Newer Frontiers: Will The Star Trek Reboot Live Up to Its Social-Frontier-Breaking Legacy?

Star Trek was one of the most forward-thinking TV shows of its era. First airing in 1966, it boldly pushed at the boundaries of the social issues of the day, not shying away from controversial subjects like race and women’s liberation. And you don’t have to be a “Trekkie” to know that Star Trek was also one of the most diverse TV shows of its time, possibly of all time.

The regular cast of the Original series included Black communications officer Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, Japanese senior helmsman Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, and the young Russian ensign Pavel Chekov. In fact, even the iconic Spock was played by actor Leonard Nimoy, who is of Ukranian Jewish heritage. Happily each of these iconic characters made it to the Star Trek reboot, the second installment of which premieres tomorrow!

However, what made Star Trek so universally adored for decades across such a wide array of audiences was its fearless confrontation of many of the most controverial social issues of the day.  While it was thrilling to see characters like Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov return to the big screen for the 2009 reboot, to really capture the Star Trek legacy, this rebooted franchise needs to be much more than the action adventure film of the 2009 film. A Star Trek that fans will recognize would take on the issues of our day… issues like anti-Muslim hate, the rampant manic fear of terrorism, LGBTQ rights (check out Devon Maloney‘s insights on this over at Wired), slut-shaming, abortion, police violence, the achievement gap… Just as The Original Series drew on metaphors to talk about the Vietnam War and dared to air the first interracial kiss on television.

Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Kirk kiss in the “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode of “Star Trek: The Original Series” (1968)

Whether or not audiences always agreed with the social commentary of the original Star Trek series and films, it was notable that a show with such a large following was bold enough to bring these issues to the forefront.  Though today several small screen and big screen features  address many of our society’s issues in interesting ways, the Star Trek franchise, with its status as an iconic science fiction series, could have a large impact on these important conversations. The first Star Trek reboot film in 2009 was more or less solely an action adventure. Here’s hoping tomorrow’s premier shows at least a hint of the franchise returning to its bold roots!

In the meantime, before the movie premieres tomorrow and the critics emerge, let’s get in the celebrating mood…

Aside from the famous Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov, throughout the decades Star Trek featured many other dynamic characters of color, some of them even nabbing prominent or recurring roles in the epic Star Trek story. Here are a few we might look forward to seeing again in the reboot!

Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) was a helmsman and the chief engineer in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was also born blind and so wore a visor that allowed him non-standard vision.  His father Doctor La Forge also appeared in a few episodes.

Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn) was the first Klingon to join the Star Fleet. He first appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation as a tactical officer before being promoted to Chief of Security. Originally not intended to be a regular character, Worf appeared in more episodes than any other character.

Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) was a mysterious recurring character in Star Trek: The Next Generation and also appeared in two Star Trek films. Her race is never mentioned in the TV series, but she is later described as El-Aurian in one of the films. Guinan is a bartender on the ship is believed to have lived for several centuries. She is often depicted listening to members of the fleet and offering advice.

Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) was played by Sudanese-American actor Alexander Siddig (aka Siddig El Fadil). He was the chief medical officer in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) was the first and only Black character to lead as Commander in the Star Trek series. He was the Captain in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. A New Orleans native, he was originally the owner of a restaurant in New Orleans before joining Starfleet and moving swiftly up the ranks.

Tuvok (Tim Russ) was possibly the first Black Vulcan to appear in the franchise, making his first appearance as the chief of security and chief tactical officer in Star Trek: Voyager. His Vulcan wife T’Pel also appears in several episodes.

Chakotay (Robert Beltran) – Played by actor Robert Beltran, who is of Mexican-Native American heritage, Chakotay first appeared as First Officer in Star Trek: Voyager

Hoshi Sato (Linda Park), played by Korean American actress Linda Park, was the communications officer in Star Trek: Enterprise. She was a linguist who could speak 40+ languages

Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) – So in The Original Series, the iconic villain Khan was played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban. The role of Khan is being reprised in Star Trek: Into Darkness by British Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch. We’ll definitely be seeing Khan. While he won’t be portrayed by an actor of color as in the past, the fan favorite Cumberbatch is sure to give an incredible performance.

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8 thoughts on “Newer Frontiers: Will The Star Trek Reboot Live Up to Its Social-Frontier-Breaking Legacy?”

  1. It should be noted that Star Trek failed to live up to its own legacy in many respects. The most egregious example is Voyager’s Chakotay, a ‘native american’ who’s culture is a mash-up of some of the best known stereotypes of Native American and Central American cultures. His ‘practices’ are barely consistent within the show, let alone consistent with any possible interpretation of what it means to be a Native American in a modern world.

    Voyager’s most ‘subversive’ storylines usually ended up featuring a middle-aged, balding white guy, Robert Picardo’s EMH Doctor. The explorations of the hologram as an emerging sentient and second-class citizen with no rank and no rights, while incredibly ham-fisted, were closer to social and societal critiques than practically anything else on the series.

    TNG, Voyager and Enterprise all have hilariously bad records regarding the treatment of female protagonists. From the truly abysmal TNG episode Menage a Troi (and really any of Troi’s romantic storylines), to Seven of Nine’s infamous wired catsuit (and funny-but-bad episode Body and Soul), the Star Trek creative team has repeatedly missed the mark on gender issues. And that’s excluding Enterprise’s ridiculously over the top attempts to make their show ‘sexy.’

    Now, I’m not saying that Trek wasn’t groundbreaking, but some of the things that it gets attributed with didn’t hold true for the whole run.

  2. AbsoLUTEly true. It was by no means perfect or even close to it, but certainly emerged from an intent to talk about the tough stuff. One only hopes that the new stuff can stay true to that intent and hopefully execute it a lot better. Thanks for the great insights. Definitely necessary to point out where the franchise’s many weak points.

  3. I did, and while Maloney’s is appropriately critical of the series’ gender related content, particularly of the later series, I think she actually let them off rather lightly. The TNG episode he refers to in which Riker becomes romantically attracted to a member of an androgynous race (‘The Outcast’ for reference) is widely considered to be an enormous step backwards in terms of the series and, to some extent, television’s treatment of non-normative gender preferences

    To briefly summarize, the episode approaches the question of gender and gender preference from the perspective of the standard one man – one woman relationship. When explaining human gender to the androgynous Soren, Riker only mentions men being attracted to women and vice versa. Then when Soren is revealed as identifying as female, we’re left with a standard romance between a man and a woman. As a final slight Riker is willing to violate the prime directive to promote the cause of hetero-normalcy.

    I may be reading too much into the article, but Maloney seemed eager to give the showrunners after Roddenberry the benefit of the doubt when it comes to LGBT issues. I’ll admit that some of my feelings on the issue stem from a deep abiding hatred of Berman and Braga for their utter failure to maintain the integrity of the series on a number of other, more literary issues, but even in the TNG era, the fear of reprisal from the studio or the media was eroding the ‘boldness’ of the series. With the notable exception of DS9 that was very much able to reinvent the wheel when it came to socio-cultural issues, the torch of a truly egalitarian future was mostly passed back to sci-fi authors with the ending of TOS.

  4. Ha! Well, we don’t actually know how Maloney identifies after all… Re: your other comments, while I did not read Maloney’s piece as giving the benefit of the doubt, you have some very particular, intelligent. and informed thoughts & feelings on the subject, and I fear the comments section may not be doing justice to all you’d like to say. If you’re ever interested in writing more about this, Geek Outsider would be happy to host an editorial… It couldn’t be more timely…

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