After breaching the Prime Directive (forbidding interference with alien civilisations) on a planetary survey mission, Captain James T Kirk is demoted to First Officer of the Enterprise under his mentor Admiral Christopher Pike. Kirk’s captaincy of the Enterprise is quickly restored however when Pike is killed in a terrorist attack on Starfleet Command, and the Enterprise is sent to visit justice on the perpetrator – who is none other than classic Star Trek villain Khan Noonien Singh.
The film continues the elegant, fan-pleasing rebooting technique pioneered by Abrams in the 2009 film. In that story, the embittered Romulan terrorist Nero (existing in the “original” Star Trek timeline 19 years after the events of the Next Generation episode “Unification“) uses time travel to journey back to the year 2233 whereupon he destroys the Federation starship USS Kelvin, killing the infant James Tiberius Kirk’s father in the process. This event, exacerbated by Nero’s subsequent destruction of the planet Vulcan, creates a divergent timeline distinct from the “original” continuity established by the classic series, the animated series, The Next Generation, Voyager and Deep Space Nine (but sharing the history of Enterprise, detailing events which took place before the branching timelines). This device enables Abrams to utilise the characters and the setting without being hidebound by pre-existing continuity, while at the same time not having to discard or otherwise disrespect that continuity. In fact, the presence of the elder Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who has also travelled back in time, establishes the divergent timeline not as some excuse to disregard the past, but as a core plot feature of the 2009 film, and the 2013 film as well.
Long term fans of Star Trek will recall that in the original series, Khan had been both the most successful conqueror and the most benign ruler of the group of genetically-engineered super-soldiers, ruling more than a quarter of the world’s area across Asia to the Middle East from 1992 to 1996 with a firm but generally peaceful hand until he was deposed in the Eugenics Wars. While most of the supermen were killed or sentenced to death, Khan and 84 others escaped Earth by way of the sleeper ship SS Botany Bay. Cryogenically frozen in suspended animation, the crew of the Botany Bay are discovered by the crew of the Enterprise in 2267 (setting in motion the events of the 1967 episode “Space Seed” and the 1992 film The Wrath of Khan). In the new, divergent timeline however, the Enterprise crew does not find Khan’s ship – Admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller) does instead, and determines to use Khan for his own ends. There are some interesting parallel plot elements to the original Khan stories but it is otherwise an entirely new adventure, with significantly different consequences for the ongoing unfolding of the divergent timeline. (A cameo by Nimoy’s elder Spock continues to bed down the divergent history plot device in a quite satisfying manner.)
The character development at the heart of the 2009 film is less evident here, in what is a more straightforward action blockbuster. Some of the film is a bit by the numbers, lacking the freshness of the previous instalment, and the reflections on our own 20th/21st Century experiences with terrorism don’t really get the treatment they need. The show is thoroughly stolen by Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Khan – he is an actor of such calibre that he ranks up there with Sir Ian McKellen’s Magneto as an example of transcendent acting giving comic book villains a stature far beyond what might have otherwise been possible (though Ricardo Montalban did a fine job with the original Khan). He owns every scene and his voice is just about the most memorable thing about the whole movie – it drips superiority and menace (look at this excellent piece on the vital importance of voice talent). It is easy to see why Cumberbatch has been cast as the voice of both Sauron/The Necromancer and Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy.
One niggle – the dude is named “Khan Noonien Singh”. He was an Asiatic. Mr. Cumberbatch is quite clearly not. He did a wonderful job in the role, but it looks a bit like a “whitewash”. Is that offensive?