Last year we heard so much buzz about the new Star Trek series. 2016 seems so long ago, but really it was the future. You know, “the future,” the one we’re always talking about and pining for? Star Trek and I celebrated our fiftieth birthday last year. This year, 2017, we’re at fifty-one with a new retro show, new vibe, new delivery system, new everything.
The future, right?
I was born a month after Star Trek: TOS premiered. Trek to the bone. Green blood, pointed ears, Star Fleet Technical Manual on my bookshelf. I came to Star Trek when it hit syndication, not the original 60s run. How deep was my love? I was known to get on the floor in front of our TV with a recorder and tape the episodes.
ATR (a tape recorder) before DVR. Be the future.
Now that Trek and I are both older and, gods willing, wiser, we can and should look back on our journey minus romanticism and nostalgia. Particularly in light of Star Trek: Discovery purporting to boldly go with an African-American female lead and a hope on the part of many fans that Star Trek finally, truly be woke AF.
As a young man, it would have been hard to admit this: Star Trek was racist, sexist, and classist AF a lot of the time. Even when I was a youngster I was uncomfortable with Uhura’s butt being exposed on the bridge; with Kirk and Bones being blithely and casually derogatory, repeatedly slamming Spock’s heritage (precursors to our own “Don’t be so sensitive!” brahs?), and other things that didn’t quite mesh with a “We’ve advanced beyond the need for…” society. I didn’t have the words to express this discomfort, particularly since I was too busy going through puberty. So I shoved it aside in deference to marveling at the wonderfully creative message of hope for the future Trek said it gave me.
But having gone through TOS, Next Gen, DS9 (who is the man who will thwart the Dominion’s plan? Sisko! You damn right), Voyager, Enterprise, and now the premier of Discovery, those uncomfortable truths are ready to be voiced, with the biggest being I’ve always loved Star Trek more for what it could be than what it was, even when I wasn’t aware that was my reason for loving it.
The first time I saw “The Trouble with Tribbles” I was good with it until they got to one infamous line: the line the drunken Klingon gleefully delivers about Kirk being a swaggering, overbearing tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood. My love of Trek’s triumvirate was inviolable. You can’t say that about my hero, even if it’s a villain saying so! I admit it. I’d drunk the Kool-Aid. Criticism was not allowed. What was it the Talosian told Captain Pike? “Wrong thinking is punishable; right thinking will be as quickly rewarded.” Knee met jerk during this hero-worship phase and for a long time I was all “Whoever wrote this must hate god and freedom!”-ish. As a grown-up though? Kudos to David Gerrold for sliding that meta character insight in because—as I watch TOS now—Kirk did often come off as rude, aggressive, and dismissive—something we real-life folks run into way more than anyone cares for on plain old Earth, be it courtroom, conference room, or Capitol Hill, wherein the prevailing annoyance is “White guy’s voice is the one that matters.” Go back and re-watch some of those episodes, then tell me you didn’t want to smack that toupee a couple times. There’s Kirk getting snippy with Uhura. There’s Kirk getting snippy with Sulu. Kirk getting snippy with Spock. Yes, yes, dramatic tension…but, damn, mofo, chill. You’re asking me to open a hailing frequency to a personal transmitter on a planet nobody’s given me diddly information on during an emergency situation; just say “I have family on the planet, give ‘em a ring,” don’t tell me what you’re well aware of if I tell you a Federation starship is calling somebody’s cell phone. Is Spock trying to keep you from starting a war in not one (Balance of Terror), not two (Arena), but three episodes (Errand of Mercy) in the first season alone? Maybe you listen to him. Oh, and you don’t think Sulu knows to get the hell out of orbit if 12 Klingon ships suddenly appear armed for bear? You think he needs step-by-step instructions? Screw your need to prove your importance!
But seriously, Kirk could be irritating.
I applaud TOS for what it did: Majel Barrett as Number One…except she had to deal with Pike’s “I can’t get used to women on the bridge” remark and it’s awkward backpedal; Uhura and Sulu were both introduced as top-notch bridge personnel…until they were reduced to one recurring line. Sulu even got reduced to being stock footage in that oft-used over-the-shoulder shot of him glancing toward the captain. I marveled at Dr. Daystrom, a Black man, being the actual inventor of the Enterprise’s computer systems (and by extension, all of Starfleet and a good portion of the Federation)…till brother went off the deep end (apparently even a brother in the 23rd century has to deal with those who carry themselves with the confidence of a mediocre White man).
The penultimate? The scene in “Court Martial” where damn near ALL the higher ups were people of color…except Kirk got really mouthy with Commodore Stone, didn’t he?
Oh, also, seeing that Hindu bindi dot on Lt. Rahda’s forehead at the helm in “That Which Survives” gave me all kinds of life. We won’t go into them browning up an actress to play this character. Not quite yet.
Point is, Star Trek was very much all about the future, but a future from a White male’s benevolent gaze.
Which is, y’know, highly problematic.
But as we see now, a lot of genre and fandom is all about congratulating itself for showing basic human decency. We can aim a little higher than that, FYI.
Next Generation was all about European history as driving force behind all human advancement. Voyager was Up With People in space. Enterprise was George Bush in space and a hot Vulcan because dudes missed Seven of Nine.
Deep Space Nine, with a definite assist from Avery Brooks, approached wokeness by the time it hit its stride.
And now Discovery, which I won’t talk much on since I’ve only seen its pilot. I’m still one of those cheap bastards who hasn’t paid to peer through the pay wall.
I liked the idea behind Discovery’s opening credit imagery, sort of a deconstruction of everything we’d come to accept as Trek in order to mature it to a complex, less-illusory 21st-century audience.
But then the pilot hit me with a White savior Klingon.
