By Cecilia Nowell ’16
I have a confession. It’s not something I like to admit and people often think I’m pretty weird after I tell them about it. But it’s time I shared: I’m a nerd, and not just any nerd. I’m a trekkie.
I started watching Star Trek when I was in elementary school, and by the time I had graduated from high school I had seen every episode of every series, excluding the recently released Enterprise. I didn’t speak Klingon, but I was well-trained in performing my Vulcan salute, encouraging others that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” and singing “Tuvok, I understand” to the tune of “La donna è mobile.” I breathed Star Trek largely because I loved what it did as a work of imagination. As a young child, trying to figure out what stories could do and whether I could become a writer, I imagined all sorts of stories but wondered at their relevance. With Star Trek I saw how stories might play with ideas of what could be.
Not solely a show for the nerds of the 1960s, Star Trek was actually developed in order to comment on the civil rights movement and other political struggles of the era. The Star Trek Original series showed that a captain from Iowa, a logical alien scientist, a moody Southern doctor, a Scottish engineer, a black female communications officer, a young Russian Ensign, and a Japanese pilot could coexist peacefully. Such a scenario may not be so unbelievable today, but was an incredibly politically charged and hopeful statement in the 1960s. Many classic Star Trek episodes have grappled with issues of diversity, from the Original series episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” where an entire species drives itself to extinction based on the color of each half of their faces to the more recent Deep Space Nine episode “Far Beyond the Stars” where the show’s black Captain dreams of himself as a struggling science-fiction writer in the 1950s.
The Original Star Trek was designed for this very purpose. As Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry powerfully stated, 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. […] 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. In this spirit, Star Trek not only featured a multicultural cast and delved into discussions of diversity, but also brought about remarkable change. In fact, Nichelle Nichols—who played Black communications officer (and fourth in-command) Lieutenant Uhura—tells a moving story about the time she almost quit Star Trek…and was talked out of it by none other than Martin Luther King Jr:
I went in to tell Gene Roddenberry [Star Trek's Director] that I was leaving after the first season, and he was very upset about it. And he said, take the weekend and think about what I am trying to achieve here in this show. You're an integral part and very important to it. And so I said, yes, I would. And that - on Saturday night, I went to an NAACP fundraiser, I believe it was, in Beverly Hills. And one of the promoters came over to me and said, Ms. Nichols, there's someone who would like to meet you. He says he is your greatest fan.
And I'm thinking a Trekker, you know. And I turn, and before I could get up, I looked across the way and there was the face of Dr. Martin Luther King smiling at me and walking toward me. And he started laughing. By the time he reached me, he said, yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan. I am that Trekkie.
And I was speechless. He complimented me on the manner in which I'd created the character. I thanked him, and I think I said something like, Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you. He said, no, no, no. No, you don't understand. We don't need you on the - to march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for. So, I said to him, thank you so much. And I'm going to miss my co-stars.
And his face got very, very serious. And he said, what are you talking about? And I said, well, I told Gene just yesterday that I'm going to leave the show after the first year because I've been offered - and he stopped me and said: You cannot do that. And I was stunned. He said, don't you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen. He says, do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch. I was speechless."
And it turned out that Dr. King was right. Nichelle Nichols not only challenged viewers to see black people and women as capable and important leaders, but also inspired future actors to pursue similar roles. In fact, Whoopi Goldberg, who played Guinan on Star Trek The Next Generation, credits Nichelle Nichols as her role model and for being one of the first black women she ever saw on television playing someone besides a maid. Star Trek even went so far as to air the first interracial kiss in television—and actors Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner (the famous Captain Kirk) reportedly flubbed every alternative scene so that the network would have to air their world-changing kiss. In doing this, Star Trek actively defied society’s norms and celebrated diversity as it sought out new worlds and new civilizations.
