“Star Trek” Is Trying To Get Woke Again
“People of color and women aren't going to have to squint to try to find someone who they really can connect with,” Star Trek: Discovery co-executive producer Ted Sullivan told BuzzFeed News.
If there was such a thing as a "woke" TV show in the late 1960s, Star Trek was it.
The show embraced the concept of "infinite diversity in infinite combinations" — the presence of a black woman (Nichelle Nichols' Uhura) and an Asian man (George Takei's Sulu) as senior officers was, for its time, a landmark statement about equality. Creator Gene Roddenberry was committed to portraying a future in which war, poverty, and discrimination are obsolete. Several of the original series' most beloved episodes used the allegory of science fiction to speak directly to urgent contemporary matters about the upheaval of the 1960s, including civil rights, Vietnam, and the Cold War. It didn't take long for the franchise to become a touchstone of optimism and hope for generations.
The newest iteration, Star Trek: Discovery, premiered on Sunday on CBS and on the network's subscription streaming service, CBS All Access (where it will air exclusively in the US). The series has debuted in a starkly different landscape than the original, both on TV and in the world. But those behind Discovery hope their show can still bring a similar message to audiences each week.
"This period of unrest that we find ourselves in right now — I think we all just realize that we needed to write to the times," co-showrunner Aaron Harberts explained to BuzzFeed News. "You can choose to do it one of two ways: You can scare people, or you can inspire people. And I think what Star Trek has always done so well is inspire people to be their best selves."
Given the constant churn of nuclear presidential tweets and social media screaming matches over everything from race and sexuality to free speech and Nazis, the times to which Trek’s newest crew are writing feel pretty damn grave.
“The fact is, if you have a bridge full of white men, it’s a lot less interesting.”
Discovery hopes to charge into that chaotic fray, delivering stories that speak to the cascading troubles of today by showcasing the most widely diverse tomorrow that Trek has ever attempted: For the first time in the franchise's history — and still a rare event in TV history — a black woman, Sonequa Martin-Green (The Walking Dead), is the central protagonist.
On Discovery’s Toronto set in early September, the actors on the bridge of the titular starship included two women — one white, one black — at the helm and ops stations, a black man at communications, and an Asian man at tactical. The cast also features Anthony Rapp (Rent) as Trek's first original gay main character, and Doug Jones (Pan's Labyrinth) in a major role as a particularly topical new alien species. Were it not for Jason Isaacs as Capt. Gabriel Lorca, in fact, there wouldn't be any straight white (human) men in the main cast at all.
With a cheap-and-effective bit of Trek-ian stagecraft, the diversified officers driving the USS Discovery simulated punishing turbulence battering their starship. At the command of director Olatunde Osunsanmi — "Three, two, one, left!" — the cast all veered sharply in their seats, as sparks erupted across the bridge and the bleeding-edge monitors cut out in a haze of static. The scene would be familiar to even casual Star Trek viewers, deploying some of the franchise’s oldest visual tropes, and yet it also felt quite new — much like Discovery’s larger mission.
As co-executive producer Ted Sullivan — the writer of that particular late Season 1 episode — put it later on set, "People of color and women aren't going to have to squint to try to find someone who they really can connect with."
Getting to the point where Discovery could boldly reclaim the progressive spirit that first launched the multibillion-dollar franchise was no walk in the holodeck, either; it required an active commitment to diversity from the cast, the producers, and the network. They are driven to refashion Trek’s particular worldview for a 21st-century audience and committed to engaging deeply with the fault lines splitting the nation asunder — including, shockingly, Trek’s core fanbase.
The Discovery team, led by executive producers Alex Kurtzman and Bryan Fuller, knew straightaway that their show should push Trek's original ideals even further. They established two unambiguous objectives for Discovery: It would feature TV’s first openly gay main Trek character, and the show's lead protagonist, Michael Burnham, would be played by a black woman.
"Honestly, I was impressed," said Martin-Green of first learning about the decision. "I don't know if I completely trusted that it would stay that way until I got into the process. And then I realized, Oh no, this is serious. They really are going to do this."
