Review: Star Trek: Khan trade paperback (IDW Publishing)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

I'm a long-time Star Trek fan. I also thought J.J. Abrams's 2009 Star Trek was a masterfully constructed movie, and I left it with much optimism for the franchise. Imagine my disappointment, then, with Star Trek Into Darkness, which I found largely predictable, and lacking in the emotion and depth of its predecessor.

I have enjoyed what I've read of IDW's "new universe" Star Trek comics, however, largely written by Supergirl's Mike Johnson, and I have a general sense of these books as "nuTrek done right," as opposed to the newest movie. To that end, Johnson's Star Trek: Khan miniseries could have gone either way for me, sucked down by Into Darkness or buffeted by IDW's Trek comics presentation.

It's the former, unfortunately. Johnson and the book's artists do a fine job in making this story feel of a piece with the Star Trek comic, the Countdown to Darkness miniseries, etc., and maybe a more-regular Trek comics reader might have liked the book more. For me, however, Khan emerges as an exercise in trying to fix a variety of Into Darkness's details, and rather than mitigate my concerns it only served to remind me of them.

[Review contains spoilers]

Almost from the first page, Star Trek: Khan presents as one of its purposes to explain why someone named Khan Noonien Singh should look like a white Englishman. It is, in essence, a story that explains away why Benedict Cumberbatch plays a role originated by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán.

The real answer, of course, is "because Benedict Cumberbatch is great in Sherlock" and also likely because the filmmakers underestimated or didn't care about the consternation some felt to see a white actor take a role previously made famous by a Mexican actor.

The book's most interesting moment, right at the top, is when Starfleet presents nu-Khan with an image of "classic" Khan, and asks him how could this historical figure, an Indian man, be the Khan standing before them. Just for a moment, I had hopes of some kind of nuTrek/old Trek crossover, in which the spirit of the classic Khan inspired the new Khan to take on the name, or something great that would preserve the original Khan and at the same time give more depth to the new. Instead, Johnson spends three issues relating the modern-day origin of the Indian Khan, who must eventually escape to the stars with his followers ... and wakes up and spends the last two issues in the future, where he's been surgically altered to look like a white Englishman.

Johnson's heart is in the right place here, melding some of what we lost of the old Khan into the new Khan. Had Into Darkness slipped in a mention of the Starfleet Section 31 Admiral Marcus altering Khan, there might be no problem. But this change is so clearly of the comic and not of the movie, and also it so clearly seeks to mitigate something in the film that really ought not be mitigated, that it's hard to take it as anything but a reminder of the movie's blunder.

This is lesser, but it also niggled at me, that the book establishes that it was Khan who destroyed the moon of the Klingon homeworld, Praxis (don't even get me started on the original spelling of the Klingon homeworld, Qo'noS, versus Into Darkness's seemingly dumbed-down Kronos). This is not the most nonsensical development -- and rather explains that floating piece of moon in Into Darkness -- but had Khan been responsible for destroying a moon, one rather imagines someone in the movie would have said something about it. Already annoyed with the book, this development struck me as another attempt to tidy things up that reminded rather than remedying.

The best part of Johnson's miniseries are the three chapters of Khan's early life, both when he's being recruited and trained as an enhanced soldier, and when Khan and his fellows rise up against their creators and ultimately, for a time, rule the world. Johnson isn't reinventing the wheel here in terms of origin stories, but the young Khan is plucky and likable. Later on, it's a nice twist on Johnson's part when Khan chooses not to conduct pre-emptive strikes against his enemies (a contrast to the future Into Darkness's Admiral Marcus), and then this is twisted again as we come to understand that Khan's story might not be completely true.

The final two "future" chapters must do too much narrative heavy lifting to surpass the chapters set in the "past," but again, they keep with IDW's house Star Trek style and even introduce a character or two, I think, that will reappear in the Trek comics. The interspersed panels of Khan's old and new life are effective, too.

I have to an extent avoided books like Star Trek: Nero and Star Trek: Spock: Reflections, because they seem too tertiary to the ongoing Star Trek story; there's a difference between issues of a Trek comic that portray Kirk and crew's ongoing adventures, and a miniseries like Nero that works to fill gaps in a movie the reader has already seen. Star Trek: Khan falls into this latter category, a tie-in rather than a spin-off, and in the end that's probably not for me. Add to that the errors Khan tries to fix and how it fixes them, and in all this is one I'd otherwise pass on.
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  1. It's always a shame when a good tie-in comic has to take too much time away to explain the problems of its original movie. "Transformers: The Reign of Starscream" did the best it could to redeem the film and make Starscream an interesting character... and then they made the second movie and threw it all away.

    John Barber did his best to edit everything together so that the third movie's comics sort of made sense. Not that it mattered--IDW realized that no one outside of the hardcore fans (harder core even than me) wanted tie-ins to the Bay films, so they shifted Barber over to work on "RID" with pretty major success.

  2. Thank you for reviewing this. I had been on the fence about this and you answered my questions.

    I agree with all the things you said about the movie as well; what bothers me is, JJ originally offered the Khan role to Benecio del Toro, who turned it down. As much as I like Cumberpatch, I don't understand why JJ couldn't then offer it to another of the many worthy Latino actors in Hollywood rather than going straight to Sherlock.

    1. I had not heard about del Toro; I guess that mitigates it a little bit, though as you say it doesn't explain away the final decision.