The new Star Trek movie has awakened my long-standing interest in that fictional universe. I started seeing re-runs of the original series on Sunday afternoons and was taken by its exploration of “new life and new civilisations” and its charming 60s aesthetic. Then, with the introduction of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was the excitement of exploring the same fictional universe from more than one juncture in its invented history. Another attraction was its effects of differing levels of effectiveness (I will have to discuss star ship design at some other time). And yet another was the diverse crews depicted who seemed to live in a world that was both non-racist and
non-racialist (in the sense that the concept of race itself was absent from human discourse – hardly surprising in a galaxy filled with alien species).
I wonder why I noticed this last element. My own schoolyard and neighbourhood had plenty of diversity. Possibly it was only once I started discussing things with friends in FOME
that I became conscious of the new ground Star Trek has broken in terms of its depiction of the acceptance of diversity. Or possibly I did notice it while still in school. Despite personal experience, I might still have noticed the relative homogeneity of characters in many television shows.
Particularly for its time, the Original Series is impressive. I can only think of Hawaii Five-0 (1968-1980) as rivalling it, but its setting demands a diverse cast of characters. In contrast Star Trek, with its setting of future space exploration, did much more than was expected of it. Consider, for instance, the crew of the space ship in Forbidden Planet (1956) which directly inspired Star Trek, and one could be forgiven for thinking they were a bunch of clones.
In discussing the depiction of diversity in the various incarnations of Star Trek I will work under a few self-set limitations. I will devote most attention to those shows with which I have the greatest familiarity (The Original Series and The Next Generation). I will focus more on the identity of characters than of actors (so for instance I am more interested in the Vulcan nature of Spock than I am in the Jewish heritage of Leonard Nimoy). I will try to only discuss ‘firsts’. And the only fan speculation I will present is my own (rather than the huge body of non-canonical fan fiction).
The Cage (1965)
The Cage was the pilot for Star Trek that was rejected by television executives as “too cerebral” but was released on video in the late 80s. It is an impressive bit of SF for its day and far more interesting and well-paced than the aforementioned Forbidden Planet. It presented Christopher Pike (a new imagining of whom we see in the movie currently in cinemas) as captain of the Enterprise. More interestingly it included the character ‘Number One’ who was the Executive Officer under Captain Pike and (unusually for its time) a woman. Number One comes across as an aloof and emotionally repressed careerist, which I interpreted as sexist at the time I saw it. Apparently this depiction was more an SF thing of showing the elevation of reason over emotion in future society – a characteristic that was transferred to Spock later on (interestingly Spock is an incidental character in the Cage and can be seen smiling
). Following the rejection of The Cage, the crew was re-gigged and Number One was gone. It would be a very long time indeed before a woman was elevated to such an important rank within a Star Trek storyline.
Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969) and associated movies (1979-1991 and 2009)
Including Spock was something of a daring move. Some executives were concerned that the extra-terrestrial would scare children with his demonic eye-brows and pointed ears. This astounds me but then I am a child of the Star Wars era. Back in the 50s and 60s most aliens were just humans in silver clothes who behaved strangely and came to kidnap our women. Spock looks kinda different from us and thinks
very differently from us. He was born on another planet – the imaginary Vulcan - and has a completely
alien hormonal cycle. And yet he is a Star Fleet officer and the best friend of our hero James Kirk. Nothing can be more inclusive to my mind than this (except that sometimes an imaginary ‘other’ can be much safer to contemplate than someone different who is actually one of us).
The other thing with Spock is that he is the product of a Vulcan-Terran mating. This back-story asserts that hitherto massive differences can be overcome by love. It also acknowledges a very important human experience – that of the person of mixed heritage who finds themselves at odds with ‘pure-bloods’ of both groups.
Uhura has been significant as a prominent television character played by African-Americans. The character has a Swahili name and is of Bantu ethnicity. Originally she is described as a citizen of the United States Of Africa (as well as a citizen of a United Earth). Uhura was presented to the world at a time in which African-Americans were both demanding the full rights due to them as contemporary US citizens and
exploring their own rich and diverse heritages. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior told actress Nichelle Nichols that she was making an important contribution to civil rights just by playing Uhura.
