This entry is a response to the increasingly high volume of complaints I read online (and hear in person at conventions) that new Star Trek is “too politically correct” these days, and only “panders to liberals.” Some say that new Star Trek has become obsessed with winning the “Social Justice Warrior” demographic.
Reality check, please?
Star Trek has always been about diversity (IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations), progressive social stances, and strong advocation for both equality and ‘social justice.’ Hardcore progressivism (or liberalism, call it what you wish) has been a cornerstone of the Star Trek franchise since it first began over 53 years ago…
“As it was in the time of the beginning, so it is now…”
T’Pau’s words in Star Trek The Original Series’ (TOS) “Amok Time” ring truer today than ever. The more Star Trek has ‘changed’, it’s maintaining a long-lived (and prosperous) precedent of promoting so-called social justice. This is what the series has always done, all the way back to the first pilot and TOS. It was part of creator Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for the show; to tell stories about current social ills and injustices, redressing them in a way that would appear innocuous to 1960s network censors.
On occasion, TOS would turn out simple adventure stories (“Doomsday Machine” “Galileo Seven,” “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” and others) but usually there was an underlying message in there as well (“Mark of Gideon,” “Private Little War,” “Metamorphosis,” “Errand of Mercy,” “Arena”, “The Cloud Minders” and, well…most of the series).
Censors are much more relaxed these days, and are all-but nonexistent on most streaming services (like current Star Trek carrier, CBS-All Access), so the need to wrap commentary up in metaphor is somewhat negated these days, but the mission of the series is still the same; telling stories that are more about “spaceship Earth” than the spaceships Enterprise, Voyager, Discovery, etc.
Let’s get into the accusations that modern Star Trek (“Picard” “Discovery”) is shamelessly pandering to a specific type of fan, or audience member, known as Social Justice Warriors. For those unfamiliar with the term, here’s the latest definition:
so·cial jus·tice war·ri·or
a person who expresses or promotes socially progressive views.
“these social justice warriors want to apply their politically correct standards and rules to others’ speech.”
Given Roddenberry’s original intention for the series, this definition kinda applies to Star Trek itself. Social commentary that promotes progressive, often humanist views within an action-adventure format.
Star Trek has been around as long as I have (I was born the year TOS premiered), so it’s safe to call me an “old fan”, as many who deride current Star Trek shows profess to be as well. Whenever I encounter such fans online, they often claim to speak for ‘longtime’ or ‘older’ fans like myself. They don’t. I’ve been watching the show off and on since the early 1970s, I’ve seen all the movies, and I’m almost embarrassed to say how many Star Trek books I own, let alone how many sci-fi conventions I’ve attended. I’ve covered a few stories for Trekcore.com and I’ve even interviewed various individuals/actors connected with Star Trek for this site. Not trying to gatekeep; I’m just reiterating that my modest fandom credentials are fairly solid. I’m both a longtime and older Star Trek fan. Call me a Trekkie or Trekker; I’m good with either.
Now I want to examine some of these complaints I read online these days about newer Star Trek’s alleged pandering to “SJWs”…
Myth 1: “The Original Series didn’t pander to liberal viewpoints.”
Reality check; it very often did. Intentionally so, in fact.
One of Roddenberry’s earliest mandates was that the crew of the USS Enterprise be diverse. In his pilot, he had a female first officer, Number One (Majel Roddenberry). If Pike ran into trouble in “The Cage”, she was in charge. This was unheard of the year in 1964 (the year the pilot was filmed) when women on TV were stereotypically housewives to their powerful husbands, not serving as commanders in a futuristic space navy. Mighty progressive.
When the series sold, Roddenberry and his team added a black woman to the command crew, Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), who was the ship’s communication officer. She and Capt. Kirk (William Shatner) would even engage, albeit involuntarily, in American TV’s first interracial kiss. This was only three years after the Watts Riots in L.A. (1965). Uhura would go onto inspire Whoopi Goldberg, who would later go on to play Guinan in Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). Goldberg, as a little girl, reportedly told her mother while watching TOS, “Mom, there’s a colored woman on TV, and she ain’t no maid!” That’s how ‘radical’ Uhura was in 1966. I imagine pro-segregationists at the time might’ve called such casting ‘social justice pandering’ if the slur existed in those days.
