Beyond stereotypes: Star Trek turns 50


Raka Sarkar / Staff Illustrator.

With its first canonically gay character, the Star Trek franchise went this summer where no mainstream sci-fi blockbuster had gone before. But the progress came with some controversy.

The decision to make Hikaru Sulu — played by John Cho in the reboot films — gay in “Star Trek Beyond” caused debate over whether or not a new character or an existing character should have been homosexual.

The conversation continued after George Takei expressed disapproval about Sulu’s sexuality because Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, envisioned Sulu as heterosexual.

“I’m delighted that there’s a gay character,” Takei said to The Hollywood Reporter. “Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.”

As Star Trek hits its 50th anniversary with the birthday of its first aired episode “The Man Trap” airing 50 years ago today, it’s a perfect time to take a look back at a franchise well-known for its progressiveness and diversity.

The controversy over Sulu’s sexuality reflects an aspect of the franchise’s history where it pushes for a progressive and tolerant future, but fails to break away from the influence of 20th and 21st century stereotypes.

While imperfect, the original series did attempt to imagine and portray a more accepting world, though Roddenberry felt like he had to maintain many traditional values in order to keep the show on air.

As Star Trek rounds out its fifth decade and new projects launch in the franchise, it can — and should — make strides to move from attempting to portray a more accepting world to actually portraying it. The possibility to move toward something better — in the face of a long uphill battle to get there — is part of what Star Trek is for me personally. The original series modeled the theme of possibility, particularly humanity’s potential to become kinder and more tolerant despite its past.

“Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, this was [Roddenberry’s] dream, that is [the makers’ of Star Trek Beyond’s] dream, it should be everybody’s,” Simon Pegg, who plays the Enterprise’s Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott in the reboot films and co-wrote “Star Trek Beyond,” said in a July 11 post on his website.

Unfortunately, Roddenberry’s dream sometimes clashed with the need to appeal widely to a late 1960s audience to stay on air, an audience which didn’t necessarily share the same dream of diversity. In fact, NBC cancelled the original series after its third season because of low ratings. The series gained much of its popularity after it finished airing with reruns.

Throughout its seasons and film releases, the original Star Trek series and its recent reboot films have received both praise and criticism regarding representation.

The mix of praise and criticism can feel cliched: like taking five steps forward and ten steps backward. The U.S.S. Enterprise has a racially diverse main cast during the original series, with a black woman as the ship’s chief communications officer, a Japanese-American man at its helm and a Russian character during the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. Yet the original series only passes the Bechdel test — in which two named female characters talk to each other about a subject other than a man — 7.5 percent of the time, according to a project done by Jarrah Hodge on the fandom and technology site The Mary Sue.

No, the original series and the reboot films aren’t perfect, but moving toward more and better representation is at the heart of the series Roddenberry envisioned in the 1960s.

In a taped address to the Atlanta Star Trek Society convention in 1984, Roddenberry told Trekkies that he wanted to move forward but the Enterprise crew needed to maintain 20th century values for a 20th century audience.

“I think if I had given Kirk and the others what I suspect 23rd century values and morals may actually be, they would have either angered or scared the pants off the average viewer,” Roddenberry said in the address.

Despite no longer necessarily having an audience with 20th century values, Star Trek has and continues to receive criticism on the representation front with the reboot films of the original series, which began with the film “Star Trek” in 2009.

The 2013 film “Star Trek Into Darkness” received criticism for whitewashing the character Khan with casting Benedict Cumberbatch in the role. Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán originally played Khan in in the 1967 episode “Space Seed” and in the 1982 film “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.”

There’s also the much-critiqued scene from the same film where Carol Marcus is shown in her bra and underwear, which the film’s screenwriter Damon Lindelof apologized for after the film’s release.

But the next reboot film isn’t the only new piece of Star Trek storytelling for Trekkies to look forward to. There’s a lot coming, in general and in terms of representation.

A new series, “Star Trek: Discovery,” is set to air on CBS All Access, CBS’s streaming service, in 2017. Bryan Fuller, the executive producer of the series, said Discovery will have a female lead and a gay character. I’m hopeful.

I frequently flashback to a 1969 Star Trek episode called “The Savage Curtain.” At one point in the episode, Surak, the Vulcan philosopher who created Vulcan’s focus on logic, said to a group that includes Spock, Kirk and a copy of Abraham Lincoln, “I am pleased to see that we have differences. May we together become greater than the sum of both of us.”

As corny as it is, in that moment, I was hit with the thought, “Yes. This is what Star Trek is about.”

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