7 Ways The New Star Trek Show Should Return To Its Social Justice Roots
In January 2017, get ready to boldly go where no one has gone before once again! Yesterday it was announced that the Star Trek franchise would soon return to television via the CBS All Access streaming service, in a brand-new series that’s completely separate from the current movies. But while we’re all excited for more phaser fights, alien civilizations and starship battles, we need to remember that the show was always meant to be a beacon of equality and activism for the entire human race.
“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,” series creator Gene Roddenberry once said in an essay entitled “The Star Trek Philosophy.” “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.”
So if the new series is committed to that progressive ideal Roddenberry first laid out, then here’s what it needs to focus on when it comes to streaming television in 2017:
The cast needs to include people of colour
Racial representation on television is definitely a hot button issue nowadays, but with Star Trek it’s a downright necessity, in no small part because it was one of the first series on television to make racial diversity a priority in the first place.
That devotion to diversity had a profound effect not just on the TV landscape, but in actual STEM fields as well. Nichelle Nichols’ role as Lieutenant Uhura (which she almost quit once before famously being convinced to stay on the show by Martin Luther King Jr.) inspired countless women and people of color to become astronauts, including Sally Ride and Mae Jemison. Nichols was even briefly hired by NASA as a recruiter because of how popular she was. The new show might not be able to reach that level, but it absolutely needs to aspire to it.
There should also be a focus on characters from different backgrounds, too
Of course, it’s not enough to just throw a bunch of people with different skin colors on a spaceship together and call it a day. You need to consider where each character comes from—whether that means their country of origin, their cultural heritage, their religion, etc.—and how that informs their personalities, ideas, and actions.
Consider Pavel Chekhov from the original Star Trek series; these days he comes off as an adorable young dork with a terrible accent, but at the time his presence on the Enterprise was pretty groundbreaking, too, considering that the Cold War was still going on and relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union were understandably tense. Chekov, according to actor Walter Koenig, was “a Russian that wasn’t a threat, and not fitting the stereotype of the military characterization we had drawn of the Russians at that time.”
This isn’t to say that the new Star Trek should turn all of its characters into stereotypes, of course—obviously that would be bad. But a series that represents people of all different backgrounds would be much more in line with that the United Federation of Planets originally represented.
There should definitely still some women in charge—and they shouldn’t just be there to look pretty
Despite all its attempts at building a diverse Utopian future, Star Trek hasn’t always been perfect when it comes to writing women. Sure, the franchise has never shied away from creating impressive leaders like Lieutenant Uhura, Chief Medical Officer Beverly Crusher, and Captain Kathryn Janeway. But it’s also featured its fair share of sexy slave girls and “decorative” crew members (at least according to actress Mariana Sirtis, who regularly jokes that her TNG character Deanna Troi wasn’t allowed to be smart because of her plunging neckline). Even the recent Star Trek Into Darkness faced some pretty serious backlash for its lack of female characters—and for Alice Eve’s very exploitative-feeling underwear scene, of course.
But a new Star Trek show has the potential to move past tired and exploitative tropes to embrace an even wider range of diverse female characters, who can be just as capable, multifaceted, complex, and flawed as their male coworkers. Considering that Roddenberry once wanted the crew of the Enterprise to be equally comprised of men and women, it’s probably what he would have wanted—even if some of his own episodes dipped into those sexist tropes at times, too.
The franchise also needs some more LGBT characters
Star Trek paved the way for a lot of groundbreaking depictions of diversity, but to this date, they’ve still never featured an openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender character.
This isn’t for lack of effort, of course, at least when it comes to gay representation. Gene Roddenberry once told George Takei that he was very conscious of how the ’60s series was pushing buttons (the episode that featured television’s first biracial kiss had the lowest ratings of the entire series and was even completely blocked from airing in the South) and feared that focusing gay issues would get them completely cancelled. “I understood that, because I was still closeted at that time,” Takei noted. “I talked to him as a ’liberal’ rather than as a gay man, and I understood his position.”
