Roughly a third of the planet is black. Half of its people are women. A fifth of the world is specifically Han Chinese. One out of seven people on Earth is Muslim. One out of ten people are homosexual.
So where are they on the bridge of the USS Enterprise? Where did they all go? Why doesn’t this universe reflect peoples of the Earth in equal proportion? They claim, within the narrative, that all of the institutions of bigotry have been annihilated. This claim is unsupported by its cast of characters.
Star Trek, the original series, is definitely problematic. But considering that it was financially dependent on the decisions of NBC executives in the middle of Dr Martin Luther King’s campaign, it is deliciously subversive. Of the main cast of characters, only two are “white” Americans: Leonard McCoy and James Kirk. But even then, the characters are Irish and Jewish respectively – and not everyone considered or considers those two peoples to be white, especially during the 1960s. Women characters on the show are routinely competent in their field, necessary in the command hierarchy, and leaders in their own right. Even the female villains are self-empowered, rather than commanded by loyalties to men. Many of the most complex alien roles, unfortunately, go to white men. Yet to contrast that, many of the most complex Human guest starring roles on the show go to women, and men of color. Perhaps most notably, in the episode “Court Martial”, Kirk is put on trial by a superior officer who is black, and the lawyer representing the prosecution is a woman. These characters are presented as competent, serious, emotionally and ethically complex, and are wonderful to watch.
In spite of its shortcomings, Star Trek of the 1960s challenged media of the time. It proved that you could have a successful show with a black woman front and center. It proved that people wanted to cheer for Humanity as a whole rather than “our team”, whatever it may be. Its success internationally, and its success in the form of comics, novels, and films proved that its appeal went beyond the specifics of the action and performance. Its appeal, which transcended medium, was its message that all Humans belong on the same side of any conflict, and that all people will persevere into a future of shared glory.
Star Trek: the Next Generation, however, was not designed in the 1960s. The success of its predecessor ought to have been a mandate to push the envelope further. Instead, Next Generation falls into the same pattern that the original was trying to break: Tokenism and Stereotypes. As a result, it ends up not breaking even with the 1960s classic, but instead actually backsliding.
On the USS Enterprise-D, there are zero characters in the main cast who are from anywhere other than the United States and Europe. Even the alien character, Worf, is a Moscovite. There is only one character who is a Human being who is not white. Zero characters display non-heterosexual relationships or attraction. (Yes, there is an asexual species. Yes, Riker is attracted to one. No, he is not gay or bi or pan because the character he is attracted to “comes out” as a woman. No, gay aliens do not empower gay Humans.)
The crew of the USS Enterprise-D does not represent a future where all people have an equal chance of success. Where did we all go? All the non-white people, all the women, all the women who cover their hair, all the gay and trans and non-binary people – where are we? No latin people, no Middle Eastern people, no First Nations people… why?
On Marc Marcon’s “WTF” podcast, writer and comedian Wyatt Cenac described an incident where he was screamed at by Jon Stewart for pointing out that Stewart had, perhaps accidentally, used a racist inflection when mocking then-candidate Herman Cain. The problem, in Cenac’s words, was the fact that he was “the only one in the room”. Which is to say, when you are the only black person in a workplace (or, by logical extension, the only woman, queer person, et al) a burden of representation is placed on your personal interactions with those around you. His criticism of Jon Stewart was motivated by a need to speak for those who were not in the room, but Stewart took it personally because, from his perspective, it was a personal criticism from a co-worker.
What’s interesting to know about the original series is how many different people had their hand in the creation of the show. For example, two different women, Majel Barrett and D.C. Fontana, were part of the creative formation of the show, and these particular two ensured that women would be depicted in complex and challenging ways. People who were not white, and who were masters of their craft, were brought in as often as the studios would allow. Shakespearean Thespian William Marshall delivers a breathtaking performance as a genius plagued by hubris in the episode “The Ultimate Computer”. Canadian Afro-Portuguese actor Percy Rodriguez commands the screen as the Kirk’s superior officer in the episode “Court Martial”. Ricardo Montalban’s explosive take on the superhuman Khan Noonien Singh was so compelling that the episode was followed up with a feature film which is largely regarded as one of the finest science fiction movies ever.
But there was no such presence in the creative space driving the creation of the Next Generation. In the documentary “Trek Nation”, writer D.C. Fontana, who is a woman, describes a feeling of exclusion and being overridden despite being the author of the script of the first episode of the Next Generation. In fact, her script was deeply revised without her consultation, to the point of being nearly unrecognizable once it aired. According to the William Shatner-directed documentary “Chaos on the Bridge”, there was even a dispute over money and credit between Fontana and creator Gene Roddenberry, which went through the Writer’s Guild. Despite being the head writer of the Original Series, Fontana refused to participate further in the development of the Next Generation.
A painfully obvious example of the “None-to-One In the Room” effect is Geordi La Forge. The character is ostensibly a blind engineer who uses a prosthetic vision device which connects to brain implants. But the way La Forge acts is unrecognizable to those who are engineers in the real world who use prosthetic vision devices. I think one would be hard-pressed to find an engineer who works in a rough-and-tumble field who cannot fix their own glasses. Yet this is precisely what happens to Geordi La Forge time and time again. His visor breaks, and he is helpless to repair them without them.
