Star Trek has a reputation.
For almost fifty years, the disempowered and the marginalized and the outcasts have held up Star Trek as a show that said, "This is what we can aspire to: a humanity that has evolved beyond inequality and oppression". The show presents a vision of Earth that has moved beyond racism and classism, beyond ableism and sexism and homophobia. As a life-long Trekkie, it is tempting to agree with this reputation. Me and Star Trek, hand in hand, running through fields of wildflowers on a soft-focus sunny day while I gaze upon them longingly. Oh Star Trek! So progressive! So feminist!
But this reputation is not reality. The reality is that, at best, Star Trek is like a well-meaning but misguided friend who thinks that they are far more progressive than they actually are. Depending on the topic and franchise, Star Trek's track record varies from "mediocre but still better than most other shows of its era" to "fucking hypocritical bullshit that makes me swear at the TV."
Over time, some things did improve. I think Deep Space 9 was probably the high-water mark for the show not being inadvertently offensive. That improvement wasn't a magical, happy coincidence. It came about as the result of actors, the fan community, and the writers being willing to call Star Trek on it's failings and say, "Here is where you need to do better. I don't care if you had the first interracial kiss on TV, no one gets a free pass." But in recent years—culminating with the movie released last week—the producers of Star Trek have retreated from the high-minded origins of the franchise faster than you can scream, "There are four lights!"
Now more than ever it is important to remind ourselves what a giant mess Star Trek has been at times, so that we can push back before things slide so far into darkness that they become unsalvageable (did you see what I did there?). I could write a book about all of Trek's transgressions, but I am busy hatewatching Voyager at the moment so for today I will raise only three specific examples that illustrate the larger problems, and how they handled them in the most recent movie:
You can argue that the costume designer created this outfit because, "Hey, it was the sixties, they didn't know any better!" To which I would respond firstly with, "That's no excuse!" and secondly with this quote:
"We've hired a pretty girl and I want to keep her that way. Think of something that we can take and make her look a little alien, and still get the idea she's from another planet, but she's still gorgeous."
These were the instructions executive producer Rick Berman gave makeup artist Michael Westmore regarding the character Ro Laren, who was introduced in 1991. It's not at all surprising to be confronted with evidence that Hollywood expected a female actress to be attractive first and everything else second. But, THIS IS STAR TREK. If your TV show about how great things are once humanity stops making sexist decisions guides its costume choices with sexist thinking, you are doing something wrong. Gene Roddenberry may have had his faults (like being a philanderer who for much of his life was also homophobic), but the guy had a dream. He dreamed of a future where the women of earth had set aside their petty differences, shedding their prejudices and donning skimpy outfits so that he could ogle them a little before cheating on his wife. And also if we eliminated hate and poverty and everyone lived in peace, that would be good too.
Roddenberry created Star Trek to be more than a TV show. It was a roadmap to a better future, and the show itself was part of that map. Unfortunately, not everyone who came after him really believed in that map, or cared about where he dreamed that we would go. Which is how we ended up with this entirely absurd shot of weapons expert Carol Marcus in the new movie, from a tacked on scene designed to illustrate that not only has underpants technology not advanced in the past 250 years, but we are still stuck with the male gaze as well.
TWO: Trek's handling of race has always been a mixed bag. From the beginning, the franchise has always made a strong commitment to having a multi-ethnic cast. That's worth praising. But beyond the surface-level, Benneton-esque composition of the crew lies a troubling pattern in how aliens are depicted in the Star Trek universe. If the shtick of species is to be barbaric, or uncivilized, or quick-to-anger, they will almost always be portrayed as being dark-skinned. Like this species from the 1987 episode Code of Honor:
From the aggressive Klingons, to the greedy, unscrupulous Ferengi, to the violent Kazon of Voyager-era, Trek is awash in aliens-of-color used as proxies to represent the worst aspects of human behavior. Star Trek is by far from the sole offender in this area (George R.R. Martin could teach a master class in repurposing offensive ethnic stereotypes), but that it has so much company does not mean it is any less deserving of condemnation. During The Original Series, The Next Generation, and Voyager especially, Star Trek was frequently guilty of paying lip service to the evils of racism while portraying dark-skinned aliens as barbaric, portraying non-human species as easily stereotyped and one-dimensional, and equating the Federation with humanity (despite containing over 150 member species, humans are frequently portrayed as the only ones that matter).
Into Darkness does not break with this tradition. The Klingons in the movie are violent and untrustworthy, which is an extra slap in the face since the Klingon homeworld of Qo'noS is supposed to be a stand-in for Pakistan. Beyond this, the movie maintains the series' commitment to diversity among its casts by adding a demographic that the ship was sorely lacking: a thin, conventionally attractive white woman.
THREE: While Star Trek has frequently preached equality, it has never been a leader in the area of LGBT characters or sexuality. Despite being the wellspring from which slash fiction originated, Star Trek almost never brings up the topics of sexual orientation or homophobia, and on the few occasions they do they invariably fuck it up. This is Soren:
Soren is a J'naiil, a race of aliens that have supposedly evolved beyond gender, but have not evolved beyond being judgmental assholes. Soren secretly feels female, and her and Commander William Riker fall in love. When the J'naii authorities find out they brainwash her back to "normal." The whole episode is supposed to be a condemnation against homophobia, but at the same time they intentionally cast a female actor to play Soren because the producers were too homophobic to have Riker kiss a man. I could count on one Malcorian hand the number of same-sex smooches that have occurred across 30 seasons of Star Trek. When asked about the shows failure to address these issues, former producer and noted beard aficionado Ronald D. Moore said, "The truth is it was not really a priority for any of us on the staff so it wasn't really something that was strong on anybody's radar.... Somebody has to decide that it's important before you do it."
Contrast that to when Abrams learned that there had never been a gay crewmember in the history of the show, he expressed shock but said that it was not in his list of priorities for the movie (unsurprisingly, they did not trouble themselves to incorporate any LGBT characters into the movie, unless you count the two feminine aliens with tails with whom that Kirk has a three-way).
I think these quotes get to the heart of the issue. Star Trek, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, and pretty much any other beloved genre series you can think of are flawed shows created by flawed people. The writers and producers and creators of these shows are overwhelmingly white, male, straight, cisgendered, and frequently oblivious, but not evil. We need to recognize when these shows fail to be good allies. We need to talk to the writers, and remind them of how they can do better, and why it's important. We need to call them on their shit. I don't know about you, but I always dreamed about living on the Enterprise and hanging out with Data and his cat. If that is ever going to happen we're all going to have to do better.