Has Star Trek Taken a Step Back when it comes to Diversity?
Star Trek was and continues to be one of my favorite shows on television. I have seen every episode of every iteration of the franchise. I have seen every Star Trek movie good and bad. I spent years engaging in multiple play-by-email Star Trek RPG games to the point that I couldn’t remember which character was on which ship on which mission after a while. I play Star Trek Online on both my PC and console and is still trying to convince my wife that a replica Starfleet Uniform from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is not a frivolous waste of money. I continue to find things in the Star Trek universe that keep me coming back and wanting to see more adventures. One of the things that has always attracted me to the series is that it has progressively changed along with the times, sometimes in defiance of those times.
When the original series began airing in 1966, it was revolutionary in showcasing a diverse cast of people in the future. Having both an African-American woman and an Asian male in lead roles was decidedly different. So much in fact that Nichelle Nichols wanted to leave the series and was encouraged to stay by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself because her presence was such a positive influence on the community. George Takei’s portrayal of Sulu was not only groundbreaking on American television, but a testament to his own struggle with finding a way to triumph in this country even after being sent to an Internment Camp by its government. In its own small way, the original series told audiences that there was a way to transcend the divisions of our history and that there was a future for all people.
Star Trek: The Next Generation moved the bar forward a little more when it debuted in 1987. The first season featured three female leads in Security Chief Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), Chief Medical Officer Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and Ship’s Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis). It would also feature two African-American male leads in Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton) and Chief of Security Worf (Michael Dorn). The show even pushed forward an aspect of life that hadn’t been featured before with the introduction of Dr. Crusher’s son Wesley (Will Wheaton).
The show continued to take on topics including race, addiction and even gender identity in the episode “The Outcast”. The episode is about an androgynous species that shuns any of its members who express a gender identity to the point of “therapy” to cure their “sexual perversion”.
Star Trek continued to tackle socially progressive issues with its next series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1993. The show featured Avery Brooks as Captain Benjamin Sisko, the first African-American lead of a Star Trek series. The series also featured a positive depiction of something rarely seen in Hollywood or on television; black male father’s. Sisko was a single father raising his son Jake (Cirroc Lofton) under difficult circumstances and he always put the well-being of his son first. As an African American father of two boys, it’s only recently that I realized what an influence that had in how I talk to and raise my boys. (Coincidentally, DS9 is one of the reasons why my youngest son is named Jake. Don’t tell my wife.)
DS9 also featured a diverse cast with stories that resonate with our history. It featured the first actor of Islamic descent in Alexander Siddig (Chief Medical Officer Doctor Bashir). Some of the stories even dealt, slightly, with LGBTQ issues. Chief Science Officer Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) was a member of the Trill species and the symbiont she hosted retained the memories and personalities of its previous hosts both male and female. “The episode “Rejoined” deals with Jadzia rekindling a romantic relationship with the wife of a former male host. The show also featured a darker tone than previous series and dealt with issues of terrorism and religious extremism, including contrasts to the plight of formerly occupied people trying to rebuild their society.
Star Trek took another leap forward in 1995 with Star Trek: Voyager. The series featured the first female commanding officer of a series with Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). It also featured the first Native American character on the series with First Officer Chakotay (Robert Beltran). Although there were many who viewed the character as stereotypical and were critical of an actor of Mexican descent cast in the role, it still moved the needle more in the depiction of people of color on the series. It also featured the first Asian actor in a lead role since the original series with Ensign Harry Kim (Garret Wang).
In 2001, Star Trek: Enterprise debuted. It was a prequel to the original series and set 80 years before Kirk and company. While it did have a diverse cast with helmsman Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery) and Communication Officer Hoshi Sato (Linda Park), it didn’t really have the time to take on stories that tackled social issues. Whle many of the shows followed one specific storyline, there was a two part episode in the fourth season that dealt with an issue that is relevant to today.
“Demons” and “Terra Prime” deal with rampant xenophobia amongst the people of Earth as the government begins plans for the Federation. It deals with rampant anti-alien sentiment culminating in acts of terror with the desired outcome of purging the Earth of all aliens. Sound familiar?
The newest series that is in development is Star Trek: Discovery. While there have already been controversies surrounding how the series will be shown (The first episode will air on CBS and the rest of the series will be behind a pay wall) and the many delays, there is also concern about the cast. Set before the events of the original series and after the events of Enterprise, Discovery has already gathered its cast and begun production. When Walking Dead actress Sonequa Martin-Green was cast, the news made it seem that she would be the commanding officer of the series. A move which may not have been new for TV now with series like Scandal, Insecure and How to Get Away With Murder showcasing African-American female leads, but it would have been new for Star Trek.
When it was announced that Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter series) would be in command as Captain Lorca, there was a shift in some of the dynamics that could be seen in the rest of the cast. With the exception of Martin-Green and Maulik Pancholy’s character Dr. Nambue, there is less diversity on the show than in previous iterations. The introduction of Michelle Yeoh’s character Captain Georgiou was another announcement that could have signaled a huge positive change with the introduction of an Asian Female as Captain, but she is reported to be the Captain of another ship featured on the series, the USS Shenzou. As for any men of color, they are (of course) cast as Klingons.
I’m not in any way passing judgement on the producers of the series. It’s not my place and they are free to cast their series the way they see fit. The series hasn’t even aired yet and there is a possibility that everything that I am seeing in regards to the cast and plot of the series is completely wrong. I am only commenting on the enduring legacy of the show Star Trek and its ability to be inclusive and progressive in both its cast and its stories. Star Trek: Discovery is now part of that legacy. It will be interesting to see what they do with that going forward.