Living Up to the Legacy: How the New Star Trek Can Be as Progressive as the Old

So, we all know by this point that there is going to be a third Star Trek movie and there’s even recent news that the cast has signed on for a fourth. I’m super excited about this because I actually kind of like the new Star Trek movies. Granted, I didn’t enjoy Into Darkness all that much, but I did enjoy the first of the new reboots. There are, however, several issues I have with the new movies. I don’t think the writers understand how alternate timelines work, and so the movies have suffered, but I’m mostly annoyed by the lack of progressive themes and messages that were so inherent to the Star Trek Original Series (TOS).

There are several things that I could talk about here, but today I am going to strictly focus on the cast. When TOS first aired, it was considered revolutionary in terms of representation. There was a Black woman who was in a leadership position and a Japanese man who was also in a leadership position and was in charge of piloting the ship. Neither were stereotyped or portrayed unfavorably, nor were they looked down on by any other crew members. While there were still issues over how people of color in the cast were paid and treated, as well as how much actual air time they got on the show, there is no denying that for its time, Star Trek was revolutionary. Nowadays, not so much. Originally, the TOS cast was supposed to represent the world in microcosm to show how Earth had united. In the 60s having some white people with accents, two people of color, and two to three women was considered enough to show that unity. Now I look at the cast of the rebooted movies and think: “Damn, that’s a lot of white heterosexual cisgender able-bodied men.” It doesn’t really have the same effect anymore. And if the new reboot movies really want to up their game, I think it is time to add to the cast. So what do the new Star Trek movies need in order to have them same impact that the original series had? Well, several things.

First off, we need more women. I suppose now we have two women considering that both Uhura and Carol Marcus have become major players. While both have been developed outside of their male co-stars, I do see a worrisome trend in the movies to turn both Uhura and Carol into walking, talking plotlines for the male characters. Uhura’s plotline, especially in the last movie, largely centered around her relationship with Spock. And while Carol was no one’s significant other in Star Trek: Into Darkness, the writers were quick to lay on the sexual tension between her and Kirk. Considering that she is the mother of Kirk’s son in the original movies, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Carol will be regulated into the role of girlfriend, or worse, not make an appearance in the next movie at all. There are two other female characters that the writers could incorporate as well: Yeoman Rand and Nurse Chapel. Nurse Chapel was dismissed as a one-off girl Kirk had slept with, which pisses me off to no end because in TOS Nurse Chapel was actually in more episodes than Chekov. But he’s included in the new movies while Chapel gets written off as one of Kirk’s one night stands. That is utterly unacceptable. Nurse Chapel deserves to be in these movies. Nurse Chapel, was a strong, capable, kind hearted, and gentle nurse who worked alongside McCoy in sick bay. She was portrayed as just as intelligent as McCoy, but often more level headed than the doctor. Nurse Chapel is more known for her unrequited crush on Spock, which I would actually prefer not to see in the reboots as love triangles are just silly and we need some unattached women in these movies. Yeoman Rand is also an excellent female character from TOS who was in several of their more feminist episodes. The episode, “Charlie X” specifically comes to mind here when Yeoman Rand explains to a socially dysfunctional Charlie that his possessive and stalker-y actions toward her are not acceptable. Yeoman Rand often has to put up with an uncooperative Kirk in order to fulfill her duties, but always remains up to the challenge. Though some view Rand and Chapel as being weak characters I think any problems with their characters tended to be more due to the sexism of the time. All the women in TOS suffer from at least a somewhat sexist portrayal. So it would be nice to see Rand and Chapel portrayed in a more modern feminist way in the reboots. Similarly to how Uhura has been given more screen time and more character development in the reboots.

There is just one problem with this: we would then have three blond white chicks and Uhura as our only woman of color. My opinion is to either A) bring in more original female characters or B) make both Yeoman Rand and Nurse Chapel people of color. Personally, I think for Star Trek to truly be progressive today they absolutely have to have a hijabi Muslim girl in the cast. I would be in favor of Yeoman Rand as a Muslim woman because having her be the no-nonsense Yeoman assigned to Kirk, bossing him around, would be amazing. It would also be nice if she wasn’t just a Yeoman (basically Star Trek secretaries), but a young woman on the command track working her way up to having a ship of her own. Nurse Chapel could easily be recast as a Latina woman, which would add some much needed representation considering that the only Latina character in Star Trek: Voyager was Torres. But Torres was half Klingon, so her Latina heritage was largely overshadowed by her being part alien. Nurse Chapel as Latina would be great and certainly wouldn’t take away anything from her character.

Even if we change Nurse Chapel and Yeoman Rand into people of color and give them bigger roles than they had in the show, we are still woefully lacking in representation because we’d have six white characters to four people of color. If Star Trek wants to show the world as it really is then representation needs to look more like this:

and less like this:

Sadly, I don’t know what else to do about this issue. I have heard that Idris Elba is being added to the Star Trek cast, but I have this suspicion that he will be playing a Klingon so while that will make the cast more diverse it won’t make the characters more diverse. They could add characters like George M’Benga, who was a Black doctor on TOS who specialized in Vulcan biology and medicine. But adding more characters is kind of a crap shoot, because, let’s face it, at the end of the day the movies will be about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. I am grateful that Uhura has been given more prominence in the movies and that Sulu has gotten more time to shine. Sadly, pretty much all of our characters, whether they help representation or not, will take a back seat to our three main white male characters. It makes me sad that the movies didn’t consider recasting some of these original characters as people of color. I suppose that’s because the reboot is meant to be an alternate timeline, but comics have alternate universes where the characters are different ethnicities; I’m sure the Trek writers could have thought of something. Alas, that ship has sailed. The most I can say is to add the female characters of color I suggested and then any other new side characters (or main characters, even if they are only main characters for that one movie) should be people of color.

