Saturday, May 18, 2024

Star Trek and Why It Still Has Work to Do

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I didn’t grow up in the ‘60s. I was born in the late ‘80s, but I was raised in the curiosity of a dual sci-fi home. My father loved all things Star Wars (we still argue about why Return of the Jedi is far superior to the Empire Strikes Back, and he refuses to acknowledge the prequels are pale imitations of the originals, let alone the existence of the new trilogy), and my mother was obsessed with Star Trek: the Next Generation. I loved both, but it was only for Star Trek that I would crawl into my mom’s lap without a book. And when she was sick later in life, it was for Star Trek I would devotedly search TV channels for at any hour. It gave her peace.

In my twenties, I came around to Star Trek: The Original Series (otherwise known as TOS) and although I will never accept anyone except Captain Jean Luc Picard as my favorite Starfleet captain, it was in my first viewing of TOS that I figured out what drew me to Star Trek time and time again. Star Wars has better cinematic value, and better overall story arcs and trajectories, but Star Trek did work. Work that I didn’t recognize as a child but that now, as a queer woman with a much broader, and sometimes darker, understanding of the world, still holds value and has a critical place in modern media.

With Star Trek: Discovery—the first full-length Star Trek series since Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005)—airing on CBS All Access at the end of September, now is a good time to remember the cultural work Star Trek has always done and should always do, and recognize the times it failed to live up to its own standards.

Discovery is set in the same timeline as TOS, beginning roughly ten years before the events of its two pilots “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” As the newest vehicle for “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”—which has thankfully grown to be more than just a merchandise ployDiscovery has much to live up to. Although it is often remembered for overacting, ripped shirts and far too many women only on screen for the kissing, TOS broke barriers for race and sex and addressed questions other public television shows didn’t touch.


It’s hard, in 2017, to see a single black woman, Japanese-American man, and Russian-American man as representation in a  science fiction show. In the ‘60s, however, these characters spoke to specific social issues, and the show’s commitment to a future where those social issues had been addressed and unanimously agreed upon being against human progress. Pavel Chekov, played by Walter Koenig and added in season 2 to appeal to a younger generation, appeared during a time when threats from behind the Iron Curtain, real or imagined, were painfully and passionately felt. Roddenberry’s insistence Chekov not be a painful stereotype (going so far as acknowledging the “Russia invented X” joke is neither funny nor helpful) points to recognition that 1960s’ representations of Russians were not only limited but also often negative. Chekov being played as highly intelligent but brash because of his youth, and without any question or suggestion of his loyalty, allows for a glimpse at the humanity Russians and Americans share.

Most notable, of course, is Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, Communications Officer. At a time when most black women on television were servants or maids, Uhura’s presence as an active force on the command bridge brought hope and the promise of positive change to millions. Actors and astronauts still cite Uhura’s presence as their inspiration for getting involved in science, television and theater. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. applauded Nichols for her role in reshaping relations between black and white Americans. As a black woman in a position of (albeit limited) power, and treated with unquestionable respect by white male colleagues, Uhura set a precedent for the youth who tuned in every week: normalized equality.

And of course, we cannot forget the first televised interracial kiss.

TOS did more than address race relations. It addressed the role of women in the work force and their bodily autonomy. As second-wave feminism rocked the nation, TOS presented women in command gold, science blues and engineering red without question to the appropriateness of their presence or the fitness of their bodies for the work. In S1Ep19, “Tomorrow is Yesterday” Captain John Christopher, a 1960s jet pilot, is brought aboard the Enterprise. As he follows Captain Kirk to the bridge, the following exchange occurs:

CREWWOMAN: Good morning, Captain.
KIRK: Morning. (drags Christopher along) Captain.
KIRK: Crewman.

The short exchange, following the confused gaze of Christopher as he eyes a command gold crewwoman, highlights how Starfleet, as an organization, believes women have every right to work aboard a vessel of science and exploration—as members of medical staff, engineering core, or command positions. However brief—and it’s unfortunately too brief—a woman in command gold announces the reality of women in power and the necessity and acceptability of women having the same opportunities of men in the work force and elsewhere.

