Star Trek: Diversity & Inclusivity in the Future?
Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations: Star Trek's Vision of the Future
Star Trek has always striven to portray a utopian vision of the future, in which humanity has developed beyond its destructive tendencies towards war, violence, greed, and discrimination. Gene Roddenberry described diversity as a founding tenet of Star Trek's values. Central to translating this vision to a television show was a desire to show actors of different races, nationalities, and genders interacting as equals. In the episode "Is There in Truth No Beauty?" Dr. Miranda Jones begins, “The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity.” Spock finishes, “And in the way our differences combine to create meaning and beauty.” Spock’s IDIC is not only a symbol for Vulcans, but for Star Trek as a whole.
Milestones of Star Trek's Early Era
From the very start, Star Trek: The Original Series (1966 – 1969) was concerned with matters of identity, prejudice, and peaceful cooperation. It explicitly commented on social issues of the 1960s including racism, sexism, and nationalism, such as in the episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield", which showed two members of the same alien species who viewed the other as inferior due to the patterns of color on their skin. These social messages were rarely subtle and at times clunky, but they positioned the show as firmly on the side of progress and committed to a vision of the future where beings of all kinds could work together for the greater good.
The Original Series is famed for showing TV's first interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura in 1968. It also embraced the sixties feminist aesthetic, with female characters taking command roles and shown wearing miniskirts. Although the miniskirt might appear objectifying or even demeaning to a modern audience, actress Nichelle Nichols described the miniskirts as “a symbol of sexual liberation” in keeping with the feminist politics of the era. In early episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994), you can see male crew members wearing the miniskirt-style uniforms, in a move of gender equality which is still notable and progressive 30 years later.
Stalled Progress and Criticism of the Franchise
Over the years, a feeling grew among some fans that Star Trek had failed to live up to the explicitly pro-diversity values with which it had started. Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (1993 – 1999) was praised for its sophisticated and socially relevant political story arc, and for the importance of the franchise's first black captain, Benjamin Sisko. Star Trek: Voyager (1995 – 2001) introduced the first female captain, Kathryn Janeway. Yet, the leading ensemble characters of both shows and their follow-up, Star Trek: Enterprise (2001 - 2005), were still disproportionately white, male, and heterosexual.
When the 'reboot' movies (known to fans as the Alternate Original Series) were announced in 2007, there was hope that a return to the styling of the original series would prompt a return to the pro-exploration, pro-cooperation, pro-diversity values that had defined the franchise's early years. The release of Star Trek (2009) disappointed in many ways, especially by portraying Kirk as the hapless womanizer he was widely and incorrectly regarded as. The follow-up, Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), didn’t fare much better; it was critically panned for, among other things, whitewashing the character of Khan by casting Benedict Cumberbatch in the role.
The third reboot film, Star Trek: Beyond (2016), drew significant positive mainstream and fan attention when it was announced that the character Hikaru Sulu would be portrayed as gay. This inclusion marked the first acknowledged LGBTQ character in the mainstream franchise and paid tribute to George Takei, the first actor to play Sulu, and a beloved gay rights activist. The film includes a touching scene of Sulu reunited with his husband and their daughter in a move that was broadly well received; the general feeling among fans was that finally, Star Trek was showing the inclusivity it should have had from the start.
However, there were objections to the diversity claims of the reboots. Putting aside the predictable and nonsensical complaints that no characters in the Star Trek universe should be gay, or that this move was forcing diversity where it did not belong, a more serious complaint was that Sulu’s relationship was not developed in any real way. Especially when compared to modern TV shows, which frequently feature prominent LGBTQ characters and show same-sex relationships and love scenes, Hollywood films tend to be disproportionately praised for meeting a very low bar of inclusivity. George Takei himself voiced similar concerns, saying that the acknowledgment of Sulu's sexuality in Beyond was “a whisper of a scene” and that “If you blinked, you missed it.”
Discovery Hopes to Answer These Criticisms
The Star Trek franchise is hoping to revitalize itself for a new era with a new TV show, Star Trek: Discovery, debuting later this year. The showrunner originally tapped for the new series, Bryan Fuller, has a track record of including LGBTQ characters in his shows and is a gay man himself. Fans were excited when he described diversity as a key goal for the new Star Trek, regarding gender, race, and sexuality. Fuller has since left Discovery to work on American Gods, but the commitment seems to have remained. Both the captain and the lead character of the new show will be played by actresses of color, Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green respectively, and according to producers, the series will include a gay character.
When the trailer for Discovery aired a few weeks ago, it prompted an immediate backlash against the show. Some deeply insecure and asinine commenters went as far as to describe the show as “white genocide.” However, above the snarling fury of internet racists, a consensus has emerged that people who object to diversity do not understand the first thing about Star Trek. A wave of positive coverage has praised the casting of Michelle Yeoh as “the starship captain we've been waiting for,” and a fan wrote a moving and widely-shared piece about her emotional response to hearing Yeoh speak in her natural Chinese-Malaysian accent.
For those of us who love Star Trek for its positive vision of cooperation, the promise of greater diversity in Star Trek: Discovery is the future of the franchise we've been waiting for.