NB: The following contains spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness.
It was among the worst-kept movie secrets of 2013: the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s villain in Star Trek Into Darkness. Long before the movie’s release, speculation had swirled around the character’s anonymous-sounding name: John Harrison. Clearly, fans realized, it was a cover for something far more dramatic.
Wasn’t it more likely that Cumberbatch was actually lined up to play a recognizable character from the Star Trek canon? Some suggested Harrison might actually be Charlie Evans, the sinister teenage boy with psychic powers who terrorised the Enterprise in the second aired Original Series episode, “Charlie X.” Others suggested Cumberbatch might be taking on the role of Khan Noonien Singh, a character first introduced in series one’s “Space Seed.”
The broader consensus, however, was that Cumberbatch would play Gary Mitchell, a Starfleet commander and former friend of Captain Kirk who’s granted increasingly godlike powers in the Original Series episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Indeed, Star Trek Magazine had concluded that there was a 75 percent chance of Cumberbatch playing Mitchell in its 172nd issue. Bones actor Karl Urban added weight to the theory when, in a July 2012 issue of SFX, he said of Cumberbatch, “I think his Gary Mitchell is going to be exemplary.”
Star Trek Into Darkness co-writer denied that Mitchell was in the screenplay, arguing that he couldn’t come to terms with the idea of an “ultimate villain named Gary.” But then again, lots of people connected to the movie also denied that John Harrison was in fact Khan – including Cumberbatch himself, who told Access Hollywood in December 2012, “I play a character called John and not that other name [Khan].”
With hindsight, there were actually clues buried in Star Trek history for those with sharp enough eyes. Back when Khan Noonien Singh was still just a character on a page in the mid-1960s, he was a Caucasian villain with the name Harald Ericsson. Put the front half of his first name with the second half of his surname, and you get Harisson – not too far from the John Harrison bandied about by JJ Abrams and his team in the run up to Star Trek Into Darkness.
As we now know, John Harrison really was genius super-villain Khan, thawed out, given a new identity and put to work on designing high-tech weapons by Peter Weller’s Admiral Marcus. The revelation was more widely greeted with gasps than groans by movie-goers, and JJ Abrams himself later admitted that hiding Khan’s identity was a mistake.
“When we did Star Trek Into Darkness,” Abrams said in 2015, “we decided that we weren’t going to tell people that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing Khan. And that was a mistake, because the audience was like, ‘we know he’s playing Khan’.”
What made the revelation doubly strange was Cumberbatch’s casting as Khan when so many fans know the character as a Sikh villain played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban. Surely having a British actor with a cut-glass accent was a bit of a stretch, even in a universe where events have been shaken up by Nero’s antics in the first Star Trek reboot?
Even the casting process for Star Trek Into Darkness‘ villain seemed a bit murky. Before Cumberbatch was given the part, Benicio Del Toro was in talks to play the then-unnamed villain. When those talks fell through, other actors considered included Edgar Ramirez and Jordi Molla. All of those actors bear at least a vague, passing resemblance to Ricardo Montalban; so why did the film’s makers change tack so drastically and cast Cumberbatch instead?
It’s here that an intriguing question arises. Is it possible that, behind the scenes, the makers of Star Trek Into Darkness were having trouble deciding exactly who should be its central villain? While the evidence supporting this theory is only circumstantial, there are at least a few tantalizing clues.
First, it’s worth noting that it took four years for Star Trek Into Darkness to appear in cinemas, even though screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman began to put ideas together for a sequel after the Star Trek reboot hit in 2009. Even after two years, the pair, along with returning director JJ Abrams, admitted that selecting a worthy villain for the piece was tough; “The universe created is so vast that it’s hard to say one particular thing stands out,” Abrams told SFX in 2010.
While Orci didn’t rule out Khan as a possible villain, Kurtzman seemed to like the idea of bringing in a threat that hadn’t been seen before. “Introducing a new villain in the sequel is tempting because we now have this incredible new sandbox to play in,” Kurtzman said. “The trick is not to do something that’s been seen before just because you think it will be a shortcut to likeability.”
There were initially reports that Star Trek 2, as it was then known, would begin filming in early 2011, but by the time January of that year came around, Abrams hadn’t even seen a finished script. Keen to get the project going, Paramount approved financing for Star Trek 2 while the script was being worked on; Orci announced that a first draft had finally been finished in April 2011.
Speaking to Total Film, however, Orci said that that “We’ll be working and tweaking that story through shooting. This time we don’t have a strike, so we’ll actually be able to change things on set.”
What’s strange is that, although that first draft was finished in April 2011, casting didn’t begin until November that year – as pointed out by this exhaustive article at Comic Book Movie. By this point, Star Trek 2 had been moved to its new summer 2013 release date, and rumours began circulating that Khan was the villain of the piece. As we’ve already covered, Del Toro wound up departing from the role, with Vulture‘s sources suggesting that a salary disagreement was the root of the problem.
Also in November, Peter Weller and Alice Eve were cast in unnamed roles; Variety reported that Eve’s character would be “new to the Star Trek universe.”
In the final film, Alice Eve wound up playing Carol Marcus – not a new character at all, but an established one who famously appeared as Kirk’s love interest in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. Could it be that Eve signed up for the Star Trek reboot sequel without knowing who she was playing? Or alternately, that her role changed after she was cast?
When the first trailers for Star Trek Into Darkness emerged in 2012, many noted that Alice Eve’s character looked mighty familiar – not as Carol Marcus, but as Dr Elizabeth Dehner, a major character in the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Just to remind yourself, compare the following screengrabs:
Eve certainly looks closer to Dr Dehner than Carol Marcus from the Wrath Of Khan era, as the image below proves.
