Why we need Star Trek — and its progressive values — more than ever
With 'Discovery' premiering this weekend, we take a deep dive into why the franchise's values matter
A society based on inclusivity, rationality and respect might seem like a lost cause in our current reality — but over the last 50 years, Star Trek has stubbornly clung to these values to create a world as complex as our own, only better. The iconic sci-fi franchise has pushed the boundaries of mainstream entertainment and what the masses find acceptable. And along the way, it's offered insights on the evolution of progressive values and the growing pains of any society.
The Star Trek universe reflects the complexity of our world without pulling punches. Whether it's climate change, diversity, feminism, gender identity, PTSD or capital punishment, our space-faring fictional counterparts have covered it all. With 50 years of world-building under their collective belt, the shows have evolved to keep up or even outpace the sensibilities of their audiences — whether their creators intended to or not — because social issues never exist in a vacuum. Unlike space...get it? (OK, sorry.)
With the new series — premiering Sept. 24. — starring two women of colour and the franchise's first on-screen relationship for an openly gay character, and considering our chaotic news cycle, now is the time to talk about the humanist fever dream that is Star Trek.
Our new normal is a rapidly changing, environment shaped by human interference — as hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Jose recently reminded us. And yet a large number of politicians deny climate change is even happening. In hindsight, Star Trek seems prescient in its treatment of environmental change, time and again showing entire civilizations sentencing themselves to death. What is the reason entire races choose to repeat this cycle of self-destruction? The answer is often simple: money.
Where our world diverges most from Star Trek's Earth utopia is our attachment to money and distrust of science. While leaders on this Earth question science, in the Star Trek it literally saves the world.- Alexandra Kazia
By the time Kirk takes over the captain's chair, humanity has already faced near destruction in World War III (the "eugenics wars"). Learning from its past mistakes, our fictional descendants do away with money, relying on replicator technology to provide life's necessities. This death of capitalism at the hands of scientific advancement creates a lovely, if implausible, socialist dreamscape that solves most of Earth's problems.
Where our world diverges most from Star Trek's Earth utopia is our attachment to money and distrust of science. While leaders on this Earth question science, in the Star Trek universe it literally saves the world. It is only when humans discover warp drive that the Vulcans feel it right to make first contact and guide humanity into the new interstellar era, encouraging a more unified earth that can start to live up to its full potential.
Sexuality and gender
Compared to some other shows, Star Trek has always lagged behind when it comes to sexuality — it's only now that a main character will be shown to be openly gay and in a relationship. (The most recent J.J. Abrams film depicted Lt. Sulu's husband and child, but the scene was a blink-and-you-miss-it moment on screen.) But while network TV might have tamed Gene Roddenberry's push for more socially progressive LGBTQ stories — he said he wanted a gay character in The Next Generation — some did trickle through.
The iconic sci-fi franchise has pushed the boundaries of mainstream entertainment and what the masses find acceptable. And along the way, it's offered insights on the evolution of progressive values and the growing pains of any society.- Alexandra Kazia
Before Discovery, TNG's 1992 episode "The Outcast" is the franchise's only obvious attempt at tackling sexuality and gender discrimination overtly. Resident ladies' man Cmdr. Riker falls for Soren, a member of the J'naii — a species said to be strictly genderless. But Soren reveals she and others on her world are born with "inclinations to maleness" or femaleness and are persecuted for their urges. If discovered, they must undergo "psychotectic therapy" before returning to society. During her trial, Soren gives a touching speech, demanding compassion from her peers: "It is not unnatural...I do not need to be cured. We haven't injured you in any way, and yet we are scorned and attacked and all because we are different...What makes you think you can dictate how other people love each other?"
To some people it may seem a bit heavyhanded, but given how recent the fight over marriage equality in the U.S. was and the country's current fearmongering about the transgender community, what is essentially her "love is love" message remains depressingly timely.
While the Star Trek universe featured a memorable female character from the start, its depiction of women kicked into warp speed (sorry) in Voyager. The series' lineup of strong, nuanced female characters — including its first woman captain — offers a study in humanity, strength, trauma and female friendships. Voyager reportedly has 86 per cent of its episodes pass the Bechdel test, and it also features only one white man (and one white "holographic" man) in its main credits. I'll let you judge whether those factors play into the lack of respect for the series.
