J.J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness is going where Christopher Nolan has gone before. In the 60-second teaser for the next installment, we've gotten a glimpse at what seems to be a grim tale of vengeance and urban terror set largely in glistening 23rd century San Francisco. Starfleet is rocked by tragedy and James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) haunted by a superhuman, shampoo-free Benedict Cumberbatch who's out for blood. But even after the release of the movie's official synopsis, teaser poster, and now this mini-trailer it's still not conclusive what Trek villain Cumberbatch is playing—if he is playing an established character at all. Is he Khan Noonien Singh, the genetically-enhanced Sikh superman (formerly played by the inimitable Ricardo Montalban) who rained terror upon the crew of the USS Enterprise in the original series episode "Space Seed" and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? Well, Cumberbatch is nursing a wrathful grudge and does seem to have extraordinary abilities. And in the Japanese version of the teaser, there's the image above.
Any Trekker worth his space salt knows that's a deliberate homage to the teary ending of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when Spock (Leonard Nimoy), infected with deadly radiation and stuck behind a plexiglass partition, places his hand up to Kirk's and says, "I have been and shall always be...your friend. Live long...and prosper..." Basically, that's the ultimate male-weepy moment. But even with that reference we're still skeptical. Unless Khan is being retconned as a pasty Englishman, we'd bet against that being the identity of Cumberbatch's villain.
In fact, there's reason here to believe he's another original series character gifted with superhuman skill: Lt. Gary Mitchell, originally played by Gary Lockwood in the 1966 classic "Where No Man Has Gone Before," which served as an alternate pilot episode for the show and had a mythologically-resonant resurrection arc. Let's look at the evidence:
A Somber, Funereal Mood: Following this desaturated shot of the San Francisco skyline, the first indicator that Star Trek Into Darkness will be a largely earth-bound affair, we see various Starfleet officials sitting before a dais as if at a memorial service. Then triangular shuttles (or attack craft) fly overhead with ceremonial precision, as if comprising the military flyover tribute to a fallen Starfleet officer. Benny Batch's ominous, detached narration plays over all of this: “You think your world is safe. It is an illusion, a comforting lie told to protect you. Enjoy these final moments of peace. For I have returned. To have. My. Vengeance.” Now, such a dark portent seems very worthy of Khan.
But what if the Starfleet officer being eulogized is Cumberbatch's character himself? In "Where No Man Has Gone Before" Lt. Mitchell isn't killed, but he is briefly knocked out when the Enterprise journeys through the barrier at the edge of our galaxy and into the black void of star-less space. Literally, into darkness. When he's revived, he finds himself gifted with god-like powers: telepathy, telekinesis, hypercognition. The kinds of things that could explain Cumberbatch's sky-high jump when he's first introduced in this teaser. (Of course, his jump could also be explained away by the genetic enhancements that made Khan a superhuman.) Let's say Cumberbatch's character is presumed dead, only to return seeking vengeance for having been left behind. The official synopsis says that the villain is an "unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization." Unless J.J. Abrams has decided once and for all to obliterate Star Trek canon, Khan Noonien Singh was never a Starfleet officer. He was a 20th century warlord exiled from earth in 1996, more than two centuries before the timeline-altering events of the first Abrams Trek flick. However, Gary Mitchell was one of the Federation's finest. And the next photo looks very much like a souped-up version of the planet where he met his doom in "Where No Man Has Gone Before": Delta Vega.
Delta Vega, seen from space in the original series episode, is a red planet. Could that be because of these mysterious red vines we see Kirk running through? (We know the idea of having a planet defined by one topographical feature alone is more a Star Wars trope, but it could apply here too.) Do note that the original production order for Delta Vega in 1966 called for "weird vegetation."
When I first saw the perfectly coiffed Alice Eve, my kneejerk reaction was that she must be Dr. Carol Marcus, the blond Federation scientist with the Callista Gingrich haircut who pioneered the Genesis Project in Wrath of Khan—and was the mother of Kirk's simperingly annoying son, David. But compare her insteato Sally Kellerman's Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, Gary Mitchell's friend who also acquires superpowers when she journeys past the galactic barrier, but uses her abilities to stop Mitchell's quest for destruction. A pretty striking similarity, huh?
When introducing Cumberbatch, the trailer has some very video gamey shots of him leaping high over people's heads in front of some kind of circular window (or portal). This illustrates very clearly the synopsis' claim that this guy is a "one man weapon of mass destruction."
If that is a portal behind Cumberbatch, could that be the Guardian of Forever?
Also, the hood the baddie is wearing here is very much like the one Kirk himself dons on that red licorice planet. That further establishes that there's a pre-existing connection between Kirk and the villain, don't you think? I guess hoodies are the next big thing for Starfleet away teams.
Finally, we get the shot we've all been waiting for: Cumberbatch, up close, disheveled, and sinister.
Though much of the film appears to take place in San Francisco's urban sprawl, there are still some moments of exploratory wonder that feel more in line with Gene Roddenberry's optimistic idea of Star Trek as a quest for knowledge and enlightenment among the stars. Case in point: the magma-belching volcano that Spock (Zachary Quinto) rappels into. Nice to see more of this than the three frames Abrams introduced on Conan.
Or this, an image of the Enterprise (if you squint, you can just make out its Starfleet registry NCC-1701 on that warp nacelle) rising from an ocean.
It's clear, though, that this is going to be a dark film with a dark villain who follows in the footsteps of other recent pop culture characters nursing a grudge: Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Silva in Skyfall, and Loki in The Avengers, in particular. You could take Tom Hiddleston's "You were made to be ruled" voiceover from the first Avengers trailer and play it just as easily over these images from Star Trek Into Darkness. Again, the synopsis promises "an epic chess game of life and death," and this final shot of Cumberbatch smirking into the camera while wearing a faded Starfleet uniform (note the almost worn-off delta symbol) promises a large-scale headgame. ("An epic chess game" is certainly worth of Khan, but why would he be wearing a Starfleet uniform?)
Finally, the money shot. The Enterprise, or another Constitution-class starship, crashing into San Francisco Bay.
All this really puts the tease in "teaser." I'm not entirely ruling out a Corinthian leather-obsessed villain, but do you agree with me that the key to unlocking Cumberbatch's character may really be Lt. Gary Mitchell? And does this look anything like Roddenberry's Trek to you?
[Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures (13)]
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