After the casting of Patrick Stewart in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” a reporter famously goaded Gene Roddenberry: “surely they would have cured baldness by the 24th century.” To which he replied: “In the 24th century, they wouldn’t care.”
That’s what I think of when I read J.J. Abrams’ latest quotes about the next Star Trek film, in which he’d like to include a gay character:
“You know what’s funny? As someone who was never a huge Star Trek fan and I didn’t watch the shows. And my experience with the movie was the first in the series and then watching and re-watching some of the movies that I’ve seen. I’m frankly shocked that in the history of Star Trek there have never been gay characters in all the series. In Deep Space Nine and all the Enterprises that that’s never come up.”
You know what I think is funny? When someone confesses ignorance of a topic and then proceeds to have a scathing opinion. Wait, no, that’s the opposite of funny, that’s infuriating. Plus it cuts into my imagined monopoly on that approach.
See, from my point of view, of course there have been gay characters on “Star Trek,” it’s just that in the 24th century no one cares about it. A gay character is more problematic to integrate than the fantastic progressive tone of race in the original series, in which different races worked side by side, because it’s not a character element that is immediately physically apparent. And so in order to introduce it, the story must work in opposition to how and why the original series’ approach to race was so groundbreaking. It was not a very special episode to establish Uhura’s blackness or Chekov’s Russianness. These things were simply there and did not matter to anyone within the context of the universe. “Star Trek” was not progressive because it had a black woman, it was progressive because none of the other characters gave a damn that she was a black woman. But if a character was gay and none of the other characters cared, how would the audience know?
The answer of course is that in it would become immediately apparent in any storyline featuring romance or sex. A show like “Torchwood” in which the main character will bat from either side of the plate (and possibly from atop the mascot if it’s gorgeous enough) is able to pull this off because it regularly deals with sex and the relationships of its characters. This gets into one of the shortcomings of “Star Trek” though. It is a universe that has been presented as remarkably sexless, particularly in the movie strain of the franchise. Instances of even references to relationships in the movie series can be counted off on one hand, despite there being eleven films at this point.
Abrams acknowledges the conundrum, asking “how do you do it where it doesn’t feel like why am I getting into that kind of detail about the character’s life if not just to make a point of it?”
I can see that point, I can see the sort of automatic eye roll at the tertiary character with one line of dialog which just so happens to establish that he’s gay before space worms eat through his red shirt. Doing it half-assed just trivializes the point. It’d be like if the first interracial kiss on television had been a couple in the background while Kirk and Spock saved the universe. Want to really stay true to the progressive roots of this series, Mr. Abrams? Make Kirk gay in Star Trek XII.