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What 'Star Trek' has taught us about diversity

"Star Trek: The Original Series."  (Image credit: CBS)

On September 8, 1966, a new kind of show premiered on NBC. Described by creator Gene Roddenberry as a Western set in space, "Star Trek" took viewers to the 23rd century on a five-year mission to explore space aboard a ship called the Enterprise. 

But, what was immediately remarkable about this television show wasn’t its setting or tone: It was its cast.

The iconic crew of the original Enterprise is now a staple in television history. But it’s worth remembering how rare it was, in that era, to see any characters of color on television that weren’t just negative stereotypes. 

George Takei, a Japanese-American actor, played Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu while the lovely Nichelle Nichols, an African-American actress, portrayed Lieutenant Uhura. Seeing these two characters on screen, as a part of this utopic future changed countless lives for the better. Kids took their inspiration from a future in which all would be included. For the first time, kids of color could see themselves on screen in positive ways, and the repercussions have lasted generations

Related: 7 Lessons 'Star Trek' Taught Us About Life, Leadership and Diversity

Roddenberry believed in an idea he termed as IDIC, or "infinite diversity in infinite combinations." The fundamental belief behind IDIC is a celebration of the diversity the universe has to offer. While it’s since been labeled a marketing ploy intended to sell merchandise (Roddenberry ascribed this philosophy to the Vulcans on screen), that doesn’t mean IDIC hasn’t had a lasting impact on the franchise. As Roddenberry’s son, Gene "Rod" Roddenberry, Jr., said in "The Fifty Year Mission," an oral history of "Star Trek" by Mark Altman and Edward Gross, IDIC is "one of the backbones of the original series” and focuses on the idea of “universal acceptance."

But what does "universal acceptance" mean? That’s a difficult question and one that many still struggle to answer today. It’s worth looking at what Trek has taught us, both on and off-screen, to help us grapple with what being inclusive really means as often, societal realities fall short of the ideal. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop trying to do and be better.

While "Star Trek" has almost always been ahead of its time in terms of diversity portrayal on-screen (with the notable exception of "Enterprise," which regressed somewhat in terms of representation), the different Trek series do reflect the time in which they were produced. 

Revisiting Trek

"The Original Series," for example, may have been lauded for its inclusivity, but there was only one woman on the bridge. Takei has become a cultural icon, but it’s easy to forget how little character development he was given on screen, to the point where he was omitted from some episodes altogether. 

"The Next Generation," on the other hand, had just two women in its regular cast throughout the bulk of the series, and just one character of color in LeVar Burton’s Geordi La Forge. (However, there were two regular actors of color on the show — Michael Dorn, a Black actor, played Worf in full makeup every episode). 

"Deep Space Nine," features one of the most meaningful father/son relationships in television history between Benjamin Sisko and his son Jake, played respectively by Black actors Avery Brooks and Cirroc Lofton, but maintained the status quo of an overwhelmingly male cast. Additionally, the Ferengi were rightly criticized as being antisemitic Jewish stereotypes.

"Voyager," increased the number of regular female cast members to three and expanded racial representation, but it’s hard to forget the catsuits that Jeri Ryan was forced to wear as Seven of Nine in an effort to "sex up" the series.

That’s another important lesson that "Star Trek" teaches us: When it comes to inclusiveness, execution matters just as much as intention. It’s not enough to add in women and characters of color as set dressing. They need to be included in the show in a meaningful, purposeful way, something that the franchise has learned over the years.

Related: How Borgs, Vulcans and doctors showed diversity on 'Star Trek: Voyager'

"Discovery" premiered on CBS All Access to much fanfare in 2017, after "Trek" took a 12-year break from the small screen. The series lead is Sonequa Martin Green, a Black woman who plays Michael Burnham; the show also features its first gay couple in Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber, played by Anthony Rapp and Wilson Cruz, respectively. While there is always room to do better, the show embodies the diversity that the franchise has always espoused. From female friendships to the diverse secondary cast, the LBTQIA+ representation and the women of color in positions of power: When it comes to representation, this show is an endless delight.

However, "Discovery" was uneven in its first season: "Creative differences" led to choppy storytelling, and the congenial, diverse environment onscreen hid a toxic, abusive writer’s room. As the show course-corrected in its second season and fans eagerly await the third, this behind-the-scenes drama reminds us that toxic environments can exist anywhere, even in places that proclaim to value diversity.

