In 2009, director J.J. Abrams transformed Star Trek into a true mainstream hit with his blockbuster movie reboot, earning $385 in worldwide box office and shattered the opening weekend IMAX record; with Star Trek Into Darkness about to hit theaters this Friday, he seems poised to do it again.
But long before the 47-year-old franchise was breaking box office records, it was breaking ground as one of the most forward-thinking franchises in television and film history. Thanks largely to the (at the time) radical philosophy of creator Gene Roddenberry, the show attracted audiences with its adventure stories, but it kept them with its utopian optimism: the idea that the raging intolerance of the day would someday become a thing of the past, and anyone could explore the stars if they wanted.
In the future, Roddenberry envisioned race and gender as non-issues. He put Japanese-American George Takei, as Lt. Hikaru Sulu, at the helm; African-American Nichelle Nichols, as Lt. Nyota Uhura, in the communications chair; and even attempted to make the Enterprise’s first officer a woman (studio executives rejected that unsavory idea, so the alien Spock took the job). The equality on the U.S.S. Enterprise’s bridge was a watershed moment, both in television history and in Americans’ understanding of social equality.
“Most television shows, at best, follow cultural trends. Star Trek had clear-cut ideals of its own,” wrote Joan Winston, Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Sondra Marshak in their 1975 book Star Trek Lives!, the first and most definitive chronicle of the early years of Trek fandom. “No one would claim that Star Trek was the cause of all the improvement [we've made with problems like racism and sexism]. But it is still harder to believe that it had no effect, when twenty million people tuned in to Star Trek and saw Mr. Spock being treated as friend and brother by Captain Kirk, saw the black and the Russian and the Oriental [sic] and the Southerner and the others treating each other with respect and love.”
This heritage makes it all the more unfortunate that the progressive values of the original series seem to have faltered—and even begun trailing the mainstream—with the increasingly pointed absence of LGBT members in later iterations of the franchise, and their failure to treat sexual orientation like the same sort of non-issue that Roddenberry once envisioned for race and gender on the bridge of the Enterprise.
Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations
Star Trek‘s passionate fan community has kept it afloat for nearly half a century, contrary to the stereotypical nerdy white dude image many associate with the Star Trek fandom, some of the most instrumental Trek fans have belonged to marginalized groups who found empowerment and possibility in a futuristic utopian television show when they could not find it in the real world.
“[Star Trek's inclusivity] is the only thing that kept it alive,” Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, CEO of Roddenberry Entertainment and son of Star Trek‘s late creator Gene Roddenberry, told Wired. In 2010, Rod released Trek Nation, a documentary that explored his father’s egalitarian vision and the power it gave the Trek fan community. “It appealed to people who were thinking differently, whether it was college students who were protesting the war, or mixed-race couples, or just people with different ideas. The whole geek/nerd/dork fan movement was a bunch of people who look at life differently. They’re the ones who are leading the charge today, not just with Star Trek, but also, frankly, the world.”
Though the show’s philosophy no doubt encouraged white audiences’ capacity for understanding and tolerance in the ’60s and ’70s, it was doing something vastly more concrete for people of color who were seeing faces like their own on television, in un-caricatured roles, for the first time.
Nichols’ role as Uhura, in particular, was revolutionary: “As most Americans’ first encounter with a nuanced, authoritative character played by an actor who was not only African-American but also a woman, her impact was even more extraordinary considering Nichols almost didn’t return after the show’s first season.” As she explained to the Wall Street Journal in 2011, she’d decided to leave the show and return to Broadway, but a chance introduction at a fundraiser to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – the self-proclaimed “biggest Trekkie on the planet” – made her reconsider.
“He took my hand and thanked me for meeting him,” she remembered, “He then said, ‘I am your greatest fan.’ All I remember is my mouth opening and shutting. I thanked him so much and told him how I’d miss it all. He asked what I was talking about, and told me that I [couldn't] leave the show.” “You are changing the minds of people across the world, because for the first time, through you, we see ourselves and what can be,” he told her.
