“Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] 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.”
― Gene Roddenberry
Star Trek should be relevant again
At the end of February 2015, Leonard Nimoy died. If there was a silver lining, it was that the internet, in all its mimetic splendour, immediately tried to pass off Captain Kirk’s famous eulogy to Spock from The Wrath of Khan as William Shatner’s real one.
Despite being bittersweet, if that wasn’t enough to make you smile, NewsThump published an article purporting that Shatner had stolen a space shuttle to go and get his resurrected comrade; a perfect homage to the third film when the character steals the Enterprise to do just that.
If it had been about anyone else, the jokes and memes would have been in bad taste. Yet Star Trek belongs in the public consciousness, and the fact that two scenes from films made over thirty years ago were thought of and shared so quickly is telling as to just how iconic the show, characters and the actors who played them are to people.
Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Doctor McCoy, the Enterprise, the opening monologue and the innumerable character phrases and mannerisms are still exciting to watch after 49 years. Those opening credits and that music as the ship races past are known the world over. The production of it, the novelty of the aesthetic limitations and the imitable Shatner all add to the charm that’s ensured Star Trek has staying power rivalled only by Star Wars.
The reason for its enduring popularity? For all Star Trek’s lamentable reputation as geek cliché, everyone knows what it is. Ironically, it is for precisely the same reason that it has passed into the mainstream consciousness as well as the hearts of fans: it’s escapism at its finest; a world entirely removed from our own in which the future is brighter. Whether through its stories or its spin-offs or the parodies and satires of it, from birth to death it’s impossible not to know of it.
But the problem is the show needs updating beyond its aesthetic and presentation. When the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, made it he built it as a glass ceiling smasher in a future that had overcome those most perennial of issues in American society at the time. Racial division was thrown into the wall; the bridge had a Russian helmsman, an Asian helmsman, a black communications officer, a Scottish engineer, and an alien first officer.
Regarding the importance that the show had, Nichelle Nichols tells of an exchange she had with a fan when she was toying with leaving the show:
“Don’t you realize how important your presence, your character is? Don’t you realize this gift this man [Roddenberry] has given the world? Men and women of all races going forth in peaceful exploration, living as equals. You listen to me: Don’t you see? This is not a Black role, and this is not a female role. You have the first non-stereotypical role on television, male or female. You have broken ground.
“Don’t you see that you’re not just a role model for little Black children. You’re more important for people who don’t look like us. For the first time, the world sees us as should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people as we should be. There will always be role models for Black children; you are a role model for everyone. Remember, you are not important there in spite of your color. You are important there because of your color.”
The man telling her this was Martin Luther King Jnr.
Star Trek pushed boundaries and turned the unusual site of a multi-racial cast on the bridge of a starship seeking out new worlds in the future into the norm. Its mission was accomplished, and looking back you watch it first and foremost for its novelty, its cleverness and its sheer perennial joy rather than as a dated statement of optimism.
These days we have a new context and a rebooted Star Trek. Yet, the mainstreaming of a once cult show, with the 2009 JJ Abrams film and its 2013 sequel, has come at great cost: it has traded ideology and purpose for lens flare and action. The action was always an aspect, but not the defining quality, of the original series.
Indeed, Roddenberry himself said that: “It has become a crusade of mine to demonstrate that TV need not be violent to be exciting.”
Abrams’ films are a sharper, beautifully presented spectacle of filmmaking that is a charming homage. They are, however, utterly devoid of any meaning. No one is disputing that the man is a critical and commercial kingmaker, but you’d be hard pressed to watch the latest two films, return to the original series, and think that they held the same intellectual, iconoclastic social commentary.
What’s to be done, or more accurately, what’s to be done if it ever returns to TV or is reincarnated again in the future? To do for this generation what Star Trek did for the 1960s, Captain Kirk should become a gay character.
In the original series of Star Trek Kirk is nothing more than a lynchpin. He is exceptional in the literal meaning of the word as he is surrounded by what we would now consider archetypes that were, at the time, groundbreaking roles actors of ethnicity.
Now, the problem is that the show was rebooted in the literal sense. As these characters have ceased to be making a statement, the purpose of the ensemble as it was is redundant. No effort appears to have been made to use it as a vehicle to tackle the same prejudices that the original did, all while being a glorious space show.
The irony is that Kirk, in the original series, is the only clichéd character. He is the embodiment of the American hero, representing that spirit on a new frontier. Kirk is the pinnacle definition of the captain: devotion to ship, love to and respect from his crew; gifted with humour, stern in the face of adversity; pithy and self-effacing without breaking the qualities afore.
