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Star Trek will never be perfect — and that’s the mission

The franchise is a half-century long map of attempts to chart a hopeful future

Star Trek Discovery ship’s Discovery Image: CBS

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Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

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Space, as every Star Trek series famously states, is the final frontier. And that frontier is perpetually traveled by the brave scientists, diplomats, and explorers of Starfleet, the defensive force of the United Federation of Planets.

The Federation is a post-scarcity society, where no one gets sick (except when the writers need someone to get sick), uses money (except when the writers need someone to use money), or experiences mental illness. (Except when the writers… well, you get the idea.)

Star Trek’s utopian future isn’t perfect, not least because if society has solved every problem, then our heroes won’t find any problems to solve, preferably with a lively fight scene and a good speech. But over the course of decades of stories, the franchise has also been riddled with flaws in how it presents human gender, sexuality, and social interaction. Within the writers’ room of every Star Trek show and movie, the Federation’s utopia is a collective dream of high-minded universal equality. But dreams change over time, and that means there are always going to be flaws in Star Trek’s utopia.

Make a list of those flaws, and you’ll have a record, built over half a century, of hopeful people trying to map a hopeful future. If we no longer recognize some of those attempts for what they are, it is because some of the franchise’s older pie-in-the-sky ideas have become everyday expectations. Star Trek’s failures aren’t a bug. They’re a feature.

The Federation will never be a perfect utopia

The bridge crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Original Series. Image: CBS

Star Trek almost never gives us a look at what the average person’s life in the Federation is like, outside of Starfleet ships or space stations. We know our heroes live in a society where they can freely choose their roles without a thought about how their work fits into a capitalistic system. But since the franchise is about space exploration, we focus on the tiny population of people who — despite that freedom — have still picked the job where they’re most likely to be murdered in the course of duty.

In any given episode, Star Trek’s heroes are much more likely to be fighting against the Federation’s rules than not, and this isn’t by accident. Heroes have to strive against the norms, otherwise they’re just redshirts. And in science fiction, the norms are whatever the writers say they are. The Prime Directive prohibits Federation officers from interfering with developing civilizations, no matter how much racism, genocide, false-god-worshipping, fashion crimes, truly draconian applications of the death penalty, or 1920s-style gangster LARPing they’re doing. The directive has always made much more sense as a tool for creating ethical conflicts in Star Trek narratives than as the defining principle of an outreach organization.

This is all to say: There are plenty of good narrative reasons for the Federation to have some problems for our heroes to set themselves against. But when I say that Star Trek’s incomplete utopia is a feature, not a bug, that’s not what I mean. At the risk of repeating myself, Star Trek is an evolving, decades-long dream.

In 1966, Star Trek writers dreamed that men and women of all races could be professional and romantic equals. They laid out an aspirational fictional world where geopolitical rivals America, Russia, and Japan had buried the hatchet so effectively that half the ships in Starfleet had Japanese names. In its 1990s boom, Star Trek was a dream that even our greatest enemies could become staunch allies. That our species would not end in nuclear annihilation, but that our natural curiosity and indefatigable spirit would lead to the stars.

Those dreams have always been incomplete, though, bound by the limits of what writers were capable of conceiving, the social mores of their various eras, and the restrictions involved in making big-budget television.

Star Trek has always failed its mandate

The cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation hanging out on the set of the bridge. Image: CBS

It’s very easy to look at Star Treks past and see the ways the writers failed to reach past their own stereotypes about cultures other than their own. The original series’ supposedly progressive crew — a barely there Japanese guy, a Black woman with no canonical first name, and a Russian who constantly stumps for vodka — would be lambasted for tokenism today.

But in the mid-1960s, no major studio would touch Gene Roddenberry’s plan for a fully race- and gender-integrated future of humanity. It took an independent production company owned by Hollywood’s most famous interracial couple — Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz — to get Star Trek on the airwaves.

We shouldn’t excuse every questionable choice in Star Trek by saying that the writers meant well at the time — just take the numerous rape-lite plotlines in ’90s Trek that revolve around Commander Deanna Troi, Seven of Nine, or T’Pol being telepathically coerced, violated, or invaded against their will. But plenty of the franchise’s choices in everything from costumes to throwaway dialogue to cast rosters happened because the show’s creators reached as far as they possibly could into a reservoir of optimism about the future. That isn’t a buried Hollywood secret by any means: It comes out in some of the Star Trek fandom’s oft-repeated behind-the-scenes tidbits.

In spite of the atypically diverse for the era bridge crew, Star Trek: The Original Series still mostly starred a trio of fair-skinned, nominally straight male characters. But the role of its stoic, unemotional second in command was originally given to a woman, until Paramount executives flatly vetoed a central role for such an unfeminine character concept.

Nichelle Nichols as Uhura in a publicity photo for Star Trek: The Original Series. Image: CBS

Today, we are thoroughly done with uniform designs that put men in pants and women in teeny skirts — but in 1966, the kind of miniskirts Starfleet’s women wound up wearing were up-to-the-moment youth fashion. They were controversial among polite society, derided as the clothing of the vapid woman who placed little value on her own propriety. But for many women of the time, they represented a cheap, attractive garment, usually worn with tights, that was easy to move in.

“I was wearing them on the street. What’s wrong with wearing them on the air?” Nichelle Nichols once told the BBC. On the air, she played a Black woman in a miniskirt who was an equal to or outranked her white male peers; Uhura was a career officer in a leadership position.