Nichols stayed with the show. In the third and final season, Uhura and Captain Kirk shared one of the first interracial kisses ever broadcast on American television. And though it wasn’t the very first (Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. had kissed on-air during a special a year earlier), it became another watershed event in television history. Nichols’ continued presence on the bridge had a profound effect on the show’s viewers, and was later cited by NASA astronaut Mae C. Jemison, the first black woman to travel into space in 1992, as an inspiration.
The progressive attitude towards race and gender in the original series also set a precedent for later Trek series and films: The Next Generation featured African-American actors in senior engineering and security roles; Deep Space Nine starred Avery Brooks as Benjamin Sisko, the franchise’s first black commanding officer; Voyager featured a female captain, Kathryn Janeway. Whoopi Goldberg, who played the oracular bartender Guinan on TNG, told Nichelle Nichols many years later that watching Uhura, “a black lady on TV who ain’t no maid,” inspired her to become an actress in the first place. Today, people of all colors and backgrounds working in the sciences (or any field, really) will point to Star Trek as their early – and often only – inspiration. (Don’t believe me? Show up at any Trek convention and ask around.)
“Images show us possibilities,” Dr. Jemison explained simply in 1996. “A lot of times, fantasy is what gets us through to reality.”
The Final Frontier
Thanks to the franchise’s generally inclusive ideology towards the disenfranchised, Trek attracted its share of LGBT fans, as well. Though the announcements came anywhere from two to 36 years after their last Trek appearances, both George Takei and Zachary Quinto (who plays Spock in the Abrams film reboots) have come out in recent years to the celebration of the gay community and practically zero controversy in the larger fandom — probably because openly homosexual and transgender fans in the Trek world have always been fairly commonplace.
“The Star Trek conventions were one of the few places where people could dress and act [however] they wanted, like nothing society was expecting,” said Betty Jo “Bjo” Trimble, a fan who spearheaded a massive (and successful) 1967 grassroots letter-writing campaign known as “Save Star Trek” was rumored that the series would be canceled after two seasons, and helped mobilized Trek’s nationwide fanbase to write a rumored one million letters in support of the show.
Those conventions added another crucial dimension to the show’s progressive power. Started in New York in 1971 and organized by a female-led committee (including Star Trek Lives! co-author Joan Winston), the conventions acted as a lightning rod for fans of all races, genders, and backgrounds to assemble, share experiences, and even produce creative works; media coverage dating back to the first convention reports that fan-made zines disseminated at the meet-ups were created predominately by women and people of color.
Trimble remembers several openly gay (and openly flamboyant) “locals” who’d frequent the conventions she attended in the ’70s. That fan empowerment has spilled over creatively, too; in 2008, a gay-themed episode called “Blood and Fire,” penned by well-known Trek screenwriter David Gerrold but originally rejected by Paramount as being unfit for audiences, was brought to life by Star Trek: Phase II, a fan-helmed web series based on the original television show.
But on the studio’s part, Trek‘s progressive bent has faltered, just as this generation’s civil rights battle could use it the most.
As with all reboots of beloved series, the Abrams reimagining of the Star Trek universe has fostered some inevitable dissent amongst faithfuls. But its most pointed (and salient) critique has been that of a long-empty promise: gay characters on the Enterprise’s bridge.
Veiled dialogue between characters about cultural differences in Trek movies and later series like TNG and Voyager often flirted with LGBT themes. Whoopi Goldberg once edited one of her own lines, from “When a man and a woman love each other” to “When two people love each other”; another TNG episode featured an alien race that could be loosely considered transsexual; another centered around the romantic relationship between the ship’s doctor, Beverly Crusher, and an alien that lives within humanoid hosts (and how it crumbled when that alien had to take a female body).
In 1991, Roddenberry told the press that he planned to add an LGBT character to the TNG cast that season, but when he died suddenly a few months after the interview, his promise vaporized. His successors implemented quasi-transgender subplots on later episodes of Voyager and Deep Space Nine years after his death, but they were largely plot devices used as comic relief; nothing as simultaneously explicit and incidental as an intelligent communications officer who just happens to be a black woman has ever solidified for an LGBT character.
