Film & Television

The ‘strange new world’ of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’

By Myke Bartlett
In 2017, why is it so alien to have women of colour heading up a science fiction franchise?

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery. Image by Jan Thijs © 2017 CBS Interactive. All rights reserved.

As Star Trek: Discovery set sail this week, Trekkies found much to complain about. In the States, many were unhappy they had to sign up to a new streaming service for the privilege of watching the second episode. Others carped about the redesign of legendary adversaries the Klingons, or grumbled that the prequel’s technology inescapably looked more advanced than the original 1966 series (which is set ten years later).

But these were sideshows to the main brawl, one that has been plugging away ever since the program makers announced that two women of colour had been cast in the lead roles. As detractors would have it, Star Trek has trashed its brand by pandering to political correctness.

It seems appropriate that the series should launch in the same wake as President Trump launched a private war with the NFL, by tweeting scorn on football players who dared bring the #BlackLivesMatter movement onto the sporting field.

The irony of President Trump complaining about the politicisation of popular culture is pretty startling, of course. Others have already pointed out that the Age of Trump is one where, depressingly, everything is politicised. But this heightened political tension has been playing out in pop culture since before Trump formally launched his election campaign.

The term “social justice warrior” (SJW) was coined towards the end of last century, but gained currency in the wake of 2014’s Gamergate, in which (male) computer game fans viciously kicked back against what they saw as the pernicious influence of feminism on video game culture. Having festered on platforms such as 4chan and Reddit, this bilious right-wing backlash spilled over into the mainstream.

So it is that a seemingly innocuous cultural product like a new Star Trek TV series can be accused of “white genocide” by casting two women of colour in the lead roles. While there may be strong creative or commercial reasons for doing so (productions with more diverse casts have been shown to make more money), for many fans this “forced diversity” was an intensely political decision, offering further evidence that the SJW agenda has polluted the pop culture these fans have long obsessed over. Nobody seemed reassured by the accompanying announcement that the captain of the titular vessel, which doesn’t show up until episode three, would be a white, straight man played by Jason Isaacs.

This controversy echoes the online firestorms that followed the gender-flipping of other cultural properties. The trailer for last year’s all-female Ghostbusters reboot quickly became the most-disliked movie trailer in YouTube history. Star Wars fans have wondered if a white male hero will ever again front their franchise (apart from the forthcoming Han Solo spin-off, obviously). And in the wake of Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the first female lead of Doctor Who, outraged fans launched a #NotMyDoctor campaign and hoped (Trump-like) that the ratings would tank.

It might seem odd that hardened fans would rather destroy the thing they loved than let it change. Particularly so given Star Trek’s long-running progressive ethos, which has always embraced change and diversity. Its vision of the future (as created by Gene Roddenberry in 1966 and expanded upon 20 years later in Star Trek: The Next Generation) is basically a socialist utopia, where humanity has learned to stop worrying about money and all races, cultures and creeds have come together to spread peace and love throughout the cosmos. The 1990s series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager featured an African American captain and a female captain, respectively. What reason could fans of this overtly leftie world have to complain about progressive casting?

Some fans argue it’s not the casting but the motivation behind it that is the issue. A number of Whovians insisted they had no problem with a female Doctor, but rather “how it had been done” – in other words, that producers deliberately chose to cast a woman in order to pander to SJWs, rather than just “let it happen”. It was a political, rather than a creative choice.

Some Trek fans have played the reverse racism card to argue that casting two women of colour actually betrays the progressive ethos of the show. In a world where gender and race no longer matters, why would you make a big deal about casting women of colour in roles traditionally filled by men?

In defending his critique of Discovery’s casting, one anonymous fan argued the show is making too much fuss about race and sexuality (one of the new characters is openly gay, following a precedent the franchise only set in 2016’s Star Trek Beyond). Blind to any irony, the fan insisted that when he admired Commander Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation, it wasn’t because Riker was a white, heterosexual man but because he (as a white, heterosexual man) could identify with Riker’s “way of behaving” in a working environment dominated by white, heterosexual men.

