This one goes out to my Trek Nation family. I was watching a YouTube video this week that delved into the conflict that has divided the fandom over “Old Trek” versus “New Trek” when a troubling theory was voiced as to why many fans are angry and hurt over the presentation of ST:Discovery.
I am not talking about the debate centered around the “story arc”. Plenty of people argue about that on a daily basis. The issue I am here to discuss is far darker and more disturbing than us being left on the edge of our seats each week with a cliffhanger that makes us race back to our TVs seven days later. The issue that reared its head by a commentator was that ST:Discovery is intentionally and hurtfully casting white, Anglo-Saxon, males who identify as heterosexual as villains and that Trek is alienating (no pun intended) a significant portion of its fan base as a result. Tied to that is a feeling of resentment that Trek is forcing uncomfortable social issues in the fans’ faces every week.
Buckle up, y’all, cause my teacher/researcher mode just activated so let’s ENGAGE!
There will always be a special place in my heart for this crew. I remember growing up in Iowa in the late 1980s and early-1990s spending a significant portion of my allowance in the summers and renting several episodes on VHS at a time when my mama would take my brother and I to Blockbuster each week. This was one of the ways I coped with having to wait for the next season of ST:TNG. ST:TOS was my mother’s Star Trek but it did an amazing job of giving me backstory to MY Trek because I would look for all the links between ST:TOS and ST:TNG. Seeing Uhura on that bridge helped me in ways that I couldn’t even articulate back then because she carried herself with such poise and dignity and never not once did she give the impression that she didn’t belong on that bridge as an officer. I remember feeling a bit sad that Uhura very rarely encountered other persons of African descent to share the screen with during her five-year mission but at least I could see her.
And then there was Star Trek The Next Generation. Y’all, every time I hear that music spin up I feel like standing up and saluting MY Star Trek. ST:TNG was my initiation into the Trek Nation and it was truly love at first sight. I continue to love every single one of these characters and what each of them represented to all of us. Placing strong, dedicated and caring women in the command structure with Troi and Crusher and the inclusion Guinan, LaForge and Worf are proof positive that Gene Roddenberry was a clever writer and world builder who did his best to help equip the consumers of his vision with a lexicon of sorts.
Now, here is where we need to get into the uncomfortable part of that YouTube video I mentioned earlier. Look at the pictures of those two crews. ST:TOS had five wonderful characters who presented as white men, one white female, one Asian male and one woman who was literally written as an African. ALL of these characters were written to identify as heterosexual individuals. This series also ran for the first time from 1966-1969 and was one of the few shows where seeing a cast like this lineup was even conceivable. This simply wasn’t done in American television. Racism and sexism was demonstrating itself in very violent means at this same time, remember that Dr. King was assassinated in 1968 and Stonewall happened in 1969. Title 9 was not yet law nor was Roe v Wade. Roddenberry navigated the briar patch of the censorship police in Hollywood to help us begin to picture a future that could be more inclusive.
With ST:TNG, Roddenberry decided to go boldly into even more turbulent spaces through his casting and storytelling. He tripled the female representation, introduced the concept including a person with a physical disability into senior level leadership in the workplace, personified many aspects of our relationship to technology and he gave us three very different experiences in the shape of the Guinan, LaForge and Worf mini ensemble. With their help the entire crew was able to explore questions of identity, the affects of trauma, racism, sexism, discrimination, culture, science, art, family and so much more.
Then came Star Trek Deep Space Nine. I remember a big to do about casting Avery Brooks as the leader of this ensemble and yes, it was because he was black so let’s not get hung up on that for this conversation because I just realized something that might help us better understand why some of the white males referenced in that YouTube video are so upset with current day Trek. Look at those pictures of the first three crews again. ST:TNG and ST:DS9 have something in common that I never noticed consciously before.
If you look at the proportional balance of white male actors to persons of African descent you will notice that the scales are balanced evenly. While ST:DS9 debuted after the death of Gene Roddenberry, this discovery makes me think he had a lot of input/influence on the crafting of ST:DS9 while it was under development.
Note: Due to the extensive makeup I am going to disqualify Quark’s character from this equation because remember, the critique leveled at Star Trek was that straight white guys don’t see themselves being portrayed as anything other than villains.
With Voyager we got our female captain and a tinkering with the scales that broke the Roddenberry balancing act. This show blessed us with three female characters throughout the series (Remember Kes). The character of B’Elanna Torres also introduces the idea that Hispanic/Latino presenting characters could be seen in Star Trek and THAT only took four iterations of Trek to make it so.
At this point you also notice the return of an Asian presenting cast member in the character of Harry Kim. More on that later. The fact that you also see the reduction of black presenting characters here is only offset because Voyager existed within the same continuity of ST:TNG and ST:DS9 and also because I had been waiting to see a black presenting Vulcan for a VERY long time!
Now, I want you to pause and think about whether you remember any significant conversation about the reduction in number of main cast characters who were black happening?Do you remember black Trek fans threatening to leave the fandom because they didn’t see themselves as much with the introduction of Voyager? Do you remember Asian fans of Trek threatening to walk away from Trek because they were tired of not seeing themselves consistently cast in major cast roles through the Star Trek multiverse?
Go ahead, think hard, I’ll wait.
