You have to give Star Trek credit for its longevity. Since its inception in 1966, the show has found generation after generation of new fans. Each series reimagines the world in a way that keeps it fresh and relevant to contemporary viewers while always retaining a continuity and a recognizable core identity. The continuity is so strong that, amid the ongoing spate of nostalgic reboots, Star Trek (2009) bent over backwards to tie a prequel story into the ongoing narrative and to incorporate Leonard Nimoy.
Within the crowded space-epic TV genre, Star Trek stands out for its uniquely optimistic, forward-thinking premise revolving around diversity and cooperation, as explained by creator Gene Roddenberry:
Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms…If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to 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.
But looking back at the original series (1966-1969), we immediately see that Roddenberry’s vision is incompletely expressed. The crew of the Enterprise doesn’t even come close to demonstrating the wide variety of differences within humanity. While the bridge crew does include a black woman (setting the stage for the famous interracial kiss in 1968), an Asian man, and eventually a Russian (daring at the time, if not today), it’s overwhelmingly white and male, and the lead trio are all white men. Nor is the handling of the minority characters all that progressive; Uhura is basically a space telephone operator, after all. And then there are the miniskirts. Even the logline “To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before” has an obvious omission.
None of this is a jab at Roddenberry. The goal here is not to assign blame. We can save the discussions of what could realistically be portrayed on TV in the 60’s; of executive meddling; of Roddenberry’s overtly progressive motivations surrounding Uhura; of the ill-fated female Number One who appeared in the original pilot. The point is simply that, at this point, Roddenberry’s vision was incomplete.
Nevertheless, the seeds were planted. TOS establishes that women, minorities, non-Westerners, and even aliens can all serve in Starfleet and hold rank, nipping at the bud the endless anti-diversity complaints that would dog Star Wars and other science fiction franchises. Episodes like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” use a metaphorical framework to make pointed, resonant commentary on racism, the Vietnam War, and more, allowing the show to hold positions that would have been too controversial to state overtly. Happily, subsequent shows would choose to cultivate these seeds.
The first generation movies moved the needle very little in terms of representation. In conjunction with the women’s rights movement, women now appear in a wider variety of roles, including science (Carol Marcus) and command track (Saavik), but the Kirk-Spock-McCoy trio still reigns supreme, and thematically the films cleave closer to the various other sci-fi blockbusters of the 80’s than to the Star Trek premise.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) is immediately a major step forward. For one thing, they fixed the logline, which now reads “To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before.” The racial diversity feels more natural and less token, and the cast contains multiple women. There’s even a blind cast member, a noteworthy inclusion because it would be so easy to make excuses for why a disabled person wouldn’t be able to serve on a spaceship.
Thematically, TNG continues and builds on TOS’ progressive message. In “The Outcast,” the show introduces a gender-neutral race in order to make a commentary on sexual identity, continuing the franchise’s tradition of using metaphor to tackle issues too divisive to address openly. The franchise has grown less pugnacious, too; while Captain Kirk was quick on the draw despite Starfleet’s peaceful mission, TNG crewmembers rarely even wear phasers, and Picard prefers to diplomatically negotiate out of trouble.
Nevertheless, TNG has weak points. Geordi may technically be blind, but his visor renders him de facto sighted, so the show rarely has to tackle the challenges of blindness. The long-running women are in nurturing roles like the doctor and the counselor; less traditionally feminine women like Tasha Yar and Ro Laren have short-lived runs. Notably, while TOS’ male doctor was one of the three main leads, TNG’s Beverley Crusher has a much more modest role and is absent from season 2. And it’s becoming increasingly clear by this point that metaphor is the only way a gay person will show up in the Star Trek universe.
Again, the showrunners are not necessarily to blame; all the aforementioned women have smaller roles because the actresses chose to leave the show. But Roddenberry’s vision was still incomplete. In particular, after two series totaling ten seasons, it’s becoming undeniable that the captain is both the main character and the fans’ biggest draw, and no matter how diverse the rest of the crew is, the show still revolves around a white man as long as a white male butt is in the big chair.
This barrier would be broken twice in quick succession by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) and Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001). Now, I’m not interested in getting into an argument as to whether a black lead or a female lead is more groundbreaking (though it does seem like a snub that DS9’s Sisko is only a commander. In terms of representation, DS9 is very strong. Not only do we get to see a black man in a position of authority and respect, but since he’s the lead, his family members provide additional roles for black characters who often interact with each other, thus passing the ultra-rare racial Bechdel test. And Dax, an alien who can migrate bodies and has been both male and female, is the entire franchise’s most daring gender exploration.
But despite its many virtues, DS9 just doesn’t feel that much like Star Trek. It took place during the 90s boom in sci-fi TV and shares many similarities with the other shows that were on the air. Its static location and focus on the ongoing diplomacy and politics of a single planet are more reminiscent of Babylon 5, and the late-season epic space battles feel very out of keeping with Star Trek tradition. None of this reflects negatively on DS9—it’s a perfectly good show in its own right—but it’s not representative enough to be the flagship for the entire franchise.