When Star Trek returned to the airwaves with The Next Generation, the cultural climate had surprisingly not changed very much. David Gerrold, an openly gay writer best known for the episode “The Trouble With Tribbles,” once submitted an episode inspired by the AIDs epidemic that would have featured the franchise’s first homosexual couple; however the show’s producers feared backlash and never filmed it (although it was later resurrected as a fan film, directed by Gerrold himself). Both TNG and Deep Space Nine occasionally flirted with the idea of same gender relationships with the Trill, a race of parasitic aliens that regularly switches host bodies, but it was always framed in the context of heterosexuality—the characters Dax and Lenara Kahn shared one of TV’s first kiss between two women, for example, but only because they were once in a relationship when Dax was living in a male host.
So clearly there’s a chance for this new Star Trek series to by featuring characters, both human and non-human, who clearly define themselves as LGBT—and trans characters would be especially revolutionary, considering how rare they still are on television as a whole.
There should also be room for some non-binary or genderqueer characters, too—and not just aliens ones, either
Star Trek has played around with the perceived gender binary before—the Trill, as I mentioned earlier, routinely switch between male and female when they adopt new host bodies. Another race featured in The Next Generation, the J’Naii, viewed genderlessness as the norm and condemned those who fell on more extreme ends of the spectrum as deviants (in that episode a member of the species “comes out” as female). But having more characters who openly identify as genderqueer would be an incredible step forward, not just for the series but for television as a whole—especially if those characters are themselves human and not coded as “the other.”
Actually, the new show should be careful about how it works with alien allegories in general
While we’re on the subject of alien races standing in as metaphors for real humans, this new show should keep an eye on just how heavy-handed those metaphors are. For every awesome species that completely captures our imagination as we watch Star Trek, there’s also a really wacky, two-dimensional species that’s meant to teach us a life lesson about current events. You know, like the parallel Earth that Captain Kirk recites the Constitution at in “The Omega Glory,” or the planet from the TNG episode “Angel One” that’s run by oppressive women. Both are interesting ideas, but both also felt incredibly ham-fisted and poorly thought out in execution—“The Omega Glory” is now considered a very poor representation of both North American and Asian cultures, and “Angel One” was criticized at the time of broadcast for relying on ridiculously sexist stereotypes.
This isn’t to say that the new worlds that Star Trek explores can’t have a central gimmick to focus on or a real-life current event as its inspiration. But the best aliens are the ones that both relate to us as humans and can stand up on their own as characters—not the ones who shout “HEY YOU, LEARN FROM THIS” at us.
Skants for everybody!
Okay, I’m afraid this might read like a punchline to well-versed Trekkies, but I am completely serious. To the uninitiated, “skants” are a shorter, dress-like uniform pattern that’s preferred by some members of the U.S.S. Enterprise, particularly in the first three seasons of The Next Generation. And in the pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint,” you can clearly see both women and men wearing it in the background of scenes.
Does it look a little ridiculous, even in 2015? Maybe, but that’s why it’s so necessary. While women are at a larger risk of being marginalized and oppressed due to gender bias, men also face scrutiny for acting outside of traditional expectations of masculinity—and in the 24th century, where sexism is supposedly over and there is true equality among genders, why shouldn’t dudes get to wear nice dresses whenever they feel like? It wouldn’t be the worst fashion crime ever committed on a Star Trek show, even by our current standards.
Above all else, it needs optimism
In a cultural climate that’s full of dark, gritty reboots and post-apocalyptic dystopian hellscapes, it would be really, really easy to create a new Star Trek that falls into that same aesthetic. But then it wouldn’t be Star Trek. Even when the plot of a particular episode or movie calls for extremely dire circumstances, Star Trek has been about working together, recognizing one another as equals, and striving for great things as a community. Anything else would probably be a really cool sci-fi story, but it wouldn’t be emblematic of the series we know and love.