Season 1 has numerous instances such as this, often just as brief (Charlie in “Charlie X” needed a much longer talking to about violating Yeoman Rand’s personal space multiple times). By season 3, however, TOS tackles sensitive issues for entire episodes. S3ep17, for example, “The Mark of Gideon” culminates in a discussion of bodily autonomy and abortion. The ruling Council of the planet Gideon, a former paradise now plagued with overpopulation due to their impossible lifespans and regenerative qualities, kidnaps Captain Kirk. They plan to expose select Gideon citizens to a fatal disease he recently contracted. After extracting the virus from Kirk’s unconscious body and infecting his daughter, Odana, Gideon Ambassador Hodin engages with Kirk in debate to convince him to stay and assist the overpopulated planet with “voluntary” execution:

HODIN: …My daughter freely chose to do what she is doing, as the people of Gideon are free to choose.
KIRK: The virus you need is very rare. Who will provide it?
HODIN: You will stay. Your blood will provide it.
KIRK: No sir, not me. You have many methods available. I’ve mentioned only a few. I do not offer my life for this purpose. I have many plans, and I have hopes
other than death for Odona.
HODIN: My daughter pleaded with you to stay.
KIRK: What was said and what happened between us was for us alone.
HODIN: She hoped you would love her and wish to stay.
KIRK: So that was your plan. That I would fall so under her spell that I would give up my freedom and become a willing sacrifice.
HODIN: Stay with us. We’re desperate.

Hodin does not ask; he demands. You will stay, he says, citing the emotional toil and desperation of his people in a manipulative ploy to override Kirk’s sense of bodily autonomy. He ignores Kirk’s hopes and aspirations, finding the current plight of his people more important than any one person’s desires. Kirk’s refusal to help can be seen as cruel and selfish, except he has already suggested several ways for the Gideons to help themselves:

KIRK: Then why haven’t you introduced any of the new techniques to sterilize men and women? … let your people learn about the devices to safely prevent
conception. The Federation will provide anything you need.
HODIN: But you see, the people of Gideon have always believed that life is sacred. That the love of life is the greatest gift. That is the one unshakable truth of Gideon.
And this overwhelming love of life has developed our regenerative capacity and our great longevity… we cannot deny the truth which shaped our evolution. We are
incapable of destroying or interfering with the creation of that which we love so deeply. Life, in every form, from fetus to developed being. It is against our tradition,
against our very nature. We simply could not do it.
KIRK: Yet you can kill a young girl.
HODIN: We’re trying to re-adjust the life cycle of an entire civilization.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with valuing life, but Hodin’s argument is flawed and it is that hypocritical flaw that Kirk attacks. The Council does not value life in all its forms; they value only specific lives. They value the lives of the old and the very young, but not the young adult. Not a young woman with a potential future. The council are willing, if not gladly, to kill them. All of them, or as many as “volunteer,” because, after Odana’s death, Hodin is convinced more young people will want to die: “her death at so young an age will let the people know for certain that our lifecycle can be changed. It’s the symbol that’ll bring forth the dedicated young volunteers. The serum in their new blood will change Gideon, and it will once more be the paradise it was.” Kirk’s stance against this violation of young adults’ autonomy and his insistence on allowing them to abort pregnancies is radical. Roe vs. Wade’s landmark decision wouldn’t occur for another four years. So in 1969, when “The Mark of Gideon” aired, bodily autonomy and the right to terminate pregnancies in a safe manner was a serious matter, and, for some of them, real women were being told to die.

Of course, the social commentaries—of which there are many—do not erase the racial stereotypes, sexism and othering that still occurs in the 1960s television show—of which there are also many. Too many. TOS Klingons were played by white men in black face with exaggerated features which conveyed a mash-up of black and Asian men and women. There are far too many instances of misogyny and violence toward women to even begin (although the rape apologists and Spock’s suggestion that Yeoman Rand might have enjoyed being assaulted by the evil Kirk deserve special, disturbed, shout out). And white savior complex is rampant. The Enterprise crew, and by extension Starfleet, are almost always portrayed as the benevolent, intelligent interlopers. Their own humanity is rarely questioned, and the few times it is TOS explains it all away with some sort of alien interference (“The Enemy Within” and “The Naked Time,” anyone?). The planets and crews who come for the Enterprise crew’s help, or come for their blood, always walk away with the silent acknowledgement that their loss comes about because they are not the Enterprise crew. Their error is they are not as evolved, not as educated, not as exposed to the imperialistic goodness that is Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets. The system TOS operates in is never truly questioned.