When she was younger, Martin-Green certainly knew about Lt. Uhura, even though she was never much of a Star Trek fan. "I mean, anytime you see yourself as a black person in this country, it registers to you," the actor said, sitting near a table filled with exotic alien faces. When she was an adult, she said, "I found out that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself asked for [Nichols] to take [the part], because we needed to see ourselves in that light, in a positive leadership role."
Nichols famously came close to leaving Star Trek after its first season to pursue more substantial roles in theater, until King convinced her to return. Even though Uhura’s impact included inspiring Mae Jamison to become the first black female astronaut, the character — like any Trek character not named "Kirk," "Spock," or "Bones" — didn't receive much of a spotlight beyond her function in the plot. "There was never an Uhura story," Sullivan said. "We learned, what, she speaks Swahili? And she likes music and to sing. That's kind of all we really know about her."
Indeed, for all its progressive trailblazing, the original series was still very much of its time when it came to the depiction of women, between the short miniskirt uniforms and the penchant for Capt. James Kirk (William Shatner) to shack up with a new woman practically every episode. As spinoff series like The Next Generation and Voyager aired during the relative calm of the 1990s, the franchise became more popular and altruistic, but without much of the trenchant social bite that made the original series so immediate and unique.
As Trek evolved, however, its casting and storytelling did become more inclusive, which afforded diverse leads — like Avery Brooks's Benjamin Sisko on Deep Space Nine and Kate Mulgrew's Kathryn Janeway on Voyager in the '90s — and supporting players alike their own storylines. "There has been an a priori assumption throughout most television that characters are white and male [by default]," said executive producer Akiva Goldsman. "I mean, the fact is, if you have a bridge full of white men, it's a lot less interesting."
Although Martin-Green was the producers' first choice to play Burnham, she was already committed to finishing out her role on Season 7 of The Walking Dead, so she had to drop out of consideration. "The network could have at that point caved and said, 'You know what, we need to open this up to every actress on the planet.' And they never did that," said Harberts, who took over showrunning duties with writing-producing partner Gretchen Berg after Fuller left in the fall of 2016. (He reportedly clashed with CBS over his obligations to the Starz series American Gods.) "They were always very clear about, 'This is the vision. Let's just keep looking.'"
Production delays spurred in part by Fuller's departure ironically allowed Martin-Green to sign on to Discovery after all. “When it came back around, I thought, I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. I knew it was mine,” she said with a huge grin.
Until the 2016 feature film Star Trek Beyond introduced an alternate universe version of Sulu with a husband and child, the franchise had never once in its 50-year history featured a main character who was openly gay. With Discovery offering television's first openly gay Trek character in Lt. Paul Stamets, the show's producers were determined to cast an openly gay actor.
"It was very important that we celebrate those actors who have taken that step to say, 'This is who I am,'" said Harberts, who is also gay. "That list [of out actors] is a small list, still. And the list gets even smaller when you wanna talk about men of color who are out actors. That list shrinks down to practically nothing."
Rapp was presented the role of Lt. Stamets without having to audition. But when asked during a break in filming about getting the offer in part because he'd been publicly out since 1993 — when it was a far riskier prospect for an actor's career — he shook his head. "Mm, I don't know that I knew that specific piece of information," he said, before breaking into a smile. "It's an asset," he added, almost to himself. (Full disclosure: Rapp and the writer of this story are friends.)
“Star Trek doesn’t say, 'Hey, this guy’s brown, let’s look into his background.' It’s not what we explore.”
Though Rapp’s gayness was a central prerequisite for his casting, Stamets’ sexuality on Discovery is just one fact of many. The actor didn't even know at first that Stamets was gay until he began meeting with producers in earnest to discuss the role. "There's no, like, story about coming out," Rapp said. When Burnham, and audiences, meet Stamets for first time on the Oct. 1 episode, his sexuality is never broached. And it won't be until later in the season, when the show introduces his romantic partner, Dr. Hugh Culber, played by another openly gay actor, Wilson Cruz (My So-Called Life, 13 Reasons Why). Even then, the nature of Stamets and Culber's relationship won't be immediately apparent.
