When the first Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer hit the internet the backlash to a female main character and the many people of colour filling main roles was vicious. But two and half years later, one would expect the sci-fi fan base to have grown up a little. But when the newest instalment in the Star Trek universe ‘Discovery’ released its first trailer, the ever-dangerous comment section of the YouTube video flooded with complaints.
While the common ‘too many lens flares’ and ‘Klingons look weird’ comments came in, the new take on the show brought in many of it’s own criticism. While the new take on Star Fleet uniforms is a good topic for discussion and debate, the attacks on the new characters is not.
The lead characters in the trailer (and first few episodes) and two women of colour, played by Michelle Yeoh and Sonequa Martin-Green. Many commenters took this shift from the traditional ‘white man in charge’ model as a personal attack – “Where is the alpha male that has balls and doesn’t take crap from anyone?” one asked. “Is everything going to have to have females in every fucking thing?” another asked. A third person called Yeoh “a reject from a overseas customer-support line.” A fourth dubbed the show “Star Trek: Feminist Lesbian Edition.”
You would think anyone familiar with Star Trek in a historical sense, much less the kind who claim the story and characters as their own as self-proclaimed ‘geeks’ so often do, would have a better understanding of the ethos and mission of the series and universe.
In it’s 50 year history, Star Trek has been a beacon for diversity, and cornered the sci-fi market when it comes to inclusion and acceptance. William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura shared the first on-screen interracial kiss – in the 1960’s. From George Takei’s Japanese helmsman and Walter Koenig’s Russian navigator, to ‘’The Next Generation’s’’ black chief engineer, and the ‘’Voyager’’ captain, played by Kate Mulgrew, was the only woman to serve as a central character in any of the “Star Trek” series—until Yeoh and Martin-Green.
And while Star Trek is far from perfect, with a history of ships captained by old white men, placing ‘science’ about alien indigenous species beliefs, a stark lack of LGBTQ+ characters, it offers a unique platform for challenging society by putting ideals of justice, knowledge, and the greater good at the heart of its writing.
As Spock would tell us, ‘ infinite diversity in infinite combination’ which to me would say we get more (and better) Star Trek when a diverse combination of characters are thrown together on a different starship with a different mission. And ‘Discovery’ does just this.
While the lead character of nearly all Trek instalments before have been commanding officers, Discovery has taken a different approach. While the first two episodes feel like the standard Star Trek, a close relationship between a (human) Captain and her (kind of vulcan) First Officer, adventures through space, a few sense flares. But by the end of the second episode a war has started, the majority of the crew including the beloved Captain are dead, and the First Officer has committed treason and is jailed for life. Where do we go from here?
But in breaking all the traditional rules of Trek, Discovery has the freedom to push all the boundaries. Not just in its casting, but in the ethics of the lead characters work as she settles into being a prisoner working on a ship, the moral dilemmas of war, and a growing theme of the balance of tech and ethics. As well, Discovery has brought in another set of LGBTQ+ characters, joining the (seen but not discussed) husband of Sulu seen in Star Trek: Into Darkness.
These broad issues also highlight why the TV format works so well for this show. While Star Trek has crossed all platforms, from film to tv to books, the shift back to the small screen for Discovery, while the large budget blockbusters still occur, has given the team the space to develop well rounded and interesting characters in a way films do not.
While putting an action packed show on the small screen is never easy, especially not one set in a galaxy at war, Discovery manages to bring the story down to the small character details that make the show feel plausible, and doesn’t get too lost in special effects. From the blossoming friendship of the lead, Michael, and her roommate, Tilly, to the return of the original science officer Saru as the First Officer and his complicated feelings towards Michael, Discovery connects each character to the rest of the crew and the key moral questions of the show to create a universe you immediately buy into.
As a lover of Star Trek, I was always excited about the prospect of having a new show. But the new approach the showrunners have taken in both casting and story telling have made Discover a favourite piece of the Star Trek universe for me. I am looking forward to how they will keep pushing boundaries to challenge stereotypes and answer the moral questions the start of the season has posed.