The Star Trek “reboot” movies do question that system. Only tangentially tied to the upcoming Discovery, Into Darkness (2013) and Beyond (2016) both call into question the role Starfleet has in the universe and its interest in not only other planets but its own officers and crews. Into Darkness starts it with Kirk’s thirst for revenge and Admiral Marcus’ willingness to let him enter Klingon space to murder John Harrison/Khan (we’ll get into this a little later—briefly, I promise—but you can rip Ricardo Montalbàn from my cold, dead hands). Scotty brings up Starfleet’s divided loyalties succinctly in the engine room, standing over the mysterious torpedoes:

“…how about Starfleet confiscating my transwarp equation, and now some madman is using it to hop across the galaxy! Where’d you think he got it from!…That’s whatscares me… this is clearly a military operation. Is that what we are now? Cause I thought we were explorers.”

Since the first reboot film, Starfleet has started confiscating new or alien technology, and is transforming it into weapons-grade technology (as demonstrated by the portable transporter Harrison/Khan uses to escape). There is no other way to read this new trend than as a shift in its philosophy and mission, a shift that is paradoxical to its foundation as an organization of peace and exploration. Marcus further reveals the depths of that shift: full militarization. His ship, the USS Vengeance, is designed based on Khan’s coerced military brilliance and “savagery.” Its sole purpose is to orchestrate and then thwart a Klingon attack—to win a war Marcus insists is coming, a war he himself will begin. Although Marcus is the only Starfleet officer implicated in Into Darkness, his knowledge of and leadership over Sector 31 and paramilitary security forces points to a broader organizational split which implicates all of Starfleet’s leadership. Marcus is not some backwater officer or sequestered black-ops leader. He is the head of Starfleet—including Starfleet Intelligence—and therefore his dedication to the militarization of Starfleet, while perhaps not popular, is obeyed without question.

No one else, after all, wonders why there is a portable transporter.

Different questions regarding Starfleet’s interests are raised during Beyond, ones that surround Krall, and by extension the stranded Enterprise crew. Krall, once the USS Franklin captain Balthazar M. Edison, launches his assault against Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets because of a misplaced sense of abandonment and modifications that have wreaked havoc on both his body and his psyche. Except the abandonment may not be misplaced. Prior to being a starfleet captain, Edison was a MACO major and veteran of Romulan and Xindi wars; his transition from military officer to starship captain was sudden because MACO was dissolved and then absorbed into a fledgling Starfleet.  The Franklin’s disappearance during a mission in 2164, just three years after the founding of the United Federation of Planets, is one of Starfleet’s earliest tragedies but the lengths Starfleet went to find the lost starship are never explained or explored. Edison’s distress signals from Altamid are either never received or responded to.

It is entirely possible the wormhole displacement was, at the time, something the Federation and Starfleet couldn’t handle, and the distance made it impossible to receive the distress calls. However, as a part of a new interstellar collaboration based on peace and exploration, it is also possible Earth wanted to distant itself from its recent military history. The lack of transition period made it difficult for Edison to adjust rather to see himself as being cast aside. The Franklin’s loss, then, was an unfortunate but curious blessing, eliminating the need to address Edison’s, and by extension Earth’s, history of interstellar war. There’s no official statement to that effect, of course. There’s no official statement at all, really, except a stamp marking Edison and the USS Franklin incident as closed. And neither before nor after his death are there mentions of Edison, either his effect on Starfleet or on Starfleet’s efforts to find him and his crew. He simply fades from consideration.

Starfleet’s inability—or unwillingness—to address its own history or support its less-than-exemplary members is further hinted at through the crash of the Enterprise itself. In addition to allowing the Enterprise to travel to a through an unexplored nebula, knowing it will be unable to communicate with the starbase Yorktown, Starfleet—here represented by Commodore Paris—never looks for the Enterprise. Knowing its communications are cut off, and that it is embarking on a rescue mission to a little-known planet, it’s disturbing that no one is concerned about the crew, all but missing in action for the undisclosed amount of time they are past the nebula and stranded on Altamid. The lack of concern is never addressed, leaving one to wonder how much in resources Starfleet expends to find its struggling or missing crews. Or if the Enterprise, Starfleet’s flagship, and her exemplary crew are not immune to the blackmarks that could lead to Starfleet looking the other way at her eventual disappearance. After all, this Kirk hasn’t been on his best behavior. And he’s gone through at least two ships.