The other significance of Uhura is her gender. She is one of very few women depicted in original Star Trek as anything other than a love-cum-lust object for Jim Kirk (she was
this but she was more than this). Nurse Chapel was only ever an incidental character (possibly we are past the ‘playing doctors and nurses’ take on gender roles and relations) but Uhura became one of the seven key adventuring crew members of the Enterprise. It has been noted that she was basically a glorified telephone exchange operator, but she was operating the phones for the Starship Enterprise, and that is something.
The Japanese-Filipino Sulu was also a significant character as pilot of the Enterprise, and later captain of the experimental Excelsior. What I find refreshing is that Sulu, like other characters in Star Trek, is depicted as his own person with his own characteristics, rather than some card-paper reproduction of the stereotyped Asian. Sulu is an expert at the Occidental
martial art of fencing, whereas one would have expected a 60s show to present him as a black-belt in Karate.
Many would think that the minority-inclusive characteristics of the original crew end with Spock, Uhura and Sulu. But I think we forget how restrictive the concept of WASP (‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’) has been. The old New England establishment only truly accepted you if you were of English descent and of particular Christian denomination (as well as of particular affluence). The fact that President Kennedy was a Roman Catholic of Celtic descent was a controversial matter for some. In that same era Star Trek gave us a Celtic engineer (Scotty) and ‘poor-white-trash’ made good (Bones). And then there was Chekov.
The greatest and most maligned kind of person is ones enemy whomever that may be at the time. Apparently Star Trek was criticised by the Soviets for its implication that the future Earth was basically America. In response the Russian Chekov was introduced. The show was silent as to exactly how the Cold War ended but end it must have and to say that we had moved on from this was an impressive statement to make during
the Cold War.
The only central character in Star Trek that is a standard hero is that of James Kirk and yet he happily commands a diverse crew on the Enterprise and champions an ever more inclusive United Federation of Planets.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) and associated movies (1994-2002)
In this world the most powerful tend to be mature-aged. However in fictional action and adventure the most celebrated characters are younger. The decision to have Jean-Luc Piccard as captain of the Galaxy-Class Enterprise (commissioned several decades after the Constitution-Class Enterprise) is an interesting one and the character contrasts markedly with Captain Kirk. Piccard is past his prime. He is cultured. He has a British accent. I think this befits the nature of the new mission as a diplomatic ‘flagship’ for the Federation rather than as an intrepid explorer but still it was an interesting decision for an American program.
I suppose that is why William Riker is there as ‘Number One’ – Riker can do all the dumb and dangerous things audiences expect of heroes. Over time Riker proved to be more than that but for a while it seemed to me that he was a kind of ‘Clayton’s Kirk’ (complete with the sluttiness). The full potential of the character was never realised however. In the two-part story Best Of Both Worlds (1990) the Starfleet strategist Shelby is gunning for his job while he is offered his own command. If that had
happened then we would have finally had a woman serving as Executive Officer of the Enterprise, and in Riker a useful recurring character commanding another star ship.
Women did have a greater role in Next Gen than in The Original Series, but were generally limited to ‘caring’ or ‘nurturing’ roles – doctor… councillor… bar-tender... (except for the martial Tasha Yar who was killed in the first season in manner lacking the 'honour' warriors crave). Dr Beverly Crusher was an important figure with the same kind of influence over her captain as Bones had had over Kirk. Councillor Deanna Troi is there to be pretty and exotic or as a love-interest for the more virile men of the command crew. The incidental character of Guinan (played by Star Trek fan Whoopi Goldberg) is fantastic but detracts from the professional role of Troi (why go to a shrink if you can chat with your bar-keep).
The value of a cosmopolitan society is expressed in Next Gen more via alien species than human ethic diversity. Troi has mixed Terran and Betazed ancestry, but only so that she could possess the supernatural power of Empathy, and any exploration of her heritage is done more for comic value as Terran mores are tested in contrast with those of Betazed. Guinan looks human but is very alien and can even perceive alternate timelines (and advise as to which one is ‘right’). Her homeworld El Auria was destroyed so Guinan represents the often overlooked experience of diaspora cultures. Then there is Worf.
Worf is wholly Klingon. For the first time a Klingon is presented as an heroic character (and at the same time that they are still depicted as villains in the Star Trek movies of the late 80s). With Chekov we saw that human conflicts can be overcome, so too with Worf we see the same can happen at an inter-stellar level. Worf is also an orphan with Terran foster parents and via this the issue of isolation from ones own heritage is explored.