There was also a pan-Asian character, Lt. Sulu (George Takei), at the helm (originally he was the ship’s physicist in the 2nd pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”). The surname Sulu, is a reference to the Sulu sea; a nod to the character’s deliberately ambiguous international origin (Hikaru, his first name, is Japanese). This was only 20 years after Pearl Harbor and World War 2. As a young boy, actor George Takei spent several years in a Japanese Internment (or concentration) camp in Arkansas before his family were ‘allowed’ to resettle back in his native California. Many of those Japanese-Americans detained were American-born (like Takei), and were stripped of their rights as citizens in a disproportionate response to the horror of Pearl Harbor. We’ve seen similar ugliness directed at Muslims after 9/11 as well. Takei has shared his stories of his early life, as well as his ongoing struggles as a struggling actor and (formerly closeted) gay man in an excellent graphic novel of his life experiences: “They Called Us Enemy” by George Takei, Justin Elsinger, Steven Scott and Harmony Becker (artist).
In season 2, a new Russian crew member was introduced, Ensign Pavel Chekov (played by American actor Walter Koenig), allegedly in response to an editorial in the Soviet newspaper “Pravda” which asked how the Enterprise crew could have no Russians despite the fact that Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space. This tale is semi-apocryphal; some connected with the show say that Chekov was added more as a response to “The Beatles” and “The Monkees” (the Beatles-wig he wore early in Season 2 adds credence to this theory). Nevertheless… a Russian ‘commie’ in Kirk’s crew at the height of the Cold War (and during the proxy war in Vietnam, no less!). Pretty sure that’d might’ve been seen as pandering to the antiwar ‘doves’ of the 1960s…
Many episodes of TOS, especially in later seasons, spoke of a future where “size, shape or color makes no difference” (Kirk’s words, not mine). A future where Uhura, when called a “charming negress” by a facsimile of Abraham Lincoln (Lee Bergere) in “The Savage Curtain” took no offense, stating, “In our century, we’ve learned not to fear words.” That almost sounds like something you’d hear from the slain civil rights activist, Martin Luther King. Dr. King was another one of those ‘scary progressives’ at the time, who were shaking up segregated conservative America in the late 1960s; he was also a fan of the show, who convinced Nichelle Nichols to stay with the series, when she was considering going back to theatre work.
Other episodes were much more blatant in their politics, some almost embarrassingly so, such as the too-literal “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, which had a pair of mirror-image, half-black/half-white alien humanoids (Frank Gorshin, Lou Antonio) fighting a very familiar war between oppressor and oppressed. Clumsily stated, but it makes its point.
“Arena” sees Capt. Kirk trapped by omnipotent aliens in a fight to the death with a reptilian “Gorn” to settle an ugly territorial dispute. Near the very end of the story, Kirk creates a crude cannon using native elements from the planetoid on which he’s trapped, and shoots his opponent square in the chest. With his opponent down, Kirk moves in for the final kill…but doesn’t. He tells his “Metron” overlords that he won’t kill the Gorn, suggesting that “we can talk, maybe reach an agreement” instead. The episode acknowledges that humanity’s current reactionary, warlike state is like an angry adolescence…an adolescence that could eventually mature into a sort of omniscient pacifism; humanity’s ‘adulthood.’ I’m not sure if I subscribe to Roddenberry’s often-repeated mantra of a ‘perfectible humanity,’ but perhaps the success of such a goal is measured in how hard we strive to be better versions of ourselves.