Indeed, the backlash to "Discovery" in certain segments of the fandom underlined this lesson: On the surface, legions of Trek fans proclaim to love the diversity the franchise has historically presented. However, a subset of "fans" is in open revolt at the future "Discovery" shows us. 

"Star Trek" has almost always catered to a straight white male demographic (with the exception of "Voyager," which was led by female captain Kathryn Janeway, played by Kate Mulgrew). By placing women, gay men and characters of color at the front and center, Discovery’s message is that those straight white male fans aren’t necessarily centered anymore. It’s not that they aren’t important — just that other fans matter too. And many aren’t taking to that revelation kindly.

That’s not to say that every criticism of "Discovery" is rooted in anti-inclusiveness — it’s impossible for one show to cater to everyone’s tastes, especially in a fandom as vast and varied as this. But Alex Kurtzman, who holds the future of the "Star Trek" franchise in his hands, has made it clear that he’s continuing to learn these lessons of inclusivity as he leads, taking Trek’s impactful but imperfect history into account every step of the way. 

It’s not perfect, and it likely never will be. But that’s okay. The most important thing that "Star Trek" has taught us about diversity is that we will go in with the best of intentions, and often we’ll mess it up. But with every next step, we’ll continue to try and do better.

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  • Mergatroid
    "But, what was immediately remarkable about this television show wasn’t its setting or tone: It was its cast. "

    This is what I find so bizarre about the world now. When Star Trek first hit the screen, we didn't find it amazing because of the cast. The cast was so natural, and everyone fit their roles so perfectly, the diversity of the crew just seemed normal. It wasn't anything brought up.

    Forced diversity is not the same thing. If Star Trek came out today for the first time, there would be people on the set and in the audience actually counting genders and races to make sure there was a perfect mix, like anything in life is perfect.

    What people want today and what Gene Roddenberry envisioned are not the same thing.

    Another perfect example, the first interracial kiss. They didn't make a big deal out of it, it's just a part of the story. It could have been any two characters, but the way they did it made it seem like no big deal, something that was normal in that time. Of course it was a big deal for the people watching the show in the 1960s, but not for the characters from hundreds of years in the future. If they did this today, they would likely make an entire production out of it.

    This goes back to the same problems the new Star Trek series have. I notice a lot of sites like interviews with people in the industry talking about "toxic fans", but no one talks about the toxcic producers who come out with a show they know the fans are not going to embrace, because they asked and were told no, that's not a good idea, but they come out with them anyway and then are surprised when the fans are not happy. They are just taking todays problems and projecting them into the future and Star Trek when that show is supposed to be about a better future. That was Gene's vision, a future when our civilization is a better place and people get along. They have ruined Star Trek, in fact it's 'Trek in name only now, and no longer has anyting to do with Gene Roddenberry's vsion.
    Reply
  • Jasper
    "But, what was immediately remarkable about this television show wasn’t its setting or tone: It was its cast."

    In a way it is sad to look at people with coloured glasses.
    I looked at it in black and white on a very small TV and it was the best and most inspiring thing I ever saw.
    I wonder how many Vulcans got inspired by it?
    Reply
  • BobW
    George was missing only because he was filming "The Green Berets"
    Reply
  • J Smith
    Mergatroid said:
    Another perfect example, the first interracial kiss. They didn't make a big deal out of it, it's just a part of the story. It could have been any two characters, but the way they did it made it seem like no big deal, something that was normal in that time. Of course it was a big deal for the people watching the show in the 1960s, but not for the characters from hundreds of years in the future. If they did this today, they would likely make an entire production out of it.

    They DID expect some controversy, so they filmed a few takes where they didn't actually kiss. They were WELL AWARE of the racial strife going on in 1968, and the potential blowback that this scene might have generated. Nichelle Nichols has spoken about the episode multiple times, noting that while there was some concern that the episode would spark protest amongst viewers, but the reaction was generally positive. The point you might be missing here, is that they did that scene DESPITE what the network and a lot of racists would have wanted.

    Mergatroid said:
    They are just taking todays problems and projecting them into the future and Star Trek when that show is supposed to be about a better future.

    I seem to recall the original ST series doing that several times. I.e. the classic "Let that be your last Battlefield" was all about racial strife, and it's utter meaningless. It was obviously a problem (then & now).

