A Russian ensign, a Japanese pilot, a black communications officer; the first on-air interracial kiss, a civilization gone extinct over skin color, kohms and yangs. Star Trek: The Original Series tackled civil rights and Cold War era political issues with a deft commitment to diversity. Though following series — The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine and Enterprise — took up thoughtful stories about exploration and humanity, none quite matched the sheer political commentary of the original. That is, perhaps, until now.
The Star Trek: Discovery trailer opens with the camera panning over a windy desert planet before settling on two female forms. The first woman comments on the second’s career history, and suggests that she deserves her own command. In the first thirty seconds of the trailer, Star Trek: Discovery has passed the Bechdel test. And passed with flying colors. These two women of color are revealed to be the Captain and First Officer of the series. This trailer alone hearkens back to the powerfully diverse casting of the original series, and suggests that this new series might tackle political issues with greater force than previous series.
In February 2016, I wrote an article for my college’s nonfiction magazine just after I heard that CBS had announced plans for a new Star Trek series. Knowing Star Trek’s history of political commentary, I wrote:
“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.”
I think I might have gotten my wish.
Though it’s hard to say what issues Star Trek: Discovery will or won’t tackle from a 2-minute trailer, it’s clear that this series has reaffirmed Star Trek’s commitment to diversity. Most notably, of gender.
Any discussion of gender in Star Trek would be remiss if it did not pay homage to Nichelle Nichols, Lieutenant Nyota Uhura. Fourth in command of the Starship Enterprise, Uhura is a skilled communications officer, the only woman on the bridge, and the only black member of the cast. Though Nicols often felt like her character was undervalued (from short skirts to unnecessary romantic subplots), her character became one of the most politically powerful. In a 1968 episode titled “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Nichols and William Shatner (Captain Kirk) participated in the first interracial kiss to air on television. Rumors have it that both actors purposefully flubbed takes of the scenes that the network asked to have replace the kiss so that it would have to air. The social power of Star Trek was not lost on audiences. In fact, a fan of the show approached Nichols when she considered leaving the series: none other than the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King told Nichols that she stood for everything the civil rights movement could hope for, a black woman in a position of leadership exploring the stars, and that her role in the show meant as much as marching in the streets.
A generation later, Whoopi Goldberg starred in Star Trek: The Next Generation and credited Nichols as her role model, one of the first black women she ever saw on television playing someone besides a maid. When Leslie Jones, of Ghostbusters reboot fame, in turn credited Goldberg, I couldn’t help but think of the legacy that Nichols and Star Trek had left for women in film.
And so, when Star Trek: Discovery opened on two women of color traversing an alien planet, discussing adventure and career ambitions, I couldn’t help but think back on this legacy. But, I also paused to think about what kind of political commentary this new Star Trek might be seeking to make today. Where the Star Trek of the 1960s asked audiences to consider a universe where a racially diverse crew could take on the galaxy together, I believe that this Star Trek of the 2010s is asking audiences to consider a universe where women might be allowed to succeed in positions of leadership.
It may be too much to say that Star Trek: Discovery is positing a universe where the night of November 8th happened differently, but the series is certainly poised to take on gender imbalances in politics. Sonequa Martin will star as protagonist Michael Burnham, Lieutenant Commander of the titular Discovery, and Michelle Yeoh as Phillippa Georgio, Captain of the Shenzhou. Both women will presumably be faced with leading their crews in exploring new corners of the universe and in engaging in what appears to be a war against the Klingons. Though we know little about the show, other than its autumn release and casting choices, this brief trailer hints at Star Trek’s enduring message.
As Vulcan father of Spock, Sarek, narrates over the trailer, “Great unifiers are few and far between but they do come. Often such leaders will need a profound cause for their followers to rally around.” Given recent political events, men and women and all fans of Star Trek may have found such a cause to rally around. Martin and Yeoh are poised to step in as the leaders to unify that movement.
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Cecilia Nowell is an immigration paralegal by day and a freelance journalist by night. She writes about political art, feminism, and other fun things, and her writing has appeared in Bitch, The Establishment, and Ms. Magazine. In her free time, she drinks too much tea, listens to too many podcasts, and runs a cat blog. Follow her at cecilianowell.wordpress.com and on Twitter @cecilianowell.