If you’re a Star Trek fan of pretty much any stripe — a Trekkie, a Trekker, a Bonesy-come-lately fan of J.J. Abrams’ high style 2009 reboot — then the last few weeks and months have likely included some heated debate over who exactly Benedict Cumberbatch is playing in next summer’s Star Trek Into Darkness. From the moment he was cast as the ostensible villain in the film, the geekosphere has been humming over whether Benny Batch would be taking on the ne plus ultra of Trek Big Bads, Khan Noonien Singh. And pretty much from that same moment, J.J. Abrams, Paramount, and most everyone involved with the film have been disabusing fans of this notion. Except when they’ve been doing the opposite.
The Khan talk started in earnest before Cumberbatch had even been mentioned alongside the role, after it was first circled by Benicio Del Toro and then Edgar Ramirez — actors whose Latin accents better match the cadences of the man who first played Khan, the indomitable Ricardo Montalban. Even after the decidedly British Cumberbatch landed the officially unspecified role, however, the Khan talk kept going. But then earlier this year, Karl Urban, who plays Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, gave UK outlet SFX a quote about Cumberbatch that has had hardcore Trek fans all Twitterpated ever since:
“He’s awesome, he’s a great addition, and I think his Gary Mitchell is going to be exemplary.”
Appearing in one of the earliest episodes of the original Star Trek series — it was the show’s second pilot, and its third episode to air — Gary Mitchell was an old Starfleet buddy of Kirk’s whose interaction with something called the “Galactic Barrier” imbued him with nearly God-like abilities. If you want an epic-style Trek villain whose presence would roughly correlate to the timeline of the original series, you could scarcely do any better.
The notion that Cumberbatch is playing the nearly all-powerful Mitchell was only amplified by the release of Star Trek Into Darkness‘s official synopsis, which spoke of “an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization,” and “a one-man weapon of mass destruction.” A Starfleet officer with the all-knowing power to destroy and create at will pretty well fills that description, no?
But then, last week, the first teaser trailer for Star Trek Into Darkness was released, and it only confused things even further. In it, Cumberbatch’s character ominously proclaims that he has “returned” to have his “vengeance.” Gary Mitchell hadn’t ever really left Starfleet — in the episode, he’s a crewmember of the Enterprise when he gets his powers — and he had no real agenda of revenge, just a serious God complex. Khan, on the other hand, was a genetically engineered ex-warlord exiled into space, so he’d have good reason to be pissed off once he got back to his home planet.
Still Cumberbatch’s line is almost boilerplate bad guy talk; he could just be a different character altogether, perhaps someone not tied to Trek mythology, right? Indeed, the latest image from the film identifies Cumberbatch’s character as “John Harrison,” a name that means nothing to the Trek universe. But why then would the Japanese version of the teaser include an homage to an indelible climactic moment from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?
If you think this is just getting silly, I’m with you 100 percent — and we haven’t even gotten to this week’s developments. You ready for some deep dish grammar geekery? Here we go! First, when asked if he was playing Khan outright, Benny Batch himself told Access Hollywood that “I play a character called John and not that other name.” The story’s headline interprets Cumberbatch’s words to mean that the actor made clear that he isn’t playing Khan — in other words, when he said “and not that other name,” he meant, “I’m playing John, and I’m not playing that other name.” But Cumberbatch’s words were anything but clear. They could easily be interpreted another way; when he said “and not that other name,” he could have meant, “I’m playing a guy called John, and not called Khan.” That’s a fair shade different from saying the character outright isn’t Khan. I could have people call me Captain Obnoxious, but that doesn’t mean I’m still not Adam. (Cumberbatch also reportedly spoke carefully about his character before a screening of the nine minute IMAX preview of Star Trek Into Darkness.) Watch the Access Hollywood exchange below:
How much fun are we all having with this?! Ready for some more!?
In a separate interview with Access Hollywood, Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine were asked to compare the villains from the 2009 Star Trek and next year’s Star Trek Into Darkness. As TrekMovie.com first noticed, while referring to the baddie from the first film, Eric Bana’s Nero, Quinto curiously said the word “Khan” instead before quickly correcting himself. He later calls Benny Batch’s character “Harrison,” so maybe he just has Khan on the brain? Watch below and decide for yourself:
The only thing close to a conclusion I can make about all of this is that nobody connected with the film is ready yet to make a definitive, unambiguous statement about whether Benedict Cumberbatch is, or is not, Khan Noonien Singh — and that is only making fans and fans masquerading as entertainment journalists talk about it even more.
This post has been modified from its earlier version to include a link to a HuffPo story about Cumberbatch’s character, and video of him, Quinto, and Pine.