The franchise’s new bosses aren’t doing much about the controversy, either. In 2011, Brannon Braga, a producer on The Next Generation, Voyager and Enterprise, admitted regret at not having pushed for gay characters when he had the chance, implying that it still would’ve been a fight with the studio and network to get those elements on the small screen.
“There was a constant back and forth about well how do we portray the spectrum of sexuality. There were people who felt very strongly that we should be showing casually, you know, just two guys together in the background in Ten Forward,” Braga told AfterElton.”At the time the decision was made not to do that, and I think those same people would make a different decision now… It was not a forward thinking decision.”
The same year, Abrams expressed surprise when he learned that there had been no openly LGBT characters characters in Star Trek. He agree that it “should happen” in the franchise, and that he would bring up with the writers of Into Darkness, though he added it would be a “a tricky thing” to add organically. That was nearly two years ago, however, and the idea hasn’t been discussed any further, despite nudges from fans and media.
Whether or not an LGBT character will manifest on the big screen this Friday remains unknown (if unlikely), but either way the fact remains: In a post-Roddenberry world, there’s no philosophical visionary on Star Trek projects pressuring the studio to push the sociopolitical envelope, so there hasn’t been much – or any, really – burden to continue challenging norms.
Copping Out of this World
Thanks to the success of the 2009 reboot — the most successful Star Trek property ever in box office terms — Paramount has regained a blockbuster franchise with wide-audience appeal, but there’s no reason to think it would have been any less successful if it had been more faithful to the franchise’s subversive spirit. Ignoring social advances and stymieing the franchise’s hallmark ideology seems, at best, to be the path of least resistance.
“It’s sort of a cop-out, and I don’t think that community appreciates this answer,” says Rod Roddenberry, “but in the 23rd and 24th century, and preferably much sooner, whether you are straight, gay, black, white, male, female, it’s a nonissue. You don’t need to see someone walking around the Enterprise with a rainbow flag, or any of the other stereotypical things that would announce that they’re gay. I mean, there were interspecies relationships on Star Trek, so we’re just beyond the point where homosexuality is an issue.”
It’s worth noting that Roddenberry’s role as Roddenberry Entertainment CEO is largely limited to the licensing of the franchise and thus doesn’t include input on plot decisions; Paramount and CBS, obviously, are the licenses’ current owners. But the argument he makes is precisely the problem.
In the 1960s, Uhura and Sulu weren’t standing on soapboxes. They simply did their jobs as senior officers on a starship and just happened to be people of color, or women. It was people, not pointed plot lines, that challenged norms through Star Trek. (Also, interspecies romances only painted wide brushstrokes meant to symbolize universality; they didn’t change anybody’s view of the 20th century or empower marginalized fans like the presence of Uhura or Sulu did.)
The invisibility of gay characters isn’t neutral; it’s negative, and represents a glaring double standard. After all, many a heterosexual romance has played out on the Star Trek screen, often involving notorious ladies’ men like Kirk and The Next Generation‘s Commander William Riker. The omission of a simple homosexual storyline, regardless of how many interspecies or interracial or almost-homosexual romances have been featured, is still very much a point of concern. We are, after all, still living in the 21st century, not the 24th, and it would still be significant to see an LGBT officer serving on the bridge today, much as it was to see a black woman in the ’60s when civil rights battles were being waged.
“I won’t say that [Rick] Berman and [Brannon] Braga and Paramount and J.J. [Abrams] don’t get it,” Roddenberry offers. “I think they certainly do, but they kind of came on to carry the torch and do the best they could to represent Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry. But they – including myself – are not Gene Roddenberry, and therefore it’s not organic. It’s not coming from a visionary, from the creator. The fans have taken over that vision. It’s their hands now.”
Barring a remarkable big screen surprise this weekend, it seems like for now, that’s all we’re going to get.