The fundamental flaw in designing any sort of TV show or commercial film set in an idealized or more socially advanced time period is that the time you’re living in still has so many of those battles left to fight. Star Trek perhaps represents that better than any other property. Unlike many other visions of the future, which show a decaying or dystopian society, Gene Roddenberry actually gave us about the best damn possible future for mankind that could be imagined. Sure, there’s some ugliness in between the modern day and the setting of his era, but basically once ole’ Zefram Cochrane blasts his way to the outer rim, we’re sailing pretty sweetly.
Roddenberry was a dreamer, and he put his socially progressive show on the air at a time when it was dangerous to do so. It was an era when veteran Star Trek writer Dorothy Fontana, better known to fans as D.C. Fontana, had to use her initials in order to sell her writing. It was an era when Nichelle Nichols’ casting as Uhura was so vital that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself pushed her to continue in the role when she considered leaving.
Uhura kisses Kirk in the famous “Plato’s Stepchildren’ episode, a perfect example of the clash between Roddenberry’s future and the demands of contemporary commerce. The kiss is not consensual, it’s influenced by telekinesis, giving it an “out.” Furthermore, even though Nichols insists that this rule was broken, the network notes specified that the two actors’ lips couldn’t actually touch in the filming. Whether Roddenberry thumbed his nose at the restrictions or not, the fact that there were such rules about the kiss shows just how far we were in 1968 from the future in which such a thing should not matter at all. And let’s not pretend 2016 is a whole lot better on that front.
As a queer kid who got deeply into Next Generation growing up, the lack of gay characters on the show wasn’t something I noticed. Don’t mistake that sentence for me saying that means it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t notice it because there weren’t gay characters in anything I watched, except maybe reruns of Soap on Nick at Nite and I definitely didn’t get the joke. I knew that people like me were a thing by that point, although I’d only heard the word “transvestite,” and only in a context that made me think it was a shameful thing that should be hidden. So, of course there were no queers in space, right?
I recently finished rewatching all of TNG and Deep Space Nine, and watching those shows now, the lack of a single identified queer character, outside of the random shoddily developed alien race that doesn’t quite hit the mark, is extremely noticeable. While TV in the late 80s and the 90s wasn’t flush with LGBT characters, society was more and more. And TV now is getting so much better at it. So sitting and watching a show set in what is supposed to be the perfect future of humanity and seeing not a single gay character, let alone any other shade on the LGBTQI+ rainbow?
I know how important a queer crewmember would have been. There would be a vision of a future where someone like us would belong. But I also know that this would never have happened. I know that as recently as Star Trek Enterprise, even the consideration of a gay character was considered not ‘family-friendly’ enough.
Roddenberry knew this, too. When George Takei spoke of his dislike of the revelation that his former character Sulu would be gay in Star Trek Beyond, he mentioned that Roddenberry had been sympathetic to LGBT issues even back then, but was walking such a tightrope with the network that he was terrified of getting cancelled.
So now we’re close to the dawn of a new era in Star Trek TV shows. Bryan Fuller just dropped a bunch of details regarding the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery and among them is the fact that there will be a gay character in the cast. This will be the second out gay character in Star Trek after John Cho’s version of Sulu. On top of that, Fuller has announced that the lead character will be a woman, and that his vision of Starfleet will include much more diversity in regards to species as well, something that was one of the stronger elements of Beyond.
I want to be excited about this. I am, I am excited about this. But I’m also terrified. Because we know all too well what just happened with Ghostbusters. And by “just” I mean what happened steadily over the course of the last couple of years since the project was announced. So, as much as I want the exact Star Trek vision that Fuller seems to be laying out there, the one that is at its heart the very realization of the exact dream that Gene Roddenberry had for this world.
In the article I linked above, Fuller is said to still have a hate mail folder from the time when people thought Voyager was going to make Seven of Nine a lesbian, something he says made him decide he’d put a gay character in Star Trek some day if he had the power. It’s a wonderful image of determination from an era when someone mad at a TV show still had to buy stamps. Already the comments are starting to flood in on the Variety articles, dropping hateful rhetoric and slurs, and it likely will only get worse the closer to the time when the series is released online. Likewise, even when I saw Beyond in theaters, as brief and almost inconsequential as Sulu’s momentary display of affection to his husband was, I can still hear in my head the exact tone and inflection of the man who yelled “What?” and scoffed into his popcorn, clearly not happy that a long traveling crewman got to squeeze his man’s back. The constant fear now will be if that voice can get loud enough to prevent Discovery from embarking on a long voyage.
Kudos can be given to Fuller and his writing team for taking up Roddenberry’s vision despite the challenge. Writing a new Star Trek series as an action-y adventure show and jettisoning all of that would probably have been fine with Paramount, so I’m glad that they didn’t do that. But here’s hoping that they can boldly go where so many should have already gone before.
Riley Silverman wants to play a transgender member of Starfleet so badly. Even if she’s a redshirt.