Feminism in space remains an intersectional issue. While Earth women may enjoy the benefit of gender neutral unitards and equal replicator rations, women of other species still deal with various types of misogyny. Kazon women remain invisible members of a fundamentalist society, and the Klingons have strong women who initiate mating rituals but are often absent in the front of government and battleships.
And then we have the Ferengi.
Through our rather curmudgeonly bar owner Quark in Deep Space Nine and his family, we witness an entire planet's feminist revolution. Ferengi women are forbidden from wearing clothes and remain at home, barred from earning profit. Since possessions are the crux of the society's elaborate religion — summarized in 281 rules of acquisition which any self-respecting Ferengi can recite with the ease of a televangelist — women are very clearly second-class citizens.
Quark's mother eventually begins wearing cloths and subverts the system from within, and by the end of the show's seven-year run, there's more equality for "females" on Ferenginar. Sound familiar? At least some of it should, since Ferengi are largely stand-ins for real life humans. In the DS9 episode "The Jem'Hadar," Quark says: "I think I figured out why humans don't like the Ferengi...The way I see it, humans used to be a lot like Ferengi: greedy, acquisitive, interested only in profit. We're a constant reminder of a part of your past you'd like to forget."
Like the Ferengi feminist revolution, nearly all Star Trek episodes dealing with race smack you in the face with obvious allegories.
The classic Original Series episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" showcases the inanity of arbitrary racial division with a conflict between two groups of people: those whose faces are black on the right and white on the left, and those whose faces are the reverse. The episode was shockingly poignant for a 1960s network TV show — but times change, and by the 1990s, so had the audience (to a point).
In the wake of Charlottesville, it's safe to say subtlety and denial haven't been anyone's friends. With the 1993 appearance of its first black captain — Benjamin Sisko in DS9 — the show tackled racial prejudice head on rather than erase it from its utopian world. In "Beyond the Stars," Sisko has a vision of himself as Benny Russell, a pulp sci-fi writer in 1950s America who creates the story of a black captain at a futuristic space station. Russell struggles with inequality and civil rights, eventually losing his grasp on reality, and he and the audience witness cops kill his best friend. As his editor tells him the world is not yet ready for a black protagonist, Russell screams, "I'm tired of being calm! Calm never got me a damn thing!" He continues, breaking down: "You can pop a story, but you cannot destroy an idea."
This snapshot of 50s America forces white audiences to confront a culture that packages the systemic oppression of people of colour as post-racial equality. Star Trek's message about race is clear: humanity's strength comes from unity, particularly in the face of hostile alien civilizations. And the aliens, in turn, provide means of exploring how humanity often handles other differences.
Whether it's Brexit or literal Nazi rallies in America, the past few years have been increasingly dominated by the rhetoric of xenophobia. Living up to its motto 'to boldly go where no one has gone before,' Star Trek has explored similar themes through its many encounters with alien races.- Alexandra Kazia
Whether it's Brexit or literal Nazi rallies in America, the past few years have been increasingly dominated by the rhetoric of xenophobia. Living up to its motto "to boldly go where no one has gone before," Star Trek has explored similar themes through its many encounters with alien races.
In the two episodes preceding the finale of Enterprise (a prequel series that ended in 2005), we meet an "Earth first" group called Terra Prime. Though it aired over a decade ago, this chilling speech could easily be given by the Trumps of today:
"A new era is at hand. An era that will expose the concept of interspecies unity as an absolute and vicious lie. An era that will witness the advent of a Human-centered consciousness that will place our world before all others...Terra Prime forever." Eventually exposed as bigots, Terra Prime is thankfully defeated — and the way is paved for what will eventually become the United Federation of Planets.
We are no strangers to the problems explored in Star Trek over the years — they are merely a reflection of what pains us — but we are relatively new to any solutions. Inclusivity and its egalitarian spirit have kept Star Trek alive and thriving for more than 50 years now. It's a testament to how entertainment should enlighten us and teach us empathy, making you see the best and worst in yourself and humanity — and want to fix it.
And if we can't boldly go where we should, at least we can watch an alternate world where we do.