Now, this resemblance might not mean much by itself, but there are other glancing similarities between Star Trek Into Darkness and “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” too. Compare these two shots from the 60s episode and the 2013 movie:
Aside from the echoes in the set design, it’s also arguable that Cumberbatch looks and acts far more like Gary Mitchell here than Khan Noonien Singh. While you might counter this by saying that appearances don’t really mean much in this rebooted universe, consider how much time and effort the creators of the 2009 Star Trek put into finding actors who could successfully remind us of Kirk, Spock, Bones and the rest of the Enterprise crew. Why, then, do Khan and Carol Marcus look so wildly different from their counterparts in The Wrath Of Khan? Was it simply to throw fans off the scent?
Alternatively, could it be the case that Orci, Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof and Abram had more than one treatment for their sequel – one featuring Khan and Carol Marcus, the other concerning Gary Mitchell and Elizabeth Dehner?
If there was, it provided something of a quandary for Star Trek Into Darkness‘ makers. On one hand, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” seems like the perfect fodder for a loose movie adaptation. The story sees the Enterprise investigate a distress signal in an unknown part of space. There, the ship is struck and damaged by a huge wave of energy, which also knocks out Mitchell and Dr. Dehner.
While Dehner seems unchanged, Mitchell’s eyes have turned silver. Thereafter, Mitchell begins to show signs of enhanced intellect and extra-sensory powers, which grow at an increasing rate until Kirk is forced to conclude that he has to kill his old friend before his powers become too great to control.
The writers of Star Trek Into Darkness could have done all kinds of things with this scenario, with Gary Mitchell reappearing as an old friend of Kirk’s who’s gone rogue after gaining otherworldly powers on the other side of the galaxy. It certainly would’ve given Cumberbatch a more direct link to the Enterprise than Khan, who, in an alternate Star Trek universe where the events of “Space Seed” never happened, has no prior connection at all.
The existing themes of loyalty and friendship would also have been strengthened by having Cumberbatch play Mitchell. Early in Star Trek Into Darkness, Kirk and Spock’s relationship is tested when, after Kirk saves Spock from certain death, Spock betrays Kirk to his superiors for violating the Prime Directive. How much more effective would it have been, therefore, if the second half of the movie saw Kirk’s loyalty to Mitchell tested past breaking point when Mitchell emerges as an all-powerful, manipulative terrorist?
There was one thing counting against the inclusion of Gary Mitchell, at least from Paramount’s perspective: recognition. Orci may have said that having a villain named Gary wasn’t dramatic enough, but really, it all comes down to Khan’s stature as one of Star Trek‘s most recognizable villains. Even casual Star Trek viewers are likely to have fond memories of The Wrath Of Khan and its antagonist; a far smaller percentage would’ve known who Mitchell was or seen the 1966 episode in which he appeared.
An internal struggle over writing the most effective story and shoehorning in a well-known Star Trek villain might explain Into Darkness‘ lengthy writing process, and why the casting was so odd. Consider this hypothetical scenario:
When Del Toro, Ramirez and Molla were being considered, Khan would’ve been the main choice of villain. When that didn’t work out, they opted for Gary Mitchell as a fall-back option and cast Cumberbatch based on his growing fame as the star of Sherlock. As filming grew closer, the movie’s producers changed their minds again and insisted that Star Trek Into Darkness contain more references to The Wrath Of Khan to maximize its chances at the box office.
Even though character designs, hairstyles and sets had already been finished by that stage (post-production began before the script was even finished, remember), Elizabeth Dehner became Carol Marcus and Gary Mitchell became Khan, while their distinctive haircuts and outfits remained unchanged due to the looming start date. A jail cell set aboard the Enterprise, specifically designed to recall “Where No Man Has Gone Before” for full-on Star Trek fans, is used to imprison Khan instead of Mitchell.
Other references to the classic episode are left in Star Trek Into Darkness‘ script but rewritten. That opening sequence on the planet Nibiru? As originally penned, that took place on a planet called Dimorus, populated by a species of rodent-like creatures that could fire poison darts. It would’ve established Kirk and Mitchell’s friendship and how Mitchell risked his life for Kirk, as referenced in this line from the 60s episode:
“Remember those rodent things on Dimorus? The poison darts they threw? I took one of them for you.”
A couple of other plot points from the TV episode remain in modified form. In “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the Enterprise is left stranded in unknown space, just as it is in Star Trek Into Darkness. When the ship’s repaired, Kirk manages to isolate Mitchell on a deserted planet and says to a crewmember, “Proceed at maximum warp to the nearest Earth base with my recommendation that this entire planet be subjected to a lethal concentration of neutron radiation.” In Star Trek Into Darkness, Khan escapes to a planet in Klingon-controlled territory (Kronos), and Kirk is instructed to fire on that planet with experimental torpedoes from a safe distance.
Again, this is conjecture on my part. But based on the conflicting information given by just about everyone involved during Star Trek Into Darkness‘ making, and the curious echoes of “Where No Man Has Gone Before” in the finished film, it certainly feels as though Gary Mitchell was once in the movie, only to vanish like a ghost just before the cameras rolled.
While Cumberbatch’s performance was an effective one, I’d also argue that he’d have made a far more interesting Gary Mitchell than an in-name-only incarnation of Khan. In fact, it isn’t difficult to imagine an alternate universe not unlike the one torn open in the Star Trek reboot, where Star Trek Into Darkness would’ve seen Cumberbatch gradually transform from ordinary mortal into godlike being before our very eyes. Mitchell’s powers of telekinesis could’ve been dazzling with a feature film budget, and the story could’ve been given a more emotional, dramatic ending than the one in the old TV show, which ended on something of an anticlimax.
At the very least, Cumberbatch would’ve looked amazing with silver contact lenses.
This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.