kirk. The titular wrath was made up for the movie and justified under the pretext, that Kirk had not looked after Khan and his people after the relocation. Therefore, he wasn’t aware a planetary catastrophe which turned Khan’s planet into a wasteland.
But would Khan have wanted Kirk and the federation to watch over them, or help them? A prideful conqueror and warrior would have seen this catastrophe as a challenge.
So, if Khan should not have been the villain in “Wrath of Khan”, who else?
Simple: Gary Mitchel! Not only did he have issues with Kirk, but would also have made sense in the narrative: Mitchel, the antagonist and Kirk’s former best friend from the second pilot „Where no man has gone before“, had developed god-like powers and become insane, so Kirk had to lock him up on an uninhabitated planet.
Now you would have a god-like creature, obsessed with ruling the universe and an understandable loathing for Kirk. This motivation would have logically paved the way for the planetary creation device known as Genesis, which was the macguffin of “Wrath of Khan”.
What would a man who believes himself to be God do with such a technology? Would he dare to destroy it or would he rather keep and use it as a demonstration of his godly status?
It is clear that Khan’s presence was not necessary for the Genesis plot and Mitchell would have been a much better thematic fit.
Now let’s look at Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) in “Into Darkness”, and the overall theme of the movie: After the near destruction of Earth, as well as the destruction of Vulcan in “Star Trek” (2009) (aka “Star Trek XI”), the foundation of the federation was shaken. It had most of their fleet destroyed, and the peaceful space exploration was called into question, as it was proven that „space is full of disease and dangers wrapped in darkness and silence“ (Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), Star Trek (2009)).
In-universe, it was the greatest military disaster the federation had ever faced, and they were traumatized. The federation was heading towards a militarized, totalitarian regime, while slowly neglecting every morale and value they had stood for in the past.
So Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) was convinced that future military conflicts were unavoidable. The federation desperately explored uncharted regions to find new technologies and ways to defend itself. And deep in space they found the Bothany Bay, Khan’s ship.
Khan, as a relic from a more savage past, was the very weapon Marcus had sought. With the help of Khan’s intellect, starfleet is able to create and build new weaponry and technology to defend itself. “Into Darkness” is all about the dark paths we choose in order to survive and prevail, reflecting our more savage and uncivilized nature we still have today. In this way, it makes perfect sense to have a villain from a distant past reappear.
A similar message was made in the TOS-episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”, in which Kirk must let a pacifist woman, who has got the same mentality as the federation does have in the future, die, in order for the USA to enter World War II.
The message is clear: This time is/was not yet ripe for the federation’s pacifist mentality. The federation has a utopian mindset, and should be optimistic about the future. “Into Darkness” deals with the outcomes if these values are in danger of reverting back. (Many thanks to Wolfgang from flipthetruck.com for pointing that one out)
Khan works as Marcus’s pawn, but re revolts and escapes from his captivity. In a similar fashion, Kirk is also a pawn of Marcus. Both men must abandon their roles to become the independent and freethinking persons they should be.
In the end, the values and morals the federation had lost during the course of the movie are reinstalled, as Khan is not killed – unlike every other Star Trek villain in the movies – but imprisoned, even though Kirk and Spock had had several opportunities to do so. But “Into Darkness” is not only about the dark and questionable direction into savagery and war the federation is (deliberately) heading, but also the personal darkness of the protagonists: Kirk has to learn that his reckless behavior does in fact have severe consequences, which he will have to face. He is feeling vengeful against Khan for killing his surrogate father Pike (Bruce Greenwood), but has to learn that this is not the way. Spock, on the other hand, is still traumatized by Vulcan’s destruction, and feeling a bit suicidal, or at least takes huge risks with no regards his own personal safety. Only through the threat of Khan and Marcus, he is finding a new purpose to fulfill.
To summarize: Khan in “Wrath of Khan” is rather a personal obstacle for Kirk with a constructed motif. Other than his personal vendetta against the starfleet admiral, there is no deeper connection whereas Khan in “Into Darkness” does in fact fit the overall theme of the movie much more than people give the movie credit for.