'Star Trek Into Darkness': Let's talk about that ending (and Benedict Cumberbatch)

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Image Credit: Zade Rosenthal

Nobody knew anything about Star Trek Into Darkness. The trailers for J.J. Abrams’ reboot-prequel-sequel were filled with mind-blowing images: Spaceships falling to earth! Spock jumping across flying vehicles! Pretty red trees! But besides a boilerplate plot description that read like a Blockbuster Sequel Mad Libs — “personal score to settle,” “epic chess game of life and death,” “sacrifices must be made” — the actual plot of Into Darkness was shrouded in mystery. And nothing was more mysterious than the film’s newest and most glamourous addition: Benedict Cumberbatch, who was playing a character named “John Harrison,” the red herringest of red herring franchise names since “John Blake.” Well, now we finally know the truth. At long last, we can all finally bask in the knowledge that has been kept hidden for so long. SPOILER ALERT from here, because ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to introduce:

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Image Credit: John Shearer/Getty Images

Yes, despite a year of publicity which saw the cast of Star Trek Into Darkness obfuscate or just tell outright lies, Cumberbatch’s “John Harrison” was indeed Khan Noonien Singh, the genetic superman originally played by Ricardo Montalban in the classic Trek episode “Space Seed” and the very first big screen sequel Wrath of Khan.

To be honest, all the secrecy about Cumberbatch’s character seems a bit goofy in hindsight. This was essentially a new character. Cumberbatch’s Khan didn’t really have much in common with the original Khan — and not just because the actor’s impeccable British diction and icy-cool personality is miles removed from Ricardo Montalban’s Moby Dick-quoting madman. In fact, you could argue that Khan wasn’t even really the main villain of Into Darkness. No, the Big Bad of Into Darkness was actually this guy:

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Admiral Alexander Marcus, a high-ranking Starfleet officer, was a new addition to the Trek lore, and his role in Into Darkness radically altered the mythology of the original series even more than Abrams’ first film. Apparently, after the destruction of Vulcan, Marcus sought to militarize Starfleet. In the process, he discovered Khan floating in the Botany Bay. (This happened much earlier in the rebooted Trek universe than it did in the original Trek, where Kirk and the Enterprise gang found the ship during their 5-year mission.) He brought Khan into the Starfleet fold, using his pre-utopian knowledge to build new weapons and ships.

This might not make a whole lot of sense — it’d be kind of like if the Joint Chiefs of Staff hired a Mongolian warlord to build a new fighter jet — but this twist fascinatingly altered Khan’s role in the Trek universe. The original Khan’s origins were rooted in mid-century concerns — he was a veteran of the “Eugenics Wars,” at a time when “eugenics” conjured up images of WWII-era fascism. The new Khan was quite explicitly a Bin Laden/Hussein figure: A man who was armed by one government to fight another government, who wound up turning on his former allies. (The credits for Into Darkness actually feature a dedication to post-9/11 veterans.)

But the film went even deeper into Trek lore for its most moving scene — a sequence which directly recalled, and simultaneously flipped, the most moving scene from Wrath of Khan:

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As the Enterprise fell to earth, a member of the crew had to make the ultimate sacrifice. But not just any member of the crew. Captain James T. Kirk died heroically saving his work-family from a falling spaceship. In the original Khan, of course, Spock died doing just about the same thing: Exposing himself to radiation in order to restore power to the warp drive. This time, Spock was on the other side of the glass, holding his hand up to Kirk’s. As Kirk fell down dead, it fell to Spock to deliver the immortal line: “Khhhhhaaaaaannnnn!” It was awesome.

But then came this:

Chekhov-TribbleNow, listen. You could argue that Kirk was never going to stay dead. He’s the star of Star Trek. And Spock certainly didn’t have any trouble coming back from the great beyond. (You’ll recall that, in The Search for Spock, his corpse was reanimated by the Genesis Planet and his memories were in McCoy’s brain and he aged rapidly until he was the same age he was before and, well, science!) Still, the exact method by which Kirk came back to life is…well, a bit indelicate. Turns out that Khan isn’t just a genetically enhanced superhuman; he’s a genetically enhanced superhuman with magic resurrection blood that can cure all ailments and even bring you back from the dead, as long as you’ve only been dead long enough for one final climactic action scene.

This was revealed thanks to a plot point which can only be referred to as Chekhov’s Tribble. (That’s Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, the famous Russian playwright, not Pavel Chekov, the navigator with the funny accent.) Earlier in the film, Dr. McCoy had injected some of Khan’s blood into a dead Tribble, because science. As he stared at the dead Kirk, he noticed something: The Tribble had come back to annoying life! Fortunately, human physiology and Tribble physiology are the same, because science, and Kirk was soon back to his old self. Khan, meanwhile, was frozen along with his other followers. Left unexplored: Whether the Federation would decide to mass-produce the healing elixir of Khan’s Blood, thereby ensuring that nobody will ever die.

Now, there’s something very interesting in this final twist. I like the idea that Kirk only survived by becoming more like Khan. The film touched on — but never quite explored — the idea that Kirk had something to learn from Khan, who referred to his fellow genetic super-soldiers as his “family” and explicitly drew a link to Kirk’s relationship with the Enterprise crew. But I don’t know if the movie ever quite figured out what to do with that duality. (It doesn’t help matters that, by the end of Into Darkness, Khan — previously a Hannibal Lecter-ish supervillain who planned nine steps ahead of everyone — became a senseless kamikaze villain, smashing his ship into San Francisco.)

Oh, also, unless I missed something, I think Khan just destroyed most of San Francisco. He definitely took out a few skyscrapers. This is probably the worst disaster in the history of 23rd-Century Earth. But the important thing is, Kirk learned a valuable lesson about leadership, and Spock and Uhura’s relationship has never been stronger.

Fellow Trek fans and moviegoers, what did you think of the final act of Star Trek Into Darkness? Did you enjoy Benedict Cumberkhan?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

Read more:
‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ trailer: A Deep Dive
Geek Deep Dive: 4 surprising things about the ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ poster
‘Star Trek Into Darkness’: Read the official synopsis, plus some theories
‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ to debut first nine minutes in IMAX sneak preview

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