The entire premise of Geordi La Forge’s character is offensive to people with limited senses. My grama, who raised me, is deaf, and her Iranian home-sign was my first language. My grama has, like any Human, been more prone to change the world around her than her own body in her pursuit of everyday life. For example, the button on her door doesn’t connect to a bell – it connects to a bright light. Simple innovations like this are used by people with various sensory limitations every day, as they use their innate Human talent to craft the world around them to meet their needs. Yet Geordi La Forge, who is in the business of engineering, has had surgeons drill into his head and install an increasingly-outdated piece of technology straight through his brain. The implication in later installations, when he removes the visor and instead has techie contacts, is that he receives an unrealistic “upgrade”. (Seriously, they undo the change to his brain and change his eyes instead? That makes no sense.) But they live in a world with elaborate holograms. What does it say about Federation culture that they are more willing to drill into a young boy’s head to make him “normal”, than to create holographic tactile interfaces for the computer screen?
They have technology which can sense changes in the fabric of time and space, and they can create accidentally sentient holographic characters who appear real in every sense, but they cannot make a series of technologies for Geordi La Forge which are held and worn rather than installed into the brain? In fact, there is a character in the Original Series who does precisely that. Doctor Miranda Jones is a scientist and diplomat whose blindness is not an issue because she wears an undergarment composed of proximity sensors which communicate to her, telepathically, how far away the various objects and surfaces in her environment are. We are expected to believe that prosthetic sensory devices have actually diminished in sophistication in the period between the lives of Miranda Jones and Geordi La Forge?
How does this happen? Because the people in the room thought it would be merciful to have a future where “broken” people are “healed”. If the creators and writers of the show had been people with physical or sensory limitations, or at the very least had forged a close bond with someone who had, it would have been impossible to write Geordi La Forge as he had been.
The same is true of women. Another revelation of the film “Chaos on the Bridge” is that a revolving door of white men writers failed to write a single powerful female character whom even they liked. The actor playing Tasha Yar quit because, in episode after episode, she was given nothing compelling to say or do. Doctor Crusher’s character was briefly replaced by Doctor Pulaski because the white-men-only writing room had become bored with Crusher. They soon found that they had nothing compelling to do with or say about Pulaski, too, and reluctantly brought back the single working mother. Counselor Troi got lots of screen time, however. Her main characteristic is her superhuman empathy, and almost all of her major plots are either about having sex or getting pregnant. With rare exception, Troi is treated first and foremost as a bleeding heart with a vagina sewn on.
That said, the show is not without artistic merit. The episode where Troi has to take the command exam is far and away her best story, specifically because it treats her as a complex ethical being. Geordi La Forge’s character broke unusual ground in his complex multipart story where he falls in love with a computer representation of a real person, and then has to confront the reality that the real person is much more complex than his computer simulated fantasy. Ro Laren and Worf have dynamic stories which are well written and fascinating. Riker’s confrontation with his teleporter clone was not only a turn of brilliant acting on the part of Jonathan Frakes, as well as a feast of subtle movie magic, but also a magnificent use of science fiction to probe the Human condition. Picard has many beautiful arcs, including his tumultuous family relationship, epic moral struggles with Q, his bond with the Tamarian captain, and his imprisonment at the hands of the Cardassians. My purpose is not to besmirch the quality of the writing or acting on the series. My purpose is disprove the myth that The Next Generation did anything proactive to pursue an agenda of inclusion and representation for anyone other than straight white cisgendered men.
What would a better future look like? I asked myself this question when designing the 161st Century as depicted in my media series Time Wars. The people coming from the future would be shaped by that future. When I meditated on this premise, I realized that my own genetic ancestry was not possible in eras past, and that I myself would be ethnically unprecedented in the Ancient World. I am half Iranian, a quarter Danish, an eighth Scottish, and an eighth Irish. These four peoples had not all made contact with each other five thousand years ago. Yet I was projecting into the future nearly three times that far. I realized that in the time between now and the 161st Century, if Humanity were to colonize other worlds, that would affect genetic flow and drift. In only a few hundred years, new ethnicities could arise. Each new world colonized would have new cultures and civilizations rise – and possibly even fall and be replaced by new ones. I quickly realized that this massive scope and scale gave me an opportunity to write characters who existed completely outside of our current concepts of ethnicity, religion, gender – among other things.
Isn’t that the strength of all science fiction and fantasy? It can transport us outside of the narrow context of our real lives and speak to a deeper truth about the nature of our Humanity. Almost like sculpture, speculative fiction carves away the conventions of the real world – the lie – and reveals the most bare truths about ourselves. What truths are laid bare when we project the future of our species 300 years, see a landscape unfairly dominated by white men, and see this as being a utopian vision of the future?
Bijhan Valibeigi is the creator of Time Wars and a transfeminine Muslim from Seattle. Bijhan spends much of her time inventing board and card games, and writing stories, all of which take place in the exciting Time Wars Universe. When taking a break from creating, Bijhan likes to watch Power Rangers, discuss the politics and history of the Star Wars Legends Universe, destroy chumps in Magic the Gathering, and hate on the Next Generation for being patently worse than Star Trek. www.TimeWarsUniverse.com