When Star Trek: The Next Generation returned to the setting 20 years of real time and century of fictional time later, it tried to interrogate gender with the tools available to mainstream TV in the late ’80s and early ’90s. It put both men and women extras in skants, to represent full equality of the sexes in fashion. Then it made those outfits the official dress uniform.

And 1992’s episode “The Outcast” was an attempt by the Next Generation writers’ room to address a growing call for gay representation on Star Trek. Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes), the show’s pinnacle of straight masculine sexual vibes and its clearest analogue to Kirk himself, eagerly and joyfully pursued a romance with Soren, an alien from a race with a strict (and legally enforced) taboo on expressing anything other than a neutral gender — and only later found out that she secretly identified as female.

Soren’s speech, when she was put on trial for the crimes of being and loving a person who openly displays a specific gender identity, is as good an “I was born this way” moment as any you’d find in mainstream television for years afterward. But naturally, in 2020, “The Outcast” leaves a lot to be desired.

Soren’s culture reads much more like an allegory for transphobia today — except that “The Outcast” is still an episode about a cis woman’s character fighting to affirm her gender as… a woman. It’s not exactly expanding anyone’s ideas about gender presentation. Even in 1992, there were folks behind the episode who thought a male actor could or should have played the role of Soren, including Jonathan Frakes himself. The idea seems to have been shot down for fear of the audience’s reaction. Showrunner Rick Berman told San Jose Mercury News that “having Riker engaged in passionate kisses with a male actor might have been a little unpalatable to viewers.”

Commander Riker and Soren kiss in Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Outcast.” Image: CBS

“The Outcast” is a great example of Star Trek writers cloaking their most progressive ideals in a contrived alien metaphor rather than human representation, something many creators and fans have urged the science fiction genre as a whole to move beyond. But in 2020, many creators still have to fight with studios to get direct, present, and clearly established queer relationships — or even just a kiss — into their shows. We should understand that in the 1990s, those metaphors were sometimes the only way to get two actresses kissing on the air at all.

And beyond all of the above, the biggest reason it is so easy to find regressive moments in Star Trek — short skirts, tokenism, and all — is that our real society has progressed much faster than the writers could have anticipated. Many of Star Trek’s failures aren’t failures of utopian fiction. They are the benchmarks of an evolution.

Star Trek is a living document of our hopes for the future

The most compelling of the Federation’s flaws, for my money, is one that Star Trek writers have been interrogating themselves, for three decades: Starfleet is a force of cultural assimilation. In The Next Generation, the writers, intentionally or not, borrowed aspects from successful forces of antagonism across Star Trek’s history to make the ultimate foe of the Federation. They combined the cold logic of Vulcan with unflinching Klingon expansionism, the Romulans’ lurking outsider menace, and the Mirrorverse’s dark reflection. In 1990, a grating, mechanical voice drawled out through television sets across the world and declared: “YOU WILL BE ASSIMILATED. RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.”

The thematic resonance of the Borg allowed the malevolent collective intelligence to dominate the franchise for an entire decade, a time when America began to wake up to the idea that the vaunted “melting pot” framework of cultural pluralism often amounted to universally expected assimilation to a white ideal. Eventually, Star Trek even began to inch toward understanding the issue as well, with the character of Commander Worf, the Federation’s first Klingon officer, and with Ro Laren, a Bajoran ensign who is repeatedly admonished about dress-code violations for wearing her species’ culturally important jewelry.

“The Enterprise crew currently includes representatives from 13 planets,” Captain Picard tells Worf outright in the episode “Reunion.” “They each have their individual beliefs and values, and I respect them all. But they have all chosen to serve Starfleet. If anyone cannot perform his or her duty because of the demands of their society, they should resign.”

The message is clear: Starfleet officers must assimilate, even at the risk of giving up their own cultures. And that message raises questions. Could combat-glorifying Klingon cultural ways survive integration with Starfleet? And if they couldn’t, was this diplomatic, exploratory, first-contact-performing organization — the best of the best of the Federation and its allies — any better than the monstrous machine empire it opposed? Star Trek: Discovery finally said the quiet part out loud the moment it premiered, by introducing a faction of Klingons whose entire motivation was to preserve ancient ways from what they saw as forced assimilation hiding behind a friendly face.

So long as there are creators committed to going where no Star Trek series has gone before, Star Trek will continue to evolve. Discovery gave the franchise its first Black woman in a protagonist role, a vanishingly rare feat for science fiction cinema. It also created the first canonically gay lead characters in Star Trek — to the welcome arms of the very fandom that coined the term “slash.” And with its third season, the show will feature trans and nonbinary characters actually played by trans and nonbinary actors.

Discovery hasn’t been perfect at pioneering significant queer representation in Star Trek. Season 1’s violent murder of Lieutenant Commander Hugh Culber, Lieutenant Commander Paul Staments’ husband, was a horrendous wound to inflict on hopeful queer fans, however quickly it led to a resurrection plotline in season 2. But Discovery is trying. Star Trek has always tried.

In 1966, it was hopeful to imagine a world in which women wouldn’t be looked down on for dressing “immodestly.” In 1989, it was hopeful to imagine a future where men would be allowed in hospital delivery rooms to support their partners. It seems certain that by 2038 or so, we’ll look at more aspects of Discovery or Picard or Lower Decks and cringe all the same. Star Trek’s failures are, in part, a multi-generational history of hope. They express the fervent wish that one day, humanity will be free to express our best principles, be our best selves, and peer-pressure our coworkers into coming to our amateur poetry recitals.

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