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Star Trek’s Most Significant Legacy: Diversity

Star Trek,Pop Culture,Representation
Swapna Krishna
Alex Junquera
February 11, 202013:02 PM
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Star Trek has changed the pop culture landscape in many ways since it first aired on September 8, 1966. It’s hard to pinpoint any other franchise that has so fundamentally impacted our society. From science to technology to our quest to live among the stars, Star Trek has influenced the way we think, the way we live our lives, and even the devices we use on a daily basis. 

But there’s one area where Star Trek’s influence is often overlooked: that of representation. Gene Roddenberry, who created and shepherded the franchise until his death in 1991, envisioned a future in which diversity was not just accepted — it was celebrated. “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,” Roddenberry said on a 1976 LP called “Inside Star Trek.” The track is called “The Star Trek Philosophy.”

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Star Trek premiered in 1966 with what came to be known as The Original Series. Since then it grew into a sprawling media franchise, encompassing films, books, and video games. T.O.S. was followed by six movies, airing from 1979 to 1991. A second series, The Next Generation, went on air in 1987, which spawned four different movies, the last of which was Nemesis in 2002. Deep Space Nine and Voyager followed in 1993 and 1995, respectively, and Enterprise, a prequel that took viewers back to the time before The Original Series, ran for four seasons starting in 2001. 

In 2009, J.J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek universe with three movies, Star Trek, Into Darkness, and Beyond, which took a young Captain Kirk and his crew to an alternate timeline (called the “Kelvin” timeline), which allowed the events of The Original Series to remain untouched by these new stories.

Inclusiveness has always been at the core of Star Trek. And in fulfilling Roddenberry’s  vision, each series of the show has been quietly revolutionary. It’s fundamental to what Star Trek is as a franchise. But in the 1960s, diversity meant something very different than what it does today. And that’s what is so incredible about this franchise, and why it’s currently experiencing another cultural renaissance: It’s dynamic. It’s always been an allegory, helping us grapple with our imperfect world by showing us a kind of utopia that we can strive for. Star Trek has always shown us what we are capable of — a vision of a better, kinder future. And as the years pass, it changes and reinvents itself to stay relevant.

In 1966 that meant a woman of color on the bridge of a starship. Uhura, played beautifully by Nichelle Nichols, was one of the first black women in a lead role on a television series. And not only was she playing a strong, capable officer, but Uhura would confront another cultural taboo — on November 22nd, 1968, she and Captain Kirk would share an on-screen interracial kiss.

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The show also starred a Japanese character, Hikaru Sulu played by George Takei. Takei later came out as gay, and this became canon for his character in the reboot movie Star Trek: Beyond. A Russian bridge officer — Pavel Chekov, played by Walter Koenig — rounded out the diverse crew.

This kind of diversity was unheard of in the 1960s.

And it made a difference in the public landscape. After the first season, Nichelle Nichols was contemplating leaving Star Trek to pursue her theater career. This changed when she met her self-proclaimed “greatest fan” — none other than Martin Luther King, Jr, as Nichols discussed in an NPR interview in 2011.

When she told him she was planning to leave the show, he told her simply, “You cannot do that.”

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“Don't you understand what [Gene Roddenberry] has achieved?” King told Nichols. “For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen . . . Do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch?”

Star Trek’s impact on representation in pop culture began with Uhura, but it certainly didn’t end there. Millions and millions of fans around the world began to see themselves on television because of The Original Series. “I’m biracial, my father was a black actor,” Michelle Hurd, one of the stars of the new series Star Trek: Picard, told Supercluster. “It was one of the only shows that we were encouraged to watch together because it had us. It was representing people who were not the same.”

Over the years, through different incarnations, Star Trek’s cast continued to reflect its diverse viewership. The changes were often slow and small, but they were significant. Star Trek was consistently ahead of its time in terms of representation. Star Trek: The Next Generation saw three black actors — LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, and Whoopi Goldberg — in a cast that included multiple women in major roles. 

Deep Space Nine then saw an African American lead a Trek franchise for the first time. Benjamin Sisko, commander of the space station from which the series takes its name, was a single father to his son, Jake — a strong and positive depiction of black fatherhood. It also featured one of the first onscreen kisses between two women, Jadzia Dax, played by Terry Farrell, and guest star Susanna Thompson (though showrunner Ira Stephen Behr said in the documentary What We Leave Behind that the show should have done more to feature LGBTQ+ characters and issues).  

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Voyager followed the adventures of Star Trek's first female captain to lead a series, with Kate Mulgrew as Kathryn Janeway. In particular, her relationship with crew members B’Elanna Torres (played by Roxann Dawson) and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan, who joined the cast in the series’ fourth season) depict some of the strongest mentor-mentee relationships between women in television history.

However, it’s important to remember that Star Trek’s inclusiveness has never been perfect. When The Next Generation premiered, there were three women in the main cast: Marina Sirtis, Gates McFadden, and Denise Crosby. Marina Sirtis, who played Deanna Troi, recalled in an interview that Roddenberry thought three women were one too many, and she was about to be fired: “It was Denise quitting that saved my job,” Sirtis said. Gene Roddenberry was progressive, certainly, but he was also a product of his time. 

Enterprise, with a truncated run from 2001-2005, featured some characters of color, but generally did little to advance the diverse mandate of the show. Afterward, the franchise lay fallow for some time. Eventually new movies made their way to the screen, and, finally, a new show was announced in 2015 — Discovery would be the first new Star Trek series in over a decade.

Discovery, now heading into its third season, features Sonequa Martin Green in a lead role. It features multiple female cast members, from Michelle Yeoh to Mary Wiseman, and is the first Star Trek show to have not one, not two, but three regular LGTBQ+ characters played by Anthony Rapp, Wilson Cruz, and Tig Notaro. It displays the breadth of diversity of the world around us, both in front of and behind the camera. 

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And that representation continues with the newest show in the franchise, Picard, featuring an almost-80-year-old main character in Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard. The rich supporting cast includes Filipina actress Isa Briones, Michelle Hurd, Santiago Cabrera, and Jonathan del Arco, a Uruguayan-American actor and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. In this new era of Star Trek, each show builds and expands upon the diversity that came before it.

“We see it as an incredible responsibility [to be] the temporary caretakers of this franchise. Not just because I think Roddenberry's greatest contribution to the conversation of race, and gender, and diversity — was that it was never a conversation [before]” Executive Producer Alex Kurtzman explained in an interview. “But because now, in this moment where people need hope more than ever, and Star Trek has always been that beacon — we have to double down on it. We have to double down, not just in terms of the stories that we tell, but we have to double down behind the camera as well. Otherwise, we're not living the truth of what the message of this show is.”

It’s a gift, then, to be able to tell these inclusive stories through science fiction. “It make believe, you know, it’s sci-fi,” said Michelle Hurd. That makes it easier to tell these serious, world-shattering allegorical tales and educate people about the kind of future they want to work towards. But more than that, according to Evan Evagora, who co-stars on Star Trek: Picard and is of Maori descent, “[We’re] creating a dialogue...That's the easiest way around educating ignorance. The way through that is by talking and showing [diversity] in as many different forms as you can to as many different people.” 

That’s the message of Star Trek, at its core, that diversity is fundamental to our world, and we are better because of it. As Gene Roddenberry said:

“If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”

  

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Swapna Krishna
Alex Junquera
February 11, 202013:02 PM