Such a ‘dove’ position was also taken in “A Taste of Armageddon”, when Kirk forces two warring societies to stop a centuries-long computer war (complete with computed ‘casualties’ who were forced to report to death chambers). Kirk shows them the horrors of ‘real’ war…and why it is a thing to be avoided at all costs. Once again, this was just before the apex of the war in Vietnam. It also speaks to our current ceaseless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Errand of Mercy” saw Kirk at the wrong end of the war equation when he and the Klingons occupy the planet Organia…whose people seem to be vacant, simple pacifists. In truth, they’re omnipotent energy beings “as far above us as we are above… the amoeba.” At the climax, the all-powerful Organians force Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) the Klingons and their respective fleets to disarm. Kirk, usually the show’s barometer for morality, was shown the error of his own aggressive, warlike ways by the Organians. It’s a humbling lesson in peace for our heroes. Once again, this was at the height of the Cold War with the then-Soviet Union (whom the Klingons often represented in those days). You could say that classic Star Trek, in many instances, deferred to the viewpoint of the antiwar movement of the time, despite Capt. Kirk’s infamous “cowboy diplomacy” (TNG, “Unification,” Part 2).
Season 3’s “Day of the Dove” would see an opposite take on Federation/Klingon relations, as an energy being that feeds off of hostility actively promotes a state of constant, mindless violence between both parties. The title alone speaks to the anti-Vietnam ‘dove’ movement of the time, which was considered quite…liberal. Antiwar demonstrators (like famed baby doctor, Benjamin Spock) were often accused of being communists.
There was “A Private Little War”, a thinly-veiled Vietnam metaphor, which saw the Federation and Klingons arming two separate factions on a primitive planet. Kirk begins arming the weaker of the two factions, while Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) passionately argues against interference. Kirk’s stance prevails. The episode ends ambiguously, with both sides engaging in a new bloodier war; though history would seem to have favored McCoy’s pacifist viewpoint, as the Vietnam war was lost only a few years later, despite the American military’s technological superiority.
“Metamorphosis” sees Kirk, Spock and McCoy stranded on a planetoid with a dying Federation commissioner named Hedford (Elinor Donahue), where they meet the presumed-dead creator of warp drive, Zefram Cochrane (Glenn Corbett), who is in a longtime ‘relationship’ with an energy cloud creature who takes care of him. When Cochrane learns the cloud is female and loves him (yes, in that way), he is both angered and repulsed, feeling that he’s been ‘used’ by “that thing”. McCoy tells him “There’s nothing disgusting about it. It’s just another life form, that’s all. You get used to those things.” This is an especially ironic statement coming from McCoy, the man who constantly teases his colleague Spock (Leonard Nimoy) about his own half-Vulcan heritage. The episode makes a strong case for pansexuality, well before the term was as commonly used as it is today. However the episode cops out in the end, as Cochrane can only ‘love’ his “Companion” (as the cloud creature is called) when it assumes the dying form of the lovely (safely human female) Hedford. But for 1967? The notion that a human being could have a loving relationship with a non-humanoid was very progressive. McCoy and even Spock (the child of a human/alien relationship) see it as no big deal. In countless other episodes, Trek often promoted the notion of sexual relationships between beings from other planets. That doesn’t even include all the various alien women Capt. Kirk knocked boots with over the show’s three seasons. Star Trek made it clear that love, even love with electrical cloud creatures, is just one of those things. Later Star Trek series, such as TNG, would see humans in nonjudgmental relationships with androids, holograms, and many other such ‘new life forms.’ Universal pansexuality.
“The Mark of Gideon” sees Kirk beaming down to the mysterious planet Gideon, which suffers a massive overpopulation problem. The root of the problem? The inhabitants of the planet are extremely “pro-life”, to the point where they consider even zygotes to be utterly precious. Abortion is murder to them, and as a result, their planet is an overpopulated nightmare, with not a single unoccupied bit of breathing room anywhere to be found. They kidnap Kirk aboard a giant simulation of the Enterprise (where they found the room to create this full-scale mockup is never explained) in the hopes that he might expose them to some alien diseases which would act as all-natural population control. How this is ‘better’ than abortion or contraceptives is never explained or rationalized, but it still echoes the anti-abortion activism of today, taking it to its horrific conclusion (massive overpopulation). Kirk, and by proxy the Federation, take the pro-choice argument. TNG’s “Up the Long Ladder” (an otherwise terrible episode) would take things a step or two further when Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Dr. Pulaski (Diana Muldaur) destroy clones made with their stolen DNA in a very strong pro-choice statement.