In every sense, Kirk belongs to the American tradition (even though Shatner is Canadian), or certainly how the American’s liked to view their traditions before they realised others didn’t. Gone is the swaggering cowboy replaced with the introspective, quietly heroic, occasionally self-destructive but altogether decent soul that’s blemished by tough decisions. Even this is now being replaced with the darkly acerbic Walter Whites and Don Drapers, fatalistic and brooding and themselves harkening back to the very things – the real life – that the quintessential hero was meant to be a fantastical alternative too. The closest to a different Kirk that we got was with Chris Pine when he doubts himself, suffering from inexperience.
Turning Kirk into a character that is different but without pause for shock or awe is perhaps a befitting tribute to William Shatner. His infamous scene stealing and ego were actually good for the show as it drew attention away from the other characters and perpetuated the feeling that they were not special; rather they were just going about their business. At a time when the Cold War was raging, the Civil Rights movement was progressing and only 20 years after the USA had interned Japanese-Americans in WW2, you had characters in positions of not only complete trust but utter dependency so that the ship would function. The representation, but the casualness about it, was crucial to make the point.
The only real clichés are a red-blooded (with a mammoth libido) Captain, an engineer Scotsman enjoying scotch (a stereotype, albeit a funny one, from the Canadian James Doohan) and a Southern doctor with a foul temper; a medical man prone occasional bouts of racism against his Vulcan friend.
Kirk was an anchor to an unfamiliar future. His kind of Captain was more Hornblower: duty bound, altogether American minus the habit of phasers at dawn. Today it should be the same, but taking advantage of the star pull off the captain to make a point and reaffirm Star Trek’s stand on equal rights.
So we find ourselves with an irony. Star Trek has accomplished its mission and made the radical the norm. If the series, in the future, is to reflect the issues of the time then it should be bold enough to tackle today’s glass ceilings and make the character of Captain Kirk gay.
Where no one has gone before?
The proposition is not unfamiliar. There have already been a handful of programmes or films that have or had a gay lead character whose sexuality is treated secondary to the character themselves. Little would change of James T. Kirk; everything can and should remain the same except that his sexual orientation.
The suggestion is not without precedent. Russell T. Davies transformed writer Stephen Moffat’s tri-sexual 51st century time agent Captain Jack Harkness into a fan favourite regular in Doctor Who, and actor John Barrowman later gained his own spin-off, Torchwood.
Harkness’ appeal is that he an interesting character played by the bombastic John Barrowman. His sexuality and his ‘shag anything, male or female, alien or human’ penchant is executed in a complicated, funny, often emotional way that adds to the character rather than distracts from his more devious, ominous, heroic ambiguities.
Even in a family show such as Doctor Who (Torchwood was deliberately created for older audiences), Barrowman’s Harkness is a loveable rogue who shamelessly flirts with anyone and regularly alludes to a multi-sexual past with humans and aliens alike. It makes for entertainment but is treated as normal for the character and the Universe that he inhabits.
Indeed, if one was to think of a ‘man’s man’, the Christopher Eccleston would be near the top of the list. In the Doctor Who episode “Bad Wolf”, Harkness, knowing The Doctor is going to his death, gives him a goodbye kiss – reciprocated in a natural, sweet, and altogether affectionate moment between the two actors.
John Barrowman and Davies made transgender allusions, from androids to aliens, gender ambiguities and sexual indulgence, inoffensive, non-frightening and normal to a new generation: surely the great achievement of the show’s revival.
In later years the question has become how far Doctor Who will continue to push the boundary. It is widely acknowledged, both by the show’s incumbent showrunner, Stephen Moffat, that The Doctor will one day be female. The show has experimented with the idea recently by having its longstanding nemesis, The Master, return in a female body as played by Michelle Gomez. Little to no fuss was made over it except the excitement of guessing who the mysterious ‘Missy’ actually was.
It is easy to see how Doctor Who, both in the last ten years and in the general trajectory that it’s taking, could be an example to a reimagined Captain Kirk. Seismically changing an assumption about a character, whether it be their gender or sexuality, should be treated with excitement and not disdain or fear.
Most who have seen the show would be prepared to bet money that, as Peter Capaldi fades and a female form appears (perhaps with great excitement, depending on how well the secret has been kept), the Doctor would comment that she’s ginger, or some other gimmick to make the change as unremarkable as possible.
The tenure of the next Doctor will be about teaching an entirely new generation about transgender issues all without the feeling that they’re receiving a lecture in LGBT issues or political correctness. The great game of pronouns will no doubt prove to be a great comic relief for an audience getting used to the change.
Whoever they are in the future, the showrunner of any future Star Trek incarnation should take note of the enduring mainstream popularity of Doctor Who as evidence that embracing the different and making it the norm is the key to success. Ironically, even though Star Trek is slightly younger than Doctor Who, the elder has much to teach the younger on how to keep up with the times.