Star Trek fans had to wait 29 years for a female captain, but it was worth the wait for Voyager‘s Kathryn Janeway. In the face of any number of sci-fi properties which made their female characters young, weak, and vacuous, Janeway is confident, complex, and old enough to believably have risen to the rank of captain. No one in the crew ever questions her authority, and the occasional regressive alien race that discounts a woman’s command capability are swiftly proven wrong. Countless girls were inspired by the sight of a woman in the highest position of authority.
The rest of the cast is equally unconventional. While most Star Trek aliens have been played by white actors (except for the Klingons, who are often played by black actors, which is its own fraught topic), Voyager gives us a black Vulcan and a Latina half-Klingon, as well as its famous female Borg, Seven of Nine. The aliens play against type, too: The rational, scientific Vulcan is both the security officer and the father of four, while the aggressive, short-tempered Klingon is the engineer. There’s also a Native American character, a vanishingly rare sight onscreen.
Star Trek‘s central themes are prominent in Voyager. Janeway repeatedly has to decide whether to adhere to Starfleet values despite being stranded halfway across the galaxy, in desperate situations with no oversight, and she repeatedly decides to maintain her principles even at the cost of opportunities to get home. Episodes cover all kinds of complex topics. “Nothing Human” discusses whether it’s ethical to use the research of Nazi scientists to save lives.
Yet Voyager has weaknesses, too. While it desperately wants to portray Chakotay respectfully, he ends up as a stereotypical mishmash of spirit animals, medicine blankets, and tribal tattoos. As in the other series, the diversity of the main cast often doesn’t extend to guest stars. By 2001, the lack of gay characters was becoming hard to ignore. And there still hadn’t been any female captains of color. There was still work to be done.
What is it about prequels? I don’t know, but as soon as the franchise began setting its stories earlier in the chronology, they began to regress, as though turning back the clock in-universe also turned back the clock in real life. Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005) doesn’t feel any more forward-thinking than anything else that was on TV at the time. A white man is back in the captain’s seat for the third time, making Sisko and Janeway feel suspiciously less like progress and more like tokenism. Compositionally, the cast is less diverse than TNG. Enterprise‘s frontier-like feel favors a combative, rough-and-ready approach that meshes poorly with Starfleet’s basic mission. Still, it was generally attempting to follow Roddenberry’s vision, even if it didn’t capture it very fully.
Then we got the new movies. Star Trek (2009) was helmed by J.J. Abrams, who admitted he didn’t even like Star Trek and had the stated goal of making it into a standard Hollywood blockbuster.
Instead of a forward-looking vision, Star Trek (2009) and its sequels are completely backward-looking. There’s no interest in what we might achieve in the future; the entire focus of the movies is how much better things were in the past, during the era of the TOS. Elements that were progressive or at least socially acceptable in the 60s are unapologetically resurrected, even though they now have the exact opposite connotations. There’s the virtually all-male main cast; there’s Chekhov’s nonsense accent; there are the women in miniskirts.
The new Star Trek movies relate to the franchise only on a superficial level, by presenting the audience with familiar characters and things to tap into their nostalgia. But Roddenberry’s vision is completely absent. Instead of exploring the galaxy on a mission of science and diplomacy, Starfleet is now effectively nothing but a battle fleet, and every movie revolves around the simplistic conflict of a bad guy who needs to be fought and defeated.
As is common, in the new Star Trek, nostalgia becomes a vehicle for reinforcing hegemonic values. The problems with TOS and the original movies become sacrosanct, while their progressive elements prove to be dispensable. The women in the crew absolutely must wear miniskirts, but it’s okay to turn Carol Marcus, who originally appeared as a sensibly-dressed middle-aged scientist, into a hot young bimbo. It’s imperative that every white man from the original cast be given a major role (or, in Spock’s case, two), but it’s fine to make Khan into a white guy. A scene where Captain Kirk has sex with an alien is mandatory in every movie, but it’s fine to leave out any articulation of the Starfleet mission in order to make room for more explosions.
The situation looked dire for the Star Trek franchise. The success of the movies demonstrated that few people cared about the philosophical side, and a new generation of fans would soon emerge who had no experience with the franchise except as yet another loud, action-packed sci-fi shoot-’em-up.
But in 2015, a ray of hope appeared in the form of Star Trek: Discovery. This new show is scheduled to premiere in May 2017, and so far, all signs are promising. The production team is packed with old hands, including Gene Roddenberry’s son. Creator Bryan Fuller, a veteran of DS9, is eager to continue Roddenberry’s mission:
There’s a few people that we like and we want to carry on what Star Trek does best, which is being progressive. So it’s fascinating to look at all of these roles through a colorblind prism and a gender-blind prism, so that’s exciting…you can look at the original series and pick out episodes we’re using the DNA of and using the spirit of what Star Trek offers, both in terms of high-concept science fiction storytelling and really wonderful metaphors for the human condition.
Hints about the show indicate that this isn’t an empty promise. The show plans to cast a woman of color in the lead role, named Number One in an homage to the female character who was cut from the original TOS pilot. Fuller has hinted that we may finally get a gay character, too. Perhaps the most promising sign that we’ll see a true continuation of the Star Trek vision is the title, Discovery.
We won’t know until next year. But here’s to hoping that Star Trek continues to boldly go where no one has gone before.