    The problem in recent times is that you have people who now feel it is perfectly okay to spew their racism in public, just because our current president and his party gives them permission to do so. These are the same people that have a fit at the local Costco/WalMart because they're asked to wear a mask to help stop the spread of Covid19. This is why the disease is currently raging in this country with over 155,000 deaths, while it is mostly a non-issue in most other countries now (it's nonexistent in New Zealand).

    I've witnessed this defect in our national character more than once in the last four years. In a comments section for the movie "Hidden Figures" there were many obvious racists bemoaning about how the movie was "made up hollywood racial diversity BS", and that it never happened.

    I used to admin on a TF2 server a few years back, and I seen many of these types on there. They also liked to pick on women gamers (misogynists & racists tend to be fellow travelers). Surprisingly, many were millennials. I had to constantly ban people like that off of our server whenever they reared their ugly heads. Some of the best gamers I know are women.

    I like the new Star Trek Discovery series, even if it is not a straight white man centric storyline. It does have racial and even sexual diversity in it, but that does not detract from the interesting and expanding storylines unless you allow your own prejudices to get in the way.

    Remember, in the future nobody cares what your race OR sexual orientation is. I think Gene Roddenberry would have not only approved of this new series, he would have been proud.

    FYI, I'm an straight white man over 50.
    Reply
  • Nehmo
    Admin said:
    What is so remarkable about Star Trek isn't its setting or tone: It is its cast.

    What Star Trek has taught us about diversity : Read more
    There wasn't much diversity in the original Star Trek. It had one black chick for sex appeal, and Asians aren't a lower class anyway. Most of the show was Kirk, Spock, and some McCoy. The accolades for diversity didn't come until much later. And as I remember only one episode of the original series dealt with racism - the one in which the right-half/left half of a humanoid spices was mirror-imaged in another species. And they hated one another.
    Reply
  • Mergatroid
    J Smith said:
    They DID expect some controversy, so they filmed a few takes where they didn't actually kiss. They were WELL AWARE of the racial strife going on in 1968, and the potential blowback that this scene might have generated. Nichelle Nichols has spoken about the episode multiple times, noting that while there was some concern that the episode would spark protest amongst viewers, but the reaction was generally positive. The point you might be missing here, is that they did that scene DESPITE what the network and a lot of racists would have wanted.



    I seem to recall the original ST series doing that several times. I.e. the classic "Let that be your last Battlefield" was all about racial strife, and it's utter meaningless. It was obviously a problem (then & now).

    The problem in recent times is that you have people who now feel it is perfectly okay to spew their racism in public, just because our current president and his party gives them permission to do so. These are the same people that have a fit at the local Costco/WalMart because they're asked to wear a mask to help stop the spread of Covid19. This is why the disease is currently raging in this country with over 155,000 deaths, while it is mostly a non-issue in most other countries now (it's nonexistent in New Zealand).

    I've witnessed this defect in our national character more than once in the last four years. In a comments section for the movie "Hidden Figures" there were many obvious racists bemoaning about how the movie was "made up hollywood racial diversity BS", and that it never happened.

    I used to admin on a TF2 server a few years back, and I seen many of these types on there. They also liked to pick on women gamers (misogynists & racists tend to be fellow travelers). Surprisingly, many were millennials. I had to constantly ban people like that off of our server whenever they reared their ugly heads. Some of the best gamers I know are women.

    I like the new Star Trek Discovery series, even if it is not a straight white man centric storyline. It does have racial and even sexual diversity in it, but that does not detract from the interesting and expanding storylines unless you allow your own prejudices to get in the way.

    Remember, in the future nobody cares what your race OR sexual orientation is. I think Gene Roddenberry would have not only approved of this new series, he would have been proud.

    FYI, I'm an straight white man over 50.

    But my point was that, although they could expect a reaction from people in the 1950s, the show was about people in the future who are much more enlightened. This is why the final cut only made a big deal over two people being forced to kiss, not what colour they were.

    As for the episode "Let that be your last Battlefield", again the crew ridiculed those two aliens for their prejudice. Something they were amazed by because it just didn't exist in the Federation.

    As for Discovery, not liking it has nothing to do with whoever centric it is. After all, lots of us like Voyager, and Kate Mulgrew was an excellent captain. It's the swearing, the attitudes and the breaking of canon that kills that show.

    And, no, I don't think Gene would have been proud of the conflicts, cigar smoking and swearing in Picard. Not only did they make the Federation appear stupid, but ignorant and spiteful as well. This is NOT Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek.
    Reply