Where No Mainstream Sci-Fi Has Gone Before: Are We Getting Any Bolder?

18 October 2016 | Carolina Palacios

star-trek-1This year marks an important date on any sci-fi geek’s calendar: the 50th anniversary of cult American TV series Star Trek, which aired for the first time on September 8, 1966. Despite the prompt cancellation of the original series after only three seasons, the Star Trek legacy has been kept alive, and 2016 saw the premiere of its 13th movie: Star Trek Beyond. In this era of big sequential blockbusters, amid all the comic book movies, dystopian adventures, and space epics, there is something that sets Star Trek apart: its philosophy. When giving a talk about the success of Star Trek, Roddenberry commented that “The whole show was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.” But while that philosophy influenced Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s every decision in his original series, the Star Trek ethos has unfortunately gotten lost amongst the shiny surfaces and explosions of director J.J. Abrams’ 2009 revival.

Diversity has always played a central part in Star Trek’s ideology in a way that was revolutionary in the 1960s. Just two years after the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Star Trek featured Lieutenant Uhura, a professional black woman who held an important role within the administration of a starship. The assortment of nationalities represented in the USS Enterprise was not incidental, but was key to the realisation of Roddenberry’s utopian vision: the end of discrimination, and the consolidation of real global unity. In short, Star Trek aimed to recreate the most romantic aspects of the age of exploration and scientific discovery, without falling prey to imperialist notions of conquest and colonization.

But despite its grand ideas, we can’t deny Star Trek still reproduced well-worn racist and sexist tropes, specifically in its absurd orientalisation of the “enemy races” and the sexualisation of its female cast. Like many other cultural products of the past, the original series would not hold under today’s standards. However, its core philosophy is still relevant: unity not despite of, but in celebration of differences. So, when it was announced that this well beloved series would be rebooted as a movie in 2009, the hope was that the producers would dismantle these tropes and create an image of the future that would directly address the social and political ideals of the 21st century. Sadly, this was not the case.

star-trek-2

[A group of Klingons in “Day of the Dove” (1968)]

While the 2009 Star Trek had its own issues, I would like to concentrate on its 2013 follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness. The film disappointed fans on all fronts. From the whitewashing of the main villain to the blatant sexualisation of Carol Marcus’ character, it is clear Into Darkness did not live up to Roddenberry’s hopes for a brighter, more diverse future.

The casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan Noonien Singh, a character of South Asian descent, led to much controversy amongst both new and old fans. Actors of colour have a hard time being cast in movies as it is, but when roles originally intended for them go to white actors as well, the problem grows. It is even worse when filmmakers try to justify their choice by affirming that the white actor happened to be ‘perfect for the role,’ as if any of the hundreds of South Asian actors currently searching for roles could not have done as good a job as Mr. Cumberbatch (when, let’s admit it, there was nothing particularly stunning about his performance). An argument was later made in Star Trek comics that Khan had been subjected to intensive cosmetic surgery to change his appearance, which only goes to show the absurd lengths creators are willing to go to avoid recognising the validity of their audiences’ complaints regarding racist casting choices.

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[A watercolour painting of Khan (“Space Seed,” 1967)]

However, some hope remains. Star Trek Beyond (2016) seems to have taken a step forward towards achieving diversity in sci-fi, albeit a small one. Perhaps the most significant addition is the characterization of Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) as a gay man whose husband and daughter make a short appearance in the film. This was intended both as an effort to include sexual diversity in the new movies and as a tribute to George Takei, who played Sulu in the original series, and whose LGBTQIA+ activism is well known. Takei deemed the decision “unfortunate,” but that is a subject for another piece. While not perfect by any estimation, Star Trek Beyond did a far better job than its predecesor of keeping Roddenberry’s vision alive. It also served to raise the stakes for all other science fiction blockbusters — if Star Trek can include race, gender, and sexual diversity in its rosters, and still remain economically viable, then what is really keeping the rest of them from doing the same? Speculative fiction has historically been used to challenge social norms, so perhaps it is time to let it take on this role once again. Considering that the highest-grossing film of 2015 starred a woman, a black man, and a Latin American man, I can’t help but feel that we are, despite constantly stumbling, moving in the right direction.


About Carolina Palacios

Born in Perú and raised in South America. Currently trying to catch a glimpse of Edinburgh amid all the work for my MSc in Literature and Modernity. I spend my days reading a lot, avoiding binge watching sci-fi shows on Netflix, and planning trips that I will never make.

Article edited by Karli Wessale, Robyn Pritzker, Avani Udgaonkar, and Valentina de Riso.

References

Grossberg, Josh. “Star Trek Scribe Damon Lindelof Confesses Alice Eve’s Lingerie Shot Was “Gratuitous”.” EOnline.Com, 22 May 2013, http://www.eonline.com/uk/news/421719/star-trek-scribe-damon-lindelof-confesses-alice-eve-s-lingerie-shot-was-gratuitous.

Roddenberry, Gene. “The Star Trek Philosophy.” http://www.niatu.net/transfictiontrek/download/st-philosophy.mp3

All images belong to CBS.

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