"They are defined by who they are on the ship initially," said Harberts. "We meet them within the context of their jobs. That was important to all of us, that they're introduced on their own merits and that their sexuality not define who they are right out of the gate."
For many of the actors on Discovery, that lack of any hint of tokenism in general is a real relief.
"Three hundred years in the future, there shouldn't be an issue," said Michelle Yeoh, who plays Capt. Philippa Georgiou, Michael Burnham's first commanding officer. "We are who we are. We are there because we can do the job. That's why it's the United Federation of Planets. We are just one Earth, and one race."
"Casting Far East Asian actors — even nowadays, that's not done a lot," added Shazad Latif (Penny Dreadful), who plays Lt. Ash Tyler, a security chief grappling with being tortured as a prisoner of war. When he auditioned, neither the character's race nor ethnicity was specified. "I was just overjoyed, getting cast in a normal role. It was a big moment for me personally," Latif said. "Star Trek doesn't say, 'Hey, this guy's brown, let's look into his background.' It's not brought up. It's not what we explore."
The franchise’s egalitarian vision of diversity — of races, genders, ethnicities, and now, finally, sexualities — has been so normalized that calling any attention to it would feel somehow anachronistic. Which makes telling stories about diversity much more challenging.
"You do get the sense that humankind has sort of reached this place where cultural differences almost don't occur anymore," said Harberts. "It's very different from, say, what's being done on Atlanta."
So instead, Discovery mines the drama inherent in cultural differences on a more galactic scale. "Racism in Star Trek is not the same racism that we're dealing with here [on Earth]," said Sullivan. "It's speciesism."
On the USS Discovery, that concept is on its most potent display with Lt. Commander Saru, who explained in the series premiere that his species, the Kelpiens — brand-new to the Trek universe — are treated as prey and "bred" as livestock. "We're the hunted," explained Doug Jones on set, before sitting through the nearly two-hour process of putting on Saru's elaborate makeup. "So for me to be the first of my kind to go through Starfleet Academy and to become a high-ranking officer on a starship is rather extraordinary. My character does know the struggles of being an Other and having to fight some stigma that comes with my kind. 'Weren't you my dinner?' is the question that comes up when people meet [him]."
The allegory of clashing species gets its most politically pungent showcase in Discovery's season-long, serialized storyline: the Federation's war with the Klingons. As Goldsman put it, "A war with the Klingons is a race war, in the most literal sense of the word."
In previous iterations of Star Trek, the Klingons served as a kind of metaphorical stand-in for the Cold War threat of Soviet Russia — proud warriors fixated on honor and battle. Discovery's Klingons are deliberately more complex, reconceived as aesthetes with stunningly ornate armor, a complex political system, and a unifying leader, T'Kuvma (Chris Obi), driven by a philosophy that is outwardly xenophobic, and yet inwardly broad-minded.
"T'Kuvma [is] trying to be so inclusive of the downtrodden of his own world," explained Harberts. "You start to understand that they themselves have their own issues of unity [and] discrimination. … It was important for us that we didn't view [the Klingons] as the enemy as much as a group that we are in conflict with — because we don't know enough about each other."
As the series premiere of Discovery unfolds, the audience learns about Burnham's traumatic past with the Klingons — they killed her parents when she was a child — which drives her to make a catastrophic mistake: She incapacitates Capt. Georgiou and orders a first strike against T'Kuvma's ship, actions that ultimately lead her to be court-martialed and drummed out of Starfleet. (At least, for now.) The Klingons presented Discovery's writers with an opportunity to radically rethink how to use their protagonist — while Burnham, like her predecessors, starts the series as a confident, capable leader at the peak of her abilities, her encounter with the Klingons forces her to fundamentally question those very qualities in herself.
The Discovery writers room convened during the thick of the 2016 presidential campaign, and the show began production just days after President Trump's inauguration. So launching a show with a female lead whose bright and promising future has been abruptly demolished — in the next episode, she's referred to contemptuously as "the mutineer" — felt especially germane to the cognitive whiplash the world has undergone over the last 18 months.