So, Gene Roddenberry’s TOS Star Trek was multiracial, multicultural, pro-feminist, anti-segregationist, anti-war, pro-pansexual, pro-choice and pro-civil rights. How any of that isn’t ‘social justice’ activism (especially during the late 1960s) is beyond me.
Myth 2: “New Star Trek is more concerned with being ‘trendy’ for modern audiences than the other Star Trek series.”
Star Trek has always tried to be trendy, in order to attract new viewers. That’s as much an economic decision as it is a decision for its own continued survival. New viewers bring fresh ad revenue/subscriptions/DVD-BluRay sales. Old viewers die off. Sometimes the trendy stuff is mixed in almost imperceptibly… other times it’s so painfully obvious as to be laughable.
Star Trek TOS had go-go boots, miniskirts, beehive hairstyles, cat-eye makeup, and was often filmed in bright primary colors in order to sell/promote then-new color TV sets.
The TOS USS Enterprise screams 1960s production design, with bright red railings, and random colored gel lighting showing up in unexpected places, like a bright red/purple cast over the ship’s sickbay. “The Way to Eden” even tried to work in space hippies to disastrously hilarious effect.
Star Trek: TNG had a ship’s counselor (therapy was really popular back in the 1980s…should be today as well), and terra cotta/earth tone interiors are everywhere throughout the Enterprise-E. The show also featured the stately Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) in the era of Reagan/Thatcher (though Jean-Luc Picard was soon revealed to be nothing at all like Reagan or Thatcher…thank goodness).
The greedy, materialistic Ferengi were introduced (“The Last Outpost”) in the era of “greed is good”; an ironic phrase from the 1987 movie “Wall Street” which then-US president Reagan took to mean literally. The downright luxurious new Enterprise-E interiors, more like a space-age Hilton, spoke to ‘80s excesses and materialism… even as the Ferengi were used to make a statement against such values. Hey, no one ever said Star Trek didn’t contradict itself (it’s television, not a set of commandments).
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) had a darker tone, consistent with 1990s-era nihilism. The station’s commander Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) was a single black father raising a son. The station’s first officer, fiery Bajoran Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) was a former terrorist…something Visitor herself doubts could be done today, post 9/11. The plundered space station seen in the pilot episode, “Emissary”, was meant to represent Los Angeles after the 1992 riots (something I remember personally). In fact, the station and its ‘promenade’ deck (full of shops, restaurants, etc.) reminded me very much of the late 1980s/early-mid 1990s obsession with indoor shopping malls.
Star Trek: Voyager (VGR) had a female captain and series’ lead, Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), coming a long way from TOS’ Number One (though the feature film “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” had the first onscreen female captain, played by Madge Sinclair). There was a Native American first officer with facial tattoos (tattoos were still a bit ‘edgy’ in the 1990s, though they’re utterly commonplace today). The various alien Kazon sects were based loosely on L.A. street gangs (according to producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga). L.A. street gangs were very topical in the late 1980s through the 1990s. The starship Voyager’s interiors, complete with their gray carpet and bucket seats, look like the interior of a hi-tech minivan (very 1990s as well…). And just wait till you see the Voyager crew wearing ‘period clothing’ of 1990s Los Angeles (“Future’s End, Parts 1 and 2”).