LGBT, the final frontier
Lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender issues have always been the letdown of Star Trek, and it’s been well documented that while attempts have been made to address them in this seemingly utopic future, none have succeeded in last 48 years.
George Takei, Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu, who came out himself later in 2005, recalls in an interview how he pitched a hypothetical episode of Star Trek to Gene Roddenberry that would focus on gay issues:
“I had a very private conversation with Gene on that issue. I was still not out, so we spoke theoretically. This was at one of his parties—it wasn’t a huge party. We were at the pool and he and I swam out to the far end and we were chatting there. Most of the people were not in the pool. They were chatting poolside at the other end, so I broached that subject.
“You know, we’d dealt with the Vietnam War. We’d dealt with the civil rights movement. We’d dealt with a lot of issues of our times. And I asked him, “How do you feel about that [gay rights]?” He said, “This is an important issue and we want to deal with it.” However, this was while we were on TV.”
He said, “Our ratings are low and I need to keep the show on the air. All I need is another firestorm and this show will be cancelled, and I won’t be able to make those statements that I’ve been making with the show.”
He added, “The times will change as we move along, but at this point, I can’t do that.”
In an interview with US talk show host Bill Maher in 2014, Takei confirmed again that ratings, and the show’s enduring popularity, were key factors in ensuring that the ship wasn’t rocked by gay issues:
“[Roddenberry] said: “I know we do use metaphors to deal with contemporary issues”, but he was treading a very tight rope because of the fact that he was dealing with issues. Television is not known for dealing with contemporary issues.
“He said that if we pushed the envelope too far, then he wouldn’t be able to deal with any issues at all, and indeed – as I said about the Kirk-Uhura kiss – we were blacked out in the South, and our ratings plummeted.
“[I accepted it] because I knew the reality of television.”
By 1986, the year before the launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Roddenberry attended a fan convention with science-fiction writer David Gerrold who would write for the show. Gerrold recalls in a 2014 interview with TrekMovie that Roddenberry confirmed that after nearly twenty years after the original series ended, he would finally include gay characters on the new show:
“So now Gene and I appeared at a Star Trek convention in November of 1986 and somebody asked “will there be gay people aboard the Enterprise?” And Gene – to give him credit for knowing the right thing to say at the right time – said “yes, it is time, we should show gay people on board the Enterprise.
“This got a lot of applause. So then he repeated it in a staff meeting and balled out one of the producers and said “no, it’s time” So I figured if Gene said it in a staff meeting, then he truly means it. So it was time for me to get a script assignment and I started to do “Blood and Fire,” because I wanted to do something so far removed from funny.
“I wanted to show I could do something horrifying. Here is something about this disease that is so awful that we are not allowed to rescue anyone from that other ship but we don’t find out until after our away team has already beamed over so now we have to try. So the story wasn’t about AIDS as much as it was about the fear of AIDS. People had stopped donating blood because they were so afraid of AIDS.”
Gerrold goes on to say that the TNG cast and crew (including Gene Roddenberry) were supportive of the storyline (which included two gay crew members) but it met with stiff opposition from the studio and the script never made it into production:
TrekMovie: Let’s talk about “Blood and Fire” – the AIDS allegory that you wrote and the obstacles you ran into trying to get it produced.
David Gerrold: I don’t blame Gene as much as I blame Rick Berman for that clusterfuck. Others have confirmed it. They have said that in their experience Rick Berman was a raging homophobe, which makes the whole thing even more bizarre.
Because, before Rick Berman came on the show, he had written a three-page memo on ‘here are some of the stories we could tell, some of the issues we could address’. And number three on his three-page memo was AIDS and how we should do something about AIDS.
The book, Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Continuing Mission puts the blame on the studio: “Much of the change in perception of the script resulted from Paramount’s concern that because the series was syndicated, in some markets it might air in the afternoon when younger viewers would be part of the audience.”
Whatever the reason, what is clear is that the issue was on Roddenberry’s mind, What makes this remarkable is the fact that Roddenberry was a big enough man to admit that by the time of Star Trek: the Next Generation, he had re-evaluated his casual homophobia that was indicative of the time. In a 1991 interview with The Humanist, he remarked:
“My attitude toward homosexuality has changed. I came to the conclusion that I was wrong. I was never someone who hunted down ‘fags’ as we used to call them on the street. I would, sometimes, say something anti-homosexual off the top of my head because it was thought, in those days, to be funny. I never really deeply believed those comments, but I gave the impression of being thoughtless in these areas. I have, over many years, changed my attitude about gay men and women.”