Geordi La Forge is disabled. What we see is a future in which shortcomings are overcome rather than one in which they are eliminated from the gene-pool. La Forge was born blind but future technology comes to the rescue and his VISOR allows him to perceive across the whole electromagnetic spectrum. La Forge is also a geek, obsessed with warp fields at work and holographic fictions in his off-time, thus representing the kind of minority who avidly follow Star Trek. Finally there is his best friend…
Data is possibly the most interesting character in Next Gen. As an android he is the strangest crew member of all – a thing rather than a person. But a thing that aspires to personhood. Is this more ‘alien’ than any extra-terrestrial? Or are we more relaxed with the products of our own technology than we are variant forms of the same organic life to which we belong? The character of Data allows the show to explore both the ‘human condition’ that Star Trek has always been interested in and
the issue of technology as a two-edged sword (I have seen Data take over the entire ship single-handedly and have to say that Piccard is far more trusting than I would ever be).
Some of us spend our entire lives associating only with those who think the same way as us. One could be forgiven for thinking that the United Federation Of Planets was one big echo-chamber in which hundreds of unique species agree on everything but logistics. In the programs that followed Next Gen the producers decided to explore diversity of a political and philosophical kind.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
Deep Space Nine is set on a space station orbiting the planet Bajor which is considering
entry into the Federation but
they are a suspicious and superstition lot and far from relaxed with the Star Fleet presence in orbit.
This tension and its resolution is explored via the characters of Benjamin Sisko (Starfleet) and his Bajoran attaché Kira Nerys. Here also we have two new firsts – an African-American commander and a woman as effective ‘Number One’ (almost three decades after The Cage).
Beyond this, different ways of thinking and behaving are explored in Deep Space Nine. The setting is a (partly) civilian one so we can suddenly have characters like Quark the Ferengi (a petty criminal) and Garak the Cardassian (a suspected spy). The focus shifts to characters who are interesting rather than simply virtuous.
Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)
Voyager starts with the tension – indeed the conflict – that arises from difficult political decisions. The Federation has voluntarily ceded territory to the Cardassians and many inhabitants of that territory object and form the insurgent Maquis. The Voyager chases a Maquis ship and via some anomaly both ships find themselves on the other side of the galaxy – uncharted and distant territory. The Maquis ship is destroyed by local aggressors and its survivors teleport to the Voyager. Both crews unite to find a way home – conflict evaporates in the face of necessity.
Tensions were underplayed in Voyager, but there were some more firsts and some interesting characters. Kathryn Janeway is the first woman to command the titular vessel of a Star Trek program. In Chakotay we have a Native American as Executive Officer. And in Seven-Of-Nine the former Borg I like to think we see the experience of those who are rehabilitated from life in a cult.
Enterprise is interesting as the program set closest to our own time. And yet it is more a product of the time in which it was made rather than the fictional future to which it belongs. Thus its crew is more diverse than that of The Original Series despite the fact that it is set before it. There are few things I can think of that are new in Enterprise except perhaps the extremely patronising way in which Vulcans once regarded Terrans.
Hold on – there is one more thing I almost overlooked: The medical officer of the ship – the Denobulan Dr Floxx – often refers to his many wives and their
many husbands. Is this inclusion there to suggest acceptance of differing mores or is any such effect diminished by the fact that it is attributed to a curious alien species?
Can you tell that I need to see more of the later incarnations of Star Trek?
In assessing the progress of Star Trek in overcoming prejudice I wonder whether I should be judging by the standards of my time or by those in which the programs were produced. If it is the former then overall I think the more recent shows fare much better. However if it is the latter standard I apply then The Original Series is by far the most successful at challenging the assumptions of its time. And my favourite show – Next Gen – falls furthest short.
Still it also depends on what issue I am considering. On the front of accepting different cultures then Star Trek overall has done pretty well for most of its history. It took a lot longer to challenge traditional gender roles and relations. And on the front of sexual orientation it has been pretty much silent (I am deliberately overlooking slash fiction here because what interests me is what gets to the largest body of viewers).
As far as I am aware there is still nothing like a same-sex relationship in Star Trek. Or even characters with same-sex preferences (Garak is kinda camp but that is hardly proof of anything). Rival show Babylon Five (1993-1997) fared much better and only the most obtuse fans could deny that there was something happening between Susan Ivonova and Talia Winters (apparently some did try by arguing over the fact that only one pillow is seen on a bed).
