Friday 5 April 2013

Star Trek & Representation

 Posted by Astra

I don't remember when I saw my first Star Trek episode. I've loved it as long as I can remember thanks to being raised by parents who loved it first. I watched reruns of previous seasons of the different shows every day after school, and whichever season was currently airing had my whole family on the edge of our seats every week. Somewhere in an old family album there's a picture of me, aged 10, dressed up as Jadzia Dax, spots and all. One time I was the star letter in Star Trek Monthly and it was one of the proudest achievements of my young life.

I'm a pretty big Star Trek fan, is what I'm saying. And you know what, I loved the 2009 reboot film. It was huge amount of fun, it had a great cast, and seeing the Enterprise soar across the big screen was a huge hit of fannish glee. Similarly, I can't wait for this summer's offering of Star Trek: Into Darkness. I look forward to the characters, old and new (though never mind Cumberbatch, it's Noel Clarke's casting that had me fangirling), and the chances of me seeing it multiple times in the cinema are pretty high.

And yet. They're fun films, and have reinvigorated enthusiasm for the universe in a way that's really gratifying, but in a lot of ways the tone feels like Star Trek Lite - naturally I write this without having seen Into Darkness, but given the way it's being marketed as an action film, I'm not expecting a vast departure from the first film with the exception of the added Darker Tone TM that seems requisite for sequels these days.

Star Trek isn't just phasers and transporters and warp drives and starships. That's what Star Trek needs. What Star Trek is, is a vision. Unembarrassed, unbridled hope for the future, a dream of a perfect world, in which all people are equal.

In the world of Star Trek, the Earth of the future is a place with no wars, no poverty, no inequality, and no hardship. There's no concept of currency -- resources are essentially infinite, and people work to better themselves and their society. Gene Roddenberry's utopian vision frequently lacks a certain critical engagement, and it has its problems, but the wholehearted earnestness that drives that vision has a real charm to it.

And a key part of the vision of Star Trek, right from the start, has been equality and respect for all people regardless of race or gender  -- or species, for Star Trek is a show fond of tackling equality issues via metaphorical alien races, bless its heart.

[the cast of the original series of Star Trek] 
 The casting of the original run of the show in 1966 comes with kinds of stories. There are a lot of famous anecdotes surrounding Nichelle Nichols' role as Lieutenant Uhura, communications officer and breakout role for an African-American woman on US TV at the time. The stories range from Martin Luther King himself urging Nichols to stay on despite her concerns due to the impact her role was having on US popular culture, to Whoopi Goldberg seeing Uhura on TV and being overwhelmed by the site of a black woman who "ain't no maid" (Goldberg would herself later appear on Star Trek: The Next Generation as the mysterious Guinan, wearer of the greatest hats in the galaxy), to Shatner and Nichols' efforts to keep a scene where they kissed in an episode despite network protests -- they succeeded, and it became the first interracial kiss on US TV.

In addition to Nichols, there were George Takei and Walter Koenig as Sulu and Chekov, Japanese-American and Russian characters piloting the Enterprise side by side in the 1960s, during the Cold War and with Japanese internment camps on US soil still in living memory -- Takei himself having been sent to one such camp with his family during WW2.

Many episodes dealt with issues of racism and sexism, frequently in ways that were heavy-handed or missed the point altogether. There are a lot of things about the original run of the show that sit uncomfortably with a modern audience. But it cared about diversity and representation, and it really did try, and it really did make a difference.

When Star Trek came back with twenty years later, The Next Generation followed by Deep Space Nine and Voyager, that philosophy remained. (I admit that I haven't watched enough of Enterprise to be able to comment -- sorry, ENT fans!) There were absolutely problems -- none of the main casts ever achieved gender parity, Jewish actors were cast to play an alien species that embodied anti-Semitic stereotypes, disability was frequently portrayed as a 'flaw to be fixed', and much else besides.

And still the overall feeling that I'm left with is a show that cared and a show that tried.

 [the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation]

  There was Geordi La Forge, the black, blind Chief Engineer from TNG, and Tasha Yar and Deanna Troi and Beverley Crusher creating a trio that showed there was no wrong way to be a woman. Worf, who started out as the gruff Klingon Security Officer and grew over time to gain complex multi-season stories over both TNG and DS9, eventually appearing in more episodes than any other Star Trek character. 

[the cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine]

  On DS9, there was Jadzia Dax, the Science Officer whose understanding of gender and sexuality was decidedly queer and decidedly wonderful. Ben Sisko became the first (and still only) non-white lead of a Star Trek show. DS9 is particularly notable for having not a single white North American character amongst its main ensemble cast. There was Julian Bashir, played by Sudanese-British actor Alexander Siddig, as the gung-ho wet behind the ears adventurer who spent a lot of his spare time roleplaying as James Bond and other dashing, traditionally white heroes, and Kira Nerys, world-weary freedom fighter who wanted nothing better than to tell her well-meaning Federation colonial interferers where to shove it. There’s also the acclaimed episode ‘Far Beyond The Stars’, a metafictional story set in the 1950s, about a struggling black writer dreaming of being able to publish a sci-fi story with someone like himself as a hero.