This leads me to my next big issue: if Star Trek is going to be the progressive, groundbreaking show it once was, then there have to be LGBTQ+ characters. There absolutely has to be! I have already written about how ridiculous it is that there has yet to be any queer characters in Star Trek so I won’t discuss that here. But we have the same issues here as we did with people of color. Adding more characters can almost guarantee they won’t get as much screen time. But at least here we have another option. There’s no reason that current characters from from the reboot couldn’t be queer. I know some people would love to see Sulu or Spock be queer characters as a nod to their gay actors (George Takei (TOS) & Zachary Quinto (Reboot)). And given the current political climate of Russia, Chekov being portrayed as queer would be pretty profound. However, historically our media and queer rights movements tend to favor white gay men. Any time there is a gay character they are almost always white and male. So if Chekov, or at least just Chekov, were gay, that would still be pretty average representation and not the revolutionary type Star Trek was been known for. Maybe Uhura could be bisexual or Carol Marcus could be a lesbian (maybe she wasn’t attracted to Kirk but found his flirting with her hilarious). And while I just said white men tend to be the usual representation for gay people, it’s go big or go home time, so let’s make Kirk a panromantic pansexual. Admittedly that would be a bit of an pansexual stereotype, but I have to say I would love to see someone with my sexual preferences as Captain of the Enterprise. Queer representation in our media tends to stick with gay and lesbian people, and very very rarely some bisexual representation. So it would be great to have some of the other lesser known sexual orientations represented.

However, with gay marriage now legalized in the United States, adding just queer characters won’t be as radical as it could have been. Instead it might seem like Star Trek is just going with the flow, so to truly be progressive, I think we need  a trans character on Star Trek. Not just a trans character, but a trans woman in charge. I want the new admiral over Kirk to be played by Laverne Cox or heck any other trans woman of color. Now, I know that means she would end up as a supporting character, but in the last two movies both Admiral Pike and Admiral Marcus had major roles so there is no reason that the same can’t happen here. Plus it would be great to see the people in charge of Starfleet as more diverse as well.

To some diehard TOS fans, this post may seem like heresy because it changes some  things about the original characters, but I am less interested in a literal reboot of TOS than one that lives up to the spirit of TOS and what it stood for. The rebooted movies have already gotten called out for racism, sexism, and homophobia—that is not what the Star Trek Original Series was at all about. If the newest Star Trek reboot movies want to live up to even half of TOS’s reputation, then they need to step up their representation game in a major way.

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3 thoughts on “Living Up to the Legacy: How the New Star Trek Can Be as Progressive as the Old

  1. While I admit I don’t go scanning through a show or movie’s cast looking for who is what, the truth is that Star Trek, from its beginning, has always been different from typical television, precisely because if its representation, both in setting and cast. The Sad Thing, of course, is that decades after TOS launched, it and its successors still stand out in this regard.
    I still recall the cries of “WTF?” when Voyager debuted, and how people could not deal with the crew makeup, calling it “political correctness run amok!” This at a time when the competition consisted of Seinfeld, Friends, and Frasier (hello, Captain Bateson) — monochrome shows, all (and kudos to Robert Beltran for pointing that out in an interview). Even Trekkers were griping about Tuvok, conveniently forgetting that a dark-skinned Romulan appeared in season 5 of TNG….

    For myself, Deep Space Nine stands as a solid carrying forward of the saga, in part for the writing, but again, for the casting and acting. And pretty much everyone was not normative. Sure there was O’Brien ( Irish man married to Japanese woman), and Sisko ( African-American man grappling with no small amount of character business, including Cosmic Powers being interested in him), but when you need to bring in Worf ( a Klingon adopted by humans) to add the familiar, I would argue that the cast is by no means uniform.

    And that leads me to another thing — while the diversity of Earth is indeed less represented in Trek than it could be ( count me one of those deeply unhappy that “Blood and Fire” was never mad on TNG, or that Lt. Hawk was only outed in tie-in novels and then died), there’s also a critical underuse of non- Earthers that are not Spock or Keenser in the Abrams Trek Movies. As I have said before, Gaila deserved to be more than just a check box on Kirk’s List of Parallel Business ( Kurtzmann and Orci thought so too, to judge by all the back story they wrote). Where are the Andorians (how about an alternate Thelin from TAS), Denobulans, Ithenites, Chelon, or even Trills? You want a polymorphous pansexual character, can’t do better than the Odan symbiont. As long as it’s got opposable thumbs, it will try anything, or anyone. 😉

    So, let’s think really outside the box ( or wheel)…. You with us, Bad Robot?

  2. I respectfully disagree that having a hijabi Muslim woman on the cast would be “progressive” – on the contrary, it would be “archaic” because it’s the 23rd century, not the 21st we’re talking about. Roddenberry’s vision for the future of humanity as portrayed in Star Trek has always been a secular / humanist / atheist one so making one of the characters an observant religious person (of any religion, mind you!) totally contradicts this concept. That being said, I would totally appreciate a woman of Middle Eastern descent on the crew – Lieutenant Fatima Al-Kickass, maybe 😉 – to teach the world that not every Middle Eastern person is a religious nutjob and potential terrorist threat.

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