The show hit me with the standard White guy Starfleet admiral meant to drive the story forward when they could have cast literally anybody else in that part. It could even have been a CG blob of goo.
Power in Star Trek is generally viewed via a White default. Let’s notice how whenever there’s an “aggressor” species they’re dark until an exceptional (or leader) type within their species is needed. Klingons: makeup after The Motion Picture tended to get lighter when a savvy character or leader was required;
The Kazon from Voyager: nappy, swarthy, but somehow more Euro whenever a leader took center stage;
Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country:
(White Klingons all up in your shiz, Kirk)
And perhaps most egregiously of all: Alexander. Worf’s kid. Whom we can all agree should have been blasted out an airlock way more than any anti-Wesley sentiment was called for.
Because just because a kid was cute on Family Ties doesn’t mean he should be blackfaced better than Rachel Dolezal could ever hope.
As for sexism, come on.
TOS, “The Changeling,” after a friggin space probe is confused about Uhura singing:
Spock: That unit is a woman.
Nomad: A mass of conflicting impulses.
As if everybody ain’t! (oh, and FYI, Scotty gets killed and brought back to life, but Uhura gets her mind wiped and has to be totally reeducated—even though that gave us a chance to see her in full Africa-mode…although it also hit us with some of that old-school colonialist Euro trash seeing as re-education meant Western culture.)
Also, again, Uhura’s butt. Chapel’s butt. Every costume Bill Ware Theiss created for every female character (except this one, this was fuglier than fugly)…
…and women not being allowed to serve as starship captains (“Turnabout Intruder” –wherein an anti-sexism message would have been better served by showing women starship captains but, hey, inclusion isn’t important, right?)
Then we had Tasha Yar on the much more enlightened Next Generation (said in full ironic mode), a female character whose backstory included coming from a planet where rape gangs were rampant…because apparently even in the 24th-century women still have to deal with men’s toxic, sick stuff).
Let’s not forget Deanna Troi’s precursor Ilia, who was so hawt she had to take a vow of celibacy in order to serve on a starship. Because of uncontrollable people.
Maybe we end with not once did Captain Janeway ever get to Kirk-fight a mofo? The first and only female captain to headline a Trek show. Not that violence elevates feminism in any way, but what Starfleet captain doesn’t get to neck chop a fool?
As for classist, as much as I love Jean-Luc Picard, can a brother get anything besides European culture in the 24th century as being a hallmark of evolution? And don’t dare point to Riker playing jazz. Effing Kenny G of the 24th-century buhlsheet there. Picard’s Enterprise was the PBS of the spaceways: Mozart, Shakespeare, and crew were deified, all else exoticized.
The Voyage Home mentioned schlock novelists as having passed into the canon of classic literature…but only as a joke. Can you imagine Jean-Luc in his quarters listening to Ryuichi Sakamoto, Sun Ra, Parliament Funkadelic, or Miles Davis? BUT WOULD THAT NOT HAVE BEEN GLORIOUS?
Look, sci-fi shows don’t reveal the future. No art form does. They reveal us and how we deal with our biases, which is where the hope comes in: we always hope we’ll do better, especially when something piques our imaginations.
We hope Uhura gets her own episode. We hope Sulu gets a spinoff show. We hope diversity and inclusion mean more than White guys writing “others” in. We hope alien colonies aren’t just a bunch of pale folks in bad wigs. We hope admirals and commodores and roguish charmers are women, PoC, fluid-gendered, dis- and differently abled (GEORDI DOES NOT FRIKKING COUNT). We hope that by the time we’re on starships we’re not just putting another layer of tired wallpaper over the crappy patterns of current life.
We hope that we, as consumers of art, actually live up to our art and thereby elevate both us and our art.
I don’t want to be on a starship that only loves me if I stay in the background and ask it not to change.
We can always say that things are products of their times, but that doesn’t mean things can’t try to get better. To do better. To engage more than lip service toward actually being better. This means in front of the cameras, in the writing rooms, in casting decisions, in set decoration, all the way to being willing to go against all established conventions in ways that might make the status quo quite angry and uncomfortable.
Maybe by the time I break through Star Trek: Discovery’s pay wall I’ll see that this new Trek is doing that. It’s certainly not that I don’t love Trek. I do. But when you don’t examine things you perpetuate things.
When it comes to Trek those of us on the “fringes,” as writer Robin Kells said, “love what it could be, what it might be, promises to be, attempts to be, hints at being.” As an African-American in the USA, loving problematic things comes with the territory and is overcome primarily by hoping things will get better via requiring critical thought so that things can get better. It’s overcome by doing—in my case, writing; I haven’t written an episode of Star Trek yet but the future is wide open—so that you and I, for the next century’s sake, literally make things better and make better things.
I love the fact that Spock was the most qualified person on the ship. I loved seeing Uhura in blue engineering coveralls fixing the guts of her station. I love phasers, tricorders, Gorn, the 2-hour director’s cut of the Enterprise leaving drydock, Kirk delivering one of the best speeches ever written, real or imagined, in “Mirror, Mirror,” the death scene in Wrath of Khan, Picard screaming “There are four lights!”, and everything that was Jadzia Dax.
We can be nostalgic, we can say Trek did the best it could with what it had, but any viable future requires we diligently chart new courses based on old reference points. Forward is the direction we need to go.
But are we going to pretend that Trek (and sci-fi in general) can’t do better?
I hope not.
As anybody with a shred of Trek in them knows, there’s only one way to go forward: Boldly.
BIO: ZZ Claybourne’s latest book is The Brothers Jetstream: Leviathan, a novel about brothas always saving the world and never getting credit for it. So non-fiction. More blerd love from him at writeonrighton.com