 [the cast of Star Trek: Voyager]

  On Voyager, it was women who drove the show, passing the Bechdel test on a regular basis. The dauntless Captain Janeway surrounded herself with strong women like the adventurous and compassionate Kes, the fiercely logical Seven of Nine, and the cynical and brilliant engineer B’Elanna Torres, not to mention their archnemesis the Borg Queen -- the major conflicts and plots of the show usually originated from the conflicts and cooperation between those characters, who demonstrated the many different ways that there were of being a woman in space. Torres’ plots also tackled issues of biracial -- by which I mean bispecies, because it's Star Trek -- identity. Here, Tom Paris is the only white male human character, the other white male actors of the lead ensemble playing an alien and a hologram respectively.

By virtue of the nature of long-running ensemble shows, each character got rich and rewarding storylines over time. And that matters. The women of Star Trek were hugely influential to my growing up, because I constantly watched them achieve anything they set their minds to, often without any reference to their gender. And the central message of the show was brought to bear over and over again, perhaps best summarised by Roddenberry himself in a lecture he gave in 1973:

“The whole show was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. We tried to say that the worst possible thing that can happen to all of us is for the future to somehow press us into a common mold, where we begin to act and talk and look and think alike. If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there. And I think that this is what people responded to.”

With all of that in mind, a reboot of the original series seems to rather miss the point. For all that the 2009 film was fun, and this year's outing looks set to be just as entertaining, it is missing that key component. It's great watching personal favourite actors of mine like Zoe Saldana and John Cho take on the iconic roles of Uhura and Sulu, and with Uhura in particular it is gratifying to see her role in these films become so central, an issue discussed wonderfully by rawles in her essay examining the simple yet crucial truth that Nyota Uhura is not a white girl.

And yet. And yet. This Enterprise crew no longer has the same impact it did back in the 60s -- and that's a good thing! But by looking to the past, Abrams has failed to embrace Star Trek's key vision of pushing boundaries and expanding our understanding of ourselves and of others. There's nothing wrong with a nostalgia trip but I want more from my Trek than a loving homage.

I want a vision of the future that looks forward again, that tackles our foremost modern day prejudices. I want more racial diversity, more gender diversity, more nuanced representations of disability, more queer visibility, maybe even trans or genderqueer characters who are, gasp, human and not othered aliens. I want a Star Trek that challenges the mainstream, one that overshoots and falls flat sometimes and then picks itself up, dusts itself off and tries again, fails better.

I want a Star Trek that reaches out to those of us who don't see ourselves elsewhere in pop culture, who are erased from the mainstream narrative of what heroes should be. I want a Star Trek that tells us that all of us have a place in the future, just as we are.

There's really nothing all that bold about going where we've all gone before. 


  1. YES. This says everything and I <3 it. Some of Trek's attempts to explore these issues have been pretty faily, but they've never stopped trying.

    (Enterprise, from what I recall, was patchy. Back down to only two women in the ensemble, and neither of them got treated particularly well...)

    This is why I really think it's time for it to come back as a series, with all new characters. Partly because Star Trek is at its Trekkiest on a week-to-week basis, and partly because I think lately we're really missing optimistic speculative storytelling that isn't miserable/gritty/cynical.

    (Also OMG what was your Star Letter? I had a subscription for years and once my friend and I wrote a sonnet about a plothole in an episode of Voyager and they printed it!)

  2. Apologies if the comment that follows reads as something of a rant. I do actually really like Star Trek, honest...

    I broadly agree about the overall message of this article, with Star Trek's underlying themes of equality and understanding being somewhat absent from at least the first of JJ Abrams' movies (fun though it was). I have to say though, I think you're being a bit kind to the later series. There are definitely things to love and admire about DS9 and Voyager - not so much about Enterprise - but I think it remains shameful that for all its progressiveness, no Star Trek series ever featured an openly gay character. Yes, there were a handful of episodes that brought up queer themes, but even then they used excuses like the Mirror Universe and the Trills' Symbiotes to avoid addressing the subject directly.

    I've read that Star Trek's failure in this regard is something Gene Roddenberry came to regret, but at least in the earlier series it was more understandable. (In fact, a story with openly gay characters was written for The Next Generation - "Blood and Fire" - but it never made it to air.) By the 1990s social attitudes were changing fast, and the series that were made after Roddenberry's death could have made up for his oversight, but chose not to. Certainly by the time of Enterprise, when shows like Buffy had broken the taboo against featuring regular queer characters in mainstream television, the Trek writers' failure to do so looks like pure cowardice.

    Star Trek is hardly alone on this - one of my other favourite SF series, Battlestar Galactica, similarly managed to avoid having any openly queer characters in the mid-2000s - but when compared to the franchise's themes, it's particularly disappointing.

    Given that there are now at least two openly gay *actors* in the Star Trek franchise - George Takei from the original series, and Zachary Quinto from the new movies - maybe JJ Abrams will take the opportunity to finally do something about it. But I wouldn't count on it.

    (Finally, of course, there's an interesting tension between this absence and the well-known popularity of slash fiction among the Star Trek fandom, but this comment is long enough already... I'll leave that thesis to someone else.)