It has become a cliché to note that, to those in a position of privilege, equality can feel like oppression. As a genre, science fiction has been forever dominated by white male heroes, with exceptions such as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien being so remarkable that we’re still talking about them decades later. White male fans are not accustomed to having to stretch their imagination to identify with a non-white-male hero.

This, of course, is why representation matters and why Star Trek: Discovery has been so powerful a viewing experience for fans who have never been easily able to imagine themselves on screen. Elle writer Estelle Tang wrote about her surprisingly powerful emotional reaction to hearing Michelle Yeoh’s Chinese-Malaysian accent, while Liz Barr and Stephanie Lai shared their “feelpinions” about the strangeness of seeing two non-white women together onscreen in a sci-fi context. In Star Trek’s future world, gender and race might no longer matter, but in ours they clearly matter to those most affected by them.

If there is a twist to this political tussling over Trek, it’s that Discovery is by no means a left-wing program. At a glance, its politics are more conservative and hawkish than ever. We can see this in its characterisation of the Klingons. With notable exceptions, Star Trek aliens have been decidedly human, albeit with an array of bumps and dents on their foreheads. These Klingons are more alien than any yet seen on screen, with prosthetics that give them an almost crustacean appearance (and reduce the actor’s ability to emote beyond shouting). In other words, they are more “other” than ever before.

You could argue that this othering represents the sort of radicalised political divide the show’s casting has illustrated. We no longer attempt to understand our enemies. Some critics have taken these revised foes as allegories for the Trumpian uprising, but there is precious little evidence for this in the show itself. Instead, these Klingons are religious fanatics, terrorists and martyrs determined to protect their culture against the Federation’s Western philosophies. Our hero lieutenant Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) lost her parents to a Klingon terrorist attack on a Federation colony. It isn’t hard to join the ISIS-shaped dots.

More worrying is Burnham herself. Raised by a Vulcan, she is an unemotional character whose ethics are conflicted by the twin demands of duty and decency. Over the course of the first two episodes, she mutinies when her captain refuses to break Starfleet protocol and launch a pre-emptive strike against the Klingons. (These foreigners only understand such naked aggression, after all.) While it’s admirable to see the show presenting such a flawed hero, albeit one in the traditional Kirk-esque rugged individual mould, this hunger for a “first strike” is deeply unsettling in a world where the US president has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. It remains to be seen whether we’re truly expected to approve of such hawkishness.

Of course, Star Trek’s politics have never been as perfectly progressive as some like to believe. While the original series gave us the world’s first interracial screen kiss, its gender politics were pretty backward, even for the late 1960s. The Federation may have sought to bring peace to the cosmos, but William Shatner’s lusty Captain Kirk often seemed more interested in spreading intergalactic free love. And there has always been something a little off about the Federation’s cultural imperialism, conscripting extraterrestrials to a very American worldview.

Discovery exposes some of these faultlines, with varying degrees of consciousness. It is, ultimately, a cynical Star Trek for a disillusioned world. The Federation’s much-vaunted motto of “we come in peace” is painted here as mythic propaganda, the honeyed lie that facilitates a quiet invasion of alien worlds and erasure of their cultures. The opening double shows the end of that peace, as the Federation and the Klingon Empire are drawn into brutal conflict.

Where the original series (and the 1980–’90s sequel) sold us a fantasy, Discovery no longer expects us to believe it. Ideals and myths are all very good, but sooner or later, you’re going to have to kill someone (or something) to protect them. There is no middle ground. Everything is political.

This article has been updated to reflect that Stephanie Lai co-wrote the blog post referred to above with Liz Barr.

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett is a writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The AgeOverland, The New DailyThe Big Issue and The Weekly Review. His children’s novel, Fire in the Sea, won the 2011 Text Prize.


Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery. Image by Jan Thijs © 2017 CBS Interactive. All rights reserved.

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