"It's so relatable," said co-showrunner Gretchen Berg. "Like, we thought we knew who we were. What is our standing now?"
The war with the Klingons will also allow Discovery to introduce a level of friction and discord among the eponymous ship's crew that mines the veins of distrust and hostility that have been coursing through the country. "This election especially seemed to incite a lot of fear," said Berg. "People seem brittle and quick to anger. You turn on the TV and people are just screaming at each other and no one's listening. What happens when what you've always leaned on to resolve conflict doesn't really work anymore?"
"You will definitely see parallels in our story to what's going on societally," added Martin-Green. "I read scripts and I go, Oh man, that directly relates to what's happening right now. That does too. That does too."
As has been the case with everything from the NFL to handshakes, Star Trek has not been able to escape the toxic gravitational pull of these divided times. Long before Discovery had even premiered, some people started taking pointed issue with the fact that Discovery's lead is a black woman, that it features a same-sex relationship, and that its mission is to explore progressive ideals. The alt-right-y broadsides became so loud and garish that even The New Yorker took notice with a piece headlined "For Alt-Right Trolls, Star Trek: Discovery Is an Unsafe Space."
"I think it's really a very minority backlash," said Rapp. "But one of the things I think that's happened in the wake of Trump being elected is people are emboldened to wear their shit on their sleeve. To be openly anti-progress. It's not simply people on the outside. It's people within the fandom, some of them, who have been like, 'What is this PC bullshit they're forcing down my throat?'"
Martin-Green noted that her upbringing in the South meant she wasn't all that surprised by some of the racist, anti-gay responses to Discovery. "That comes with its various experiences and understanding of the racial dynamics of this country," she said carefully and with a broad, practiced smile that suggested she's had to talk about this too many times. "But because of Star Trek's legacy, because its universality is quite iconographic at this point, it was surprising to me. People say that they're longtime Trek fans, but then to be upset at the diversity, when that is the very foundation and soul and essence of Star Trek, [that] was confounding to me."
"What's odd is that anybody, particularly Star Trek fans, should comment on the fact that there's a lot of people of color and people from different sexual orientations," added actor Jason Isaacs. When asked if Discovery was the first time he’d been the lone straight white man in the main cast, he said ruefully, “I very rarely go through the cast list and tick boxes about sexuality and skin color.” But, he added, "the only truly political decision was when it was only straight white males [on a show]."
“People say that they’re longtime Trek fans, but then to be upset at the diversity ... [that] was confounding to me.”
Discovery's one-hour premiere on CBS drew in a solid 9.6 million viewers — 55% of them male — and broke sign-up records for CBS All Access. During the premiere, many Trek fans responded with the same level of incredulity for the backlash shared by the people behind the show, and with support for Discovery for making them feel seen. Rapp recalled seeing a tweet of an Asian girl cosplaying as Capt. Georgiou. "And then she puts herself next to a picture of Michelle Yeoh and she says, 'I never have to pretend anymore to be a captain,'" he said. "She can see herself. People might say, 'Oh, that's just a shallow thing.' It's not. It's enormously meaningful. And it's also continuing a 50-year tradition with this show."
Trek's legacy was especially on Sullivan's mind while on the Discovery set in September. A lifelong Star Trek superfan, working on Discovery has been a literal dream for the veteran TV writer (Supergirl, Revenge), who looks like the kind of affably geeky white dudes who have long made up Trek's core fanbase. He had showed Yeoh the tweet of the girl cosplaying as Georgiou.
"I had that growing up, and a lot of people didn't," Sullivan said with a contented sigh, standing in the darkened engineering set of the Discovery. "That's why a lot of women my age aren't as into sci-fi as a lot of guys that are my age." He was almost shaking with enthusiasm. "This [show] isn't just for the white fanboys. This is going be for a whole group of people who I think have been either ignored by sci-fi, or had to really work hard to find their character that they really identify with. I'm so excited about that. I love it." •