Star Trek: Enterprise (ENT) was a more (deliberately) retro-styled series than its predecessors, largely because it was a prequel. Taking 100 years before TOS, it still had a diverse cast (a casting norm by the early 2000s, thanks to the pioneering example of TOS), and still supported many of the same beliefs as its predecessors, though Scott Bakula’s Captain Archer was perceived by many fans as being more reactionary than other Star Trek captains; possibly an influence of then-US president George W. Bush, who enjoyed a brief surge in popularity following the tragedy of 9/11. There was even a season-long arc in Year 3 which saw Archer and his crew traversing hostile space in search for a “weapon of mass destruction” (much like Bush’s stated purpose for the invasion of Iraq in 2003). Once again, following current political trends with 9/11 (the Xindi attack on Florida) and the Iraq war, ENT was often overly literal at times.
Another episode, “Stigma”, was an allegory for AIDS (about 18 years too late) that concluded with an out-of-character AIDS public service announcement (something very un-Star Trek). Lasting only 4 seasons, an argument could be made that ENT was also trying to be trendy in both its politics and style (its production design screams early 2000s, with steely grays and blues everywhere). Season 4 of ENT saw Archer reverse course a bit (as president Bush lost much of his post-9/11 popularity), coming a few steps closer to the patient wisdom of Captain Picard. Sadly, the series was cancelled just as it finally found its voice in that final season.
Yes, the current Star Trek series, Star Trek: Discovery (DSC) and now Star Trek: Picard (PIC), look very different than their predecessors. But as someone who has seen the gradual evolution in Trek styles, from the primary colors of TOS to the muted earth tones of TNG to the dark grays of DS9, I accept these new visual aesthetics of the show (widescreen, lens flare, handheld cameras, generous CGI usage, etc) as conventions you will see in modern movies and TV shows just about everywhere today. Star Trek isn’t doing these things just to piss off old fans…it’s doing them to catch up with newer ones.
There’s also the matter of the heavily serialized storytelling with both DSC and PIC. Now I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss occasional standalone stories instead of just one very long story stretched over 10-14 episodes (there’s always “The Orville” for that, right?). Most newer series, such as “Stranger Things,” “Walking Dead,” “Better Call Saul,” etc are all consciously designed to keep the viewer eagerly returning for each new installment (or to keep them binge-watching, if they’re streaming it). This trend certainly didn’t begin with streaming television, either. In fact, Trek fans who lament current serialized storytelling can look no further than Star Trek itself for blame, as DS9 pioneered the usage of heavy serialization in its last few seasons during the late 1990s. The last few episodes of DS9’s Season 7 are basically a single continuous story, culminating with the end of the Dominion War. Other shows around that same time were also dipping their toes in the serialized waters; series such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “The X-Files” (the mythology episodes, including the 1998 feature film, “Fight the Future”).
Even some of the Star Trek movies, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982), “Star Trek III: The Search For Spock” (1984) and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986) form what is often called the Star Trek Movie Trilogy. The first two films deal with Spock’s death, and the sacrifices made by his friends toward his eventual resurrection. The third film deals with the consequences of their actions, as they return to Earth to accept punishment…only to wind up in 20th century San Francisco. At any rate, Star Treks II-IV are a clearly defined arc. So you could say that Star Trek’s current serialization has its roots in the feature films of the 1980s as well.
Now, for the myth that I read most often:
Myth #3: “Newer Star Trek is constantly trying to shove diversity and LGBTQ representation down our throats.”
Star Trek has always championed representation for all people everywhere, with each new series continually adding to that diversity. I’ve already written about the diversity of TOS (Myth 1), but there was TNG’s chief engineer Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton), who was a blind black man, which saw a role for the disabled in Trek’s future (he could ’see’ through a painful visor that gave him vision beyond human norms).
DS9 had a single black father, as well as a North African chief medical officer, Dr. Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig). VGR had the first female captain series’ lead with Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), and a Native American first officer Chakotay (Robert Beltran). There are many other diverse casting choices made throughout all of Star Trek’s various incarnations, so the argument against ‘too much diversity’ in Star Trek is, excuse my language, pure bulls#!t.
“Size, shape or color makes no difference.” The diversity of Trek fans is on full display during the TOS Cosplay Parade at the annual Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas.