I would expect however that, despite its own shortcomings, the Star Trek universe has powerfully influenced the producers and consumers of science fiction to present and demand more inclusive and cosmopolitan settings, or to expose the short-comings of past and present society, by exploring alternate futures for ourselves and others.
Now in 2013 I want to add a comment arising from the movie Star Trek Into Darkness. So far I have discussed diversity within Star Trek crews but here I will refer to one
particular enemy character – Khan Noonien Singh.
Much to the surprise of many fans the character of Khan has been presented as of apparent English decent while keeping his original Indian name. Racism? Incidentally I suspect. The issue I think is fashion. Hollywood directors have a tendency to want to cast the latest super cool actors and Benedict Cumberbatch is one such actor right now. On his movie-making wishlist I can just imagine JJ Abrams saying “that is my perfect sinister and sophisticated villain and I must have him”. Fine. Cumberbatch is all that. But what if you have also decided to resurrect for your alternate timeline the most popular of all Star Trek villains and
that character is conceived of very differently by the backstory? I personally think you can have one rather than both.
Sometimes radically re-conceiving of a character works. In this case it is lazy and clunky. Yes names derived from a particular background (such as “Singh”) can transmit over time across many different ethnic groups (I for instance have a Hebrew name despite my Anglo-Celtic background). But I think in the word “Khan” we have a title rather than a name. Khan was the ruler of a Khanate. And sure titles are also memes that transcend genetics but the casting of Cumberbatch was done to be trendy rather than awesome.
Here is a thing – I do object because I feel that we need more diversity in our story-telling and for a US studio to turn Khan into just another WASP is a retrograde move. That is my out-of-story concern. My in-story concern is for story consistency. Yes the ‘JJverse’ is an alternate timeline for Star Trek but
it starts with the destruction of old Vulcan (in the rebooted Star Trek movie). Khan has been in suspended animation since a time much closer to our own present. For his origin the timelines are yet to diverge. And talking of origins – what of Khan in the original timeline?
I have issues there too come to think of it. Casting a Mexican actor to play an Indian character was also the product of a problem in US television and movies in the 60s. Back then any “ethnic” actor would do for any “exotic” role. To some extent I imagine supply-and-demand were factors if you needed to cast someone quickly for an episode. However underpinning this was racialist thinking that divides all humanity into a narrowly defined us
and all the rest
. This is such a prevalent and seductive concept that it even infects those who actively oppose racism today (some of whom will simply reverse the designations of which group is good and which is bad). Nonetheless Ricardo Montalban made the role of Khan his own – his presence dominated the screen with fatal charisma and I’m happy for this particular bit of casting history. But back to the alternate timeline.
I would have preferred if one of two things had been done in Star Trek Into Darkness…
the primary antagonist played by Cumberbatch is another
dictator from the time of the Eugenics Wars who has survived in suspended animation (augmented minds think alike). I call him “Kaiser” (another term for emperor). The scene in which young Spock consults old Spock is removed. Possibly nobody yells “Kaiser!!!” as that seems silly somehow. Otherwise the movie plays pretty much as it does.
an actor of Indian origin is cast as Khan. Is it indicative of the state of ethnic diversity in Hollywood that I can only think of Kal Penn? There may be better choices (especially since Penn is busy helping get Barak Obama re-elected) but what if I run with this concept? Imagine a short extra scene in which Sulu and Khan have an antagonistic exchange via sub-space monitor – here we have a small salute to the stoner comedy trilogy Harold And Kumar. Too frivolous for Star Trek? Well I am just imagining my own alternate timeline of Hollywood movies so let me have my fun.
There is just one more aspect of this topic I have come across in browsing the net. If racism and profiling is a problem then surely casting (say) an Indian as a mass murdering dictator is also a problem. My response is that you have to take the good with the bad in recognizing reality. Anyone of any background can be good or bad or just complex. One thing I will say for the presentation of Khan (in every incarnation) is that his motivations and human emotions are explored so that we can have some understanding of why he seeks power or revenge. That I think is satisfactory to do justice to both the character and humanity.
. Comments welcome.
Labels: Nostalgia And Reminiscences, Political