Then came Stat Trek Enterprise and it’s whack ass song. While I eventually came around and watched this series because I am a Trekkie, this show almost made me break up with Star Trek. I share this because I do know what it feels like to feel like a show that you love has moved on without you in many respects. Looking back at it now, Enterprise evoked in me feelings akin to how I feel when someone says that Star Trek is vilifying straight white men. The entire series felt like white guys whining about being held back from being all that they could be. This show came out in the aftermath of several significant attacks on Affirmative Action programs in higher education with Hopwood v. University of Texas (1996) and the passing of California Proposition 209 A (1996). The atmosphere in the U.S. was rife with race-related tension and then 9/11 happened which amplified feelings of xenophobia tied to the race issues we already wrestle with as a nation. Having the character of Travis there felt like so much tokenism that I retreated back into my Trek for years hoping that one day we would recover from Enterprise.
Disclaimer: I feel like before I move on that my feelings towards Enterprise have everything to do with the writing and casting and are not rooted in the performance of the actors. I believe they did all that they could with what they were given.
Finally, after years in the dark, we were gifted with a new Trek series. Honestly, I was excited and guarded at the time because Enterprise broke my little Trek heart and then I caught wind that the only way I could see ST:Disco was to incur a new streaming service bill. I was not thrilled about that at all, but that’s another story for another day. I ended up reworking my budget to make it work and it certainly helped that there are many, many other things on CBS All Access that I also love.
There are few things that I don’t love about ST:Disco. When I first saw it I felt like Trek had found me again or perhaps fully for the first time. A black girl, raised away from her people, surrounded in otherness, striving to prove her worth to everyone.
Michael Burnham’s character is one I firmly believe Gene Roddenberry would be exceptionally proud of and it only took us 50 years to get there. Right now in this moment I realize that I’m probably going to have to do a follow up to this piece breaking down the layers of ST:Disco but for now I’m going to ask you to look at these pictures again and I think we’re going to be able to see where we’ve been headed during this conversation. Season 1 introduced us to two white performing men with one character identifying as heterosexual and the other as homosexual. And as raised in the YouTube video that started me down this rabbit whole, the straight white man turned out to be a villain and the gay white man kisses his husband on camera 😱. So we come to the conclusion that a straight, white man cannot see himself at all in ST:Disco unless he is a villain and therefore straight, white men of the Trek Nation are being attacked and something should be done about this.
Here’s where I feel like black Trek fans might have a chance to help our fellow white male Trekkies with the benefit of our experience and it starts with a simple question:
Are you solely tied to your identity as a straight, white man?
I can feel some of you scratching your heads so let’s try this again.
Did you ever dream of or pursue a career in engineering? If yes, did you enjoy exploring engineering with Geordi LaForge less because he was black? Could you not picture yourself working alongside him on the warp drive? What about B’Elanna Torres? Did she make you want to abandon Engineering because she wasn’t a white man? Paul Stamets is a white man who is an engineer and he presents as a gay man who is married to another crew member. Can you not see your shared love of engineering in his character? Miles O’Brien and Montgomery Scott were fine characters and I saw myself in them through our shared love in how things work. I didn’t NEED for them to be black women for me to identify with them on that level.
Now let’s deal with this villiany thing before I wrap this up. I’ll even use pictures to illustrate my point for you.
While the inclusion of “alien races” can sometimes throw off the visual, I want you to take a good long look at this sample list and tell me again that ST:Disco is targeting straight, white men as villains.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
See, I’ll admit that I was guilty of allowing then current events influence my ability to relate to Star Trek (Enterprise) and that I spent years disconnected from the Star Trek canon as a result. But one thing I learned during that time was to remember that I do not solely tied to the part of my identity that is a black presenting woman. If the only way I could enjoy television hinges on me being able to see black women cast in large percentages in show I would have abandoned television a LONG time ago. How many sci-fi shows from the last fifteen years can you name that had more than two black women on the main cast at the same time? Seriously, I’d love for you to drop them in the comments section.
And now we have Star Trek Picard, which literally is driving me crazy week to week because one episode is never enough. By far this is one of the most balanced casting jobs in the history of Trek but it seems a little premature to assess this one on this subject matter since they are only midway through season one so I guess we’ll see.
I took the time to step through this because as much as I love Star Trek, this issue is bigger than Trek. Every day we hear and see rhetoric that says straight, white men feel attacked because the world is beginning to embrace a more representative picture of who we as human beings are through our storytelling, art, leadership structures, etc. Yes, the visual is changing but the characters are not new. Those of us who are not straight, white men didn’t suddenly arrive on Planet Earth via a spaceship and start eliminating straight, white men. We have all been here throughout our human history moving the human race forward in our own ways. How about rather than taking the position of victim, consider taking on the challenging role of partner in progress because we need all of us to move forward including straight, white men. We just need to figure out how we can work together in mutual respect and consideration for our cultural differences.
Marta C. Youngblood is the founder and creative engine behind TheWRITEaddiction creatives co-op founded in 2014 as a virtual community supporting writers from all over the United States of America. Marta’s passion drives her to support the success of creatives from all walks of life to honor their talent and share it with the world. Shei believes that working in our creative callings does not have to be synonymous with being a “starving artist” and helps creatives master the business skills and strategies they need to work in their gifts.