When I attend Star Trek conventions I see every kind of human there; all sizes, all shapes, all colors, all sexual orientations. Differing abilities as well. They all deserve to see themselves represented in the franchise they have supported and love throughout the decades, just as the character of Geordi LaForge was named after a late disabled fan named George LaForge, who attended some of the earliest Trek conventions back in the 1970s.
Now we have the somewhat polarizing character of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) in Star Trek: Discovery (DSC); a strong, willful woman of color who, while not a captain (yet), is also that series’ lead character. Right away, complaints rolled in that she was “too perfect at everything” (as if Capt. Kirk wasn’t?), and that she is often unduly spotlighted at the expense of DSC’s other characters. I could level that same complaint at Spock in TOS, Seven of Nine in VGR, Worf in DS9, or Data in TNG, and none of those characters were their series’ leads. All of those characters received more than their fair share of episodes. Not that these characters didn’t each deserve such adoration (Spock is my personal favorite character) but it often came at the expenses of other characters (Deanna Troi, Harry Kim, Chakotay, Uhura, Sulu, etc), yet few of those earlier showcased characters are as vociferously attacked as Michael Burnham, with some of the venom directed at Sonequa Martin Green herself. Yes, I would agree there are issues with how the character is written at times, but the actor deserves none of this grief. I’ve met Sonequa Martin Green in Las Vegas nearly two years ago, and I’ve rarely seen a more exuberant soul in my life. She was signing autographs for hours on end without a break, for a line that went well past 9 pm in the evening. Yet she greeted each new fan as if they were her first. Amazing lady.
To be frank, some of DSC’s episodes are heavy with irrelevant or tiresome info dumps (“Perpetual Infinity” left me cross-eyed), and a few of the regular characters remain little more than personality-free faces on the Discovery’s bridge (Bryce and Rhys, anyone?), but Sonequa Martin Green’s Michael Burnham is no more to blame for any of that than Leonard Nimoy’s Spock is to blame for the fiasco that is “Spock’s Brain.” Unfortunately, the occasional lapse in writing quality isn’t just a DSC issue…it’s an issue with most TV series and all incarnations of Star Trek. Balancing an ensemble of characters isn’t easy. Sometimes writers fail. It happens. At any rate, Burnham is DSC’s lead character, and it’s only natural that many of the stories will revolve around her. It’s the way the show is structured.
The other complaint regarding current Trek’s “over representation” of the LGBTQ community really sets my teeth on edge most, mainly because the LGBTQ community has been the most long-ignored and underrepresented demographic in all of Star Trek, despite the fact that the franchise has a very high number of LGBTQ fans in its ranks (all of my LGBTQ friends, in the corporeal world & online, represent varying degrees of Trek fandom). Before 2016’s “Star Trek Beyond” and 2017’s Discovery (DSC), Star Trek had precisely zero point zero openly LGBTQ characters in its ranks.
Erotic Trek fanzines and fan art in the early 1970s imagined a more intimate relationship between Kirk and Spock than was depicted onscreen. These early fan efforts led to the subgenres of slash, or femslash; a type of fan fiction (fanfic) specifically designed to show male/male, female/female or other such combinations of characters in a relationship together. Today we have ‘shipping’; the desire to see any two characters in a relationship, usually played in fanfic (sorry for the remedial definitions here, folks, but I try to write as if readers have never heard of this stuff). Much of this was created as a direct response to a painful lack of representation onscreen.