The October 1992 issue of Cinefantastique magazine laid much of the blame for the fate of the “Blood and Fire” script on executive producer Rick Berman. Roddenberry publicly supported the idea of having gay characters on the show, and in internal meetings about it, he is paraphrased by TNG producer Herbert Wright as having said:
“It’s the 24th century. By that time nobody gives a shit! It’s an issue of the 20th century and maybe the 19th century, but it has nothing to do with the 24th century. By that time it’s your choice of whoever you want.”
According to The Advocate, Roddenberry again promised that in the then-upcoming fifth season of TNG, gay crew members would appear on the show. Roddenberry died shortly after the interviews and the plans never turned into a reality in the official series (although the unofficial fan series, Star Trek Phase II, have created it).
Rumours abounded that gay characters would be considered for the subsequent Star Trek iterations, and Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine crew writer/producer Bryan Fuller has said it was pitched for the former, although he was against it as the characters were “two-dimensional”.
The stagnant nature of Star Trek arguably began with Star Trek: Voyager which, while deeply significant for casting a female as the first lead captain, did little beyond expanding the franchise into pure action and special effects.
Its predecessor by two years, Deep Space Nine explored complicated issues around war, religion and terrorism and nearly addressed gay rights. In the episode “Rejoined”, two female characters belong to a species that serve as hosts to another sentient life form. When the host dies, the symbiont moves to another host of either gender. In the story, the two characters were previously married when the two symbionts were in a male and a female body but they have since moved on. The episode explores their reuniting after a number of years and both share a same-sex kiss but it ultimately cheated the franchise out of a declared position of solidarity on same-sex issues.
By the time Voyager concluded in 2001, Star Trek had ceased to be as a vehicle to explore contemporary issues. The final death knell was Enterprise which replaced Voyager and it became the first show since the original series to be axed. Its finest hour was to finally present an AIDS allegory in the episode “Stigma”, which arguably came 20 years too late.
In 2002, Voyager’s Kate Mulgrew (who played Captain Janeway) gave an interview to Metrosource where she spoke about the lack of LGBT characters in the Star Trek television universe:
“[…] because of its both political and potentially incendiary substance. I’m in a minority as well, as a woman. It took a lot of courage on their part to hire a woman. I think that right up until the end they were very dubious about it. It’s one thing to cast a subordinate Black, Asian or woman, but to put them in leading role means the solid endorsement of one of the largest studios in the world. And that goes for a gay character as well. It requires a terrific social conscience on their part and the pledge of some solidarity and unanimity, which I think is probably at the source of most of this problem to get every one of those executives on board regarding this decision.“
Avery Brooks, who played the first African-American lead captain in the franchise, Benjamin Sisko in DS9, was equally reflective in a 2012 interview on the commitment that is required to make such a statement and what the affirmation says:
“Certainly the fact you have a black man in a command position is very important. That is something that goes far beyond just having black people working on a show, which itself is also very important. It goes to children being able to see themselves on-screen and visualize that in the future they will be doing something of importance to the world at large. It addresses the situation of having all kinds of people interacting and cooperating for the mutual survival of the planet.”
If it’s not going to be done for fear it will be unpopular, then there’s your case and point for why it should be done at all. Gene Roddenberry, starting with nothing, was brave enough to do it in the 1960’s. Surely his successors should be brave enough to do it in a clever, relevant way that makes a point, all while creating exciting, thoughtful, quality entertainment.
These are the voyages…
Star Trek should stay true to its heritage by taking a few taboos, and making them as common as common and a completely nonchalant issue. Leonard Nimoy offered his support in a 1991 letter to the Los Angeles Times, saying that: “It is entirely fitting that gays and lesbians will appear unobtrusively aboard the Enterprise – neither objects of pity nor melodramatic attention.”
Captain Kirk’s sexuality changing would be good for the show and good for the character. It is a change that does not need to fall into cliché. The character’s close relationship with Spock would not, as some fans already suggest, become romantic. Indeed, the relationship is far more satisfying when considered a character-study on the transcendental qualities of friendship, whatever the species.
So in this age where we’re breaking boundaries, it’s time to take the next step and move from statement to mainstream normalcy. Bill Maher joked in the same interview with George Takei that Star Trek was sneakily political back in the day, albeit with a degree of plausible deniability on its side. So it must be again. Modern denaturing of the show into a brash and flash dodgy facsimile is a betrayal of its principles.
Captain Kirk, for the sake of Star Trek, should be revised to make him gay to tackle this perennial issue and other nascent ones head on. As a man once said:
“The human race is a remarkable creature, one with great potential, and I hope that ‘Star Trek’ has helped to show us what we can be if we believe in ourselves and our abilities.”
― Gene Roddenberry