For all its critiques and questioning, the Star Trek “reboot” movies have serious issues as well, separate and equal to TOS. On top of the films’ inability to show female rank consistently (or at all) and entirely unnecessary panties shots (Uhura, Gaila, Carol Marcus and the unnamed twins), the reboot films take the characters and turn them on their heads. Carol Marcus is demoted from a smart and resourceful molecular biologist to the daughter of an admiral who enjoys sneaking aboard Starfleet vessels and whose crowning achievement is ripping out a torpedo core and being used as a bargaining chip. Kirk has been downgraded from a goofy but competent captain, a capable leader followed because he puts his crew before himself and they know it, to an arrogant, egotistical jerk who only figures out in the middle of the second movie that he’s actually not that good of a captain; he just has the luck of being in the right place at the right time. Spock inherited a background story more reminiscent of the last man from Krypton, and his well-known character suffers for it.

And lest we forget, the whitewashing.

Don’t get me wrong. The Star Trek reboot movies are much more diverse than TOS, but the recast and retcon of Khan Noonien Singh was unnecessary—the lying about it more so—and a drastic change I could spend another few thousand words discussing. Moreover, it returns to issues prevalent in TOS, issues that we should be, and Starfleet insists they are, past. The racial disparities—one of the most iconic villains recast as a popular white actor, the original villain and only major character of color besides Uhura and Sulu in Beyond being a black man—of the ‘60s shouldn’t be resurging in the twentieth-first century. We should be past this, and we’re not. But we could be.


Star Trek: Discovery has high aspirations to meet, major pitfalls to avoid and the incredibly daunting task of coming up with something new in a series that has been active for over 50 years. Although there is still over a month before it airs, Discovery is showing promise. Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh will play Captain Philippa Georgiou, but in a fascinating twist, the story will primarily follower Georgiou’s First Officer, Michael Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green. Michael Burnham has the distinction of being a human raised on Vulcan (by Sarek, Spock’s father, no less!) and the first human to attend the Vulcan Science Academy. And Discovery writers recently unveiled the first openly gay character, Lt. Stamets (who will thankfully have more than a few-seconds shot of him with his husband and very adorable daughter).

But Discovery could do so much more. Emily Asher-Perrin summed it up nicely when she said that Star Trek: Discovery needs to be prepared to make people uncomfortable. Because it does. The places were TOS and the reboot movies failed need to be address, and the places were Star Trek as a whole hasn’t gone need to be explored.

There are issues that tokenism cannot and should not cure: deeply seated prejudices; deeply felt anger, resentment and fear; deeply held beliefs in the self and the other. Parts of the human condition we despise but must acknowledge. Parts of the human experience we can overcome only through terrified but determined staring down. Again and again. There are questions of moral choices, questions of faith, questions of difference, Discovery should address—and not do so by shuffling it off on a convenient alien who will probably disappear after an episode or two. These are part of the human condition, and it should be the humans on the USS Shenzhou who encounter it, acknowledge and overcome it in themselves. And yes, in others.

There should be slip ups and mistakes. Acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Active work to do and be right. To be the pinnacle of decency, tolerance and acceptance Starfleet always claimed to be.

That’s a tall order.

But not an impossible one. Since the first episode, Star Trek has been progressive, and with ever iteration it has gotten better. At least a little. The timidity of the ‘60s doesn’t displace the fact that Star Trek did radical, important work for its time. The reboot movies’ mistakes don’t displace the fact that they asked important questions about power structures TOS should have addressed in the beginning. Discovery can take the next step, showcasing that part of being the pinnacle of humanity is not just the elimination of prejudice, hate and intolerance but also the acknowledgment of its existence and then the active choice to behave differently.

It’s a place where no one has gone before.

Star Trek: Discovery will air on September 24, 2017 on CBS All Access. Stayed tuned for weekly reviews by yours truly.

Images Courtesy of Paramount Television & Paramount Pictures

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