DS9’s “simple tailor” Garak was, according to actor Andrew Robinson, played as openly gay (Robinson also played gay piano legend Liberace in a TV movie). However, Garak was later ‘butched up’ with a quasi-girlfriend “Ziyal”, though their chemistry together felt more paternal than sexual, much like VGR’s Neelix and Kes. Garak had far greater sexual tension with Dr. Bashir, his sometime lunch date. When I first saw the show back in 1993, I just assumed Garak was making a play for the good doctor. Turns out I was right (according to Robinson’s own admission), but that hardly qualifies as a great win for LGBTQ representation. In fact, one of writer/producer/showrunner Ira Steven Behr’s greatest criticisms of his tenure on the show was the notable dearth of LGBTQ representation (“What We Left Behind”; a Deep Space Nine documentary)
DS9 also had Star Trek’s first same sex kiss (“Rejoined”) two years before TV’s “Ellen” came out in 1997. Yes, it’s technically a gay kiss, but in context of the story, the characters of Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) and Lenara Khan (Susanne Thompson) were once “man and wife.” Dax’s former symbiont once occupied a male body that was married to the Khan, who returns in a new body as well. So while we did see two women having a relationship in this episode, the sci-fi bent to their relationship doesn’t make it quite as genuine as it could’ve been. Maybe if Jadzia had been female in that previous life as well, it might’ve made a bolder statement. Points for effort, anyway (hey, it was 1995…still 2 years before “Ellen” came out on American TV in 1997).
Star Trek’s 23rd and 24th centuries show a bright future for African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Russians, Native Americans, Middle Easterners, you name it. Any fan of just about every ethnicity or demographic could point to a character within the Star Trek universe and see themselves… except for the LGBTQ community, which included some of Trek’s most ardent supporters and creators, including actors such as George Takei, writers like David Gerrold, costumers like William Ware Theiss, or production artists like the late Mike Minor, to name a few (there are many more). None of these fans or artists previously saw themselves reflected in Star Trek’s otherwise wildly positive and optimistic future.
Now we have DSC, and two openly gay characters, Dr. Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and his partner, science officer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp). We see in the beginning of the series that Paul is the difficult one in the relationship, being somewhat prickly in his personality. Later, after his theoretical spore drive is proven to be a success, he mellows considerably as he ‘bonds’ with the greater mycelial network. Near the end of Season 1, Hugh is killed when his neck is broken by surgically altered Klingon Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif). Hugh, under the influence of the network, unconsciously ‘wills’ his dead lover back to life with a combination of wishful thinking and glowing spores. Yes, Hugh’s resurrection is very goofy, but not much more than so a life-generating planet reverting Mr. Spock into a baby and then conveniently back into a 50-something year-old man…such cinematic resurrections are cinematic magic, not science. Just like spore drives and transporters that hand-wave away the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Such ideas are products of imagination with just a pinch of science thrown in to make them go down easier. Once again, Star Trek is aspirational entertainment, not PBS’ Nova.
Hugh comes back in Season 2, frightened and hostile… clearly traumatized by his time alone in the mycelium network, which treated his presence almost like an infection. Hugh and Paul have a difficult time reconciling, but the end of the season saw them renewing their vow to each other just as Discovery is thrown forward in time… forever isolating them, as well as the ship’s entire crew, from their native 23rd century. Where the two characters go in Season 3, I have no idea, but I think of them the same way I think of the O’Briens on DS9, Torres/Paris on VGR, or any other couple in Star Trek. They’re a family, like any other. A chosen family is still a family, just as an adopted child can be just as loved by their adoptive parents as a biological child.
DSC Season 2 also saw the introduction of a lesbian ship’s engineer, Jet Reno (played by famed deadpan comedian Tig Notaro), who casually mentions her late wife when talking with the resurrected Hugh about his troublesome relationship with Paul. It was a nice moment, as the no-nonsense engineer tells Hugh to simply appreciate Paul in the here and now (good advice for any couple).
Gay marriage is also legal in the United States and many other countries around the world, so if any viewer still has an issue with seeing two gay men in a committed relationship on television in the 21st century? I submit that it is viewer’s problem, not the characters.
DSC’s Season 3 will debut later this year, and PIC about to end its first season in two more weeks. There is also the animated comedy Trek series, “Lower Decks”, coming this year as well. Star Trek’s future seems assured for the moment. The annual Las Vegas convention gets bigger and bigger every year I attend (this will be my 5th consecutive Star Trek Las Vegas convention this summer, assuming it’s not cancelled by the coronavirus…).