What Star Trek did as a progressive television program in the 1960s was monumental, but the idea of fiction as a medium for imagining, and ultimately creating, alternative realities has a long history. The earliest examples of science fiction films, such as Forbidden Planet, went so far as to envision planets where thoughts might be able to physically change the world. Even early science fiction novels, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, toyed with ideas of what human imagination and reason might be able to create. One might even go so far as to argue that all story-telling—since the earliest epic poems and myths—has been about imagining different worlds, and futures, and histories, and lives for ourselves.
The Star Trek series which have been released since the Original series (The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, Enterprise, and the Animated Series) have all taken up the Star Trek mantle of exploring diversity, but ways that are much less political than the Original series. Not every science fiction movie or television series has looked towards the future with such hope for diversity and progressiveness—in fact, the film industry remains predominantly white and male (as we see every year at the Oscars). Even science-fiction and fantasy has fallen victim to this whitewashing—can we talk about Katniss Everdeen who, in the Hunger Games books is a disabled, asexual, native woman but has her disability, sexuality, and cultural identity erased in the films? It’s easy for Hollywood to erase diversity in casting decisions and script revisions, but that act removes so much representation and imagination from the industry. At such a time, I can’t help but ask myself if the science fiction of today can be as relevant and disruptive as Star Trek was. Fortunately, some recent science-fiction and fantasy films have answered the call for more diversity in Hollywood, and in turn celebrated their creative roots.
When I saw the trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road I almost gagged. I couldn’t begin to count how many cars were pulling fiery wheelies on the fury road, and couldn’t decipher if there were any real characters or just stunt doubles. After persistently refusing to go see the film for several weeks, I finally bought a ticket to the dollar theatre—and my jaw dropped. It was a feminist masterpiece disguised as a flame-throwing, dialogue-free action flick. At last, I thought, here is a new science-fiction film which imagines diversity by exploring what the future might be like in an apocalyptic and patriarchal world, and how women and feminist values might be able to change that future.
Needless to say, the world-wide-winter-break phenomenon, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, astounded with its diverse cast as well. Starring a woman as the protagonist and two people of color as the male leads, The Force Awakens even went so far as to vilify an angsty young white man—and emphasize the power dynamics between him and the other characters through a frighteningly sexualized interrogation scene. As the movie’s ratings and box office profits have risen, it has become increasingly clear that movies about women and people of color can perform well. The success of this Star Wars has heralded the creation of diverse toys to represent the franchise—at last stores are selling girl action figures. Young girls and children of color can finally see themselves represented on the big screen. Much like Star Trek did by casting men and women from various racial backgrounds, Star Wars is writing people—besides the traditional cis white male—into fiction and thus into our imaginations, and suggesting that there might be a kind of world where these kinds of characters and relationships exist, and thrive.
All this brings us to the question I asked myself when I heard last month that CBS Television Studios will be premiering a new Star Trek series in January 2017: How will this Star Trek use its position as a science fiction series to address contemporary social issues?
Truly, a show set onboard a starship exploring the galaxy has so much space to consider what kinds of diversity might lay beyond our world and the issues we may face in the future. I like to think that this new Star Trek could tackle Islamophobia, colonialism, terrorism, partisanship, racism, and sexism with a cast of made up of black, indigenous, latinx, Asian, queer, trans, female, and lower socio-economic status actors. I like to think that science fiction will continue representing, exploring, and imagining new and different ways of life. If the Star Trek of the 1960s could feature a diverse cast exploring racial, political, and moral questions—I like to think that the Star Trek of today could push itself, and viewers, even farther to imagine a progressive and meaningful and hopeful future.
After all, if we’re ever going to be prepared to face what lies among the stars, we’re going to have to understand what lies on our own planet. If we’re going to seek out new civilizations, we’re going to have to get comfortable with the ones we already have. If we’re going to imagine new stories for ourselves, we have to acknowledge our reality. And we’ll have to imagine, and create, and hope once again for what might someday be.
From February 2016 Issue