The REAL reason Star Trek is better
Diversity didn't have to be added to Star Trek--it's an original ingredient.
When Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) went back in time in the Deep Space Nine episode "Trials and Tribble-ations," he committed a major infraction of temporal regulations by meeting Captain Kirk (William Shatner). The bridge of the Enterprise, of course, had Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Sulu (George Takei, not seen here) as senior officers. Somehow, the casting of minority actors on Star Trek didn't lead to the downfall of Western civilization.
Several weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about how Star Trek was better than Star Wars. I posted it on May 4th, which is “Star Wars Day,” because, you know, “May the Fourth be with you,” and yeah, jeez, we get it already.
Was I tweaking the Star Wars fans by using their day to remind them that Star Trek is infinitely superior? Was I blatantly making fun of the fact that the last decent Star Wars film was made 37 years ago, while Star Trek is hitting yet another brilliant, creative stretch with the releases of Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard? Most importantly, though, was I attempting to generate clicks for my nascent website by stirring up what amounts to bullshit fanboy controversy?
Yes. Yes, I was. I was doing all of those things.
But today, I’m thinking once more about that column, which was written when we couldn’t imagine the anger and the social unrest that would heave out into the streets of America after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officers. How are these two things related? Check out this very short video, tweeted last week by Jonathan Frakes, who played William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Picard, and who directed numerous Star Trek television episodes and movies:
This video, for me, was very powerful, because I too heard this from Gene Roddenberry—not just through Star Trek but straight from the man himself. Back in the early 1980s, Roddenberry was touring America, making appearances in which he screened the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage.” During what would have been the commercial breaks, he talked to the audience about his vision of the future. I was fortunate enough to attend one such appearance, and I’ll never forget that night.
Honestly, I have to say that I don’t remember Roddenberry’s specific words, except for his pointing out that the collective knowledge of mankind doubles every 40 years (something I would think is impossible to quantify but all these years later seems absolutely true). I do know that he discussed what he thought the future of humankind would be like. I remember how he described it. It was much the same as what he told Jonathan Frakes. And I think the reason I can’t remember his remarks verbatim is because I was left in awe of his amazing vision.
“Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in our differences.” -- Gene Roddenberry
Roddenbery described a world in which racism, sexism, xenophobia, and all the prejudices that constrain our society were not only things of the past but also were derided as childish and primitive. He talked about a world in which our differences didn’t separate us—they were qualities to be celebrated as sources of delight, wonder, and strength. And he said that our ability to double our collective knowledge every 40 years would carry us beyond the stars, as well as to the achievement of our greatest potential as a species. I left the auditorium with my head spinning. Without question, I thought all those years ago, we were in for an amazing future. If you had asked me then, I would have thought that by the year 2020, humankind would be flourishing, and our world would be a paradise. (So much for my vision of the future.)
Right around that same time, Star Wars: Return of the Jedi was released in theaters, completing the first of the franchise’s trilogies. It was a fun movie. Nowhere near as good as the first Star Wars film (an iconic moment in movie history) or its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back (arguably the best film of the franchise). But it was a satisfying ending to the Star Wars saga—or so we thought. In 1999, when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out, multitudes of fans who had driven themselves into a frenzy over the return of the series came away disappointed when it, along with the rest of the second trilogy, turned out to be pretty . . . meh. And “meh” may be high praise compared to some of the things that were said about those three films.
Then came 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If Star Wars fans were underwhelmed by the second trilogy, the release of this, the first film of the third trilogy, saw many of them positively outraged. Why? Because the main character was . . . a woman. Not Luke. Not Han. Not Obi-Wan. Not even Chewbacca. But . . . a woman. A female character, complete with female body parts and a female brain and all the things that make a female a female. HOW COULD THEY DO THIS?!
But wait—it gets worse. Because in the first trailer of The Force Awakens, seen on the Internet and in movie theaters all over the world, a stormtrooper pulls off his helmet, and underneath—HE’S A BLACK GUY! OH MY GOD! They’re casting a Black guy as one of the leading characters in a Star Wars film! HAVE THEY LOST THEIR GODDAMN MINDS?! I mean, COME ON! Stormtroopers aren’t BLACK! They’re—they’re—well, we don’t know what they’ve been under their armor for all these years, but they can’t be BLACK!!!
The moment when John Boyega is introduced as a cast member of Star Wars: The Force Awakens--and when Star Wars fandom begins to disintegrate.
A portion—maybe a small portion, but a portion nonetheless—of Star Wars fandom converted to the Dark Side of the Force very quickly. Petitions against the movie popped up, boycotts were called for, and vicious racists claimed that J.J. Abrams (a Jew! a JEW!) was promoting, of all things, white genocide in a Star Wars movie. In the franchise’s next entry, The Last Jedi, filmmakers doubled down on Star Wars diversity by featuring Kelly Marie Tran, an Asian American woman, in the cast. It wasn't long before she was harassed right off of social media, and her part in the final installment of the trilogy was significantly reduced.
Again, these reactions may have come from a small portion of Star Wars fans, and I know from first-hand experience that the vast majority of people who love Star Wars are good, decent people. But I hasten to point out that when Avery Brooks was cast as Star Trek’s first black captain on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, there wasn’t any groundswell of anger (or even a peep of an objection) from the Trekkies. On the contrary, the reaction I seem to remember was, “It’s about time!” When Kate Mulgrew was given the helm as Star Trek’s first female captain on Star Trek: Voyager, again, no angry backlash. What did the fans say instead? “It’s about time!” (And let’s not forget that, when the Enterprise first embarked on its five-year mission in the original Star Trek series, there was a Black woman and an Asian guy on the bridge from the very beginning, and there was no general breakdown of society.)
"Lieutenant Uhura, take over navigation." From the original series episode "Balance of Terror." This always struck me as a very cool Star Trek moment.
During the coronavirus pandemic, while I was locked down by myself in the solitude of my apartment, I had a lot of time to think. I admit that I spent some of it wondering which Star Trek doctor might be the one to come up with a COVID-19 vaccine first. (The correct answer, by the way, is Dr. Julian Bashir from DS9. His genetically enhanced brain gives him an advantage over Dr. McCoy from The Original Series and Dr. Crusher from The Next Generation. The holographic, computerized Doctor from Voyager comes in a close second, but Bashir gets the slight edge in the areas of free thinking and imagination that allow him to come up with the vaccine first. And Star Trek: Enterprise pretty much sucked; so sorry, Dr. Phlox, you’re not in the running at all.)
Since the Black Lives Matters protests, I’ve found my thoughts returning to Star Trek more often. I’ve thought about how proud I am to be a fan of this series, a series based on the vision of a diverse and inclusive future. I’m profoundly grateful for the opportunity to have enjoyed the work of Nichelle Nichols and LeVar Burton and Michael Dorn and Avery Brooks and Cirroc Lofton and Tim Russ and Anthony Montgomery and Zoë Saldana and Sonequa Martin-Green and Wilson Cruz and Michelle Hurd. I’m thankful as well for all the African American actors, directors, writers, crew members, and artists behind the scenes who have contributed to Star Trek and who have helped make it such an important part of my life.
So, yeah. Star Trek is better, for so many reasons. But maybe the most important one is that the franchise points us towards a goal to reach, and a future we can all embrace. Think about what we need to do now to bring that future about for subsequent generations of humankind. Think about it . . . and make it so.
As part of its #StarTrekUnited campaign, CBS All Access is allowing viewers to experience 15 of the most culturally relevant episodes free of charge for one week, beginning June 17.
Photos owned by their various copyright holders: ViacomCBS, Lucasfilm Ltd.