Every year, I try to attend former Voyager skipper Kate Mulgrew’s panel. Even though I’m not a huge fan of VGR, I find Mulgrew herself to be a fascinating woman, and there’s always a female fan during the Q&A portion of her panel who will tell her a story of how Capt. Janeway inspired her to pursue a career in space science, or the military, or another traditionally male-dominated career field.
I’ve seen gay fans, some of them in tears, as they talk to Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz in person, because they finally see themselves represented in Star Trek’s future, after 50 long years. I’ve also heard some new fans who say that current Trek’s greater inclusivity is what drew them into Star Trek. Just as Whoopi Goldberg was inspired to become an actor when she saw Nichelle Nichols in TOS, others are finally seeing their own faces (and sexualities) represented in the franchise they have loved for so long. Star Trek hasn’t survived for all of these decades based solely on the support of older, white, straight male fans. It’s survived by winning new ones as well. To many fans, TNG is their jam, just as DSC and PIC will be the jams of younger generations. Some fans, like myself, can just sit back and enjoy all of it as members of the same great Star Trek family.
No, the latest incarnations of Star Trek, DSC and PIC, are certainly not perfect. Yes, I enjoy them, but there are some episodes that I find very problematic. That said, my issues with the shows are usually more about the writing than choices of casting or social issues explored. As for their ongoing stylistic changes? I accept it all as part of Star Trek’s ongoing evolution. It will never be 1966 or 1987 again, and that’s perfectly okay. If one prefers older Trek? There are hundreds of hours of back episodes to enjoy. For me, as a lifelong Trekkie, I prefer to see the ’strange new worlds’ Star Trek has yet to explore. To quote my favorite character, Spock (from “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”), “Change is the essential process of all existence.”
Live long and prosper!
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Well said! I think people often forget that television shows are always a product of their times. When a franchise has the longevity of something like Star Trek, it can be easy to forget the social and cultural cues they were working with. A Russian good guy and an interracial kiss is nothing to us now, but for the 1960s? Revolutionary!
And I always find it curious (and aggravating) when people say, “Why does media have to keep shoving LGBTQIA characters down our throats?” when a gay or lesbian character shows up somewhere? I didn’t realize that the definition of ‘shoving it down our throat’ was ‘to be reminded that LGBTQIA people exist’. As an LGBTQIA person myself, I appreciate such representation.
You’re spot on when you say that Star Trek must evolve with the times if it wants to create new fans. I love Discovery (in spite of its flaws), and I am growing to love Picard even more. I guess at this point I could call myself an ‘old fan’ (TNG premiered when I was 5, and I’ve been a Trek fan ever since). TNG and DS9 were what got me into SFF in the first place, but I’ll admit that they have their flaws and episodes that did not age well (TNG’s ‘The Perfect Mate’, for example). Discovery and Picard reflect the times we are in now, just as the previous shows reflected their times. Nostalgia is powerful, but we can’t stay rooted in the past. Especially on a show about the future.
Thanks for that thoughtful reply! 🙏
Excellent article. Just one flaw, however (that I caught at least). You twice refer to the Enterprise of TNG as Enterprise E. The Enterprise of the TV series, and the first three TNG films, is NCC1701D. Enterprise E was only introduced in Nemesis.
Picky point, but you know how we Trekkies/Trekkers can be.
It took me fifty years to admit publicly that I was a Trekkie, but I have been a fan from the first broadcast in 1966.
As a flaming liberal/progressive, the diversity of Trek has always been one of its main attractions for me.
Well said. The existence of right wing Star Trek fans has always baffled me. From its very inception, the franchise has been about depicting a left wing socialist utopia based on social justice. That’s the core premise of the franchise; they’re not even subtle about it.
I feel like these people only ever paid attention to the scenes where people shoot each other with phasers and just tuned the rest out.
Thanks for writing this article. Now I don’t have to. I’m always befuddled when people complain about Discovery and Picard. This is what Star Trek has been since day 1.
Much appreciated Jess.
Thanks for reading.